Navigating ambiguity with a surf and a dive


This week I had the privilege of visiting the renowned at Stanford to learn about how they teach creativity and innovation to their graduate students.

The school screamed collaboration, curiosity, and discovery — and while there, a couple members of the teaching faculty and I put these principles into action to make a spontaneous, 2-minute mobile video on one of my favorite questioning frameworks: Surf and Dive.

I learned about this framework from Dr. Julia Sloan at Columbia University, and it’s a sure-fire way to diverge (read: broaden) your thinking, and test assumptions. Check out the video link below and let us know your thoughts!

When failure is part of the rules

A few weeks ago, a woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and asked a very important question: “Are you telling us that it’s okay to fail?”

A group of incredibly smart, focused, and skilled future leaders was confused. No one had ever given them permission to fail before.

I told her what one of my mentors, Randy Nelson told me: life is not about error avoidance, it’s about error recovery.

I wasn’t actually encouraging them to fail, I simply encouraged this group to change their reaction to failure.

Most of us fail inward – meaning, our bodies tense up, we get smaller and we let the world know that we are ashamed.

Improvisers practice what same may see as a silly exercise called the “Failure Bow” – we turn failure from an inward defeat to an outward celebration. This small practice helps us act the way we want to feel.

Seth Godin speaks brilliantly about failure, here in this interview. Some of the highlights:

  • those who fail more often, win – The people who don’t win are the ones that don’t fail at all and get stuck, or the ones that fail so big that they don’t get to play again.
  • What are the risks that you can take that keep you in the game even if you fail?
  •  Following the rules can lead to a fear of initiation and a fear of failure. Where can you work where failing is part of the rules?

The concept of embracing failure is broad and confusing for some – depending on your profession, and your past experience. This concept is also juicy and full of connection to vulnerability, innovation, creativity, you name it.

Simply put…error recovery builds resilience, it provides a new kind of reward…perhaps one that we aren’t teaching or recognizing enough.


How to give yourself permission to be more creative

High on a mountaintop sits the creative genius. Not to be bothered with, talked to, or talked down to. He speaks in short, punctuated sentences, rides a scooter (yes, on a mountaintop) and abstains from yellow food. Who is this person? Surely he must be creative.

If you ask me, the great divide between “the creative person” and the non-creative type is phony.

Anyone can be creative. It’s not a category you fall into, the job you are assigned, the assessment you take. Creativity starts with permission.

To be creative is to give yourself and to give others the permission to explore, to have new ideas and to follow them. 

Creative people are more comfortable with the freedom inside structure than just the structure itself. They are more comfortable exploring, less on logic and rules and more on what could be.

They take risks because they have given themselves permission to. They think broadly, in opposites, in analogies, or in obvious straight-forward methods.

It’s a shift – from a judging to learner mindset, a mechanistic or organismic structure, technical to adaptive problem solving, or whole-brain thinking. But, becoming more creative involves not just a neurological shift but an environmental shift as well.

Peter Sims talks about this in this article, “Ultimately, while basic design and creative methods can be learned much like muscles, and developed and strengthened through practice, this shift in mindset requires a different kind of leadership.”

Helping others become more creative involves giving them permission to fail, to have big ideas, to take risks and to blur the lines between who is deemed creative and who isn’t.



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!

What’s the drill – August 15: Failing on purpose

What’s your focus?

Competence, and being right? Or a focus on always moving forward?

Can you focus on “getting it right”, being okay with failure and moving forward? It may depend what “getting it right” means to you, but I believe you can have your cake and eat it too (and rhyme!).

The truth is, we can still move forward when we don’t get it right, and we can move forward faster, quicker, and hopefully cheaper than when our singular focus is just on being correct. 

No one wants to fail.

But, there are some times when we need failure to keep us moving forward – it is often where our best learning and growth (i.e. innovation) comes from.  We can choose to manage our reaction to failure, to greet it with a smile and use it to our advantage.

We may end up preferring failure to get us closer to where we want to go.

You can build competence by creating a safe place to make mistakes and fail.

Getting it right versus getting it completely wrong may just be in how you view failure.

Yes, and you failed. Keep moving forward. 




The top five qualities of innovative companies, via HBR

Companies that know how to innovate have something in common — they make it a priority. The companies listed in Hay Group’s seventh annual Best Companies for Leadership (BCL) ranking recognize the value of  innovation and put it at the heart of their corporate culture.

How do they do they do it? Well, you may recognize some of these best practices. The theme remains one of openness, flexibility, agility, and growth via learning:

1. Create a safe space for innovation

  • Idea – allow calculated risks
  • Example – build a lab environment into part of the culture

2. Enable organizational agility.

  • Idea – allow job definitions to be more flexible and fluid — if you want an organization to be adaptable, and flexible,  and changing to the needs of the marketplace, take a look at the job structure.
  • Give employees room to grow and explore their range of interests within a company, for example, Google is great at this.
  • Example – build empathy across organization, independent thinking and problem solving by allowing others to join a new department for a month/quarter, etc.

3. Broaden perspectives. 

  • Idea – new ideas can come from anywhere – an innovative company knows this and is an expert at “staying open”.
  • Example – Solicit feedback on ideas from the community and company as a whole.

4. Promote and reward collaboration.

  • Idea – the majority of innovations are born from collaborative efforts.
  • Create an environment that encourages collaboration
  • Ideas can be those of the individual, and “yes, anded” by the group as a whole.  Reward dependence, not just independence.

5. Celebrate success and learn from setbacks.

  • Idea – fail forward
  • Innovative companies see problems and failures as learning experiences. By reacting this way, companies encourage risk taking and keep the innovation engine running. An employee who feels they can never mess up, will never try to be anything other than average.
  • Encourage “what if’s” and “why not’s”


Why Creative Ideas Get Rejected – via David Burkus

If you feel like getting your creative ideas approved and accepted is a battle, new research suggests it may not be your fault.

Creative work that’s novel and different often goes head-to-head with our desire for certainty and structure. When that certainty is well…uncertain, our natural, inherent creativity bias can rear its ugly head.

We want creativity without the risk. Can we have our cake and eat it too when it comes to creativity and innovation?

To help our brains accept new ideas, this research and wonderful writing from Management Professor David Burkus gets us thinking about how we sell our ideas:

“We now know that regardless of how open-minded people are, or claim to be, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations. This isn’t merely a preference for the familiar or a desire to maintain the status quo. Most of us sincerely claim that we want the positive changes creativity provides. What the bias affects is our ability to recognize the creative ideas that we claim we desire. Thus, when you’re pitching your creative idea, it may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling, which in turn is overriding their ability to recognize the idea as truly novel and useful.”

Regardless of how open-minded people are, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations.”

To me, this research shares similarities with the work of David Rock and his S.C.A.R.F model of rewards and threats. When our certainty, the “C” in scarf'” is threatened we close down.

To break through, Burkus and Rock remind us to speak the language of those we are trying to persuade, make them look good by using empathy, listening, and perhaps most of all, patience.