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Being Creative

YAPP (Yet Another PsyBlog Post) …

This time about being creative.

Apart from the discussion on different or unusual thinking styles (for the person themselves) to enhance creativity, the biggest “take-away” for me from the post was the exhortation to simply remind people that they are to be creative (say, in a particular situation), and this simple reminder will give them permission (so to speak) to be creative.  This is, thus, rather important in a business setting, because in many (if not most) instances, people are told, either explicitly or implicitly, to just follow the rules or procedures and do what has been done before, rather than being allowed to express some creativity in order to solve a problem or improve the situation at hand.

The relevant paragraph is:

Another way of encouraging creativity is simply to be reminded that creativity is a goal.  It seems too simple to be true, but research has found that just telling people to ‘be creative’ increases their creativity (e.g. Chen et al., 2005).

Anyway, the full article is below, and please consider buying Jeremy’s e-book “How To Be Creative” (see ad at the bottom of the article).  I bought it – it is a great little read.

Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity

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Psychological research reveals how rational versus intuitive thinking can inspire new ideas.

The idea of creativity is wonderful: that a spark of inspiration can eventually bring something new and useful into the world, perhaps even something beautiful. Something, as it were, from nothing.

That spark may only be the start of a journey towards the finished article or idea, but it is still a wonderful moment. Without the initial spark there will be no journey. It’s no exaggeration to say that our ability to be creative sits at the heart of our achievements as a species.

Do incentives work?

So, how do you encourage creativity in yourself and in others? I discuss this question of how to be creative in my recent ebook on creativity. There I describe six principles, based on psychological research, that can be used to understand and increase creativity.

But, what methods do people naturally use to encourage creativity? In the creative industries the usual method is money, or some other related incentive. So, can incentives encourage people to be creative?

According to the research, they can, but crucially these incentives need to emphasise that creativity is the goal (Eisenberger & Shanock, 2003). Studies find that if people are given an incentive for just completing a task, it doesn’t increase their creativity (Amabile et al., 1986). In fact, incentives linked to task completion (rather than creativity) can reduce creativity.

Another way of encouraging creativity is simply to be reminded that creativity is a goal. It seems too simple to be true, but research has found that just telling people to ‘be creative’ increases their creativity (e.g. Chen et al., 2005).

The theory is that this works because people often don’t realise they’re supposed to be looking for creative solutions. This is just as true in the real world as it is in psychology experiments. We get so wrapped up in deadlines, clients, costs and all the rest that it’s easy to forget to search for creative solutions.

People need to be told that creativity is a goal. Unlike children, adults need to be reminded about the importance of creativity. Perhaps it’s because so much of everyday life encourages conformity and repeating the same things you did before. Doing something different needs a special effort.

Rational versus intuitive thinking

However telling someone to ‘be creative’ is a bit like telling them to ‘be more clever’ or ‘be more observant’. We want to shout: “Yes, but how?!”

Along with the techniques I suggest in my ebook, another insight comes from a new study on stimulating creativity. This suggests one solution may lie in using an unusual thinking style—unusual, that is, to you (Dane et al., 2011). Let me explain…

When trying to solve problems that need creative solutions, broadly people have been found to approach them in one of two ways:

  1. Rationally: by using systematic patterns of thought. This involves relying on specific things you’ve learnt in the past, thinking concretely and ignoring gut instincts.
  2. Intuitively: by setting the mind free to explore associations. This involves working completely on first impressions and whatever comes to mind while ignoring what you’ve learnt in the past.

The researchers wondered if people’s creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.

A limitation of this study is that it only looked at the generation of new ideas. This tends to occur mostly at the start of the creative process. So once ideas have been generated and a more analytical mindset is required, these techniques may not work so well (I discuss this balance between a wandering and focused mind in principle six of my ebook).

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How to Be Creative

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Why Concrete Language Communicates Truth

Another pertinent post from PsyBlog, this time about communicating (mostly writing) effectively. Particularly relevant for consultants, but applicable for all employment in all fields. Click on the header below to go to the original article.

Have I said before that you should be subscribing to PsyBlog? Well, it is about time you did so – click here!

Speak and write using unambiguous language and people will believe you.

