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How our brains hinder creativity

How our brains hinder creativity
Written by
Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

Published
22 Mar 2021

Our brains have learnt to sabotage our creative thinking efforts. Adam Kingl explains why taking the time for creativity can help address this issue.
Too many schools minimise or ignore creativity, too many parents discourage it, and too many companies devalue it. Our firms sometimes abrogate responsibility for innovation to a select fraction of the employee population, often someone with a lofty title like Chief Creative Officer, which of course communicates to the rest of the company that they should ‘leave creativity to the experts’.

If we observe how our leaders spend their time, and by extension how we should spend ours, too many are tacitly telling us that creativity is relegated to possibly a few minutes a week and ideally in one’s free time, not when we’re on the clock. In my advisory work to global corporations, I usually find this last condition, lack of time, to be the most common and pernicious.

Why we should make creative thinking a priority
The problem is that if we budget very little time in our lives to innovating or adapting to try new ideas, we typically incur a double deficit in our creative capacity.

First, we never make the time because creativity is always at the bottom of our priority list. Inevitably, we can never plan on all the firefighting and pop-up meetings that will occur in the week, so our real week is much more full of dealing with the day to day than our diaries suggested on Monday morning.

Allowing time for creativity is the only way to yield results
Second, if we do keep and honour a tiny fraction of our week or month to creative thinking, brainstorming and the like, we find our attention span is constantly distracted. We never seem to produce anything worthwhile as a result, and so we face each new window of opportunity for innovation with an ever growing, soul-sucking impression of dread or, at the least, resignation.

What we’re learning now is that we’re unfortunately training our brains to deliver this depressing result. Recent neuroscientific research has revealed how we repress and invigorate creativity. These hurried, captured moments of precious time for innovation yield paltry results. Our brains can’t turn on the magic for such short, unsustainable periods of time.

The five brain states explained
There are several brain states from deep sleep to deep focus and peak performance. The higher the performing brain, the greater the frequency of brain waves, hence Hertz is the degree of measurement:

Delta – deep sleep: 1-3 Hz
Theta – deep meditation, light sleep: 4-8 Hz
Alpha – relaxed, calm consciousness: 9-12 Hz
Beta – normal, alert consciousness: 13-30 Hz
Gamma – super-focused mind, increased brain power, peak state of consciousness and performance: 31-70 Hz.
Which of these do you think is our typical brain state during a normal work day?

I imagine many of you are thinking Theta! Sad but true – light sleep can be our normal work state. That’s rather depressing if that’s your normal. But Beta is probably our usual state, right? This is what we require of our brains to accomplish our normal tasks of answering emails, solving our workaday problems…and possibly Theta state when we’re in committee meetings.

Typical business routines encourage us to work in a state where the Beta waves (business as usual) in our brains are dominant, though we now know that maximum innovation and insight occurs when we are in Gamma state.

How to remain in Gamma state for longer
Neuroscientific research has also revealed that our brains can stay in Beta for a long time, and in fact are conditioned to stay there. As a result, if we crank the mental engine to get up to Gamma, the brain through habit easily and proactively often drags us back to Beta.

Therefore, if we need our brains to be in Gamma in order to be truly creative, genuinely adding previously unheard-of insight and exponentially big ideas, our brains would struggle to do that in, say, a one-hour meeting once a week. Beta state is like a constant and familiar noise, the ever-present static of our work lives that can block Gamma state. I liken this to how I find it hard to think when I’m eating an apple because I have this magnified, crunching noise in the echo chamber of my skull.

Mundane and creative – why getting the balance right is important
We can’t easily shut off this Beta activity, the laundry list of actions and decisions we have to make, even if we’re completely confident in our ability to make them. Beta is our habit, our rhythm, our tyranny.

Because we don’t have balance between the mundane and the creative, we can’t achieve creativity even if we give ourselves those fleeting thirty minutes a week to do so. We must change our routines so that we give our brains more time to marinate in Gamma and increase the frequency of those marinades. Like any muscle, the creative function in our brains requires exercise in order to improve, but as importantly, to be receptive to create in the first place.

