We noted in a recent article in this Leadership Series that Creativity and Imagination are personality traits that often help leaders “Inspire a Shared Vision.” Other personality traits – Comfort with Change, Optimism, and Inclusiveness – also help leaders Inspire a Shared Vision. However, many organizations hesitate to put someone in a leadership position if they fail to demonstrate creativity and imagination on the job.
How are Creativity and Imagination Different?
Most dictionaries define creativity by using the word “imagination.” Yet, people who have studied creativity tend to see creativity and imagination as two different things. Distinctions between the two terms were identified in a blog post by Tanner Christenson in 2015. Christenson’s research and experience supports the idea that Imagination and Creativity (as well as Innovative Thinking) are each separate and distinct “cognitive processes.” Here is the essence of his analysis:
- Imagination is about “seeing the impossible or the unreal.” For example, the Wright Brothers were able to “imagine” a machine that would lift off the ground and fly through the air!
- Creativity is using imagination to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. Experts also refer to this as “connecting the dots” between things we already know (as unconnected ideas). The Wright Brothers used their knowledge of bicycles and combined that knowledge with other concepts to get the first airplane off the ground.
- Innovation is taking existing, reliable systems, products and ideas and improving them. Many “innovations” to the airplane have occurred since the Wright Brothers’ first flight! Yet, it all started with imagination and creativity on a windy day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina!
Knowing that imagination, creativity and innovative thinking are not the same is important. It helps an organization identify what their leaders need in their “toolkit.” Do they need to have all three of these skills – or only one or two of them? Which skills do particular teams need?
How Do Leaders Strengthen Creativity and Imagination?
While Christenson’s definition of Innovative Thinking helps us clarify what we mean by Creativity and Imagination, let’s just focus on how leaders can strengthen or enhance their creativity and imagination. Basically, this is done in two ways:
1. Broaden Your Knowledge Base.
Remember that creativity is mostly about “connecting existing knowledge” in new ways! Broadening your own knowledge base increases your chances of creatively connecting things you already know.
Knowledge from outside your organization and outside your areas of specialization can often improve “creative connections.” For example, if you lead an accounting firm, find out what your competitors are doing. Yet, also learn about practices and trends that are entirely outside the accounting field!
Leaders should also recognize that creativity does not occur in a vacuum. It requires a frame or context that establishes focus. For example, setting out to “be a more creative person” is far too broad and general. In contrast, setting out to “be creative about marketing our new product line” is much more likely to result in new and concrete ideas!
2. Rely More on Others to Help “Inspire a Shared Vision.”
- Accept that very few leaders have enough creativity and imagination to “Inspire a Shared Vision” without involving other people.
- Surround yourself with people who know things you don’t know and tap into their creativity and imagination.
- Encourage and reward people who demonstrate creativity and imagination. Avoid saying “that won’t work” too quickly. This can send the message that new ideas are unwelcome.
- Allow others to question the value or practicality of any vision or solution that you suggest. Listen to others’ perspectives and thank them for being brave enough to question your ideas.
- Remember that a workable, “shared” vision or solution is much more likely if it was created with input from a group, team, or family.
Take Some Advice from Steve Jobs.
While Steve Jobs apparently had a great deal of imagination and was exceptional at innovative thinking, he downplayed the idea that he was very “creative!” Instead, he emphasized the importance of “connecting existing knowledge.”
In Jobs’ own words (from a published interview):
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. They were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
Jobs went on to explain that the more varied your experiences are, and the more attention you pay to those experiences, the more likely that you will “connect those dots” in a creative way.
What Have You Learned?
Whether you select and hire leaders, are a leader yourself, or aspire to a be in a leadership role, what are you taking away from this article that you can put to use? Make a note about one or two things that you plan to start or stop doing as a result of this article.