Year of the Sheep

Creativity in the Year of the Sheep

Kung Hai Fat Choy, Happy Chinese New Year! Today is the start of the Year of the Sheep — or maybe of the Goat, or of the Ram. A ram is just a male sheep, but goats are as different from sheep as lions are from tigers. Goats have beards while sheep have manes. Sheep prefer to eat ground cover, like grass, but goats prefer to eat higher foliage. Goats are more individual and curious, but sheep stay put in their flock. So is this the year of the Sheep (or Ram), or of the Goat? The Chinese character is ambiguous, so it depends on which tradition you choose to follow. I’ll choose sheep, because I find thinking about them more stimulating. What do sheep have to teach us?

Become more useful

Sheep were, about 10,000 years ago, among the first animals to be domesticated, and for very good reasons. Sheep give us food, in the form of meat, milk, and cheese. They clothe us in wool and sheepskin. They excite us with their cuteness and fluffiness. They even are counted in bed at night when we cannot fall asleep. Because they are so useful, they are still important to us, even after all these millennia.

Questions: How can you provide more value to your customers? How can you make better use of the assets you have? How can you be more useful to those around you?

Rely on your team

Sheep are herd animals. They stick with their flock, and become anxious when separated from them. This behavior has evolved because it provides protection from predators — a lone sheep is an easy target.

Questions: How can being a good member of your flock help protect against predators in your business? How can you and your team members become better flock members?

Leadership matters

Sheep follow their leader, which can be a shepherd, a dominant ram, or simply the first sheep that starts moving in a new direction. Blindly following a leader can be a double-edged sword, as you may be led to greener pastures, or into the jaws of predators. The American management author Ken Blanchard said, “Too many leaders act as if the sheep… their people… are there for the benefit of the shepherd, not that the shepherd has responsibility for the sheep. It puts a greater responsibility on the leader, who needs to put the interest of the group beyond its own self-interest.”

Clearly, leadership matters. Would you rather work among sheep, but be led by wolves who care only about their own interests? Or work under a shepherd who sees their own welfare, and that of their flock, as closely linked? With the right leadership, a flock of sheep can achieve the seemingly impossible. As Alexander the Great said, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”

Questions: Are you led by predatory “wolves”? Or is your leader inspiring and creative, with the heart of a lion and a clear vision?

Don’t expect too much

Let’s face it: sheep aren’t really noted for their creativity and innovation. Organizations comprising only sheep-like people have many characteristics that get in the way of creativity, like conforming to norms and rules, blindly following others, blending into the flock, and being reactive and passive. Albert Einstein said, “In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself.”

Celebrate black sheep

To unleash creativity in your organization, find, empower and celebrate the “black sheep” you have. A black sheep is an odd, unconventional or even disreputable member of a group. Black sheep don’t mind standing out from the crowd. They dare to be different and to think different. They rejoice in the originality of their personality and ideas. They don’t care about being comfortable in a flock of homogenous white sheep — they know, as Ernest Lehman said, “After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm.“ In environments characterized by sameness and conformity, the black sheep embodies individuality and originality, traits that foster creativity.

How can you find the few “black sheep” among all the “sheeple” (i.e., people who behave like sheep)? Look for those who look or behave differently than the norm, or simply ask your colleagues who are the weird ones who refuse to smoothly fit into the system, and who insist on doing their own thing, serving your organization in their unique way.

Questions: Who are the black sheep in your organization? How can you empower them to boost your organization’s creativity? How can you encourage any hidden black sheep to stop bleaching their hair?

Celebrate Black Sheep

Emphasize the social

Taking the highly social nature of sheep as inspiration, this may be a good year to pursue collaborative innovation efforts, like generating ideas in professionally-facilitated ideation sessions, leveraging ideas through the use of open innovation platforms, or organizing internet-based idea jam sessions. It’s also a good time for projects that help those in our greater flocks, especially less fortunate members.

Question: How can we better innovate this year by collaborating?

Do you need professional help to make the Year of the Sheep a creative one? We’re happy to guide you to ideas and tangible innovation results with the help of our systematic innovation methods. Just contact us to tell us more about your wants and needs in 2015.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article was originally published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 19 February 2015.