Creative Focus

This week, I dove into in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I always find this annual round-up motivating because the snippets on each honoree’s accomplishments open one’s mind to possibilities, and to looking at seemingly intractable challenges in new ways. Seriously, if a researcher can find what appears to be a cure for ebola by infecting tobacco plants with the virus, or another company can find a way to eliminate nuclear waste with “molten salt”, surely I can take another look at some of the persistent challenges that face my own industry and organization.

I happened to be reading these stories right after meeting with a number of colleagues about impending changes in how we do business, and so was especially struck by how hard it can be to look past how we have always done things to see the possibilities of the future. When entire organizations are built around doing things a certain way, having someone suggest going in a totally different direction can be a bit jolting ( . . . unless of course you are the one proposing the new path!) And yet, if “the way we have always done things” is not resulting in significant progress toward solving the problem at hand, don’t we want someone to find a better way?!?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the answer to that question is yes. So if the goal is to find a better solution, how do these “most creative people” do it? Creative focus. That’s my takeaway from reviewing this year’s list, and those from the past 10 years. And while it might seem natural to start with the creative part, I’m guessing the people on Fast Company’s list start by finding their focus.

How focused are you on the real challenge before you? So often we direct our attention to the wrong thing . . . we work diligently to build the best product or program, and that becomes the goal, rather finding new ways to look at the problem. Sometimes, we have to stop trying to build a better buggy and instead consider that maybe there is a better way to get from point A to point B. One of your key jobs as a leader is to define the focus for your organization — and that’s actually much harder than you might think. Are you a residential program or a child and family-serving organization? The options before you will be quite different depending how you see yourself.

Then, once you have your focus, you need to support your staff in exploring creative solutions. Do you give them permission to pursue the “what ifs” and consider solutions from an entirely different perspective? Again, sounds good in theory, but not so easy in practice. What if they come up with a solution that makes your current approach obsolete? Are you really prepared to go back to the drawing board after you have made significant investments in doing things one particular way? If you feel a bit shaky on the answer to that one, please refer back to step one.

Creative focus is not for the faint of heart . . . and neither is leadership. But, as the editor’s at Fast Company can tell you, for those who have the courage and determination to take that leap, the list of possibilities is endless.

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