[PODCAST] “Your Office Is Built for Extroverts” on Hubspot’s The Growth Show

Today, I am so pleased to share the recent episode of Hubspot’s The Growth Show that I recorded, ahead of my session at their INBOUND conference later this month.

I can’t believe I got to do this show, one that can also count Basecamp’s David Hansson, The Muse’s Kathryn Minshew, and Alec Baldwin among its guests. I mean, really? Me? But I overcame the nerves (I think) to chat with host Meghan Keaney Anderson about how temperament shows up at work, what we can do to level the playing field, and how creativity fits into that conversation. I share a few stories from my family and online…and I manage, as always, to bring up Hamilton 🙂

Thanks to Meghan, Kierran, and Matt of The Growth Show team for having me- enjoy the listen!

(And if you’re headed to INBOUND and want to talk more about this, I hope you’ll come see me Tuesday the 26th at 4:15!)

[PODCAST] #JPSPEAKS Season 2 Premiere: Cultivating Creativity as a Social Justice Advocate

Headshot and podcast episode descriptor: Cultivating Creativity as a Social Justice Advocate with Amma Marfo (JPSPEAKS podcast episode 14)

Click on the image to hear me on the #JPSPEAKS season 2 premiere!

This week, I share a podcast that I recorded with Jamie Piperato of JPHigherEd about the case for creativity as a tool for equity and inclusion.

I always really enjoy talking with Jamie- she is insightful, hardworking, and relentlessly dedicated to creating a more socially just world. By founding JPHigherEd and continuing to find new ways to hold and advance these conversations, she embodies so many of the traits and elements of the Cultivating Creativity manifesto. So it was a pleasure to talk about how my pursuits and hers dovetail so nicely.

Head to JPHigherEd for our conversation, and give back episodes a listen! You’ll learn so much! And huge thanks again to Jamie for such a fantastic chat. Always a pleasure 🙂


Sharing the SXSW Spotlight

As you may know from last week’s post, I am excited to be proposing two panels for this coming year’s South by Southwest Conference and Festival. Between now and August 25th, you can head to South by Southwest PanelPicker and cast your votes for what sessions show up in Austin next spring.

But it feels wrong and self-indulgent to fill your feeds only with what I’m working on- especially because I’m seeing so many other cool proposals that deserve your votes. So below, I’ve compiled a list of some of my other favorite pitches that deserve what I’m calling “a vote and a note.” Click on the titles to explore their proposals and hopefully show your support! Should you decide to upvote any of these (or mine, for that matter), the notes you leave in the comments can make or break some decisions. So use your words!

Customer-First: Inside Social Media at the TSA

Metal through metal detector, courtesy of Rocko.

This would never fly (haaa) on present-day TSA’s watch.

I fly so often for work, I’ve built an image in my mind of what TSA is and can be. While I won’t say what that image is, I will say that their social media presence is quite the opposite: funny, informative, and approachable. It was a genuine surprise to find that they’ll be talking about said approach at South by Southwest (if accepted), and I want to see it. So take your laptop out of your bag, power it up, and throw them a vote!

From their proposal:

With over 60,000 employees working to screen almost 2 million passengers per day, TSA knows about about pressure. So how has the agency maintained its quirky sense of humor on Instagram? How has it been able to launch a wildly successful social customer service effort? And what is the proper way to pack a mummified head for flight? Our panel will pull back the curtain and discuss the details that goes into managing social media for one of the most hands-on agencies in the federal government.

Kevin Hart clapping during

Real (claps) talk (claps), Dillan (claps) is (claps) great (claps) for (claps) this (claps).

I was lucky enough to meet wellness coach and speaker Dillan DiGiovanni during his stint in Boston, and have since teamed up on a number of projects together- mostly because I keep asking him to do things 🙂 His message about the power we have to effect change in our own lives continues to resonate with me, and has stayed with me as my own career and approach to life has evolved. It would be a pleasure to see him shine at South by, so throw him a vote and get ready to have so much fun learning from him!

From his proposal:

Our job is clear: take impeccable care of ourselves and assist others. What’s most needed now, in all sectors, are open-minded, high-performing, healthy and inspiring influencers who will help guide culture in a positive direction. But what does that really mean? What gets in our way of doing it and how can we be successful at it? This experience will leave you thoroughly clear and confident about how and what to do starting today.

