Leaders Overcome Confusion by Leading Creatively

“Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood” – Henry Miller

Feeling dazed and confused by the enormity of change that has swept past your doorstep the last few years? If so, you have likely had the realization that a new style of leadership is required to cope with the rising complexity of business models and rapid change in international markets. For rapid change, look no further than the ubiquitousness of smartphones, pods, and pads. R.I.P. old-style providers of music and books?

Confusion occurs for us when something or someone – perhaps an entire organization – conflicts with our normal expectations. We’ve been expecting a certain outcome, but this new reality doesn’t fit with our familiar pattern of doing business. It is easy to hypothesize that such confusion will be the norm in a fast-changing world. Our old order and systems cannot be easily restored and this leaves us feeling both puzzled and struggling for new answers. The resulting confusion is an awareness that past skills might not work any longer and what we need for the future has not yet been proven, nor even identified yet. Let us examine how one can get beyond confusion by engaging the creative process while amidst a state of chaos and change.

Confusion can be turned to advantage

Facing change and confusion in the past we have likely reacted negatively through:

  • Act/react: We sought control of the situation by doing more of the same
  • Ignore/Downplay: We ignored the change and derided its significance
  • Resistance: We showed signs of helplessness/paralysis

However, in psychological terms, confusion or irritation can be a very productive moment for us because old patterns are being doubted, albeit without having the right answer yet! So, how is this an advantage when in the minds of most organizations and leaders there is no place for this seeming contradiction. “Not knowing” has been synonymous with being unprofessional. I am writing to point out that we needn’t fight confusion, as it can be the starting point for a very creative process.

We need to accept that what were success factors in the past, perhaps are no longer valid. New approaches to success will come from knowing how to deal with yesterday’s success factors and yet having the capacity to know when to disregard and maybe even drop them. Awareness of such paradoxes and making use of them is a creative process.

A Most Ingenious Paradox

  • Paradox#1: Understand the rules but be able to break them constantly.
    Even when our business models are breaking down or challenged by new competitors we tend to ignore them or play them down as if they will eventually go away. Already established rules for success can have a “sticky” quality that can leave us stuck and unable to respond to an on-going situation.
  • Paradox#2: To be more productive, practice doing nothing regularly.
    Productivity and efficiency are key parameters for running a business. Output can be measured , while the art of doing nothing hardly seems appropriate in daily business life. However, taking the time to re-focus by briefly shutting out multitudinous distractions and breathing deeply can provide direction and productivity. In short, a leader needs to take time out by perfecting the art of doing nothing.
  • Paradox#3: Listen to experts, but know how to disregard them.
    Experts tend to prolong the past, instead of challenging current opinions. Thus, when everything seems to be too right, we need to question it.
  • Paradox#4: Create many ideas, yet most of them are useless.
    New ideas have to be examined from all sides, nurtured and treated like a seed ready to be planted. Similarly, there is a time when an idea has to be dropped – a limit that is either specified or implied. Finally, once an idea has either been successful or dropped, there comes the time to again stimulate new ideas.
  • Paradox#5: Look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different.
    There’s often more than one “correct” answer and the second or third answer that we come up with might be better than the first. A mental block can be turned around to reveal ways to find more than one answer to any given problem. The first approach to mental blocks is to accept that we are blocked. Once we realize and appreciate it, we are able to look more broadly, see alternative solutions and overcome our cognitive fixation.

The 2010 IBM Global Study asked 1500 CEO’s from 60 countries the following question: How will leaders have to respond to a competitive and economic environment unlike anything we have as yet encountered? The common denominator in their answers was: creative leadership and described future leaders as “creative leaders“. In the midst of chaos and change, such leadership will have to consider previously unheard-of ways to drastically change the enterprise for the better. A most ingenious paradox.


Commitment in Organizations

Much of my work with organizations involves creative review of one or more issues and then developing a strategic direction. Often the situation is complex, or is subject to regular change and is one where no single answer will suffice. Complexity is a function of our society today and is difficult to avoid when strategy-making. Complexity can be countered by crafting something that we call guiding principles. These are key to helping the organization to act in a consistent and coherent manner in situations of complexity or change.

