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Creativity is Serious Business with John Cabra

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
October 9, 2015

Creativity isn’t just nice to have: it’s serious business. John Cabra should know -- he’s a leading researcher and consultant in the field.


John is an Associate Professor at the Buffalo State International Center for Studies in Creativity. He is part of a team dedicated to researching and teaching the science of creativity.

All kinds of organizations have benefited from John’s teachings. A few notable examples include IBM, Mattel Toys, Pfizer, Kraft Foods, Coca Cola and United Airlines.

I caught up with John and interviewed him about creativity, remote work, and the role of visualization. Read on to find out more about topics like “creative leadership” and how to move forward as a creative team.

JIM: "Creativity" means different things to different people. How do we best approach understanding the concept of creativity?

JOHN: Creativity is a complex phenomena. It is therefore not a surprise that this construct, say a multifaceted one, means different things to different people. I'd say that creativity should be approached through a system's view, or holistically (see attachment). By doing so, people can be precise. In fact, Puccio et al. (2010) designed a useful framework to better understand the concept of creativity.

To elaborate, preciseness brings together

  • the leadership that contributed to past successful participation (Creative Leadership)
  • the behaviors the individuals and groups demonstrated that led to success (People)
  • the organizational factors that promoted an environment of participation through organizational practices (Environment)
  • the operational and social processes that contributed to participation (Process)
    the results that were obtained through implementing the tactics (Products)

In short, when people desire to examine creativity, it is best to clarify what variable is of interest to them: People, Process, Environment, or Product. Or, they may want to examine the concept of creativity through the interplay of these variables.

johncabra systems model image

JIM: Let's focus on the leadership variable for second. Tell me more about that. What exactly is "creative leadership"? What role does it play in the overall process? Who are creative leaders in an organization?

JOHN: Creative leadership is about solving complex problems that are ill-defined. That is to say, *there is no single solution path* – no right or wrong answer – which allows the problem to be defined in a number of ways; problems that are *novel* whereby past experience and knowledge is not sufficient to resolve the present situation, adaptive responses are needed for new or changing situations; and *ambiguous* whereby gaps in information and/or a bunch of information of which only some is relevant.

The military uses an acronym called VUCA, which is used to reflect on the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of situations--situations which are new. To be precise, see the definitions of each variable from Judith Stiehm’s The U.S. Army War College:

  • V = Volatility. The nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty. The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity. The multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization.
  • A = Ambiguity. The haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

Each variable can come together in manners that either confound problem solving or sharpen the capacity to look, plan and move ahead. Therefore VUCA sets the stage for leading in a creative way. As Puccio et al (2010) have asserted in their book, Creative Leadership is about “Deliberately engaging one’s imagination to define and guide a group towards a novel goal – a direction that is new [VUCA] for the group.”


JIM: If the goal is new for the group, presumably it's new for the leader as well. So how can someone lead if they don't know where they will end up? Do they need to put faith in the process, or do they just need to be optimistic, or both?

JOHN: I think that leadership involves a balancing act between two polarities. Let me explain.

Creative leadership differs from other leadership endeavors in that some cases there exists inherent tension between innovation and organization. As cited in Mumford, Scott, Gaddis and Strange (2002), "innovation is an expensive, inherently risky, venture in any organizational setting. Organizations, however, must produce as well as *explore*. These characteristics of organizations and innovation result in an inherent tension between creative efforts an organizational demands."

That said, when the goals are not clear, one leads with a set of heuristics while the organizational members explore. These heuristics are:

  • Tolerate the Ambiguity: the acceptance of vagueness and even thriving in situations that are unclear.
  • Tolerate Complexity: staying calm and persevering when large amounts of information, complex issues, and opposing viewpoints are present.
  • Openness to Novelty: having a willingness to explore novel, strange, or different ideas, actions, or solutions.

As the organization navigates through these waters, the goals emerge. I find this important because we don't know what the future looks like in 5 or 10 years out. Yet organizations are expected to prepare its organizational members for that uncertain future that is constantly challenged by exponential challenges brought to them by variables such as technology, information, global competition, change in political leadership, economics. Leaders lead by providing the space and support to venture.

Creative leaders provide a basis for structuring an inherently ill-defined challenge, say through creative problem solving, and as such they provide the credibility needed to exercise influence.

JIM: That sounds a lot like the perspective of the "Lean Startup" movement in software development. Leaders need to deal with uncertainty and pivot as signals come back from the market. It's about a mindset of experimentation through a "build-measure-learn" cycle in a business context. What role does creativity play in business, in general?

JOHN: Yes. I agree. The rate of change is exponential, which in essence is the single most contributor of uncertainty. Experimentation, therefore, is a fundamental skill set leaders must exercise in response.

To your question, managers are tasked to ensure the continued success of business operations. Any time the operations deviate from the norm, generally new thinking is needed to return the operations to its normal state. I would argue that this assertion is not limited to returning the operations to its normal state. Managers are expected to continuously improve the organization throughout the system.

