As we continue to navigate the pandemic and grapple with increasingly complex issues, our need for individual and organizational creativity in the workplace and in business has never been greater.
But what can we each do—individually and as leaders and managers—to help access more creativity in how we work, and how we address key challenges and problems in a new way that will lead to innovation, progress and resilience?
To answer that question, I caught up recently with Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of Stanford University’s The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school. Founded by Stanford University in 2005, the d.school teaches nearly a thousand students each year from all disciplines who attend classes, workshops, and programs to learn how the thinking and skills behind design can enrich their own work and unlock their creative potential. Stein Greenberg leads a community of designers, faculty, and other innovative thinkers who help people unlock their creative abilities and apply them to the world. She also speaks regularly at universities and global conferences on design, business, and education and serves as a trustee for global conservation organization Rare.
A provocative and highly visual companion, Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways is a definitive resource for anyone who wants to draw on their creativity in the face of uncertainty. Curated by Stein Greenberg, the book is the first public revealing of exercises from inside the classrooms of the d.school, originating from some of the world’s most inventive and unconventional minds, including those of d.school and IDEO founder David M. Kelley, ReadyMade magazine founder Grace Hawthorne, innovative choreographer Aleta Hayes, Google chief innovation evangelist Frederik G. Pferdt, and many more.
Here’s what Stein Greenberg shares, about how to expand creativity in our lives, work, and leadership and creative exercises to help us begin that journey:
Kathy Caprino: Sarah, why did you write Creative Acts for Curious People – what is missing in terms of information and training about how we can become more creative and why is that important?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: For me, creativity and design is all about problem-solving and making things better for people. Those skills take some practice, and not everyone gets the training or even the permission to look at things in a new way and imagine how they could be improved.
This book came from my desire to share the insights and ideas about design and creativity from the Stanford d.school with people who might not ever get a chance to come learn with us in California.
We’ve been helping people develop their design abilities for 15 years, but only a fraction of our approaches have been shared widely. I’ve seen so many students and professionals come alive in new ways while trying out these skills and applying them to issues and projects they care about. I want more people to have that same experience.
But ideas alone only get you part of the way. To learn to do something new, sometimes you need a push to get started. This book is meant to help people to actively try out new ideas and develop their own approaches. It also provides a lot of tools to help reflect on your skills and process, take control of your own learning, and continue to grow over time.
At the d.school our instructors and students come from just about every field: medicine, law, financial services, consumer products, education, government, philanthropy, engineering and more. Creativity isn’t just found in the arts, design, or media. It’s everywhere, in everyone. The sheer variety of perspectives represented in this book offers meaningful approaches to just about anyone. Some are quirky, some are serious, and all of them share a bit of the d.school’s unconventional ethos.
Caprino: Why is this information about expanding our creative genius essential for today’s times, now more than ever? What are these times demanding of us, in terms of creativity?
Stein Greenberg: At this historic moment, we are all trying to solve problems or figure out new ways to cope with challenges we’ve never faced before and weren’t necessarily trained or prepared for. As my colleague Lisa Kay Solomon once observed, “Who among us ever got to take a class in navigating ambiguity?” The emotional and creative fortitude we need to respond each day to these shifts and changes is immense.
To confront a wide range of economic, political, climate, and social issues, we need unconventional approaches: old ways of doing things won’t lead us to new solutions. Design offers all of us a set of approaches and fortifications for this kind of work—seeing problems as opportunities, collaborating in new ways across traditional boundaries, testing out ideas early to get more insight instead of just trying to think your way forward. These methods will help you navigate uncertain, messy challenges.
Caprino: What do many of us do that stunts or blocks our creativity and keeps us from arriving at powerful solutions to the problems and challenges we face? What’s the biggest block and how to we overcome that?
Stein Greenberg: One big block to powerful creative work is that we often start out with a solution in mind. I tell my students: “If you already have an idea for a solution at the beginning of the project, it’s very unlikely to be innovative.”
You need to embark first with a problem finding/problem framing mindset. Only then will you know whether there’s an even bigger, more relevant, more useful opportunity right next to the more obvious problem you initially spotted.
What does this look like in practice? It means going into your research with an open mind, and preparing to hear something new that you don’t know already. It means testing multiple ideas for solutions; including ones you think are unlikely to succeed. It means experimenting with different directions, and truly listening to the feedback you get and changing course if necessary.
This all requires a mindset shift. Instead of thinking of yourself as an expert in your discipline, get as good as you can at learning quickly, connecting the dots, and responding to new information and improvising along the way.
Caprino: For professionals who want to build happier, more rewarding and thrilling careers, what are the top three creativity exercises you’d recommend?
Stein Greenberg: I’d recommend these as a start:
Spend more time listening
Listen to customers, colleagues, and mentors. Find unexpected experts (suppliers, janitorial staff, new team members with a totally fresh perspective) who see your organization from a completely different vantage point than yours. Creative ideas don’t just come from within; they happen when you connect the dots between lots of different ideas.
Often the needs or opportunities you spot easily are right at the surface. Ask yourself, “Why is that so?” or “Why might that be?” repeatedly to get closer to the root causes of an issue. Behind surface needs are bigger opportunities that no one has diagnosed yet.
Collaborate more effectively with others
Yes—the same thing you were taught on the playground still applies. The further you get in your career, the more you have to meaningfully collaborate with others.
You can’t be a high-level expert in everything, and the success of your business or organizational outcomes are often highly interdependent with others. Creativity is a team sport. Support your colleagues—even when you don’t have to—and establish a reputation for helping them exercise their own creative abilities.
Caprino: And for leaders of organizations, what are the three most important exercises they can engage in to become more creative and resilient, and how can they get there?
Stein Greenberg: I’d suggest these as a starting point:
Take care of your own need for inspiration and focus
You can’t set the conditions for others’ creativity to emerge as a leader if you are constantly depleted. Make time to clear your mind on a regular basis and seek inspiration in ways that allow your mind to engage actively (such as going to a museum or reading a good book) rather than passively (like consuming TV).
Establish permission for fun and play to have a role at work
As a leader, you may have to model this by occasionally bringing whatever you find genuinely fun into the work environment, whether that’s a trivia tournament over lunch, a team day at an amusement park, or a playful warm up exercise before a team meeting. Being playful stimulates your team to think in new ways and allows for more creative ideas to emerge in groups.
Separate idea generation from idea evaluation
Distinguish between when you yourself (or your team) are in the mode of generating ideas or solutions vs. when you are evaluating them or selecting which ideas to move forward with. Help your teams develop the ability to defer judgment until you’re in the evaluative mode, and you will allow for a much freer exchange of concepts and new approaches.
Caprino: In the end, what does becoming more creative in life, work and business allow us? How will our lives change when creativity is expanded?
Stein Greenberg: For me, creativity creates a feeling of spaciousness. Time feels different when you’re deeply immersed in a creative act. It’s an experience that feels restorative and productive all at the same time. This can happen when I’m taking a wildlife photograph and simply sitting in nature and absorbing what’s happening around me, or when I’m leading a team that experiences an a-ha! insight or a moment of breakthrough.
Exercising your creative skills also gives you a sense of your own agency. You can work to make things around you different, and better, whether that’s in large or small ways. And that agency is part of what leads you to self-efficacy, which is a profound state of believing you can accomplish what you set out to do.
For more information, visit Creative Acts for Curious People.
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their most rewarding careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs, Finding Brave podcast, and courses.