The Myth of Bad Ideas

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

We say this often when we are soliciting ideas from others. I’ve heard people saying this during brainstorming sessions. We want people to be unafraid. We want them to understand there’s no consequences when they share their ideas. We’re telling them all ideas are equal.

We’re lying… and we’re wrong.

Lie #1 – All ideas are equal

No they’re not. Some are better than others. Unlike Santa Claus or the Boogie Man, bad ideas do indeed exist. They are hastily typed into emotionally-charged emails. They hang in your closet. They fill fast food restaurant menus. Bad ideas not only exist, they are everywhere.

Lie #2 – There are no consequences

I’m sorry, there are consequences to sharing your ideas. You may be embarrassed. There’s a chance someone will snicker, scoff or simply ignore your idea altogether. We all know this is true, so we should stop being disingenuous by pretending otherwise.

We are wrong about fear

Finally, no matter what we do, people will be afraid. We are wrong to expect them to be unafraid. We can only hope there is something more powerful than that fear, like the desire to contribute, to matter or to add meaning. We can mitigate the risks, but don’t waste your time trying to reassure people there is nothing to fear. The fear is there. It is real. Now, what are we going to do with it?

What can we do?

If bad ideas do exist (and we established they definitely do), then what can we do to help people share their ideas more freely?

Invite their bad ideas.

Let them know, “We want your bad ideas. That’s the best place to start, because bad ideas lead us to good ideas.” In fact, start the idea generation with a few bad ideas of your own. Get people talking about what could be done to improve your bad idea and make it better. Pretty soon, some good ideas come forward and develop.

Bad ideas are worms.

Nobody wants to eat a worm (not even a fried worm). But when you’re fishing, you need bait. So, you start with a worm on your hook. You put it in the right waters and you end up eating a nice fish dinner later.

So, next time you want people to share their ideas, don’t resort to lying. Don’t deny the existence of bad ideas. Invite bad ideas, because they are bait for great ideas hiding beneath the surface.

A Call for Creative Leadership

Creative Leadership

What are you doing today to advance the creative competence of your team, your department and your company? Are you making it easier or harder for others to generate and share ideas? How do others view you? As a catalyst for accelerating projects… or the place they go to die?

Leaders rely on their people to bring their whole person to the table every day. They look for talent, commitment and courage from their people. They get frustrated when these same people hide behind excuses or lose momentum.

Employees, on the other hand, get frustrated with leadership. They want autonomy, with enough feedback and direction to be helpful. They want to see progress and growth in themselves. Last (on this list anyway), they want to have a sense of purpose in the work they do. In his book Drive, Dan Pink identifies these as the three motivators–autonomy, mastery and purpose–that increase performance and satisfaction. Yet, these are missing ingredients in most working environments, and employees aren’t getting what they need from leadership.

Here’s the problem when we talk about leaders and leadership in this way… leadership is too broad a term. It has been misapplied and overused. It means too many different things to people, so it is no longer meaningful. We all have experience with good leaders and bad leaders. But in both situations–good or bad–we still characterize them the same: as leaders.

I don’t want to be cynical, so I will focus on what I call Creative Leaders. These leaders aren’t artists in the strictest definition, but they are creative because they create. They are constructive. They inspire, encourage, facilitate and foster a similar creativity in their people. How do they do this?

They remove the obstacles that hold their people back from growth. When they see it as helpful, they add obstacles that foster growth.

They give their people structure (physically and organizationally) in a way that helps them gain a sense of choice and control in how, when, where and with whom they work.

Creative leaders are storytellers. They share a narrative that communicates the purpose of their organization and helps their people find a sense of purpose in that same story.

Designer/technologist/businessman John Maeda has a more extensive list.

Maeda: characteristics of a creative leader

Maeda has been riffing on Creative Leadership since 2009. Maybe this isn’t a new idea, but it is needed today.

We need Creative Leaders today because efficient and productive companies are being toppled by innovative upstarts. Industries are changing before our eyes.  We need new and insightful ideas from our people. We need environments that cultivate the right ideas and help us evolve to address the changing marketplace.

This is why Creative Leadership is an idea whose time has come.

And it is an idea I hope to spread.

Creativity and the Business of Change

Creativity gets a bad rap in the business world. Some see it as arts and crafts. They think it encourages employees to goof off. It’s silly and it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line.

They assume creativity is for artists, not businesspeople.

