Setting The Scene

Here we set the scene for learning creativity through creative tension.

You are walking down a forest path. The tree canopy is so thick, the sun barely dapples through. It’s early morning and the dampness of the morning dew is all around you. The morning fog hasn’t fully burned off and it casts the path ahead in a swirling mist.

To the right of the path, you notice an opening. It appears to be the mouth of a cave in the hillside. Feeling adventurous this morning, you decide to enter it.

You are not very deep into the cave when you realize this is not a cave at all. The walls are made of hewn stone. The floor beneath your feet is stone worn from ages of footsteps. Before you is a long tunnel, dare I say, hallway. Being brave…or foolish…you decide to continue your exploration.

Discovering the chest

After walking for what seems like a half-mile deep into the hill, you see a light coming from what appears to be a room ahead. You peer through the doorway and see a large room. In the centre of the room is a chest. “Hey, I’ve come this far”, you say, and step inside the room.

BAM! I door slams shut behind you! Startled, you turn around. The door, or what you thought was a door isn’t even visible, fitting so snugly in its frame. As you turn back to the centre of the room, you realize your flashlight is gone, your backpack is gone, in fact, everything is gone except the clothes on your back.

You try to get your bearings…the room is circular, the walls of stone…the ceiling is high above you, perhaps 40 or 50 feet, near the ceiling are four torches, lighting the room…you step towards the centre of the room, toward the chest. It is then you realize, you are not alone.

Different doors

There are seven other people in the room. They seemed as confused, perhaps frightened, as you.

“Good morning”, you say.

“Uh, good morning”, comes the reply from a couple of the strangers.

“I can’t find the door, can you? It was right over there”, you ask, pointing.

“I came through a door that was over there,” says a young lady, pointing in the exact opposite direction.

“And I entered, from there”, said another.

“I came from there”, said a third.

You soon realize, each of the eight of you came through a different door, but no doors are visible. The stone walls make it impossible to make outdoors. Even, if you could find one, the stones would be so heavy, even all eight of you could not pry one open.

Taking the lead

Taking the lead, you say, “Let’s open the chest. Perhaps, there are some tools or something we can use to tunnel our way out.” The chest opens with a loud creak like it had not been opened in hundreds, if not thousands of years. The chest is filled with gold coins.

As the group stares at the treasure in astonishment, the coins themselves begin to shake, the rattling of the coins becomes so loud you have to cover your ears. Suddenly, the coins BURST forth from the chest, spewing into the air like a volcano. You and the group step back, expecting the coins to stop spewing, but they don’t. More and more coins. They begin to cover the floor.

The hero

Heroically, you try to shut the lid of the chest, but to no avail. The coins are gushing with such force, even you and the other men cannot get the lid shut.

The coins are now ankle deep….and still spewing. You realize that you and the others are going to be trapped…buried alive…in coins, if you don’t think of something and FAST!

You hear a voice. A calm voice. You can’t tell where it is coming from, certainly not from one of the others. It sounds like it is coming from all directions at once. “You have nine remaining moves to escape, trying to close the chest was your first move”.

The workshop

And THAT was how I kicked off the workshop on Creativity, Innovation, and Problem Solving; With role-playing a game, ala Dungeons and Dragons, and the assistance of Game Master Greg McIntire!

But, I’m ahead of myself. First, let me explain how all this came to pass, then I will go into more detail about the workshop itself.

A better way

Our organization had recently launched a series of leadership development courses. The curriculum was outstanding and covered many aspects of leadership. We had two different “levels”, if you will, one for managers who aspired to be directors, and one for directors who aspired to be Vice Presidents.

Cohorts were selected and they were to go through the nine-month journey together. During the first round of courses, we decided to use outside facilitators for most of the topics. We paired the outside facilitators with internal leadership, who would lead the material in subsequent rounds.

As one of the Executive Leadership Team, I was tagged to lead the workshop on Creativity, Innovation and Problem Solving, which is why I found myself auditing the workshop during the first cohort of the senior leader’s group (directors aspiring to be vice presidents).


It was…mind-numbing! Yes, it covered a lot of the current thinking on creativity and innovation, the creative process, mental models, learning organizations, Appreciative Inquiry, Blue Ocean and more…packed into two days…of sitting in a conference room…listening to presentations…some discussion…a few exercises (OMG, if I see the “connect the nine dots with four lines, without lifting your pencil” exercise one more time, I think I shall jump off a bridge!)…and honestly, very little else. Oh, and as a presenter, if you have to ask “Does this make sense?” a dozen times, it probably doesn’t!

Let me apologize for sounding too harsh. What I kept thinking was, “if you are going to teach Creativity, Innovation, and Problem Solving, then be CREATIVE, and INNOVATIVE and SOLVE PROBLEMS!”

I knew this was going to be a big challenge, so, armed with the experience of auditing the first workshop, the feedback surveys from the original cohort and several ideas forming in the midst of my brain, our director of training and education and I set out to develop a unique workshop for the next round. If you thought my recap of the first workshop was harsh, the feedback from the participants was so bad we invited them to attend the second workshop with the next cohort.

Creativity, innovation and problem solving

The two-day workshop focused on conveying an understanding of what is creativity, what is innovation, and what is problem-solving through some material, but mostly through experiencing creativity, innovation and problem-solving. The central theme was “creative tension”. To be creative, to be innovative and to solve problems, you have to feel tension, you have to be outside your comfort zone…so, we took them to the woods! Well, to be exact, we took them to a learning centre located in one of the area’s parks.

Day 1 – Morning: Creative Tension

The morning of day one was focused on setting the stage. What is creativity, what is innovation, what is problem-solving? I then introduced the concept of creative tension using Peter Senge’s visualization of a stretched rubber band and the tension that exists between a future vision and current reality.

