At precisely the time when leaders need creative managers, we’re all so overworked that we don’t even have time to think. Here are some tips to help you counteract the forces of ‘mass distraction’ and cultivate your creativity.

IBM’s survey of global CEOs gives us a rare insight into where leaders’ heads are at right now. Asked to name the most important leadership quality they need (but are hard-pressed to find), 1541 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders in 60 countries cited “creativity” more than any other attribute, including management discipline, rigor or operational acumen.

This is significant, folks!  The question is: why the sudden shift? What’s happening that’s causing top executives to yearn for creativity? And what can you do to anticipate this unmet need for creative innovators where you work?

My own conversations and observations lead me to conclude that firms are crying out for innovation-adept managers for two reasons:

First, they are now focused on driving organic growth, according to a McKinsey survey of 2,240 executives, rather than pursuing growth through M&A or even new markets. You don’t rack up growth by doing the same old same old. You attain it by thinking new thoughts, assaulting industry and organizational assumptions, and mobilizing the collective imagination.

The second reason CEOs are focused on finding creative managers is the debilitating impact of mass distraction. At precisely the time when it is so urgently needed, most of us are frazzled and frantic and driven by deadlines. The managers I meet are over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-connected and overwhelmed, most of the time. “I don’t have time to think” is the common refrain.

We can’t focus on anything for long enough to have an original thought because we feel we must check our email 30 to 40 times an hour, according to one survey. A study at University of California, Irvine shows that “knowledge workers” (innovation workers?) are interrupted every three minutes. And don’t get me started on multi-tasking.

All this at the same time when you and I need perhaps three to four times as many ideas daily to meet the many challenges we face. Unless you’ve bothered to write out your own personal best practices (something I recommend),  your mental “idea factory” is churning out fewer and fewer original, compelling ideas and trying to get by with knee-jerk solutions.

So my question is: what are you doing to counteract the forces of mass distraction and cultivate your creativity? Here are two suggestions that may help:

1. Inspect your idea factory regularly

The quickest, simplest way to check up on your idea factory is to look at your “to do” list. It’s a snapshot of the ideas you’re working on right now. What does your list reveal? Are the ideas mostly related to your basic functional duties, or are there also ideas related to larger projects and opportunities and goals?

Everybody must execute routine details. But if you go for days and days running like the proverbial hamster on the wheel, your idea factory is greatly in need of retooling. It’s not that you aren’t generating ideas; you almost certainly are. The problem is that you aren’t moving on them in systematic fashion; you’re reactive rather than proactive. You are slighting your big ideas while allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the tactical details. You’ll never get ahead this way; at most you’ll only get by.

To thoroughly inspect your idea factory, try this for a week: Wherever you go, use your BlackBerry or iPhone to jot down ideas as they occur. Examples might be:

  • Look into attending social networking seminar sponsored by the marketing department.
  • Build the buy-in with your boss for holding an All Things Considered Meeting to discuss workflow process improvements
  • Meet with sales department about starting promotional campaign for the new product line.

Checking up on your ideas will make you more aware of the many possibilities that are flashing into your mind. Some will be lifters, and some will be poppers. The lifters are those you “borrow” from other industries or people—or even from competitors. The poppers are those that come out of your own conjuring process. If you’re in the defeatist mode or sustainer mode when you conjure an idea, you might tune it out. You might reject it the minute it occurs no matter how promising it might be.

Your idea factory requires frequent inspection and constant retooling.

2. Identify when and where you do your best thinking

Ask yourself:

  • Where are you when you generate your best ideas?
  • When, where, and at what time of day do you generally do your best thinking?
  • What do you do to get yourself unstuck when facing a vexing problem?
  • How did you inject creativity to handle a task in the last 24 hours?
  • How often do you come up with solutions that others compliment you on as being “creative?”

Jot down your responses so that you fully explore these issues. If you take time to think about these questions and their answers, you’ll gain further insight into your own ways of fortifying your idea factory. The next step is to go to that space when you want to do some serious cogitating.

If there’s a time of day when you feel you do your most creative thinking, try to reserve it for yourself and use it to its fullest. If there’s a particular spot that says “idea space” to you—your study or the bathtub or an unused conference room—set aside time to use that space, alone and free of noise and distraction. Check out places outside your home, too: a park, a library, the neighborhood Starbucks.

This way, when your chief makes a request for creative thinkers, you’re ready to step forward.

By Robert B. Tucker

robert-tuckerAbout the author

Robert B. Tucker is one of the most in-demand innovation speakers in the world today. His latest book is Driving Growth Through Innovation and he can be reached at his Innovation Resource website.