Creative Combustion: Interview With Creativity Expert Leslie Ehm
Leslie Ehm is a dynamic, very interesting creativity expert who is the President & Chief Fire Starter at creativity training company Combustion. She writes for Think Jar and the Creativity Post and travels the world imparting her knowledge to organizations around enhancing their creative capacity.
Think Jar Collective founder Ben Weinlick: Thanks for taking the time today to chat. Glad to connect with another like-minded person doing work around fostering creativity. There seems to be something in the zeitgeist these days where people and organizations are recognizing the importance of creativity and seeing how valuable it is to develop and enhance.
Leslie Ehm: For us people who live it, breathe it, work and sleep it, we understand the power and the importance of creativity in a whole different way. Everybody is saying they want creativity but they don’t really know what it is or how to get it. And when you tell them you can help them understand and ‘get’ it, they say “great, can you put that in a package and give it to me in a half-day workshop?” Well, no you can’t. That’s not the way the way it works. There’s so much more to creativity – especially as a business tool.
BW: So, I know you were a former creative director at an Ad agency, but how did you get into creativity work?
Leslie Ehm: For me creativity was the excuse for my behaviour (Laughing). I was always a bit of a freak, one of those kids bouncing off the walls who wanted to do everything and just create. I loved to write and tell stories. I guess I was a ‘natural creative’. Eventually I went to a school that was for kids who were like me – a ‘free’ school as they called it and there I was able to thrive to a degree. But I was a musician at heart, so at 17 I moved out of my house, joined my first new wave band and was rocking a mohawk. That was in 1979. I really was uncontrollable. And back in the day the punk lifestyle that I chose for myself wasn’t understood by anybody. I was a suburban, Jewish middle class kid on the surface and yet lived a completely alternative lifestyle.
Creativity for me has always been a kind of lifeblood. I don’t think I was really capable of doing anything else, because the creative drive in me was so strong – and I was pretty hard to boss around (laughing).
I moved to the UK when I was 18 to pursue my musical career, and I ended up living there for 15 years – working in music, film and TV industries mostly. Ultimately I ended up as a TV host but didn’t find it terribly satisfying so I quit and ultimately moved back to Canada, and said “alright what’s next”. As I writer, I had freelanced for agencies and had loved the ad biz so I talked my way into an ad agency. I started working in digital, which was the place to be, the new frontier. I worked my way up the ladder until I became a Creative Director. This led me to a fascination with the idea of creativity on demand – or applied creativity. And my crazy passion for it led to training.
So creativity for me has always been a kind of lifeblood. I don’t think I was really capable of doing anything else, because the creative drive in me was so strong – and I was pretty hard to boss around (laughs).
BW: I can relate, I have a bit of a similar story with music and being a bit of an untamable kid.
Leslie Ehm: Yeah. Its funny in retrospect but when you’re going through it, it’s pretty freaking painful.
It takes a while to be a rebel with a cause because you start off just being a rebel. The trick is to find your ‘cause’. I think that’s part of what makes me really good at what I do now. All roads have led to this. I can speak the truth and fight the good fight of helping people become more creatively empowered because I’m not attached to anybody or anything. There’s no agenda or politics for me. It’s just my truth and my passion.
It takes a while to be a rebel with a cause because you start off just being a rebel. The trick is to find your ‘cause’.
BW: Boom! So, sounds like you’re quite fearless in your approach when you inquire and inspire creativity. When you’re leading people to develop these qualities of honesty and fearless creativity, what are some ways that you have worked to teach that to people?
Leslie Ehm: I’m all about creating experiences. For me, with training or learning of any kind you have to have the “a-ha” yourself. Nobody can make you have an “a-ha”. The person who’s creating the learning experience has to be smart and creative enough in their own right to create experiences that proves the theories – not just tell people what they should think, feel or believe.