The point is not that we denude all traditional routine from our organisations. We need some of that. But most of companies that I’ve experienced usually operate at a ratio of about 99% business as usual to 1% creative time…on a good week! So if you’re feeling uncomfortable that I’m suggesting something like a fifty-fifty balance, I’m not saying that. But the better ratio surely has to be closer to eighty-twenty at least? I’m merely entreating us to ask ourselves honestly, ‘Is the balance right?’

Adam Kingl is the author of Next Generation Leadership (HarperCollins) and is a keynote speaker, educator and advisor. www.adamkingl.com

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What Should Senior Executives Focus On When Pursuing Innovation?

A lot of executives say they want to enhance innovation in their organisations. I tell senior executives not to focus on products, services or processes because they have many colleagues who can focus on those. Senior executives should be focusing on strategic innovation, answering three fundamental questions: ‘Who, what, how?’ : Who is my customer? What am I offering that customer? How am I offering it?

This is also known as business model innovation, challenging the assumptions implicit in the answers to those three questions. If you can innovate around your strategy, you can develop an inimitable competitive advantage. To improve the quality of internal conversations in an organisation, leaders have to encourage that their assumptions be questioned. They should be asking their colleagues, including those more junior, ‘Based on what you’ve just heard me say, what assumptions do you think I’m making?’

Once those assumptions are surfaced, then ask, ‘OK, which of those assumptions may not be true or may no longer be true? Maybe some of the ways I look at the world were fit for purpose five or ten years ago, but they aren’t so today.’ That’s a really simple hack to make yourself automatically a more innovative executive. Of course, in a COVID and post-COVID world, the relevance of one’s perspective may be limited to months rather than years!

This approach to encourage questioning is rather antithetical to the old paradigms of the leader as the font of wisdom. Experience is sometimes an ally and sometimes a professional hazard. So do consider encouraging others to identify and then question your assumptions in order to progress on the road to enjoying an innovative environment in your team or company.

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The three things millennials want if they are going to work for you

The three things millennials want if they are going to work for you

Leadership expert Adam Kingl believes a new way of thinking is needed to retain and attract Generation Y talent.

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How to Develop Your Young People in Lockdown

How to Develop Your Young People in Lockdown

One of the main conclusions I came to in researching my book, Next Generation Leadership, is that Generation Ys (Millennials) crave development more than almost anything else from their organisations.  But the question I hear now that we are in lockdown under Covid is: How can we recreate the development that would have happened organically by our youngest colleagues’ observing how senior people go about doing business?

There are still at least a couple of things that we can do.  First, even under lockdown, we can invite our young team members to senior stakeholder meetings, senior customers or strategic conversations, even if they are just observing.  If we want to enhance a culture of development, one way to do that is to help our people observe desired behaviours.  The best definition I’ve ever heard of ‘culture’ is so good because it is so simple.  It’s just two words: ‘shared behaviours’.  That’s it!  But that definition implies that you have to give your people the opportunity to observe behaviours in action, and you can certainly still do that under lockdown.

The second piece of advice I would give is to consider mentoring your youngest employees.  These don’t have to be your direct reports, but also make that a reverse mentoring opportunity.  You can teach them about how to navigate your organization, advance their careers, serve more sophisticated customers, and they help you with issues such as leveraging social media, identifying new customer segments, and using skills and tools they have acquired which many of their older colleagues have not.  It’s also an opportunity to find out for yourself what younger generations want from life, their career and their leaders.  I think you’ll find it illuminating!

So how do you still organically develop your Millennial colleagues under lockdown, in ways that don’t cost you anything?  First, invite them to senior virtual meetings, and ask them to observe and note behaviours.  And second, consider mentoring and asking for reverse mentoring.

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How Lockdown Is Changing Decision Making

By Dawn Cowie, The Financial Times

People Feature

28 April 2020

 

The Covid-19 lockdown should be used to usher in a new era of more devolved decision making and put an end to control freakery, say experts.

Leaders have an opportunity to learn from the crisis by stamping out micromanagement and trusting more in the expertise of managers that have kept businesses running smoothly in unprecedented times.