I’ve just deleted a rather abstract introduction I wrote to this article about truth. The reason? I noticed I wasn’t taking the excellent advice offered in a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. That advice is simple: if you want people to believe you, speak and write concrete.

There are all sorts of ways language can communicate truth. Here are some solid facts for you:

  • People usually judge that more details mean someone is telling us the truth,
  • We find stories that are more vivid to be more true,
  • We even think more raw facts make unlikely events more likely.

But all these involve adding extra details or colour. What if we don’t have any more details? What if we want to bump up the believability without adding to the fact-count?

Just going more concrete can be enough according to a recent study by Hansen and Wanke (2010). Compare these two sentences:

  1. Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
  2. In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.

Although these two sentences seem to have exactly the same meaning, people rate the second as more true than the first. It’s not because there’s more detail in the second—there isn’t. It’s because it doesn’t beat around the bush, it conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges.

Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they leave a lot of wiggle-room. Concrete words refer to something in the real world and they refer to it precisely. Vanilla ice-cream is specific while dessert could refer to anything sweet eaten after a main meal.

Verbs as well as nouns can be more or less abstract. Verbs like ‘count’ and ‘write’ are solid, concrete and unambiguous, while verbs like ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are open to some interpretation. Right at the far abstract end of the spectrum are verbs like ‘love’ and ‘hate’; they leave a lot of room for interpretation.

Even a verb’s tense can affect its perceived concreteness. The passive tense is usually thought more abstract, because it doesn’t refer to the actor by name. Perhaps that’s partly why fledgling writers are often told to write in the active tense: to the reader it will seem more true.

Hansen and Wanke give three reasons why concreteness suggests truth:

  1. Our minds process concrete statements more quickly, and we automatically associate quick and easy with true (check out these studies on the power of simplicity).
  2. We can create mental pictures of concrete statements more easily. When something is easier to picture, it’s easier to recall, so seems more true.
  3. Also, when something is more easily pictured it seems more plausible, so it’s more readily believed.

So, speak and write solidly and unambiguously and people will think it’s more true. I can’t say it any clearer than that.

Image credit: Lee Huynh

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The Seven Surprises for New CEOs


The Seven Surprises for New CEOs were described first in the HBR of October 2004 in an article by Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch and Nitin Nohria on CEO leadership.

As a newly minted CEO, one may think to finally have the power to set strategy, the authority to make things happen, and full access to the finer points of your business. But if one expects the job to be as simple as that, you’re in for an awakening.  Even though you bear full responsibility for your company’s well-being, you are a few steps removed from many of the factors that drive results.  You have more power than anybody else in the corporation, but you need to use it with extreme caution.

Porter et al have discovered that nothing—not even running a large business within the company—fully prepares a person to be the chief executive.

The following seven surprises are most common for new CEOs:

  1. You can’t run the company (The sheer volume and intensity of external demands take many by surprise.  Almost every new CEO struggles to manage the time drain of attending to shareholders, analysts, board members, industry groups, politicians, and other constituencies);
  2. Giving orders is very costly (No proposal should reach the CEO for final approval unless he can ratify it with enthusiasm.  Before then, everyone involved with the matter should have raised and resolved any potential deal breakers, bringing the CEO into the discussion only at strategically significant moments to obtain feedback and support);
  3. It is hard to know what is really going on (Certainly, CEOs are flooded with information, but reliable information is surprisingly scarce.  All information coming to the top is filtered, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with not such good intentions);
  4. You are always sending a message (A CEOs words and deeds, however small or off-the-cuff, are instantly spread and amplified, scrutinized, interpreted and sometimes drastically misinterpreted);
  5. You are not the boss (Although the CEO may sit at the top of the management hierarchy, s/he still reports to the board of directors.  At the end of the day, the board—not the CEO—is in charge);
  6. Pleasing shareholders is not the goal (CEOs must recognize that, ultimately, it is only long-term value creation that matters, not today’s growth expectations or even the stock price);
  7. You are still only human (CEO Should recognize s/he needs connections to the world outside the organization, at home and in the community, to avoid being consumed by corporate life).

