Thinking Creatively with UN Leaders


Exercise created by Mackenzie (1998) – [Featured image: Mental Blocks defined by Von Oech (2008)]

This month Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS) research programme worked together with the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) to organise a 3-day leadership workshop for 16 senior United Nations staff focused on developing more innovative ways to help achieve the sustainable development goals. As part of this event, I co-facilitated the sessions about creativity and innovation. Based on previous experiences teaching creativity to students and professionals, and co-facilitating similar workshops to senior stakeholders with Sense Information Design LLC, I knew that the experience could be challenging. On the one hand, we welcome change but on the other hand, we tend to be skeptical to try different ways of doing things, and expect rapid results.

In this case, I was really pleased to see that people as busy and influencing as UN leaders took the time and were receptive to learn a very different way of approaching problems and even thinking about every day challenges. Overall this has been a very interesting experience too as, to me, it is always fascinating to see people’s behaviours matching what theories in books and papers explain (although this shouldn’t be so surprising, after all, theories are developed from social studies).

Here some highlights of the session.

Setting clear expectations

Based on the nature of the attendees, one of the goals was to deliver a practical session so that they could apply learnings straight away to address their challenges. However, it was important to set a clear expectation right from the start of what could be achieved during the session. It would have been unrealistic to promise that after a 3-hour session, UN leaders would change their way of solving problems and approaching challenges, and become successful creative thinkers.

Our goal was to introduce attendees to the potential and benefits of thinking creatively, and give them some concrete strategies and tools that they could start applying within their teams. We structured the session as a combination of skit, conversation, activities and visual aids, but no conventional slides or PPTs.

“This is silly”

The first step was to define what creativity is and isn’t by discussing the two major beliefs: 1) You are born creative vs 2) creative thinking is a skill that you can practice. Up to this point, everyone seemed to be on the same page and agreeing with the concepts we were explaining… until it was time to put the concepts into practice.

In line with the second belief, one way to develop creative thinking is by practicing certain techniques that force the brain to make new connections and see things from different lenses. This is why exercises were a central part of the session. We prepared a series of short exercises to help attendees warm up this side of the brain. The first exercise was the catalyst that made things change:

The Hairball Exercise (MacKenzie, 1998): Draw a wiggle on a large sheet of paper, big enough so everyone in the room can see it. Then ask: What is this?

When I asked attendees this question most of them looked at me slightly puzzled, and only a few shared their thoughts: “a signature”, “you are trying to be creative”, “nothing”, “something on a sheet of paper”. All of these were perfectly valid answers. Then I asked them: “How did you feel when you heard the prompt?


This is a classic response among grown ups: everyone tries to be very polite and prefers to say nothing than to actually share what they are thinking. This is when being direct is the best option so I asked them: “Who thought that this exercise was silly?”

Silence… and then it happened!

Slowly a few hands raised, and then almost everyone in the room was raising their hand. This was what I wanted to see! One of the biggest mental blocks that impedes people to think creatively is our judgemental side of the brain. We are constantly assessing and judging whether what we think, see and do is important, practical or relevant. We judge those things for which we don’t see a direct application or use as “silly” or a waste of time. Von Oech describes other mental blocks that also get in the way of creative thinking.

This was the turning point of the workshop. After this exercise attendees started to realise that one of the main issues for adopting creative thinking in the UN (as in any other large organisation) was actually coming from their way of thinking about it, but they were unaware of it. By the end of the morning we have reviewed other frequent mental blocks, done more exercises, and discussed ways to practice creative thinking.

Putting Creativity into Practice

As leaders some of the attendees are in charge of teams as large as 600 people, and frequently making too radical changes too fast may not be the most effective strategy. This is why we also discussed ways to encourage creative thinking in a highly stratified and bureaucratic organisation and how to apply this type of thinking in the day-to-day activities. Some questions we provided suggestions and techniques for were:

  • How could, as a leader, encourage everyone in my team to share ideas?
  • How could creative confidence and free flow of ideas be encouraged within teams?
  • What are the best moments in a project to think creatively?
  • How could the culture change towards a more open minded and risk taking one?
  • How should the environment be or change to support creative thinking?

We closed the session with these three messages:

  • Simple changes can make a big difference.
  • Consistency and conscious effort are key.
  • Practicing a little every day can bring more effective results than just a lot a single day.

Environment, culture, tradition, leadership, hierarchies are key barriers that probably every organisation has and should rethink if they would like to start thinking more creatively and finding solutions for recurrent problems. Unlearning what we know takes time, and re-learning or reconnecting with our creative side needs practice. I can’t wait to see how these concepts start to manifest, little by little, by UN small creative interventions.

– MacKenzie, G. (1998) Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. Viking
– Von Oech, R. (2008) A Whack On The Side of The Head: How You Can Be More Creative. Grand Central Publishing

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