Diversity in Podcasting: Righting the Ratio

Insecure Kelli and Issa talking about podcasts

Is Kelli going to this?

Podcasting has been billed as, among other things, a relatively egalitarian platform; as long as you have the ability to record and an internet connection, you can join the game. However, the lion’s share of the podcasting world looks straight, white, male, and able-bodied. This panel aims to address this disparity head-on, using their own experiences and ideas for the future as fodder for conversation.

From their proposal:

Podcasting is a booming business: it’s seen a 40% lift in audience over the past two years and revenue is nearly doubling year over year. However, there’s one major pain point: diversity. Podcasting is mostly white, straight, and male. As of mid-2017, a majority of the top 100 podcasts were hosted by straight, white men. Join a diverse panel of podcast hosts and pros from Gimlet Media, WNYC Studios, and more who are working to right the ratio and increase diverse voices in podcasting.

30 Rock's Jenna Maroney summoning the room:

Women have knowledge to share, and this group wants them to have the chance.

As an active participant on the speaker circuit, I’m aware of the considerable gender disparity in the field. And I’ve been lucky to have support in the Boston community in the form of Bobbie Carlton. Going to events where she’s spoken and reading her writing has reminded me often that there is a place for my voice in these circles. So I’m incredibly pleased to support her sharing this message on a national level, alongside other inspirational female founders.

From their proposal:
All evidence indicates a need for diverse viewpoints. We read about it. We write about it. We talk about it. And yet many conferences, publications, and public platforms fall short of providing that value. 
We’re beyond awareness. We know there’s a diversity problem. It’s time to take action. Let’s focus on what’s next: solving the invisible woman diversity dilemma. This session gives actionable resources to stop talking and start doing.
Unikitty talking about numbers.

These fabulous panelists are all business.

Featuring freelance writer and A Cup of Copy author Kaleigh Moore, this panel of powerful female entrepreneurs will be detailing their experiences in that ecosystem, helping attendees and participants navigate some of the expected and unexpected challenges, and talking about how gender affects these conversations.

From their proposal:

“If you build it, they will come.” Even 30 years later, this famous line rings true — and hopeful entrepreneurs adopted it as a mantra, launching companies by the millions. More than 6.6M businesses began in 2016 alone with no signs of slowdown. For many, entrepreneurship is the Holy Grail — but is it all it’s cracked up to be? The brains behind brands Packed Party and FlashTats will share the realities of entrepreneurship, and how to survive that dreaded first year of business…then thrive.

The Lion King and its Impact on Black Millennials

Rafiki hitting Simba over the head with his staff.

How could you not vote for this one? I mean, are you kidding me?

I didn’t come up with this panel, but it’s like I did. What else can I say, other than I have a lot to say on this topic and look forward to hearing it? Help me get them there, people. C’mon.

From their proposal:

The Lion King has been Disney’s juggernaut of the last 25 years, spawning a best-selling Broadway musical, countless pop references, and in recent years, rap lyrics. As we prepare for a live-action remake, Slate’s Aisha Harris and fellow critics will discuss the movie’s cultural impact, especially on the black kids who grew up with it. They’ll explore the film’s setting in Africa, the controversies it stirred, and how the remake could remedy these issues and, maybe, make the film even blacker.

#OscarsSoWhite: What’s Next for Entertainment?

Viola Davis Oscar acceptance speech

Did #OscarsSoWhite give us this moment? Let’s get the chance to talk about it.

Most of us are familiar with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and the harsh spotlight it trained on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their membership and nomination practices. That spotlight often evaded the hashtag’s creator, April Reign- who also founded the recent #NoConfederate campaign in response to HBO’s proposed alternative-history drama. She, along with filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry (recent Kickstarter record-breaker for the short film “Hair Love”), are passionate about the role that representation in media plays in society. They’ll be bringing their experience and wisdom to Austin…if we help. So let’s get them there!

From their proposal:

In 2015, #OscarsSoWhite was created, forcing the Academy to make changes not only to its structure but also its mindset with respect to inclusion of traditionally underrepresented communities. Hollywood followed suit, resulting in movies reflecting experiences of marginalized communities. 2018 will be an improvement & we will discuss those films & TV shows. But what is next? Is #OscarsSoWhite still relevant? What more can be done? Who should be held accountable? What does diversity really mean?

