According to our guest, Natalie Nixon, creativity strategist and president of Figure 8 Thinking and author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work, creativity is not solely the realm of the artist. It can benefit all manner of professionals, including CPAs. She joins us to discuss the development of creativity, the importance of asking better questions, and the ways by which improvisation skills can help in an office setting.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
According to today's guest, Natalie Nixon, creativity strategist and president of Figure 8 Thinking and author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work, creativity is not just for artists anymore. She believes it is a vital trait for all professionals, especially CPAs. Among the factors we'll discuss today are how creativity can be developed, learning to ask better questions, and how improvisation skills can help in an office setting.
In an overall sense, can you tell us a little bit about the growing importance of creativity in the workplace and why it is at this point that it seems to be growing to be so vital?
[Nixon] My experience with my corporate clients and my Figure 8 Thinking business, there is a never-ending striving to innovate and to build cultures of innovation. What I've observed is that there's a bit of churn and people are talking over and around each other. The opportunity is actually to really start with developing creativity because creativity is the engine for innovation. Innovation is actually the outcome of creativity. Organizations have to identify how to hire for, cultivate, and sustain creativity. That's from my professional experience and observations. But on a broader level, there's a lot of interesting signals on the landscape about why creativity is of increasing importance.
Number one, the World Economic Forum has since 2016 identified creativity as being one of the top 10 job skills. They projected this since maybe as early as 2010, and they were projecting this by 2020. In 2016, creativity moved up from ranking number 10 to being ranked as number three as a really critical job skill for 2020 and beyond. What's interesting to me is what ranked as number one and number two were things like critical thinking and problem-solving, which actually are part of creativity.
Creativity is ranking up there. I would just end by referencing two other signals. This August of 2019, Business Insider reported that a roundtable of CEOs from the Fortune 50 companies of the world identified that stakeholder value would be as important as shareholder value. People murmured and said, "Well, will they really act on this?" Then fast-forward to January of this year, January 2020, Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock in his annual letter to CEOs clearly identified that they would start to be making investment decisions and companies based on their commitment to sustainability. Things like a commitment to sustainability, a commitment to shareholder value require a very different mind-set.
We need a mind-set that Carol Dweck calls a growth mind-set, which is all about creativity. Those are the reasons that substantiate what I've written about in The Creativity Leap.
An interesting line that I saw from you in the leadup to our discussion as I was researching this, it said, "Too many people associate creativity solely with the arts." In what ways do you believe a CPA in particular can show their creativity to the benefit of their employer?
[Nixon] I guess it would first be helpful for me to define creativity, at least the way I define it. I define creativity as our ability to toggle between wonder and rigor to solve problems. Once you embrace this more expanded definition of creativity, you understand that, yes, absolutely creativity shows up in obvious ways in the ways that painters and dancers and musicians work. Because there's an intensive amount of rigor in their practice. There's a lot of discipline and time on task and cultivation of deep specialization. That's the rigor, and there's also quite a bit of wonder, which is the ability to dream, to pause, to ask big, what-if, blue-sky audacious questions.
The way this is relevant to the work of CPAs is that CPAs in spite of what may seem... I'm not a CPA, so what may seem to me as an outsider, a very kind of detail-oriented work that has to ascribe to standards and to lots of constraints. CPAs still have to work in an incredibly ambiguous environment for businesses that are dealing with the goalpost always shifting and changing. They still have to operate within what we call VUCA environments, environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I often say a standard reporting out for an accountant is a balance sheet. We have to remember that a balance sheet is telling us a story. It's a snapshot in time about choices that have been made around resources.
For all those reasons, CPAs have to still ascribe to a ton of rigor and they must also design in time, in space, in strategic partnerships, in order to get to the wonder that helps them to problem-solve in new and different ways to help their clients.
When we talk about creativity, would you say that it's something that a person is born with or is it a skill that can be developed? If it can be developed, how do you go about doing that?
[Nixon] I believe that to be human is to be hardwired to be creative. The challenge is that, through our educational system, it gets taught out of us. What I mean by that is if you recall being a four year old, a five year old, play is something that was really encouraged. What we have forgotten is that play is actually a tool for experimentation and for problem-solving, for negotiation, for collaboration. Our traditional education systems start to err much more on the side of staying within the lines, knowing your lanes, which is absolutely important. But as I've just described in terms of how I'm defining creativity, creativity isn't just doing whatever you feel like. It needs those constraints. Actually, creativity loves constraints.
