Recently, while a fellow author and I strolled the streets of London, he shared a secret with me that he’d never shared with anyone before. Over the past several years, he’d felt his creativity slipping away. He found it a struggle just to get a paragraph or two on paper.
“There’s something wrong with me,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
He isn’t alone. Only a couple of days before, another friend — the head of one of the world’s leading innovation labs — had revealed exactly the same thing to me.
Hearing these two friends’ experience of “writer’s block,” I remembered an experiment I conducted three years ago, totally ridding myself of my smart phone. The lost creativity these friends described brought back my sense of going “cold turkey.” Back then, adapting to not having a phone in my pocket, I’d felt precisely the same as these friends were feeling.
For the last few months, we’ve structured our lives around back-to-back Zoom calls, perfectly crafted Excel spread sheets, and complex PowerPoints. In the process, our brains have taken up stations on a cognitive assembly belt. What I call “linear thinking” has come to dominate our thought processes.
It may not sound like a big deal. We’re all adjusting, more or less — aren’t we? But I think it might, indeed, be a pretty big deal.
Many years ago, while exploring new concept innovations for LEGO, I studied creativity. In the past, kids were set loose with a big box of “generic” LEGO bricks, without any sort of instruction manual, and they’d been able to dream up the most amazing castles. Then, in the mid-1990s, things began to change. It was as if kids’ brains had sprung a leak, draining all their imagination. They had lost the ability to generate their own ideas. Computer games, Internet surfing, endless TV streams, and social media … all these demands on kids’ attention converted their disruptive thinking to linear thinking. LEGO’s response was to introduce “pre-manufactured fantasy materials.” LEGO began providing pre-written narratives with their colorful construction sets.
In hindsight, this is no different from what is happening today to us adults.
Think about it: When was the last time you set aside an hour (or even just a few minutes) to simply think – with a ‘safety distance’ to your smart phone and PC? When did you do something more quietly cognitive than jumping on another Teams call and attending to another set of linear thoughts? I’ll bet it’s been quite a while since you took the time to “defragment” your brain, reflect, and generate a few new creative ideas.
Running at breakneck speed on this new Zoom hamster-wheel, we’re distancing ourselves from the disruptive, creative thoughts we used to have. We’ve stopped training the creative muscle that used to generate such amazing ideas.
We’ve let that muscle shrink into something resembling a raisin.
I asked Mark Thompson, Thinkers50’s top CEO coach, “How are chief executives coping?” He gained huge insights recently while keynoting the 2020 MIT Sloan Fellows virtual summit, where he hosted Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, Hewlett Packard CEO Enrique Lores, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Each of them shared stories about how they’re triaging this unsettled world:
· Multiply the Touchpoints: Since every global company has teams scattered across continents, digital meetings have been the norm for a decade. The difference today, Bezos told Thompson, is that the entire workforce is isolated, “so now it’s necessary to multiply the touch points by great orders of magnitude.” Every CEO has tripled or quadrupled the frequency of calls to keep in touch with their leaders.
· Create Social Context: When you can’t go out for a drink with colleagues, why not share an online toast across time zones? “As a CEO, I’ve always found it challenging to maintain personal social context,” Lores shared with Thompson. “Lately I’ve been digitally parachuting into people’s kitchens, basements, and garages, where it’s appropriate to ask about their family and hobbies.” Is that your guitar or offroad bike?
· Feed Forward Climate: Research on employee engagement suggests psychological safety is paramount for leaders who want to unlock creativity and innovation. For that reason, CHROs are keeping the CSuite mindful about capturing employee and customer engagement scores on a weekly basis. “During the crisis, we’ve evolved from ‘work at home’ to ‘work all the time’.” This tends to create routine thinking rather than creative insights, Joly mused. “You’ve got to lead with empathy and make it safe to think outside the box, rather than endlessly prosecuting past mistakes, sins, or uncertainty.”
· Diverse POVs: In his New York Times bestseller, Admired, Thompson studied connections between Gallup’s Most Admired People and Fortune’s Most Admired Companies. He found that highly engaged employees (a quarter to a third of all workers) admire different aspects in their leaders than the overall workforce does. Thompson focused on what those highly engaged employees look for in their boss. What they admire most are leaders who give them more creative agency and authority to impact their work for customers, and who have the sense of humor and generous support to get the team through tough times. The more admired bosses combine a self-deprecating sense of goofiness with a strong dose of humility, while encouraging inclusive, creative, diverse points of view.
Here’s my take on this. The thought of dropping off the Zoom-hamster wheel may be so scary that most stay on and keep running. But we’re letting technology run us, rather than us running technology. In the early days of Steve Jobs’s career, he wanted Apple “to be seen as the catalyst of man’s mind.” For a long time, one could argue this was true not only for Apple, but for the entire tech industry.
But times are changing, and we’d better be careful to keep our creative and strategic minds intact, before it’s too late. Let’s ensure that we don’t end up being a ‘catalyst for technology’ instead.
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