Creativity's Obstacles & Opportunities with Monica Kang, Founder & CEO of InnovatorsBox & Author of Rethink Creativity

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Monica Kang, Founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox and Author of Rethink Creativity. Monica and I talk about some of the obstacles and opportunities around creativity. And how individuals and companies can benefit from enhancing their curiosity, creativity, and courage. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with Monica Kang, Founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox and Author of Rethink Creativity

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Monica Kang. She is Founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox and Author of Rethink Creativity. And also has a children's book called Have You Seen My Friends? So welcome to the show Monica.

Monica Kang: Thank you for having me. 

Brian Ardinger: One of the things that we do in our Inside Outside community is ask our audience out there, who should we be talking to? And what are some of the interesting things that you're seeing out there? And somebody said, hey, you should talk to Monica. I think the first question I want to ask is probably a softball for you, but why does creativity matter. And why does it matter more today than ever before?

Monica Kang: I'll start with maybe the notion of, I feel creativity is one of the words that we don't realize how much of a jargon it is. Because we use it so much. We say like, oh, you're creative. You're not creative. Or like, that was creative. That was innovative. We put in our marketing materials. We put in our campaigns. We put it in how we describe things.

But if you really break it down, like, do people really understand or live the value that what it is. I think that was part of the reason why when you go back to why it's so important to talk about this is actually because of that. Because we use it all the time, but so many people don't realize the root and the nuances. And hence, don't realize this is jargon, that we're just keep throwing it around without the full intention. 

And so, I first fell into it because of that very situation. I was originally in nuclear weapons security. Government work. Wanted to be a diplomat all my life. That having grown up in DC and in the States, as well as in Korea and worked in Europe. And, you know, hey, I'm not comfortable with science and math. So, this sounds like the perfect path. And like, I love people and building relations. 

And so, I was good with a lot of things, but like creativity, wasn't really a thing that I would describe I was good at. Even though now looking back, I realize I had. And only until when I find myself really getting depressed and stuck in a dream job where I realized that I was finding myself literally crying to work, feeling upset, not knowing what to do in a job that I fell in love with. 

And I'm like, what is wrong with me? Like I'm solving a very important mission. Mission-driven. Preventing bad guys from having nuclear weapons. We're working in the government. It's really hard to get into this industry too. And yet feeling stuck. 

And what helped me gave the courage of, you know, walking to work instead of taking the bus to work. Getting curious about all these different surroundings. And realizing how one life decision can make a huge difference. Because now I felt so curious in the office got even more energetic. Even though the work description hasn't changed at all. 

It got me curious about understanding about, well, what happened. And people did ask me like Monica, whatever you're doing, you seem happier. And that's where I realized creativity was one of the key elements.

I didn't know back then, but it was the mindset of simply doing something different. Finding the courage to take different things. Try different things. Ask different questions. Even organizing my process of the project differently because as I looked at the traffic in the fourth street every day, I'm like am I creating traffic in the way I do things unconsciously. Just like how there's always traffic here. Like at this time? 

What do I need to do differently? And getting curious about it. And that's where I learned that comment that I started the beginning. That question of creativity, innovation. There's so much history and research behind it. That I had no idea. And because we throw around the word and use it so much, that I misunderstood what it meant.

And I didn't know that it was for everyone. I didn't know that something that we can all do more. And regardless of where we are, it expressed differently. And I think it's even more needed now because of the pandemic. 

Brian Ardinger: Oftentimes I think the perception of creativity is it's some kind of magic. Or it's something that other people do. Or, you know, some, other people can possess that, but I can't do that. So, this idea of creativity not being magic. That being every day and available to anybody to possess or use, talk about how you identified that little nugget and what are some of the tactical things that you do to bring out that magic. 

Monica Kang: So, I love that you said it. Because immediately one book that I'm remembering, it's about daily habits. And I was mindful because I'm like, wow. So, all these creative, innovative historical people around the world, like they had to work hard to be a better writer. What, like, they didn't just magically write that book. And like became a best seller. And like, no, they had to write every day. The musicians had to write music every day. And I'm like, wait, if that's how it is.

Like I wonder in the traditional non art industry, how they do creative. Of course, same thing. I think of new ideas every day. They had to try new things every day. Get rejected every day. And I'm like, oh my gosh. I mean, even the story of how WD40 product came about. Are you familiar with the WD40 products? So, it's that spray, right. You know why that name is called WD40. 

Brian Ardinger: I do not. 

Monica Kang: The reason why they named WD40 for that product was not a coincidence. It means water displacement, right? 40. Which indicates that it took 40 times to perfect that formula. 