Some firms have been taking the lockdown as an opportunity to streamline and speed up decision-making procedures that are too cumbersome.

Adam Kingl, author of Next Generation Leadership and keynote speaker, says: “Your people, customers and community are looking for transparency and quick answers. This is not the time for bureaucracy to encumber action.”

Having never run a business remotely before, leaders have been deferring more to specialists in their operational, technology and digital teams.

Chris Mills, a financial services expert at technology consultancy 6point6, says decisions about day-to-day issues, such as client reporting, are being taken “faster than ever”.

People in operations and technology teams at fund firms say getting authorisation to push ahead with existing projects has become much quicker, according to Mr Mills.

Typically, business leaders ask if everything is “as expected” and, if there are no problems, then they give the green light, he adds.

Increased levels of trust in IT and operations chiefs over the lockdown period may have lasting consequences, says Mr Mills.

Now that technology and digital strategy are being recognised as business critical, Mr Mills expects more chief technology and digital officers to be given seats on boards.

Remote working has, however, thrown up particular challenges for firms going through strategic change.

Tim McEwan, culture coach, and former head of leadership and development at Henderson Global Investors, says remote working has slowed down the pace of decision making at one firm going through a transaction.

In normal times, “corridor conversations” play an important role in allowing people to clarify points, where there might be a lack of understanding, he says.

Without these side conversations, people tend to have to go over the issues again in another round of Zoom calls, which may lead to better-quality decisions but it takes longer, says Mr McEwan.

The inability to micromanage the business at a time of crisis has been a real shock for some leaders, particularly traditional owner managers.

Mr McEwan says it has been “an uncomfortable time” for leaders who prefer “closer management” because they cannot “eyeball everyone”.

“Bosses don’t need this level of control,” says Mr McEwan.

“They need to be clear about who holds the decision rights. This must be discussed, agreed and signed off. Then they need to trust people.”

In a “shocking” attempt to retain control, one boss asked staff to wear jackets and ties on Zoom calls at the start of the lockdown, Mr McEwan says.

At another firm, managers wanted daily team gatherings at 5:15pm to talk about what had been done during the day.

The idea backfired because it was seen as a way of checking up on staff and an indication that managers did not trust them, he says.

The flaws that undermine effective decision making in physical meetings can be even worse in virtual meetings, say experts.

While meetings should be about “idea creation”, the reality is that people often sit around “waiting for the leader to say something”, says Mr Kingl.

“This dynamic risks being even worse when teams work remotely. It’s scarily easy for people to be even more silent in a virtual meeting,” he says.

Mr Kingl suggests that managers try holding team discussions on an online discussion board, where everyone is asked to contribute at least three ideas and comment constructively on at least two others.

This means that “introverts can reflect before answering, the less confident can reply thoughtfully and bravely”, says Mr Kingl.

Adding anonymity to contributions reduces the senior voices from owning the lion’s share of the conversation, he adds.

A virtual forum can then be used for part of the discussion or for teams that are particularly diverse.

This approach can help leaders to “bring out the best in everyone”.

Leaders need to be “much more aware of the composition of virtual meetings”, says Mr McEwan, who adds that 20 people on a Zoom call is a nightmare.

“The chair has to work really hard to control the discussion, which may mean they take their eye off the content,” he says.

It may be better for bosses to let someone else control the meeting so they can focus on “the meat” of the discussion.

Experts say the pandemic should not be used as an excuse for putting important decisions on hold, even if they involve a change in direction.

“The pandemic may very well have changed priorities or assumptions about our organisations’ business models, operations models, talent strategies, channels to market or customer segments,” says Mr Kingl.

“It might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really take a moment to examine our organisations’ long-held beliefs and ask if they’re still fit for purpose,” he says.

Virtual Team Cloud

Virtual Management in a Virtual Age

In these times, virtual teamwork will be a critical function in the workforce.  I have little doubt that mastering virtual teamwork in practical application will be a hallmark of the successful, next generation leader.

