What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.

The value of not knowing the rules

I’m hearing the phrase “Lean In” a lot lately. You too? Ok good, it’s not just me.

Leaning in, in my world, essentially means “Yes, And”. Some call “Yes, And” an Improv rule. I call it a guideline, a mantra, a choice.

The choice is… to accept or to block. Leaning in means to accept what comes our way, to explore it, live in it, get messy with it… instead of push it away.

When faced with a new experience, task, or even a game we often want to know the rules. “Tell me what to do, and how to do it, help me feel certain”, say some of us. To hammer out the ambiguity is essentially what we are asking for.

Give me the boundaries, my role, task – let me feel comfortable by telling me the rules. The rules give me something to grab onto to keep me psychologically safe.

I see it in action all the time – in Graduate School class assignments, explaining a new Improv game, or big decisions.

When we are about to jump off the uncertainty cliff, we want to make sure our safety harness is attached.

Not knowing the rules produces a vulnerability unlike any other, especially when we don’t feel well-equipped for it. What if I don’t do this correctly? What if I fail?

The United States Army prepares its leaders for a life without certainty with a strategy called “Broadening”. Their development curriculum includes several stints of purposeful broadening – men and women are given assignments outside of their comfort zone to break the assembly line and predictability of the path. It’s more than a stretch assignment.

We won’t always know the rules. How comfortable are you when there might not be a right or wrong way to do something?

A broadening experience means truly leaning in – being able to sit with ambiguity and uncertainty. There may not always be rules in the places you need or want to go – but there is a purpose.

Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone prepares you for something else, allows you to make the rules, or teaches you that you may be comfortable with less rules than you thought.

Lean in.

How to listen like an Improviser

Think about your favorite scene from a movie, television show, or a play. If you will, think of a scene free of visual effects and one that just focuses on the people in the story.

Why is it your favorite scene?

If you are like me, favorite scenes emerge because the characters were changed by what someone else said.

When I coach Improvisation teams, I stress the importance of focusing on the relationship between the characters, above all else. The advice can be somewhat vague so I ask students to take it one step further. I ask them to:

“Be changed by what your partner said”.  “Be changed by what you hear”.

Humans find change to be fascinating, even if we go out of our way to avoid it ourselves. I’d argue that we want and root for change when we watch our favorite shows or movies. It is that evolution of a character, and their ability to be changed by what they hear that keeps the character growing and learning, but also quite vulnerable.

The ability to let ourselves be changed by a conversation or an encounter is the key to listening like an improviser. It takes us a step beyond head nods and eye contact, and connects us more deeply to our scene partner because they know they’ve been heard.

TOOL: The Failure Bow

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Ted DesMaisons – a fellow Improviser, also a blogger, Stanford Business School Graduate, and a very gifted man and teacher.

His latest blog post, The Transformative Failure Bow , talks about one of the greatest resources in an improviser’s toolkit: the ability to transform failure and a mistake into a celebration of boldness. It is a learned skill worth practicing. Here he describes the history of this great tool, how he teaches it, and how it creates transformation by shifting our reaction and definition of “failure”.

He asks the question we all could be asking — what are we rewarding? The effort, the result, or both? How do you define the result?

“As Matt Smith affirmed in a recent conversation, “The Failure Bow isn’t designed to reward or focus on the failure. It’s designed to reward the willingness to be transparent, the capacity to remain available in the present moment, and the ability to get back on the horse without residing in shame.” It’s that awesome eagerness that leads an athlete to say “Hit me another, Coach” or a student to insist “Let me try again.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.”

The Transformative Failure Bow 

Innovation: No pain, no gain?

Bumper stickers, cubicle walls, and email footnotes are just some of the places you might see clichés such as:

  • no pain, no gain
  • nothing worth having comes easy
  • tough it out, you!

And I wonder, these sayings are either the work of an athletic coach, or… someone who cares about real, sustained change.

Perhaps they are one in the same.

Up and down your organization you will find people with different tolerance levels for pain. They will recognize it somewhere along the scale from an unnecessary evil to a requirement for growth and renewal.

Some say “bring on the change!”, and others hide under their desk. Left under our own devices, how many of us would willingly seek out and go after change if we knew how hard it would be?

Leading through change means recognizing that yes, there will be pain. Instead of ignoring it, we can help navigate others through it by asking “where is this coming from?”, and “why?”.

Two lessons from Improvisation comes to mind when thinking about leading through change: commitment and trusting instincts.

When we embrace change as a practice, we learn to recognize the good pain from the bad pain. Ignoring the bad pain in favor of commitment doesn’t do anyone any favors.  We don’t have to be the “change” hero that results in a broken leg or worse.

But when we see the momentum moving in the right direction, the aches and pains that comes with all things new, can, under the right guidance and mental know-how, remind us that it’s all in the name of, you guessed it… the game.


One link between emotion and creativity

Say you want to help a group be more creative. 

What emotion would best help the group achieve this goal?

This question was recently posed to students in a weekend workshop I attended on Emotional Intelligence at Columbia University.

The choices:

1. Happiness

2. Worry

3. Sadness

4. Anger

5. Other

What would you say? I listened as classmates, one after the other, suggested that negative emotions would fuel the creative fire.

Sure, we know that not everyone responds the same way, but could negativity really be the answer? It saddened me that this was the myth or common view floating around the University halls.

Results of a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, set us straight.

The emotion that best helps a group promote creativity is happiness.  Why? An upbeat mood makes people more receptive to information, helps widens our lens and allows us to see connections we normally would have been closed off to otherwise.

In addition, happiness and laughter release dopamine which contributes to stress reduction.

Stress reduction and an overall relaxed state triggers responses in our brain that coincide with inhibition – and the ability to have more creative insights.

This blog post is brought to you by the letters “H.A.P.P.I.N.E.S.S” and Positive Psychology. Now go out and make someone happy!

Saying Yes to the Mess – The Improvisational Mindset of Frank J. Barrett

In the midst of change (large or small), our natural instinct is often to try to control the chaos and the mess.

What if instead of fighting it, we said yes to this mess?

This question and more is one posed by author and professor Frank Barrett in his new book, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.”

His approach is one we might recognize, as the author of “Appreciative Inquiry – a Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.

We can safely say he is a fan of the tenants of Improvisation and Positive Psychology and their application to leadership and management.

This Improvisational mindset is one we’ve discussed:

  1. Face the mess
  2. Learn to take action with incomplete information – you can’t always stop and problem solve
  3. Build affirmative competence by learning how to respond in the moment
  4. Solo and Support – Learn to play both roles, let others shine, while following your instincts.

Learn more from Barrett in this insightful interview here!