Creative Thinking – it’s child’s play

Creative Thinking – it’s child’s play

It’s a sign of the times really.  We have become increasingly busy in our work and private lives.  Talk to anyone and they will lament about how they have no time.  They say they are so busy that they don’t have the chance to be bored.

One of my clients believes whole heartedly that kids should be allowed to be bored during school holidays.  She believes it’s the best way for them to spark their creative thinking and imagination.  She believes her boys will benefit from having the chance to think creatively and make up games to play.

I remember when our stepdaughters were young and spent school holidays with us.  I too believed that kids should be allowed to be bored and that they didn’t need to be entertained every day.  Unfortunately on their “bored” days they literally sat around and did little of their own entertaining.  It was as though they were unable to be creative.

But during summer holidays something wonderful happened.  They couldn’t wait to go in the swimming pool where they’d spend hours playing delightfully girly games of mermaids and living on tropical islands.  For some reason they weren’t able to tap into their imagination when they were in the house, but could readily do so when in the pool.

It was an early lesson for me about the importance of environment on creative thinking.

We are all capable of being creative regardless of what we think.  I have often said that I don’t possess a creative bone in my body.  But my understanding of what being creative meant was limited.  I perceived creativity to be about art and music both of which I don’t do well at.  However I recently discovered that I have a creativeness when it comes to problem solving.  This is when I feel I am at my most creative.

What stops our ability to be creative?

Brain scans show high levels of activity in prefrontal cortex when we are thinking creatively.  This means that many of the networks associated with creative thinking are centred in the prefrontal cortex.

Research has also shown that when we feel distrust, insecurity and/or threat this triggers the release of cortisol which prepares the body for a fight or flight response.  Cortisol shuts down the activity in the prefrontal cortex to conserve energy rendering it ineffective.

When our prefrontal cortex functionality is impacted by cortisol, our ability to innovate and create is reduced.

So it’s not that we able to think creatively, we need to feel safe and trusted in order to be so.  We need to have our prefrontal cortex open and operating.

How does creative thinking or a lack thereof, impact a business?

We often hear the need for employees to be creative, adaptable and flexible in order for the company to thrive in today’s challenging environment.   They are certainly key ingredients for business success.

However this can imply that the responsibility for being innovative and creative lies with the individual: that employee contribution and the working environment are not linked.

In reality it is the Leaders who need to create an environment that encourages employees to engage their prefrontal cortex.  They are the ones who must model and develop the relationships, the conversations and the engagement of the workforce.  Great leaders have great followers. They know that trust and healthy relationships bring the best out of people.  Neuroscience shows the impact of good leadership and how it triggers activity in the prefrontal cortex rather than the threat response regions of the brain.  Great leaders may not understand neuroscience; they just know that what they do works.

A “prefrontal cortex” friendly culture is one where all employees feel that they belong.  Their position descriptions are clear and they understand the contribution their role makes towards the vision of the company.  They feel that they can talk openly and frankly about their aspirations and their concerns without fear of judgment or retribution.  They feel challenged, trusted, and respected and have the resources needed to succeed.  Creative thinking is possible in all employees when the environment is right.

When a workplace has such a culture you will find high levels of collaboration, continuous improvement and achievement.  Systems and processes will run smoother, relationships with customers and suppliers will be stronger and the company may well be far more successful than they thought possible.   This all contributes to a healthy bottom line.

Of course this isn’t a warm and fuzzy scenario.  Success and achievement only happens with effort.

When leaders have the trust of their team, and vice versa, they can challenge the team more and place greater levels of responsibility on them.  They can push them out of their comfort zones and through difficult situations.  When conflict arises, and it will, they can resolve them in a manner that maintains the relationships.

This is what Apple did between 2003 and 2006.

Steve Jobs wanted to create the Apple “smart phone” (not called that at the time).  He wanted to take the functionality of a laptop/ tablet and put it into a mobile phone.  Whilst tablets were coming more popular, significantly increasing the functionality of mobile phones was something new.   Apple brought some of their engineers together and they were given the brief to design and create a mobile phone capable of the same functionality as you had in a laptop or tablet.

Steve Jobs’ vision was clear and so was their need to be highly innovative.  They had to operate using their prefrontal cortex simply because whilst there was a vision, there were no instructions.  The engineers had to work together to develop something completely new.   They had to take existing functionality and fit it inside a mobile phone.  They needed to collaborate, innovate, design, and experiment in order to make it possible.