Putting “Virtual” to the Test

Even ten years ago, I thought that managing virtual teams would be a critical skill of the twenty-first century leader.  I had hypotheses about how to do this well, but I needed data to test these.  So while directing the Emerging Leaders Programme at London Business School, I added a simulation to the curriculum both to invite participants to reflect on their effectiveness at virtual teamwork and, for myself, to identify the critical success factors.

I invited participants to complete a competitive challenge, using both face-to-face and virtual methods. Before arriving to the program, I asked students to submit pressing dilemmas that their companies faced. I then identified two of these questions for the students to tackle in the competition; questions were easily comprehended, did not rely on technical or deep, industry-specific knowledge, and would have great impact on the business if these thorny issues were cracked.  For example, in one cohort, the dilemmas were related to the news industry:

How can an international news division bring to life its new brand tagline, “Never Stop Asking?”
How can newspapers make money selling to a Google generation used to reading content for free?

Students were split into two teams that incorporated a diverse set of expertise, nationalities and industries.  They had one week to brainstorm and refine solutions to each question. They were allowed—and encouraged—to take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds” by soliciting input from people outside the program too.

There was one catch: Team A had to answer question one using only face-to-face communications only and question two using solely virtual methods.  For Team B, these requirements were reversed.  When working virtually, students could use any tools or forums they wished, including video or teleconference, e-mail or social networking sites.  We also constructed a simple website that allowed teams to post, categorize, rank, and discuss proposed solutions. The website was also accessible to people outside the course, if they were invited, who could then review and contribute to the online discussion.

At the end of the week, the teams presented their conclusions to a panel who scored the merits of each solution without knowing whether students used face-to-face or virtual methods.[i] After the panel gave its feedback, we discussed what the students found to be the advantages and pitfalls of virtual teamwork, as well as the key differences between working virtually and working face-to-face.  This exercise brought to light many dynamics about the nature and requirements of leading and working in a virtual team.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Virtual teams that set too many rules or were too rigid about how and when participants contributed were not as successful as those that were more flexible. Different time zones, for instance, required that teams set slightly longer deadlines.  Allowing for asynchronous discussion versus requiring real-time “chat” generated higher quality ideas and responses to colleagues’ suggestions.

Virtual teams that collaborated using customized, online team rooms produced final ideas and presentations that the panel scored better than those teams who used social networking sites such as Facebook.  These sites often offer little functionality to organize activities effectively, search information, engage in complex discussions, or rank ideas.  Teams using Facebook, for instance, either did not participate in brainstorming activities or did so unproductively, perhaps because interactions on the site tend to be largely superficial. Users weren’t used to using the site for this exercise’s purpose.

Although virtual teamwork isn’t necessarily more effective than face-to-face teamwork, we concluded that virtual teamwork that is well-facilitated and well-supported by a platform that is more fit for the purpose can actually be superior to face-to-face interaction, particularly for large or geographically dispersed teams. We encouraged students returning to work to have conversations with their IT departments about creating customized team rooms rather than relying on existing sites with pre-determined features.

A Different Set of Skills

The program’s participants consistently converged on at least two realizations about virtual teamwork:

First, charisma, a traditional leadership trait, is usually disintermediated in a virtual environment.  Therefore, team members could not rely on force of personality, but on clarity and the ability to delegate. “Leading” in these interactions was less about exhibiting authority and more about emphasizing team accountability, reaching consensus, and being open to challenge.

Second, merit has more power than personality or hierarchy in virtual teams.  Introverts or those who are working in a second language may actually thrive in a virtual team. We have all experienced how factors such as introversion/extraversion, cultural norms, gender, career level, and reporting lines contribute to only a few voices, sometimes only one voice, dominating.

At its worst, an overly hierarchical dynamic can not only ruin engagement, or even careers, it can aggravate catastrophic decisions.  The story of the tragic 2009 crash of Air France flight 447, which killed 228 people, is the cautionary tale.  On that flight, the crew came up through both a national and industry culture (though the latter is changing) where the captain is always right, who brooks no “interference” from his subordinates.  In turn, the captain’s co-pilots, such as those on that fateful day, do not feel it is their place to disagree with their superior officer whether it is a command, a suggestion or an opinion.

