A ground-breaking study from 2009 entitled “Capitalizing on Complexity”, the result of interviews with more than 1500 CEOs, concluded: “CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics.”
The report was introduced by Samuel J. Palmisano Chairman, President and CEO of IBM who wrote:
“In a very short time, we’ve become aware of global climate change; of the geopolitical issues surrounding energy and water supplies; of the vulnerabilities of supply chains for food, medicine and even talent; and of sobering threats to global security.
"The common denominator? The realities—and challenges—of global integration.
"We occupy a world that is connected on multiple dimensions, and at a deep level—a global system of systems. That means, among other things, that it is subject to systems-level failures, which require systems-level thinking about the effectiveness of its physical and digital infrastructures.
"It is this unprecedented level of interconnection and interdependency that underpins the most important findings contained in this report. Inside this revealing view into the agendas of global business and public sector leaders, three widely shared perspectives stand in relief.
The world’s private and public sector leaders believe that a rapid escalation of “complexity” is the biggest challenge confronting them. They expect it to continue—indeed, to accelerate—in the coming years.
They are equally clear that their enterprises today are not equipped to cope effectively with this complexity in the global environment.
Finally, they identify “creativity” as the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through this complexity”
That’s a big shift indeed from the prevailing view in 2009, and today, where the management culture of many organizations still considers people to be elements in a production machine.
We’re going to spend some time unpacking this study. But please note that this thinking has progressed even further in the 7 or so years since this report was published. See our series of Liminal Leaders articles considering pressure for change in organizations and particularly Nancy Giordano and Carolyn Taylor.
The “Capitalizing on Complexity” report lists a series of recommendations for leaders wanting to foster creativity in themselves and their organizations. We summarize these below.
- Embrace ambiguity.
- Reach beyond silos. Pull creative elements of your organization out of compartments and integrate them into the mainstream.
- Exemplify breakthrough thinking. Practice and encourage experimentation at all levels of the business.
- Act despite uncertainty. Fight the natural urge to wait for clarity and stability;
Take risks that disrupt legacy business models.
Pilot radical innovations. Stimulate the extendedmanagement team to break the mold of existing business models.
Continually tweak your models. Perpetually reassess your enterprise, industry and revenue models to find out what works best.
- Borrow from other industries’ successes. Learn from and be inspired by creative achievements from outside your industry.
Leapfrog beyond “tried-and-true” management styles
- Strengthen your ability to persuade and influence. Even if it feels uncomfortable, lead by working together toward a shared vision.
Coach other leaders. Spark the imagination of others. Instil the pursuit of creativity into your organizational mission through informal and formal training.
Use a wide range of communication approaches. More than before, supplement top-down organizational communication with less formal, more innovative channels.
A lot to ask of most organizations, but remember that this is just a quick summary. Multiply the above list by a factor of 4 or 5 and you start to get a sense of the magnitude of the work required for an organization to begin to leverage these findings.
That’s a challenging list by anyone’s standards but I think it’s missing an incredibly important, key element about how to get to a place where even some of this is true.
We need a different way of thinking.
And I don’t mean a different re-arrangement of the same recycled concepts and precepts. I don’t mean a new intellectual arrangement of processes, priorities or even consciously adopted beliefs (if such a thing is even possible). I mean deliberately engaging in periods of unstructured, free associative, purposeless daydream. Mental idleness.
You heard me right. Daydreams. I will explain.
For at least 150 years now Taylorist ‘scientific’ management has been the de-facto practice. The word scientific is in quotes for a reason and that is that the thinking involved in Taylorism is like the application of Netwonian mechanics to solving questions of quantum physics. It is fundamentally reductionist so that everything is seen as being nothing more than the sum of its parts and each element can be accurately assessed in isolation. It is the common mode of operation that is associated with valid mental activity especially at work.
As we see from the study above, this just doesn’t fit the reality of modern complexity. But complexity is not the issue. The idea that complexity is new is quite wrong. We’ve been dealing with it, living in it and breathing it for millennia. It is only artificial human constructs which conceive of anything as being non-complex. Until recently it was possible for most human and social organizations to be maintained using non-complex models.
It was possible for us as individuals to pretty much ignore complexity and focus on a set of rules and beliefs that let us get by. Only this doesn’t work any more. And this corner we have painted ourselves into is being experienced as a crisis. But really, we are being forced by circumstance to wake up to what has been going on all along.
