Editor's note: This episode was released on November 11. Its transcript has been provided by Jeremiah B. Leonard, to whom the SFRB is grateful.
Being creative, for some people, is easier said than done. Michael A. Roberto, a management professor at Rhode Island's Bryant University, wants to see more people unleashing more creativity in hope that not only will they improve their own lives, but the lives of others. How might this seriously be accomplished, though? Roberto, whose new book 'Unlocking Creativity' will be released in January, explains on this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried. 'Unlocking Creativity' at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Crea... SEE more interviews HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
COTTO: Some people are naturally creative, but others take a bit of motivation. What does it take to unlock your creativity? That’s a question asked by Michael A. Roberto in his new book titled Unlocking Creativity. It’s going to be released early next year, January. He explains his methodology for being creative, why he thinks creativity is a good thing for individuals and society, and more on this week’s episode of Cotto/Gottfried. I’m your cohost, Joseph Ford Cotto, editor in chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. My cohost, Paul Gottfried head of our editorial board will not be joining us this week.
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COTTO: When a lot of people think about what it means to be creative, I think everybody has a certain idea of what creativity means, but obviously different people are going to interpret it in different ways, but you talk about creativity in terms of problem-solving and of course that means finding the best solution. What in your opinion is the biggest detriment to creativity within the context of problem solving? What tends to trip people up?
ROBERTO: For me it’s the resistance to new ideas. We get attached to our existing beliefs. We get attached to our existing way of doing things. And it’s hard to shake those mental models. And so, we need to sort of wipe the slate clean before we can start anew, and we’re not good at that. That’s a very difficult thing. So, that’s always — we’ve always known that. I think what I try to do in this book is look at some of the mindsets organizationally that impede creativity beyond just looking at our own internal barriers that we face.
COTTO: In the business world how is this important to creativity. I mean obviously it’s a very open-ended question, so generally speaking, how in the business world is it important to be creative in problem-solving today with technology having really changed the way businesses conduct themselves? It used to be that you had to fly out for a meeting, now you can do it with video conferencing through the Internet. That, I guess, is a form of — no question — it’s a form of innovation. But how nowadays is creativity, from your perspective especially important for businesses to have a competitive edge?
ROBERTO: Well, for me I describe it as the growth crisis of large corporations. There’s been data analysis done for example on the Fortune 500 showing that a vast number of them have either experience no growth or very little growth in their top line over the last decade. And so, that’s a startling thing, to think that so many of these once very successful companies and some still profitable but they aren’t growing. And so, that’s one issue. But even for organizations of any size and age, the notion that industry after industry’s being disrupted by new players that look at it with fresh eyes and who’re able to bring new ideas and disrupt, and why can’t the existing players create new solutions for their customers? What’s getting in the way? For me, I open my preface — I tell the story about how as a kid we sat around on Tuesday nights at eight o’clock with my family, we watched Happy Days — I love The Fonz. And you know, the broadcast networks are kind of stuck in a model that looks eerily similar to 1978. They continue to have a fall season and episodes once a week — twenty two episodes in a season ending in May, and yet all of my students who graduate, they’re cord-cutters. They don’t even have cable television. They binge watch. Their habits, their tastes, their needs are totally different. And yet as an example, there’s an industry that’s had a hard time adapting. And so, I think there’s a growth crisis for a lot of companies and there’s a threat of disruption in many industries that says we need creativity if we’re going to succeed.
COTTO: Explain the growth crisis. Why do you think right now it’s important in terms of just the American economy?
ROBERTO: Well, of course over all you start from an economic growth standpoint we’ve had lower growth than we’d like now for quite some time. Little bit of pick up recently, but over all it’s been a tough slog for the last eighteen years or so, I guess. But also, at the corporate level I think it’s really a challenge because as a company if you’re not growing the top line it’s hard to continue to grow profits obviously. But there’s a whole bunch of other issues that emerge, right? Talented people want to be in a place that’s exciting and growing, and it’s hard to retain talent if you’re in decline, right? So, I think that’s a challenge that comes with not growing. But also, your customers — if they see that the products are not evolving to meet their needs than they begin to become frustrated. So, I think this growth crisis is really an issue not just for the bottom line but over all it affects — can you satisfy our customers? Can you satisfy your employees as well?