Pre-Woke Watching: Your Faves Are Problematic

Coming to America Arsenio spitting out his drink

Colorism in Coming to America? Well, what do I do now?

One of the challenges that the entertainment industry faces is an evolution of acceptable imagery, conversation, and stereotypes/archetypes. Aisha Harris over at Slate captures this in a regular segment called “Pre-Woke Watching.” She’s hoping to bring the conversation to Austin, as we dive further into how these images look in the light of present-day, what has happened to change their look, and if we can still enjoy them knowing what we now know.

From the proposal:

On her hit Slate podcast Represent, Aisha Harris has a recurring segment, Pre-Woke Watching, where guests talk about films they grew up with and loved, but can no longer view through an uncritical eye. (Like coming to terms with how totally sexist Pretty Woman is, or discovering the prevalence of colorism in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America.) The panelists will have a hearty discussion around evolving tastes, opening up the floor to audience members to give their own PWW examples.

Teens and Social Media: An Experiment in Civility

Louis CK mimeing typing with mouth open

Mean people online be typing like…

We need to talk about the nature of discourse online. And while teenagers are far from the only perpetrators of uncivil behavior in these spaces, discussing these issues with them early on can affect how they interact in later years. Citizen Discourse, recognizing that, is launching a platform aimed at cultivating empathy and discernment skills. I look forward to the prospect of hearing from them, and starting to think about how these practices and exercises can impact “adult” discourse online.

From their proposal:

Citizen Discourse (CD) is launching a social media platform for teenagers designed to build empathy. Through storytelling and by cultivating a practice in writing & civil discourse the intent is to develop members’ skills in: discernment, media literacy, communication, collaboration. A panel comprised of and facilitated by teens sharing their experience navigating social media and their role developing CD. Topics may cover bullying, echo chambers, privacy, youth engagement.

Zen Your Work: Creating an Ideal Work Experience

Don Draper finale meditation scene

Get Don Draper chill after leaving Karlyn’s session.

Karlyn was a bright light on the Workplace track at last year’s conference, and she’s back for another round with a new session this year! After tackling office politics, this year she wants to turn your focus inward, helping participants to understand their value at work, and use that understanding to focus their work life and goals. Her blunt, funny, and insightful style will change the way you think about “mindful” work. So go give her a vote, and tell her I sent you 🙂

From her proposal:

Creating your ideal professional experience is possible no matter your role/level, if you have a proactive plan for making it happen. This session will give you the framework to develop that plan. We’ll cover three key areas – understanding and embracing your unique value, navigating interpersonal relationships, and developing career clarity. When you zen your work, you embrace the concept that you are in control of your professional experience and mindful of how everything you do creates it.

Don’t forget, PanelPicker voting runs through August 25th- so get your votes and notes in! Did I leave any notable pitches out? Let me know in the comments! 

Help Me Bring My Weird to Austin!

In recent years, the tail end of summer has brought another milestone for me: South by Southwest registration and panel season. I’m participating in the latter for the first time since 2013, and would love your help in upvoting a pair of proposals I’m a part of. Check out the details, and cast your votes (with accompanying notes!) at SXSW Panel Picker! You don’t have to be going to the festival to vote, but your voice as someone interested in these issues will make a difference to those tallying and deciding!

[Looking for other proposals? I did a roundup of ten other proposed sessions and panels that deserve “a vote and a note”!]

Read on or click on the session images for more about how I’m hoping to bring my particular brand of weird to Austin!

NSFW? Your “Professional” netWORKed Community

NSFW? Your Professional netWORKed Community

f/ Josie Ahlquist, Liz Gross, and Laura Pasquini
In 15 years, we’ve gone from “Bowling Alone” to being hyper-connected online both personally and professionally. Online communities form for personal enrichment, professional networking, and social learning. How do they help or hurt individuals, organizations, and industry? What challenges and barriers arise for community organizers? When it comes to the workplace, what happens when our online and offline life converge? Implications for both individuals and employers will be discussed.

This session will aim to answer the questions:

  1. Why do networked communities matter for professional practice and industry?
  2. What are the benefits and challenges in these professional networked communities?
  3. How do we (employers, employees, or industry) deal with these digital communities or networked professionals in the workplace?