This mentality misses a few key points.

Everyone is Creative

(Don’t tell this to artists. They like to feel special.) When I say everyone is creative, I don’t mean we all should be wearing berets and making oil paintings of lily ponds. I mean it in the sense that we are all meant to create; whether creating something practically from nothing, or combining two things to create a third, new thing. Even highly analytical people exhibit creativity, it just looks more like invention than artistry. Once you see creativity as more than something that fills the art museum galleries, then you can easily recognize its value in business.

Creativity Fuels a Critical Businesses Need

But, creativity isn’t just valuable to businesses, it is critical. Why is this? Because, creativity fuels change, and there’s never been greater need for change than there is today. The rate of change in technology, markets, trends, and more continues to accelerate, and puts pressure on businesses to adjust so they meet those changes. New businesses naturally encounter change as they have to learn and evolve to survive. Established businesses need to embrace change so they can innovate and stay ahead of market disruption.

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
–General Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff

This necessary change won’t happen without someone seeing the need for change, recognizing what needs to change, and envisioning what it should change into. These are creative skills, and the business leaders are cultivating these creative skills are also preparing their organizations to evolve and grow so they meet new challenges, survive and thrive as the business landscape around them changes.

Where Did All the Dinosaurs Go?

Look around and you won’t see any dinosaurs. They probably thought creativity was a silly excuse to goof off. Now they’re reduced to bones displayed in museums, which may be more than what will remain of businesses that believe the same.

If that’s a depressing thought, maybe this book will cheer you up.

Art & Design GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Can Marble Jars Make Your Company More Creative?

Creativity from a jar

In her book Daring Greatly, researcher Dr. Brené Brown tells the story of when her daughter Ellen shared a funny but embarrassing secret with a friend. Later, she was humiliated and hurt when other girls in her class started giving her a hard time about her “secret.” Her friend had betrayed her confidence, but afterward her mother’s advice gave her a great framework for friendship and trust. Interestingly, this same framework can be used by organizations to create an environment where creativity flourishes. We’ll come back to this story, but first it will help to take a quick look at how different companies address creativity in the workplace.

Lots of companies simply give lip service to the importance of creativity in their organization. Others do more than that and show they value creativity by incorporating it into their business model. This range of integration can be broken into three categories.

  1. Creative Adoption

    At this level, companies embrace creativity as part of their culture and they empower all their employees to tap into their creative capabilities. Their corporate values place importance on creativity as a means to achieve goals, as a critical skill to look for in job candidates and to develop in employees. Workflows and budgets reflect how leaders respect the creative process and its ability to generate value.

  2. Creative Quarantine

    These organizations believe creativity belongs in isolated departments and roles in their company. Only departments like marketing and design are encouraged to be innovative and bring fresh ideas to the table. The core business model focuses on efficiencies and increased productivity.

  3. Creative Denial

    Here leaders believe creativity is for other companies. There is a focus on the analytical and quantitative aspects of business. Formulas are repeated and new ideas only come when competitors have proven them valid, which makes the company a perpetual laggard in the industry. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is this group’s mantra, even in marketing and design functions.

Today’s continuously evolving business climate puts even greater emphasis on the importance of creativity and innovation. As the rate of change (technology advancement, industry disruptions, new workforce generations, etc.) continues to accelerate, companies in creative denial can find themselves two or three iterations behind the industry leader. Not only are “Deniers” not considering ideas until after they mature, they end up adopting these concepts as they are declining in their usefulness.

You still may not believe creativity has huge value in businesses today. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but you may want to listen to two industry leaders.

Recently, Microsoft and Steelcase, the global leader in commercial furniture, announced their partnership in creating spaces that help unlock the creative potential in people at work. Like the creativity adopters above, these two industry giants claim creativity is the value driver for businesses today. The business world has been infatuated with productivity and efficiencies for awhile, but Steelcase and Microsoft claim the low hanging fruit here has been picked. Now, the opportunities lie in improving your company’s creativity quotient.

Steelcase is working with other well-known companies like Ford, Xerox and Adecco to help them create workplaces that foster innovation. Many of these companies are in industries that have been disrupted by technology advances and new ideas. A few quotes from a recent Steelcase article highlight that these leaders understand how critical it is to create an environment where change can occur.

“We must change,” says [Jim Farley, CEO and chairman of Ford Europe]. “We can either keep on doing what we’ve done up until now and get the same results, or go in another direction and become a vibrant organization.”