COTTO: In the workplace, senior management probably — I would imagine — be the biggest force of opposition to creative ideas, perhaps because they feel it would be too expensive, because they feel that it might make the company look bad — that sort of thing. From your research is my position accurate, inaccurate, or maybe somewhere in between?
ROBERTO: No, I think it is somewhat accurate. I think there’s a little bit of … talking the talk but not walking the walk in a lot of cases where there’s discussion and talk about creativity being a priority. IBM did a global survey of CEOs where the consensus was that creativity was going to be one of the most important leadership attributes going forward. And yet, when you actually look at surveys of employees when asked, “how were you treated when you had a new, original idea? How were your creative solutions either embraced or not embraced by management?” You often hear employees disenchanted by it. So, there’s this element of doubletalk — you’re saying you want it, but how are you actually treating people. Although, I cite some research by Jennifer Muller at the University of San Diego that shows it’s not just senior leaders, that there’s a creativity bias over all organizations. We say we want creative people, but we reward conformists, and we in fact have a bias against people who maybe look at things very differently than we do. There’s even some research that shows teachers say they want creative students but reward conformity and people who comply, more than they do reward people who have original ideas. So, I don’t think it’s just senior executives. I think there’s a bit of a problem or bias against creativity that permeates a lot of organizations.
COTTO: I think the American educational system — I’m referring to K through 12 here, which has its roots in the industrial age — that really is something which stunts growth. It’s very conformist, very rigid compartmentalized, and I think it sets people up in the business world to be followers rather than leaders — more or less.
ROBERTO: And that’s where of the journey on this book really started with. I’ve been in a student at decision-making — how groups and teams make decisions for twenty years, and about seven years ago we at the University, at Bryant university in Rhode Island where I teach we decided that creativity was really a capability that ‘A’ could be developed in students, and ‘B’ needed to be. We made a big bet on this. We said we’re going to start teaching design-thinking to every student, and we’re going to be focused on creativity as something that we think is a capability and a skill that needs to be developed. Because we recognized that the educational system doesn’t always reward it — doesn’t teach it. Sometimes treat it as a genetic trait — you have it or you don’t. And I just don’t believe that. I believe it is something we can cultivate. In fact, I think in some ways Picasso was right when he said, every child is an artist it’s what we do to them we somehow make them not artists when they grow older that they have naturally artistic abilities. And I think that goes for creativity overall. So, that’s been our belief. And so, we’ve tried to inject a different approach that really is where I began to be interested in — well, what are companies doing about this? Are they cultivating creativity or not? What stands in the way?
COTTO: What has your team found is the most important thing to do to foster a spirit of creativity in children?
ROBERTO: For us what we find — there’s this great little exercise that I write about that Bob McKim did at Stanford many years ago, where he asks a group of adults — he says, “turn to your neighbor, take out a piece of paper and scratch them.” He gives them thirty or sixty seconds to draw a sketch. And I’ve done this so many times with adults. Even with college students. And they all react the same way. First of all, there’s this nervous laughter when I announce the thing, and everyone’s very reticent to even pick up a pencil. And then they try to draw a sketch, and you can hear again still this nervousness. And then I say at the end of the forty-five seconds or so, “show your neighborhood the sketch.” And you see a lot of the same things. You see a lot of laughter. A whole bunch of apologies — “I’m sorry.” Some people don’t even want to show the sketch to their neighbor — they’re so embarrassed by it. And if you repeat the same exercise was ten-year-olds, they of course are proud to show their picture. So, I use this example of we fear the judgment of others and we fear failure so much that it impedes our ability to be creative. It’s something kids don’t have, and somehow that fear grows as we grow older. And, for a variety of reasons I think that happens.
COTTO: Do you have any idea what the biggest reasons that this fear grows might be?