Guiding principles complement, not displace, an organization’s detailed strategy and business plan. The detailed strategy and plan are the systems (or the outline for systems needed), while guiding principles are the commitment. Guiding principles can help a collection of people to understand the very essence of an idea, interpret it for their situation and then act on the idea in their own way.

Guiding principles can help us make sense of things through our own, personal lens. They keep us consistent and aligned to an overall identity or strategy and to do this they must hold particular meaning to you or your group. They are willingly applied by a collection of people. Principles help us to understand a general direction, then personally interpret and apply them to situations that arise afterward.

A good guiding principle has the following characteristics –

  • It achieves a great deal with very few words.
  • It is applicable across a range of situations, but interpretable at an individual level.
  • It is memorable.
  • It uses straightforward language.
  • It will often begin with an action verb to help decision-making.
  • It is one of a small number of principles. Having just one is probably not enough. More than six and you reduce their effectiveness of being memorable, straightforward and so forth.

A good example is the following – Everything in moderation, nothing in excess. This phrase can have a number of interpretations for different people. Some will see it as the need for a steady approach. Others might see that within this phrase, extreme peaks and troughs are fine – on occasion, but not regularly. In all cases, users of the principle will interpret its overall meaning to suit their specific situation. In brief, they will be able to commit to the general idea, in a unique way that has the most relevant meaning for them.

The key aspect of guiding principles is that they help a collection of people to commit on a personal level. They are very helpful in generating strategically-aligned momentum with a variety of stakeholders. This is important. Strategies and plans are written regularly, but it is rare indeed when a strategy is enacted with no interruptions or hiccups along the way.

German Field Marshall van Moltke, who was a brilliant military strategist, once said, ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. Moltke did not avoid the discipline of making strategic plans; indeed, he was apparently a very meticulous planner. What he did recognize, however, was that battle plans do not remain static. Any engagement is an emergent activity and strategies should be capable of dealing with emergence.

Guiding principles, I believe, are the bridge between outlining a system of strategic direction and building strategic commitment among those who will make the strategy a reality. Guiding principles give momentum to strategies by providing a clear way for individuals to make a commitment. The key connection of commitment, change and principles is the ability to receive the gist of a direction and to apply it personally. This makes sense. Regardless of the systems provided in each environment, it is individuals who must decide if, and how, they will personally commit and engage.

I am not advocating the end of strategy-making. No set of statements, principles or otherwise, should ever completely displace detailed strategic planning based on evidence, insights and genuine needs. However, I have seen how far-reaching the concepts of principles and individual commitment can be. The idealist in me asks if it is possible to ascribe or co-create a set of global guiding principles that serve fundamental concepts and which could be interpreted and applied by individuals? If whole regions, like Europe can do this, then perhaps there is hope for a global perspective to develop.

What would a global set of principles look like? How could they possibly encapsulate the enormous complexity of the planet we live on and yet be memorable and applicable for everyone (or those willing to participate) to embrace? Is it naïve or hopeful to think that agreeing to a set of world principles is possible? We will not know the answer to this, unless we attempt the debate. Below is a set of six principles which if applied at a personal level by individuals, might sharpen global focus on some significant and persistent issues of our time. These are suggestions* – the beginnings of a conversation about committing to key principles and working together to make them a reality.

  • 1. One Earth.
  • 2. Reduce, Reuse,Recycle.
  • 3. Treat Others as You Would Have Them treat you.
  • 4. Good Parenting is Priceless.
  • 5. Knowledge is Nothing Unless Shared.
  • 6. I Can 2.

Changing Our Minds

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”
– Einstein (attr.)

Most of us have heard this quotion which says that we are limited by the quality of our own reflections. That is, the paradigm we live from and the language we use determine what we see and do. Our conceptual framework constantly shapes the questions we ask, the targets we set for ourselves and the way that we measure success. While our language empowers us to create successful systems and to change them, our language also limits our thinking and perpetuates the problems we want to solve – if we are resorting to ‘reflexive fixes’ and failing to address the fundamentals that created the difficulty. Thus, the linguistic-mental framework that created our success becomes a prison locking us into actions that feed the problem rather than solve it. What we need is a new type of reflection.