On May 31st, 2009, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, storms lay in the way of the planned flight path, and a rare but not unheard-of mechanical fault occurred when ice crystals at high altitude clogged the airplane’s air pressure probes, causing altitude measures to read less accurately.  The co-pilots chose not to alert the captain to the storms that lay ahead, deferring to him to identify the bad weather and plot a course to avoid it, which did not happen.  The flight crew made a series of poor decisions and even worse communications that ultimately drove the plane into the Atlantic Ocean.[ii]    The Air France case illustrates the all-too-common dynamic that occurs in so many offices, factories and stores around the world, where initiative, productive dialogue, challenge and imagination are preemptively suppressed.

Most of our organizations’ architectures are predicated on a pyramidal hierarchy, which for centuries has suggested a tacit dogma of the manager’s infallibility.  This canon has ruined many millions of meetings, where idea creation gives way to waiting for the leader to say something, and agreeing or remaining silent, where the extrovert jumps in with their contribution first and often, while the introvert is still processing options and responses.

In a virtual, asynchronous environment, introverts can reflect before answering, the less confident can reply thoughtfully and bravely.  Adding anonymity to contributions reduces the senior voices from owning the lion’s share of the conversation.  The best ideas rise to the top instead of those which happen to be from the most senior.  Therefore, if an important objective of any leader is to bring out the best in everyone, then he or she should utilize a virtual forum for at least some discussion and particularly on very diverse teams.  Two important points to remember when considering virtual teamwork:

First, technology does not solve every problem.  Virtual teamwork can fail if leaders do not attend to the fundamental problems of coordinating, engaging, and motivating individuals across time zones.  It’s easy for team members to disengage when they’re not face-to-face, so the leader must convey a high degree of enthusiasm and clarity, and agree on who is accountable for what from the start.

Second, assumptions are dangerous. If team members are from different cultures, countries, and time zones, leaders cannot assume that everyone shares the same understanding of how the team will work. For example, will everyone be in one virtual “place” at the same time, or will they contribute on their own time? Our students’ most important takeaway is that to lead a virtual team, they must focus on team maintenance (How are we going to work together?) before task maintenance (What is the problem we are trying to solve?).

[i] I’m grateful to Moti Shahani for his collaboration with this exercise.

[ii] William Langewiesche, “The Human Factor,” Vanity Fair, October 2014.

The above is a chapter excerpt from my book Next Generation Leadership:

http://nextgenerationleadershipbook.com

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Don’t Ignore Virtual Teamwork

Biz Ed November/December 2010, pp. 54-55
While most business educators agree that students need to master the dynamics of successful teamwork, fewer are convinced of the importance of virtual teamwork. First, most educators assume the frameworks they teach in face-to-face leadership courses are equally valid for online groups. And second, practitioners are still in the experimental phase of using virtual teamwork, so they’re hesitant to declare any conclusions on the topic.However, virtual teamwork will be a critical function in the 21st-century workforce—in fact, all of the students in our Emerging LeadersProgramme (ELP) at the LondonBusiness school either currently work in at least one virtual team or anticipate doing so in the next five years. For that reason, we have developed approaches that focus on virtual teamwork, both in the classroom and in practical application.
Putting ‘Virtual’ to the Test
We have integrated a virtual emphasis into the ELP by highlighting existing applicable content and adding lessons that teach explicitly how to manage virtual teams. For instance, we added a virtual simulation that reinforces the program’s core themes of marketing, strategy, and teamwork.Recently, we also experimented with requiring students to complete a competitive challenge, using both face-to-face and virtual methods.Before students arrived to the pro-gram, we asked them to submit pressing dilemmas that their companies face. We then identified two of these questions as most suitable for students to tackle during the competition. We chose the following questions because they were easily comprehended, did not rely on technical or industry-specific knowledge, and would have a great impact on the business:
1. How could an international news division bring to life its new brand tagline, “Never Stop Asking”?
2. How could newspapers make money selling to a Google generation used to reading content for free?
Students were split into two nine-person teams that incorporated a diverse set of expertise, nationalities, and industries. They had one week to brainstorm and refine solutions to each question. They were allowed—and encouraged—to take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds” by soliciting input from people outside the program.There was one catch: Team A had to answer question No. 1using face-to-face methods only, and question No. 2 using virtual methods only. For Team B, these requirements were reversed. When working virtually, students could use any tools or forums they wished, including video or teleconference, e-mail, or social networking sites. We also constructed a simple custom Web site with the help of virtual consulting company How Might.The site allows teams to post, categorize, rank, and discuss proposed solutions. It also is accessible to external contributors, who can read the question and click through to review the team’s written work. At the end of the week, the teams presented their conclusions to a panel of faculty and course facilitators, who scored the merits of each solution without knowing whether students used face-to-face or virtual methods. After the panel gave its feedback, we discussed what the students found to be the advantages and pitfalls of virtual teamwork, as well as the differences between working virtually and working face-to-face.
 
