Turning a Minus Into a Plus … Constraints are Catalysts for Innovation

Creativity Thrives Best When Constrained

“Art consists in limitation,” as the English writer G. K. Chesterton remarked. Constraints are the sine qua non of creativity.

One of the great ironies of creative thinking is that it seems to benefit from constraints. At first blush, inventive thinking may seem to require a great degree of freedom and a lack of restrictions, but the reality of the creative process is that it is frequently entwined with many challenging constraints and intractable requirements. In the right light, demanding constraints can truly be blessings in disguise as the French poet Paul Valery observed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”

Constraints can shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints stimulate creativity because they not only invigorate inventive thinking but also reduce the complexity of the problem at hand. That is to say, constraints can make a problem more controllable, and possibly even more appealing.

Constraints and Challenge Can Actually Be Assets to the Creative Process

When you explore inventions that are creative, you’ll discover that the creators often exploited some core constraints that had characterized their domain in the past. Here are six examples of creativity that exploited a constraint to great advantage.

  • British Airways 'Go for it America' marketing campaign and Virgin Atlantic's Response In 1986, British Airways ran a “Go for it, America!” marketing campaign to give away 5,200 free seats—all seats on its scheduled flights between USA and UK on June 10, 1986. In response, the upstart Virgin Atlantic ran its own newspaper advertisements that declared, “It has always been Virgin’s policy to encourage you to fly to London for as little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways.” And in smaller type, the ad read, “As for the rest of the year, we look forward to seeing you aboard Virgin Atlantic. For the best service possible. At the lowest possible fare.” The British Airways giveaway generated a lot of publicity, but most of the news coverage also mentioned Virgin’s unexpected, witty response.
  • In October 1984, during the second presidential debate with challenger Walter Mondale, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun questioned President Ronald Reagan about his age: “You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?” Reagan famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Tyrwhitt responded, “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over.” Mondale lost and Reagan got elected for his second term as President. [See YouTube clip of this debate.]
  • An determined young woman I knew was embarking on a career as a new architect. She had set her sights on a job with a prominent architectural firm, but her professors and career councilors urged her to gain experience at a smaller employer first, as no prestigious firm would take on an inexperienced, new graduate. Undeterred, the young woman applied to the firm she had set her sights for. When asked about her experience, she declared slickly, “I have no experience at all. You see, I want to learn this business at a top quality firm. Employ me and mentor me to suit your design practices. This way, I’ll not have to unlearn any of the second-rate skills I’d have learned in another place.” She got the job.
  • When YouTube launched in 2005, many of its upstart competitors examined each uploaded video for copyright infringement. However, unlike its competitors, YouTube calculatedly let users upload any content and waited for copyright owners to complain before taking down noncompliant videos. By choosing to put their business model at risk, YouTube rapidly grew in content and viewers. Its early rivals faded out, and YouTube got acquired by Google and went on to became the world’s leading video-sharing platform.
  • The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period) Legend has it that one day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy. Picasso had just relocated to Paris and was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome.
  • When American sculptor Janet Echelman‘s art supplies never arrived to South India on a Fulbright scholarship trip, Echelman altered her plans and started working with bronze casts inspired by the local materials and culture of Mahabalipuram, fishing village famous for sculpture. However, she soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While examining fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began speculating if nets could be a new approach to sculpture. However, the delicate surfaces of the fishnets revealed every ripple of wind. Echelman hoisted the fishnets onto poles and created sturdy volumetric forms without heavy, solid materials. Echelman’s building-sized constructed net art structures are now featured in many cities around the world. [See Janet Echelman’s TED talk.]

In each situation, the inventor reframed elements of his/her world that he/she couldn’t control.

When faced with an element of the situation that they cannot ignore or overcome, instead of tackling those problems head-on, creative folks tend to leverage their constraints in a creative way and reframe them into an exceptionally powerful problem-solving technique.

Idea for Impact: Constraints often stimulate creativity rather than suppress it.

The heart of many a problem lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, instead of asking, “how can I minimize this liability?” explore “how can I make the most of it?”

Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

How to Guard Against Anything You May Inadvertently Overlook

The World is More Inundated with Uncertainties and Errors Than Ever Before

Checklists can help you learn about prospective oversights and mistakes, recognize them in context, and sharpen your decisions.

I am a big fan of Harvard surgeon and columnist Atul Gawande‘s The Checklist Manifesto (2009.) His bestseller is an engaging reminder of how the world has become so complex.

