Getting Unstuck

Crossing Chasms and Overcoming Crisis

When we start something, we envision progress being consistent and continual. A straight line up and to the right.

But that’s not what happens.

The reality is our efforts will have periods of highly productive progress, but also times when it’s a slog and it’s hard to push through. The worst moments are when we have no traction. It seems like no matter what we do, we don’t go forward. The wheels just spin and sink deeper and deeper into the muck.

We’re stuck.

The good news is there are ways to get unstuck.

In their book UNSTUCK, Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro share what leaders do in order to start moving their organization forward again.

  1. They diagnose why they’re stuck
  2. They are systems thinkers (not just fixing symptoms)
  3. They get wildly innovative and intensely tactical about activating different parts of their organization’s system

On his Accidental Creative website, Todd Henry adds areas where he sees individuals get stuck. He describes four areas of a growth cycle (Discovery, Emulation, Divergence and Crisis). Henry points out that most people get stuck in the emulation (emulating other people’s success) and crisis phases (your unique ideas are now commonplace).

In truth, Emulation phase can be very comfortable… You must choose between staying in a place of relative comfort and safety, and beginning to make bold, unique decisions with your work.

Many people wallow in Crisis phase, because they are afraid of trying something new.They feel that failure would be a stain on their reputation, so they would rather stay in a place of relative predictability.

This is similar to Geoffrey Moore’s observations regarding Crossing the Chasm.

Image courtesy WikiCommons

Moore popularized the generally accepted lifecycle for technology adoption. He identified that the most difficult area to navigate was moving from adoption by innovators and very early adopters, to the larger mass of early adopters and the early majority.

If we apply this same model to ideas and innovation, we see it may be easy to get innovative and open-minded individuals to jump on an idea. The harder part is getting buy-in and engagement from the majority. Notice that later in the lifecycle, we don’t see another chasm. That’s because natural momentum can work for us… then against us.

Toward the end of the lifecycle, we reach the crisis phase Todd Henry identified. Now we feel stuck because we realize we need to abandon the curve and return to our innovators. This is difficult because we encounter resistance (internal and external) to move away from something that worked, but innovators want something new.

This is why leadership skills are so important. In these times, true leaders have to overcome their own fears to challenge their existing models and embrace new ones. They also need to clearly communicate this to others in the organization and persuade them that the new idea/model/approach is worth the effort.

Questions to consider if you’re feeling stuck:

Where in the lifecycle are you stuck? 

What existing thinking do you need to abandon?

What new ideas do you need to embrace?

As you “cross the chasm,” how will you bring others with you?

Do Deadlines Foster or Kill Creativity?

A common method for getting productivity out of people is to set deadlines.

HBR contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders promotes the use of deadlines, advising us to assign deadlines to work that matters.

So, if you want more productivity, then you should set tighter deadlines, right?


Setting tighter deadlines can actually HURT creativity and innovation. Unless people are performing purely rote tasks, this impacts the quality of their work.

The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem … The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.
Richard Boyatzis, The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain

In the Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity, Scott G. Isaksen addresses the affects of time pressure on creativity in a chapter entitled “Leadership’s Role in Creative Climate Creation.” Isaksen shares research that affirms Boyatzis’ claim that high time pressure isn’t good for innovation. In some situations it helped when employees saw the time pressure as meaningful. It was also beneficial when leaders were supportive and gave positive feedback. Still, aggressive deadlines are generally unhealthy for doing innovative work. Research suggests that giving employees time to explore new ideas is more helpful than stressful deadlines.

Isaksen explains that leaders can influence idea time by:

  • providing more time for tasks that demand non-routine work (but not too much) instead of assigning similar deadlines for routine and non-routine work;
  • dedicating specific times for opportunity identification and idea-generation meetings versus asking employees to generate opportunities and ideas in addition to their day jobs;
  • joining in when they see employees having a spontaneous conversation about exploring new ideas and telling them the appropriateness of these conversations versus sending verbal and non-verbal messages telling them to “get back to work.”

