Creative Thinking


Creative thinking is the ability to see what other people see, but in doing so see something different. It is sometimes described as involving two overlapping domains –expressive creativity and inventive creativity, and is essential to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Expressive creativity illustrates the creator’s emotions and aesthetics, while inventive creativity demonstrates novel approaches to problem solving. Of course, there is no real dichotomy between the two – scientists often draw on aesthetic experience in the realisation of an elegant solution to a problem, and many problems need to be solved in the completion any artistic expression.

Studies of childhood creativity across cultures suggest that 98% of children under the age of six are able to engage in this kind of imaginative play involving originality, flexibility and elaboration, or what psychologists call divergent thinking. But from the age of six, something starts to happen to most children – this ability for true divergent thinking starts to decline.

By the age of twelve only around half of children might still be defined as creative thinkers; by the age of eighteen the proportion has declined to around ten percent. Think about your own experience – how many of your friends were still passionate about pursuing a career in art, music or dance by the end of their teens? How many really enjoyed completing riddles and brainteasers?

Below is a picture full of circles. What I would like you to do right now is to think about how you would fill out all of those circles if you were given just two minutes to do so. What method would you use? After you have decided your approach, please read on. But please do not continue reading before you have finished this mental exercise.

Exercise 1:

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Cognitive Preferences in Dealing with Ambiguity

What you have just completed is an exercise to reveal an individual’s cognitive preference in dealing with an ambiguous task and addresses both expressive and inventive creativity.  The task is ambiguous, as I did not tell you how to fill out the circles.

I have used this test with thousands of managers around the world, normally using a paper handout and a pen, and in more than 80% of cases the individuals involved used a highly linear or convergent approach; they used one continuous line to go through all the circles; they shaded all of the circles the same; they wrote A, B, C…. or 1, 2, 3.  In another 10% or so of cases they used two to four variants of the same theme – a row of smiley faces, followed by a row of numbers, followed by a row of letters.

The Mind of a Child

If you give this exercise to a child, you typically see a very different response. Rather than linear or convergent thinking, you tend to see non-linear or divergent thinking with something different drawn in almost every circle – if you have young children, please try it.

This exercise allows an individual to demonstrate both expressive and inventive creativity – children tend to complete the circles by drawing animals, faces and a variety of other images that they like, and in many cases join circles together – for example by using two circles as the wheels of a bicycle or as a pair of eye glasses. Here is the outcome of the exercise completed by daughter Hannah when she was ten years old:

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In contrast, and as demonstrated through my research, fewer than 10% of managers act in an expressive or inventive way when completing this exercise – the majority apply an approach that is anything but creative.

 But why does such a cognitive bias towards ambiguity matter?

Because research shows that when facing an ambiguous or complex problem in which cause and effect are not always clear, the best outcomes emerge from sensing and probing from different perspectives. Quite simply, managing in a VUCA world requires both expressive and inventive creative thinking.

But why is it that the majority of adults have lost the ability to think creatively? Let’s explore that question with another exercise:

Exercise 2 – 30 seconds.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake.

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


Cutting Cakes

So, how did you do? Again, this is an exercise that I have tested with scores of managers around the world, and my research reveals powerful cognitive preferences.

In about 50% of participants I see a cake as shown at Exhibit 1a below, and in around 40% of the other participants we typically see variants of Exhibits 1b, 1c and 1d. Some 85% of participants draw only one cake. This is particularly disappointing, when the actual outcome of this exercise is potentially hundreds if not thousands of pieces – in just 30 seconds!  But because most managers do not think creatively about the problem, the results are truly sub-optimal.

In my next blogpost I will provide the solution to the cake exercise, and in doing so explain why most adults have lost the ability to think creatively. I will then go on to explain that there is no reason for despair, and provide some practical tips on how we can all reconnect to our creative potential.

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If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.


Social Media Strategy – Let’s Go Gaga

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Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, provide leaders with remarkable new tools to engage with followers, but must be used wisely for maximum impact.

To learn how to develop your own social media strategy look to THE role model for building and sustaining a loyal followership base – Lady Gaga !

Followership & Social Media: It’s all about mass intimacy

In the past if the leader wanted to engage with a mass of followers, whether they be employees in a large multinational company or fans in a music hall, the degree of intimacy which could be achieved was very limited. Social media has blown apart this millennia long tradeoff between intimacy and reaching a mass audience, enabling what I term “mass intimacy”.

