Coaching for Creativity in the Workplace

by Richard L. Williams

There was a CEO of a large company who had an interesting object on his desk. Over the course of many years the object had been the topic of numerous conversations by most employees and visitors who found themselves in his office. When I heard the story about the CEO and the strange object, I knew it had to be the topic of an article, because of how moved I was by the message.

The object on his desk was a hand-carved automobile made from wood that was similar to what you might see at a Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. The car was about eight inches long and although quite detailed in design, obviously wasn't professionally made. Someone had constructed this car for a specific purpose. The unique part of the car was that its wheels were not round, but rather square! That's why it became the object of conversations: people were awestruck by the design and construction.

When asked about the unusual wheels, the CEO would say that the answer required an explanation. He said he actually looked forward to giving the explanation, because it gave him an opportunity to promote a message he believed was critical to being successful in today's business world.

The CEO explained that one of the deadliest problems an organization can have is what he called "traditional", "conventional", or "habitual" thinking. The symptoms, he said, were when people in an organization applied a traditional way of thinking to solve problems, or even answer questions. He explained that individuals and teams cannot achieve more than they have in the past if they only apply the paradigm that got them where they are in the first place. "In order to move to the next level it's necessary", he said, "to apply a different set of rules and a different method of thinking." Then he gave an example of what he meant. In a team meeting, for example, when a "crazy" or "off the wall" idea is made its common for other team members to put down, dismiss, or even ridicule the suggestion. This is because they are using the traditional set of rules and thinking they have always used. And if this thinking process is allowed to continue, the net solution will likely be limited and possibly even ineffective.

By contrast, what is needed, the CEO explained, is divergent and sometimes "off the wall" thinking. He believed that even "crazy" ideas can sometimes lead to the best solutions. So, if a manager or team leader over-controls or puts down seemingly "off-the-wall" ideas, it not only stifles the coaching and communication process, but it also can limit the value of potential solutions.

The CEO had a favorite story he used to illustrate his point. It seems a manufacturing company had suffered high turnover for several years. The Director of Human Resources had calculated the cost of the unusually high turnover and presented it at a senior staff meeting. Although everyone in the meeting was aware of the problem, when confronted with the real cost of turnover, they immediately became concerned. One member of the senior staff asked, "So what can we do? These people don't like our working conditions so they quit after a month or two. We can't change the fact that we do repetitive assembly work. So we are stuck, unless we find a legal way to chain new employees to their table."

Everyone got a good laugh from the comment. But it followed by an "off the wall" add-on by another person who said, "If new employees are walking off the job, then we need to hire people who can't walk." There was silence in the room for a full minute while the senior staff members considered if that last comment was relevant, or spoke of discrimination.

The silence was broken by still another executive who said, "If the people we currently hire end up not liking our working conditions and walk away, then maybe we ought to consider hiring people who are physically challenged in some way."

There was one member of the senior staff who often tried to use his sense of humor to reduce tension in difficult situations. He must have felt the tension was too high because at this point he said, "Hiring people with physical challenges to work on our assembly line would be like trying to sell cars with square wheels."

Once again there was silence in the room, which was followed by the Director of Human Resources who ignoring the previous comment said, "Right now we don't have any active system in place to seek out physically challenged people. What do you think? Should we give it a try?"

The president of the manufacturing firm, who had remained quiet for this discussion, then spoke up. "I'm alarmed at these reoccurring costs of recruiting, replacing and training new employees. There is no doubt in my mind that these costs are a serious impact to our bottom line. If changing our hiring practices will help even in a small way, I'm in favor of it."

With that comment, the HR director got a mandate to modify her methods of seeking applicants for the assembly line. Over the course of a year by making reasonable accommodation for physically challenged people, the HR director successfully hired and trained a number of employees.

Once again, a little less than two years later, the Director of Human Resources made a presentation at a senior staff meeting concerning employee turnover costs in the plant. This presentation, however, generated a much different response from the senior staff members. Her report first centered on how her department had actively recruited potential employees who were physically challenged. Then, she shocked everyone with the results of her efforts: employee turnover had been reduced from 40 percent per year to less than 5 percent in less than two years!

This is merely one of many examples the CEO used to help his visitors understand the importance of not restraining thinking during brainstorming. If the president of the manufacturing company had over-controlled his subordinates, or had criticized "crazy" ideas, then the discussion that led to a great solution would probably have never happened. That's why the CEO had someone make an automobile with square wheels as a reminder to him and all his visitors that it is critical to create an organizational culture that not only listens to, but also rewards the volunteering of seemingly "crazy" ideas.

Leaders must understand that one of their most important responsibilities is to create an organizational climate wherein followers feel empowered to speak up and "dream the impossible dream." Without that type of coaching and leadership, problems can only be solved with traditional or conventional beliefs. Issues can only be addressed with old or even worn out thinking.

That's why the CEO treasured the hand-carved automobile with the square wheels on his desk. It was his reminder that coaching for creativity is an art that can drive profit and empowerment.

Copyright © Richard L. Williams

About the Author

Richard L. Williams is a business consultant specializing in performance coaching, quality improvement, team development, and leadership development. To learn more about coaching for creativity and how it can help your organization, please contact Dr. Williams and the CMOE team toll free at (888)262-2499.

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