Motivating the (Locked Away) Creative Mind

By Helene Klein

When I first started teaching leadership I did a lot of research on what employers want for our graduates. How can I best enable my students to be successful in the marketplace and also be happy in their careers? I read everything I could find on leadership. Some things, I will admit, I dismissed rather quickly, and others have become worn with love, but nothing affected my strategy, my mindset more than Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

He sold me with his argument that our future leaders needed to nurture their creative side. (His argument is rooted in the fact that we live in a society where we have products in abundance — only their design makes them unique, computers that can do logical tasks almost as well as humans can, and many logic based tasks being outsourced). After doing a lot other research to see whether other experts agree with Pink and why, I decided to have the last unit of my students’ foundation leadership course focus on innovation, and innovation is in the title of this new course for which my students are blogging under the title “Ruminations in Leadership.”

I typically start the innovation unit with a premise from Ken Robinson. Robinson believes that our education system does not nurture creativity, but it should. Robinson says that while most Kindergarteners think of themselves as creative, most adults do not. What happens to us as we grown up? We don’t lose the ability to be creative. We just don’t get to practice it. In fact, logic based thinking in schools is rewarded and funded, while, too often creative based endeavors are given minimal or no time. So, I ask my students the same question that Robinson asked, and I find it is true. Most of my students remember, fondly, their creative five year old self that made macaroni necklaces and built monsters from Legos and came up with creative plots for recess escapades. However, they don’t think of themselves as creative anymore and don’t associate with words closely aligned to creativity, like innovation.

The first task is to break down barriers (like the ones that are artificially set when people don’t understand the word “leadership” and therefore, don’t associate with it). In order to design anything, you must have a level of creativity. And, design is not just for penthouse apartments, vacation properties on the beach and the latest fashion trends seen on the runway. Anything can be designed — from lesson plans, to workout routines, to environmental solutions. All successful professionals will spend part of their day designing.

I have tried various techniques to have students break down the wall that says I am not creative; I am logical. While I have many mini-lessons that all have varied results, the two methods that I focus on most often are appreciative inquiry and empathy based designed loosely modeled off of d design out of the Stanford University.

Appreciative inquiry asks you to look at what is good instead of what is bad when you are problem-solving. Look at what is working both in your current situation, but also in analogous situations. Students have come up with some very interesting, thoughtful and practical solutions from this inquiry. For example, in looking for ways to get people involved and committed to a certain endeavor on campus, they have checked out best methods in a similarly hard to motivate endeavor — getting people to exercise. They have found that fitness clubs, club discounts, competitions among friends, etc. all are all best practice and could be used as a seed to innovate a solution to a similar issue. However, I have found that if what you are looking for is to truly unleash the mega-brainstorm, to get students to realize just how crazy creative they can be — empathy based design is the answer. In empathy based (or d design) students are asked to start with a basic inquiry, such as what kind of back pack do you wish you could have? Then they ask their audience — one student — in a series of interviews to really express what they want. The back pack is just a way to start the inquiry. Soon you find that you are no longer talking back packs. When you listen deeply to your audience, you find they want things that are only marginally related to the initial inquiry. Some people wish they had a personal assistant that tells them where they need to be and when, and will give them the papers they need at the exact right time. Or, they wish they could bring everything they needed with them all the time, but it wouldn’t be ridiculously heavy. Once the needs are expressed, students prototype based on empathy — understanding their audience’s needs. From there I let them create anything to fulfill those needs, even if it isn’t feasible, after all this is about unleashing creativity, and starting big is better than starting practical if you want to get to a new solution. At the end of the exercise, the creator has, indeed, created (What I thought you weren’t creative?), and the person it was created for feels listened to and connected with (my previous blog post already espoused that at the core of good leadership is connection). This is clearly a win-win. Students who feel they cannot create, can create when you give them someone (or something) they can truly connect with. In fact, they are quite good at it. Students care, and they are motivated by this desire to care to do things they didn’t think were possible, include being creative.

Design Resources, The Wallet Project. Stanford University.

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Pink, Daniel, H. A Whole New Mind. Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

— — Penguin Group, 2006.

Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Feb. 2006. Lecture.

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