Cyriel Kortleven is a global speaker and author with a single mission in life: boost the creative and entrepreneurial mindset of professionals. We had a chance to sit down with Cyriel and hear his thoughts on the benefits of creativity and learn how to incorporate it into a corporate culture.
Tell us a little about your background. What inspired you to help others become more creative?
I’ve been working in the domain of business creativity and innovation for the last 15 years. I have provided a lot of training and facilitated many brainstorming sessions; and in the last 5 years, I have traveled around the world to deliver presentations around the change mindset. I believe it’s one of the crucial elements to cope with all the challenges that we face in the world.
As you’ve traveled the world giving presentations, have you noticed any trends in different countries regarding creativity? Or is the potential for creativity present everywhere in the world?
I haven’t seen big differences in the level of creativity in various places in the world. Somebody from Australia is not more creative than somebody from India or the U.S., but I have noticed differences in the way they approach creativity.
In the U.S., people tend do take a bit more chances, and making a mistake isn’t a bad thing. I get the feeling that the entrepreneurial mindset is ingrained in their DNA. It’s quite different in some Asian countries where “failure” has a very negative connotation. As a result, they are often a bit more hesitant to embrace the crazier, far-stretching ideas. I need a bit more “warming up” time to create an atmosphere where they are open to suspending their judgement. And Europe is somewhere in between those mindsets.
I absolutely believe that everybody has the potential to be creative. I call it the creative muscle: the more you practice certain creativity skills (like associations, suspending judgement, diverging, etc.), the better you will get at it.
How can the leader of a company take steps to create a culture of creativity?
The leader is responsible for creating a context where creativity is allowed. Most innovative projects fail or succeed depending on the “creative atmosphere” of an organization. Here are a few things that a leader can do to stimulate this culture of creativity:
– Suspend judgement. Don’t kill an idea immediately. Have the employee focus on the positive aspects of the idea and give him/her room to come up with alternative solutions for the elements that don’t work.
– Be less risk-averse. Show that an entrepreneurial mindset is good. This means that a leader shouldn’t punish somebody who did something with the right intentions. Let that person share what he/he intended to do and have a dialogue about how it could be done differently or better without the negative aspects. It’s better to have people who dare to experiment with small actions that could improve the organization instead of having “robots” who just follow the rules.
– Get rid of rules, processes, or systems that don’t work anymore. Many of those rules are installed as a control mechanism for managers to see if the employees do their jobs. Instead, trust your employees and make it as easy as possible for them to embrace their roles as professionals. This is the biggest frustration of most employees: spending lots of time on procedures that don’t directly relate to the job they do. (like filling out Excel sheets, for example)
– Allow a little time and a small budget for every employee to experiment with new ideas.
Since being creative means seeing or doing things differently, how can an executive or manager overcome his or her employees’ natural resistance to change and help them embrace new ways of thinking?
The best way to stimulate an openness for change is to be the example. Show them that people who dare to do something outside the box get support if it doesn’t work out the way it was intended. Spend at least one hour a day walking around in your organization, talking to your people (without having a formal meeting), and having a conversation about strategic challenges. Stimulate them to think in different ways by making sure that they meet people from different worlds. Invite a guest speaker from a different industry, allow a group of artists to spend some time with some employees, or let every employee be the “buddy” of someone in a different department once every quarter.
What are the benefits of having a creative workforce?
I don’t think it’s a luxury anymore to have a creative workforce. I believe it’s an essential element to make sure that your company still exists in the next few years.
We live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world right now. We need employees who are flexible in their thinking; we need intrapreneurs (people who dare to experiment); we need a climate where people are trained to do different things because their “original” function becomes outdated after a few years.
If someone were to say to you, “I don’t care about improvisation. I want my employees to stick to what they know and carry out their jobs the way they’ve always done them,” what would be your response?
I imagine that there are still a few jobs left where this mindset or management style would work. And I believe that we shouldn’t change something that’s working well. You don’t want everybody carrying out random creative actions just for the sake of change.
But I would rather hire an employee who’s a professional in his or her specific domain and who thinks about how a certain process could be improved instead of having somebody who just follows the rules (but doesn’t see or anticipate changing circumstances). It’s the employee who’s the expert/professional in those specific tasks, so why not make use of his/her expertise?
Since improvisation is by definition learning to think and perform tasks differently, how can a manager teach this skill to employees?
This is something that has to grow. It’s not possible (and it’s even counterproductive) to “force” people to be creative or spontaneous. You have to create a context where they can learn that it’s okay to think outside the box.
I believe in the power of small actions. I call this a nano-action: an action that can be taken within an hour and with a very small budget (10 euros or dollars). Allowing people to create these kinds of nano-actions or experiments is probably better than creating a detailed business plan that takes quite some time and money to realize. Act small, allow mistakes, learn from and share these “mistakes.” and move on to the next step.
This will create an atmosphere where people will take responsibility again. Their engagement and self-esteem will grow if you can give them the trust needed to experiment with small actions without the danger of being “punished.” This entrepreneurial mindset will stimulate others to do the same, and this will result in an organization that can adapt a lot easier and faster to the big challenges in the world.
When you give your presentations, what concepts or topics are your listeners most receptive to?
The 3-minute rule. This is a very simple method to suspend your judgement in a very practical way.
For three minutes, invite your colleagues to get into the “Yes, and…” mindset. Instead of responding with an “idea killer” to a new idea, they have to answer with “Yes, and…” where you accept the idea and you even add something to it. During the 3 minutes, no judgement is allowed and quantity is more important than quality.
You will notice that in three minutes, you will have a lot more ideas than in a normal meeting-setting. Yes, there will probably be some crazy ideas, but that’s not a problem because you don’t need to implement all of them. Perhaps you can use some elements of an idea that might be feasible and combine different small ideas into one or two good ones. Another big advantage of this method is that everybody has an opportunity to contribute, so the chance that the idea will be implemented in reality also grows in a substantial way.
Giga-dreams & nano-actions. Most professionals are very good at making realistic plans, but we forget the strength of a dream. Instead of coming up with realistic dreams, imagine your biggest dream.
A giga-dream will work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you strive for your dream, you will look for people, means, and ways to achieve that goal. If you limit yourself at the start to a small, achievable goal, then you might miss a lot of chances. This is step one, and it’s purely a thought exercise. The next step is looking for ideas and ways to realize your giga-dream. And the last step involves nano-actions, the very small, easy actions and experiments that you can do to see if your giga-dream has potential.
The nearling. A nearling is a positive word for something new that was done with the right intentions but which has not (yet!) led to the right result. The reasons for nearlings not to succeed can be diverse: the circumstances changed, a better option was chosen, an error was made, or fate decided differently. The nearling is situated between zero and one – between failure and success.
You can be proud of nearlings because:
• You started an initiative
• You learned from it
• You may have inspired others
• It may have led you to something that was successful
• You need many nearlings for a few successes
I recommend to my audiences that they try to have a nearling at least once a month, because that means that they’re looking for new, better, more effective ways to run their businesses.