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A Single Question To Unleash Creativity At Work And At Home

Written by: Marc Scheff, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Marc Scheff

Your job is creative. Your relationships are creative. Your life is creative. There are no right answers, just the right question.

A photo of businessman looking at the illustrations above.

There’s no real roadmap for high levels of success, everyone’s life experience is different. Still, well-forged paths limit the potential, and risk, of creative side-quests. Pressure and expectations kill creativity. Anxiety and fear smother imagination for potential.


Understanding how to identify these factors, and how to create new outcomes will unlock new levels for you, your teams, your family, and your relationships.


One of my past clients is an SVP at one of the biggest healthcare companies in the world. The amount of pressure in a job like that is immense, and the pressure to stick to well-understood paths is even bigger. Toe the line, say the right things, and don’t get too wild. This includes the path to getting there.


For her, that path included a very intense internal vetting process, along with other candidates. You don’t have to be a fan of “Succession” to know how this might go. Pressure to be the best, to look the best, to make no wrong moves, and in the worst case to prop yourself up by diminishing others. Risks include hard feelings, quiet quitting, and burned bridges.


But this client has a set of core values that include not becoming the villain in the story, as well as bringing more creativity into a historically conservative business. When she worked with me, we asked a question that I keep posted on my wall on a sticky note: “How could it be done?” When we kept asking that question, we got even deeper on values and how she wanted to approach the problem. We got creative.


The result? She landed the gig, and the other top candidate became her most trusted ally going forward.


In this article, we will examine how this question works, the pitfalls to avoid, and how to use it effectively to unlock success and fulfillment beyond what you believe possible.


What is creativity and why should you care?


“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

Creativity is not something that only some of us are born with. It is a basic human trait that never goes away. We can build it with intention, or we can let it atrophy.


On a micro scale, if you decided what to eat today, who to spend time with, what clothes to wear, how to get to work, or what work to work on, you created something. You see? You create every day, you just don’t call it creative because your ability to make a sandwich won’t get you a solo show in a museum.


It will, however, set you apart in the business world.


In the workplace, the word “innovation” has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. That said, if you want to separate yourself from your competitors you do have to create new ideas for products and services, new ways of working together, new ways of communicating so the ideas are new and not just the old ones at a bigger scale.


Next, you have to know what’s working against you.

Photo of a tree and marshmallows.

What’s working against you


Knowing pitfalls will help you identify and avoid them. And old stories are pitfalls.


I had a client who believed with all his heart that he was overscheduled and had no time. He was told this story over and over by himself, and those around him who saw that he was too busy for a big passion project. After our conversation using the process, below in this article, he found an extra 10-15 hours a week for his projects.


Beliefs are stories we tell ourselves repeatedly. They can work for you, or against you.


When my kids were younger we were desperate for them to get outside during some of the winter months (and spring ones, and summer…). So we told them the story of how marshmallows are grown. There are very special trees that only blossom in certain months (we could drag this out for most of the year since they had zero sense of actual time). They would dress, pulling on snow pants and mittens, chattering on with excitement as we quizzed them on marshmallow forest-agriculture. They would install themselves on our flimsy red sled and we would haul off in search of marshmallows. My wife, or I, would hike a bit ahead to “scout” and when we were far enough from the house… lo! There be marshmallows!


A story creates belief.


Here’s a more common belief, also based on fiction.

“Unfortunately, creativity isn’t part of my job, I’m a manager/leader/founder.”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard this phrase, I’d be well into my financial retirement. Still, this is the story I hear even from the most successful people.


All this is is a story. A story that creativity looks a certain way. Drawing or painting, that’s creative, that’s the story. I’m not that, I’m not creative. That’s the belief.


And it’s dead wrong.


So we have to tell a different one.

How could it be donw question on a sticky note.

How to tell a new story


James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits” talks about identity-based habits. In brief, if you tell yourself a story about the kind of person you are becoming, you’ll see choices and opportunities that you would otherwise have missed. If my story is that I am a fit person, I suddenly notice the depth of the salad menu at a restaurant, the organic label at the grocery store, and the staircase next to the escalator in the subway.


A belief pulls you towards or pushes you away. A belief that you are “not” something, will push you away from action that would move in that direction.


Look no further than Carol Dweck’s work to see how this might be useful in your own business, life, and relationships. Dweck, known for her work on motivation and mindset, found that when kids were told they could do hard work, they made choices later that saw hard work as a path and not an obstacle. Where others turned away, they turned towards and succeeded.


The kids who were not told that they were hard workers, avoided the work and saw it only as something that didn’t fit in their story.


Another obstacle to creativity: Success


Success is hard because it reveals limits.


All your life you have had some level of vision of what’s possible. You may have created that as a child, or a young person. You may have dreamed much bigger than most, you may have had support or any amount of privilege. You may have succeeded beyond what many believe possible. Or none of those things.


It doesn’t matter how, but if you succeeded in reaching what you believed is possible then you know how this success limits you. Completing this vision, you now have to create new potential, but it’s hard to step from a successful past into an unknown future. For kids this is easy, they

believe they can be unicorns and hunt marshmallows. If you’ve been here a bit longer, our stories weigh us down.


I recently spoke with a tech founder who was considering what to do next. He could build another company, and it would be successful in exactly the same way his last one was. But he got clear, he wanted to either radically shift his focus, or build something with 10x the success and impact of his last project. He saw that creativity was the path to generating new business ideas.


Beliefs are stories that tell us who we are. And we can use that knowledge to create growth, for ourselves, our teams, our careers, our companies, and our relationships.