This introduction was capped off by performing the role-playing game described above. As you might imagine, the discussion following the game was lively. This was a group of future executives playing a fantasy game, talking about getting outside your comfort zone!

The next segment tied the theme specifically to their roles within our organization. We did this by examining the 12 Core Competencies each employee is measured against. Each competency has a definition and specific behaviours or actions that should be exhibited at various levels of the company. The group identified each time “creativity”, “innovation” or “problem-solving” was called out in these behaviours and actions; and what it meant in their role.

Day 1 – Afternoon: The Center and the Edge

That afternoon, we started with a small brain teaser to get everyone back in a creative state as we talked about mental models, feedback processes and how to use this understanding to break outside of our mental models. It was here that we introduced the concept of the centre and the edge. Relating the centre to “the status quo” and the edge being that area of “creative tension”.

We then took the group on a “Vision Quest”, using the custom of some Native American cultures to leave their tribe and go survive in the wilderness for a period of time, returning with a vision of their own life ahead. We couldn’t really send the participants out on a survival quest, so instead, we took a hike in the woods…in the rain. During the hike, they were asked to identify, where was their edge? What status quo was pulling them back to the centre?

The teachings of Thomas Malone

After the hike, we stood (in the rain) and talked about each other’s centre and edge and the forces that hold them back from being on that “creative edge”.

We ended day one by exposing the group to some of the teachings of Thomas Malone on intelligent organizations and the future of work. This laid the foundation for day two by not only exploring the idea of “we are all smarter when we work together”, but also by looking at some real-world examples of innovation used to solve problems by working…differently.

Day 2 – Morning: Systems Thinking

The morning of day two, found us gathering back at the learning center. As I mingled with the group, they were talking about the takeaways from the day before; thinking out loud of how to solve some of the problems they were facing in their jobs. The entire morning was focused on one thing…beer! Yes, beer! We used the outstanding immersive exercise of “The Beer Game” from MIT (can you tell I LOVE their teaching?!!?) to have the class begin to think of problem-solving in a wider context.

We are all part of a system. You can’t solve your problem without thinking of the impact it has on the overall system. As a facilitator, I was stunned at how the game turned out…just like they said it would! I don’t want to give away too much here because once you know the game, you can’t play the game. I was also stunned to see some of these directors struggling with supply chain issues (you KNOW who you are! 🙂 ).

Day 2 – Afternoon: Creating an Environment for Creativity and Innovation

When we gathered together after lunch, we started with some ideas of how to create an environment for our teams to be creative and innovative. Using the example of Lewis and Clark and the educated risk they took by splitting into four parties on their journey home, we talked about knowing when to take such a risk, but also as a leader, allowing your teams to take those risks.

From there, we dove deeper into putting “guardrails” around taking risks and that some of the frustration they feel when suggesting ideas to executive management, only to have it turned down, is because they are bumping the guard rails. Knowing they are there and why they are there is important.

Real estate

Let me explain, years ago I worked in commercial real estate development. Our company would build large office buildings. Then, we would lease floor space to tenants. The tenants are given a budget to build out their space to suit their needs…but within reason…within the guard rails. Tenant XYZ’s space could be an open concept, not an office in site, while Tenant ABC’s space could be nothing but offices. Same building, entirely different spaces, but within the constraints of the building. No one could move the elevator stack, the restrooms, or the exterior walls.

To drive this home, we divided into teams to build cabins with Lincoln Logs, yes the childhood toy of Lincoln Logs still exist! To tie many of the thoughts together, we gave the teams different sets of rules. One team had very defined roles within the “project”. Within these roles were very strict rules about who could talk with whom. The other team, had the same roles defined, but anyone on the team could talk to anyone else. It was a race to see who built their cabin the fastest and closest to the design specs.

Day 2 – Afternoon: Dialogue

The final segment of the workshop was focused on Problem Solving. We began by introducing the group to the differences between Debate, Discussion, and Dialogue. Never really thought about the differences? In a debate, the goal is to win; in a discussion, you are trying to convince; and in dialogue, you are seeking to understand. Makes a huge (yuuuuuuuuuuuuuge, as one of our presidential candidates, would say) difference in the tone and tenor of a meeting when you say, we are going to have a dialogue, as opposed to we are going to have a discussion. We then had a very open and candid dialogue about one of the most significant problems faced by our organization. Several outstanding ideas came out of the session, some of which are being implemented today.

Looking Back: We ALL Learned

Overall, the workshop was a success. Not only did the participants learn about creativity, innovation and problem solving, they learned some things about themselves and their cohort of future leaders. I believe the foundation will serve them well and will enable them to lead our organization forward to greater heights. I know I personally learned a lot about myself and them and isn’t that what teaching is all about?

Now, back to that room…anyone want to suggest an idea on how to get out?

  • About the Author
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Looking to amp up your audience and inspire them to grow as leaders?

Keynote speaker and best-selling author, Jeff Ton has been amplifying
audiences around the world for two decades. With deep experience as a
technology and business executive, he draws on his background to educate,
inspire, and entertain audiences large and small. Jeff authored Amplify Your
Job Search – Strategies for Finding Your Dream Job (2020) and Amplify
Your Value – Leading IT with Strategic Vision (2018). His insights have been
featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, Information Week, among others.

When his teenage dreams of becoming a rockstar collided with reality,
he traded his guitar for a computer keyboard and became a rockstar of
a different kind. After launching his career as a software developer, Jeff
became an industry-recognized leader and business executive, building
teams and leading organizations in the banking, consumer electronics, real
estate development, non-profit, and technology sectors.