Creativity in Business – It’s Going to Get Weird!

Originally published on in Nov. 2011.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by a book, Creativity in Business, based on the famous course in the Stanford University MBA program by that name. In fact, I’ve been carrying it with me non-stop for the past couple of months and practicing the numerous creativity exercises recommended at every opportunity.

While I find most business books repetitive, every chapter of this book is full of fascinating stories, examples, useful insights and exercises to help the reader master each important concept. But the reason I’m particularly fascinated by this book is because it makes me feel less weird about the crazy stuff I do in workshops with my clients.

The topics and exercises in Creativity in Business aren’t the sort of thing that most people expect to find in a corporate environment. Included are discussions of quantum mechanics, Rupert Sheldrake’smorphogenic fields, Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine‘s dissipative structures theory, as well as topics like visualization, drawingmandalas, and even the use of tarot cards. I’m a physicist by education, so I was delighted to run across references to some of my favorite modern physics theories. I’ve used many of these approaches in my own work—I am a big fan of self-organizing systems (see myprevious article on, I make a collage as part of my annual business planning process, and I once found a missing piece of equipment using tarot cards. But I’d feel a bit sheepish about admitting this in a crowd of engineers or senior executives. And I certainly never expected to find a collection of such edgy new age thinking in a business book from a Stanford University professor! In fact, if it hadn’t been written by professors of a prestigious university like Stanford I think most people would regard this book with a great deal of skepticism. Many probably still will. But I strongly believe that Creativity in Business, written over 20 years ago by Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers, contains many valuable tools for project leaders.

The core message in this book is that there is a “creative force” or “essence” available to each and every individual that can dramatically improve business results. But that force can only be unleashed when we dare to trust our intuition and risk the derision of the obsessively left-brained, analytical thinkers among us, including our own inner critic.

Every company I consult with considers innovation an essential ingredient in success. Creativity is the root of innovation, and this book is a very practical guide to increasing creativity in ourselves and others. But it requires a suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to venture beyond what can be explained by deductive reasoning alone—a belief in the possibility that you can know something without knowing how you know it.

The book is structured around nine “heuristics“—experiential strategies intended to awaken the reader to their “creative source.” Here are a few of my favorites. I hope you’ll read the whole book to explore all nine.

#1 – Surrender

This is the first—and my favorite—of the strategies. It is summarized as, “If at first you don’t succeed . . . surrender.” Now, I’m a control freak, and the last person people who know me well would expect to advocate surrendering. It sounds like giving up, and I hate even the thought of that. Me, I’ll wrestle a crocodile to the ground if it’s gonna increase the chances of project success, but surrender?

In this case “surrender” means to trust in the creative process and continue on the journey without knowing how every detail will unfold or how it will turn out. It’s the opposite of precise planning and strong-willed determination. After years of project management discipline, including consciously forcing events down a particular path and to a particular outcome, surrender doesn’t come easily to me. But as a result of this book, I’ve been experimenting with this approach in my business leadership workshops. Naturally, I create elaborate plans for each workshop, and clients frequently demand a detailed timeline. But I am totally prepared to depart from those plans to respond to serendipity, opportunities, and even mistakes. If actual events depart from my plan, I ask, “What does this make possible?” Rather than trying to push the river, I notice where it wants to flow and then go there instead.

I can imagine the howling of those responsible for delivering a specific set of requirements by a fixed date. Don’t worry, this tool isn’t necessarily for those situations (although I’m open to the possibility it could help). It’s for when you need creative breakthroughs, new ideas, and the wisdom to tackle seemingly impossible challenges.

Fear kills creativity. Learning to trust your creative essence, and the creative process itself, will give you the confidence to begin a task that initially seems very difficult, or even impossible. Of course, as I stand in the midst of 45 people from 16 different countries ready to surrender to what’s possible beyond my detailed plans I most definitely feel fear. My inner critic goes on loudspeaker, jabbering away about the likelihood of making a complete fool of myself, and how the entire workshop could very well end up a complete disaster. Rather than yielding to that, I imagine that I’m leaping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. There’s no turning back, and I just have to trust that I’ll grow wings. Once I commit 100% to the creative process—once I surrender—I am free to do my best work, and invite others to contribute their very best as well. Somehow, magic happens. It just works.

