An Economy of Possibilities: Creative Responses in Business

Headline: “More Data Show Slow Economy.” This recent headline from the business section of a local newspaper is representative of many news outlets for the past month. Every day there is discussion of the economy, are we in a slow down or at the beginning of a recession? Should the fed cut interest rates? Should the government pass a tax cut?

More importantly, what does this news mean for your business?

Many business owners, managers and workers will worry and fret about the economic forecast. As the business climate changes they will begin a series of reactive decisions that will leave them a step behind in this rapidly shifting environment. Only a few will have the courage to act creatively. Many will see problems for the economy and for their own business. Only a few will grasp that opportunity may be hiding under the surface of this turmoil.

Will you be creative or reactive?

Of course, in a short newsletter article there is not enough room to explore this topic fully, but let me outline for you three general principles that are necessary for a creative response: listen – respond – let go. These are the qualities that characterize adaptive organizations. They value relationships within the organization, and relationships are the source of creativity and adaptability.

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LISTEN: The first step in the creative process is listening. Creative business leaders see and hear what ordinary business leaders overlook. When the creative innovation is introduced, the reactive leader responds, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Listening is time consuming. It takes time to be a good listener. Often, life is busy about many things. We want to listen, but we are already late. Creativity does not run on our time schedules. It requires slowing down and reflecting. 

Listening is also anxiety provoking. At the start of the creative process, we must be willing to plunge into uncertainty. It requires being willing to ask questions without clear answers. In the concrete, bottom-line world of business this can be hard, but if we cannot ask new questions we will not get new results.

Listening is, above all, relational. We must listen to our customers. We must listen to our colleagues. We must also listen to our employees. We must learn the very difficult task of listening to those who have different ideas and opinions. We even need the courage to seek out differences to spark new ideas.

Here is one action step you might consider. Every organization has a “troublemaker.” Pick a “troublemaker” from your organization and invite him or her to have a conversation with you. Try to listen to his or her point of view. Even if you disagree, is there some truth to what he or she says? If you made an attempt to address the 
concerns the “troublemaker” raises, what would change in your organization? What would be positive about that change? What would be negative? You have made a step toward thinking in a new way.

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RESPOND: Ideas and insights are plentiful. This article will be one of thousands that will be written about doing business in a slow economy. A creative response requires the willingness to take action.

Responding is proactive. In the initial stages of creativity, we must stop the busy-ness and pay attention. When an idea or an insight occurs, it is time to act. Insight is accompanied by urgency.

Responding involves commitment. It is easy to be paralyzed by fears of being wrong. Not every creative response will be successful, but the lack of response is guaranteed failure. It is important to make a decision. It is also important to commit to making the decision work.

Responding reverses roles. The role reversal occurs when the relational nature of creativity is understood. Real leadership catalyzes the creative thinking of the whole organization. The burden of a creative response is not yours to carry alone; it is a shared company-wide responsibility.

Try this: Take out your organizational flow chart. Turn it upside down. The real keys to your success are at the top of this reversed pyramid. The real job of the owner-CEO is to supply the managers, who supply the front-line staff with what they need for the job. When the front-line staff is able to do their job, the bottom line grows. Leadership supports the staff in its creative response.

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LET GO: This may be the hardest element in the creative response. Creative responses unfold in unpredictable ways. They seem to take on a life of their own, and they can only be guided, not controlled.

Letting go requires trust. You worked hard to create your business, setting up procedures and structures that will move you toward your goals. You have carefully considered those with whom you work and selected them to help you reach your goal. Why is it so hard to trust what you have built?

Letting go fosters flexibility. When you are tightly holding on to and controlling your work, it is impossible to be flexible. When you let go you are free to move with the ebbs and flows of the complex environment of the current economy.

Letting go is liberating. It is seemingly paradoxical that creativity involves committing to a response and letting go of the outcome. The creative process is a process. Stop to listen. Act with commitment. Let go and let the process unfold. Engaging the process allows each to happen in its own time.

To take an active step toward letting go, make a list of the people in your organization that you trust. Remind yourself of why you trust them. In your organization, are there others that share these same qualities? Can you extend you trust to them? What would change if you did?

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The Chinese character for crisis has a double meaning. It can either represent the equivalent of our word for “problem” or it can mean “opportunity.” 

The choice is ours. The economic slowdown can be our problem. It can also be our opportunity to make a creative response.