An illustation of roads.

How to harness creativity


If you create a new belief, you can pull yourself towards new heights.


To build a new belief we must write a new story, and we repeat it. This is a process you can use every day, but it’s especially useful when facing the blank canvas of the future. When you face a question about direction in your career, your next business, or your relationships, these are questions about what you are willing to create.


I like my articles to offer tools people can use right away. So let’s get specific on how to do this.


In my healthcare SVP example, there are well-worn paths to landing that big role and there are also costs. We did a few important things as we spoke and we wrote a new way of creating her success, with more benefits than cost.

  1. She got clear on her values

  2. She used divergent thinking

  3. She converged on action steps


These three things resulted in a new story, and just like Dweck’s kids, she took action now that she saw how the story could go.


The process: How to diverge and converge


Breaking this down a little more:

  1. Values are things like kindness, leadership, creativity, and wisdom (and not being a villain). Values will guide us when we later converge and decide on an idea.

  2. Divergent thinking is a mode of generating ideas with limited constraints and zero judgment (coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford, later popularized by Sam Kaner in his book ”Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making”).

  3. Converging is the part at the end. Once we’ve imagined solutions that are based on our values, we evaluate and commit to action that matches our values.


I will outline all three steps, and focus on the creative portion in Divergent thinking. VALUES

To get clear on values you can use a worksheet like the one I created here. Don’t overthink it, go with your gut. There are no grades and you can redo them anytime.


Diverge


Once you have your values, you are ready for divergent thinking. The question that can lead here is the one mentioned above, “How could it be done?”


The language is intentional. It’s not “what do I think is possible?” or “what’s realistic.” By asking how it “could” be done we give ourselves permission to imagine.


By not saying “how could I…” we remove ourselves and our limited beliefs from the equation. In doing this we remove judgment.


Try this creative shift to get even more out of the question: ask as if we are asking how someone else might meet the challenges we face. That someone else might be a more ideal version of ourselves with qualities we want to have, or it could be someone else we can model after we imagine. In thinking through what they could do, you begin your new story.


Imagine if you believed in something about yourself as resolutely as two kids hunting in the bitter New England cold for marshmallows. Imagine if you knew that you were creative, bold, kind, courageous, and wise. Imagine being that person and being asked “How could it be done?” How would you answer?


It’s very important in divergent thinking to remove judgment even to the point of silliness. Do not hesitate to write outlandish ideas, in fact, I would suggest deliberately seeking them. The more wild ideas you write, when you get to actually evaluating these ideas you may notice an idea that seemed silly before, but is actually very reasonable compared to marshmallow unicorns.


In my head, as I describe this process I imagine a Willy Wonka-esque mood where the only sense is nonsense. Some sense will of course creep in, and that is where the next stage fits.


Converge


Once you have this list of possibilities, we evaluate and converge. You look back to your values and ask “Which of these are both do-able and would be done by someone with these values?”


Pitfalls aka don’t “should” on yourself


Here are some things that might get in the way.

  1. The “Groan Zone.” Sam Kaner coined this phrase which describes the part of the converge process where you might get stuck with a team that just can’t agree on a few ideas to veto or not veto. For this it is wise to have a clear decision-making process that allows for everyone to feel heard and not simply steamrolled.

  2. Judgment. Do NOT let judgment enter the diverge stage, no matter how obvious it is that there’s an issue with an idea.

  3. “Should” thinking will hamper your ability to come up with the next everlasting gobstopper of an idea. The most nefarious “should” is about how creativity should feel. You might imagine the artist in their studio connecting with creative spirit, dancing, singing, joyful in their efforts, satisfied with a day’s work. You would be so, so incredibly wrong. Don’t should on your process.


  1. Feeling. You may not “feel” creative. That’s also ok, all you have to do is start writing whatever comes to mind. As you work, your brain will shift into right-brain thinking and start to unleash more.

  2. Excitement. You may not be excited about an idea, that’s fine, remember don’t judge. You may find that excitement grows for earlier ideas as you come up with more.

  3. “I can’t.” When people look at my artwork and say “I could never do that,” what they mean is “I’m not interested in doing the work to be able to do that.” Which is fine. As you’re coming up with ideas you will think “that’s not for me.” Again, put that to the side. As you allow more divergent thinking, you may or may not solve that problem. You definitely won’t be able to do something you don’t allow yourself to entertain.


Where it leads


This is creativity. This is sitting down and working so that inspiration can find you. Even if you’re certain of the path ahead, you will find new branches with this method. At worst, you’ll find a new certainty in the path you’ve chosen.


You can see how this process will result in expansive possibilities in work, home, and leisure.


Introducing the idea of creativity is a fraught concept, especially for successful business leaders and those outside of traditionally creative fields. However, creativity is the process we use every

day to create our futures. If we harness the tools that allow for more creativity, we get better futures.


It’s about showing up, trying stuff, evaluating after and not before you start. It’s not magic, it’s just imagination.


Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube and visit my website for more info!

Marc Scheff Brainz Magazine
 

Marc Scheff, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Marc Scheff works with people to design lives beyond what they think is possible. As a child he saw first hand what shifts in perspective and mindset can create even against difficult odds. He now dedicates his time to working with high-level creators and entrepreneurs to create well beyond the success they've had and into the success they've dreamed about. His purpose is to unleash creativity, and he has had the distinct pleasure of doing with work with a healthcare exec, a museum curator, an advisor to the president, and hundreds more.

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