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.

Work life balance – what is the future

Work life balance – what is the future

Are you available 24/7?  Are you expected to be? Should you be?

At a recent networking event we were asked two questions:-

  1. Would you get an implant that enabled you to work without needing to sleep….ever?
  2. What if your peer got one?

Wow, that caused us all to rethink work life balance!

Where is this all heading?

Is there something here that we need to be aware of?

Will Corporations soon take control of our lives, our freedom, our choices?

Have they already?

I can’t speak for anyone else but I am glad that I am not entering the workforce at this moment in time.  Whilst I am confident that as humans we will work it out, there is a huge pressure being placed on individuals, particularly professionals and leaders, to be available to their employers anytime and anywhere.   Work life balance is fast becoming a figment of imagination.

Think globalisation and managing remotely being part of teams or organisations located throughout the world. Think technology and the possibilities that will be opened up that we don’t yet know about.

I know a manager who was promoted to manage not only his department in Australia, but also businesses in China, Brazil, and the USA.  He now reports to two different Directors, both who are located in Europe.  Most days he starts his day at 7am and works a normal 10 hour day here in Australia.  He then has between 2-4 teleconferences most week nights, sometimes not finishing until midnight.

Should we push back or is this the new normal?

I really don’t know.

If people started using implants to boost their productivity how would that change the expectations of an employee?

Should we still be demanding work life balance or have we gone past this now?

Sorry no tips or techniques with this post, just sharing something on my mind and lots of unanswered questions.

What are your thoughts?  How do you see the world of work evolving?

Vision and Values: The heart of business transformation

Vision and Values: The heart of business transformation

Whenever I commence a coaching assignment with a business client we start by working on creating the vision and values for the company.  It is common for my clients to initially see this process as a waste of time until they get to understand the power that these create.

Rather than be a soft feel-good activity, clearly articulating WHY the business exists, WHAT the future looks like for the company, and HOW you will get there, are the absolute foundations of any business large and small.  A good vision and values process will identify exactly these.

I have worked in a range of organisations over the years and I would say about half actually lived their vision and values.

What does it look like to work for a company that lives and breathes its vision and values?

It means that

  • Conversations regularly include references to the values
  • There is recognition in the salary reviews for employees who consistently demonstrate the values
  • Any disciplinary action specifically makes reference to the values.
  • Recruitment & selection decisions are clearly aligned to what the company needs in order to achieve the vision
  • Training and development planning have a direct link to the strategic vision
  • Vision and values are used in the decision making

There has been significant financial investment over the past two decades to create company vision and values statements that, I feel, have been lukewarm at best in their ability to engage and transform.

Some of the reasons could be that

  • The process of creating the vision and values has failed to engage employees and leaders
  • The belief that there is no “I” in Team causing individuals to have their voice taken away
  • The existence of “elephants in the room” preventing open and robust discussion
  • The assumption that everyone shares the same meaning of the terms used

When a company has a compelling vision and values set they have the power to bring out the very best behaviour and performance in the people.  They have the ability to increase profitability, brand awareness, and market share.

In 1994 Samsung CEO was unhappy with the company’s performance and quality of its products.  The CEO’s created a value proposition to its employees which was simply “change everything but your wife and children”.  These seven words breathed energy into the organisation.

By the new century Samsung products were perceived as high quality and so they were able to charge premium prices.  Their brand became well respected as the company transformed to be one of the top leaders in IT.

A compelling vision and values set can only come from honest conversation across a company.  It requires a significant commitment of senior leaders and employees to be open and engage in constructive discussion with candor.  Nothing can be left on the table; the process must allow the invisible to become visible.  If a company is in a difficult position financially, this type of process is the best process to utilise to transform the situation.

How does it work?

I mentioned before that a compelling vision and values contain the WHY, WHAT, & HOW.

WHY does the company exist?  This is the backbone for everything the company is about.  Is it because the company cares about a particular thing?  Does it have the expertise to improve something for someone?

WHAT does the company want to achieve in the future?  Does the company want to be known as the best in its field? Does it want to achieve a level of revenue / sales within a certain timeframe?  This is the vision or aspiration for the company and is used for all decision making and strategic planning.

HOW will the company achieve its vision?  What does the company commit to in order to achieve its vision?  These commitments become the values.  For values statement to mean something they need to be action orientated and tell the stakeholders what the company will never compromise on.  This is where the real power comes from.

If you were looking to create a new vision and values for your company or you believe it is time for them to be revised, I suggest that you look for consultants who can do the following

Provide an understanding how the brain works. 

Neuroscience has uncovered a lot in understanding the impact that conversation has on the brain.  For example research has found that

  • Trust is located in the executive brain or prefrontal cortex whereas distrust is located in the primitive brain.
  • In the absence of trust the primitive brain is activated and our responses are focused on protecting and defending.
  • In the face of something new, our default, unconscious response is to defend and protect.

Create a high trust environment

The development of trust has be the first part of the process.  Without trust there is limited opportunity for creativity and thinking about future possibilities.  Trust works to open up the parts of the brain where creativity, innovation and relationship building occur.  These close down in the absence of trust causing people to fear threatened and insecure or unsafe.

Consultants who can create a high trust environment for people to feel that they can contribute without judgement will deliver a significantly better outcome than consultants who don’t.

Create a shared understanding. 

All too often we assume everyone thinks like us.  For a company to create a compelling vision and values, all employees, leaders and departments must share a common meaning of the words and statements used.  A failure to focus on this during the process will lead to lower engagement and acceptance levels.