For example, if you’re trying to teach people the difficult concept of deferring judgment, you can start by explaining how the brain works, why we judge, and why it has been fundamental to our survival as a species. It helps people to understand why their need to judge is incredibly powerful and that they’re not bad or wrong, or “judgmental” for doing it. But its when you put them through an experience devoid of judgment and then debrief it, that the magic happens.
You do this and then ask what it felt like and people report back things like, “I didn’t feel like I was going to get punched in the face every time I opened my mouth.” Then you ask, “So what were you then able to do as a result?” “Well, I was able to push a little harder and think a little bigger, and take some more risks.” “Excellent. So what if we all agree to try not punch each other in the face? Wouldn’t that be a good idea?” (laughing).
I’m all about creating experiences. For me, with training or learning of any kind you have to have the “a-ha” yourself. Nobody can make you have an “a-ha”.
That’s why I called my company Combustion. In combustion, there is a series of chemical reactions necessary to start a fire. Unless you have the right sequence in place, there can be no fire. You’re just going to ignite and extinguish, ignite and extinguish, ignite extinguish. To be successful and creative, all you have to do is to recognize what you’re doing that’s ignition behavior, and what’s extinguishing behavior. Then you’re opening the channel up for enormous creative potential. There’s no guarantee of anything. But imagine if you helped people to understand why, culturally, they may not be achieving what they could, and how to understand the rules, methodology, and the best practices for amazing collaboration? And then you give them some real hard core skills and tools – stuff they can tap into to get where they want to go? They would have an enormous chance for success.
We don’t believe in doing open enrollment workshops because if you send one person from an organization to training, that poor guy comes back with their brain on fire, and then promptly get smacked down by his colleagues, because that’s what organizations tend to do – adapt to the collective. Now he’s pushing these boulders up hill, these boulders of knowledge, and nobody’s interested. Nobody else has had the ‘a-ha’. So now we only go into organizations and try and train enough people to get a critical shift in thinking – get the whole team thinking differently. That’s what’s important.
We don’t believe in doing open enrollment workshops because if you send one person from an organization to training, that poor guy comes back with their brain on fire, and then promptly gets smacked down by his colleagues, because that’s what organizations tend to do – adapt to the collective.
BW: That’s awesome. So I love the stuff around deferring judgment, where in this collaborative phase of a creative thinking process you let your mind run wild. But how about in the convergent thinking phase where judgment is needed to see if an idea is relevant or not? It is easy to fall back into a style of judgment where you offer a few “punches in the face” or wet blankets. How can a creative team collaborate better when you’re sorting through ideas, because this is the area I find is most tricky to navigate and help a team sustain trust and not be afraid.
Leslie Ehm: Well you raise a bunch of really interesting challenges. Everyone has different styles and preferences for how they ideate. Some people are going to be more adept at recognizing a great idea. Some are going to really love bringing ideas to life. Other people are just going to want to generate ideas. So you’re always going to have that conflict on the back end, because people gain and lose interest at different stages. For example, those who are interested in generating ideas get more frustrated at the end in the convergent phase, because they don’t feel their super power coming into play the same way. They want to go back and start at the beginning. They tend to want to diverge, while everybody else is converging. And that’s always a challenge. So if they don’t recognize that that’s what’s happening they won’t understand their instinct and can’t learn to be more open to different parts of the process.
I think criteria for a creative challenge is also a really critical factor. If the criteria’s too broad up front then you may be able to be hugely divergent, but half the ideas may not be relevant. But if you’re too constrained, then people can be afraid to diverge fully because they are so concerned about immediate relevancy. The antidote to that is to develop really informed opportunity statements that define the challenge and desired outcomes really well. Tight and yet loose.
We tend to think that convergence is only about analysis and critique. Whereas I think in convergence, there’s a huge amount of room for really good, interesting brain processes and techniques to continue to build and grow ideas collaboratively. It helps when the ideas are an amalgamation of everyone’s thoughts and input because it’s harder to get precious about ‘your’ ideas. The secret is to use a critical eye, but not be judgmental. There’s a big difference. I have a process I use called GOOD that helps people analyze ideas critically but not judgmentally.
