Creativity in Business

  The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt

“Is it a yes, or is it a no?

[Michael Ray]

When we're stumped or stuck into over-analyzing something, this is what we should ask ourselves, according to Michael Ray, who has taught a Stanford course on Personal Creativity in Business for more than a quarter century. That simple tip of relying on our gut for an answer is one of Ray's many lessons, mostly counter intuitive.

    They tap into old age principles and wisdom — “if you're in a hurry, slow down,” my mother would says, and it turns out that in our haste to be fast and efficient we tend to drop things, or miss important details. The same happens in business, especially as situations change rapidly.

    In Originals, Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant says it's better to be procrastinators rather than precrastinators — the people who take their time to evaluate information vs. those who jump on projects to try to get in front of them ahead of time.

    It would seem better to get a jump start on things — but is this an advantage? Anyone who has put a lot of work on a project that ends up being scrapped may appreciate this, because holding off actually helps beyond making better trade-offs. Starting later gives our creative juices the opportunity to catch up with our ideas and inform them better through the process of incubation.

    Grant set out to understand originals, a group of people who take initiative, bring creative ideas to life, and thus become successful. Ray has been encouraging original thinking for more than 25 years. He was trained in social psychology at Northwestern University, and the first Professor of Creativity and Innovation, and of Marketing at Stanford.

    He's also the authors of numerous books, including Creativity in Business, which is based on his course. The essence of the book is that business is an art and we should get to know our inner resource. Why art? Because it creates order out of chaos, and chaos is the natural environment of business.

    To prepare, we want to learn to have faith in our own creativity, something that schools and organizations like to stamp out. Judgement is one of the biggest barriers to creativity while curiosity stokes the flames of imagination. Bob Moog, Chairman of, learned to suspend judgment in Ray's class.

    In an interview with Fast Company, Moog says:

“Suspending judgment is something that I learned in class that I use in business today. Successful people tend to approach situations by relying on past experiences in similar situations. But we live in a world where things are changing so fast that if you rely on what you knew five years ago, you’re not going to come up with the best answer today.

Instead of doing what they normally do, which is always trying to be fast and efficient, I tell people to slow down. Never go with the first answer. Suspend your judgment: Listen to the whole idea and try to figure out how to make it an even better solution, instead of going back to something that you did previously in a similar situation-because new ideas are better than recycled solutions.”

    Paying attention is a learned skill — made of sensing, looking, listening… and yes, asking dumb questions to find our own wisdom. As American organizational theorist, consultant, and Professor Emeritus of Management Science at Wharton, the late Dr. Russell L. Ackoff said, we learn the most by teaching, because we're forced to find our own wisdom as we make sense of information to show someone else.

    Ray's approach to inspiration and implementation builds on Ackoff's idea of pursuing something we're curious about. To discover our life's purpose, says Ray, we should do only what is easy, enjoyable, and effortless. Along with destroying judgement, we should destroy the problem of time and stress.

    The deeper theme of Ray’s course is a search for answers to two fundamental questions — “Who is my self?” and “What is my work?” Unless we know who we are, it's hard to figure out what we're going to do with our lives, what's our life's work. Wisdom is why so many end up creating with our talent in later years.

Says Ray:

“In order to deal with the chaos that exists in the world today, you need some grounding. That grounding best comes from knowing who you are in a rich sense, so that as things change, you know what your resources are and what you can bring to a situation. That way, you don’t have to worry, ‘Am I capable of doing this?’ You already know the answer.

The creativity that I’m talking about is different from problem solving. It’s different from just coming up with ideas. People have enough ideas. The real question is ‘Which ideas are you going to use?’

You have to look for a different resource. I always go back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step in the same stream twice. People say that the only constant in the world today is change. What I’m saying is, that’s not really true. There’s another constant in the world: your own internal creativity. That’s always there for you.”

    For successful implementation, and to get away from analysis paralysis, we should ask ourselves the question, “Is it a yes or is it a no?” This simple question will help us level the playing field, because most of the time we do know in our heart and with our gut instinct, but we try to rationalize on top of that.

    Some of our most creative moments can come at a time of intense frustration. Certain kinds of obstacle, can actually improve our performance, says Tim Harford. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer asked school teachers to run an experiment and use handouts in regular fonts alongside handouts in funky fonts, more difficult to read. The students who got the weird fonts ended up scoring better in exams.

    Something difficult to get through slows us down and forces us to work a bit harder to make sense of it. Which is interesting, because it goes counter the whole speed reading and learning movement that addresses only a certain kind of global comprehension and not the type of demanding reading we do want to understand the issues, cross reference them to our body of knowledge, and elaborate on what we're learning.

    We're pattern seekers, but the truth is that disruption forces us to become more creative. When we're alone and have time to think, that's when we start seeing things we don't normally see in everyday activities. Which is why Ray says we should “be in the world, but not of it,” to echo the Bible.

