Creative Decision-Making CAN Be Taught

by Lane Wallace on September 19, 2017

Creative problem solving is a critical component to surviving uncharted adventures, whether it’s on a mountain, in a start-up cubicle, or in the everyday challenge of balancing self, family, work, and raising healthy, loving, and emotionally balanced children. And yet, coming up with those creative ideas and solutions often seems like a mystical, magical process. How did Mozart think of all those note combinations, anyway? How do entrepreneurs think of something radically new and different … the Google search engine, the iPhone, pantyhose, retractable dog leashes, or the iconic invention everything else is compared to: sliced bread (invented in 1928 by Otto Frederick Rohwedder). How do those people think of those things, while their next door neighbors didn’t?

The same goes for executives who think of creative, “third way” business strategies the rest of the pack didn’t manage to come up with. For example: we take mid-sized, upscale “boutique” hotels as a given, now. But once upon a time, the industry “norm” consisted of two very distinct models: big, urban hotels with all the amenities, and small, widely distributed motels that offered more basic services but in many more locations outside of urban areas. How did Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, in 1960, not only come up with the idea of of breaking that mold and creating a third option: a motel-sized hotel, in an urban area, with all the amenities … but also come up with the courage to pursue a model that everyone said couldn’t work, because a smaller facility wouldn’t have enough customers to make all those amenities pay for themselves?

The answer, in Isadore Sharp’s case, was that he took features he liked from both models: the more personal size of the motels, and the amenities of the big urban hotels, and combined them with a twist: as Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman Management School at the University of Toronto, and now head of the Martin Prosperity Institute there, would say, he “doubled down” on the feature he liked best about the big urban hotels: their services. By providing abundant, above-and-beyond customer-oriented luxury services at his (relatively) small properties, he was able to charge a premium for staying there, which made his “boutique” luxury hotel model financially viable.

That kind of creative inspiration is something most of us admire in entrepreneurs and executives. But we tend to see those people as “gifted.” Great role models, but hard to emulate. After all, most of us don’t see ourselves as creatively gifted. I’m a writer, but I’m no Mozart. And I’m certainly not an inspired and gifted business executive.

Enter Roger Martin. Roger Martin is one of the smartest business thinkers and writers I know. What Roger figured out is that although some people are innately gifted when it comes to creativity or creative problem-solving, it also might be possible, by extracting from those gifted thinkers what, exactly, they did in that creative process, to teach others how to do it.

In a way, it’s what I’m attempting to do with the intuitive process of finding, maintaining, and re-connecting with an authentic voice. Most of us search for and find our voices through trial, error and intuitive decision-making. But it’s hard to teach an intuitive process. If we can model or dissect that process into specific elements that can be shared or taught, however, then almost anyone can learn how do to it.

Granted, most of us will probably never perform as well as those truly gifted individuals, any more than someone who takes five years of lessons from a really great tennis pro will play as well as Serena Williams. But then again, we might get pretty darn decent at the game. And often, that’s good enough.

I wrote about some of Roger’s insights into how to teach creative decision-making in a 2010 article for The New York Times.

But basically, what Roger figured out by debriefing and interviewing dozens of successful “creative” executives, was that they were able to hold seemingly binary choices (urban big hotel with amenities vs. small motels outside of city centers) in their minds at the same time, and then intuitively dissect those “models,” as Roger calls them, into individual elements that could be then recombined or stretched to come up with creative “third” ways forward. (e.g. Take the size of the small motel, and combine with the urban location of big hotels, and make that work by intensifying the big-hotel services such that people will pay enough of a premium for those services to make the model work even with a smaller property.)

Roger has written about this approach before (The Opposable Mind). He also lectures about it quite often. And one of the questions that I and others have repeatedly asked him is, “But HOW do you break down those models into the right components? How do you figure out how to recombine them? Give me an example; a concrete exercise I can do to figure this out in my own life!”

Happily, Roger and his colleague Jennifer Riel have just published a new book that finally answers those questions. The book is called Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.¬†But more than just a leader’s guide, it’s a how-to manual anybody can follow to figure out how to find a new way forward when none of the initial options seem all that palatable. It’s also, in a way, a guide to more creative problem-solving in general. After all, creativity comes from seeing something from a new angle, or a new perspective, that gives us insight, inspiration, or a vision of something other than what is, but which might be possible, with the right approach. How exciting to think that skill or ability can actually be taught!

Why am I writing with such enthusiasm about the book here? Because life holds many uncharted adventures. Climbing mountains. Flying airplanes. Coming up with new ways to make people’s lives better. Exploring new territory. Running companies that can make money and be good community citizens and employers. Starting movements to change something in the world. And yes, searching for an authentic voice, somewhere within us, and bringing that voice out into the world in meaningful, powerful, and life-changing ways.

To even embark on those adventures takes both courage and some belief in our ability to handle the challenges we encounter. If we never learn to think outside the box; to see different perspectives and consider other options when those we’re presented with seem too dire, limiting, or costly, we’ll never get the courage or vision we need to move beyond the first wall or obstacle we encounter. And both we, and the world, will be poorer for it.

Learning how to “model” and deconstruct our assumptions and choices can make it easier for us to come up with alternative options and solutions. It also lets us see that what we might have assumed are immutable choices are actually far more pliable than we’d been told. Even if we never become geniuses at creative problem-solving, books and mentoring like this can help us improve our game. And sometimes … many times … that’s actually good enough.

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