Memes + Monologues: Lessons in Laughter for News

f/ Alonzo Bodden (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…), Keli Dailey (News Hangover), + Jason Meier (Emerson College)

Can news outlets and journalists apply the strategies of comedians to their work, even if they’re “not funny”? With standup, late night, memes and hashtags, comedians are navigating a tense reality with skill, tackling issues head on. And we think they can teach a thing or two about how to hit “publish” on that controversial piece or have that talk with a cranky uncle. Join us for frank talk on their strategies for speaking truth to power, challenging ideas, and navigating inevitable backlash.

This session will aim to answer the questions:

  1. What about that nature of comedy makes it such an effective tool for discourse on tough topics?
  2. How can news outlets and journalists apply the strategies of comedians to their writing and discourse, even if they’re “not funny”?
  3. How can knowledge of how comedians think, write, or comment on culture help news outlets and journalists address cries of “too far” or “how dare you”?

PanelPicker voting starts on Monday, August 7th and runs through Friday, August 25th. You can vote for each panel once by creating an account with SXSW.  And be sure to leave a note detailing what you like about the proposals!

Will you also be in Austin? Know of other panels I should hear about? Let me know!

FIRST LOOK: Cultivating Creativity, Out This Fall!

For the last month or so, I’ve taken a break from much of the Internet’s social side, as I buried myself in notes, interviews, and thousands of my own words. I’m pleased to share with you the cover and first excerpt of Cultivating Creativity, my new book on the essential elements of the creative mindset.

Cultivating Creativity cover- lightbulb silhouette

Click on the image above to read the introduction to the book!

In its introduction, I aim to share with you what the book will be about, why it’ll be useful to you, and what you can expect to find in the pages that follow. If it looks interesting to you, go ahead and give it a preorder…it’s on its way!

Unconventional Leadership and Student Development Reads

Having a book list front and center may have given you the indication that I’m a reader. I have 1-2 on me at all times, even in inopportune places. This has been a trait of mine for as long as I can remember- I remember a particularly heated family Disney trip, turned so after I lost a book somewhere in the park (if anyone sees Baby-Sitters Club #91, let me know so we can make arrangements)- and I’m genuinely pleased it persists.

As an educator in the college and university space who focuses so intently on creativity, the need to approach reading with students creatively is not lost on me. And I frequent circles where book recommendations circulate often, and the same names and topics appear. These recommendations are rightfully earned, as these books are thoughtfully researched and yield important conclusions and lessons. This week, however, I want to pose my offbeat answers to that question. They’re insightful, borne of life experience, and truly entertaining. Whether these recommendations are passed to individual students, or used in classes, I hope they’ll change the way you think about imparting lessons of leadership and development.

What additions would you make to my reading list for the second half of 2017?

Creativity and its Utility in the Workplace

This week, I want to expand upon the cultivating creativity manifesto I shared a few weeks back, by articulating how it can be used in the workplace- and thankfully, I have the data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers to help me out.

Each year, NACE conducts a survey (summarized as their Job Outlook report) to assess what skills are most in demand in job applicants. What qualities should they have? What are you looking for? Where are the gaps between their needs and the workforce we presently have? As I dived into the data, I started to draw connections between the tenets of creativity and the expectations of prospective employers. Below, I’ve encapsulated these connections through an infographic:

Creativity and Its Utility in the Workplace Infographic

To clarify, the percentage next to each trait or desired ability indicates the percentage of employers who expressed they will be requiring this skill in a hired candidate.

Below, the data in text:

Broadmindedness (employing ideas from one scenario, in a new or disparate environment)

  • Initiative: 65.9%
  • Detail-Oriented: 62.1%
  • Organizational Ability: 47.7%
  • Entrepreneurial/Risk-Taker: 19.7%

Collaboration (working with and alongside others to achieve a goal, even as it shifts and changes)

  • Ability to Work in a Team: 78.0%
  • Interpersonal Skills: 58.3%
  • Friendly/[Outgoing] Personality: 25.8%*
  • Tactfulness: 25.8%

*We’ll come back to this soon.