It’s difficult to put this into a Gantt chart! It’s the old “and then a miracle occurs” task in project scheduling jokes. It’s scary, but it works. Every time. Weird, huh?

#2 – Replace the “Voice of Judgment” (VOJ) with Curiosity

Plenty of research has proven that negative people seem smarter. And don’t we all feel pressure to appear smarter to assure our position in the cosmic pecking order? Well, bad news—negativity is the enemy of creativity! I was consulting with an engineering group at a Fortune 500 company a while back when one director told this story: “My first month here I had lots of creative ideas and I shared them openly. People discouraged me. My second month here I had a few new ideas and shared them with a couple of colleagues. They told me why they weren’t feasible. My third month here I had no ideas.”

If you are in a typical work environment you’ll be able to relate very well to this story. How many ideas would you suggest if you knew that the first response would be discouragement from your peers? And it’s not just discouraging comments that diminish creativity. In her article “How to Kill Creativity,” (registration or subscription required) Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has said that working towards perfectly legitimate business imperatives such as productivity and control is also systematically crushing creativity. In short, she recommends that the first step toward increased creativity is to stop killing ideas.

Sadly we don’t even need discouraging colleagues to kill our creativity—our own VOJ will happily oblige.Creativity in Business recommends an all-out attack on the barriers to our own creativity, including our own inner critic, judgment from others, and the collective judgment of social norms of our organizations. I’ve found that simply becoming aware of the stream of negative judgment emanating from others, my environment, and myself has given me more courage to persist in my creativity. Creativity is messy. The creative process is risky, and we’re all naturally hesitant to risk failure, or appearing silly. But being uncomfortable is simply part of the process of being creative. Focus instead on being intensely curious about what will unfold once the volume of the VOJ is turned way down.

#3 – Pay Attention

In my experience the one word that characterizes much of human behavior in the workplace is “unconscious.” Human beings easily fall into routines that our powerful brains efficiently relegate to our unconscious mind. Unfortunately being efficient isn’t the only—or most important—goal of work. Being effective is far more desirable. “Pay Attention” is about noticing what is happening on a conscious level so that we can become aware of the ocean of opportunities in which we’re swimming. It’s also about listening deeply to others for other perspectives that we lack.

“Listening generously” has been an important part of every workshop I teach since I first learned of the importance of listening from Barbara Fittipaldi, president of the Center for New Futures, in 1995. Barbara helped me realize that, smart as I was, I knew only a fraction of what could be known about the universe. If I want access to the 99.9999999% that I don’t know, I have to listen with an intensity most people use only when speaking. That kind of listening has been transformative for my projects. I personally feel it has been the secret to success in my most challenging projects.

Creativity in Business suggests a number of intriguing exercises to develop our ability to “pay attention,” including gazing into the eyes of a colleague for two minutes without blinking, making up imaginary translations to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and visualizing your head as the world. Yes, really.

Yes, There’s More!

If you haven’t given up on all of this creativity mumbo jumbo after reading about the first three heuristics, there are six more you can explore, which I paraphrase as:

  • Ask “Stupid” Questions
  • Do Only What’s Easy, Effortless, and Enjoyable
  • Don’t Think About It
  • Yes or No – Make a Decision
  • Be Who You Are
  • Practice Detachment – helicopter above the situation . . .

I do hope that you’ll be curious enough to not only read this book, but also do as I have and practice each of the exercises it contains. Personally, I’ve found it useful to have the paperback with me when I run into someone who shrinks from some creative experience. For example, in the middle of one of the many crazy workshop exercises I wave it about and shout, “I know you might feel a little silly doing this, but the exercises in THIS book from Stanford University are even weirder!”

Although difficult to explain, the impact of this book on my work has been profound. I would even say “magical” . . . but that would be so weird! Let me know what you experience.


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