Author Archives: Pilar

Why We Can’t Demand Creativity

When we are faced with a problem, we think all our energies must go into trying to solve it. Keep at it, focus, focus! Keep staring at the problem until we find the logical solution. It seems like we might be going about it the wrong way.

Persistence is incredibly important. If we give up when we hit the first brick wall, we will never advance, we will never create and the world will stand still.

Creativity is more necessary now than ever. Not to grow bigger, get richer or increase our output, but just to survive. The world is evolving, throwing up challenges we’ve never encountered before. Challenges which change every day in nature, in size, in complexity. How can we keep up?

That’s where imagination and creativity come in: problems, now more than ever, don’t get solved in the old ways. 10 years ago, we might throw money at the problem: now there is none to invest. Decisions are being made that solve today’s problems leaving the challenges that tomorrow will bring unaddressed.

Meanwhile, people in organisations are being told “to get creative”, to have ideas, without being given the time and space that creativity needs. Managers, team leaders and “bosses” are still demanding that people be creative. A friend of mine who is shadowing a manager at the moment, shared with me some examples of a very dubious management style. The woman she is observing rarely gives any positive feedback. All her feedback is negative criticism which comes in the shape of public scolding and telling off. Yet in meetings, she will tell her people: “I want you to have ideas!” Meanwhile, she tolerates no failure so everyone is scared to death of taking risks, including having ideas that might be inappropriate or even “bad” ones.

I’m a creative person. Many of my ideas arrive in the shape of artistic projects but I’m also good in a crisis, good at devising new ways of working and creating learning packages in different forms. But tell me to

have an idea

and my brain freezes.

However,  if you present me with a problem and give me 24hrs to think about it, I’ll come back to you with a few things to try out.

During those 24 hours, I will write the problem down. I will gather data, read some articles, surf the web. I will ask others what they think, I will sketch out what the solution will look like. I’ll do all that and more.

But the best solution won’t emerge during all that activity. It will appear the next morning when I’m having a swim; or when I’m daydreaming, standing on the bus; or when I take my 20 minute walk around the park.

Moments of insight are preceded by the same brain activity as that which takes place when we are relaxed (for more on this see Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works). Maybe that’s why when we concentrate really hard on a problem, riddle or puzzle, we can’t solve it.We’re staring (literally or not) at the problem and our brain is constantly pushing hard. Problems which need new solutions can’t be solved by feeling the pressure all the time. To solve them, relaxing has to be part of the process.

Putting people under pressure to be creative might help those who work best when they have an adrenaline rush or when they are afraid, but if you want sustained creativity to get you through the tough times and help you excel in the good times, you have to give people space. (Plus, the stress will eventually have negative effects.)

Space to see the world beyond the four walls of your organisation and its issues; space to let their eyes, ears and minds take in different points of view; space to pursue an interest outside their industry; space to relax to let their brain process the information coming in and dig further into their brains to make the unusual connections which will put i

The need to operate through change may cause panic; this panic might generate stress which will prevent us from finding moments during which our brain can relax and our subconscious help us in putting it all together. No matter how much you thrive under pressure (if you do), remember that not everyone can solve problems and create new solutions without finding some time to disconnect. Be sensitive. Be creative.


Posted by on May 9, 2012 in change, leadership


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From the Comfort Zone to the Discovery Zone

Here are some questions I hope will help you turn change into a learning opportunity.

The comfort zone. That “zone” that a lot of trainers want to take you beyond. I don’t like that phrase.

For a start it implies that we are, well, starting from a point of comfort and that might not always be the case. We might develop habits which are actually preventing us from feeling comfortable: in charge, on top of things and well, happy. However, changing them fills us with fear. Fear of the unknown. Ah, fear, we already know that it is the biggest block to progress – I’ve already spoken enough about fear before, so let’s get back to the comfort zone.

The reason why I don’t like the phrase is because it suggests that, to go outside it, you need to feel uncomfortable. There is a belief that in order to progress, in order to learn, you have to step outside your comfort zone, you need to do things that you are uncomfortable with in order to heighten your awareness and see things differently. Maybe that is the case, but what would you rather be told: that you are going to step out of your comfort zone or that you are going to step into the discovery zone? Both might fill you with a little bit of fear (depending on your personality) but which one has a spark of suspense, a hint of a promise of an uplifting experience?