Social Media allows the leader to provide rich information about their lives (Just from Me) directly to their followers (Just for You) in an immediate way (Just in Time). But despite the “mass intimacy” that social media platforms enable, the basic principles of followership still apply.

Lady Gaga provides a stunning example of the power of “mass intimacy”.  Not only has she used social media as a key component of establishing herself as a ‘leader’ in the music industry, she has built a followership base of tens of millions of fans, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. She has implemented a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what I see as the three pillars of a social media followership campaign, each of which will be described below.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by revealing things about what made them who they are: they are able to communicate “Who am I.” Lady Gaga has been extremely skillful at communicating her personal narrative, and she often talks about how she learned to play piano from the age of four, went on to write her first piano ballad at thirteen and began performing at the age of fourteen.

Despite the affluence of the Upper West Side of New York where she grew up, Gaga has stressed that she did not come from a wealthy background, stating that her parents “both came from lower-class families, so we’ve worked for everything.” Lady Gaga speaks often about her childhood and teenage years, describing herself as a freak and a misfit. In her own words:  “I was and I am a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers.”

Gaga always refers to herself as a contemporary artist rather than a musician, and after high school studied New York University’s Tisch Art School. Even early on, before she achieved international acclaim, Lady Gaga was unabashed about her potential: “Some people are just born stars. You either have it or you haven’t, and I was definitely born one.”

For Gaga, her dress is an embodiment of who she is – a work of art – but she says that “She was born this way” loving to dress-up since she was a little girl.  Her fans will never see her in track pants. “I owe them more than that” she says.  In a recent interview with the US current affairs program 60 Minutes she spoke about her ultimate purpose in life: “I don’t want to make money…I want to make a difference”.

Lady Gaga has helped her followers to understand something of who she is and where she has come from because she understands that followers demand authenticity. She has understood that what is new is the way in which social media platforms allows her to demonstrate this authenticity directly via social media on a daily basis. Gaga is very consistent in communicating her core values; acceptance for all, equality, creativity and honesty.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts and souls to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Lady Gaga has proven herself immensely capable of building this sense of community and significance among her followers.

Gaga draws upon being the weird girl in class and gives the message that the fans are okay the way they are, a message that resonates strongly with teenagers, but also with gay and lesbian fans.  In almost every interview and performance she thanks her fans for supporting her, and attributes her success as much to them as to her own creativity and hard work.

Gaga’s use of social media is a key enabler of facilitating this community. She communicates via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that her every success and breakthrough is also theirs, and typically announces her new singles and albums directly to her fans – even before the media is informed.

Gaga Monsters

The Future Narrative – Where are we going?

The final pillar of leveraging social media to build and sustain a followership base is what I call the future narrative, or “Where are we going.” Lady Gaga communicates continuously to her fans via social media that together they can make the world a better place.

Gaga is involved in a number of social causes that resonate with her fans, and is passionate about how they can together make a difference. Since the beginning of her career she has been an outspoken activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, and has also become involved with anti-bullying initiatives. She has spoken about her own battle with bulimia, initiating a wider discussion about eating disorders amongst her followers.

Gaga has founded the “Born This Way Foundation (BTWF)”, a non-profit organization that focuses on the empowerment of young people and issues like self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring, and career development. Her overwhelmingly positive message about how she wants the world to become a better place seems to resonate strongly with her millions of followers.

Lessons for all

Lady Gaga has emerged as a music industry phenomenon and astute adherent to the principles of followership. She has not only understood how to leverage social media to connect with her millions of fans in an intimate way, she has also demonstrated the impact of how this intimacy can deliver commercial results. Perhaps we should not be talking about the new economics of the Internet, but the Gaganomics of online followership.

If you liked this blog post, you might also like my TED Talk about the art of Followership.

Creative Kids

Creative Kids

Ask yourself why so many companies see the need to invest in design thinking workshops and creativity training – it is because these companies might have very many “intelligent” people, but truly creative thinkers are few and far between. But the weird thing is that all of these smart people were creative, curious kids at one point in time. So what happened?

Decades of research on the ability for creative thinking has demonstrated a startling fact – creativity is not learned, it is unlearned. A large part of the reason for this is that formal education actively discriminates against most subjects that involve creative expression. At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive or inventive creativity – art, dance and music for example.

Many educational policy makers now acknowledge that to prepare our children for the future, fostering creativity now needs to be seen as equally important as teaching numeracy and literacy. So we must reform education.

But there is a problem – educational reform takes time, and we are at risk of producing a lost generation of kids who are in school right now. So what do do?

