June 2023

Build the creative power of your team

Does your careful planning too often result in garbage instead of gold?

Planning too carefully can choke creativity.

Remember the last time you needed a new web site for your business?

You and your team probably spent a lot of time going over the parameters before you gave it to the designer. Then, you gave her what you thought were clear and detailed directions.

And what came back looked like garbage. In fact, your detailed instructions could have been the problem.

Often, someone like your web designer is so bound up in your instructions, there’s no room for inspiration or creativity. She chafes at the assignment and gets all bound up in pleasing rather than creating. In other words, her creative ability is in conflict with her task.

I’ve seen this gold-to-garbage problem in many areas: motion pictures and television, as well as copy writing and long-term strategic planning. Most executives and managers experience it in some form—many, in fact, cause it by over-managing.

Learn from this country’s Founding Fathers.

Here’s a situation where the result was gold.

In June 1776, the Continental Congress finally decided they needed a Declaration of Independence. They simply told John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and two others to present a draft by the end of the month.

The Congress didn’t try to figure out what the document should say before they had a draft. The representatives knew they’d have time to comment later. If they’d organized it first, the results certainly wouldn’t have been even close to the inspirational document Jefferson produced.

So, what’s the difference between the approach for the new web site that delivered garbage and the one used when the Continental Congress needed a declaration?

Don’t confuse What’s and How’s.

The Continental Congress didn’t confuse what’s with how’s.

A “what” identifies a need. A “how” is the way a need becomes satisfied.

You’re likely to get stuck if you confuse how’s with what’s. At best, you’ll wring the life out of the result. Here’s another example. Perhaps the sun shines through the windows and makes your office unbearably hot in the afternoon. That’s a what, a problem. In response to a call in which you simply identify your problem, you might get a whole list of possible solutions, all kinds of how’s. You could choose a variety of horizontal or vertical blinds, narrow or wide shutters, curtains, window tinting, or many other things to keep out the heat of the sun. What a wonderful world of options!

In contrast, you could call someone and say, “I need a set of heavy lined blue damask drapes for the windows in my office.” That’s a how. You’ve moved away from the problem to a solution. A very limiting solution, and you’d better like blue damask.

Don’t strangle your team’s possibilities.

Here’s one more example. I was on the board of a non-profit. At one meeting, the members argued for more than an hour about contract language for the new Executive Director’s contract.

We were stuck. Then, I proposed a simple resolution instructing our attorney to draft a contract. The board passed it in 3 minutes. The agreement was signed within a week.

What happened?

The board finally saw there was confusion between what’s and how’s. It was their job to establish a what—the need for a contract with certain negotiated terms. The attorney was left free to determine how it would best be accomplished.

Trust your team.

Next time you’re panning for business gold, try this approach. You might get more gold than you imagined possible.

First. Separate what’s from how’s. Identify specific goals—what you want to accomplish—and a framework of expectations. For example, we need a web site reflecting our identity. Don’t give a solution as part of the assignment—but broad guidelines are good.

I believe you’ll find it’s much easier to set a high standard with this approach.

Second. Break complex problems down into component issues, a subset of what’s. It becomes more likely there’ll be confusion between what’s and how’s when a task gets more complex. People approach problems from different points of view and a how is a natural way to communicate their view.

You may, for example, see a problem from a global view, one engineer might see it from a program process viewpoint, another from the supply side, and so on. Everyone will have a different way of describing what’s occurring and want a different approach to solving it. Putting a label on the global problem and making a list of component issues—a subset of what’s—cuts through the confusion.

In this way, it’s easy to identify an approach to each what.

Third. Be open to new kinds of solutions. Encourage creativity and innovative problem solving. Make it safe for those with the assignment to go to supervisors with problems. Make sure supervisors check in periodically with the people doing the assignment. Give support without judgment.

Let the people with the assignment determine the how. In some cases, it may be helpful to ask them for a list of approaches to the problem, the how’s, before execution. Talk about the list with the people doing the work. Don’t take the initiative from them.

Freedom to solve the problem.

In short, simply distinguish between what’s and how’s. Establish what must be accomplished. Then, like the Founding Fathers, your window contractor, and my non-profit board, let those doing the work be free to solve the problem. You may be wonderfully surprised by a happy result beyond your expectations.

Please let me know if this article has been helpful

With best wishes,
David Pauker

© 2009, 2023 David Pauker. All rights reserved.

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Kindness for creative block

Do you know how kindness for yourself can be the cure when you’re creatively blocked?

How do you see yourself in the mirror of your mind?

For a time, I thought Katherine could light a dark room just by entering it. When I first saw her, she was standing alone at a crowded party. I still remember her shining black hair and the way she glowed with an inner light. Everyone else faded into the background. She was the star of her own movie.

Later, after we broke up, we happened to meet and I wondered what I had seen in her. She wasn’t beautiful, or even attractive to me.

I realized that before all the baggage from the relationship got in the way, I could see her inner beauty and spark of joy.

This raises the question: How do you see yourself in the mirror of your mind?

Do you know how you see yourself can make your creative block worse?

Do you see your real inner beauty the way I saw Katherine’s, or do you see yourself with pride, narcissism and self-enhancing illusions like Snow White’s wicked stepmother saw herself?

In case you don’t recall the story of Snow White and the Dwarfs, every morning Snow White’s wicked stepmother asks her mirror to confirm she is the most beautiful in the land. When the magic mirror tells the queen that Snow White is more beautiful, the queen becomes insane with jealousy. Snow White avoids being killed and runs into the forest where she becomes a housekeeper for seven dwarfs.

So, how do you see yourself? With self-compassion or through the lens of “self-esteem” and dependance on external validation?

“Self-compassion”—kindness for yourself—is healthier and helps you cope in better ways than measuring your self-worth against external validation. Like Snow White’s stepmother, self-esteem depends on constant validation from the outside world. High self-esteem often means arrogance and false bravado. Low self-esteem may lead to feeling shame and worry about failure and isolation.

Do you know how your creative block traps you?

When you are creatively blocked, your internal voices hammer you with critical, self-deprecating stories filled with self-condemnation and fear, often predicting inevitable professional ignominy and your very survival. According to recent experiments by behavioral scientists, “self-evaluative anxiety” can become a debilitating psychological disorder when you produce excessive fears about evaluation of something like your creative output. The more you focus on your performance fears, the more anxious you become and that paralyzes you.

Self-compassion is about being kind, caring, understanding, and accepting toward yourself. You see your own problems and weaknesses accurately, but you react with compassion for yourself, rather than judgment and self-criticism. With the lens of self-compassion, you feel connected to the larger human experience and accept the imperfect nature of human beings…and of yourself. [See Kristen Neffs definition of self-compassion at https://self-compassion.org.]

In tough situations where there might be performance anxiety you can be calm and collaborative instead of being filled with anxiety.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s fairest of all?

After Snow White escapes, her stepmother finds her and tries to kill her with a poisoned apple. After Snow White has eaten the apple, the dwarfs think she is dead and they lay her in a glass coffin.

Years pass. A prince traveling through the forest sees her in the coffin and is enchanted by her beauty. He falls in love and saves her. In the end, the stepmother meets humiliation, forced to dance in burning iron shoes until she dies.

Snow White’s wicked stepmother is an example of what can happen when feeling good depends on constantly judging you are superior or inferior to others.

Does feeling blocked put you into a state of alienation and anxiety?

When you depend on validation, you can never get enough. It’s you against the world. You’re living in a state of alienation.

Snow White’s stepmother had to be told she was the prettiest person in all the world. That’s how she defined herself. Every day, she admired herself in her magic mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of all?” One day the mirror told her, “Queen, you are full fair, ’tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” The stepmother choked by her anger would do anything to get back her position at the top, and that led to her downfall.

In contrast, Snow White shows her inner beauty to everyone. She can’t hide it. That’s an important part of her charm and universal appeal. Snow White resonates the best parts of you and your own compassion. Through her, you can see the truth of your own inner beauty and what you have to offer the world. She is living kindness, and the dwarfs, the prince, everyone – except her stepmother – fall over themselves to help her.

Everyone has their own inner beauty. Your inner beauty is an expression of your special connection with creative flow. Like Snow White, when you see yourself through your compassionate self, you are the fairest of all. Fortunately, everyone is capable of self-compassion – kindness for yourself – and it’s a skill that can be polished.

3 simple steps to greater kindness for yourself.

Rather than judging yourself harshly, believing you’re the only one who has ever been creatively blocked or getting lost in the drama of your situation – be your own caring friend. Remember B-A-A:

First: Breathe slowly. Take at least 3 slow breaths. When you are anxious, you’ll usually find yourself breathing with fast, short breaths from your chest. Slow your breathing, on both the inhale and exhale. Try to fill your belly first and empty it last. This takes practice. [Download the script or recording of the First Exercise from my book’s website: https://conflictfreedom.com/resources.]

Second: Be Aware. Notice your thoughts and emotions. What stories are you telling yourself about yourself? What are they really about—under the surface? They may become very loud and very strong. You don’t have to believe them or change anything. Just be aware those thoughts and emotions are probably not from your essential self.

Third: Acknowledge yourself. Say, “Wait a minute. I’m going to take the pressure off myself. I’m not going to play the role of victim.” Think about how you can be good to yourself – generous, considerate, and compassionate. This isn’t about being self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Tell yourself you’re going to allow—not demand, but allow—good things to happen for you. You deserve good things!

Then, wait a minute. 

Have self-compassion. Stop hammering at yourself. Don’t get caught in your judgments about yourself (like Snow White’s stepmother) or about the other person like I did with Katherine. Next time you’re feeling creatively blocked, don’t make your life miserable, don’t help your internal voices put you in a corner. Remember your own essential beauty.

Please let me know if this article has been helpful.

With best wishes,
David Pauker

Read: Free Yourself From Conflict. Available at Amazon and Bookstores.

(c) 2023 David Pauker. All rights reserved.

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