Out of Our Minds | Book Review

"Organizations that make the most of their people find
that their people make the most of them. That is the
power of innovation and creative leadership.
" (p. 244)

Sir Ken Robinson's macro-scale book, subtitled Learning to be Creative, is meant in part for national and international educational policy makers. A treasure trove of insightful and sobering demographic statistics trace the roots of modern education and perceptions of intelligence to industrial-age mechanistic thinking.

Just like our contemporary leadership challenge.

The focus of this book review is on the individual leader, and primarily how a single person may position themselves as a creative leader within an organization given the historical legacy Robinson describes. As a result, much of this reflection examines and discusses Chapter 9, Being a Creative Leader. Key passages and findings are offered from earlier in the work, both to set up the creative leader imperative and to highlight the need for changes in a leader's mindset.


In 2010, IBM published Capitalizing on Complexity, finding three widely shared perspectives of global business and public sector leaders (p. 12):

• They believed that a rapid escalation of complexity is the biggest challenge confronting them.
• They are equally clear that their enterprises today are not equipped to cope effectively with this complexity.
• They agree overwhelmingly that the single most important leadership competency for dealing with this growing complexity is creativity.

While many business leaders bemoan the lack of a trained workforce (look at construction workers in the American West today), one could argue employee staffing is only a tactical, or near-term issue. Robinson is asking us to consider a vastly different point of view as a leader:

"It is impossible to grasp the differences between
his [William Shakespeare] view of the world and ours
almost 500 years later, when business travelers routinely
fly across continents to attend meetings for the weekend

and then forget where they've been." (p. 21)

For our purposes, let's equate the challenges in how to think about education with the challenges of the contemporary leader. New forms of work [creative industries] are creating a demand for new sorts of skill and aptitude (p. 43), or more simply, a new mindset.


According to McKinsey, companies are in a war for senior executive talent that will remain a defining characteristic of the competitive landscape for decades to come. Yet, only a third of employers provide training beyond the job (p. 71). In Academy Leadership Excellence Course workshops, the differences between management and leadership are discussed at length. Inevitably, a leader is usually described as concerned about people rather than simply work processes or projects. We can call this the developmental mindset.

Robinson muses (p. 107): "We ask how to promote creativity and innovation but stifle the processes and conditions that are most likely to bring it about." What can we do as individual leaders? Consider whether or not curiosity is mentioned in your leadership philosophy, or the importance of an open environment welcoming diverse thoughts or points of view.

Robinson defines creativity as:

The process of having original ideas that have value (p. 151).

Arthur Koestler goes deeper and describes these [creative insights] as a process of bi-association: when we bring together ideas from different areas that are not normally connected (p. 158). As leaders, we can take advantage of our frequently diverse work environment. Rather than attempting to manage or direct others, we may cultivate curiosity. Robinson reflects that some of the most interesting breakthroughs in science, technology and the arts come from reframing the question, just as Copernicus and Galileo chose to question whether the earth was the center of the universe (p. 162).

Leadership and coaching go hand in hand. Robinson describes creative leaders [with high emotional intelligence] are more likely to coach and mentor their staff, rather than direct, in order to encourage them to develop their unique skills and abilities (p. 175). We could say this allows a crossing of the Knowing-Doing Gap, or rapidly turning knowledge into action. Expanded across an enterprise, Robinson observes that the creativity of a culture depends on how open these networks are and how easily we can access knowledge. Creativity is about making connections and more often than not, it is driven by collaboration as much as, if not more than, by solo efforts (p. 212).

Application | Being a Creative Leader

Nine principles, focused at a personal, group, or cultural level are presented; on which to develop a systematic culture of creativity and innovation via three processes (pp. 219-220):

Imagination:     The ability to bring to mind events and ideas that are not
                             present to our senses.
Creativity:         The process of having original ideas that have value.
Innovation:        The process of putting original ideas into practice.

How may this start? Just as with a culture of leadership development, creating a culture of innovation will only work if the initiative is led from the top of the organization (p. 220).