Change, whether initiated by us or imposed on us by others, will always have an element of discovery within it. We might discover something about ourselves, something about those around us, something about the way the team operates, something about “how things are done” in our organisation.

When thinking about the effect of change, I always start with the effect it has on the individual.

Have a think.

How does change affect you?

It might be better to think about a specific instance, when you had to change something about the way you operate, about the way you behave, about the way you interact with others.

What kind of effect would this have had on others? Were you energised? Was it contagious? Were you frustrated? Was that contagious?

Be aware of what is oozing out of you and how it is affecting everyone else. Be sensitive too. Change will have different effects on different people in a team (I’m keeping this post work-related, for simplicity’s sake) – be sensitive enough to mould your joy if you know that someone around you is struggling with change. Yes, use it to show them there is light at the end of the tunnel, but be mindful enough of their worries.

In a similar way, if you are going through a difficult time, look for support where possible to move on. You don’t need to pretend that times aren’t tough, you don’t need to hide your discontent, but don’t let it wash everything you do and spread to those around you.

Find the right place to voice your concerns.

Try to see your problems from a different perspective. Imagine you are advising a friend, what would you do? (I have observed that we are always better at giving other people advice than guiding our own actions ourselves. For research on this, visit Daniel Pink’s blog.)

If you are struggling with change, it might be useful to look for little nuggets of learning hidden amongst the chaos. What can I learn about myself? What am I learning to do differently that will be useful beyond this experience? How is this changing my relationship with others? Am I acquiring new knowledge, new skills?

Sometimes it might take us a while to see clearly though the discovery zone and sometimes, what we learn won’t always have positive connotations.

But if we have no choice but to go through change, why not try to get comfortable with what we are going through and look for little learning gems?

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Posted by on April 20, 2012 in change, leadership


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The Role of Emotions in Change

Very rarely do I get so inspired by something I get in an e-mail that I want to write about it.

Charlie Gilkey’s newsletter, which I subscribe to, contained a short piece in it which I absolutely loved. He talks about the fact that when we have fears or insecurities, we often think (sometimes we are even told) that we should get over them. This is even more so if the emotions are a reaction to something we are doing at work, for there is still the feeling that fear and insecurity have no place in the workplace.

And yet… We all feel them at some point. I often think that the best way to deal with emotions is by acknowledging them. Self-awareness must come first, or else you will always operate at surface level, not really understanding why you are doing anything.

The next step would be to ask yourself: “What’s the worse that could happen?”

Sometimes the answer to this might make things even worse! But then at least you know that you have reasons for being afraid, nervous, anxious…that you are right to feeling that way. You will also be aware than in moving forwards, in making things better, you might have to fight through those insecurities.

If the answer to “What’s the worse that could happen?” calms you down, then celebrate it. But don’t punish yourself for still feeling strong emotions. We are all human. Just know that your fears will disappear once you begin to change.

Sometimes the emergence of emotions signal that we care. That what we are doing is important to us. That big things are at stake.

In the same way, don’t forget to see this as a reason of why others react strongly against change: sometimes they care so much, they can’t help it.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Charlie Gilkey. He mainly addresses entrepreneurs but I think his thinking translates just as well to the wider workplace as, though we are not all growing businesses, we still keep growing ourselves.

“If you’re doing something worth doing, it’s normal to feel anxious, afraid, insecure or uncertain. Extraordinary journeys come with their fair share of extraordinary emotions.”

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Posted by on April 18, 2012 in change, leadership


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Why We Don’t Like Changing. The Evolutionary Psychology Approach.

One of the most common causes of resistance to change is fear of the unknown – the long-term equivalent of being “paralysed by fear”.

It takes a lot of energy to learn new ways and new behaviours. Most times making changes involves taking risks.

Researchers in the field of evolutionary psychology go as far as to suggest that our attitudes to risk are linked to our survival instinct. Building on the work of Charles Darwin, Nigel Nicholson suggests that just as those species best physically adapted to the environment have survived, the same behaviours that allowed Stone Age Homo Sapiens to thrive, underlie modern human behaviour. One of those behaviours is loss aversion.

If we think about the Stone Age, when food and shelter were scarce, we can understand that those who had just enough resources to survive would not take big risks with them. A small loss of resources would have a big impact on their survival. In contrast, those who felt safe or had plenty to spare, might be more likely to explore their surroundings.