Yes there were high expectations for them to deliver, Steve Jobs is well known to be highly driven, but there was also the trust, resources, and the space given for the engineers to thrive.

In 2007 the I-phone was released.  Steve Jobs’ vision that mobile phones were the future for portable information has certainly come to fruition, however it was his engineers’ creativeness that made it happen.  This would not have been possible if they were unable to access their prefrontal cortex.  It would not have happened if they felt threatened and judged.

How different would it be if we were all able to work with the imagination of 5-7 year olds, working together in thinking up different scenarios, developing new ideas for using the resources available to us, sharing what the future could be like?

The truth is our childhood brain still exists; it is called our Prefrontal Cortex.  Over the years we have put the brakes on it.  We really can change the future by changing how we use our brain.  If we focus on the environment in which we and our employees work in, we can significantly enhance the creative thinking which will lead to improvements in all areas of the business.

How you can improve your communication style

How you can improve your communication style

I met with a client during the week.  We have been spending time lately on his relationships with his team and peers.  He felt that he had a good leadership style and quite an effective communication style.  However he had been given feedback that he didn’t involve people and tended to go with his own ideas.

Over the time of our relationship, my client was able to provide a lot of information about his team members and that suggested to me that my client was a leader who was capable of using social as well as technical skills in his role.  Research has found that competence in social skills accounts for the majority of difference between good and great leaders and yet few leaders develop this competence.

What do I mean competence in social skills?

Neuroscience has found that we are at our most productive, creative and innovative when we activate our prefrontal cortex.  This region of the brain is responsible for these outcomes.  It is also the region that enables us to trust, connect and engage with others.  The more we interact with others, the more open we are and the more we innovate.  Being social is not about being soft. It is about using the brains around us to create possibility.

I was pleased that my client had the capacity and inclination to develop these skills.

A leaders’ social competence shows up in their communication style.  When they have high social competence their communication style develops trust with people and engages them.  Their conversations are inclusive and open rather than judging and closed. Leaders with low social competence tend to be those who must be right and must have control.  Their communication style tends to shut conversations down.  These leaders do most of the talking and listen long enough to develop their next argument without consideration of what others are thinking.   People around these types of leaders tend not to provide input, challenge or question.  The feedback my client received suggested that this might be happening around him.

To get an understanding of my client’s behaviour I sat in on a few his meetings to observe his communication style.  I counted up the amount of time he spoke vs the time he allowed others.  I noted the types of questions he asked and the how he put his views and ideas forward.  This type of assessment occurs often in the elite sports sector so that the athlete learns how and where they need improve their performance.   Bringing this concept into leader development is a fantastic way for a leader to improve theirs.

My observations showed that my client did allow space for open discussion in meetings.  However the big finding was how he tended to involve only a few of the members of his team in the conversations.   We discussed this and he admitted that the people he involved most were the ones that thought like he did.  He also said that when he did ask for input, some of his team simply referred the decision back to him.  He said he found this frustrating.

My client is very keen to be a great leader and he understands that his greatest resource is his people.  However he admitted he was reticent to change and improve his communication style as he believed that this might have a negative impact on his efficiency in delivering his KPI’s.

We discussed how this might look using a number of scenarios and with this my client decided on a model to experiment with.  He wanted to have everyone’s input and believed this was very important.  He was keen to find a better way to run the meetings.

We mapped out some questions that would encourage connection and input of everyone without it sounding too structured.  My client was open to experimenting to find the best way to engage his people and still deliver.  We spoke about the need to get feedback direct from his team which he was uncomfortable in asking for.  I explained that this process provides a great opportunity to practice asking questions, listening to understand, and being non judgmental.  It also shows courage and vulnerability which leaders need to have a healthy dose of.  My client is still nervous about doing this so we will discuss again in another session.

So this is a work in progress for my client but I hope that this helps highlight how you can improve your communication style and become more inclusive and engaging.

If you would like to discuss your own communication style and how you can improve it, please send me an email and I will set up a time to catch up.

Strategic Planning for ground breaking results

Strategic Planning for ground breaking results

A common activity in businesses of all sizes is strategic planning.  Every year the senior leadership team and possibly a pool of employees work together to map out the plans, KPI’s, budgets, and direction for the next 1 – 5 years.

But how much of this strategic planning activity results in significantly improving the current situation?

I once worked for an organisation that was suffering with the downturn in the economy.  They put enormous energy into their strategic planning process involving much of the business over several months.  However instead of making significant improvements to the way they operated, their results showed little change year on year.  There was no money allocated in the budget to invest in people or processes and there wasn’t an appetite for risk or change.  It was as though they were too afraid to do something different.  It was as though the collective mindset of the senior leaders was closed to possibility and opportunity.

