By Michaela O’Donnell Long

(Editor’s note: Michaela O’Donnell Long is a business owner and doctoral student in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this series she explores the intersection of creativity, adaptive change, and workplace design. Read Part 1 here.)

In the workplace, important contributions often come as the result of creatively engaging adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are challenges that hold unclear futures and challenge our deeply held beliefs and values. In order to deal with adaptive challenges, leaders can create a holding environment—space that is both safe yet challenging.

Author Michaela (far right) leading a table discussion. Photo thanks to Nick Warnes' twitter feed

Author Michaela (far right) leading a table discussion in a safe yet challenging space.
Photo from Nick Warnes’ twitter feed.

I think creative people—especially artists—are crucial when groups face adaptive challenges. Often equipped with resources of intrinsic motivation and imagination, Creatives can offer surprising solutions for difficult issues.

An example: My church recently underwent some restructuring. Because we had drifted from our original activities and had seen growth in unpredicted ways, we formed a committee to navigate the way forward. It was difficult work. We worked to collect stories from church members, worked toward a collective interpretation, and eventually offered a new way for our church to make sense of itself. This last part was the most difficult. It felt not only audacious, but nearly impossible to offer an organizational answer to a shift we wanted to resonate with people’s souls. Then, one committee member, an artist, suggested that instead of flow charts and crisp language we use the imagery of “three tables” to understand our church. With words, he painted a picture for us of people gathering around intimate, communal, and public tables. His imagery was not only warm but also helpful. Ultimately, we implemented his imagery. It now drives the framework of the church.

My point is that when creative people face adaptive challenges, they have the opportunity to flourish. They can offer meaningful guidance to an organization in times of change. With this in mind, leaders can work to create space for Creatives to flourish—holding environments that attend to their needs. Specifically, leaders can create safe yet challenging space for Creatives in the following ways:

  1. Attend to People: Creatives feel safe when they are heard and when they know someone has their back. So, leaders must genuinely have the backs of the Creatives entrusted to their care. People feel challenged when they are appropriately matched to tasks where the best parts of them have a chance to come out. In order to match someone to appropriate challenges, leaders must really know their people.
  2. Attend to Time: Creatives feel safe when they aren’t pressured. Quality work and interesting solutions take time. Let them set their own deadlines. But then, hold them to those deadlines. People feel challenged when they know they will be held to their word and that someone depends on them.
  3. Attend to the Feedback Process: Creatives feel safe when they know they are valued, and that their work is valued. When a creative person presents a draft of a project or a new idea for the group, they attach themselves to it. Even if you’re not initially drawn to the idea, sit with them in it long enough to get it. Then leaders can offer feedback. People feel challenged when they feel inspired. Point them toward inspiration, or at least make room for it.

Creatives, in what other ways have you experienced workspace that is both safe and challenging?

Michaela O’Donnell Long is the co-owner of Long Winter Media, which specializes in crafting story through film, image, and word. She is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a doctoral fellow of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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