Structure Makes Us Creative


Structure is essential to inspiring creativity and self-expression.  Neuroscientists have recently demonstrated that improvisation occurs when the self-monitoring region of our brain turns off through mastery of a foundational structure.  Musician Yo-Yo Ma said, “An innovation, to grow organically from within, has to be based on an intact tradition.”

Acoustic guitar with wood background

I wish I could fully enjoy playing my guitar.  I’ve taken lessons and practiced intermittently, but my jam sessions are limited to a handful of songs and I usually feel self-conscious as I think hard about how to play.  This self-monitoring requires substantial effort and the resulting fatigue causes me to resist consistently practicing.  The only glimpses of uninhibited playing occur when I repeat a chord progression enough that I can be free to make minor finger or strumming variations.  To me, this is a metaphor for performance in any area of life.  When we repeat and master a core structure, we can become free to be creative and improvisational.

Let’s consider three areas where practice and repetition can help us to be a more creative and inspiring leader:

  1. Communicate using frameworks. One of my clients has been working to improve communication and collaboration across their organization.  To support this, we have their people repeatedly practice a 4-element structure for communicating a message.  This structure resonates with listeners and, more importantly, frees the speaker to focus on the message rather than the method of delivery. Whether it’s structuring sales questions to generate interest or writing this blog every week, following communication frameworks free us to be more uninhibited and creative communicators.
  2. Lead with structure. Leaders can replicate successful behavior by defining and practicing structures that generate results.  At work every quarter, we immerse our teams in a review of our best clients.  We follow a structured dialogue which includes analysis of the clients’ industry, strategy, goals and challenges.  This cadence reduces the team meta-cognition (thinking about how to think) and increases the ability to consider creative approaches to each client.
  3. Master through repetition. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates how Canadian hockey players, Bill Gates and the Beatles all rose to the top of their profession through having more opportunities to practice.  Repeated practice moves us from awkward to automatic to masterful.  Practice makes permanent – both good and bad behaviors.  Too often, we expect immediate ability to implement new ideas and skills after reading a book, attending a course or receiving feedback.  The path to confident and creative performance goes beyond knowledge – it requires practice, practice and more practice.

Please take a moment to comment on how structure and repetition make you a more creative leader!

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