Creativity and big ideas

I enjoy watching other L&Ders do their thing. Regardless of if someone is delivering well or not, there’s just something about how people choose to interact with their stage. It’s their arena, and whatever they’ve learned works well for them, is what they bring to the party.

I watched a number of people show their craft to others at last weeks Learning Live conference. I had a lot of respect for Andrew Jacobs from his writing, and from a lot of conversations we’ve had. Seeing him do his thing was excellent.

In his session, he took his blog post on 50 big ideas to change L&D and wanted to play with the content. What I saw happen was very interesting for what he was asking for.

He took 5 of his big ideas, and asked the group to exercise some creativity in producing ten small ideas for every one big idea. His hope was he would have 50 small ideas by the end of his session. Specifically, he asked for volunteers and directed to them that they would now be curators. What happened was, these L&D professionals defaulted to becoming facilitators, because that’s what we do best.

It raised some interesting thoughts for me. Primarily that as L&D professionals, creativity is meant to be our absolute bag. Every learning intervention, every interaction, every facilitative piece, every collaboration, every design is meant to be creativity personified. But I witnessed so little, that I got quite annoyed.

The curators all sought input via a bulleted list, and stopped there. This, for many in the room, fulfilled the brief given. Now maybe it’s my make up, but I take a brief at face value before taking creative license with it. I seek to understand what I’m being asked for, list out all the obvious stuff (to me), and then I go to town.

See, when you’re carrying out something as straightforward as a brainstorming activity, part of the challenge is to discard the rubbish. If you want 10 good ideas, you need at least 100. Seems like overkill, doesn’t it? Who has the time to do that? And surely that’s just a waste of ideas, right? And if you need 10, why produce 100?

There’s no ratio to this. But no one in the history of good ideas ever had just one. They have one idea, they play with it, and they move on to the next. Often, the best ideas are the ‘n’th number down the list. Not because all the others were crap, but because they weren’t refined enough. That iterative process is something many of us in the world of work just aren’t used to.

In the world of technology, that’s known as being in perpetual beta. That is, everything is changing all the time, so there is no right answer.

In L&D (and arguably HR), we get so caught up in responding to queries and being responsive that we forget how to use some critical skills to assess if things are worth doing or not.

Case in point – Bob thinks we should have a poster campaign for the Premier League Football final. Everyone says ‘great idea!’, then leaves Bob to get on with it. No one chimes in to say, ‘that could work, but how about we hold a poster campaign challenging one of the other departments on the same thing?’.

Why don’t we do that? Because we’re afraid we’re going to upset Bob and we don’t like upsetting people. Instead, we just accept what’s provided and make do. Neil Denny described it best in his keynote when he said we fight to accept mediocrity. I tweeted something about this, and someone responded saying that most people don’t like to challenge or criticise. That’s true, they don’t. But we’re in a privileged position in being in L&D. We’re actually not meant to be the pink and fluffy types. We’re meant to be the performance support types, but if we have trouble with creativity, how are we ever going to achieve that? If we don’t know how to criticise, how will be produce the big ideas that will change the world of work?

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Creativity and big ideas”

  1. Problem is, people aren’t taught critical thinking skilks . I commented on a radio show last week that it is plain wrong for a agents to do their children’s homework because they never learn these skills needed in business. As a real simple solution I like Debonos 6 red hats as a metaphor for thinking. That solves your problem here in that issues are considered in a streamlined process with positive, negative, creative thinking etc all get aired, by everyone.

  2. Thanks for your summary and insight Sukh. I didn’t get annoyed; I’m passionate about developing the 50 big ideas into a working concept so don’t hold any person accountable for not ‘getting’ it at the first go.

    It’s interesting that Adrian cites critical thinking skills in his reply. I wrote about that very topic last month based around a twitter conversation we had:

    It seems that you are saying that L&D is a role requiring critical thinking capability over and above problem solving and a customer service attitude.

  3. I bring a “beginner’s mind”, I’m new to many L&D issues and topics.

    I see the outlook on an L&D unit strongly tied to the (for the lack of a better name) “execution culture” of a company.

    To me, if a company has a strong “results-based” approach to executing it’s goals, than L&D has a much easier time playing in the strategic and critical thinking, “let me help you get the results you are accountable for,” performance-gap closing sandbox. It is much easier to get yourself into consulting-type conversations.
    (Very simple example: 1. What are your top 2-3 goals?, 2. How are you doing to what is expected? 3. what are you doing about deficiencies?, 4. When do you expect to see the goal achieved? etc.) These questions open up some gap-identification that L&D could then play a part in closing the gap and value of L&D can be measured by it’s involement in these type of conversations, actions taken, and ROI.

    On the other side, companies that exist and get-by with people working together who want to make it work, and get success through great effort, make it harder for L&D to play around in anything beyond the “My people need X, can you train them on X?”, or “Give me a list of what you can offer and I’ll see if my people need it”. If they are living and breathing in the “Now” they need “Now” solutions and may not give or feel they have the time to spend on gap-identification. They need results quick and “out of the box” solutions.

    As I mentioned, I’m still green. I’ve enjoyed learning quite a bit and look forward to learning quite a lot more as I continue with my L&D journey.

    If I am off-base or you know of any other resources that would help me, I’m looking to grow. I’d appreciate any sharing or comments about my train of thought.

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