Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier on Creativity: Stealth creativity

A very brave person gave me a holiday gift that could have led to disaster. She knows that I’m an awful gardener: I’ve tried growing tomatoes half a dozen times over the years and always fail. The two plants in my house live only because someone else kindly remembers to water them. So, in mid-December I was taken aback when she handed me a square glass container, half filled with beautiful stones and two narcissus bulbs.

“Just cover the stones with water and leave it alone.”

Now that’s my kind of plant.

So I put it along side the bathtub and added water. Every day since, it has made its own magic. The shoots were 2 inches high before I noticed them, and the next day they were at least 3. By New Year’s, the green stalks were a foot tall, and tiny white flowers were blossoming. For a few days then, the stalks tilted and then bent over. I moved the container closer to the wall to prop them up.

By middle of January, the narcissus had an attitude. It was standing straight, acting like a “I can take it from here” kind of plant. It’s solid, it’s gorgeous, and I worry that it will bash through the ceiling. The plant seemed to find its own way to thrive, in part because of what I did NOT do. Yes, I gave it water and a protected environment, but mostly left it alone to see what would happen.

For me, ideas are like small bulbs or seedlings at their birth. They sit there like funny dumplings, often ugly and with little to endear themselves. But a good leader — or any of us hoping to have ideas — needs to do what we did with the narcissus: give ideas a little air and water, avoid stepping (or stomping) on them and often, they’ll just work their way to becoming stronger, stand alone types of ideas. And then, if you’re lucky and treat them right, they may blossom into something gorgeous and better yet, useful.

Often the best chance that ideas have — like my tiny narcissus — is to be somewhere out of the mainstream. Then, they can grow in a stealthy way, with few people aware of them. That was the idea behind the original Skunkworks, which started during World War II when a group of Lockheed engineers began to work on a much needed airframe for a new engine. The group worked separately from other groups, “off the radar,” and even had no official government contract until the work was finished.

Without the spotlight of expectations, without the pressure to “perform,” groups that use stealth creativity often are able to give those tiny, weak ideas the time and nurturing they need to grow into something more strong and useful. And what can leaders who understand the value of stealth creativity do to help? Give good ideas (and the people nurturning them) a little breathing space and time, and then, leave them alone. You never know what might blossom that is beautiful.