During the hot, dry summer months in the Southern hemisphere, it is a regular occurrence to see pictures of the catastrophic Australian bush fires. Helped by the dry climate and the hot winds, these raging infernos can sweep across a landscape, destroying anything that gets in their way. Each picture is a powerful reminder of the power and helplessness of humanity against such a dominant wall of fire.
Yet, each of these massive blazes has a small, humble beginning. A dropped cigarette, loose ember or even a spark from a car can rapidly transition from being a brief flash of energy to becoming a powerful force of change.
Stopping a spark is simple - quickly deprive it of any oxygen and it will lose its glow. Stopping a bushfire is a much more difficult beast, involving vast crews of people, gallons of water and fire-breaks.
The spark-bushfire metaphor is helpful for understanding the creative process. Almost every product innovation began as a simple idea in the mind of one person.
The iPod was the idea of Tony Fadell, who imagined a new link between an MP3 player and a music sale service. Sir John Harrington imagined a more hygienic way for royalty to relieve themselves, and thus the flush toilet was invented. Kevin Systrom imagined a new way of sharing photos online and developed Instagram out of this spark of an idea.
In my experience, coming up with the spark is a fairly regular activity for people, especially when they gather. We love to dream up new possibilities and ideas in social situations and in our workplaces, often during informal gatherings. But - too often - we instantly douse these ideas with one simple word.
The vast majority of our education and employment is based on our ability to engage in convergent thinking - that is, to narrow down ideas to the best possible idea. We engage in critical thought, rationality and sound judgment to identify the best option and move forward with it. Whether we are solving a math problem, ordering food or making a management decision - we are probably using convergent thinking.
At certain times, however, we must learn to suspend our judgment and convergent thinking, to allow new ideas the opportunity to grow and develop. This is divergent thinking - the ability to play with an idea and allow it to multiply into more ideas. If you want to see divergent thinking in action - simply watch a group of children play with a small group of toys, and see the many worlds and possibilities they create.
Children naturally tend to ask - "What's right with this idea?". Adults tend to inquire with, "What's wrong with this idea?". This question, too early in the innovative process, is the equivalent to throwing a bucket of water on a small spark.
Dr Richard Stieglitz, former president of RGS Associates Inc, writes:
"YES is a collaboration message. When you say YES you strengthen relationships. YES empowers people to achieve more while NO is a message of rejection. NO forces your teammates to defend their ideas, or to find another way. Their loyalty to you will determine how many NOs they'll accept before seeking employment elsewhere. Based on the number of people who move from one company to another in the relationship economy, there are too many NOs and not enough YESes."
I am not suggesting that you become a push-over - saying "Yes" to every idea that comes your way - but why not work on your reputation as a positive inquirer, rather than as a fire-fighter?
When your employees or team-members come with an idea - begin by searching what is good with their idea. Join in their excitement and help them see more potential in what they are doing. Do not ask "What is wrong?" - instead explore how you can improve their idea together. These simple actions will help transform creative sparks into creative fires for your organisation.