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The Smiling Assassin


Too many cooks spoil the broth. But many hands make light work! There’s no smoke without fire. But then things aren’t always as they seem. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But what will be will be. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Old sayings and common sense wisdom are great, aren’t they? But, as we just saw, for almost every sage piece of advice there’s an equally sage piece of advice that seems to contradict it! And this is true even in more academic work:

In Applied Imagination, inventor of the brainstorm Alex Osborn says that to have great ideas you need to “go for quantity” and “keep novelty alive.” Similarly in Creative Leadership, Puccio, Mance and Murdock site several studies that show how leaders who are capable of generating multiple options for any given challenge are more successful. So lots of choices is good, right?

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz outlines how too much choice, too many options can and do prevent us from making decisions and reduce our levels of satisfaction with those that we make. In Influence, Robert Caldini cites studies that show how providing more options will lessen the likelihood that people will act on your advice. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate that people will fail to make perfectly simple choices that are clearly in their own best interest when confronted with many alternatives. So having choices is bad?

This particular paradox reminds me of yet another saying, this one attributed to Miles Kington:

“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad”.

If you’re wise, if you know what to do with a tomato, then you see that it is both true that options are vital for creative problem solving and that too many options can prevent progress. You’ll also know that you need to decide which fact is most important at which time. That’s what the creative process is about; enabling people to deal with a lack of options and an overabundance of them in turn.

My entries in this blog so far have been all about divergence. I’ve argued that you need to drive your own learning (be an autodidact) in the pursuit of an eclectic set of influences because these things will set you up perfectly for coming up with original stuff. I’ve also argued that you will need to enable new connections by questioning old assumptions – essentially disrupting your current frame of reference by asking impertinent questions of it. But the other side of all of this is convergence and you, the creative leader, are primarily responsible for knowing when and how to converge.

There are a great array of resources aimed at helping you to know when and how to converge and I don’t intend to reproduce them here. What I will say is that the key personal skill you’ll need to apply here is courage. You’ll need to show courage to keep exploring ideas when the pressure is on you to get results quick. And you’ll need to show courage once again when it comes time to converge because you’ll sometimes have to kill off ideas that you or your team have grown attached to – there’s no space for sentiment in convergence.

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction, so as a creative leader you’ll have to grow comfortable playing the part of Kali.

Or to quote a line from John Lennon’s Working Class Hero

“You have to learn to smile as you kill”.

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