In Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Hatter asks Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” She doesn’t know the answer, nor does the Hatter. Alice, who lives in a logical world, is perturbed at spending time on unanswerable riddles. The Hatter, however, lives in a creative world; it is his nature to discuss the absurd.
Leadership creativity is top of mind these days. Assuming you live in a logical world, you may struggle with the concept of creativity as Alice did with the riddle. What does “creative” really mean? Some say it is as “simple” as taking two objects or ideas and combining them into a new object or idea. But do you know how to do this?
Seating yourself at the Mad Tea Party table, you ask, “Hatter, how does one combine two things to make a new one? What is the process? What is the methodology?”
“Absolutely!” the Hatter replies. “More tea?”
Well, the Hatter didn’t help. But perhaps I can. Consider this logic:
- Creative people make new things.
- Combining two things to create a new thing is one example of making something new.
- You must know how to connect things in order to combine them, otherwise they won’t stick together.
- If you learn to connect things, and you practice, you are more likely to make something new and, therefore, become more creative.
If you agree, then the following exercise – with practice – may help you become more creative. To continue, read through the steps I developed for myself, and then follow along with me as I walk you through my practice session.
A Logical Creativity Exercise
Step 1. Pick two “things” that do not seem to be related.
Step 2. List attributes of each.
Step 3. Compare your lists and identify similar attributes.
Step 4. Brainstorm ideas for new “things” by combining and connecting attributes from each list.
Step 5. Decide what to do with each idea: explore it or shelve it.
Step 6. Explore your favorite idea and create your new “thing”.
My Practice Session: Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?
Step 1. Pick two things that do not seem to be related. Objects, places, ideas – or mix them up – an apple and a deck of playing cards, for example.
I chose a Raven and a Writing Desk
Step 2. List attributes of each. Spend 1-2 minutes on each as a start. How does it look, feel, smell, sound, taste? What is on, in, above, around, under it? What does it remind you of?
Raven: Bird, black, feathers, two legs, beady eyes, annoying, not a crow, reminds me of Poe/”Nevermore”, really annoying, mean. Sits in trees. Noisy.
Writing Desk: Wood, old fashioned, four legs, drawer(s), for writing by hand. Not a crow. On top of it: pens, pencils, maybe quill and ink, letter opener, photographs, paper (vellum?). Around/under it are window, chair, and rug.
Step 3. Compare your lists and identify similar attributes. Here’s what I found similar:
Step 4. Brainstorm ideas for new things by combining and connecting attributes from each list. Start with one thing and add in attributes of the other one. Then do it the other way. Feel free to look back at the original list for more attributes.
What if a Raven had elements of ink and quill? Maybe the bird’s black color is ink. When it walks, it writes words with its feet. Or it is chained to the desk so a writer can pluck feathers and write with them like quills (the black draining from the feather while writing).
What if ink and quill had elements of a Raven? When you write, it makes a very annoying noise. Or no matter what you try to write, all you see on the paper is the word “Nevermore”.
Note: I also worked through “Raven with elements of a desk (wooden?)”, “desk with elements of a Raven (wings?)” and others scenarios, but I’ve taken much of your time already and will not describe all of that here.
Step 5. Decide what to do with each idea. Explore it or shelve it. If you like it, mark it as “explore”. If you aren’t sure or you don’t like it, mark it as “shelve”. But don’t throw anything away; you may find a use for it later.
I chose to explore “ink and quill as Raven” because I felt a metaphor and poem coalescing after having this conversation with myself: Hmmm, ink and quill are a Raven. If it only writes “Nevermore”, I’d be very annoyed. Plus I’d never be able to write anything else – just that one word. It’s like it is causing writer’s block.
Everything else I sent into the Tulgey Wood to play with the borogroves until I need them for something else.
Step 6. Explore your favorite idea and create your new thing. This is likely is the most challenging step if you want to create something other than a metaphor (which is what I did). If your company has a formal innovation process, Step 5 could feed it. If you find that you aren’t able to readily create something new, no problem – getting through Step 5 is an accomplishment itself!
After a bit of pacing, reciting, and word rearranging, this is the poem I created:
Black ink and quill,
you are the Raven to my writing.
Each time I beg, “Grant me words!”
you stare up at me and reply,
– Mel Lewis, 2014
Is it a prize-winning poem? Not necessarily. It doesn’t matter: I practiced and made something new by following six logical steps. You can’t beat the beauty of combining logic and creativity. But how, you may wonder, does any of this apply to being a creative leader? The key word is “apply”. After you have tried the exercise, consider applying what you’ve practiced:
- Team-Building: Bring your team into a room and work through the exercise together. First use two random objects (a random word generator; focus on nouns). When they are comfortable with the process, try something that relates to your organization, strategy, products, or services.
- Entertain Children: Children often are the most creative people in the universe. If you have school-aged children who fuss in restaurants while waiting for food, try the exercise with them. For example, how is a menu like that clock on the wall (you hold a menu in your hands; the clock has hands)? It will keep them busy, and the results may be hilarious.
There is no doubt that you are leading during these. If the participants use words like “fun”, “cool”, “weird”, “odd”, or even “useless”, you’ve been creative. And if someone tells you, as Alice did the Hatter, that “you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers,” you know you’ve nailed it.