What if the strategic planning process stopped being about doing more with less and instead excited people to achieve great things?

Neuroscience has found that our default behaviour lives in our subconscious and involves the primitive brain (defend & protect), and our limbic brain (emotions, beliefs, past experiences).  When we are under pressure &/or feel threatened our brains release cortisol that prepares the body for attack or defence.  Behaviours exhibited include distrust, micromanaging, blaming, right fighting, & risk aversion.

They have also found that cortisol works to shut down the parts of the brain in the face of threat.  This makes sense given our primitive response is to either fight or flee.  Our brain works to conserve and focus our energy on survival.  Unfortunately our primitive brain has not evolved and does not know the difference between facing an enemy or the downturn in the markets and responds to any threat or fear as though it is a life or death situation.

The Pre Frontal Cortex is one part of the brain that cortisol shuts down.  Research has found that this is where trust, creativity, innovation, and possibility reside.  These are the brain activities we need to involve when undertaking strategic planning.  If the strategic planning process is about finding ways to do more with less, creating an environment of uncertainty and insecurity, it is likely that this will trigger fear and threat responses and not creativity.

The trick is to change the way the process is undertaken so that the primitive brain calms down which allows the prefrontal cortex to activate.  This then provides the opportunity for possibilities and ideas to be shared and discussed.

Research has found we are hardwired to grow and develop.  You can see this when you look back at how far we have evolved compared to any other species.  We have this ability because we have a large prefrontal cortex.  It used to be said that what differentiates humans from other animals was our use of language and our use of tools.  Today they have found that what differentiates humans is our ability to look to the future, to continually evolve and seek out possibility.  No other animal species does this.

What are the chances of your strategic planning process transforming the business?  Unless you allow your business to see out possibility, change will be slow.

So the aim of your strategic planning activity should be to have all participants accessing their prefrontal cortex and calming down their fear and threat brain activity.

Here are some six tips to help achieve this

  1. Have a range of activities that are designed to open up the PFC. Examples are
  • Ask all participants in the strategic planning participants identify where they are at on a scale of 1 (I am resisting) – 10 (I’m open). Ask them what it would take to move forward on the scale.
  • Go around the table and ask each participant what their vision is for the business
  • Ask each participant what their number one idea is for turning the business around
  1. Put rules in place for how meeting will run.
  1. Allow people to share concerns, gripes, or views without judgement. Make it a rule that the only responses are either to say thankyou or to ask one of the following question.
  • What if….?,
  • How would that look like….?
  • Can you explain further…..?
  • When you say X what do you mean?
  • How would you have responded / dealt with it?
  1. Hold off making decisions until all input has been provided
  1. Ask everyone what they are prepared to do differently in order for the strategy to be achieved and what support they need to make the changes.
  1. Have all participants go into the workplace and talk about the strategic planning process and the outcomes.

These activities are known to activate the prefrontal cortex.  This creates an environment of trust and belonging empowering people to challenge and question current systems and processes without fear of recrimination. It enables people’s ability to think of possibilities and a different future for the organisation.  Businesses that are struggling to see a brighter future are encouraged to use these principals.

Would you like to learn more about how to conduct your strategic planning differently and get better results?  I would love to see if I can assist either with advice or facilitation.  Call me now.

Change Change Management

Change Change Management

I have been thinking about change management and why it fails 50% of the time.


Imagine a yacht sailing around the world.  Whilst they may experience many days of great sailing the crew knows that there will be big storms and windless days to deal with.  However as a team they have the shared vision of the journey and destination.  They know there will be changes to the course but even during difficult times they will work hard to navigate a safe course.


This analogy isn’t much different to how a business should operate.  Leaders and employees alike should have a clear vision for the business.  They should also know that change will happen and sometimes the change will be harsh.  However if they all pull together during the tough times, they know they will continue to succeed.


But how many act like this?


In the face of tough conditions research has shown that, globally, many businesses are too slow to react to change or, worse, deny the need to do so.  The rate of change in businesses is only marginally faster than the rate of change in politics.  Social change is capable of faster change than businesses.  I guess you only need to look at technological disruption and how readily politics, business and society have adapted for a demonstration of this.


CEO’s and their senior leadership teams make decisions with all the best intentions but unfortunately they often result in little improvement.   The results can be soul destroying.  Many great companies, large and small, that have or had great products, great people, and the potential to do more, fall victim to a changing environment.  Kodak is a classic example when they failed to embrace the digital era.