The use of the humble checklist can help you manage the myriad of complexities that underlie most contemporary professional (and personal) undertakings—where what you must do is too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Checklists “provide a kind of a cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”

'The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right' by Atul Gawande (ISBN 0312430000) Gawande begins The Checklist Manifesto with an examination of the characteristics of errors from ignorance (mistakes you make because you don’t know enough—“much of the world and universe is—and will remain—outside our understanding and control”), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes you make because you don’t apply correctly what you know.) Most human and organizational failures involve the latter.

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

The surgery room, Gawande’s own profession, is the principal setting for many of the book’s illustrative examples of how the introduction of checklists dramatically reduced the rate of complications from surgery. He also provides handy stories from other realms of human endeavor—aviation, structural engineering, and Wall Street-investing.

Getting Things Right, Every Time

Checklists are particularly valuable in situations where the stakes are high enough, but your impulsive thought process could lead to suboptimal decisions.

'Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition' by Michael J. Mauboussin (ISBN 1422187381) The benefits of checklists also feature prominently in the thought-provoking Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (2012.) The author, Credit Suisse Investment analyst and polymath Michael J. Mauboussin, argues that checklists are more effective in certain domains than in others:

A checklist’s applicability is largely a function of a domain’s stability. In stable environments, where cause and effect is pretty clear and things don’t change much, checklists are great. But in rapidly changing environments that are heavily circumstantial, creating a checklist is a lot more difficult. In those environments, checklists can help with certain aspects of the decision. For instance, an investor evaluating a stock may use a checklist to make sure that she builds her financial model properly.

A good checklist balances two opposing objectives. It should be general enough to allow for varying conditions, yet specific enough to guide action. Finding this balance means a checklist should not be too long; ideally, you should be able to fit it on one or two pages.

If you have yet to create a checklist, try it and see which issues surface. Concentrate on steps or procedures, and ask where decisions have gone off track before. And recognize that errors are often the result of neglecting a step, not from executing the other steps poorly.

In addition to creating checklists that are specific enough to guide action but general enough to handle changing circumstances, Mauboussin recommends keeping a journal to gather feedback from past decisions and performing “premortems” by envisioning that a imminent decision has already been proven wrong, and then identifying probable reasons for the failure.

No Matter How Proficient You May Be, Well-designed Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes

Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes The notion of making and using checklists is so plainly obvious that it seems impracticable that they could have so vast an effect.

Investor Charlie Munger, the well-respected beacon of wisdom and multi-disciplinary thinking, has said, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” And, “I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise it’s easy to miss something important.”

Idea for Impact: Checklists can prevent many things that could go wrong in the hands of human beings, given our many well-documented biases and foibles. Well-designed checklists not only make sure that all the can-be-relied upon elements are in place in complex decision-making, but also provide for flexibility and room for ad hoc judgment.

The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking

“The All-embracing quality of the great virtue follows alone from the Tao … Only with Tao can follow the right path,” wrote Laozi in Tao Te Ching.

Translated roughly as “the way of integrity,” the Tao Te Ching is mostly a work of maxims of varying length; but it frequently quotes traditional poems, songs, and hymns.

'Tao Te Ching' by Stephen Mitchell (ISBN 0061142662) While the normative meaning of the word ‘Tao’ is just “path” or “way,” the text’s dominant theme is the spirit or quality of mind one needs to cultivate.

Here’s a verse from Tao Te Ching that advocates the power of counterintuitive thinking:

A good soldier is never aggressive;
A good fighter is never angry.
The best way of conquering an enemy
Is to win him over by not antagonizing him.
The best way of employing a man
Is to serve under him.
This is called the virtue of non-striving!
This is called using the abilities of men!
This is called being wedded to Heaven as of old!

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Enabling the Highest Degrees of Understanding: Book Summary of ‘The Unschooled Mind’

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions

'The Unschooled Mind' by Howard Gardner (ISBN 0465024386) In The Unschooled Mind (1991,) Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner makes a persuasive case for why even the brightest students often lack a deep understanding of what traditional schooling purports to teach them.

According to Gardner, students (in elementary schools to graduate colleges) may take exams and earn degrees, but their supposed knowledge turns out deficient in situations that are at variance from the “text-to-test” framework in which they learnt it. To some extent, this disconnect is an outcome of teachers’ settling for “correct-answer compromises” whereby students take the rote repetition of facts, formulas, concepts, and theories for a real understanding of fundamental concepts.

Robust Forms of Intuitive Knowledge

Overall, Gardner argues that children tend to acquire well-established models for perceptive learning and intuitive thinking by the time they are five years old. They develop wide-ranging beliefs about the physical world and distinctive models of events and people.

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions Subsequently, when children begin their schooling, they are launched into pedagogic methods that often sidestep—even interfere with—the children’s entrenched patterns of learning and understanding. That is to say, children have to put up with a disagreeable dichotomy between their intuitive learning patterns and the academic learning:

In its theoretical resourcefulness and intuitions, [a 5-year old’s mind] is powerful; in its artistic endeavors, it can be creative and imaginative; in its adventurousness, it is exemplary. … Education that takes seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child is far more likely to achieve success than education that ignores these views, either considering them to be unimportant or assuming that they will disappear on their own.

Experiential Learning, Supplanted by Critical Analysis and Synthesis, Can Enhance Students’ Points of View

The Unschooled Mind contends that far-reaching knowledge and appreciation of education can occur only when students are allowed to integrate their “prescholastic” learning modes with the scholastic and the disciplinary ways of traditional school education. “The problem is less a difficulty in school learning per se and more a problem in integrating the notational and conceptual knowledge featured in school with the robust forms of intuitive knowledge that have evolved spontaneously during the opening years of life.”

Gardner’s solution to this problem is to situate students in educational environments that pique their curiosity about the subject matter and, at the higher levels of education, challenge their preexisting assumptions. Educating children for the utmost degrees of understanding involves designing educational systems that help students synthesize these several patterns of learning.

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding For real learning to occur, Gardner argues, students must have an opportunity to realize their own ignorance, and then ask and explore their own questions. Teachers must regularly expose students to “Christopherian encounters”—compelling personal discoveries of the inconsistencies between their various frames of reference—by approaching any subject matter through at least five instructive channels:

Gardner claims that traditional schooling should incorporate more apprenticing—apprenticeship programs build most effectively on the ways children learn—and schools should become more like children’s museums.

Recommendation: Read The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, especially if you have a child in school. The key takeaway: to enable the highest degrees of understanding, any skills instruction must be systematically reinforced by instruction in which the deployment of the skills makes holistic sense.

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking

Thought-provoking questions: potential game changers that are not asked nearly enough

Asking Questions to Encourage Creativity “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted,” wrote George F. Kneller (1909–1999), the American academic and pioneer in the field of philosophy of education, in Art and Science of Creativity (1965.) Many people don’t know how to probe their thought processes with questions that encourage creativity.

Consider a brainstorming meeting where a new idea was received with comments and judgments like, “this won’t work,” “we’ve never done it this way,” “the customer won’t like it,” or, “if this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done before?” Immediately, a dysfunctional pattern ensues. Defensiveness sets in and the meeting’s participants will resist making any more suggestions and will fail to explore those ideas that were previously made. (One of the key principles of “divergent thinking” for idea-generation is to defer judgment. Neuroscience has suggested that the human prefrontal cortex—the self-monitoring element of the brain—is less active when we’re most creative.)

Creative thinkers ask open-ended, accommodating, and exploratory lead-in questions such as,

  • “I wonder if/why/whether … “
  • “Perhaps we could … “
  • “That would work if/when … “
  • “In what ways can we … .” This favorite of mine was introduced by Edward de Bono, the lateral thinking pioneer and creator of the “Six Thinking Hats” method for group creativity. De Bono called this lead-in question the ‘IWW.’

Instead of declaring “we could never do this,” ask “IWW (in what ways) may people start to do this?” In practical terms, this rephrasing may seem a small thing, but it embodies a leap in unhindered, open-minded thinking. The former seems a categorical rejection; but the latter invites an exploration of possibilities and signals the beginning of the search for solutions to constraints.

Idea for Impact: The ability to pose meaningful—and often deceptively simple questions is the hallmark of creativity

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking Often, what leads a creative person to get fresh insight is the quality of questions he/she asks. Questions such as “I wonder if …” and “In what ways can we … ” ignite dialogues in your mind that can lead to creative insights and new discoveries.

The prospect for creative thinking expands when you can reframe restraining statements into creative questions. Consider the following examples:

  • Restraining statement: “We can’t possibly do that.”
    Creative question: “If it were possible, how would you do it?”
  • Restraining statement: “It’ll take too long.”
    Creative question: “If it’s time-consuming, how can I make it short?”
  • Restraining statement: “I can’t talk to her.”
    Creative question: “If you could talk to her, what would you say?”
  • Restraining statement: “I’m too busy to do this.”
    Creative question: “In what ways can we free up some time for you?”

During brainstorming, asking questions in a way that opens participants’ minds to newer possibilities can have a transformative shift in the creative atmosphere. When participants suspend their judgments, everyone in the brainstorming session will feel comfortable enough to explore creative solutions to constraints.