Even though Saunders’ HBR article encourages readers to use deadlines, she also emphasizes the importance of pacing yourself.

Instead of setting one final completion date, like a final exam at the end of the semester in college, create mini-deadlines for pieces of larger projects. This strategy can work especially well if you have team members to help you refine your work prior to presenting it to a larger audience. Set a deadline for an initial draft, a run through, a revised draft, etc.

So, deadlines are important… but overly-agressive deadlines can kill creativity and innovation.

Infinite Creativity Part 2: Ever Zooming

Yesterday’s post focused on using combinations to expand your creativity.

Growing is one way to travel toward infinity, but it’s not the only way. We can also zoom.

Ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras established early western concepts of infinity. He stated, “Nor of the small is there a smallest, but always a smaller.

This shows up in science as physicists can now identify subatomic particles like quarks and leptons. It seems as though each time we discover the smallest particle, we later discover it is a collection of even smaller parts.

What does this have to do with creativity? Next time you feel stuck creatively ask, “Can I break this into smaller pieces?

Using our previous example of promoting a bakery, you could break the issue down two ways.

  1. The Bakery
    What aspects do you want to promote? You can break it down into quality ingredients, delivery options, speed of service, customizations, unique flavor combinations, location, supporting a cause, community service, etc. By zooming into the details, you can identify the strongest elements and combine them into your story. Each of these aspects could be broken down even further for greater specifics to differentiate the brand.
  2. The Promotion
    Promotion is a very broad term. Does this mean traditional marketing like broadcast advertising, print ads or direct mail? Does it mean digital marketing efforts such as a website, social media or online advertising? Is it a permission model through content and email marketing? It could also mean creating events, such as baking classes or “Cake Boss” style contests. Once you break down all the promotional ideas, you can selectively combine them into an integrated plan that aligns with your brand story.

So, if your creativity hits a brick wall, maybe you’re thinking too big. Take the time to zoom in and see the smaller parts. Then you can take things apart like a Lego creation, and form it into something new.

“Expanding” and “zooming” can grow your creativity… infinitely.

Infinite Creativity Part 1: Ever Expanding

Here’s one creativity exercise (I’ll share another tomorrow).

If you think you’ve tried every idea related to your field or focus, then you need to think like a computer.

What do I mean by this? Computers “think” in binary. Their data are simply combinations of the numbers 0 and 1.  It’s like a series of on and off switches. This seems pretty minor, but by using two digits instead of one computers can create an infinite number of combinations.

How can you use this to be more creative? Think in combinations.

For example, if you’re a baker wanting to promote your business, consider how you can combine it with something unrelated… like sports.

  1. Sponsor a basketball tournament and provide cake pops to attendees
  2. Use sports themes in your bakery items
  3. Offer discounts to customers who wear local team apparel to your store
  4. Create a March Madness bracket and let customers vote for different bakery items to see which moves on and eventually wins
  5. Let customers play a game each time they spend a certain dollar amount, with a chance to win a prize
  6. Have employees dress in jerseys or referee outfits and give your business a theme
  7. Consider the way sports events cater to fans and see how you can apply that to your customers

Simply by applying one outside industry to your own, you can create an infinite number of ideas. The effect is compounded by looking at additional industries for insights.

The Leadership Framework

How do you effectively lead others? You can use different leadership styles to either “command and control” or give greater autonomy.

Command and control methods stifle creativity and often leave workers dissatisfied by micromanagers. Autonomy can produce greater innovation and employee satisfaction, but people still need direction.

While not everyone needs, or wants, a boss… almost anyone can benefit from a great leader. What’s the difference?

A boss will…

  • … tell employees WHAT to do.
  • … push ideas out to employees.
  • … focus on their own success.