Determination (staying with a project for its full duration, even when it becomes difficult)

  • Strong Work Ethic: 72.0%
  • Strategic Planning Skills: 37.9%

Execution (closely tied to determination, the ability and endurance to translate an idea into action)

  • Communication Skills (written): 75.0%
  • Communication Skills (verbal): 70.5%
  • Technical Skills: 56.8
  • Analytical Skills: 64.4%

Flexibility (the ability to change course when internal or external forces require it)

  • Problem-Solving Skills: 77.3%
  • Flexibility/Adaptability: 63.6%
  • Strategic Planning Skills: 37.9%

What are your programs, procedures, trainings, and student interventions doing to help students develop these crucial and in-demand skills?

[PODCAST] Escape the 9 to 5, with Ali Salman

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Ali of Escape the 9 to 5 about my journey thus far as an entrepreneur. It’s still not a term I’m fully comfortable using for myself (likely because of the assumptions and perceptions around it), but it was through this conversation – talking about my process for staying organized, how I came to the work, and all that I’ve learned – that actually helped me start to believe it. Yes, I have a small business. Yes, despite frequent collaborative projects and relationships with editors, I do work for myself. *gulp* Yup, we’re doing this.

Thanks to Ali and the team at Escape the 9 to 5 for the opportunity; give the ep a download (it’s short) and hear our conversation!

Introducing: The Cultivating Creativity Manifesto

I’ve spent the last sixteen months traveling around the country (and to Canada, as of last month) talking to people about creativity. Learning about how they approach it, what they feel gets in their way, and how much potential they believe they have to develop it. All of these conversations, combined with observations about the environments and circumstances in which people are asked to “get creative,” I’ve finally developed a manifesto – an easily summarized set of qualities – that I believe characterizes people with the most potential to be creative, as well as the environments most likely to support them.

cultivating creativity manifesto with lightbulb background

Allies and Advisors
Allies and advisors are the people you want most in your corner, though they may not work on the actual product with you. They are knowledge of the circumstances in which you work, and/or are knowledgeable about you and how you work. Unlike the cheerleaders we all (hopefully!) have in our lives to encourage us and keep us moving forward, allies and advisors are critical as well. They will ask questions that provoke thought, share information that may be discouraging or unwelcome at times, but – and this is important – do so for your benefit and the benefit of the project and idea at hand.
Are you an ally or advisor? Do you have allies or advisors on your side?

So many of us balk at the idea of being creative because of the assumption that to create is to build something altogether new. In truth, a multitude of creative ideas are simply taking an idea or concept that exists in one space, and applying it to a new space; this competency is the essence of broadmindedness. Developing an eye toward being able to recognize where this is appropriate, is one of the most essential skills any creative can have. It can be developed by consuming knowledge and news from a wide swath of areas- not just your chosen discipline, but others both adjacent and seemingly unrelated.
Are you broad-minded? How can you start to broaden your mind?

Time now to bust another myth about creativity- despite what we see about fast-rising entrepreneurs and tech wunderkind, these endeavors are rarely solitary in nature. Even if you have a strong set of allies and/or advisors, you stand to go further with collaborators. More minds on a problem or idea allow for diversity of thought- who does your idea or concept help? Who does it potentially hurt? Developing a collaborative relationship that can weigh these questions candidly, while also yielding an arrangement that aids creativity, is the best case scenario for anyone with an eye toward solving problems- the best reason to use creativity, after all!
Are you collaborative? Who do you work with well, and what elements of the relationship make it work?

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” -Earl Nightingale
Too many of us are easily deterred from success when it will take time and hard work to accomplish. And indeed, the fruits of your creative labor may not surface right away. Results may not come until long after your deadline (self-imposed or otherwise); at, these results may not come until after our tenure at an institution or organization is done. But committing to yielding said results, despite our ability to enjoy the benefits, is a noble undertaking. Determination as a creative means persisting even when it’s difficult, or when an element of the process changes (more on that in a moment).
Are you determined? How can you develop the determination to continue a project even when fatigue or discouragement sets in?