BW: That’s really cool stuff. How about when you are guiding people, or are talking to people about moving ideas to execution? The action plans, what are some tips or ideas there?
Leslie Ehm: There are lots of structured processes for bringing things to fruition and the challenge with action planning is that every organization has different processes and very often the ideas that you’re developing are things that are brought to life in different ways. Some things are just mindsets, others are big huge processes, and some require further research and development. But if the idea has been clearly articulated, anyone should be able to take it and move forward with it.
At the end of the day, its about accountability – who will do what, by when and who will check? If you really want to make something happen, you plan it and do it. Even if something on your list says ‘convince client to buy it’. It’s an action item like everything else.
I think criteria for a creative challenge is also a really critical factor. If the criteria’s too broad up front then you may be able to be hugely divergent, but half the ideas may not be relevant. But if you’re too constrained, then people can be afraid to diverge fully because they are so concerned about immediate relevancy.
BW: You’ve really gone through a lot of things around divergent and convergent thinking. I know you can’t just sum up creativity into a simple thing or process, but what would you say comes to mind at the moment that are the key pieces to fostering relevant creativity in organizations?
Leslie Ehm: Oh boy, a tall order. It’s about whether you have your ignition points in place. So, for example are your people all relatively equally skilled? Do they know how to collaborate effectively, and does the culture allow for that collaboration? Do they have the creativity and critical thinking skills? And then from a cultural perspective, is there an understanding, acceptance, and a commitment to opening all of those ignition points, to make sure that ideas can be moved all the way through the organization to fruition? Last but not least, they need to develop and foster creative confidence – the belief that they are capable of creativity.
Ultimately, if the organization, top down, believes that creativity is the necessary precursor to any innovation and the key to new and different solutions and not some pie in the sky magic pixie dust, they’ve got the ‘why’ of creativity down pat. If they have that, they’ll have a pretty good chance of succeeding – with the right training of course! (laughs)
BW: Reminds me a bit of a quote from I think Manray. He said something like, “there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask why .” The ‘why’ seems to be more about curiosity and understanding. When people understand why creativity is important and why we need times to defer judgment and times to critique then it leads to better results. We have that shift starting here at the organization I facilitate think tanks in.
Leslie Ehm: People want and deserve to understand why they should bother with this stuff. Why invest their time? Why stretch their thinking? Why will it be of value and why will the process often be uncomfortable? Fair enough!
I recently I read a book by Teresa Amabile called the Progress Principle which was all about success for most people being defined simply by their ability to experience a sense of progress in whatever they do. They have to feel like they are moving things forward. And everyone’s notion and measure of progress is going to be different, but in some way shape or form, the team has to agree on what progress looks like. So if people don’t believe that developing their creativity and critical thinking skills is going to actively move them forward, they’re not interested. So it crucial that they understand the practical value – the big ‘why’.
Ultimately, if the organization, top down, believes that creativity is the necessary precursor to any innovation and the key to new and different solutions and not some pie in the sky magic pixie dust, they’ve got the ‘why’ of creativity down pat. If they have that, they’ll have a pretty good chance of succeeding.
Once they do, they start to play and experiment and bond. They get excited and inspired. That’s what makes creativity training so magical for me. I get to help people get to that place or exploration, help them trust that it’s going to be of benefit and then watch them solve problems and explore ideas in completely new ways. It’s a beautiful thing.
BW: That’s a great ending for the interview. Thanks so much for your time and look forward to more articles on creativity and innovation from you. You rock.
In combustion, there is a series of chemical reactions necessary to start a fire. Unless you have the right sequence in place, there can be no fire. You’re just going to ignite and extinguish, ignite and extinguish, ignite extinguish. To be successful and creative, all you have to do is to recognize what you’re doing that’s ignition behavior, and what’s extinguishing behaviour Then you’re opening the channel up for enormous creative potential.