It is my belief that we all must start acting RIGHT NOW by re-thinking the way we parent, mentor and coach kids. And here’s is some advice on how to do that.

Kids Need Stuff & Space to Play

One of the problems in the modern world is that the toy industry swamps kids with pre-built imagination. When most of us were kids, if you wanted to dress-up you went to the dress-up box. But today you can go to the toy store and find princesses and Darth Vader waiting. It is ready made. So we need to do less of that –I am not saying don’t buy your kids any toys, but give them the dress-up box full of old clothes and stuff bought from the charity shop. Give them the paper and the paints at their fingertips. How many of us give kids a digital device when we visit a restaurant today – how about providing paper and coloring pencils instead? Kids also need some space. So try to create a space in your home for kids to build their stuff. And what we also have to understand is that if kids are going to be creative, they need to have that space over time. Believe it or not, the worse thing that we can do is to ask a child to tidy up at the end of each play session.

Kids Need Time

What else is important is to give kids time. But not any kind of time – unstructured time. One of the problems with modern parenting is that we over structure our childrens’ time. School is followed by homework, followed by piano or dance lessons, followed by coached tennis practice. Kids need time to just play, without a plan or a time schedule. So send them outside, send them out to discover things for themselves.  When your kids say “I’m bored” that’s great, as boredom is often the trigger for invention.


I used to work in London and lived next door to some very successful business people. Before meeting these people, he met their nanny in the garden one day, together with two young children aged about five and seven. The author asked the Nanny, “So Who are these two?” and without batting in eyelid, she said “Well she will be a lawyer, and he will be a banker.” We need to stop putting these big expectations on our kids. The way we used to define success in an industrial age economy was by what it said on a business card, and how much money people made. But success is much broader than that, and what many of us already know is that may of the world’s best innovators and entrepreneurs never finished university.

Taking Risks

The other thing is that we should stop worrying that our kids are going to get kidnapped. In most countries in the world kidnapping is very unlikely, but these irrational fears mean that we stifle our kids freedom and desire to explore.  Research clearly shows that children, and especially girls, who grow up with fearful parents, become fearful and anxious adults themselves. We need to give kids more freedom, more autonomy and trust. Earlier this year my son Ries hit a car on his bicycle.  And of course I felt terrible, because the the driver of the car was badly traumatised. But Ries was wearing a helmet, and ended up with little more than a bruised ankle and scraped elbow.  Does that accident mean that we are going to stop him riding his bike – of course not. Because scratches and scrapes and the occasional broken bone is a part of being a child.

Celebrate Creativity & Create a Safe Environment

The other thing we need to do is to celebrate creativity. How many books on creativity, art and music  do you have at home? Because of my interest in art, my twelve-year-old daughter Hannah has become a big fan of the street artist Banksy, and we sometimes talk about the meaning of Banksy’s art.  But I equally enthuse about creativity in other fields of endeavour too, including business.

Kids can be hard on each other, and research shows that one of the biggest killers of creative courage –the courage for children to explore and express themselves are their siblings and their friends. So we need to be aware of that.  We need to explain to big brothers and sisters that they have a role to play in encouraging the creativity of the little ones.

Encourage Divergent Thinking

 So much of formal education is about linear and formulaic thinking. That was what was needed in the old industrial world. But in a modern world it is much more about making sense of complexity, and that requires divergent thought.  So one of the things that we can do with our kids, is to develop this ability for divergent thinking. And a wonderful way to do that is through riddles and brain teasers.

Health & Wellbeing

Now there is something else that is very, very important. It is about sport, and movement and rest. Because creativity is not just a brain function – it is a full body function. We have a substance in our body called dopamine, and amongst its many functions dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is associated with mental alertness and creative thinking, and when kids exercise intensively they get a boost of dopamine. Sleep is also essential – while awake metabolism generates waste products in the brain which are damaging to cells. In sleep this metabolic rate decreases, allowing restorative processes to take over. School age children between 5 and 12 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, while teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours.


 The fact is that today’s children are the entrepreneurs, inventors, leaders and digital winners of tomorrow. But there is a problem – the way that many children are being prepared for an increasingly complex world is woefully inadequate in terms of the ability to think creatively.

So let’s all act to help children to retain and grow their creative potential – and save all of that time and effort trying to re-ignite their creativity when they are “intelligent” grown-ups.

If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my TED Talk about Creative Parenting.

