In my workshops and keynote talks about creative thinking, I often use a simple drawing exercise that has a startling effect on people. Some jump into the exercise with a sense of fun and delight, while others approach it with fear and trepidation. In some cases participants revolt, and simply refuse to participate. So what kind of exercise could spark such a wide spectrum of reactions? I simply ask participants to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them!
The exercise is introduced like this (maybe you would like to try it):
“Please turn to the person next to you and make a hand drawn picture of them in life like detail. You should use paper and pen, and do not draw in abstract. It should be a life-like image. You have two minutes to do draw the picture. After completing the drawing, show it to them.”
In my experience, and despite its simplicity, this creative task can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced executives. Why? Because they are being asked to do something which: a) They do not feel they have the skills to do well, and b) they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other. This in turn creates anxiety and inhibition – what if I fail; what if the other person is upset?
A Fear of Embarrassment
In some situations, such as a recent keynote at an event with 250 senior banking executives from across Europe, I have experienced these anxieties manifest themselves in annoyance and even anger, with people refusing to participate. At this particular event, there was little laughter and fun, and many participants were simply unwilling to engage in a what could be a playful and creative experience. I repeatedly approached one senior participant from a large French bank who was refusing to participate, and on the third try was actually told to “F**ck off”.
The reactions of anxiety are perhaps understandable given the fact that few adults have engaged in creative drawing since the age of nine or ten – as demonstrated by the outputs of most participants. The two portraits accompanying this post were drawn by people in their forties, one an engineer and the other a corporate lawyer.
It is around the age of ten when most people start to be told that art will never get them a good job, and from this point on the education system starts to actively discriminate against subjects involving creativity (see my previous post on childhood creativity). At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive creativity – music, dance and fine art.
But despite this lack of drawing skill, some participants embrace the exercise with a sense of excitement, curiosity and good humor, and what this tells us is that these people are quite happy just to have a go and to leave their ego aside. Unlike so many other adults, they have hung on to their creative courage.
And this parallels my wider experience in that the truly creative managers that I have met are willing to issue statements of ignorance when the situation calls for it – to say that they do not know. But more importantly, they are willing to dive into new situations with humility and openness, they are open to lifelong learning, and they have retained a sense of enthusiasm and fun.
Fear & Ego
I recently did the portrait exercise with a global team of legal experts from a leading technology company, and the senior leader from the US was almost falling off her chair with laughter as she completed her drawing. Throughout the workshop, I was told time and time again about the way that she was positively transforming the culture towards openness and knowledge sharing – a very different situation to what existed under the stiff and hierarchical previous boss.
In contrast, those who get angry or annoyed and boycott the drawing exercise reveal their concern for status, and the fear of admitting a lack of skill or knowledge. And in my experience these kind of people are much less effective in dealing with uncertain and complex situations that require people to collaborate towards coming up with novel solutions. They tend to engage in building internal kingdoms and fiefdoms, sustaining internal silos instead of facilitating cross-business cooperation.
It has also been interesting for me to observe that if I do the exercise with a team, if the ego-driven leader refuses to do the exercise then this same behavior is often adopted by his or her subordinates. This typically reflects broader dysfunctional behavior at the team-level, with fear-based relationships and a lack of candor in communication. As a Belgian manager named Jean-Pierre once said to me after I observed his team following the lead of a non-drawing boss: “If I had done the exercise, there might have been consequences.”
Fear of upsetting the other
For those who are reluctant to do the portrait exercise because they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other, the issue is not so much about ego. Rather, it is about the desire to sustain positive and harmonious relationships. One British participant named Kathy actually said to me: “But if I draw his picture, he might not like me anymore.” She proceeded to draw, all the while saying “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry” to the man sitting opposite her!
Of course, there are strong cultural dimensions at play here. In some societies, such as Japan and Indonesia, people are very much conscious of causing others to “lose face” through public criticism or shaming, and in my experience people from these countries can find this exercise very difficult to do – especially if they do not know the other person, or the other is perceived to be in a higher hierarchical position. But I have seen similar reactions in organizations with strong internal hierarchies, and in which junior people are not expected to challenge or give feedback to more senior people.
Creative Courage Can Thrive
Real creativity can only happen in cultures in which people are inspired to explore, to experiment and to fail. Daily interactions happen in a spirit of good humor, and people are not afraid to upset their colleagues through offering opinions and honest feedback. Equally, people in creative cultures are not quick to criticize, and accept the opinions of others with humility and in the spirit of good intent. Organizational politics tends to be frowned upon, hierarchy is banished and people with big egos are marginalized. Because truly creative cultures understand that dealing with complex and uncertain situations requires the power of the collective intellect, not some flash of insight from an arrogant genius.
So a good barometer of the openness to creativity in your organization is a simple little exercise. In your next team meeting, just ask your colleagues to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them.
If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.