    There's a reason why organizations bring in outsiders, they see things with new eyes, they can take a fresh look at situations by not being immersed in them. It's the same attitude we should have to be creative at work. Ray partnered with an outsider to create his course and write Creativity in Business. Rochelle Myers is an at therapist he met during his own spiritual journey:

“In many ways, we didn’t know what we were doing. But we did know that we wanted to get to a profound level of creativity, a level of creativity that would leverage everything else that our students were doing.

We put together a proposal that talked about dealing with ambiguous situations and with the creativity that’s within people. In a sense, the concept sounded kind of spacey, but I added something about the business side of it to the course description and gave it to the associate dean, who at that time was an accounting professor. And, lo and behold, he really liked the idea.”

    Creativity is something we all have. It's just that often our lifestyle, the way we work, are not conducive to it. We suppress it in a world of opinion and instant judgement, which means we train ourselves to second guess our ideas with doubt and undermine our creative confidence. Bottom line, we don't want to look stupid, especially in a new environment.

    “Creativity is feeling that you’re making a contribution all the time and feeling totally absorbed by what you’re doing,” says Ray. Which is a concept similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulated in Flow. When we are involved in the completely engaging process of creating something new, we don't have enough attention left to worry about other stuff. 

    We get to flow from mastery and the presence of passion for the challenges we're tackling. Ray says we all have at least one “singular recognition experience” during childhood or adolescence — it comes to us as a sense that we could do anything, that we're bigger than life, that we have incredible potential to achieve whatever we want to do.

    But then our voice of judgement covers up the positive feelings the experience leaves behind and we move on. It's not reason, because we've not attempted yet or experimented. For many of us it becomes enough not to try our hand.

    Ray uses a framework to stimulate the five qualities of creativity, which are:

  1. intuition
  2. will
  3. joy
  4. strength
  5. compassion

    The four tools he uses to help people address the challenges that career, time, stress, relationships  and balance put in our way and find prosperity are:

  1. faith in your own creativity
  2. absence of judgment
  3. precise observation
  4. penetrating questions

    The tools are part of a pragmatic approach to tackle life's nagging questions like feeling we're too dependent on the judgement of others, or how to find our personal purpose or mission by identifying the issue or obstacle that when addressed would cause the most significant change for the better.

    Questions are an important tool for finding the real issue. Sometimes we hide behind false problems because we're hesitant to do what we need to do to face the situation. Dan Rothstein is the co-founder of the Right Question Institute. He says questions not only open up thinking — they also can direct and focus it. He says, “People think of questioning as simple, but when done right, it's a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking.”

    Ray suggests to ask “how come” rather than “why” type questions because they're softer while doing the same function. Compassion is one of the qualities of creativity, and we want to take that into account. Without deep personal creativity, ideas-generation activities tend to produce superficial, short term outcomes.

    When we tap into our inner creative sources, we also tap into joy, strength, will, intuition, along with compassion, which allow us to see problems at a high resolution. And that is the part where we can bring our creativity to bear.

    Because so many of us live in a bubble of reading and talking about the same things, having access to the same success stories and usual heroes. But we're all different, each of us a combination of different influences and environments, and if we can tap on our personal way of thinking without inhibitions, then we can find new ways to tackle issues.

    In The Social Psychology of Creativity, Teresa Amabile provides the scientific definition of creativity:

A response will be judged as creative to the extent that (a) it is both a novel, and appropriate, useful, correct, or valuable response to the task at hand and (b) the task is heuristic rather than algorithmic.

    This inspired Ray to look into the value of heuristics, or rules of thumb that can lead to learning or discovery. When a task is algorithmic, it imposed its own tried-and-true solution on the problem. But if it is a heuristic, we must create our own path.

    The heuristic approach is a guideline to find our own solutions. Its root word shares meaning with Archimedes' famous “Eureka!” which means, I have found it. Ray encourages students to write down their feelings associated with memories of times of discovery, and track how they came about it and what happened to the idea.

    Heuristics help keep uncertainty from stopping them in their tracks. Ray calls them “live-withs” — rules of thumb that students take from the classroom and apply to their lives. When the challenge of the week is time and stress, the live-with students get is “Don’t worry, just do it.” In other words, suspend worry, don't let it paralyze you. To address purpose and career, we should use, “Do what is easy, effortless, and enjoyable.”

    “When the going gets tough, the tough relax,” is a rule of thumb that has helped Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber in business. This rule touches every other rule, because worry and fear can be paralyzing. Webber also says we should learn to take no as a question, rather than an answer.

    Using mental shortcuts gets us out of gridlock and into a sense that we're making progress, stimulating our creative juices. In The Progress Principle, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer say:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

    This is how belts in martial arts work as sign posts of our progress toward mastery. And in a way creativity in business is all about refining our personal mastery. When we know the answer to the question, “What is my work?,” we can bring that answer into any job.

    Many of these themes resonate in the principles of innovating adopted at IDEO. Diego Rodriguez, Principal, IDEO believes that by leveraging a process with “guided mastery” and through “self-efficacy” individuals and teams can build creative confidence.


More on making progress on meaningful work, asking powerful questions, and how to ask better questions.

Books I referenced in this article: