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.