Every great leader is a creative leader. If creativity can be taught how is it done?
In the early 1980s I was trundling along on a New York subway with a colleague when he suddenly said, “14, 18, 23, 28, 34. What is the next number in this series?”
For the next ten minutes I manfully tried to figure out the mathematical relationship among these numbers. Finally, as we stepped off the subway I admitted I was stumped. My colleague, with a devilish grin, merely pointed at 42 emblazoned on the wall of the subway station. We had just travelled from 14th to 42nd Street, and it had never occurred to me that the answer was a stop on the subway. I had been so locked into the assumption that numerical problems had mathematical solutions that I failed to notice the answer staring at me from the pillars of every station.
As any Zen Master worth his salt would gleefully point out, I had failed to pay attention. Intent on asking the wrong questions, I paid a stiff price in embarrassment and chagrin.
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Mark Twain famously quipped that everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it. In business we all know we must do a better job at “getting outside the box” but very few of us do anything about it. We are so locked in to thinking in a linear way that like a Zen novice we fail to notice that innovative breakthroughs emerge from thinking in a non-linear fashion.
For example, in the early days of the personal computer, companies like Lotus, WordPerfect, and Netscape assumed their job was producing the best stand-alone spreadsheet, word processing package, or web browser. While linearly adding features as fast as they could they failed to notice that Microsoft had non-linearly figured out that what end-users really wanted: the seamless integration of word processing, spread sheets, a browser, email etc. By questioning the assumptions underlying stand-alone software, Microsoft Office creatively relegated an entire industry and many wonderful companies to the scrap heap of history.
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