These seven surprises for new CEOs carry some important lessons:

  • First, as a new CEO you must learn to manage organizational context rather than focus on daily operations;
  • Second, you must recognize that your position does not confer the right to lead, nor does it guarantee the loyalty of the organization;
  • Finally, you must remember that you are subject to a host of limitations, even though others might treat you as omnipotent.



This article re-worked from the original at

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Pascale and Athos 7S Model







Shared Values



The McKinsey consultants Anthony Athos, Richard Pascale, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman developed the 7S model as an analytical framework in the late 1970s when they researched organisational effectiveness.    The consultants developed a 360 degree model by linking strategy with organisational effectiveness.

7S Model Diagram

The 7S model consists of seven factors:

The integrated vision and direction of the company as well as the manner in which it communicates and implements that vision and direction.
The form of the organisational chart and interconnections between positions in the organisational hierarchy.
The procedures and routine processes required to perform the work, including the ways information moves through the organisation.
The personnel categories within the organisation, e.g. marketeers, engineers.
The characterisation of the ways key managers set priorities and behave in order to achieve the organisation’s goals.
The distinctive capabilities of the organisation as a whole.
The core beliefs underlying the organisation’s existence and its expectations of its members.  Values act as an organisation’s conscience and provide guidance in times of crisis.

The original intention of the model was to help guide thinking about organisational effectiveness in the broadest sense.  The 7-S model turned out to be an excellent tool for judging an organisation’s ability to implement a given strategy.

To be effective, an organisation must have a high degree of internal alignment among all seven Ss.  Each S must be consistent with the other factors for them to reinforce one another.    With the exception of the skills factor, all Ss are interrelated and a change in one affects all others.

Certain key factors such as staff, strategy, structure and systems can be changed in the short term.  The three remaining Ss — style, skills and shared values — are delayed factors that can only be affected long term.   Skills are both hard and soft.   Peters pointed out that true competitive advantage originates from these soft factors.

The model can be used as both a static checklist for analysis purposes and a tool to assess potential conflicts when a strategic program is implemented.

The original source for the 7S model is the book:

The Art of Japanese Management,
R. T. Pascale and A. G. Athos,
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New Ed edition (1986)
ISBN-10: 0140091157
ISBN-13: 978-0140091151
The consultants developed a 360 degree model by linking strategy with organisational effectiveness

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Persuasion and Influence

Another excellent article from the PsyBlog, a site which you should really bookmark and read, read, read (you can receive emails as well – makes it far too easy to keep up to date with the latest of interest). This time the article is about the mechanisms of persuasion or influence – particularly relevant in organisational settings, and those where one may not be wielding the ultimate power within the organisation (which is pretty much always with respect to ICT). Find the article here, but, with kind regards, it is reproduced below.

3 Universal Goals to Influence People

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Central to the art and science of persuasion is understanding three goals for which everyone is aiming.

The art and science of persuasion is often discussed as though changing people’s minds is about using the right arguments, the right tone of voice or the right negotiation tactic. But effective influence and persuasion isn’t just about patter, body language or other techniques, it’s also about understanding people’s motivations.

In the scrabble to explain technique, it’s easy to forget that there are certain universal goals of which, at least some of the time, we are barely aware. Influence and persuasion attempts must tap into these to really gain traction.

Techniques of persuasion

To illustrate these universal goals, let’s have a look at six common techniques of influence that you’ll have come across either explicitly or implicitly (from Cialdini, 2001):

  1. Liking: It’s much easier to influence someone who likes you. Successful influencers try to flatter and uncover similarities in order to build attraction.
  2. Social proof. People like to follow one another, so influencers imply the herd is moving the same way.
  3. Consistency. Most people prefer to keep their word. If people make a commitment, particularly if it’s out loud or in writing, they are much more likely to keep it. Influencers should try to gain verbal or written commitments.
  4. Scarcity. Even when companies have warehouses full of a product, they still advertise using time-limited offers that emphasise scarcity. People want what they can’t have, or at least what might be running short.
  5. Authority. People are strongly influenced by experts. Successful influencers flaunt their knowledge to establish their expertise.
  6. Reciprocity. Give something to get something. When people feel indebted to you they are more likely to agree to what you want. This feeling could arise from something as simple as a compliment.