Personal Principles (pp. 225, 228 & 230)

Everyone has creative potential. A common tendency within companies is to think of innovation as a distinct function rather than an inclusive, corporative imperative. Making things worse, organizations may seek outside experts, rather than rely on valuable internal insights. No wonder then, that according to Gallup, 59 percent of 'engaged employees' strongly agreed that their job brought out their most creative ideas, while only 3 percent of 'actively disengaged' employees said the same (p. 226).

Innovation is the child of imagination.

Ask yourself if you have ever been reluctant to delegate for fear a mistake might occur. Consider the opposite, or, as Peter Richards puts it, a creative organization is first and foremost a place that gives people freedom to take risks (p. 228). Recall from our Creating a Motivational Environment workshop, leaders don't actually (or, directly) motivate people.  Robinson showcases the environment at Pixar, where there is a constant flow of new ideas running through the whole organization. People are constantly meeting each other from different areas of the organization and are reminded that they are all part of a single effort (p. 230).

We can all learn to be more creative.

Again, think of the developmental mindset. How many businesses treat training budgets as secondary, rather than primary? For McKinsey the moral is straightforward:

"You can win the war for talent but first you must elevate
talent management to a burning corporate priority
(p. 231)."

Group Principles (pp. 233, 235 & 237)

Creativity thrives on diversity.

By diversity, we're not just talking about bringing a token "outsider" onto all all "insider" team. Robinson shares that for each project at IDEO, a team of specialists is brought together from different disciplines, including: engineering, product and industrial, ergonomics, behavioral sciences, marketing and market research (p. 234). The objective is unifying the amazing breadth of ideas by those who think differently. This allows the overall organization to be more in tune with the needs of the changing cultural environment in which it is operating (p. 235).

Creativity loves collaboration.

In our Leveraging the Power of Conflict workshop, we learn that compromise (gain-gain) and collaboration (win-win) are the positive strategies. According to Randy Nelson (Pixar University), collaboration is based on two key principles: First, all participants "accept every offer that is made." Second, "always make your work partners look good (p. 235)." Contemplate if you have ever chaired a meeting with that definition of collaboration.

Creativity takes time.

Leadership from the top is required for this. At Google, engineers can use 20 percent of their time for discretionary projects (p. 237). Likewise, at  Atlassian (ref. Dan Pink - Drive), once a quarter, software developers can work on a project of their choosing, only requiring that the results are shared at the end of the creativity session. At the individual leader role, we may communicate -- via our operating principles, priorities and expectations (in our Leadership Philosophy) -- creative support.

Cultural Principles (pp. X, Y & Z)

Creative cultures are supple.

We may think of supple as a holistic form of agile. Robinson describes John Chambers' transformation at Cisco where he changed his style of leadership from command and control to collaboration and teamwork (p. 239). The emphasis is increasingly on collaborative teams, on cross sector groups drawn from sales, engineering, finance, legal, and other departments. "We're training leaders to think across silos." It's a classic manager to leader narrative.

Creative cultures are inquiring.

Robinson relates the humbling story of a trust manager in Europe (p. 241):

• I had to admit my mistakes
• I had to ask for help
• I began to delegate
• I began to listen

It reminds one of Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams, where the general eventually realized the role of leader as that of gardener. The trust manager, now thinking as a leader:

"It has required us to increase training significantly, particularly
at senior management levels, including the use of management
psychologists, and has led us to introduce 360-degree appraisals

for senior managers." (p. 242)

Creative cultures need creative spaces.

This is a newer area of study. Robinson notes that until the 1980s, there was very little research into the effects of workspaces on the work done (p. 243). Best practices, such as use of white noise, team meeting rooms, quiet mornings, and more may be seen in recognized offices such as Front Burner Brands in Tampa, FL.

Summary | Deeper Thoughts

Much of Robinson's pathfinder work addresses shortcomings in education especially:

... the popular idea of intelligence has become
dangerously narrow and other intellectual abilities are

either ignored or underestimated (p. 85).

For the intellectually curious, a deeper reading of this generational work is well worth the journey.

JE | March 2018