What Works, What Doesn’t
This exercise brought to light many things about the nature and requirements of leading a virtual team. In the two parts of our newspaper challenge, for example, our panel found that the quality of solutions did not depend on whether teams used virtual or face-to-face approaches. Instead, other factors played larger roles:
Virtual teams that set too many rules or were too rigid about how and when participants contributed, generally were not as successful as those that were more flexible. Different time zones, for instance, required that teams set slightly longer deadlines.
Virtual teams that produced solutions using customized online team rooms—designed specifically for virtual collaboration—scored better than those that used social networking sites such as Facebook.Social networking sites often offer no function to organize activities effectively, search information, engage in complex discussions, or rank ideas.There is little “click-through” capability. Facebook users either did not participate in brainstorming activities or did so unproductively, perhaps because interactions on the site tend to be largely superficial. The students weren’t accustomed to using it for this purpose. Although virtual teamwork isn’t necessarily more effective than face-to-face teamwork, throughout our courses we have found that virtual teamwork that is well-facilitated and well-supported by the best plat-form for the purpose can be superior to face-to-face interaction, particularly for large or geographically dispersed teams. Once our students return to work, we encourage them to have conversations with theirIT departments about how to create customized team rooms, rather than rely on existing sites with pre-determined features.
A Different Set of Skills
Once students complete their virtual teamwork in our program, they come to several realizations:
Charisma, a traditional leader- ship trait, often doesn’t come through on virtual teams.
 Therefore, they must rely not on force of personality, but on clarity, cultural sensitivity, and the ability to delegate. “Lead-ing” in these interactions is less about exhibiting authority and more about emphasizing team accountability, reaching consensus, and being open to challenges.
Merit has more power than personality on virtual teams.
As a result, those who are introverted or are not proficient in the language may thrive on a virtual team. If one of the objectives of great leaders is to bring out the best in everyone, then they should encourage at least some virtual work on very diverse teams.
Technology does not solve every problem.
 Virtual teamwork can fail if leaders do not attend to the fundamental problems of coordinating, engaging, and motivating individuals across time zones. It’s easy for team members to disengage when they’re not face-to-face, so students find they must convey a high degree of enthusiasm and clarity, and agree on who is accountable for what, from the start.
 Assumptions are dangerous.
 If team members are from different cultures, countries, and time zones, leaders cannot assume that everyone shares the same understanding of how the team will work. For example, will everyone be in one virtual“place” at the same time, or will they contribute on their own time? Our students’ most important takeaway is that to lead a virtual team, they must focus on team maintenance before task maintenance 
.
Critical to the Curriculum
 Attending to the dynamics of virtual teams in the business curriculum can be a challenge. Virtual teams can take more time to form, and they often need more time to complete tasks. To provide that extra time, we explore virtual teamwork during theELP’s intermodular month—which falls between the second and third weeklong modules. At London Business School, we believe it’s critical that students learn to work well on virtual teams. In virtual environments, students must know how to make the transition between succeeding as individuals and succeeding with and through other people. For that reason, we put virtual teamwork near the forefront of all of our lessons on leadership—otherwise, we do not serve our students’ aim to maximize their leadership impact in global business settings.
Adam Kingl is director of the EmergingLeaders Programme at the London Business School in the United Kingdom.