Last week (though in truth, it feels like far longer), I started sharing with you some advice for calling upon your inner creative in a moment such as ours. As I said in that post,
I know a lot of you are being called upon to get creative now. And I get it. The interruption to our daily routines that COVID-19 has presented to our work is unprecedented. As such, the way we do our work in the midst of these changes is similarly novel. You have to get creative, in the most literal sense.
I’d like to help you get to work.
This week, I want to continue that conversation, with a few other qualities and capacities that will help you reimagine your work in important ways. Whereas the first set of traits feels largely individual, these next pieces can be viewed as both essential individual qualities and crucial qualities of a workplace that supports and values creativity.
Ready? Let’s go.
Determination: Are you redefining your metrics for success as we enter a largely experimental stage?
For many event planners, the metric for success that makes the most sense to measure is attendance. Managed to draw 250 people to a program? Sold out our ticket allotment? Call it a win and move forward. But in a moment where we have considerably less information about (a) what our audiences need, or (b) the factors competing with their attention, blockbuster participation will inevitably be harder to come by. As a result, we may find ourselves increasingly discouraged, demoralized, or uninspired. And that’s okay.
Anytime something new is coming into being, it requires multiple attempts and sustained diligence to come to life. And because this manner of programming and engagement is so new to so many, it’s going to take some time to gain traction – as we assess the needs of our population and adjust accordingly, but also as we get better at the logistics of these programs. The challenge here will be staying motivated while we look closely to see what will work. For individuals, this will mean finding your go-to sources for inspiration and keeping them close as you engage in difficult work; for leadership, this will mean staying in contact with those who you lead, encouraging their work, and finding points of praise and inspiration that don’t just prize high attendance.
What can you value instead? Great question. A few suggestions:
- Did anyone reach out afterward in appreciation for the diversion from current events, the addressing of a topic they’d been wondering about, or the opportunity to learn something new?
- How does it give insight into how students are spending their time at home?
- Does it add any new skills to the toolbox of (a) the students attending, or (b) the organizers themselves?
- Did any missteps serve to remind you of populations or segments of populations to consider in future programming?
These might seem like small questions, but small steps over an indeterminate amount of time are all many of us have right now; take the wins where you can. Even small steps forward count.
Execution: Who feels like they can or should contribute their voice in this moment where it’s so needed?
In speaking about relationships with allies, advisors, and activators last week, I mentioned that now is the time to cash in on the capital that you’ve hopefully built with those who have power and influence. Their ability to sell your idea to higher-ups who may be skeptical, could be invaluable should you decide to take any big swings during this time.
But to effectively leverage these relationships, you need to have big ideas to work with. This means cultivating staff members and student leaders who have big ideas to share, and cultivating a work environment that helps them feel comfortable sharing them. This second part came up three years ago when I wrote about the challenges that intergroup conflict can present to the creative process:
The rush that so many of us often feel to solve a problem means that the first workable solution, or the one shared by the most vocal member of the group, gets enacted with little questioning. What’s more, this strategy rewards the fastest thinker, but not always the most thorough or nuanced one. The potential result? New problems rising from the ashes of old, because their underlying issues weren’t identified in the initial dash.
Fisher and Ury recommend combatting this particular creative challenge by “separating invention from evaluation.” That is to say, keeping the ideation process, where multiple ideas are put on the table, separate from the narrowing process. A lack of this separation often burdens brainstorming to the point of demotivation, as a “Devil’s Advocate” or “Negative Nakia/Niccolo” can shoot down ideas as they’re presented. [emphasis added]
This is additionally challenging when, as with many, these conversations are happening digitally.
Help manage this by letting people think about ideas in advance of any synchronous convening, and perhaps drop them in a central location like a shared doc or first edition of a meeting agenda. People can have the opportunity to match what was shared in writing, to the case that one might make for the idea in person. Then, additional time can be dedicated to formulating questions about the ideas after the fact.
Seem time-consuming? It is. But it can be, and often should be. The end result tends to be worth it, as I continued with in the creativity and conflict piece:
By keeping these elements of the process distinct, and honoring that practice even when challenged by others in the room, a few things happen. First and foremost, it [allows] the ideation stage […] to operate independently from the judgment and narrowing stage, by design. An additional benefit: the potential to hear multiple sides of an issue is preserved. Rushing through that first step often silences testimonies that allow issues to be multidimensional.
Flexibility: We have to manage our expectations; some of our efforts won’t “succeed” by any measure. What then?
In many ways, the conversation about determination started above, and the conversation about flexibility are one and the same. The fact of the matter is, programming through a pandemic is a profoundly difficult task and practically no one was prepared to do it well, on short notice, with such dire competing circumstances. And this means that in the process, things will go wrong. Tech will fail us, tools we selected will fall short of the needs or expectations of our audiences, and sometimes people just plain won’t show up.
I put it this way when training folx on creativity: “some people don’t try new things because they’re afraid they’ll screw it up. Of course you’re going to screw it up.”
Flexibility, in this case, means treating those screw-ups as valuable learning opportunities, and not signs that our work isn’t valuable – or worse, that the people doing this work aren’t up to the task. In fact, it likely means they’re on to something important…and given the opportunity to learn from it, your end product will likely be better as a result.
The lesson from a misstep, a mistake, or a poorly attended event is rarely “don’t do that event again,” and yet that’s the message that many of us are conditioned to take from those moments. So should you find that something you put together is poorly attended or poorly received – and like I said, we should all prepare for that possibility – instead of thinking “well, we’re never doing this again,” think about instead asking “how do we avoid this misstep the next time we give this a try?”
A few tips for crafting a flexible environment for yourself and those around you during a time when the stakes seem high (adapted from my book Cultivating Creativity):
- Prioritize communication. Those who seek to take a creative approach in their domain, must first have what they need to master its essentials. Although many prior versions of “the leader’s handbook” might guide you to keep certain information privileged, think also about what your team could do with the details you’re holding back.
- Rethink the timelines on which decisions are made. We often have far more time than we truly believe; how can we buy time to ensure that decisions can be weighed thoroughly, and that multiple paths are considered?
- Interrogate phrases along the lines of “we’ve always done it this way,” or “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” Trust those who you work with to examine their idea not just on its own merits, but also for how it would fit in their environment/market/circumstances.
- If you have the ability to serve in that ally, advocate, or advisor role, sow seeds for flexibility with other stakeholders. Aim to translate ideas into language they understand (ROI, cultural impact, etc.)
Another tenet that I hold closely in the creativity process, and one closely related to that of flexibility, is that of having a growth mindset. To clarify, in this context I define a growth mindset as “recognizing areas of thinking where we’re more rigid, and choosing to expand our knowledge accordingly.” There are areas of thinking associated with good work in programming that naturally challenge us; for some it may be ensuring that digital options are ADA-compliant, for others, it may be the idea that we can create valuable programming asynchronously. Growth mindset originator Carol Dweck believes that we all have what it takes to grow through these patterns:
To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers. Many […] have benefited from learning to recognize when their fixed-mindset “persona” shows up and what it says to make them feel threatened or defensive. Most importanty, over time they have learned to talk back to it, persuading it to collaborate with them as they pursue challenging goals.”
I think many of us would agree that the new and sudden charge of programming during a pandemic is a “challenging goal” to meet. Hopefully, between this post and last, you feel a little more equipped to tackle it head-on. If I can be helpful as you work with colleagues and student leaders to ride out this time productively, effectively, and creatively, please get in touch! It’d be great to hear from or work with you.