Auguste Renoir Jeanne Samara

Interview with Linda Naiman: Imagination + Creativity + Empathy + Innovation = Value Creation

Dirk Dobiéy Business, Insights, Interview, Organization 0 Comments

Linda Naiman is our most recent member to our global partner network. Located in Vancouver, Linda is a respected author in the field of collaborative creation and founder of Creativity at Work, an innovation consultancy specializing in developing creativity, leadership, and innovation in organizations.

AoA: Linda, your magic formula is Imagination + Creativity + Empathy + Innovation = Value Creation. Let’s start with the result. What do you refer to as value?

Linda Naiman: Value is user defined. A company only prospers if it provides products or services people value and are willing to pay for. Innovation is key to business growth, provided it is something customers actually want. That’s why empathy —understanding deep human needs — is central to creating meaningful and desirable innovation.

AoA: Often Innovation and Creativity are seen as somehow complementary yet distinct things. How do you describe the two?

Linda Naiman: Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. In a business context, your idea must be appropriate and useful. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, and then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative. Innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product, service or process that creates value for business, government or society.

AoA: Many people believe that creativity and innovation are related to individual traits. Do you believe this as well?

Linda Naiman: Yes, I do. However these traits have to be nurtured and developed. A study by George Land shows we are naturally creative as children, and as we grow up we learn to be uncreative, thanks to our educational system and societal pressures to conform. Sir Ken Robinson of TED fame has said the same thing.

Clayton M. Christensen and his researchers studied thousands of innovators including CEOs from Apple, Dell and Amazon. They discovered your ability to generate innovative ideas is not only a trait but also a function of five key behaviours that optimize your brain for discovery: Associating, Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting. They call these five discovery skills the Innovator’s DNA. Mastering these will improve your ability to create and innovate.

AoA: How to you encourage imagination; in general and in your work?

Linda Naiman: Imagination starts with a person’s play instinct. Play is a source of discovery for artists, scientists, hackers, and inventors. When we engage in what we are naturally suited to do, our work takes on the quality of play and it is play that stimulates creativity. Diane Ackerman, author of Deep Play, says, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”

Improvisation is a popular form of play in organizations, and I use it as a brain juicer. Improvisation frees us from being perfect, being in control, thinking ahead, and second-guessing. It can feel like jumping into the abyss at first, but once you jump, fear turns into excitement, and your imagination kicks in.

I use the arts in my work with organizations as a catalyst for creativity. Art in this context is a form of play, which produces flow states in groups as well as individuals. The atmosphere changes from the staccato of mind chatter to the spaciousness of being present in the here-and-now. From this foundation, creativity, connection, collaboration and transformation become possible.

AoA: What actions can we take if we want to become more empathetic?

Linda Naiman: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

We are wired for empathy, but like creativity, it only flourishes if we nurture it. One way to learn empathy is through literature. Great stories move us to immerse ourselves in a character’s emotions and experiences. Research suggests that fiction readers are better attuned to the social and emotional lives of others.

We can also nurture empathy through the stories we tell each other. When we discover our shared values and show our humanity, we create trust and emotional connection. Empathy moves us to do something about what we feel.

By connecting with customers or end-users in this way, you can discover their pain points, frustrations, hopes and desires. This will give you the insights you need to create meaningful innovation.

AoA: In one of your blogs you refer to a book by Eric Kandel – The Age of Insight. Kandel says brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, while art offers insight into emotional and feeling aspects of the mind. For him it is the combination of both that represents a good balance. Yet in the business world emotions, feelings and even intuition are not put on par with facts, insights, and spreadsheets. What ideas to you have to encourage businesses to also leverage the emotional side of things more actively?

Linda Naiman: I encourage business to use the arts as a catalyst for awaking artistic sensibilities within the organization. We have much to learn through the interplay of business, art, science and technology.

Kandel said the age of insight in 1900s Vienna began with the realization that “Truth lies hidden beneath the surface.” Business can leverage emotional and intuitive ways of knowing by:

  • Conducting thought experiments to play with ideas
  • Playing improv games for 10 minutes to wake up people before a meeting
  • Storytelling: If you want to get your team on board with your idea, tell a story to engage people emotionally and inspire them to take action.
  • Drawing or sculpting to make your thoughts visible for discussion
  • Dialoguing: Arts based dialogue is a co-creative process, which can be used to shed light on complex issues. It involves the use of images or diagrams to illustrate perceptions and make thoughts visible. Stories about the images help us tap into our imagination, emotions and intuitive ways of knowing that surpass the intellectual and verbal. Artful reflection helps people identify patterns, decode complexity and see the big picture. It can reveal the many truths that lie hidden beneath the surface, and enable a deeper inquiry into business issues. This process enhances communication, creativity, relationships and engagement.

AoA: You believe creativity can be taught. How do you do that?

Linda Naiman: Creativity is not the mystical attribute reserved for the lucky few. Creativity is a process that can be developed and managed. The key to teaching creativity is to create a learning experience that inspires people and ignites creative sparks. Creativity is not just conceptual; it’s physical. You don’t learn to be creative by reading about it, you learn by doing: by experimenting, exploring, questioning, playing with ideas, and synthesizing information.

It’s very hard to be creative if you have a fixed mindset. You need an open mind, curiosity, the courage to take conceptual risks, and you need to care about your topic for creativity to happen. I advocate a whole-brain approach to creativity that integrates right-brain imagination, artistry and intuition with left-brain logic, analysis, and planning. This includes:

  • Analytical intelligence — how you research and frame a problem, evaluate ideas, and apply critical thinking in decision making
  • Artistic intelligence — how to activate your imagination, generate ideas and envision possibilities
  • Relational & emotional intelligence —how your idea affects your gut response, people involved and systemics. Also how you collaborate and co-create with others.
  • Operational intelligence — how you turn an idea into reality. Including planning, organizing and implementing.

My frameworks and methodologies are drawn from principles and practices in business, arts, science, and design, as well as social science research. I provide organizations with the skill sets, toolsets and mindsets to manage the process of creativity and innovation. These help demystify creativity and give people the confidence to create and innovate.

I have found that using a multidisciplinary approach to creativity is highly effective in organizations. When you have knowledge and expertise in one domain, say medicine, and you explore another domain like art, or technology, you make possible all kinds of new connections by cross-pollinating ideas. This can lead to breakthrough innovations.

We see lots of evidence of cross-pollination in healthcare today: Doctors are inventing medical devises using iPhone apps. Hospitals are studying patient experiences through the lens of empathy to re-imagine and re-design patient care. Medical schools are adding art appreciation and literature to the curriculum to teach future doctors observational skills and empathy for patients.

It’s important to create learning experiences that get people emotionally involved. It’s also important to give people time for personal and group reflection to process the learning experience. This is key to mining what I call group gold; tapping into the collective brilliance of the group, and creating alchemical moments of wisdom and insight.

My invitation and challenge for leaders today is to take creativity out of the box and integrate it within the culture of the organization. Look for ways to include artistry and design in your work and in your innovations. It is possible to make your life and work a work of art.


Please access Linda Naiman’s partner profile here.

Picture Source: Auguste Renoir, Jeanne Samara. National Gallery of Art.

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