There are many more, but these six are often quoted, especially in business circles. The reason these work is that they tap into three basic human goals, and it’s these goals that are the key to understanding how to influence and persuade people (from Cialdini and Goldstein, 2004).

1. Goal of affiliation

In the most part humans are social so they want to be liked. Rejection is no fun and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

We reciprocate because it sends a message about our sociability. We try to elicit liking from other people by behaving in ways we guess will be attractive, like agreeing with them or complimenting them.

Not only do we want approval from specific people, we also want it from society at large (see this article on conformity). We want the things we do, think and believe to be broadly in line with what others do, think and believe. It’s not impossible to be different, but it is difficult.

The techniques of liking and reciprocity mentioned above both clearly play on our desire for affiliation, as do many other techniques of persuasion and influence. Most people are joiners and followers so influencers like to give us something to join and someone to follow.

2. Goal of accuracy

People who don’t care about doing things correctly never get anywhere in life. To achieve our goals in what is a complicated world, we have to be continually trying to work out the best course of action.

It could be accuracy in social situations, such as how to deal with the boss or how to make friends, or it could be accuracy in financial matters like how to get a good deal, or it could be accuracy in existential matters. Whatever the arena, people are always striving for the ‘right’ answer.

Influencers understand our need to be right and so they try to offer things that appeal to our need for accuracy. For example, experts or authority figures influence people heavily because they offer us a ‘correct’ view or way of doing things, especially one that we don’t have to think too carefully about.

The techniques of social proof and scarcity both nag at our desire to be accurate because we assume other people are likely to be right and we don’t want to miss out on a bargain.

3. Goal of maintaining positive self-concept

People want to protect their view of themselves because it takes a long time to build up a semi-coherent view of oneself and one’s place in the world.

We work hard to keep our world-views intact: we want to maintain our self-esteem, to continue believing in the things we believe in and to honour whatever commitments we have espoused in the past. In an inconsistent world we at least should be self-consistent.

Persuaders and influencers can leverage this goal by invoking our sense of self-consistency. A trivial but instructive example is the foot-in-the-door technique. This is where an influencer asks you to agree to a small request before asking for a bigger one. Because people feel somehow that it would be inconsistent to agree to one request and then refuse the next one, they want to say yes again.

People will go to surprising lengths to maintain their positive view of themselves.

Unconscious motivators

Everybody wants to be accurate, to affiliate with others and to maintain their concept of themselves, however little awareness we might have of these goals. Effective persuasion and influence attempts can target one or more of these goals.

With these goals in mind it is possible to tailor persuasion attempts to the particular characteristics of an audience, rather than relying on transparent generic techniques. Whether it’s at work, dealing with your boss, or at home negotiating with a neighbour, we can all benefit from thinking about other people’s unconscious motivators. Then we can work out how to align our message with their goals.

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How to Be Creative

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Email Tone

Re-posted (with some additional comments) from, with kind regards.

[According to Daniel] Goleman, author of Social Intelligence and godfather of the field of Emotional Intelligence, … there’s a negativity bias to email – at the neural level. In other words, if an email’s content is neutral, we assume the tone is negative.  In face-to-face conversation, the subject matter and its emotional content is enhanced by tone of voice, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues.  Not so with digital communication.  Technology creates a vacuum that we humans fill with negative emotions by default, and digital emotions can escalate quickly (see: flame wars).  The barrage of email can certainly fan the flames.  In an effort to be productive and succinct, our communication may be perceived as clipped, sarcastic, or rude.  Imagine the repercussions for creative collaboration.

Tools are already emerging to address this phenomenon.  See ToneCheck, a “tone spellcheck” app that scans emails for negativity and then helpfully suggests tweaks to make your communication more positive (featured in The New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue).

[The following are some] simple ways to encourage positive digital communication … :

1. Heed the negativity bias. In this case, awareness and attention goes a long way. Consider how your communication may be perceived. Can you be more explanatory? Is your language positive as opposed to neutral?

2. Pay attention to your grammar. [When writing emails in haste (and sometimes not)], meaning is often obscured by simple grammatical confusion. “That’s not what I meant” is emblematic of digital miscommunication, and can escalate a problem quickly. Re-read your emails before sending, and make sure your intended message is being conveyed clearly.

