Cynics may scoff at Time magazine’s decision to kick off the new year with an issue dedicated to optimism. The reaction isn’t so surprising. From Flint to Las Vegas, from Houston to Puerto Rico, California and other communities, events caused by people and nature have brought great suffering. Pessimism and denial can start the process of healing. To produce useful change, though, we need to start looking at the bright side.
Spotting problems is how skeptical inquiry manifests in complex matters, often with pessimism as its calling card. Here’s the twist: Solving problems creatively is tied to optimism, which springs from the ambition to take action.
For business communicators who inspire action with stories that connect emotionally with audiences, it’s time to make positivity all the rage in business.
Lifting the Stigma
By lifting the stigma of optimism, we can clear a path for better collaborations in business and society. “The United States is history’s greatest experiment in the elimination of despair,” pointed out Senator Bill Bradley in 1992.
Nowadays, malcontents appear to be dominating public discourse—with the volume stuck on outrage. Negativity also creeps into the language of marketing. Customer needs are described as “pain points,” implying discomfort and suffering. Brand stories hinge on conflict.
In tilting toward doom and gloom, the primitive part of the human brain is assigning priority based on threats to survival. This also explains why sometimes optimists are viewed as liabilities: irrational, unsophisticated or foolish.
However, in the course of creative problem solving, pessimism and optimism each play distinct roles in propelling us forward. Without a motivation for a favorable outcome, it becomes nearly impossible to find practical solutions.
A renowned business collaboration and innovation researcher, Dr. R. Keith Sawyer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, outlined eight stages of the creative process1:
1. Find the problem – Directly inquire about an assumption
2. Acquire knowledge – Master a domain to gain expertise
3. Gather related information – Collect artifacts and ideas
4. Incubate – Take a break and let your mind quietly process
5. Generate ideas – Produce an abundance of options
6. Combine ideas – Merge what first appears to be incongruous
7. Select the best ideas – Reduce and refine for the ideal solutions
8. Externalize ideas – Share the solutions
The first three phases focus on addressing doubt by direct means: confrontation, establishment of authority and accumulation of evidence. It is at the Incubation stage where hopefulness must intervene—quietly.
According to Sawyer, “Exceptional creators throughout history have said their best ideas emerge from an unguided, unconscious process that creativity researchers call incubation. To provide time for incubation, many creative people force themselves to stop working periodically.”
Earlier in his career, former Citicorp CEO John Reed was assigned to head up the company’s retail banking business. While on holidays and during downtime on business trips, Reed would jot notes to himself about improving the business. An assistant who accompanied Reed for six months observed his incubation process first-hand: “One of the key thought processes around the consumer bank was called success transfer. The idea was that we would identify ideas and products in one business in one geography and transmit them to another. The most ubiquitous was the automatic teller machine, or ATM.”
Break to Accelerate
Such mental breaks require a deliberate, active release from the burdens of productivity. What compels us to return to our task? Optimism.
Optimism helps us select positive cues, such as reminders of our personal motivations to accomplish a goal.
Compare the impact of a positive outlook with that of a disincentive that discourages negative behavior. “If I return from vacation, I can help my team handle that big customer event” versus “If I return from vacation, I won’t lose my job.”
Although both positive and negative attitudes may result in the same decision to return to work, it’s less likely fear will keep someone motivated long term or focused on acting for the greater good.
It’s optimism that will inspire problem seekers to take confident, faster strides toward solutions that can also benefit others.
As guest editor of Time magazine’s special issue on optimism, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote: “On the whole, the world is getting better. This is not some naively optimistic view; it’s backed by data. Look at the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, that figure has been cut in half. That means 122 million children have been saved in a quarter- century, and countless families have been spared the heartbreak of losing a child.”
In 2017, there were many examples of ways positive thinking produced unconventional results that made a difference. Here are a few:
· Top Young Scientist and Flint Water Crisis. For two years, seventh grader Gitanjali Rao followed the unfolding events in Flint, Michigan, where lead-tainted drinking water had been found. Observing the inadequate water testing kits her own parents used at their Colorado home, she identified the problem she wanted to solve. According to the 11-year-old, the idea incubated during an activity she routinely enjoyed—her weekly readings of MIT’s Materials Science and Engineering website. One day she read about a new contaminant-testing technology. Confident it could be modified for use in lead detection, she tinkered for months at home and in school laboratories before entering her project in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. The result? Ms. Rao was crowned the grand prize winner for her sensor technology, named Tethys after the Greek goddess of fresh water.
· Solar is Coal’s Savior. The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum had had enough of rising energy costs. In April 2017, installation began on 80 rooftop solar panels. The irony was not lost on former state representative Roger Coe, who said: “Coal comes from nature. The sun rays come from nature so it all works out to be a positive thing.” The installation was paid for by Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College, which owns the museum and hopes to benefit from $8,000-$10,000 in cost savings. The college had struggled with budget cuts, an event which led to the examination of renewable energy sources—and a most unusual solution.
· High School Journalists Get a Big Break. A full-blown investigation leading to the resignation of their new principal was not what the junior reporters at Pittsburg High School in Kansas had planned in April 2017. The principal had started only the previous month. But the teens conducted their research, even when school closed for spring break. When it became clear their principal’s credentials had been fabricated, the students initially struggled with defying authority. But their journalistic principles prevailed. Connor Balthazor, who was among the six students recognized by school officials for investigative journalism work, said: “We’d broken out of our comfort zones so much. To know that the administration saw that and respected that, it was a really great moment for us.”
For business innovation to occur, doubt must give way to confidence. By continuing to demonstrate proof of progress from leaders, organizations and brands, business communicators can help catapult conversations from problem-spotting to creative problem-solving.