On the other hand, when faced with a direct threat (such as a predator or a natural disaster) our ancestors would fight or flight furiously, taking big risks to avoid death. This means that our instinct is to avoid loss at all costs, unless we are in a dangerous situation.

Now back to the present. To change takes up energy. And if we think that the change will bring losses that won’t be compensated by the benefits, we will avoid changing. So don’t underestimate the importance of making the benefits of changing clear. Be specific. Show how the present will be improved. Show how more energy will be needed if the situation remains unchanged than if you take those necessary steps forwards.

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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in change, leadership


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Actions Speak Louder than Words

What is the best way to turn around a customer service policy that is overburdended with procedure?


That is exactly what Gordon Bethune did when he finally accepted the post of CEO at Continental Airlines.

Bethune turned down twice the offer of becoming CEO due to a difference of opinion with the Board – they wanted to cut costs, he thought that would bring the company down. One of the first things he did after accepting the offer in 1994, was to set fire to a pile of customer service manuals in the parking lot, sending a powerful message: less procedures, more common sense.

(Source The Tools of Cooperation and Change Christensen and Stevenson. HBR Oct 2006, 84 (10) from Bethune’s book From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback

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Posted by on August 12, 2011 in change, leadership


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Change doesn’t Change

The key to a successful change initiative continues to be reaching people’s hearts.

The world has changed a lot since 1979 – business has most definitely gone global, at every scale. Business has gone virtual, a word that in 1979 meant something completely different. But people’s anxieties, fears and dreams remain pretty much the same.

The essence of human nature has proved to stay fairly constant over the centuries – otherwise, why do we still watch Shakespeare and Greek drama? Our core seems to be challenged when we undergo change, the ground shifts under our feet and we have to change the way things are… because they are just not good enough. Even if the change is for the best, our habits might secretly, subconsciously and subtly, resist.

I have just finished reading a brilliant article, originally written in 1979 and re-printed in 2008 (Harvard Business Review Vol. 86 Issue. 7/8) by John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger. I will take the liberty to quote the first paragraph here as, to be honest, I can’t really put it any better.

In 1973, The Conference Board asked 13 eminent authorities to speculate what significant management issues and problems would develop over the next 20 years. One of the strongest themes that runs through their subsequent reports is a concern for the ability of organizations to respond to environmental change. As one person wrote: “Reorganization is usually feared, because it means disturbance of the status quo, a threat to people’s vested interests in their jobs, and an upset to established ways of doing things.”

Changing involves rewiring our thought-patterns, changing our habits, modifying our routines. Some people enjoy the routine that work can bring. Change can bring about the loss of friendships or strong professional relationships; it can change our physical environment; it can undermine what we have already learned as we have to being a conscious learning journey.

But change can also help us grow, consolidate weak ties, unlock new potential and seal new relationships. The difficulty is in balancing the negative aspects of change, which appear usually in the short-term, with the benefits that the long-term process can bring.

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Posted by on August 3, 2011 in change


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Change is Here to Stay

I read two articles this morning which highlighted the importance of AGILITY in business today and the potential dangers of introducing “change initiatives”.

If we are asking our people to think about change only during change initiatives, does it mean they shouldn’t stay ahead of the game the rest of the time? Does this mean that we do not want them to constantly challenge and review current practice, to avoid our performance from going down?

Another danger in introducing “change initiatives”, as pointed out by Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe in the HBR blog article Communicating Change as Business as Usual, is that the initiative is seen as extra work, not as part of our responsibility to contribute to the organisation’s success.

My other concern with “change initiatives” is that the term conjures up a long-term process, something which will take months to plan, therefore seeing “the change” as taking place some time in the future. While planning is necessary, it seems to remove the possibility of changing today, or of operating in an agile way, which allows to respond to change as we go along. Technology is forcing businesses to stay ahead of the game and is threatening those companies who rely on long-term contracts. (For a good example on this, see Brett Clay’s article “Borders Books Liquidation Shows Change Management Doesn’t Work”.)

Maybe we should get rid of the word Change and substitute it for Evolution, after all, either you evolve or you perish. Or is it a case of “potatoe/potato”?

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Posted by on July 20, 2011 in change