3. Consider emoticons. Until keyboards can actually perceive the emotional content of our digital messages (not so far off!), emoticons may be the simplest method of clarifying tone. … let go of [the] … perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages.

4. Use phrasing that suggests optionality. Email is not a great medium for delivering criticism, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If you want your message to be well-received, try using phrasing that empowers the receiver. Questions in particular tend to be better received than declaratives (which can seem accusatory). If you’ve noticed a team member overlooked a task, you might email them: “Are you planning to take care of that issue?” Rather than making them feel put upon, you give them agency. [Mind you, a severe questioning tone can be even more detrimental than a direct statement of fact (as long as that statement is phrased “nicely”).  The message here is to think very carefully as to the appropriate phrasing for the situation at hand.]

5. Start things off on the right foot. When the news is mixed, consider leading off your message with an expression of appreciation. Then follow with the meat of your response. It could be something as simple as, “We’re off to a great start, I just have a few small tweaks I want to suggest.” Such gestures may seem like fluff, but they set the tone. Effectively saying “I appreciate the work you’ve already done…” prior to bringing the feedback that means “back to the drawing board!” [And then follow up the “meat” of the email with another statement of praise or appreciation.  If possible, different from the one which started the email.  Make the praise and appreciation sincere – not a “cardboard facsimile” of emotion (that will just inflame the situation).].

6. Jettison email… maybe. Ask yourself, “Is email the best carrier of this message?” Often a more social communication tool such as an internal project management space or messaging tool (Yammer, Action Method, or Mavenlink) can be more appropriate and serve as an emotional buffer. Reactive communication tends to be more measured in a public digital space. Plus an added bonus: knowledge sharing. [Except, be very very careful about posting any direct one-on-one and personal feedback and communication on social sites.  Social sites, and especially short message sites, suffer from the same problems as email, sometimes even more so – because they will typically be read by many more people, and probably read by people who do not have the same context surrounding the situation as maybe the two individuals involved in the email.  There are many situations where what appeared to be a simple communication on a shared social site was badly misinterpreted and caused “all-out warfare” on a project.  Finally, don’t forget that digital communication is the only means of communicating.  The telephone still works.  And so do face-to-face meetings (although,m it is admitted, that with today’s global business, face-to-face meetings may be rather too expensive or not even possible).  Make sure you keep the NLP Presupposition always in mind: “We are always communicating, in all channels”.  Think of the means of communication that would be best for the purposes, before attempting the communication.].

Because of the lack of emotional tone in emails, we often have to go the extra mile to convey a solicitous attitude  – whether it’s rewriting a sentence, adding an emoticon, or offsetting bad news with a positive remark.  Even if it seems a chore, it’s time well spent.

In the immortal words of a recent 99% commenter: Don’t treat others like a “DO IT” button, treat them like human beings.

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Achieving Long Term Goals

There is a lot written in Pop-Psy (pop psychology) sites, journals, magazines, books and elsewhere about how to go about achieving one’s goals, especially longer term goals (for instance, life goals etc).  Unfortunately, many of the suggestions do not work, and sometimes, are positively detrimental.  The PsyBlog has an excellent article (see reference at the foot of this post) outlining actual research on what and what does not.  In summary:

What Works! What Doesn’t!
Make a step-by-step plan. Motivate yourself by focusing on someone who has achieved a similar goal.
Tell other people about your goal. Think about bad things that will happen if you do not achieve your goal.
Think about the good things that will happen if you achieve your goal. Try to suppress unhelpful or negative thoughts about your goal and how to achieve it.
Reward yourself for making progress in your goal. Rely on willpower.
Record your progress. Fantasize or visualize how great your life will be when you achieve your goal.

To recapitulate, the techniques to use in order to achieve (longer term) goals are as follows:

  • Make a step-by-step plan: break your goal down into concrete, measurable and time-based sub-goals;
  • Tell other people about your goal: making a public declaration increases motivation;
  • Think about the good things that will happen if you achieve your goal (but avoid fantasizing);
  • Reward yourself for making progress in your goal: small rewards help push us on to major successes;
  • Record your progress: keep a journal, graph or drawing that plots your progress.

Further references and sources of selected materials:


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