If this is true, then what keeps companies from living out their creative potential? A major factor is a lack of trust.

A researcher quoted in the Steelcase article emphasizes how important it is for leaders to address this.

“A leader must create a trusting and safe environment so people can express themselves, feel happy to try new things and dare to fail,”
Dr. Iñaki Lozano Ehlers, founder and managing director of BICG.

Returning to Brené Brown, she says “vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.”  When asked how you can be vulnerable with someone you don’t trust, she responded, “You can’t.” Research shows why this is a big problem for companies.

In a previous article, I referred to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which shows the level of trust employees have in their leadership is lower than ever. This is an issue for many reasons, but it indicates most companies have a hurdle to overcome in order to promote a creative culture. Without trust, people will not risk being vulnerable and that creates a sterile environment incapable of fostering creativity, innovation and change.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one who sees the link between trust and creativity or innovation.

“When people trust and share their successes and failures, what they know and what they don’t know, the result is innovation. It’s just natural.”

-Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

In this ‪ article, leadership expert Patrick Lencioni makes a strong case for the critical importance of trust. Discussing innovation he says…

“It’s about inspiring trust among your people, provoking productive conflict, and driving them to commit. There are plenty of great ideas inside your company; your job is to create the conditions that allow the best ones to be genuinely voiced, collaboratively developed, and purposefully launched into the market.”

Let’s go back to the story of Brené Brown’s daughter feeling betrayed by her friend. Brené remembered her daughter’s teacher used a marble jar in class. When the students were behaving, the teacher would put a marble in the jar. When they acted up, she would take one out.

“I took a deep breath and I said, ‘Ellen, trust is like a marble jar… You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who, over time, you’ve filled up their marble jar,’” Brown says.

In other words, like receiving a celebration from Ellen’s classroom marble jar, trust is a reward that must be earned.

If you take this example one step further, you can see how to apply it in the workplace. The key is to encourage and reward acts of trust in your company. What are some ways you can create a “marble jar” culture?

Encourage Risk-Taking

We’re not talking about ropes courses and trust falls here. It’s more about celebrating courageous acts of vulnerability taken by employees. When someone bravely shares ideas that open them up to criticism, acknowledge them and hold them up as an example to others. Show how these ideas are being considered and give updates if they are implemented. If a decision is made to not implement the idea, share the logic behind that decision and acknowledge if it inspires new ideas. As the “marble jar” fills with examples of creativity, look for opportunities to celebrate with a social gathering (the workplace equivalent of a class party) or other rewards.

Work on Your Response to Ideas

As important as it is to encourage individuals to share ideas, it is just as important to create a culture that responds effectively to those ideas. This can be done through sharing company principles or axioms that characterize an idea-friendly culture. Meeting protocols can include guidelines for effective brainstorming or ways to ask probing questions instead of shooting down ideas immediately. Workshops can be held to facilitate idea sharing, encouraging participants to think of ideas from other industries and connect them to current challenges your company is facing.

There are a variety of other ways to encourage creativity in your organization. By being intentional to develop your company’s creative capacity, you may soon realize your culture moving from treating creativity with denial and quarantine to adopting creativity and innovation into how you do business. One day you may look around and realize the marble jars are constantly full.

Does your company deny, quarantine or adopt creativity? Do you notice any “marble jars” in your workplace? Do you have ideas for creating them and applying them to your culture going forward?

The Workplace Needs Better Marketing

Distrustful Employees

When I wrote about ways bosses can be cruel, it was easy to list off several movies and TV shows that portray the workplace in a negative light. You could probably list five or six more examples without thinking too hard about it. This representation in the media is reflective of how we all view our jobs. Let’s face it, we like to complain about work, but is this simply our perception or does work deserve a bad rap?
It seems the workplace needs better marketing.

Cruel Bosses: The Gods of Workplace Punishment

Overworked employee

While some folks have fulfilling jobs, many find their work to be torturous. You don’t have to look hard to find examples portraying jobs as boring and/or painful to endure. Here is a short list of movies or TV shows.

  • Office Space
  • Horrible Bosses
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • 9-to-5
  • American Beauty
  • The Apartment
  • The Office

Even if you don’t currently relate to these examples, there’s a good chance you have been in a toxic work environment. At the very least, someone you know is struggling with a negative job experience. You as a leader may also have blind spots that put your people through unnecessary suffering.