Brian Ardinger: Ah. I hadn't heard that story. 

Monica Kang: How often are we willing to try 40 times. Hear 40 nos. Before we get to that yes. Not a lot. And I think that brings a weight. Hence to that question of what can we do every day, is that it's building the routine. As I learned about these daily routines of all these famous people of what they've had to do every day. Learning about stories like WD40, that how many attempts that people had to try.

And my day-to-day activity, that means that I need to just make it a routine of constant learning and trying new things. And so, one activity I always share as a recommendation is like, what's a five minute time that you can always block to do something different. Or to do something intentionally differently.

So maybe it's that, okay, if you always commute somewhere, could you try a different commute, maybe at least two or three times when you're not in a rush hour. Maybe you take a different path. Maybe it's that you take the same commute, but you'll listen to different music. Or maybe you'll listen to different podcasts. Maybe you're going to listen to this one time and then another podcast. 

Maybe it's that you actually take a silent ride sometimes. Just like Pink. Even though that looks like a naive, like how is that going to make me more creative? By making that simple decision, you're letting your mind wander in different ways. And explore different things. Which gets into the practice of thinking differently. Which is the essence of creativity to get to innovation and all these new ideas.

So, to get to that WD40 product, they probably had to do a lot of that, somewhat unorthodox, like somewhat unexpected things that led to that 40th idea and innovation. And so, the key of those different elements is that you have to make it a habit. And it has to also be celebrated and enjoyable, but that's why I shared the tip with like, find a routine in your day.

That you can do easily. That it doesn't feel like I don't have time to do that. I don't have time. Think about your exercise. Think about your sleep hours. Hopefully everyone's sleeping well. Sleep routine, like things. When it's built-in routine, it's a little bit easier, but then you can commit and see the change over time.

Brian Ardinger: I use a similar technique called Scheduling Your Senses. So, each week you think about what sense do I want to focus on? So, this week I'm going to focus on taste. And I'm going to really focus, you know, a particular time period on what I'm tasting. How does that make me feel? And so, each week you pick a different sense that you want to do, and, you know, it comes down to, like you said, changing your environment. And getting you out of the normal rut that you have. 

You mentioned one of the obstacles to creativity is this idea of fear. And you know, when you think about WD40, having to try 40 times. You know, I'm sure they didn't go into it saying, hey, we're going to fail 40 times. Or going in with the mindset of I'm scared that I'm going to have to try this 40 different times to get to a solution. Talk about fear and the role of creativity. And how we can overcome that fear. Because I think that's one of the major barriers to creativity. 

Monica Kang: I think fear is unavoidable. But I think some of the mis-notion we have is that everything always has to be fearful. And I think that's where we miss the chance to celebrate what that growth stage looks like.

The act of doing something different, sometimes doesn't always have to be fearful. Me listening to a different podcast, not a fearful thing. But I'm learning new insights. Me focusing on different senses might not be fearful. As it gets to certain decision-making of like, oh, because now I focused on the taste, I realized the way we're cooking right now in this kitchen is actually not good.

And I need to tell my boss about it. If the customers are unhappy. That's where the fear encourages decision is. And so, I think when we asked that question, I think we see innovation, creativity in this box of like, okay, we got to think of this new idea, and we have to present it. But actually, even before we get to that stage of fear, there's all these other elements that we built resilience and skills of thinking differently that got us there.

And so, the tip that I often share is like first recognize that being creative is you got to pass the fear bridge. But when you're there, remember that, hey actually even the parts to get there, there was a lot of courage into that. And you might not have realized. It might just not have looked as scary as that bridge you're about to cross, that looks really scary. But it wasn't as easy as you thought. 

And actually, that street that you look back, if you turn around and literally look back at those moments, that became not as scary, because you actually built resilience. There's hemisphere of how much you can experiment has grown so much that it becomes less scary. And in fact, when you cross this bridge, now I'm going to have to tell my chef and my boss about this big, scary decision. Now, the next time you need to do that, it's no longer being as scary. 

So, our horizon of what we feel we can continue to do will change and evolve, which I think is the part that is so fun to realize that creativity innovation mindset, just like our physical health and muscle is not a static thing. It's going to continue to evolve. Right. Just because I exercise every day, doesn't mean that I'm healthy and I'm done. I can be even healthier. I can be more cautious and same thing with my creative thinking muscle. And think those are the nuances that we miss. 

Brian Ardinger: I like where you're going. You know, it's almost about how do you reframe the journey from if you think about a particular project and you think about this big project is going to make or break my career. Versus approaching it from the standpoint of like, hey, I'm going to try and experiment. Or I'm going to do this side project. 

