K Street Newsletter :: Directions

May 2019    |    VOLUME 17, ISSUE 5

The Psychology of Creativity

We're interested in the phenomena of creativity, and the fact that even people who don't think of themselves as creative can have surprising flashes of insight. We've also noticed how work teams sometimes break down into "creative" folks who tend to dominate discussions, and procedure-oriented folks who take care of the details. For many years, psychologists associated creativity with the right side of the brain, and that led most people to believe it was something innate. You either were creative, or not.

However, this article points out that more recent evidence suggests creativity is not quite so simple. And isn't primarily a right-brain activity. It's the interaction of large-scale neural networks that spark creativity and determine how we respond to various stimuli. The brain's salience network is the system that prepares the brain for action, and contributes to complex functions such as social behavior, communication and self-awareness. The default mode network handles brain activity when we're not focused on a particular task, so it's involved in daydreaming, recalling memories or just thinking about different subjects. And the executive attention network helps the brain focus and block distractions. It's called into service when people are engaged in challenging problem solving. Psychologist John R. Hayes defines creativity as the potential of people to produce creative works, whether or not they've produced any yet. So it's never too late.
 

Learning from Game of Thrones 

It may seem a stretch to suggest that companies could learn any business principles from the wildly popular HBO series, which (after all) deals in reincarnation, magic and dragons. But the author of this article notes that even fantastical situations can be inspirational sources for reflection. He offers a few thoughts from GOT.

  • Fight the battles that matter most - Some are real deal-breakers that will change an organization's direction. Others are not. Don't invest time and energy in resisting standard approaches or advocating for change when it's not really necessary.
  • Listen to feedback, but don't be swayed by it - People who are doing big things will always draw negative comments, but not every disagreement requires a response. Balance the need to pay attention against the need to stay the course.
  • Stay grounded - Take time to decompress and ensure there are boundaries between your work and the rest of your life. Business is a long-term enterprise and decisions play out over years. Rely on friends and co-workers to help keep you sane.

These ideas are not unlike the thinking of Sun Tzu. His centuries old military treatise, The Art of War, was recast as a management handbook in the mid 90s. If your thoughts run that way, you can grab a copy at Amazon. There's even a Kindle edition.
 

 

Street Smarts 187: Keep it short.

As noted elsewhere in this newsletter, business meetings are a fact of modern life. That's true even though research indicates that over 50% of meeting time is wasted. Most professionals attend over 60 meetings a month, but admit to daydreaming, dozing, missing them entirely or working on other tasks during the meeting time. This article suggests that meetings should only be called if they will lead to higher productivity, honest communication and stronger work teams. It also offers several tips for making meetings productive.

Keeping meetings as short as possible can dramatically improve their effectiveness. Engagement drops off rapidly after 30 minutes, even though business meetings are often scheduled for an hour. The longer the meeting lasts, the steeper the decline in energy, creativity and enthusiasm. Try to get through as much material as possible in 15 minutes, and never let a meeting go longer than 25. If you need more time, break the meeting up into smaller segments, so people have an opportunity to relax and refocus. Also realize there's a corollary here, which implies that the most important business should be addressed first. The first items on the agenda will always get the most attention.
 

 

Meetings vs. Email

The process of knowledge transfer can be a tedious one, particularly when that knowledge comes in the form of presentations delivered at long, face-to-face meetings. In overheated rooms. Most of us have had that experience, and left wishing we could take that time back to use on something more productive. Why, we wonder, couldn't they just have put it in an email?

Sometimes you can, but sometimes you can't. Studies show that a relatively small portion of the knowledge transferred comes across through the words themselves. Most of it is delivered via verbal cues, tone of voice, context and feedback. It's these contextual messages that do the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing human understanding. In one study, a survey group was asked to pick 10 statements from a list of 20, some of which were serious and some of which were sarcastic. They were directed to pick ones they felt were obviously one or the other, and then half the group communicated those statements via a voice recording while the other half used email. The receivers who heard voice recordings did pretty well at recognizing the sarcasm. But those who only got to read the statements were wrong almost half the time.

So the next time you're trapped in meeting hell, try to focus not on the content you could have gotten via an email. Pay attention instead to the information that's there between the lines.
 

Where have all the stories gone?

One of our favorite ideas in Knowledge Management has to do with the critical importance of stories. It's something we took away from David Weinberger, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, who made the point that if you can tell the story of something, you can reasonably claim to understand it. Stories have structure -- they begin and they end. They are about particular situations, not generalized trends. They incorporate much more than just information, and they are the way that people understand things.

Innovation expert Saul Kaplan has been collecting business transformation stories for over a decade, and reports that very few of them come from big companies. He uses the term transformation stories to describe moments of corporate reinvention. Moments when companies accept a new way of looking at things in order to remain relevant. They need to be told by the decision makers involved, since it's only the senior executives who can speak to real transformation. And particularly in big companies, executives are often constrained by legal departments and corporate communications bureaus. Big companies don't like to share real stories, because they don't like to acknowledge problems and are afraid of giving things away to the competition. That's too bad, because transformation stories can be truly inspiring. Today, even successful companies are at risk of being overturned by an upstart business model. We need those stories.
 

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