Color and the Key to Innovation
Lead Coach and Facilitator at Choose Leadership | Working with Purpose Driven Leaders and Organisations
5 hands, with colour on them, palms up as a metaphor about how safety and vulnerability and innovation go hand in hand.

In 1968, George Land and Beth Jarman set out to discover how creative people are, and so they started at the beginning, by testing and tracking 1,600 children over 15 years. They assessed their divergent creative thinking, which they defined as the ability to look at a problem, challenge or object and come up with multiple solutions or different ways to use an object. They started with young kids. And they tracked them over time.

What they discovered was shocking:

  • Aged 3-5: 98% rated at “genius” level.
  • Aged 8-10: 32% still rated at that level.
  • Aged 13-15: 10% still rated at that level.

Well, when the same test was given to 200,000 adults, only 2% rated at “genius” level.

What happened? And is the meaning of these results that the innate creativity which everyone is born with fades like a naturally receding hairline or the elasticity of the skin around my eyes and chin?

One hypothesis is that no, our creativity does not atrophy over time, but is conditioned out of us.

I remember the first time I heard Harry Chapin’s iconic “Flowers Are Red” and in particular, the words of the teacher responding to the young child:

Flowers are red, young man, green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.

There is no sharper indictment of the shortcomings of our education system than the tendency of that system to socialise us to conform by encouraging convergent thinking. This kind of thinking is where ideas are judged and criticised, in service of refining, combining or improving them. While this is a useful skill to have, it has the unfortunate unintended impact of conditioning young people to colour within the lines, see flowers as red and leaves as green, and to march to the sound of someone else’s drum, not their own.

Rules, judgement and consequences demand that people conform to societal, cultural and institutional norms. Our schools and organisations are filled with policies, systems, protocols, guidelines, restrictions, controls and accountabilities: rampant bureaucracy which is designed to control and manage behaviour. Is it any wonder that we have too much management and not enough leadership?

As leadership coaches, our work is underpinned by the four Co-active cornerstones:

1.     Dance in this moment.

2.     Focus on the whole person.

3.     Evoke transformation.

And most importantly for us:

4.     People are naturally creative, resourceful and whole.

This points to the fact that people who come to work or coaching aren’t broken and don’t need fixing. And that people have a natural ability to ideate and resolve the challenges they face.

The challenge of leaders and coaches is not to make people more creative. It is to re-connect them to their innate creativity – to the creativity they were born with. And that starts with allowing them to find their own solutions to the challenges and wicked problems they and their organisations face.

Leadership is not just about having vision, enrolling others and creating direction. It is also about operating on the belief that others can find their own answers.

Holding others naturally creative, resourceful and whole is key to unlocking innovation. It encourages people to look at a problem, challenge or object and come up with multiple solutions or “different ways to use an object” without placing unnecessary restriction on their thinking. It is about creating a psychologically safe workplace where it is acceptable to challenge the status quo.

Ultimately, it is about trusting that the people you hired will discover what colours to use, when to paint within the lines, and when to paint outside of them.

Contact us to explore how leadership coaching can unlock innovation in your organisation.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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