Decisions on what information to take notice of, and what, if any, action to take, are commonly made by the senior ranks of a company.  Input from lower levels of the business is not often sought.  In fact employees at the lower levels of the business can be unaware that changes are afoot until a formal announcement is made.  It is often at the time of preparing the formal announcement that the change management processes are traditionally instigated.


Imagine what this would look like for our captain and the yacht.


A forecast comes in form the bureau of meteorology for severe stormy weather in the next 48 hours.  The captain, without speaking to any one, decides not to alter the course.  He puts together his change management plan and then announces it to the crew.


The crew become anxious about the captain’s decision and they start to fear for their safety.  They don’t believe that the captain made the right decision and come up with different ideas among themselves.  Motivation and energy decrease as the crew grapple with the captain’s decision.


At the height of the storm the captain issues a May Day however it is too late to save the yacht.  All the crew survive and are plucked out of the water by rescue services.


You could say that the change management process failed because the crew didn’t support the captain’s the decision and this is why the yacht sunk.  You might think that the crew’s anxiety caused fatal mistakes to be made which distracted them from doing what they were supposed to do.


However did the process have a chance?


The fate of the yacht wasn’t because the change management process was ineffective.  It was set in the decision of the captain.  By only harnessing one brain rather than the brains of many, the captain limited his ability to make the right decision.


What would have happened if the change management plan for this yacht started as soon as the forecast was issued?


Let’s look at how this might play out.


The captain receives the forecast and puts in place the change management plan.  He immediately calls a meeting with the crew. Whilst he may have some ideas on what actions to take, he seeks input from everyone before making a decision.  He asks a range of set questions such as do they stay the course, or sail north/ south/ east/west to avoid it?  What are the possible benefits and consequences of each suggestion?  What are the risks?  What would they need to do differently to implement?  No idea or option is judged and a decision is only made once all possible ideas have been put on the table for consideration.  They map out the new course and set up strategies to mitigate possible scenarios of problems.  They then put the plan in action.


Neuroscientists have found that when conversations encourage people to have input and share their ideas without judgement, it activates brain’s prefrontal cortex where creativity and forward planning occur.  Using this part of the brain enables people to see uncertainty and volatility as challenging rather than threatening  Apple is an example of an organisation that has a culture which encourages people to use their prefrontal cortex.  Employees don’t fear change, they create it.


Traditional change management processes tend to trigger people’s protective behaviours.  They feel threatened and fearful about their jobs, their colleagues, and the future of the business.  They can become anxious and withdrawn or aggressive and outspoken.  A lot of effort is needed to move these people into more positive thinking.


The benefit of starting the change management process before any decision is made is that it encourages the generation of ideas and concepts that may not have been thought of previously.  It creates a safe environment for all participants to be creative without fear of judgement.  It allows these ideas to be challenged and questioned without people feeling persecuted.  It allows the best solution to be discovered.


I feel that traditional change management processes are fraught with resistance and skepticism because they start too late. If everyone has been involved right from the start in the decision making process, the level of acceptance and support for the new direction is significantly increased.  The decisions are likely to be better and the success of the change higher.


How would this work practically?  Here are 5 principles

  1. Firstly working with key representatives from across the business and all levels, the change management process would qualify and quantify a shared understanding of where the business stands today and what the future will look like.
  2. It would then seek the input of all participants of what is possible, building and feeding on ideas and suggestions put on the table.
  3. The decision to act would be created from a shared understanding on what needs to happen in order to create the new future
  4. The process moves to Identify opportunities and potential barriers and map out the process of change
  5. At the end of the process the facilitator seeks the commitments from participants on actions and responsibilities.


You can see that change management is now a process of engaging in the decision making.  Seeking the thoughts and opinions of many rather than a chosen few will ultimately result in better decisions.  It could also result in faster adaptation to the threats and opportunities the business faces.


I suggest that change management plans focus on engaging the positive parts of the brain and minimising the protective parts of the brain.  I advocate for changing change management for ground breaking results.


If you would like to talk more about this concept please contact me.

Stepping off the Ladder of Inference

Stepping off the Ladder of Inference

A company I worked for were creating standard operating procedures for their workshop and site maintenance employees.  A significant contribution had been made by the engineering team in creating the documentation.  The project had costed over a hundred thousand dollars in billed hours and consultancy fees however it hit a brick wall and literally stopped.