Among the daily challenges for leaders should be the development of a new level of thinking that is not at the same tier where the problems were created. This applies to the leader as an individual, as well as to the organizations they manage. I would argue that due to the deep, systemic nature of current global problems, a ‘third order’ change is called for — beyond doing the same things more efficiently (1st order) or slightly changing the rules (2nd order). We need change of a fundamentally different nature.

Organizations need to be able to create that change and leaders are the essential catalysts in such a process. Leaders need to develop the ability to appropriately respond to rising complexities by creating the conditions that will stimulate fundamental change as it is needed. From business thinkers come suggestions for developing leadership competencies in the areas of ethics, aesthetics, and wisdom in response to early 21st century needs. In the brief space of this article I would like to touch on the merits of giving attention to the middle quality – aesthetics – as a leadership compentence.

Aesthetics and Business

There are at least three different ways that aesthetics and business meet: in the tactical importance of design and aesthetics for products and services, in attention for aesthetic leadership as a personal quality and as the strategic application of an aesthetic paradigm to rethink business and economy. “The MFA is the new MBA” is probably the most concise way of introducing the growing importance of ‘the right brain mind’ in business. Daniel Pink made this comment in the 2004 Harvard Business Review, when remarking on large corporations hiring promising arts school graduates in a market placing increasing importance on creativity.

Design and the ability to ‘create experience’ increasingly determine the value of products and services and this requires new competencies for key employees and managers. They must be able to identify, stimulate and organize the creative and narrative powers that shape these products and services. Already such competencies moved from ‘nice to have’, ‘need to have’.

Aesthetic Leadership

During the 1990’s, Pierre Guillet de Montoux started unlocking the deeper potential of aesthetics at the Stockholm School of Business. In Aesthetic Leadership- Managing Fields of Flow he talks about “aesthetic management” and describes how companies and managers can use their aesthetic abilities to envision their future and inspire their organizations. His treatment makes clear that aesthetics is part of a long historical development:. “Arthur Schopenhauer extended philosophy into a new market for metaphysics where art could work. Joseph Beuys extended art into society. Now the time has come to expand the art firm from … theatres to business on a vast aesthetic field…”. This trend is found in other business schools – Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo and Insead who are all adopting programs or activities researching the promise of aesthetics, while companies themselves are engaging in practical programs that draw from art appreciation in order to stimulate creativity and innovation.

Strategic Aesthetics and Third Order Change in Business

Matthieu Weggeman of the Netherlands identifies aesthetics as one of the distinguishing characteristic for a possible “Rhineland model’ of doing business, offsetting it against the Anglo Saxon approach. Back in 2006 and 2009 Göteborg University School of Business organized a conference “The Design of Prosperity: The Driving Forces of Our Present Future” and the Borås summit on “The Design of Change and Innovation”. The underlying question on the summit’s announcement asked “The dream of modernity of over: what happens to prosperity?”. During its lectures and workshops, Scandinavian CEO’s met with European artists to discuss possible relationships between art, design and new roads for prosperity, economics and business. Their aim was to see whether using a humanistic, cultural paradigm allowed new questions to be asked and new solutions to be formulated. This sort of development may seem elusive, but there is nothing trivial about aesthetics in business. Its development can mean the difference between success and failure, while its adoption might completely transform organizations. For leaders to benefit from this trend, however, they need to first be aware of it and able to distinguish its different levels/possible effects as well as having the competency to engage its support when necessary.

Ideally, leaders will be encouraged to develop their ‘rhapsodic mind’ and be able to think like a Leonardo da Vinci, or at least emulate this sensitivity with its requisite ability to respond appropriately and from a place of depth. To do so we will need to identify new sources of inspiration, develop new qualities of reflection in order to develop that potential into practical solutions for business and society at large.