At an unconscious level, we process massive complexity all the time. If all the concurrent processing which just keeps our body going had to be handled by sequential thinking we would be dead in a heartbeat. And that’s just our physical system. When you consider the effortless ease with which we routinely negotiate extraordinary complexity in social interaction, as one example, it’s clear that an enormous amount of sophisticated processing is going on which is not being done by our conscious attention.
Neuroscientists have now identified that when the brain isn’t focused on a particular detail task it switches to a different mode of operation. One involving many more centers of the brain interacting and at times using a great deal more energy than during focused thought. This is summarized here by Raichle, who along with Schulman did research showing that the brain could be using up to 20 times as much energy in this mode than in specific task-focused thinking.
Neuroscientist Matt Liebermann, author of the book “Social” and pioneer in the rapidly expanding field of Social Neuroscience observes that a great deal of the subject matter processed in this state has to do with an extraordinarily complex social calculus.
That seems far from being the limit of what this mode of brain operation does and has to offer us. It is also strongly implicated in creative solution development and the ability to innovatively re-frame complex sets of experiences and ideas.
These beneficial qualities are backed up by research and comment from the field of psychology. These two articles on the subject provide a fairly thorough starting point for anyone interested in the background:
- “Not all minds that wander are lost: the importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state” from ‘frontiers in Psychology’
“Ode to positive constructive daydreaming” from the same source
For a more neuroscience based take on the same subject see this article from Science Daily sourced from the University of British Columbia.
And this underlines the potential value of creating space for daydreaming at work.
To be clear, suggesting giving some precious time to a different mode of mental operation is not a call to replace all focused, sequential, rational thought. It is a call to give other modes of brain operation an opportunity to contribute the huge value they have to bring to meeting the demands of modern complexity.
Basically, the point is that daydreaming appears to be a big contributor to creative solution development. In fact it looks like it’s indispensable. So if someone is constantly focused on detailed task oriented activity they are almost certainly not getting enough of it. The demand to demonstrate unremitting focus on task oriented activities is deeply embedded in our culture, education, thinking and management practices. It is absolutely the heritage of Taylorist management thinking which focuses on the person as part of a production machine.
There is a very strong case indeed for organizations seeking to benefit from the kind of creativity referred to in the IBM report, to implement practices and policies that are aimed at changing this status quo. We also need to desperately to move beyond the misery of compulsive busyness as Tony Crabbe has described so well in his book "Busy".
With this in mind, and because we always like to focus on practical, effective applications, we would like to suggest a creative fusion between a couple of techniques we use in Liminal Coaching and the Pomodoro time management idea. Liminal Pomodoro, if you like. Or in order to avoid treading on any toes, let’s call it Liminal Tomato. We can combine the Pomodoro time management idea with a conscious switching of brain modes, developing it as a a cognitive skill.
And note right here, that this state is NOT the same as meditation or running an automatic sub-task such as those created for executing pre-prepared patterns in musical performance and similar activities.
There's more to come at a future date on the difference between meditation, daydream and the guided relaxation we use in Liminal Coaching. It is too much to include here, but the differences are fundamental and important.
Let's start with a brief overview of the Pomodoro time management technique. According to Wikipedia:
“The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.”
Liminal Pomodoro takes this great idea, extends the period to an hour and suggests a 5 to 10 minute break, during which you deliberately engage in The Drift. Every hour, our clients step back and give themselves a short break where they enter The Drift.
The Drift is a knack. The idea is that you take that mind wandering, day dreaming state with which we are all familiar and develop it as a brain skill. A place you can drop into pretty much at will. You set this up through simple association and repetition, giving yourself a key image or action that is then associated with that state.
We have found that three deep diaphragm breaths is a highly recommended as a great action to choose due to it’s physiological effect in reducing the blood supply to the amygdala.
It’s a simple but powerful habit to develop. We know this from personal experience and by the feedback we are getting from a number of our clients who are piloting this program.
Of course, they have an advantage. We were able to create the association with this Drift state of mind during our liminal coaching sessions, ensuring it is an effective tool they can be using right away, but anyone can build and use The Drift.
The Drift is something we all do. It happens when we simply let go and think of nothing in particular. It's not meditation and it is not observing everything that your mind may surface. This is thinking of nothing in particular and it won't happen if your mind and emotions are a heaving mass. This is the reason we work a lot at calming in Liminal Coaching. Again, we are not aiming at the disassociation of mindfulness meditation, but rather at this state of 'thinking-nothing-particular' that I have dubbed the 'Drift'.
And the results?
A simple and easy to use technique for improving your productivity, lowering your blood pressure, improving interpersonal interaction and probably your family life as well. What’s not to like?