ROBERTO: Well, I think some of it is just the natural concerns that happen as you become a teenager and you worry about what others think of you. There’s sort of natural maturation that that does become something we worry about much more starting maybe in our teen years. But I certainly think it’s also partly our educational system, that we’re not spending maybe enough time asking them to give constructive feedback to one another, collaborate with one another. And so, they’re not learning how to take feedback. And, we submit a paper, we get a grade. That’s different than getting feedback in the way that the creative process works which is you get feedback and you revise what you’ve done. We iterate. I think we don’t do enough of that. I’m not just blaming secondary schools I think even at the college level we traditionally have not done enough iteration. We just give them an assignment and grade it. OK, that’s feedback, but we’re not asking them to iterate on that same assignment very much, are we. And that there’s this great fear of failure. You don’t want to get the negative comment and we’re not giving them a chance to learn from their failure and improve until the next assignment. In some college courses there is no next assignments. It’s one big paper that you have to do, right? So, we have not cultivated the ability to take feedback, stumble, fall, learn from it, improve. We all need help doing that. In the workplace it’s kind of the same way — the annual merit review. You wait a whole year to get really good feedback if you really even get good feedback. It’s not the way you cultivate the iterative mindset that’s key to creativity.
COTTO: Say you’re a mid-level manager at a midsized to large corporation, and you have a great idea — something that’s creative, but your boss says, “no, we don’t want it.” What would you recommend that person then do. Is it that at some corporations it’s not even worth staying there because they stifle creativity, or do you think there are ways that people can promote creativity even in an environment where it’s not encouraged?
ROBERTO: I’m a big believer in “show, don’t tell,” or, “show and tell.” If you can’t convince them in an oral presentation or in a memo then you’ve got to show them. So, of course we know in the creative process that we learn by doing, but we also persuade by doing. So, what can you do that’s low risk, that’s inexpensive, that’s fast to create a prototype that might allow you to get some customer feedback that might be able to then get you the comments that would be persuasive? To show “this is how it would work! This is what customers say. We’ve actually gone out to them and we’ve shown them a crude prototype of what this new product would look like. And here’s the feedback.” Boy, that’s more persuasive than just saying “we’ve looked at a data set and we think there’s a market for X.” Well, maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, but “no we actually made a mock up, or we drew out a storyboard of what our new product would look like. We went out to some customers. We talked to them, and we got actual feedback. Here’s what it is.” That might be an approach that’s more effective than the usual death by PowerPoint.
COTTO: Speaking about environments within businesses, do you think that businesses now — once again, mid to large ones — do you think that they’re doing more than they used to do to foster creativity, or I guess you could say to affirm it, or do you think that things really haven’t changed much over the last ten to twenty years?
ROBERTO: No, I definitely see it a lot of the work I do with companies both in research and in workshops that I run. There’s a lot of effort being exerted. A lot of money being spent, frankly. I don’t know how effectively it’s being spent, right? So, there our innovation labs popping up in lots of companies. There’s … development work that’s being done on this. There’s people going to seminars. There’s projects being launched. There are a lot of activity and that’s good, that shows at least some level of commitment, at least a recognition of the need to invest in building the creative capability of the organization. I don’t know how effective it’s been, and that’s what really I wanted to learn about — was what’s getting in the way, what’s blocking creativity? Even when there is effort being exerted to get there.
COTTO: You mention in your book the six organizational mindsets which inhibit creativity in certain companies. What are the six mindsets and why are they so important?
ROBERTO: So, for me what I mean by mindsets by the way I mean belief systems about how we think about, how we make decisions about, how we act with regard to creative ideas. So, I talk about six of them.
The first is the linear mindset. This is the idea that in many organizations they fail to comprehend and embrace the notion that the creative process is iterative and discontinuous. We instead view it as linear. The way strategic planning always was. You do a lot of analysis, you come up with a plan then you go execute. Whereas the creative process is much more iterative . There’s a lot more fits and starts. There’s a lot more learning by doing, as opposed to just analysis and then decide. The creative process you get to action a lot sooner, and then you get feedback and then you have to adapt and iterate. And that mindset, that linear mindset permeates organizations still.
