What Is a Leap?
If you’ve ever made a running leap, then you are aware that there are several things at work. First, there is vision. You must have your eyes on a prize, somewhere off in the not too far distance. That prize is close enough to be almost within your reach. Second, you have to leap versus just walk or even run to that desired prize, because there is some barrier or impediment that you need to span. Third, leaps often require a running start. A kinesthetic, active motion is needed for you to gather momentum and propel yourself forward. Fourth, leaping requires that you suspend judgment. After doing all the analysis, gauging, and estimating of what it will take to make that leap, faith and intuition must take over. And fifth, leaping only moves you forward. It is impossible to leap backward. You can fall backward, but you cannot leap backward. Leaping requires exorbitant amounts of energy and trust in the unknown—and it always propels us into new territory.
Why Creativity Leaps Matter
Like a physical leap, a creativity leap is essential for crossing boundaries; it is also an active, dynamic process that honors intuition. Creativity leaps are needed to bridge the gap between the churn of work and the highly sought-after prize called innovation. This holds true on both the individual and organizational levels. Creativity leaps matter because creativity is the engine for innovation.
Sadly, creativity has been ghettoized and siloed in the arts. This is not fair to artists, and it isn’t beneficial to our society at large. People’s quality of life is at stake. Employees are experiencing a slow death in their office cubicles, while students are made to sit quietly and absorb massive amounts of information passively in classrooms still modeled after schooling in an agricultural economy.
We live in a complex world where there are many shades of gray. Navigating this uncertain and ambiguous world is not easy. But it doesn’t have to be so complicated, either. Let me explain. The important thing to note here is that complication and complexity are not synonyms; they are two distinct concepts.
The jazz bassist Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” One outcome of applying creativity is that it simplifies complicated and complex problem-solving by juxtaposing and recombining previously unexplored counterparts, objects, or ideas. In fact, the best way to navigate complexity is through creativity. Since creativity itself is a complex system, the open-ended creative techniques of inquiry, improvisation, and intuition are most effective. That’s why creativity leaps matter; they are the only way to solve the complex problems of our time and to innovate for the future.
Wisdom Begins in Wonder
Daydreaming leads to wonder. Pay attention to how many times you, your colleagues, and your teammates begin a sentence with “I wonder if . . .” or “I wonder what might happen when . . .” Observe what follows those two words, “I wonder . . .” What we begin to wonder about brings us to the precipice of discovery. Therein lies the magic. It is more concerning if you and those around you are not starting their sentences with “I wonder . . .” That admittance of ignorance and curiosity is critical. Don’t stop yourself or others—follow the bread crumbs to where that wondrous state leads.
Wonder requires a space of doing nothing. This may be a radical proposition in our times of fast-paced, just-in-time expectations. The art of doing nothing requires suspension of assumptions and the ability to wait. Waiting can be nerve-racking. But it is rigorous work to sit with the ambiguity of not knowing and sensing out options.
Wonder and Creativity
Wonder is the component of creativity that requires awe, audacity, pausing, and asking audacious “What if . . .?” questions. Complex situations are grand in scale, so they deserve and require the grandiose thinking that wonder inspires. The challenge is that very few of our organizations and work processes allow for wonder. Exploration is cut short by the need for expediency. Rapid-response solutions are rewarded.
Pausing to wonder about something spurs new questions. After all, every sentence beginning with the words “I wonder” necessarily ends with a question mark. Wonder likes to test out new ways of being and doing, rebounding off of the constraints of current knowledge. The only way we get to make a creativity leap in the first place is by starting with wonder. Wonder is the catalyst. Then, rigor propels us forward and helps us to sustain the momentum of the leap.
Rigor and Rules
You learn how to dance, to stretch and train your muscles, through repetition. It’s hard, sweaty work; it’s not sexy. It feels like you will never be able to actually dance and float in the ways the ballerinas and great modern dancers on stage do. This is the part of the process that famed modern dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “the box.” As she has wisely advised, “Before you can think out of the box, you must start with a box.” The box is the rules and the rigor. And there is no getting around it.