And positioning it in such a way that it frames it differently so that the things that you do learn and that when you do fall down, which are inevitably going to happen. It changes the way you perceive that falling down as part of the journey rather than the journey and the outcome of the journey. 

Monica Kang: And one thing, Brian, if I can piggyback on that. I share this actually my book Rethink Creativity as well. That, you know, the thousand shades of fear, because one thing that I think is also key is just because I might not be scared of a certain decision, does that mean another person will feel the same way. And I think that's what's actually part of the fear. We need to talk more. 

And especially as leaders, many of those who's probably listening. You might actually already be here and listening to this episode because you're already pre actually pretty good with it. You're like, no, I've got a good handle of fear. What might be actually harder is actually encouraging your different people. Encouraging your different colleagues. 

Noticing that like wait, checking ourselves to let when that person says that that's a scary decision, am I actually empathizing and sitting with them. Or coming from the nose up and say, look, yeah, no, don't worry friend. You're going to be fine. That's not scary. And amplifying actually how we feel. 

And so, fear comes in different shapes, sizes, different times. Actually, the very thing that I might not be scared with one person could be the very thing I'm scared with another person or in another situation. And so it's ever changing.

And so, by us having aware. Having fear simply means that we have the alertness. There's a reason why as human beings, we survive, right? We were fearful of the weather conditions. The animals attacking us. Got to protect ourselves. That's actually how we were able to thrive and still exist as an, you know, a being. 

So, fear isn't just always a bad thing. It's helping try to kick in to protect you. So, look out for these different cues. And I think especially as leaders, it's so key that we don't just simplify. Get rid of your fear. And like stop being fearful. Can we take the time to process it? We need to actually acknowledge all of that and actually ourselves too. 

Brian Ardinger: So, let's dig into that a little bit, you know. How do you design this creative workplace or workplace for all? You know, how does diversity affect creativity and how are you seeing some companies tackling that problem from an organizational perspective versus the individual perspective?

Monica Kang: Well, let's first start with diversity. I think I'm really excited about going back to your very first question. Why so timely to be more creative. And I think the time is even better. We are now seeing more research. People are more aware. People want to learn. More honestly, as somebody who's specializing creative workplace building, it is an exciting time because more people are wanting to have those conversations and say help. I do want to do this. I don't know how. 

And so, I want to know that this is really timely because no matter what stage you are as a leader, wanting to do this. That you making a commitment and taking one step at a time is part of the thing that will help change the company. So even if that simple decision is that we're going to start doing some one-on-ones. Or we're going to start doing some team building activities at the very beginning and check-in. Actually, that might be the change in itself. That might actually be the kind of activity that your people are missing to feel the courage, to speak up. To feel psychological safety. Which is very key to ignite and creativity and opening up people's mind and feeling that what they can bring up. 

But if I come into the meeting room and I feel like, okay, Brian's going to be a little upset if I bring this up. Then it's one idea that I don't share. It's one problem. And Brian might be like, well, Monica might frown next time I share this, and he doesn't share one thing. Guess what? We're going to actually see, not only business consequences, but a lot of people, of course, who's going to be impacted because we stopped sharing.

And so even that simple decision of like opening up could feel simple. Everyone is testing out right now. So, this good time, this is another example of the fear stopping you. Start with what you're comfortable with, which might be that simply, maybe let's read this article and talk about it. Or, hey, I learned this cool thing from this podcast that Brian and Monica were talking about. I'm inspired. Let's try this out. 

That could be the starting point. It doesn't always have to be like this big, humongous thing. That's going to lead to culture organization changing. So that's actually the very first tip I share with leaders to make it tangible relatable. And then two, as a result to know that this is a marathon. 

Yes, we want results as soon as possible for order something. I wanted to get the delivery, right. There was time and effort put in to make that process happen. And I love Simon Sinek's video, where he talks about the intensity versus consistency. He talks about the people development in the workplace. 

And the beautiful analogy he shares about is our brushing our tooth. If you asked me like, you know, what's the perfect formula to brush the tooth in life versus not to like prevent your mouth from having cavities. Like, I will not know the answer because, you know, maybe I skipped one day. Maybe I skipped three days. Like with that impact, is that the cause like, maybe, but we won't know. 

But it's the consistent that I brush my teeth every day that I keep my teeth healthy. Same thing on organizations. It's the simple moments of like, let's turn off their phones. Hey, Brian, how are you really doing. Like, oh, Monica actually, this is how I feel now that we've connected. We now open up. You know, Brian, I know we're done with the meeting, but I have this really question I want to ask you. Can I bring this up? I feel would really appreciate cause you just shared about, you know, how you feel. Now, okay. Brian, he's already right now, you're listening, but like he already stood up and like, oh, tell me more Monica. Right? 