The second is the benchmarking mindset. In so many enterprises so much attention is paid to, “well what’s the competition doing, and we’ve got to go study them — and we benchmark them.” The problem with that of course and that — and I dig into some of the psychology behind this — what we end up doing in many companies is imitating, rather than learning from them. And I talk about how there’s a psychological phenomenon called fixation, where when we look at something and study something , we tend to fixate. It actually narrows our mind rather than opening our mind. We end up copying them in so many ways. I tell the story of how survivor really was this groundbreaking moment where suddenly reality TV exploded. But what ended up happening is that three hundred plus copycats emerged over the next fifteen years. And time and again we see that actually in Hollywood especially in television, where a success will breed a lot of copycats. So, the benchmarking mindset is the notion that we end up doing too much imitating and not enough — let’s learn from them but let’s adapt do our own thing based on that.
The third is the prediction mindset. This is the idea that we ask people with creative ideas “how big is that idea; tell us how big it will be; will it move the needle?” In other words, “we’re a billion dollar company, is this going to be a fifty million dollar product? Because if not, we’re not interested.” And the problem with that is ‘A,’ we’re not very good at predicting the future. When we’re doing something really novel and groundbreaking. And so what we’re asking people to do is the impossible, to protect the really nascent stages — how big the idea will be. So, we put them in a tough spot. They’re either going to exaggerate how big it will be, and then they under-deliver and we kill the project, or they don’t promise it will be that big, they admit that they’re not sure, and we don’t give them any resources because they want to move the needle. So, the prediction mindset gets in the way.
Three more — the focus mindset is the idea that we can stick people in a war room, and we can tell them to focus, and that this will yield the breakthrough insight. And the image we have is the musicians that go away and hole themselves up like U2 did at Slane Castle to work on the great album, Unforgettable Fire. And this idea that somehow that will yield great creative inside when in fact what I show is that a lot of creative insight comes from oscillating between periods of intense focus and some period of getting distance from a problem in different ways.
Two more — the structural mindset. This is the idea that we are constantly re-organizing corporations. That we think we’ll get more creativity if we change the org-structure — rearrange the boxes and arrows. If we flatten the organization, we’ll get more new ideas, we’ll spur innovation. It’s just a simplistic view that says structure drives behavior, and what I argue in the book — based on a lot of work — is that structure often doesn’t drive behavior. There’s other factors like the climate within the organization, the way we design the work, the ground rules we establish for our folks that drive behavior, and just rearranging the boxes and arrows doesn’t often yield much. In fact, hierarchy has some benefits. So, flattening doesn’t always lead to more creativity.
And finally, the naysayer mindset. This is the idea that — yes it’s important to have critique and to look at ideas and scrutinize them carefully, but too often we don’t manage these contrarian perspectives in a constructive fashion and we end up with a situation where everyone can say no and none’s willing to say yes. And all we do does tear apart ideas and we’re never willing to say, “what if; how could we make that work?” So, being able to have devil’s advocates that are constructive is really important, but that naysayer mindset gets in the way.
So, those six are found in unfortunately are very prevalent and lots of organizations, not just large complex ones, and they get in the way of creativity.
COTTO: In your opinion, is one mindset more destructive than all the others or are they about on equal footing?
ROBERTO: Well, I started with the linear mindset because I do you think that’s the one that’s probably the most difficult to break. So, in terms of importance, I’d say at least in terms of transforming it — because we’ve all just — unfortunately we’ve all grown accustomed to this linear mindset — this sort of, you analyze, you deliberate, you decide, you take action. It’s kind of a way we’ve been taught to solve problems. And also for a variety of reasons, I show that it’s part of human nature that we hate to iterate. We fall in love with our ideas. So, we don’t want to get feedback, and we don’t want to have to change that idea. So, we work really hard to come up with an idea and once we’ve done that, we fall in love with it, and we get stuck. So, both the fact that we’ve been groomed in the linear mindset but also the fact that for a whole bunch of reasons we’re inclined to not want to iterate, means it’s pretty hard to shift from the linear mindset to that learning-by-doing iterative mindset that’s needed in the creative process.
COTTO: It seems to me that at the core of the linear mindset is complacency. Which definitely is the enemy of creativity.
