Creativity in business: An interview with Russ Schoen.

Interview number six in the creativity in business thought leader series is with Russ Schoen, partner at New and Improved, LLC; adjunct faculty member at the Center for Studies in Creativity; contributing author to innovation-related materials including the Foursight and Ingenious Thinking suite; and improv theater performer.

For the past 11 years, Russ has helped entrepreneurs, teams and organizations adopt a mindset, toolset and skillset to unleash creative behavior. He has delivered creativity, innovation and leadership programs worldwide for clients such as Discover, International Fragrance & Flavors, S.C. Johnson and Leo Burnett. In addition, Russ is co-founder of the Creative Youth Leadership Academy.

Q: What do you see as the emerging paradigm of work?

Schoen: There is no stopping change. It is happening faster than ever. Those who can anticipate and deliberately engage in change productively will thrive. In my opinion, the new paradigm of work requires that individuals and teams to work together to identify the right challenges to solve, to generate novel ideas, and to turn the best of those ideas into robust solutions that can be implemented.

In short: creativity, problem-solving skills, willingness to learn and try – and even fail – and the ability to work collaboratively. The old paradigm is more siloed. In the new paradigm, the boundaries are blurring. Truly novels solutions require crossing boundaries, and the only way for that to happen is for people to learn how to really collaborate, and especially co-create.

Q: What do you see the role of creativity in this the new paradigm?

Schoen: The complex challenges that businesses are facing require novel solutions that can be implemented. Businesses can’t afford to just wait for people to shower! What I mean by that is that when asked, many people report that they do their best thinking in the shower or driving, or someplace other than work.

Leaders need to cultivate a psychological climate that encourages all people to share their ideas at work and leaders would be wise to support individuals in developing their personal creativity skills.

Q: What attitudes and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Schoen: Wow! There are so many good ones. But here are four of my top ones:

1. Individuals need to learn to view problems as opportunities, to look for what is possible as opposed to what is not.

2. People need to learn how to manage their “gator” brain – the part of their brain that retreats at the first sign of “danger” – and truly learn to defer judgment and seek new ideas. Fear shuts down to the new. If you are aware of how the reptilian brain operates, you can monitor your thinking to say, “I need to be deliberate about looking for the new here.”

3. When evaluating a truly new idea, people need to first look for the value in the idea, the build on the value…and THEN look at how to constructively point out concerns.

4. People need to take responsible for their own creativity and realize that they can learn to be deliberately more creative. The do this through awareness on how they express their own creativity, and through the learning methods and tools and practicing it. Everyone has access to their creativity, it is just matter of practicing it and unleashing it.

Q: What is one technique or approach that people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?

Schoen: Here’s one of my favorites, and don’t be fooled by its simplicity. When faced with a problem or challenge, instead of getting frustrated, phrase it as an open ended question starting with the words “How might…?” And then try phrasing it a different way.

So, for example, lets say you are working on a project and it looks like you are going to be over budget. Instead of just saying, “There is no way we can afford this; we’re out of money,” try rephrasing it as a question such as: “How might we reduce the cost on the project?” or “How might we get more funding?”

Notice what happens when you ask an open-ended question: Instead of being stuck, your brain will try to answer it! Now you can use this for yourself, or pose a challenge to the folks you work with and ask them for their ideas. Try it. It is a simple creative habit that can change the way you work and bring positive results.

Q: And finally, what is creative leadership to you?

Schoen: To me, creative leadership is the capacity to solve complex challenges that bring about positive change in good times and bad. How? By building trust and creating a work climate that encourages people to be engaged and to put forth new ideas and ways of solving problems.

Creative Leaders model the way and set the context, for example, telling the story of why they need creativity. And they model being open to new ideas. So, when ideas are floated to them, they react by looking first at what is valuable. They hold a space for, and help facilitate, co-creation. That fully engages the people working in their organization.

Instead of saying, “Here is what we are doing. You do this,” they say, “Here is where we are going. Here is the space we are playing in. What should we do to get there?” That is the engagement. If they help create it, they will drive it.

You can reach Russ Schoen at the New and Improved, LLC website. He will be a presenter at the upcoming Creativity in Business conference in Washington, DC on October 4, 2009.