The creative genius is “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.” – Frank X. Barron

As a Learning & Development leader, I am frequently asked how I am able to cater to the various learning styles of people. When I ask the person who surfaced the question to clarify – they usually mean the VARK system of learning. VARK stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic”. This system is thought to have had something to do with the self-esteem movement of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. So lots of people have clung to their original assignment that they are a certain type of learner.

The thing is, they’re not. Or at least, a lot of evidence suggests that people aren’t actually one certain type of learner or another. In a study published in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Indiana University professor Polly Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Ms. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better when recalling information.

This is especially true of creative people. Organizations do themselves a great disservice by not understanding or adapting to today’s learner profile and  – instead – using out-dated, moldy, ineffective, time-wasting learning models to teach forgettable content.

I am creative in a spontaneous way both emotionally and cognitively in my personal life . Additionally, I am highly-creative in a problem solving, divergent-thinking way that benefits organizational health and growth. I do not have a specific learning style. My learning is tailored to the topic I am immersing myself in. This is something that I can safely say has not been embraced as a positive in a traditional retail background.

This topic became extremely important to me a few weeks ago as I was invited to attend and speak at a meeting for a retail organization’s store leaders. I also sat in on a few presentations that were all amazing and inspiring. During those presentations, I took notes. However, my notes are decidedly different from those I was in close proximity to – not something that was lost on my close-seated neighbors. A few people asked me about my process when the session was over so we had a lively dialog about it. I loved having this conversation with several people that day. Most of the time when I doodle/note take people assume I am bored or ‘zoning out’ which is not the case, at all. Our minds are incredible instruments that receive, process, and evaluate a huge amount of information. We take in and assimilate complex information in a variety of ways that then becomes knowledge and insight.

Doodling or drawing as “visual note-taking” helps me link content between the learning I am present for and my own experience(s). It allows me to see and integrate personal meaning and alignment. This just doesn’t happen for me if I’m arduously writing notes on a sheet of lined paper.


  • 90% of the information received by the brain comes in through the eyes. By making our notes visual, it uses this sense to our advantage in taking in and processing dense, complex information.
  • Pictures are easier to understand and remember than words. Consider the popularity of infographics. They incorporate text and symbols to organize and convey information. They make processing data that would be dry and uninspired into something delightful, interesting, and memorable.
  • Doodling your notes engages multiple learning modalities [seeing, hearing, writing, and movement] and they can trigger an emotional response. Which is how most deep learning happens.


  1. Deliberate and cognitive creativity is the kind of creativity from working for long periods of time in your specialized area.
  2. Deliberate and emotional creativity involves taking control of your emotions – even in stressful situations. By reflecting on your feelings and streamlining things that are distracting, you can open yourself up to sort through some chaos to find the solution or answer to your issue(s).
  3. Spontaneous and cognitive creativity – imagine you’re working on a problem that you can’t seem to solve. You take a break and on the way back to you workspace you get a renewed sense of how to solve your problem. In this case, the conscious brain has stopped working on the problem, so the unconscious brain has had a chance to work.
  4. Spontaneous and emotional creativity comes from the amygdala in your brain. The amygdala is where emotions are processed. This is the rare kind of creative moment that can be quite powerful – such as great artists and musicians describe.


Most people have a limited scope of creativity and what exactly that means. When you speak with most people they will easily default to speaking about the arts; musicians, bands, chefs, painters, sculptors, etc.. However,  creativity comes in a few different forms that support organizational growth and health in the workplace. Here are two of them:

  • Problem Solving: Organizations that are transparent and open in their communication and status – and who embrace creativity – invite solutions and different perspectives into their business strategy and vision of sustainability. Creativity in problem solving works well because this type of culture adopts the approach of looking at each problem as a unique situation rather than applying the same [and probably outdated] principles to every similar problem.
  • Divergent Thinking: Divergent thinking is powerful because it evolves teams from the traditional “convergent thinking” process which is linear and analytical to something more creative. Divergent thinking is the innovative process of  looking for the right answer without boundaries or a “…but this is how we’ve always done it” approach. Divergent thinking is nonlinear and spontaneous. Rather than finding a single correct answer, divergent thinkers surface multiple options for addressing problems. Brainstorming, predicting, and imagination activities are all examples of divergent thinking. It is possible to increase divergent thinking by implementing open idea or solution-focused strategy sessions.