The body language already brings up unconsciously. And I think he shares how it's the consistency that's key. And so again, the second tip I recommend for everyone is that no matter what, or the house solution you have for your culture and people development, the key is the consistency. Not just a one-time retreat of hurray and we're done. But what's the everyday routines that you want to embed.

And so, when you even do a retreat or innovation workshop, or you invite a speaker, the question that I hope you always ask yourself, if this is what you're really committing to and what to do, because I know what you do, that's why you're listening to this episode. Think of something that you can do consistently.

That is low hanging fruit. That is budget friendly, you know, got to be realistic, right? I'm not saying that you have to spend a lot of money, budget friendly. Implementable as well. And you might be surprised even in that five-minute activity in simply having rows of like no phones in the meeting. Log off. Something like that. So those are kind of tangible places I recommend.

Brian Ardinger: That makes great sense. The last topic I want to talk about is the world of work is changing. Obviously. You've been in this space for pre pandemic and now through pandemic. What are some of the trends and things that you're seeing? What are some of the best practices, especially as we kind of move into this new hybrid environment that you're seeing when it comes to creativity.

Monica Kang: So many, a particular point I want to highlight is actually generational. And I want to say this because when we see us wanting to express more creatively and we feel we can't. We like to figure out the cost. Right. And our consciousness is that, oh, it's because they're young. Oh, it's because they haven't worked in the company long enough.

Oh, it's because they don't get my industry. There's always a, because of. I want to give the courage to recognize that instead of channeling that voice of why don't they get it the way I do. I wonder why they feel that way. I wonder why they say they don't want to get back to the office?

I wonder why they say that? I feel fine. I can share all my ideas. I wonder why they say they don't feel comfortable sharing ideas? We got this fancy new office. We're doing all these breakout sessions. Instead of saying like, why are they not. Reframe that to I wonder why. And focus on the lens of listening and wanting to understand.

Maybe they're going to share some stuff that you realize, whoa, like we were not ready for it. We don't know how to solve it. And that's okay too. It's not about always needed to have immediately all the answers, but let's problem solve this together. Thank you for sharing that. I had no idea that's how you feel.

And part of this is them wanting to be acknowledged or appreciated and heard. And hey, ask them what they think is the best idea. They might actually have a really good idea that we completely missed out. And Brian to your question of what's changing is that more people are wanting to now finally try this. Which has always been important before. But not doing the consequence. Great resignation and even more has been greater. 

I think it's great that we're finally, hopefully seeing more workplaces where we make this the norm. That, of course we should understand what people want. And of course, this is hard because everyone wants something different. And sometimes we say what we want, but we don't really maybe need it.

I might say I want ice cream, but maybe I shouldn't have ice cream today. Cause I already had my chocolate earlier. Right. Like we're people. It's going to be messy. But that's part of the beauty of it. Of feeling like we can bring out all our different insights. And sometimes the choice is that because we feel safe sometimes, I don't want to share out. And might just be like, okay, I just want to do work and that's it.

And that's okay too. And I think part of it's like, what's the choice that you're going to make each day as a leader. As a creator. And as an innovator in your workplaces. Even if you're not in leadership for those who's listening like Monica, Brian, that's great, but what if I'm not a leader. You start with setting your boundaries. And where you want to start planting the seeds of where you can do this. So, I hope that gives an encouragement of a starting point.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: This has been fantastic. And I appreciate you giving these tactical tips that anybody within the organization can start making progress when it comes to creativity and innovation. So, I want to thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. If people want to find out more about yourself or your books or your company, what's the best way to do that?

Monica Kang: Find me in any of the platforms. I'm on most of the social media platforms, but you know, connect with me on LinkedIn at Monica H Kang. K A N G. And then also follow us at InnovatorsBox. I also recommend the book as well. I think you'll enjoy it. And if you go actually to my book's website, for both of them, we have a lot of free worksheets and tools. 

Also because of our mission to make creativity, culture, and leadership accessible, we have a lot of free resources and tools. Including some of these topics. So, if you can't find it just simply email me, let me know. And also in some tools in Korean and other languages as well, because we want to make this globally accessible. So, we also make music as well, because not everyone's a reader or workshop person. You can find us at InnovatorsBox studios, where we create music to inspire creativity. 

Brian Ardinger: Thanks, Monica. I really do appreciate you coming on the show and look forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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