Constraints on time, constraints on financial resources and money, constraints on people and talent, because that helps you to push against those boundaries. It absolutely can be taught, and the three ways I believe it can be taught is by cultivating, being really curious. This is part of my “three I” model. The three I's are inquiry, improvisation, and intuition. The first way to practice cultivating creativity is by going back to embracing asking questions. We have started to equate asking questions with ignorance, which, of course, if you ask a question, you don't know the answer. But asking questions is actually a way of learning and that's something I learned from the work of Warren Berger. The second I is being able to improvise.
Again, improvisation is not just what you see folks do on Saturday Night Live or in jazz sets. Improvisation has rules. There are fluid structures, again, so you know what to rebound off of. The value of going ahead and taking an improv class, stretching yourself to do that at a local comedy club or community center is that improvisation forces you to engage in active listening, to be incredibly present, and to be super adaptive. None of us gets to work off of a script these days, so that's why improvisation is a really important skill to cultivate. The third I is intuition, and intuition is not something that we talk about much. It's certainly not something that we teach.
But in my experience, I was starting to observe that really successful entrepreneurs and startup leaders in their retelling of their origin stories would reference things like, "Something told me not to do the deal or something told me to work with her over him." I said, "I think that's something of intuition." I think intuition is a type of pattern recognition. It's not something we talk about or teach in MBA programs, yet every successful entrepreneur references it. One of the ways I think we can practice and cultivate our tuition is simply... I'm saying that a bit vivaciously because it's not always easy, but listening to your intuition. Because intuition is like a muscle and a sonar. The more you use it, the stronger and clearer it gets. The less you use it, the more faint and flaccid it gets.
I want to dive in a little bit to the three I's that you mentioned in your answer there. Part of exercising curiosity, as you said, is asking better questions so you get the answers you require. Is there a way to go about improving your question-asking abilities?
[Nixon] Yes, there is. I actually borrow from the framework of Warren Berger. When Warren Berger went around to what were deemed the most innovative companies in our country, for example, Apple and Google and Zappos, etc., what he identified, I'm giving you the Cliff Notes version, is that these were organizations that started by asking why, then they zoomed out even further and asked what if, and then they converged to get much more tactical to ask how. An exercise I often take groups through, especially in my workshops, is to be very generative and ask a series of why questions about an ordinary object.
The object could be a paper clip, for example, or a flower, and ask questions that you might think are absurd or obvious and then transitioning to asking what-if questions, and then transitioning finally to asking how questions. What we realized in that process are things such as the following. Number one, there really is no such thing as a silly question. Because I often remind people that once upon a time there was a person who asked, what if we could fuel our cars by plugging them into the wall through electricity? Some people heard that question and went laughing out the room and other people heard that question and said, "Tell me more." Now we have a whole host of alternative fuels to energize our car through electricity, so through e-vehicles.
Reminding ourselves that there is no silly question is really important. The second thing is that it takes practice. It's learned behavior because it really has been taught out of us. I know this because I was a professor for 16 years and I would consistently have these moments at the undergraduate level, as well as the graduate level where you would pause, you'd ask your questions and there would just be silence in the room, and then there would be one or two brave souls who just raised their hand. What happens when as an organization, if you're leading a team, when you start to just take people through this process?
Again, just first with an ordinary object, and then with the matter at hand with the challenge that you're dealing with, you become much more generative in your thinking. Asking questions truly is a way of thinking and it leads to a totally different way of understanding the problem that you and your team have been staring at.
How can quality improvisation skills help individuals in a work setting? How do you hone them? Is it along the lines of what you said, go out to the comedy club, and then jump up and do a set or something like that? What are the ways that they can be developed?
[Nixon] I wasn't suggesting to take an improv class to start really practicing comedy. Anecdotally, I have a theory that it's really important to have a hobby. It's really important to be clumsy and be a student at something outside of your work because it really helps you to practice that beginner's gaze, that child's perspective of going back to fundamentals. What I've learned in my life when I am a student of something, it opens me up, it frees me up to being much more curious in the job setting and to understand the adaptivity skills that I need to apply, which is really what improvisation helps us to do. I can then apply to a client conversation, a sell situation. I'm thinking on my feet in a pitch. We are always selling. Daniel Pink wrote an amazing book called To Sell Is Human.