ROBERTO: Right. So, you know and look a lot of companies, a lot of enterprises have had a lot of success in the past. And so, once you have that, what happens? You begin to believe that the way you did things, that’s what drove that success. You know, sometimes that’s not true by the way. Sometimes there’s other factors that contributed to that success. But also of course as time changes the key factors that will lead to high performance may change. So, no question complacency happens. It’s not because people are lazy. It’s because they believe the formula that worked for them in the past will work again, and they have a hard time recognizing that the formula may need to change, and the approach to solving problems may need to change going forward.
COTTO: We’ve been discussing midsized to large companies but I think small businesses, they’re sort of forced to be more creative than larger ones because they have to be innovative to survive. It’s not as if they have some corporate superstructure to back them up when they have a bad quarter, or something like that. That’s just my take-away from the relationship between small businesses and larger ones. So, perhaps larger companies can learn quite a good deal from the mom-and-pop stores that they might overlook.
ROBERTO: Yeah, you know I think in a way too much attention is focused on — when we talk about small business what people are talking about is the hot start ups of Silicon Valley. We don’t talk about learning from mom-and-pops — you know family businesses and the like. But there’s so many successful ones out there and many of them, as you say, have been forced to adapt dramatically over time because that’s the only way they’d survive against larger competitors. I think they’re understudied, frankly, by me and by others. So much attention goes to the tech startups and the entrepreneurial firms backed by venture-capital that get a lot of attention — maybe not enough to the mom-and-pops who do a remarkable job adapting overtime. I think that’s pretty admirable, in a way that those who’ve been able to do that and still exist in some cases more than a century after they were founded.
COTTO: It’s the small businesses absolutely have to adapt. About a month ago I was at an old-time pharmacy that had a lunch counter with egg creams — It had obviously a pharmacy. It had like a little bookstore built into it, and it had all these things that are seemingly unrelated to each other. But that’s what the company — that’s what they have to sell in order to serve their clientele and to adapt and to remain functional. And I think that sort of innovation does tend to be lost on larger companies who, unless they are conglomerates, are pretty much focused on doing what they’re used to doing.
ROBERTO: I wrote a case study and I include it in the book research I did about Trader Joe’s which is a remarkable company, which now is a fairly large company and it’s owned by an even larger German company now. But you know when Joe Coulombe founded them he really was just founding — he wasn’t thinking he was going to build this giant chain. He thought he was just starting a neighborhood market in Southern California. And what’s really neat about the Trader Joe’s story is that for many years he was really just a small set of stores in Southern California. It’s not like he went from one store to a thousand around the country. In fact, they don’t even have a thousand now, forty or fifty years later. What he really did was build a small business. And he evolved it. He sold everything from pantyhose to Records to all sorts of things that he scrapped — he realized wouldn’t work. What would this market look like? And who is the target customer? He didn’t really have it right. He figured it out by talking to the people coming in the door, and listening to them. And he sort of meandered and evolved over the course of fifteen years before really perfecting the model. And then of course Trader Joe’s began to open locations in other parts of California and then beyond.
For me, it was a great story of a small business owner who did a really good job of adapting and changing and listening. And boy, what a creative concept. I always like to say you know if I went to you — if we were playing Shark Tank and I was the founder of Trader Joe’s and you were one of the Shark Tank judges and I came in front of you and said, “let me see, I’m going to create a grocery store where we sell no branded goods, where we have no self-check out, no coupons, no loyalty card, nothing’s ever on sale, crowded parking lots, narrow aisles, small footprint, limited selection — you going to invest in me? And no television ads, no social media.” I mean, you’d laugh me out of the room! But that’s Trader Joe’s. And it’s one of the most successful grocery stores on earth, right? Pretty cool. But it didn’t come to him in a flash, right? He built a small business. Built a little market. Tinkered. Evolved. Listened. That’s a pretty cool story!
COTTO: It is. It really is. I was going to ask the last question but you brought up something I think should be addressed. You mentioned Shark Tank, a reality show that obviously came about because of the success of The Apprentice. And that goes back to predicting the future. One company does something and they do it well, and another company says “well this will probably holds up well in the future,” so they do something similar — a knockoff really. But I think companies would find it hard not to fall into the prediction mindset. They’re just so used to doing it. But at the same time, nobody can really predict the future. So, do you have any ideas for like an alternative to predicting? What do you think companies should focus on if they want to try to have some sort of edge in the foreseeable future, but at the same time they want to avoid trying to fall into the trap that you mentioned?