The reason was that the principal engineer in the organisation did not want the documents to be printed for use by the workshop personnel and those out on site.

His concern was that the documents contained valuable IP and he was not prepared to allow them to end up in the hands of their competitors.

The story was that about 7 years ago a former manager had set up a business in direct competition as a result of his accessibility to the company IP.

Interestingly the company IP was commonly shared, in printed and electronic form, with suppliers who manufactured parts for the company.  The principal engineer did not find issue with this.

And so the documents remained in a secure setting untouched for three years.

Does your workplace have someone who makes their mind up and won’t change their views?

These people frustrate others because they seem stuck in the past that no amount of convincing will change their mind, even when you have the facts and evidence that points to a different conclusion to what they expect.  They are blind to their opinion being irrational and so you waste so much time trying to change their mind to no avail.  The loss to the business can be huge.

How much easier would it be if these people had an open mind and were prepared to listen?  It would save so much time and enable the business to be more flexible and adapt quicker.

People react this way usually because the introduction of something new or different causes them to feel threatened or fearful of what might happen.  In the principal engineer’s mind he believed that allowing the documents to be printed would lead to another leak of IP.

These reactions occur subconsciously and take less than 0.1 seconds.  The speed of the reaction is due to the part of the brain that is activated.  It is the old brain that is being activated including the primitive brain; responsible for the fight or flight reaction, and the limbic brain where emotions and memories are located.  This area of the brain is our oldest and evolved to protect us as a species.  At the first sense of threat, the old brain prepares the body to either fight or to flee.  Our response to potential or real threat today is no different to how it would have been thousands of years ago.

Cortisol is the neurotransmitter that is released which prepares the body to fight or flee.  Scientists have recently found that cortisol also closes down the higher regions of the brain including the neo cortex; responsible for language and logic, as well as the prefrontal cortex where trust and creativity are located.

With these parts of the brain shut down people only have past memories and experiences to help them make sense of the new information.  It is an unconscious reaction they won’t be aware of it happening but it has a profound effect on their behaviour.  If the memories are negative, as in the case of the principal engineer, we will have a negative response.

How can you prevent or minimise this occurring in yourself or people you work with?

It comes down to the conversation you have because conflict lies within the story.

When people disagree or refuse to listen is it because of how they have interpreted the situation.  They have used assumptions, personal beliefs and reached a conclusion that they strongly hold onto.  As you have read earlier, this occurs very quickly.

Ladder of Conclusions

Ladder of Inference

Drawing conclusions quickly is called going up the Ladder of Inference. Developed initially by Organisational Psychologist Chris Argyris as the Ladder of Inference, later revised by Peter Senge and recently receiving the backing of scientific evidence through the work of Judith E Glaser, The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool to use to see how you and others create individual meaning to the situation.

What does it mean to go up the ladder of inference?

It means that you have selected some of the data out of what you have heard, applied your own memories, experience, assumptions and beliefs to it, and then reached a conclusion or an opinion that you strongly feel right about.  You focus on defending your position which can cause you to become angry, anxious &/or frustrated.

What you can do?

The moment you notice that you have jumped to a conclusion or realised another person has, your best option is to redirect the conversation to why and how the conclusion was made.  The intention is to allow space for either you or the person you are talking to, to calm their old brain activity allowing the higher brains to be reactivated.

Questions that you can use on yourself or to help people move down the ladder of inference include:-

  • What has lead you to draw this conclusion?
  • What beliefs do you have about the situation?
  • What facts have you used?  What facts have you disregarded?
  • What assumptions are you using?
  • When I say ………… what do you understand it to mean?
  • What feelings are you experiencing?

The process is logical and conscious.  It creates a healthy conversation that leads to outcomes that all parties have contributed to.  It allows people to express what they are feeling using a common language and a simple framework.  You don’t need a complicated diagram, just a ladder with a few terms.

It is not the topic of the conversation that is the issue; it is how a person feels about it that matters.  Effective conversations provide the space to express and share thoughts and feelings.  Unfortunately in our time poor workplaces, we forget to provide this hence we end up dealing with miscommunication and misunderstanding.

We assume so much.

Some say its because of the amount of information that is available to us that our brains cannot process it.  Instead our we limit this by relying on what we already know and understand.  In today’s world, where creativity and flexibility can be the difference between success and failure, this limiting mindset is one to be aware of.

Practice using the ladder of inference on yourself when you find you are racing up the ladder.  Journal your thoughts and seek to identify patterns in your behaviour.  This will lead to useful insights that help you remain open rather than fixed and shut down.

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