Leadership is one long creative problem-solving session

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

03 Jan 2017

03 Jan 2017 • by Professor Martin Binks

The linear and familiar decision-making methods that might have worked in the past, when uncertainty was not such a defining characteristic of the business environment, are by no means guaranteed to suffice today and in many instances might even prove disastrously inadequate.

What do we actually mean, though, by “creativity” and “ingenuity”? The Oxford English Dictionary defines the former as “the use of imagination or original ideas” and the latter as “the quality of being clever, original and inventive”.

We should be thankful to find such essentially unspectacular delineations, because too often “creativity” and “ingenuity” are conflated with woolly terms such as “genius” and “visionary”. These are to be eschewed, for they imply qualities that are somehow miraculously bestowed upon a chosen few. The reality is that everyone possesses the capacity to be creative and ingenious, because everyone possesses the capacity to have ideas.

The fundamental key, as I have noted in previous posts, is to be open-minded, consider all the available options and avoid leaping to quick and easy conclusions. This is a skill anybody can learn and one which leaders in particular would do well to cultivate as they confront the ever-accelerating transformation of organisations, industries and leadership itself.

The good, the bad and the mnemonic

How do we have good ideas and use them to make good decisions? We might usefully distil the process into three stages:

  • Define precisely what is wanted
  • Discover as many alternatives as possible
  • Determine which is the most effective

A crucial point to note here is that this process will not only lead to good ideas: it will also lead to bad ideas ­– and lots of them. The overwhelming likelihood is that the bad will massively outnumber the good. What makes the very best ideas so attractive becomes clear only once the failings of their less impressive counterparts are fully understood.

In tandem, a determination to generate multiple ideas can lead in all sorts of unusual and often remarkably instructive directions. It is vital to recognise that solutions might lurk anywhere and that lessons from myriad seemingly unrelated spheres can turn out to be extraordinarily relevant.

Isaac Asimov, the celebrated science-fiction author and biochemist, touched on the potential power of this approach in Sucker Bait, a short story he wrote in the 1950s. The central character, Mark Annucio, is a member of the Mnemonic Service, an elite corps whose members are able not only to absorb every piece of information they come across but to make astonishing connections between apparently unrelated fragments of data. Asimov was taking to the ultimate the notion of thinking loosely and broadly – of moving from the specific to the general and back again.

Technology: a curse or a blessing?

Even Asimov, famed for devising the Three Laws of Robotics, might have been surprised by the sheer pace of technological progress in recent years. Although we have yet to establish a Mnemonic Service, all manner of developments can nowadays promote the merits of creative problem-solving.

It is essential to stress at this juncture that many concepts of creative problem-solving have grown every bit as outmoded as “traditional” leadership conceits. Forget the well-worn clichés. It is no longer merely a matter of deducing how to transport a hen, a fox and a sack of corn across a river or solving some other well-thumbed puzzle from the annals of lateral thinking.

Just as the march of technology has played a major role in shaping what leadership entails, so the incredible advances we now have at our disposal can assist in equipping leaders for the tests that constantly beset them. At Nottingham University Business School, for example, we use a proprietary program that immerses leaders in the art of creative problem-solving and helps them appreciate the benefits of radical innovation.

Of course, the interminable debate about leadership will rumble on and on – there is no doubt about that – but if we sincerely want it to evolve meaningfully then we ought to remember two facts above all others: the nature of leadership is changing, and the nature of leaders is not. That is the issue in a nutshell, and that is why creativity and ingenuity must be embraced. Leaders who refuse to acknowledge as much are flirting with the sudden onset of obsolescence – not just for themselves but for those they allegedly lead.