If you were to select a consultancy that was able to provide these in their vision and values workshops you can be assured that the resulting statements for your company will be compelling and energising.  You will quickly see the changes in the organisation having rolled out your new vision and values.  You will want to engage with them.

Self Awareness is not a dirty word.

I was talking to a friend yesterday.  I hadn’t spoken to her in a little while and so I asked her how her company was going with the downturn in the mining sector.  The company she works for supplies to the sector.


The good news was that she felt her company had sufficient alternative markets that they can focus on these until the local market improves.  The bad news was that the need to move quickly to secure markets elsewhere has negatively impacted the culture of the organisation.  She said that there is a lot of blaming and conflict between teams and it is getting worse.  The GM’s persona has changed considerably, so too the behaviour of the leadership team. She said that over the past 18 months motivation and enthusiasm across the organisation has plummeted.


So what has happened here?


Much of our behaviour, thoughts, and feelings are the result of unconscious processes in our brains.  Think about it.  You spend most of your day doing and saying things that you don’t consciously think much about.  From your habitual morning routines of breakfast, exercise, and getting to work, to how you do the tasks you do at work and how you react to others.  Pretty much all of this uses stuff we already have stored in the brain.  We rely heavily on our past experience, knowledge and skills to do the activities we do and we act and behave as a result of what we have stored. Our brains allow these processes to occur knowing that they will not harm us and generally will be safe.


This is a good thing for our brain because the amount of processing of incoming sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin etc that it would otherwise have to do in order to interpret our world moment to moment, would surely cause the brain to explode.


Imagine waking up every morning and having to decide your next move based on what you saw/heard/tasted/felt.  You would certainly feel that everything and everyone was a potential threat.  Your anxiety levels would be high and you would be on edge all the time.  This could not be good for your heart!!


When we come across a new or different situation, this is exactly what happens.  In my friend’s workplace the down turn in the mining industry has meant that the reliable and trusted ways of working no longer apply and this has put significant strain on the business and people.  Everyone’s brains are reacting to the situation in their most primitive way: Fight or Flight.  This is a normal reaction but it causes so many problems in an organisation when this is not recognised.


Research has shown that the brain prepares us for the threat by releasing cortisol and testosterone to ready the body for high intensity activity (either fighting or running away). This is our fight or flight reaction.  It is our default response to anything new or threatening.  Interestingly, the brain does not differentiate between real or perceived threat so both result in the same reaction.


The cortisol shuts down the higher order thinking and executive parts of the brain and thus the brain relies solely on memory and past experience to remove the threat.  This makes sense because you already know how to escape or how to fight given you’ve survived previous threatening situations.  You really don’t want to be using you higher level brain to develop a new skill or decide on potential options for survival in the face of the threat.  You want to react right now.


The level of actual threat in our day to day lives is significantly lower than it was in primitive times however our brain responds just the same. Our brains do not know the difference between life and death situation and the minor threats we encounter day to day so our reactions are similar internally.


Going back now to my friend’s company, the GM and the leadership team will have responded to the situation as any brain will have done ie defaulted to primitive responses.  Their brains will have perceived a threat and triggered the release of cortisol and that will have closed down their executive and thinking brains.  The changes in their behaviour indicate that they are now trying to protect and defend rather than seeking out solutions to the problems.


A big problem is that this primitive system is self sustaining until the threat is removed.  As a cave man/woman, you would have fought or fled the threat and either lived or died.  The threat would normally be short lived.


In today’s business world unfortunately, a threat can last months or years depending on the situation and the person’s mindset.  During this time the brain is constantly releasing cortisol and therefore shutting down the parts of the brain that would be most helpful for removing the threat.  Responding in a defensive protective manner becomes your normal persona.


Whilst our response to threat is normal, it is what happens next that defines the leadership team.


A leadership team with high self awareness will know what they are feeling and why.  They would consciously work on decreasing the cortisol in their brains and increasing the use of their executive and thinking brains.  They would be building trust in others and involving them in finding ways to improve the situation.  Where threats release cortisol, trust releases oxytocin, a hormone that, amongst other things, promotes creativity, strategic thinking and good decision making.


Leadership teams with low self awareness spend little time reflecting on what they are thinking or feeling.  They lose their ability to listen and share instead becoming opinionated and addicted to being right.  This is why disagreements and communication breakdowns occur.  Leaders can suffer amygdala hijacking causing outbursts and poor decision making.  As the situation continues their anxiety causes them to be sensitive to the nuances of others or their surroundings, both real and perceived.  Leaders become distrustful of other and begin to micromanage.  Many conversations that should be had, remain unsaid.


Most leaders have attended leadership development programs and self awareness is an important topic in such programs.  Yet I see and hear time and again of senior leaders and CEO’s behaving without much self awareness.  The situation where my friend works is not unusual.  I do believe that leaders and CEO’s have the best intention however without self awareness they have no understanding of the impact they have.


It is clear that training courses alone don’t prepare leaders well enough to deal effectively with stressful situations.  Self awareness is a journey of discovery that occurs best when you have a trusted advisor.  Someone who can help navigate and keep you heading in the right direction.  Mentors and coaches are ideal because they have nothing other than your best interests at heart.


When you are next confronted by a situation that threatens you or makes you fearful, how will you respond?  Remember that to feel threatened and feel fear is normal, it is what you do next that defines you.


Want to understand more about your brain and how to manage it effectively?  Call or email me to arrange a time for a chat.