Leonardo da Vinci is credited for having said, “Every obstacle is destroyed through rigor.” Da Vinci was one of the greatest known polymaths in history. We can attribute the term Renaissance man to his developed expertise in painting, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. His creativity was sourced not only through his immense curiosity but also through the rigor that he applied in order to learn the details of these wide-ranging fields.
Rigor and Creativity
If wonder is the equivalent of experiencing opening night of a marvelous theatrical experience, then rigor is all of the backstage machinations. It’s the cable cords holding the velvet curtains in place, the dark hallways and underground tunnels, and the rafters holding lights engineered to create surreal effects. It is the incessant practice that the actors, dancers, and singers must engage in all the way up to opening night.
If we romanticize creativity as a mystical, magical process only accessible to a select few, then we miss the point. Creativity is not something you pull willy-nilly from your armpit. Rigor is that essential feature of creativity that anchors the wonder; puts guardrails up; and requires us to do the sweaty, muscle-bound work with whatever muse we choose. The rigor is the part of creativity that is often missed—or avoided. But it is essential if we are ever to go about the work of creativity in a sustained way.
The Wonder Rigor Paradigm
Riding a bike, baking a cake, learning how to dance: these are all examples of activities where we are constantly working at the intersection of wonder and rigor. The engineering of the bicycle itself is an example of rigor, where the exact placement of wheel and spokes makes all the difference in the world. Additionally, we can all recall the intense amount of concentration and effort it took to learn how to ride a bicycle.
The frustration, necessary repetition, and redundant failure of falling off the bike over and over again were tedious—and frankly, not fun. But the leap into finally getting it right, flying down the sidewalk on my banana seat without training wheels for the first time, and experiencing my block in completely new ways—that was the wonder.
In a TEDx Talk, Christine Cox, cofounder of the Philadelphia premiere contemporary ballet company BalletX, referenced both the athleticism (rigor) and the artistry (wonder) required to tell stories through dance. Dancers are systems designers. Similar to designers and engineers, they also are kinesthetic learners who must move and make, prod and rework in order to discover, zoom in and out, and gain new perspective. They integrate both discipline and audacious dreaming to do their best work. It is not enough for a dancer (or any artist) to be technically proficient and rigorous in their approach. In order to move us, they must bring an additional element to their work: wonder.
Increasing your creativity quotient is about building on what has come before you. And that requires, well, building. Building is ambiguous and messy. While we may start with a plan, plans shift, agendas change, and assumptions are challenged. Creativity’s ROI is a return on inquiry, on improvisation, and on intuition. These returns can be scaled to benefit you personally as well as organizationally. There are three leaps to make regularly in order to optimize your creativity ROI.
#1 Leap from Prioritizing Deep Specialization to Valuing Broad Experience
When’s the last time you got out of the office? I mean really got out of the office in order to spark wonder? New experiences and environments are important to expand the boundaries of your work. Do not be confined to your sector, geographic location, or usual coterie of experts to get insights and advice.
#2 Leap from Deferring Only to What’s Rational to Embracing Ambiguity
In complex systems, answers and solutions are not immediately obvious. They emerge over time, like a shadowy figure from the fog at dusk. Murky and ambiguous contexts require the rigor to sit with ambiguity until a recognizable picture begins to emerge; they insist that you play the long game in order to get to understanding and insight. In practice, that could mean switching up whom you have logically identified as the expert in the organization (think about it: that frontline salesperson may not have the status and perspective of an executive vice president, but she sure is privy to conversations, questions, and comments that illuminate what is going well and what is going poorly in your offering).
#3 Leap from Organizational Silos to Networked Community
Depicting our organizations with boxes and arrows and developing linear processes for product launches have one thing in common: they give us a false sense of security. In reality, our org charts are more like messy mind maps, and our products, services, and experiences exist in a macro-environment full of ambiguity and uncertainty that eschews linear thinking.
The best way to rebound from a situation that catches you off guard is to have fluid structures in place. Try taking away some of the structure and leaving space for more open inquiry, improvisation, and intuition. Keep in mind that markets are unpredictable and inconsistent because they are made up of people. Embrace it.
These three leaps show that creativity can be best navigated when you broaden your perspective and your inputs. Move, translate, and play to challenge your assumptions and navigate complex situations. This is how you increase your creative competency. This is how you make the creativity leap.