Monday, November 14, 2011

Managing Towards "Aha"

How are we going to finance our growth expansion plans next year?
What strategic alternatives presently exist that take advantage of our competitive advantage and recent industry trends?
What scenarios might play out over the next five years that would impact our business?
What product or service might we develop that would be a “game-changer” for our company and industry?
The questions above are fairly standard within an organizational setting. And while they require a certain amount of analysis (think newly minted college grads staring into spreadsheets, or decision trees being made on a whiteboard), if we desire to transcend common practices and aspire to be best in class, we will need something extra.

The Missing Ingredient
And this is where we can use creativity.
Tony Schwartz, in his Harvard Business Review blogpost “How to Think Creatively”, identified 4 stages to the creative process, namely saturation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
Some believe this article is an oxymoron because creativity cannot “follow a recipe”. But it is not recipes we are talking about, only stages. Using a restaurant analogy, all food is washed and prepared, cooked, plated and served. Yet we consider some chefs “creative” even though their food goes through all (not all food might be cooked, but roll with me here) the above stages.
The stages in very brief terms (for more info see the blog post):
·         Saturation – become familiar with what currently exists or is “out there” in the world
·         Incubation – let things sift, sort, and organize, mainly in the subconscious, but also through processes such as brainstorming
·         Illumination – the “aha” moment of discovery
·         Verification – challenging and testing the idea

Testing the Limits of Management Processes
Using this 4-stages paradigm, the big problem from an organizational perspective is the second and third stages, incubation and illumination. This is because they are difficult to plan, manage and control.
For instance, one of the tools project managers use to manage a project is a Gantt chart, which breaks down the project into its component steps and the length of each one. In order to implement this tool, our transcendence project would need to answer the question “how long will it take to come up with a great idea for that?”
“Well, who knows?”
This answer does not help them any, though it is probably the correct answer to give.
As an amateur guitarist, I have written a number of songs. One was completed in an hour - another one took a year! Unfortunately, there is no indicator that lets us know beforehand how long we must incubate any particular topic or issue before the “aha” comes.
The article noted that the “aha” often comes at odd times, such as while taking a shower or sleeping. The DNA shape was conceived by one of the scientists working on the project during sleep - they literally dreamt up the double helix!
Showering and sleeping – these are not in the traditional manager’s toolkit – “listen, I want some creative ideas pronto, so the action plan for the next month is to take 5 showers a day, each one to be followed by a nap. Uh, be sure to report on your progress!”

Loosen Up
If we want creative ideas so that we may move from “like everyone else” to “best”, we will need to do a couple of things that are not on the face of it very “executive-like”.
Be Patient – since an idea might take an hour to a year to incubate, we must be willing to wait patiently. If we are to inquire about how it might be going, we will need to ask questions demonstrating our willingness to wait – “what interesting perspectives have we considered so far?” as opposed to “come up with anything yet?”
Cede Control – if we have a team working on things, we do not know the source from which the “aha” seed eventually emanates. It could be the lowest paid member of the crew, or the high-potential candidate. We also need to let folks incubate as they need to (e.g. Joe showers, Sally sleeps).
The good news is that, as we progress towards the era of Wikifinance and Wikitreasury (see earlier blog posts), where the world will be less hierarchical and more collaborative, we will need these traits anyway, so beginning to practice them in this realm is a great start!

Key Takeaways
A creative approach, determining what and how things get done, is required in order to achieve best in class status. To that end, we will need to maneuver around and / or manage conflicts between the demands of the creative process against the demands of organizational control.
In order to achieve this, we will need to practice some very non-managerial mindsets, such as patience and letting go.

When was the last time you were able to let go of controlling an outcome for which you were accountable for? What was the result?
What is the advantage to depicting leaders and managers as “demanding results immediately” types of individuals?

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  1. This is your best post yet David! I would never have thought creativity could be broken down into a formula.

  2. Maddie,

    We just need to remember that, unlike a cookbook recipe or a science experiment, just because we follow these stages does not mean something creative automatically happens - if only it were so!

    Thanks for your comments!