Personal confession: while I have good handwriting and enjoy hand lettering, I’ve always balked at drawing or sketching because I don’t consider myself to be artistic in that way. (Worth noting while we’ve hit upon the topic: creativity and artistic talent are NOT one and the same. Cool? Cool. On we go. )
Put another way, execution is what transforms a creative thought into an innovative act or product. Are you able to coordinate the people, resources, and other capital needed to take something theoretical and make it practical/tangible/real? It doesn’t have to be perfect- indeed, the fear of creativity can stem from the fear that you’ll screw it up. Make no mistake, you will screw it up. But strong execution inclination means that you understand that, and choose to push forward anyway.
Are you inclined to execute? Are you prepared to explore what might be keeping you from moving through thought and into action?

To the last point on execution- sometimes you’ll get it wrong. Other times, you may not get it wrong, but you’ll see where a change is needed. Flexibility is being willing to take that information and internalize it enough to use, but not deeply enough to discourage. Put another way, flexibility is the competency of creativity that allows you to get up after a fall, brush yourself off, and not just keep moving- but actively work to not fall the same way a second time.  Even if these falls are the result of external forces- loss of personnel, funding, etc. – flexibility will pair nicely with execution to adapt and proceed anyway.
Are you flexible? What do you do when a proverbial wrench is thrown in your plan, and are you prepared to learn to adapt?

Growth Mindset
There are a lot of assumptions tied up in the use of this term; I want to therefore clarify what I mean when I use it here. Creativity is often treated, oddly enough, like a growth mindset: I either have it, or I don’t. But in reality, the skills to be creative can be taught. Believing that you can become creative, as with so many other things, is central to actually being able to do it. At the risk of sounding cliché, cultivating a creative approach to life is like a muscle; the more it’s exercised, the stronger it gets. And just as with any exercise goals you set, you have to want to achieve them to get anywhere.
After everything you’ve seen here…are you willing to learn how to be creative?

I talk about these elements, with examples and a few extras, in my Pecha Kucha on the topic (originally delivered at the 2017 NACA National Convention in Baltimore, MD):

Each session on creativity that I conduct, be it with students or staff, for training or in a workshop or keynote, is conducted with these principles in mind. It can be adapted to reach a variety of disciplines (activities and programming, residence life, orientation, peer mentorship programs, even career services and academic success), and tailored to appropriately reach many types of departments, institutions, or organizations.

In the months ahead, I’ll be sharing more about exercises, scenarios, and processes that can help cultivate these traits in those you work with- and should you ever want help in person, it would be a pleasure! In the meantime, check out this summary infographic as a brief reminder of the essential elements of creativity (according to me).

Essential Elements to Cultivate Creativity Infographic

Take a look at the infographic here!

The Challenge Conflict Presents to Creativity

This spring, I’m focusing some of my speaking and consulting on helping organizations who are in conflict, resolve it and prevent it from constricting practices like organizational transition, goal setting, and strategic planning. Unresolved conflict presents a lot of issues to organizations: lost productivity, damaged professional relationships, and – most germane to the work I do – compromises creative potential.

As a strong advocate for creativity, I’ve focused a lot in the past year on the circumstances that foster it. At least two, collaboration, and allyship/advocacy, suffer when conflict lies unresolved among coworkers or within a department seeking to change its ways. So I was pleased to see this exact issue raised by Roger Fisher and William Ury (1983) in their theory of principled negotiation. In their Getting to Yes, they identify four challenges to the creativity needed to generate a number of options for solutions. They go on to offer techniques by which to combat these issues. I’ll be contextualizing them for the realm of student leadership, and also providing some strategies to help students enact them.

Obstacle #1: Premature Decisiveness
Fisher and Ury find that premature decisiveness, or coming to a conclusion too early, can stifle creativity. 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. When looking to a solution, Fisher and Ury recommend delineating, and then observing, four different stages and types of thinking:

  • Statement of the issue;
  • Analysis of said issue;
  • Consideration of general approaches; and
  • Identification of specific actions.

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 prevents the ideation stage (listed third here) 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.

TRY IT: If your group is challenged by fully hearing ideas from individuals, for whatever reason, seeking to make the ideation process anonymous may help. Creating a time period that allows multiple viewpoints to be shared, and for those viewpoints to be shared without any stigma that individuals may carry, can bring out thoughts and suggestions that alternate circumstances may not. The analog version of this could be done through a “Suggestion Box” or Post-It wall type practice, or you could use digital tools like Attentiv, Candor, or even a Google Drive document or form to let stakeholders submit and discuss ideas anonymously.