“If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


In the workplace, it is easy to ignore the development and encouragement of the imagination, but this is done to the detriment of the business. Exercising the imagination is necessary to improve creativity. When a culture that stimulates creativity is built, a workspace is created that boosts collaboration, resourcefulness, interest, inspiration, and engagement. Inspiration is what prompts and propels creativity. Inspiration provides the motivation that helps people believe that they can or should do something creative; or inspiration can be an idea that comes suddenly. Inspiration is found differently for different people.

Creativity gets squashed much more frequently than it gets celebrated in today’s workplaces. For the most part, this isn’t because “managers” have a grudge against creativity. Since organizations don’t hire for creativity but for a job description that is a laundry list of to-dos that need to be executed – people that don’t possess a naturally high-affinity to the creative tend to get nervous or intimidated when it presents as a trait in a person.

When it comes to doing creative work, it’s important to not only look for ways to let our creativity thrive, but to also be mindful of sneaky “creativity killers” that can creep up and constrict our ability to come up with our best ideas. According to research from Harvard University, there are five critical items that are responsible for killing our creativity. It’s important to recognize these impediments to the creative process because many can be created – almost unknowingly – by organizational leadership. For those of us doing creative work, we must be mindful of these obstacles so we can continue to generate our most impactful and innovative ideas.

BEING PLACED IN THE WRONG ROLE: Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Placing [or keeping] people in roles that they are not fit for is a absolulte way to kill creativity. Although this may seem like a managerial concern, there are personal consequences that exist as well. Research has shown that we are at our best when we are busy – both in project scope and thought, but not rushed. In the wrong role, we can struggle to keep up and live in a constant state of creativity-crushing chaos and – ultimately – complacency.

RESTRICTIVE COLLEAGUES: A Harvard study shows that external restrictions are consistently bad for creative thinking. This includes even subtle language and the use of soul-crushing “management speak” that systematically squashes creativity, such as bosses claiming “That’s not how we do things here,” “That won’t work here because…”,or colleagues implicitly communicating that innovation and creativity aren’t accepted at the workplace. This happens far more frequently that most of us are willing to acknowledge.

UNREASONABLE RATIONING OF RESOURCES: While physical and financial resources are important for creativity, the Harvard study revealed that mental resources were most important, including having enough time to allow for creativity. Creative people re-conceptualize obstacles more often than a non-creative. This means they look at a variety of solutions from a number of different perspectives, and this observation of a project requires an investment of time. There is a confusing paradigm in today’s workplaces which is that people/leaders can articulate the compelling value of new and useful ideas. However, the reality is that these innovative approaches and possibilities are undermined each day in organizations that favor and insist upon operational execution, such as checklists, time-wasting meetings, productivity measured by hours worked, and control. In today’s workplaces we have creative and driven talent bringing their own ways to work and finding new and efficient ways to execute their responsibilities and construct their day or week that no longer fits into a predictable or parochial traditional working relationship.

ORGANIZATIONS CREATE DANGEROUSLY HOMOGENIZED TEAMS: This may not be entirely the leaders fault – 75% of organizations utilize an Applicant Tracking System to identify “relevant” talent for their brand. Unfortunately, most HR people don’t understand the job descriptions or the reality of the positions they are queuing the ATS to identify relevance for. What that means is that the system is created to extract the safest and most homogenized candidates for a business based on a laundry list of boring accomplishments, previous brands|employers, and generic, shallow, and | or pedantic keywords. What that leave leadership with is the same exact candidates to choose from as the people they already have in place. Homogeneous groups have shown to be better able to get along, but that comes at a very heavy cost: they are less creative and less-likely to be able to surface ideas for two reasons: (1) They just don’t have them or (2) Should a creative person get passed the ATS and immature talent selection process most companies posses, they may feel they will be ridiculed or shunned for delivering new and unique solutions to the business by their peers or even their “leader”.

