Real Leaders

How to Spark Creativity and Innovation

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In the early 1980s, 28-year-old Richard Branson was stuck in Puerto Rico, trying desperately to get to the Virgin Islands to see the love of his life, when the pilot announced he would have to wait until the next day because the flight didn’t have enough passengers and was canceled.

A canceled flight, for most of us, triggers frustration and anger. And for Richard Branson, it was no different, except that it also triggered his creative streak and inspired a new business idea. He marched to the back of the airport, gave them his credit card, and hired the entire plane. He then borrowed a blackboard, wrote as a joke, ‘Virgin Airlines One-Way: $39 to the Virgin Islands,’ and filled up the flight with all the bumped passengers.

He relates this story in an interview with CNBC. After his successful mini voyage, Branson figured he could pursue the private-airline idea more seriously. The next day, he rang up Boeing and said: “I’ve just had a bad experience, and I’m thinking of starting an airline called Virgin. Do you have any second-hand 747s for sale?” The rest, as they say, is history.

Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Creativity is characterized by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, find hidden patterns, make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and generate solutions. In the words of Sir Richard Branson, practice your ABCDs: Always Be Connecting the Dots. Be on the lookout for what is new and interesting. Take time to use your intuition to interpret what you have discovered to generate great ideas. Focus and direct your ideas on creating value for your customers (both internal and external). Branson has embedded this practice into his companies’ culture, where all employees are encouraged to innovate and think of new ideas in the ultimate quest to delight their customers.

Interestingly, Branson is known for surrounding himself with business coaches and mentors who act as sounding-boards, guiding his decisions. Connecting the dots in the context of your coaching is about inspiring and facilitating your people to look for novel solutions to problems, great talent, new strategies, unique partnerships, and significant opportunities. Simply put, connecting the dots sits at the very core of innovation and discovery. Yet, most companies (and leaders) do not focus on fostering, teaching, or encouraging people to experiment — and to fail. They don’t create a culture where innovation can happen more organically and readily. People are afraid to take risks for fear of failure — fear of being penalized or berated.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell brings up a story about Vivek Ranadive, CEO of TIBCO, who coached his daughter Anjali and her basketball team. Anderson Cooper profiled the story on 60 Minutes, as did The New Yorker. Ranadive came to America when he was 17 years old with $50 in his pocket. He was tenacious and not one to accept losing easily. Ranadive coached his daughter’s team and helped them play an actual full-court press at every game. In the end, what started as a local neighborhood team, ended up at the national championships. “It was really random,” Anjali Ranadive later said. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before.”

Ranadive had grown up in Mumbai playing cricket and football and found basketball rather bizarre, to begin with. He hadn’t even touched a basketball before. By his own estimates, the team he took responsibility for wasn’t tall, only a couple of girls could dribble, and none could shoot very well. The odds of success were stacked against them as they faced teams that were taller, more skilled, and coached by students of the game. By studying how the game is typically played, Ranadive realized that the full-court press, something often used by teams only at the end of the game to kill the clock, was the answer.

A full-court press is a defensive style in which the defense applies pressure to the offensive team the entire length of the court, not just near the basket. He taught his team to play “maniacal defense” that often kept the other team from inbounding the ball. They made it to the national championship after winning every regular-season game. Ranadive says that he had to appeal to reason rather than tell them how he thought the game should be played.

Basketball was a math problem, and that was something the girls could understand. “We developed a math equation that would ensure we would win every time,” he explains. “They learned the roles they each needed to play in this equation.” He also mentions how a coach can’t just force players to buy into such a system. “I had to take a number of morale-improving steps to show them that I believed in them and our strategy. For starters, I never raised my voice at the girls. These were 12-year-old girls with enough emotional growing pains in their lives. I wanted to create a fun environment where the girls were motivated to work harder and smarter by the prospect of success, not by the threat of negativity.” He attributes their amazing and unexpected success to doing things outside the box, creative thinking, and a great attitude sprinkled with humor. Interestingly, Ranadive later went on to buy the Sacramento Kings, a professional basketball team. What started as a personal challenge became a business passion.

This is an excerpt from Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership. Copyright 2021 Ruchira Chaudhary, with permission of Penguin Random House.

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