A consulting firm in Chicago, Doblin, identified 10 types of innovation that provide impetus for meaningful and sustainable growth; what should be striking to the consumers of their work is that new products is only one way to innovate.

The 10 types of innovation are organized into three areas, namely the organization's Configuration (e.g., profit model, network, structure, and process), Offering (e.g., product performance and product system), and Experience (e.g., service, brand, channel, and customer engagement).

10 types of innovation

That said, I need to make clear how managerial and leadership creativity contributes to innovation. Here I cite Rickards (1996) who argued that, "The starting, ending, and bounding of an innovation project are all parts of a unitary process of meaning-creation within social contexts. 'Creativity through the finishing line"; "implementation first and last". Put another way, innovation is the output and creativity is the process in all corners of business.

JIM: I'd like to change the subject a little and talk about visual thinking and creativity. What role does visualization play in the creative process?

JOHN: I think visualization supports creative process in a few ways. One, visualization can help stimulate thinking in ways that verbal cognition cannot. Two, not only does visualization prompt a break, it also nudges a shift in thinking. Three, when thinking is complex, visualization provides a simplification when the mind is engaged in a cognitive function.

Put another way, visual images makes it easier and quicker to process elements of a problem because they are made more obvious. Plus, when these elements are made into visuals, they are also primed for analogies, combined, or easily anticipated for further transformations.

Think of visuals as a mental code that comprises characteristics that go beyond the initial sets of information that came packaged with a problem, which often is approached in an algorithmic way, when instead the situation would have been better served with a heuristic approach comprising multiple pathways to a solution. Because visuals are flexible, they therefore can be manipulated in many ways, which lend support for the generation of multiple solutions and/or the restructuring of problems.

On a separate matter, I would assert that a positive visualization of a future state plays an important function in trumping negative self talk. During those moments of truth, when faced with intrapersonal and interpersonal resistance to change, visualization keeps the creative problem solver on course.

pull quote 2

JIM: Can you elaborate further?

JOHN: If we could take an inventory of the self talk that incurs in our minds, then we can easily see the value of generalized visualization. I would bet that in general people have made it a habit to undermine their dreams through self talk that tricks the mind to think that it cannot be done.

Visualization--of positive mental images that is--creates mental habits that support a creative process, which ultimately helps us to get more of what we want out of life. Since negative images are abound, why not do the inverse? It is much more fun to visualize the positive then it is to do visualize the negative. Plus, people are more inclined to change when the energy is positive.

Visualization, when filtered through a positive lens, is a tool for change. The more we do it, the more it increases our confidence; see it as a contagion.

In my Principles of Creative Problem Solving classes, I introduce the students to a storyboard tool, which is a visual tool designed to develop a vision of a desired outcome and to identify the potential blocks that they need to overcome in order to achieve the goal.

To be specific, I ask the students to draw 6 squares labeled 1 to 6. In box 1, draw your current situation. In box 6, draw your desired goal. Then draw 4 intermediate steps that lead from current situation to your goal for each box, then add possible blocks to progress by way of a challenge statement (e.g., How might I find funding to enroll in a design thinking workshop?).


After this exercise, it is not uncommon for students to comment how a complex challenge, that is unpacked using a storyboard tool, helped them to realize that their goals are reachable and much more crystallized. The realization alone helped them feel relaxed, hopeful, focused and eager to pursue their goals. The open ended question (How might I...), nudges the mind to think openly, which was designed to bolster the visualization efforts.

I see visualization as a higher order thinking skill, which helps to produce better ideas in any context and with any challenge.

JIM: That's powerful. So how does that work with remote collaboration? What's the word of advice for creative visual processes in remote contexts?

JOHN: Remote collaboration is getting easier and increasingly frictionless as the technology improves exponentially. Your platform, MURAL, is a case in point. But what gets in the way is poor facilitation skills made worse when the facilitator is not skilled in operating platform features.

I have used a platform, that at a much smaller scale, functions like Second Life with Skype-like video chat capabilities. I would advise selecting a remote context that permits the integration of photographs that can be manipulated, moved and/or made into collages. Be willing to facilitate participants through a mental rehearsal that was primed with a nature video that could be played within the virtual platform.

pullquote cabra

JIM: That suggests that the technology is less of a problem in effective remote creativity than human factors. Is there is a resistance to learning how to operate remote platforms effectively? An unawareness of what's required? Something else?

JOHN: Yes and no. I can only speak to my experience. As much as I liked Second Life, the learning curve was too steep for my students and peers to garner interest. That said, the resistance was greater. When the platform was intuitive and users were accompanied by tech people willing to standby during--and more than--an orientation session, users were more likely to embrace the platform.

JIM: Thanks, John! We look forward to collaborating with you and hearing more about your work.

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.