Friday, as it normally is, was supposed to be a day off with everyone happily disconnecting. These were pre-COVID-19 days, during a period of general optimism and confidence in the future.
We were in the throes of an important pitch for a banking prospect, a previous client for whom we still held much affection. The idea of re-engaging was exciting, and we were looking forward to sharing our unbridled enthusiasm and creativity.
Our disparate team, few of whose members had previously collaborated, was gripped by doubt, anxiety and questioning of where we go from here and how to do so. Creativity is a practice that is akin to a pressure cooker, but that day, the pressure was palpable as the clock ticked and our deadline loomed, and a breakthrough seemed as unlikely as winter in the middle of a desert summer.
Once again, we were stuck and disoriented. We were doubting everything - our platform, team composition, how the work was shaping up and whether we would succeed in creating a breakthrough.
Challenges tend to be par for the course in a creative industry, but witnessing your team struggle and disoriented by doubt and the enormity of the challenge is always difficult. I have learned that while there is no universal panacea, there are three things that liberate creativity...
These are acknowledging the difficulty and doubt, asking good questions, and showing confidence in the team’s ability to crack it.
Difficulty and doubt
Innovations, breakthrough, or creativity on one hand and doubt on the other exist side by side. There is no wishing the doubt away and there is no dismissing it. I have seen some attempt to brush it aside and that proved to be counterproductive.
An empathetic approach based on a foundation of acknowledgement that confusion and doubt are legitimate, real and hard. Listening to the different questions, thoughts and challenges associated with it helps liberate mental and emotional space, and soon after ideas start flowing along with a slew of what-ifs.
Acknowledging doubt acts as a flushing mechanism. It is almost as powerful as sleep is in refreshing the mind and body and readying it for the next day. Repeatedly, team members have been able to scale creative heights and make leaps because of the refreshing power of acknowledgement.
But while recognizing difficulty is important, it is not enough. It has to be followed with the next tool which is asking the right questions. As leaders we may sometimes, perhaps too often, be tempted to provide solutions. After all, it is faster, saves time and energy, and hastens progress.
Obviously, this need not necessarily be ruled out, but it has to be the exception. Asking good questions to teams mired in doubt is as powerful as teaching someone how to fish - they are unlikely to go hungry ever again.
Good questions, and specifically the right ones, are powerfully liberating. On one hand, they help people reframe and in so doing, they drive the creative process and ideation and enable compelling synthesis that generates breakthroughs. On the other, they rewire the brain for solutions by imbedding a mechanism for how to handle dead-end situations, thereby helping people learn and grow.
For these to effectively work, they need to be open-ended questions that get people to rethink, reassess, or reframe. Done properly and with respect to your team, asking the right questions acknowledges that they have done well so far; it also reaffirms the legitimacy of being stuck and the doubt they are experiencing. So, it establishes a forward-moving environment that supports a generation of new pathways.
As a leader puts the building blocks together, there is no more powerful a glue to hold things together than a vote of confidence in the ability of your team. It is fascinating how potent a serum telling people that you are confident and have faith in their ability to crack it. What has always fascinated me is not only how true this is and how reliably it can work, but how often my team members have surpassed my expectations.
More qualified and specialized practitioners are in a better position to explain the chemistry that steers us, but I can say that confidence building in the face of doubt galvanizes people and enables them to scale the heights of innovation.
Looking back, that Friday spent in doubt yielded dividends because without realizing, back then, I had acknowledged doubt, asked some questions and communicated confidence. Along the way, and as I recall various high points navigating creativity during sensitive junctures, I now realize how seemingly innocuous steps were actually part of a pattern, and that that pattern has consistently produced results.
Today, as I change gears, and in my role as board member for The Marketing Society UAE, I am excited about the prospect of harnessing these learnings to guide the initiatives we’re doing that we hope will inspire and accelerate the careers of the region’s marketing leaders, and help them to navigate through the fog and doubt brought about by COVID-19.
Doubt, uncertainty and questioning are an inescapable part of any exploration. Whatever path one or an organization takes, doubt is there as a reliable milestone. What leaders do with it can make the difference between remaining stuck and achieving breakthroughs.
- Kamal Dimachkie is Former COO of Publicis Communications and a board member of The Marketing Society UAE.