How CEOs make time to create that “unexpected leap forward”

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Every business person has heard the proverbial phrase, “If you’re not growing, you're dying.” In today’s business world, where things move at the speed of light and disruption is the name of the game, “If you’re not innovating, you’re dying” seems like a more accurate phrase.

Embracing a strategy influenced by creativity is about preserving space to create that “unexpected leap forward,” as Adam Brandenburger eloquently puts it in his Harvard Business Review article, “Strategy Needs Creativity.” This “unexpected leap forward,” otherwise known as innovation, is what makes good companies great and what can turn a struggling business around.  

Creativity is what drives innovation, yet so many businesses ignore what is painfully obvious every day: Incessant busyness is the enemy of creativity and innovation. And a business strategy devoid of creative influence makes a business vulnerable to disruption, otherwise known as getting shoved into the dustbin of history.

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think….I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people...I do it because I like this kind of life.”

Who said this? An artist? A philosophy professor? A buddhist monk?

No, these are the words of Warren Buffett, one of the most successful and respected business leaders in the world, who is not shy about telling people he spends 80 percent of his time thinking and reading. His “blank calendar” approach was once highly unusual in the business world, to say the least.

However, an increasing number of well-known and highly respected business leaders are following his lead. Bill Gates takes a few weeks each year just to reflect, for example; LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner carves out an hour or two of what he calls “buffers” every day to just think. A SHRM and Ernst & Young survey of 102 top entrepreneurs in 2017 revealed that 41 percent of entrepreneurs and executives set aside 20 percent of their time to focus on new business ideas and innovation.  

In a LinkedIn blog post, Weiner wrote about the critical nature of these “buffers,” as he calls them: “There will always be a need to get things done and knock another To-Do item off the list. However, as the company grows larger, as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand — and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate — you will require more time than ever before to just think. Think about what the company will look like in three to five years; think about the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need; think about how you can widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap.

“That thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus, thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions, synthesizing all of the data, information, and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way, connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues, and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself.”  

Data, Technology, and Analytics Are Not Enough

One of the most rapidly expanding fields is data science. A data scientist’s job is to make sense of the massive amounts of data produced by people every day. 

What’s interesting about great data scientists is that they are “unicorns.” They have tremendous technical knowledge and they have the skill to turn numbers into insights that are then applied to the real world. Finding a great data scientist is not easy because they are both numbers-driven and creative; they need to crunch the data points and they need the creativity to extract meaning in order to build innovative solutions to problems or challenges faced by governments and private industry. 

Why does this matter? It matters because businesses spend too much time and treasure on data and data analytical tools at the expense of thinking creatively about what the data means to real people like employees, customers, and clients. 

In his Harvard Business Review article, Brandenburgerer, a creative strategy teacher, reflects on how a tool and data-heavy approach deprives students of the creative space they long for: “There’s a gap between what they learn and what they’d like to learn….The students know that the tools are essential, and they dutifully learn how to use them. But they also realize that the tools are better suited to understanding an existing business context than to dreaming up ways to reshape it. Game-changing strategies, they know, are born of creative thinking: a spark of intuition, a connection between different ways of thinking, a leap into the unexpected...If we want to teach students — and executives — how to generate groundbreaking strategies, we must give them tools explicitly designed to foster creativity.”

Preserving space for creativity, reflection and, in some cases, the tolerance for really bad ideas that emerge from these activities, has the potential to unlock tremendous untapped creativity that lives within your leadership, individual contributors, and your business strategy. 

“Think Time” Must Become a Cultural Norm

In order to engender more creativity at your business, and to allow this creative spark to influence and enhance a more creative strategic approach, CEOs and executives have to make “think time” or “creative time” an accepted part of the business culture. 

Now, not every team member needs to carve out 20 percent of their workweek to think about stuff; for sure, some roles within an organization might need to be incessantly busy while creative time could yield tremendous upside for others. The point is that protecting thought space and creative time as part of a vibrant workplace culture must come from the top down, so that it’s accepted practice. 

In addition, businesses that adopt a creative time culture need to also accept that some dross will need to be sifted through to get the gold. Bad ideas are part of the process and the people that offer them up can’t be shamed or punished. Waste (i.e. bad ideas) is part of the creative process.   

“Any strategy, which purports to improve the bottom line, must include a proactive and intensive approach to bolstering creativity and innovation, along with the cornerstone of all creativity and innovation: unfettered communication between human beings. We must invest freely in developing ‘human capital’ — an over-used and slightly perverse way of describing the actual men and women who work within our organizations,” wrote Forbes contributing writer Peter Himmelman

Freeing your team to be quintessentially human, to bounce ideas off of one another, to engage in trial and error, and to look at the common from an uncommon angle is at the very heart of fueling a more creative and innovative business strategy.

Creative Time

CEOs and executives have to make 'think time' or 'creative time' an accepted part of the business culture.

How to Find Great Creative Ideas and Where to Apply Them

Brandenburger suggests four ways to spark creativity and innovation:

  1. Contrast. First, identify the assumptions that underpin your strategy. Then, seek to overturn these assumptions. He uses Netflix as an example. Netflix overturned the movie rental business assumptions that brick and mortar stores were necessary and late fees were an important part of the business model. And the rest is history.
  2. Combination. Conjoining seemingly disconnected products and services, partnering with another company and integrating technologies is a fruitful approach. Looking for associations and possibilities beyond the traditional, accepted mode of operation is the key to creativity via combination.
  3. Constraint. By looking at your company’s limitations in a fresh light, they can become strengths. Too much constraint kills creativity; too little constraint does the same. Finding a balance by removing or adding constraints changes the way we perceive things. 
  4. Context. Using a different context to foster innovation is also a useful tool for creativity. By looking to other fields where similar challenges exist, you can find new solutions and innovations. Brandenburger offers biomimetics (finding solutions in nature for problems in science), engineering, and medicine as great examples of using context to fuel innovation.

A strategy fed and underpinned by creative influence has myriad applications: operations, culture building, talent acquisition, and retention and finance, to just name a few. In essence, every aspect and function of your business could potentially benefit from a business strategy nurtured by creativity. 

In the age of disruption, constant busyness, endless meetings, and vast fields of red tape lead to stagnant growth, deteriorated workplace cultures, and, ultimately, a business that’s been left behind. 

Give yourself time to think. Make creative time an integral part of your company’s culture. Embrace bad ideas. Welcome empathy, storytelling, and free communication; question rather than direct and order. Look at the known from a new angle; question your long-held assumptions to find a new way forward. 

Remember when your teacher moved your “saved seat” in the middle of the school year? You probably don’t remember why they did, but you likely remember the weird feeling of seeing your classroom and classmates at a new angle and in a new way. Perhaps you noticed how the light was different  or you noticed a new poster on the wall or you sat next to someone who would become a lifelong friend. 

Challenge yourself, your team, and your business to see things differently. Get out of your comfort zone. Move your seat and free your business to be creative and innovative by carving out time to “just sit and think.” 

It works for Warren Buffett. Why can’t it work for you?

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