Don’t Blatantly Imitate a Hero: Be Yourself

Heroes are very useful—they embody a higher plateau of truth, knowledge, and accomplishment that you can aspire to.

While admiring and drawing inspiration from heroes can be productive, blatantly imitating them is simply foolish.

Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi

The black turtleneck syndrome

Consider Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi. Jun has not only made Xiaomi the world’s fourth-largest smartphone maker by copying Apple’s products but also cultivated a blatant Jobsian likeness—right down to wearing dark shirts and jeans in the vein of Steve Jobs and mimicking his presentation style.

Lei Jun is not alone in taking this admiration of Steve Jobs beyond inspiration to blatant imitation. After reading Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, many people started to actually think and act like Steve Jobs. Some have even embraced catchphrases like “one more thing,” the expression Jobs used in his presentations prior to introducing new Apple products.

You aren’t Steve Jobs, your company isn’t Apple, so why try to be Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs-mimicking Lei Jun of Xiaomi Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs was a determined and ambitious leader who created renowned products that transformed many industries. He intuitively understood what makes a compelling product, in both concept and design. He was a visionary and brilliant innovator who integrated insights from diverse disciplines and paid great attention to the design-details of Apple’s products and services. He was intensely focused, committed, confident enough to take risky leaps, and charismatic enough to enlist legions of employees and customers in the inexorable pursuit of his aspirations.

Those are all fine traits in the right context, but simply lifting them from Steve Jobs’s biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. You could sink your business if you blindly use Jobs’s or any other celebrity manager’s leadership style and behaviors in the wrong context, product, strategy, or market.

Imitation will not conjure success

'Winning' by Jack Welch, Suzy Welch (ISBN 0060753943) Long before Steve Jobs was Jack Welch, whom Fortune magazine dubbed “Manager of the Century” in 1999. Between 1981 and 2001, as General Electric’s CEO, Welch became a cult figure among American managers and leaders. By means of intellect, energy, and straight talk, Welch transformed the sleepy giant of General Electric (GE) into an international business powerhouse.

Jack Welch was widely regarded as the transformative manager’s archetype. Managers read his leadership playbook religiously and tried to imitate everything he did at GE—from his 20-70-10 “rank and yank” process to adopting six-sigma methods. These imitators often failed to realize that a number of factors contributed to the success of Welch’s techniques, not the least of which was the strong organizational culture and leadership philosophy he had established at GE. Managers simply will not successfully imitate Welch’s techniques without first establishing the organizational context that allowed for his initiatives’ success.

Idea for Impact: You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t emulate it all

Most intellectual, cognitive, and people skills are situational. That is to say that there is a time for Jack Welch’s techniques, another time for Steve Jobs’s techniques, and still other times for others’ techniques. The real skill lies in accumulating many ideas in your “brain attic” and then diagnosing your situations to apply the appropriate technique at the appropriate time.

You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t pattern your lives after them. See if some of the things they did will work for you. Develop your own style by focusing on what matters to you in your context. Don’t become second-rate versions of people you admire; instead be first-rate version of yourself.

Make Decisions Using Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

“Reasons pro and con are not present at the same time”

My previous article about Ben Franklin’s T-Chart method in making difficult decisions quoted him mentioning this as a key challenge of fact-collecting and decision-making:

When difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

Bill Hewlett's Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (HP,) developed an effective “hat-wearing process” in his decision-making. When confronted with a challenge, Hewlett used a three-pronged approach to take the time to reflect, collect input from others, and develop a sound judgment about the matter at hand.

  1. Whenever an HP employee approached Hewlett with an innovative idea, he put on his “enthusiasm” hat. He listened, expressed enthusiasm, appreciated the creative process, and asked wide-ranging but not-too-pointed questions about the idea.
  2. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “inquisition” hat and met the inventor. Hewlett asked many pointed questions and meticulously examined the facts and the virtues. He critically examined the idea, but adjourned without a final decision.
  3. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “decision” hat and met with the inventor. Hewlett discussed his opinions and conveyed his decision with logic and sensitivity.

In a discussion about the corporate culture of enthusiasm and creativity that the founders engendered at Hewlett-Packard, cofounder David Packard recalls in The HP Way (see my review / summary) that even if the decision went against the inventor, Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process” provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction that Hewlett had carefully considered the ideas.

Idea for Impact: Make Considered Decisions

Use the “hat-wearing process” to listen to and mull over facts about a decision to be made, collect input from others, develop perspective that comes only with time, and make sound, thoughtful decisions.

Compliment with Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ thought process to stimulate creativity.