A leader will…

  • … explain WHY their work matters and the difference their success will make for others.
  • … pull ideas out of employees (and recognize and reward them).
  • … focus on the collective and individual success of their employees.

David Logan talks about these kinds of leaders in his book Tribal Leadership. He gives an example of this in his TED Talk. He mentions the work of Desmond Tutu in South Africa in promoting healing after Apartheid.

Now think about that. South Africa, terrible atrocities had happened in the society. And people came together focused only on those two values: truth and reconciliation.There was no road map. No one had ever done anything like this before.And in this atmosphere, where the only guidance was people’s values and their noble cause,what this group accomplished was historic.

This is what leaders do. They don’t prescribe explicit directions and mandate them from above. They also don’t set people loose without any guidance.

Leaders give their people a framework for decision-making

They promote values that show employee’s care about others (coworkers, customers and the community).

Leaders give their people a purpose

They raise the banner of the organization’s noble cause. This is something greater than profits, it is a mission, and it helps fuel the organization to sustain itself with financial health.

Visionary leaders help people to see how their work fits into the big picture, lending people a clear sense not just that what they do matters, but also why.”
― Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership

Seeing Your Reality Filter

Some people are disconnected from reality.

  • That person on the opposite of side of the political spectrum from you
  • The job candidate with no experience and stratospheric expectations
  • Those customers who want something that cures cancer, tastes like chocolate and costs a nickel
  • Even Steve Jobs had his famous “reality distortion field”

Neuroscience has confirmed that we do not experience reality. We only experience our perception of it.

A recent Salon article explains.

Our five senses are like a keyboard to a computer — they provide the means for information from the world to get in, but they have very little to do with what is then experienced in perception.

So–technically–ALL of us are disconnected from reality.

What implications does this have?

  1. Dealing with others
    If you realize everyone else sees reality differently than you do, then navigating life with others requires empathy. In order to communicate with, persuade and lead others requires seeing things from their perspective.
  2. Dealing with yourself
    If reality is experienced in our perceptions, then your reality filter is important.

Information enters through your five senses. That raw data is processed and you turn it into meaning.

YOU give it meaning.

A rejection can be seen as “No” or “Not yet.”
Threats can be seen as opportunities.
Failure can be seen as growth.

Benjamin Zander says it best with this story from his TED Talk.

Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams back to Manchester. And one of them wrote, “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

Be aware of the stories you are telling about others, about yourself and TO yourself. Then ask if those are the stories worth writing.

Tailwinds and the Power of Thankfulness

Thanksgiving is more than eating turkey and watching football.

Thanksgiving is a powerful idea.

Taken literally, it is a reminder to give thanks. In order to do that, you have to take stock in what you have to be grateful for. As people, we are not good at this. Need proof? Consider this example.

When you’re cycling or running into a stiff wind, you’re made aware of it gust after gust.  You might even say to yourself, “I can’t wait until the course changes direction and I have the wind at my back.”  And when the wind finally is at your back, you’re grateful—for a moment.  You quickly adapt to it and soon fail to notice it’s even there.

Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., and Lee Ross, Ph.D
Life’s Headwinds and Tailwinds

Gilovich and Ross call this the Headwind Tailwind Asymmetry. They use cycling as a relatable example, but this sense of privilege permeates every area of our lives. In the above quoted article, they point out Donald Trump’s sense of disadvantage because his father only gave him a small loan of a million dollars.

If someone could ignore a million dollar tailwind, what are you overlooking?

The best way to identify what deserves gratitude in your life is to keep a gratitude journal. It’s very simple and only takes a moment each day.

  1. Set aside five-to-ten minutes at the beginning or end of your day.
  2. Use that time to take stock of your life and write three things you’re grateful for.

These don’t have to be anything enormous. It could be gratitude for a cup of coffee or a beautiful sunrise. But, by even recognizing the little things, research shows we experience greater joy in our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the food, the family and the football. But also enjoy the power of giving thanks.