Creative Leadership: The Fear of the Messy Unknown

  • 3 mins read

Creative thinking in business starts with having empathy for your customers. You cannot be truly inspired if you’re sitting comfortably behind your desk – unless, of course, you’re venturing into online forums and social sites where customers express their complaints.
Looking at spreadsheets filled with focus-group data won’t inspire breakthrough ideas. In the real and virtual worlds, you’ll hear unexpected, outside-the-box comments. Even feedback from irrational people – the customers whose comments you really don’t want to hear – can provide important insights.
When you pursue information without preconceived ideas, you’ll make new discoveries about customers’ needs. You’ll stumble upon concerns you’ve never even considered.
Implement these strategies to conquer your fear of the messy unknown:
o Visit online social sites to tap into customers’ grievances and desires.
o Ask colleagues who regularly go into the field to report what customers are saying.
o Seek opinions from an unexpected expert, such as a repairman.
o Be a spy. Observe people in places where your product is used.
o Interview potential customers in stores or other places they may be found.
In “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence” (Harvard Business Review, December 2012), Tom Kelley and David Kelley of IDEO identify four common fears that block our best ideas from coming to fruition:
1. The messy unknown
2. Being judged
3. Taking the first step
4. Losing control
There’s more to these fears than we care to admit.
Fear of Being Judged
Most of us care deeply about what others think of us, including our friends, family, superiors and trusted colleagues. While we don’t mind being judged in some situations, we rarely risk our business-world egos.
When I’m coaching executives, I’m privy to confidential stories people share about this. We don’t want our bosses or peers to see us fail, as gossip spreads quickly in the workplace. We therefore stick to safe solutions and suggestions. We hang back, letting others take the risks. Unfortunately, this approach prevents us from unleashing creative ideas.
If you continually censor yourself, you’re effectively trapped in a self-judgment loop. You must be courageous enough to express your ideas without fear, before they fly out of your brain and down the drain.
Start an Idea Notebook
Trust your intuition and embrace your ideas. Write them down in an idea notebook so you can systematically find them, when appropriate. Keep something handy for note-taking during downtime: in the shower, next to the bed, while jogging, in the car.
You can also:
o Schedule daily free-thinking time in your calendar.
o Defer judgment or critical thinking until later.
Creative Feedback
When brainstorming with others, avoid using language that censors expression, and encourage others to follow suit. Instead of saying, “That will never work”, start with “I like” and move on to “I wish”.
Open with positive statements instead of going straight to the negatives. Use “I” instead of “you” to signal that you’re expressing your opinion and want help. This makes others more receptive to sharing ideas and receiving suggestions, without feeling judged.
In my next post, I’ll explore the last two common fears when it comes to creativity: the fear of getting started and the fear of losing control.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to turn the corner from analytical to creative thinking. Leave a comment.

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