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  • Writer's pictureMike

Getting in Touch with Your Creative Side | Managerial Moments with Mike

Updated: May 25

I was in a very dark place as I was coming to the end of my tenure as senior pastor of the church I had led for about 10 years. I was going through a divorce, the denomination that I was ordained with wasn’t returning my calls, and I was faced with needing to enter the outside world's workforce for the first time in my 35 years of life.

I was fucking terrified.

John, a congregant at the church approached me and asked what I would do, now that I was no longer a pastor. After talking for a bit, John offered me a job at his company as a product owner. What he needed, he told me, was someone who could tell a great story. Someone who was imaginative and could paint a beautiful picture with their words alone. Someone charismatic.

It just so happened, I didn’t have anything else going on at the time, so I accepted.

Doc Brown saying "I figured, what the heck?"

So, on a Monday morning, I met the current PO, who said to call him Red, a nickname he earned when he worked for Netscape in the mid-90s. Red’s resume read like a who’s who of tech companies: Netscape, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, SunMicro… you name the company, he probably spent time working for them.

Red wasn’t very happy with my sudden appearance. You see, Red was disillusioned with mega-corps. He spent years bouncing from company to company and just wanted to work for a mid-sized company for 15 years and then retire. My sudden appearance was a threat to that, so our relationship was rocky from the start.

Within the first two days, it became clear that the issue, and the reason for bringing me in, was that Red was too smart for his own good. The user stories he wrote up were akin to describing the painting of the Sistine Chapel in terms of mathematics, and then becoming frustrated when what is produced looks like 80s Memphis Style Pop Art (an analogy that was lost on Red, unfortunately).

I took over as the PO, and Red stepped into the newly created solution architect role.

As the PO, I was able to tap into my seminary homiletics training to weave a story that integrated the nature of the request with natural language. Everything was told through the eyes of an imaginary user Alex. Everyone could pick up the story and get exactly what they needed. Creativity was my strength.

My philosophy: speak to the lowest level of understanding that your audience has. If you are speaking to a highly technical group, feel free to speak in a highly technical manner. However, if your audience is at differing levels of understanding, speak so that everyone in the room can understand. This requires creativity.

Lately, however, I’ve seen a shift away from people embracing creativity in their roles, in favor of sounding smart. This isn’t just the young, fresh-from-college group, but also includes people of all ages and generations.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Because the company I work for has grown so much, we created a BA position to handle elicitation, ticket creation, documentation, and test case creation. Our new BA said something that absolutely appalled me. When I brought up the concern that the documentation and test cases he wrote sounded like a technical manual, his response was “it’s the bare minimum that people should know, they either figure it out or don’t. That’s not my job.”

So let me say this: it behooves us as project leaders and managers to ensure that everyone we interact with is knowledgeable and on the same page. Even if that means finding ways to get less knowledgeable people to understand.

Alexis from Schitts Creek saying "I don't get it, but whatever"
No, this is the opposite of what I'm saying

Where does creativity play into this?

The Cap'n told me a question that he likes to ask during interviews that I have developed an obsession with: “pretend I am a time traveler from sometime in the 1800s, and I ask you to explain what the internet is. Tell me what it is in a way that I would understand.”

Someone from the 19th century isn’t going to know what a webpage is, what a modem is, probably would not understand the telephone well enough, know key terminologies like a search engine or browser, and what the heck a computer is. In the time that I’ve been using this question, I’ve only had one person not use a combination of the terms above. When asked to dumb it down so that a traveler from the 1800s would understand, they use the same terms, only rearrange them in new and not-so-exciting ways.

Leadership means being able to reach your team.

If that means speaking in parables, metaphors, similes, analogies, haiku, limericks, anapestic tetrameter, or smoke signals, you do it. You need to find a way to communicate with your team.

The problem with our new BA and Red is that they didn’t care if they reached their target audience. The attitude was, “figure it out.”

Could you imagine if a screenwriter or filmmaker said they didn’t care if the audience understood the film and that they should just figure it out?

The benefits of being a creative leader are numerous. In my experience, the top benefits that can be seen are:

  • Increased team engagement

  • Better problem solving

  • Greater adoption of change

  • A focus on solutions, not problems

The benefits are great and all, but how are you supposed to encourage the highly technical person to be creative? Do people like Red or the BA care enough, or have it in them to be creative, or are they just left-brained?

Anyone can think creatively. It just takes some knowledge. I recommend two books to any manager who wishes to embrace their creative side when dealing with teams.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman takes readers through the two thinking systems, the intuitive and the deliberative. The two systems each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and the book explains these in an approachable way. It includes exercises that help you determine which system is best to use when approaching a problem in a creative way.

Jack’s Notebook by Gregg Fraley.

Fraley is a creativity and innovation expert. The book hits all the important aspects of tapping into creative problem-solving, and how these skills can be leveraged to bring ideas into action.

Problem Tunnel Vision is Problematic

Both books discuss a concept that hits at the heart of the issue; leaders need to look at the problem from multiple perspectives.

In the Fraley book, the author discusses the three-step process of creative problem solving: The problem, framing the problem, and reframing the problem. The point of reframing is to view the problem in a different way. An improperly framed problem is very difficult to solve, so by reframing the problem you begin to have a better understanding of the problem, to the point that it becomes easier to solve. It should be noted that at times reframing can lead to updating the problem you are attempting to solve.

Fraley explains this process through a story about the titular Jack discussing some work in a Chicago office building with Manny. It sticks with you. You are going on an adventure with Jack, you learn as Jack learns, and you are guided through the world the author is creating. It’s why I frame user stories with my imaginary user Alex.

Red framed the problem as a technical solution, but never reframed it. Problems were nothing more than something that needed to be solved, and he had the solution. This led to issues with improper solutions being implemented. The developers did exactly what they were instructed from Red’s user stories, and that wasn’t always the best thing to do. It frequently created the clusterfuck to end all clusterfucks.

My new BA takes a similar approach, communicating the request to developers and business stakeholders in the form of an already framed problem, without thinking of reframing it in a productive way so that everyone can understand.

I’ve impressed on my young BA, that when creating stories, test cases, documentation, or communication it is important to tap into that creativity. Add plot, suspense, fucking conflict. Tell a good story. Make your audience want to read what you write. You will be much more successful in your role than you would be just expecting others to come up to your level.

Why So Serious?

An underlying theme between the BA and Red is a lack of humor. Work is serious, and therefore they should be serious. There is no time for fun. There is no time for light-hearted jokes.

Mr. Krabs saying "Seriously, son, ya gotta lighten up.
Sorry Mr. Krabs

Why is having a sense of humor important? It humanizes you. It shows emotional intelligence. It makes you (and by extension your work) more memorable.

As a leader, whether you know it or not, you establish group values. Having a sense of humor establishes norms that are cordial and focused on team cohesiveness. Teams that can laugh together, work better together. In the same way, a leader who is not creative will lead to a team that isn’t creative.

While our resident master of I/O psychology, Christina, would be better equipped to speak to this, I’ve seen teams begin to fall apart as creativity has waned. While my knowledge of this is purely anecdotal, there are many case studies that can be found on Google Scholar discussing the connection between burnout and a lack of creativity among employees. While these case studies are far beyond my understanding of psychology, they all seem to point to the same conclusion.

The importance of creativity in leadership can not be understated. Introducing creative concepts within your team doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing experience. You can begin with simple strategies, have a solutions brain-storming session, work on reframing problems from multiple angles, or introduce a creativity-building exercise like a hackathon. Small changes when appropriate will lead to massive growth.


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