Damien Hirst – Innovator


“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘fuck off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” Damien Hirst, 1988

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of contemporary art, has spent his career breaking the rules of the established art industry, and his success provides a number of important lessons for organizations.

A new WHO

One of Hirst’s earliest breakthroughs was the recognition that the late 20th century had seen the emergence of ‘non-traditional’ art buyers – a new WHO that the contemporary art world of artists, dealers, curators and galleries had been slow to serve. These were consumers, many of them from relatively ‘new wealth’, who did not buy for artistic interest alone – they bought for fun or status, or invested to sell at a profit when they decided to sell the artwork again.

One of Hirst’s prominent customers was Steve Cohen, the billionaire who purchased Hirst’s shark sculpture, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Said one art critic: “..the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12 million for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination… Of course, $12 million would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity.”

Hirst and his mentor Charles Saatchi understood this, and they also appreciated that a very real issue for many ‘non-traditional’ buyers at the high-end of the art market was expected future return on investment. The way to meet these expectations – status and investment returns – was to create unique and strongly branded products.

A new WHAT

Another of Hirst’s very early insights was his recognition that by the end of the 20th century the established art world had come to define ‘works of art’ rather narrowly. In the early years of Hirst’s career both he and Saatchi identified the need to create a new WHAT –  images, symbols and signs that buyers could acknowledge as unique, whether or not they were attracted to them.

While animals – alive and dead – had been exhibited in museums, aquariums and zoos for centuries, the art world had remained largely blind to the potential of incorporating biological elements.  Through his use of animals and animal parts in his sculptures and other objects of art, Hirst created a uniquely differentiated artistic style. Hirst’s shark sculpture became the icon of British art in the 1990s, and a symbol of Britart worldwide.

The degree of opposition to Hirst’s work indicated the degree to which the established art world was blinkered to the massive commercial opportunities arising from the new WHAT created by Hirst and Saatchi during the 1990s. The leading art critic Robert Hughes attacked Hirst as responsible for “the decline of contemporary art”. But Hughes and many other highly respected critics from the art ‘establishment’ seemed blind to an emerging reality – at a time when the quantity of art being produced was exploding, successful commercial exploitation of art was no longer primarily about the physical manifestation of a piece of art.

Hirst’s idea early in his career was not first and foremost to produce a solid and sustainable body of work, like classical artist as Klee, Picasso or Barnet Newman. Instead, the primary objective of Hirst seemed to be to establish his own brand and differentiate his unique works through direct and often shocking provocation. What he proved, and what astounded many art critics, was that there was a multi-million dollar market for art work incorporating rotting meat, maggots and dead sheep.

A new HOW

But Hirst did not only question the WHO and WHAT of the established art world. He also challenged established approaches to HOW art work should be exhibited, produced and sold. Right from the beginning Hirst followed a different path to access art consumers. Instead of using only the traditional way of distributing art through dealers he also adopted the role of curator.

He also created a new HOW in terms of art production. Although Hirst participated physically in the making of early works, he had always needed assistants. But by the late 1990s the sheer volume of work produced necessitated a “factory”, with Hirst working closely with his main art production company called Science Ltd. While “factory” production had been used by other prominent artists throughout history, like Andy Warhol, Hirst was perhaps unique in the minimal level of input that he contributed to many of his works. Hirst had publicly said that he only painted five of several hundred spot paintings produced by his studio because, “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it”.

Hirst believed that modern-day artists, especially those already exhibiting at the high-end of the market, had been largely blind to yet another new HOW – the sale of contemporary art through the world’s auction houses. For centuries artists had distributed their art works through dealers and galleries, with auction houses typically selling the art works of collectors rather than works directly from artists themselves.  It was also virtually unknown for an auction to include works younger than two years old.

Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction represented the first time that an artist of his standing had put work directly into the public market rather than operating through dealers and galleries who charged larger commissions. Hirst said, “It’s a very democratic way to sell art and it feels like a natural evolution for contemporary art.”

Lessons for all

The strategy adopted by Hirst witnessed the emergence of a new market space, where he was the first and only player. Although the traditional art world had not consciously ignored the new market created by Hirst, the industry’s focus upon the traditional WHO-WHAT-HOW boundaries of art had created a significant degree of inertia.  The success of Damien Hirst has important implications for practicing managers who need to recognise that their own experience might make them blind to opportunities for strategic innovation.

The challenge for today’s managers is nothing less than removing their organization’s innovation cataracts, and to do this they must continuously question the WHO-WHAT-HOW traditions of their industries.