Obstacle #2: Intent to Narrow
Closely related to Obstacle #1, intent to narrow means that participants may come to idea generating spaces looking to quickly hone in on a solution, any solution at all, and adjourn. When I work through the Design Thinking model in my workshops, I caution against this mindset and seek to illuminate its dangers. The one that I tend to focus on is the possibility of freezing out other stakeholders. The model prevents this by placing a key step between Discovery (the moment where one identifies a problem) and Ideation (the generation of potential solution), called Interpretation.

Interpretation of a problem acts as a buffer, by creating a space to interrogate the issue at hand. I describe it to students as the questioning phase, encouraging them to wonder: “who do we need to talk to, to get a full view of the issue?” Put another way, combat the intent to narrow with an explicit directive to widen, first.

TRY IT: As groups are seeking to solve a problem, encourage them to present a list of stakeholders, populations, or affected offices/departments/parties that should be consulted before any solutions are generated. They might find that the ideas they were considering will have an adverse impact on others, or that their solution might create a new problem for someone else. Alternate versions of the design thinking model name the first step as “empathy,” rather than “discovery,” and it’s that principle that this practice is aimed at. When you rush to conclusions, who does that affect and how?

Obstacle #3: Win-Lose Orientation
When conflicts are attacked with a win-lose orientation, the seeds for later conflict are sowed. It minimizes the miles of middle ground that exist for mutually satisfactory solutions, instead focusing on a “winner take all” mentality that decimates the “opposite” side…who will still have to be worked with, regardless.

Fisher and Ury recommend reinforcing the idea of shared interests as conflict resolution gets underway. It reminds me of a strategy that I learned from friends at a workshop a few years back, about how to say no in a way that preserves relationships. In their words, declining an act while honoring the shared ground upon which it was made, can help shape action without seeming combative or needlessly contrary. As an example, consider for a moment the decision to cut board member positions without seeing if there are general members or new students interested in filling them. Pushing back on this proposal may look like, “I appreciate your desire to streamline the organization and I also like to keep things simple, but…” In this way, there is an island of common ground placed between the “win” and “lose” territory.

TRY IT: In a manner that has echoes of a prior step in Fisher and Ury’s model (focusing on interest rather than position), preface any movement on conflict with a discussion of needs. Not just what you want from the end result, but why. What informs that want. What the backstory is. This humanizes the two (or more!) sides of the debate, grounds what might seem like abstract demands in a context that is essential for making decisions. Prompt this conversation with requests for storytelling about how the idea came to pass, a more detailed testimony of who the organization serves, and even a frank conversation about where blindspots might lie: “who or what can you admit you’re not seeing?”

Obstacle #4: Abdication of Responsibility
In positions of conflict, it’s common for the party who believes they’re not causing a problem to yield responsibility, saying they “didn’t do anything,” “it’s not our fault,” or “why should we have to fix this?” But for the sake of organizational health, this can be a damaging mindset to perpetuate.

Fisher and Ury recommend combatting this mindset by thinking about potential solutions in a way that address and honor the needs of the other side. Then, craft a proposal for a conflict resolution that combines each party’s needs and wants. To briefly come back to obstacle #3, this is an added defense against win-lose thinking. The best scenario will address the needs of both sides; having the information to know what they think and need, can help you frame your own argument in a way that is most likely to go over well. This empathetic strategy can help mitigate some of the single-minded thinking that abdicating responsibility tends to perpetuate.

TRY IT: Prior to making proposals for solutions, have each side summarize what they believe the other side’s needs are. Then, allow each side to clarify what their needs are, encouraging conversation about where misunderstandings or misinterpretations may arise. This will require a strong implementation of Fisher and Ury’s first point of the theory (“Separate people from the problem”), but can be done civilly if the group in question adheres to ground rules of openness, civility, and focus on the task.

In summary, creativity can be hampered mightily in the face of conflict. But by working through these issues en route to new solutions, a landscape can be created where new ideas arise even – especially! – when leadership doesn’t always see eye to eye. By ensuring that the underlying needs of conflicting parties are clearly articulated, measures are put in place to ensure that ideas can be heard on their own merit, and that the requisite amount of time is taken to investigate an issue before solving it, some of the points of collision can be smoothed over, clearing a path to a future that looks quite different from the status quo.