ROBERTO: Yeah, so there’s a couple things I think to do. One is, as you’re looking at competitive landscape, it’s important not just to try to learn from your direct competitors. But to say, “what might be analogous to what we’re doing? Where we could learn from someone who’s doing something really different but where we adapt and apply those learnings to what we do?” That avoid getting trapped into just looking at the people right near you and copying them. And then in terms of predicting, I think it’s really important in terms of that to say look, “let’s stop with the notion of trying to ask people to tell us how big the markets going to be in three years; when that’s just we’re asking them to make up numbers, right? That’s not possible. And instead let’s focus on say, let’s get to market with a test. And let’s see how much traction we get from that test.” And this is the idea that you know you’ll hear different terms for this like the Minimum Viable Product for example the MVP. Let’s get something out there — let’s show us. It gets back to show me. Instead of tell-me how big this is going to be, show me what the customer thinks of this today. Is there a promise or not? And we often will find is if you listen carefully you may realize there’s either no market there — because what you really have is a cool gadget but no actual customer need being fufilled, or what you have is something you thought was good for X, turns out there’s a market for Y. And I’ll give you an example of this.
When Kleenex was launched early in the 20th century it was not designed for people who had colds who needed to blow their nose. Kleenex was developed and targeted toward women in taking off their makeup. It was a makeup-removing product. That’s what all the ads were about. And then a bunch of women bought the product, and a bunch of their Neanderthal husbands started blowing their nose with it. And the company went, “holy crap! You know what? There’s a lot bigger market from blowing your nose than there is from just removing your makeup!” And they listened and the market size turns out to be way bigger than they thought, but they had to get the product in peoples’ hands, go see what they’re really doing, listen to them, and they adapt around that, right? What a lot of companies would have said is, “no no no, this is about — you’re wrong.” No, the customer’s not wrong. The customer’s right, you know? But you had to get it out there. You could never have planned or analyzed your way to that in any way. I think that’s really key. So, I love that story it’s a great story.
But you know in too many cases what companies do is they got a great technology or a great gadget — I mean founders do this too, right? They have a cool technology and it’s a hammer and they go out and look for a nail but they’ve got something that actually doesn’t fulfill a human need or not a big enough human need to create a company. And I think that’s a mistake that happens all the time in business. You’ve got a hammer, go look for a nail. Instead of saying “wait where are the nails that need to be — what’s the human need that needs to be fulfilled?”
COTTO: For the last question, why should people purchase your book? It’ll be coming out next January on the seventh, I believe. What sets it apart about creativity and the business world?
ROBERTO: Well, first of all obviously I would be so appreciative you know for me it’s a chance to share the work I’ve done. And the thought and the ideas that I’ve been working on. And I hope it affects the way people do their work. I’m hoping to improve the way people do their work. And for me I think why the book is, I hope, useful is that it draws from — many of its cases and examples I use are from outside the field of business. From art and music and literature and lots of different fields, and I tried to distill some principles from those examples and tie it to some underlying psychological research. So, what’s going on here? I’m not just telling stories, I’ve got some really compelling story married with ‘whats the psychological principle here? And once I’ve done that, I’ve explained the barrier, and then I hope I’ve given people some practical tools and techniques and methods for overcoming these mindsets or transforming these mindsets. So, for me it’s not an academic exercise. I’m trying to hopefully affect the way people do their work and help them solve some tough problems. And I hope I’ve given the tools starting with examples that I think are fun and entertaining, underline research to show them — hey this is not just a story here’s the psychology behind why this is hard to do, what’s blocking creativity and then here’s some methods and techniques that you can use to overcome those obstacles. So, that’s why I hope people will read the book I think they’ll find it entertaining, everything from the Beatles to U2 to Manet and Da Vinci, to Hollywood — examples from they really wide — Tolkien and Twain. I think they’ll find it entertaining, I hope.
COTTO: That was an excellent discussion. Thank you very much for joining us Michael and thank you for tuning in everyone. See you next week.