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Membership Engagement: Challenge People to be Creative

(L-R) Jeneva Patterson, Senior Faculty and Executive Coach for Organisational Transformation, Center for Creative Leadership; Jeffer London, Strategic Relationship Director, Center for Creative Leadership
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This article originally featured in HQ Magazine. It has been republished with Meeting Media Group's full permission.

Jeffer London speaks with Jeneva Patterson about how she engages people with creative challenges. Jeneva is Senior Faculty and Executive Coach for Organisational Transformation at the Center for Creative Leadership, where Jeffer also works. CCL® is a top-ranked global provider of executive education that develops better leaders through its exclusive focus on leadership education and research.

Creativity is a key to engagement, but the creative muse is not always obedient. If you want your members to be creative, think in terms of challenges that follow people’s natural rhythm – combining intense group sessions and free time. As Roshan Bharwaney, the Associate Director of Executive Development at WPP, puts it: "Creative challenges can be more engaging than other workplace assignments because they require going beyond data, analysis, and existing ways of thinking to deeper levels of expression that can include profound shifts in the way we understand things." To access people’s creative potential, we need to rethink the way we seek engagement. Jeneva Patterson is an expert at setting up these creative challenges and bringing people together to share the results.

Jeffer London: Why are creative challenges key to engaging people? 

Jeneva Patterson: People are thirsty for self-discovery. This desire is never quenched because we change all the time. Up to our early twenties people ask us lots of questions: Why did you choose to study this? What’s your aspiration? What are you developing in yourself? Later in life, we stop getting asked these questions, but we still have the opportunity to evolve. Stimulating people with questions and creative challenges, no matter their phase in life, wakes people up and paves the way for engagement. 

JL: Senior leaders seem to be at a crossroads on how to engage their people. What do you find on the top management’s minds? 

JP: Many leaders find themselves living double lives. On the one hand they are visible, putting on a brave face in front of their companies and on social media; on the other hand, they’re often privately perplexed about the best strategy to follow. Their concerns range from “should my organisation exist?” to “am I an imposter?” to, “is this the best strategy?” Conversations that focus on identity, reinvention and leadership brand offer a respite from the double life trap.

JL: Given top leaders’ strategic questions and needs for engagement, how do you help them shape people-intense initiatives? 

JP: The first challenge is to get people to show up. Everyone is busy, and we have limited control, if any, over what members do with their time. Association leaders can actively co-create and integrate members’ contributions. Leaders need to shape succinct and catchy invitations that appeal to members’ emotional connection to the Association’s values. We often use video and visuals to show how getting involved will be fun, meaningful and impactful. 

JL: When participants say yes to your invitation, what are they signing up for? 

JP: To be surprised, stimulated and supported. Of course, we need to deliver on the promise that it’s entertaining and makes an impact, but to do that we can’t just do the same old thing. Confrontation and support are part of the formula. We invite members to promote their unique skills and passions to the rest of the group. We lead activities that simulate real-life scenarios. Members yearn for time to be and think together through structures that elicit feedback, authenticity and mutual support.

JL: How do you establish that atmosphere of trust and safety? 

JP: Most people want to have that safe space, but sometimes don’t dare to be the first person to speak out. Naturally, fears and social norms can inhibit people; still, they’re hungry for the shared intensity of experiential learning. Simple questions can galvanise the interaction; for example, please share a story with a neighbour about a time when you made a difference in a group; or get a few testimonials on: who could share their insights or surprises on how of an inclusive approach at work changed their culture? Setting expectations for ourselves, as organisers, is critical. Sharing feelings, versus thoughts, may take multiple tries. Eventually, by facilitating with gentle persistence, patience, and open-ended questions, courage builds up in the group.

JL: Tell me more about how sharing life experiences leads to innovation.

JP: Being listened to, without judgment, is one of the most powerful interpersonal experiences humans enjoy. Associations are unique; they can create a forum for individuals to freely share crazy, fresh ideas without censorship. Validating ideas encourages conversation and sparks more ideas, thus laying the path for innovation. Regrettably, many of my clients assume they need to be solitary, innovation pillars. This is a seductive notion that would paralyse anyone. Innovation comes from sharing, testing, challenging, regenerating, and supporting ideas. Any Association can build an opportunity for that. 

JL: Most people are not most creative while at work. How do you bring fresh thinking into workplaces?

JP: We often ‘get hit’ by great ideas when least expected. Einstein said that his ideas emerged while taking the bus, laying in his bed or relaxing in the bathtub. A great way to set the tone when meeting is to ask people to reflect on their most creative moments or ideas, after which they list the conditions that led to their creativity. To sustain courageous pursuit of ideas when not together, we give homework. Accountability partners support each other between meetings, deadlines for sharing, reminders, and a sense of competition, further ignite courage. Naturally, given the research on innovation, as highlighted by Einstein, homework must also include scheduled downtime so that creative ideas can germinate. Downtime to ‘turn off’ thought, can include sports, siestas, cooking, walking the dog… The mind sends the most creative ideas when it’s, ostensibly, inactive. Creativity and ideas blossom between sessions. 

JL: If creativity happens in between your sessions, what happens in them? 

JP: Dialogue. Walking in pairs to share. Validating people’s experiences. Admitting one’s fears. Peer coaching. What works for one person may not be ideal for another. Variation is key. Effective sessions are like music. Sometimes a session builds slowly like the sorrowful notes, of Henryk Górecki’s third symphony. Other times I evoke creativity and disruption by playing Echad Mi Yodea by Ohad Naharin. Sometimes a vigorous dance performance video can inspire new ideas. Art forms are by definition creative! We often enjoy those art forms in our ‘personal lives’ but they’re clinically separated from work. Join them together and new ideas flourish. 

JL: Any other advice for association leaders who seek creative engagement?

JP: Learn from the best in the marketplace. Plenty of organisations harness creative engagement. Ask members to list every possible way they could smash their organisation to bits so that it dies a quick death. Then you’ll know where to start by harnessing the phoenix from the flames.

Thank you Jeneva Patterson, for taking the time to talk about how your work at the Center for Creative Leadership brings about engagement and innovation. You very well may find HQ readers in your upcoming programs. For more insights into engagement, see Jeffer’s blog about stimulating conversation at

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