Unfortunately, sales has become a dirty word in our society, but he talks about the new ABCs of selling are about attunement, buoyancy, and clarity of your message. You need the attunement because you need to understand who your audience is, you need the buoyancy because you get so much rejection when you're selling, and you need the clarity of what you're delivering. The link to improvisation is that agility that improvisation begins. It's not an apples to apples, matchy-matchy type of lesson here by studying a comedic improv or jazz or whatever the situation is. If you take a creative writing class and you're given a series of prompts, that's a form of improvising. Because improvisation needs a boundary. The boundary could be a time limit.
The boundary could be the prompt. The boundary could be the key you're playing in if it's music. Then what you do in between all that structure is the magic. That absolutely transfers to the way you deal with problem-solving your work environment. Also, the other cool thing about improvisation is that you must be in the moment. You must actively listen. We all know too well how, myself included, we can be really pitiful at that in conversations with colleagues and clients.
What does intuition then mean in this setting? You talked about it a little bit earlier, but how can that help CPAs, and how can abilities such as that be improved upon?
[Nixon] I define intuition as pattern recognition, and I also sometimes like to refer to it as brain feelings, the feelings that you have. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but there's an interesting nerve humans have in our bodies. It's called the vagus nerve. It's the only nerve in our bodies that extends from the brain down through your heart, literally into your gut. We actually are designed to have a connection between our mind, our heart, and our gut. As much as we may try to downplay it and we err on the side of rationality and data, there absolutely is a connection when we think about, when we say things like, leading with our gut. In my interviews for the book, The Creativity Leap, for example, I interviewed the CEO of Vectorworks, who is a PhD in engineering.
I was really tentative about asking him this question about intuition because I thought, "Oh gosh, he's going to lock me up in the room." Here he is, an engineer. He's CEO of this successful software company, and he had a resounding affirmative answer. He said, "Absolutely, I listened to my intuition." What was consistent among all of the leaders I talked to about the role of intuition is that they use intuition to be decisive. Intuition in and of itself means nothing if you don't actually act on it. I will say there were quite a few people who I also talked to who said they will listen to their intuition and then they will use that almost as a clue to look for harder data to help them make their decision.
But either way, I'm not going to be a stickler as to whether or not you also look for rational data in addition to just thinking and acting on your gut. It absolutely is a tool for decision-making.
When we talk about creativity, how would you say it's best displayed in a work setting? Is it a personal thing that must be pursued by one person alone, or do you think it comes out best through collaboration?
[Nixon] “Yes and yes” is the short answer to your question. Organizations are organisms and they consist of individuals. It's not an either/or proposition and that's why I say we have to start hiring for creativity. That goes back to the types of questions you ask in an interview. For example, one of the groups I talk to is a really cool nonprofit organization called Leadership and Design, and they have a super interesting way that they set up their interviews. For example, there's a moment ... the person gets to the stage, it's a one-on-one interview where they will ask a person who brought in a photograph to explain why they brought in that photograph, what's the meaning for it, behind it, for that person.
Sometimes they will also ask the person to take 20 minutes or a half-hour, to take a walk around the property or the building where the interview is taking place, to take a photograph with their smartphone, and then go back and explain why did you take this photograph, what's its meaning for you. Maybe the prompt might also be around the work it had, the job description. Maybe it's a metaphor. You can suss out ways in the interview process to begin to hire for creativity. That's phase one. Then, once the persons are in the organization, you have to figure out ways to cultivate creativity and that can be done through any of the ways that I've just explained in terms of prompting curiosity, being more improvisational, and being open to and receptive to leaders to share the way they lead with intuition. But we've got to design in more space, more processes, and more systems for creativity. To break that down specifically, spaces and processes and systems to allow people to be more curious, to be able to improvise, and to practice their intuition. The way I really started to delve into this started a little over five years ago. During my doctoral studies, I worked with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to understand the ways they design experiences for guests. That's when I started applying a heuristic from jazz music, from Frank Barrett, to understand that. The Ritz-Carlton is actually an incredibly improvisational organization.
Most people would not think of that initially because it's this high-end luxury organization. I think there's a lot of rigidity. But actually in order to delight guests in the moment, you must enable a culture of creativity. They have all of these cool examples of fluid structures, and I'll just share one last example from the Ritz-Carlton. Every day, every property around the world, they have a lineup, which lasts as long as 15 minutes. It could be the maids, it could be the engineers in the boiler room, and they share mistakes, revisions, breakdowns, inefficiencies, and variations. They call this MRBIVs as an acronym.
In that way, they are building in opportunities and giving permission to people to be curious, to ask questions about how to rebound from mistakes, how to be more improvisational, and how to intuit problem-solving and share those learnings.