DISCOURAGEMENT AND TRANSACTIONAL LEADERSHIP: It’s seriously not fun to continue working on novel ideas when you haven’t received any positive feedback and – in some cases – only receive negative feedback. This reality is backed by psychological research that shows people who have started a new  project or task and are most likely to give up the first time they encounter an impediment or meet with failure. This is also known at the “What The Hell!” effect. Creative people are inspired by how their ideas and solutions impact their colleagues and the business. Without feedback or only negative feedback, their motivation to continue to offer creative solutions begins to wane.


Stop Imposing Resource Rationing: According to a report by Hongkiat, Google is a strong supporter of creativity in the workplace, creating a “20%” program that gives its developers permission to spend 20% of their work hours on a creative project of their own. It is staggering how frequently executives and leaders invest a large amount of resources [both financially and time] to galvanize new strategies only to tell everyone the limitations they have to actually accomplish their project. Creativity is organic and if you impose odd or irrational restrictions to the flow of creativity you are likely to get, at best, mediocre results.

Don’t Worry So Much About The “How”: If you are confident in your hiring strategy and your ability to inspire and motivate a team of people through your leadership, you should not be worried how the project is completed but – instead – making sure you are accessible and available with resources should your people ask for your assistance. Give them the strategy, the challenge, and the timeline and – then – get the heck out of the way. All too often we weaken our team’s creative flow by focusing on implementation. The fastest and surest way to kill the creative process is by demanding the team to produce solutions immediately in tandem with creative ideas. It doesn’t work that way.

Get Rid Of The Big “But”: I used to report to someone who always used the word ‘but’. When I would surface how frustrating it was, he would ALWAYS default to the statement, “I am just playing devil’s advocate”. He wasn’t. He was a coward. He wouldn’t go to bat for anyone’s new ideas. He wouldn’t support anything other than the ridiculous status-quo. He was part of the problem with the organization’s business. When someone presents an idea and – as a leader – you immediately say “but”..whether it’s “but we can’t” or “but we don’t have the budget” or “but we’ve always done it this way” you’re simply halting creativity in it’s tracks instead of allowing ideas to develop. Try using “yes, and” during brainstorming and see what happens. Be open to unusual and divergent thinking!

Promote Experimentation & Create A Safe Environment To Fail: I write and talk about this ad nauseum – but here i go again…Leaders weaken their team’s creativity when they don’t encourage and support experimentation and don’t allow for failure. In order to promote creativity, leaders can inspire discussion around their people’s and the collective team’s objectives, and let their team work towards those co-created and co-invested goals. Experiments never fail and there is rarely something done in a small circle of people in any organization that can have critical implications. Even when an attempt fails, with the right mindset, people learn priceless lessons to succeed in the future.

Lean In To Chaos: I am not talking about physical chaos where the workspace looks like an episode of Hoarders. Or where people are creating crazy renderings of nutty ideas. Most status quo managers impose order and the unspoken directive that their people are mini copies of them in some bizarre way. Great leaders imagine a space with control and chaos anchoring the ends. A leader who wants to increase creativity should create behaviors to describe phases that move incrementally towards solution-driven chaos. A system is at its most creative embraces chaos because all ideas will be considered regardless of how reasonable or silly they may be. Showing your people there is a method to creativity and forward-thinking that doesn’t require absolute madness is a great leadership development lesson.

Be A Warm, Curious, And Creative Business Partner: What I mean by this is that is that leaders don’t have to play the role of the boss constantly, but, instead be a partner in the business, growth, and creativity of their people. Great business partners help their colleagues. They collaborate. They support. They don’t direct, micro-manage or spoon-feed answers to people. When you have hired and built a team of people that are smart, driven, interested, invested, productive, collaborative, and great communicators – you should easily be able to step away from being a boss into the role of being their mentor who helps, grows, supports, and energizes them into delivering excellence and someone who keeps them focused on their future selves. Great leaders help their people make great choices by providing stories and context to their challenges – not answers.

Nothing destroys creativity like a risk-averse, play-it-safe. boring, predictable leader. To ignite creativity, be curious and bring a learner’s sense of curiousity to problems to start the solution dialog. Ask your team to deliver ideas in the spirit of “What would we do if we knew we couldn’t fail?”; “What possibilities are there if we look at from the customers perspective or finances perspective?”; “How could we disprove this course of action of ours?” And then listen and guide the dialog until your people feel empowered and comfortable.