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Learn how to adapt to the constant changing of society by brainstorming new and innovative ideas to better reach your organization’s goals.


  • What is creativity for a community leader?

  • How do you discover and create possibilities

  • How can you use a group to discover and create possibilities?

  • How do you choose among all the possibilities?

What is creativity for a community leader?

To be human is to be creative. And to be an effective leader you have to be creative.

What is creativity for a leader? It is thinking in ways that are new. It is imagining innovations and solutions that have never existed before. It is going beyond the paths that lead to known destinations and carving out uncharted paths to unknown destinations.

As a leader you may have specific goals about where you are going, but you also should be open to new possibilities. Why? Because we need new answers for our changing world. Let's face it, our world today is different from what it was 50, 20, and even 10 years ago. Our technology, culture, economics, and community life are significantly different than they used to be. And the changes are only accelerating.

Those changes present new challenges and often demand new solutions. If we know something that has worked before is likely to work again, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. But in order to find workable solutions to some new problems, we need to be open to possibilities that might not have been tried before.

Luckily for us, the possibilities are endless. As leaders, we can begin to think like inventors and artists do. Buckminster Fuller invented geodesic domes. Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for airplanes. The impressionist painters helped us see color and light in entirely different ways.

And as a community leader you can think about things that no one has before: Could teenagers become neighborhood leaders instead of gang leaders? Could two groups with opposing views form a coalition? Can we turn a crime-infested neighborhood into a model neighborhood? Can we eliminate poverty in our city?


  • An organization brought together people from highly charged opposing views to talk about what they have in common. Among the groups, pro-life and pro-choice activists met for discussions and found out that they cared deeply about many of the same issues.
  • To illustrate the need for physically accessible buildings, 50 people in wheelchairs showed up for dinner on the same night at a famous restaurant. The lack of accessibility immediately became more apparent to the restaurant, the media, and the public.
  • A grammar school principal wanted children and teachers to take risks in learning. He gave students coupons that said "I tried something new, and I made a mistake. This coupon is redeemable for one mistake without any bad grade."

You too can discover and create possibilities. And you don't have to wait for anyone to give you permission to think and act. You can do it now. You can take initiative and try things out. It doesn't have to resemble anything that has been tried before.

Go ahead and make mistakes. That is an essential step in the process of creativity. The more things you try, the more likely you will eventually hit upon something that works. The author Ellen Gilchrist said that successful writers are the ones who stand out in the rain all the time and eventually get hit by lightning.

The same is true for leaders -- the more you try, the more likely you will be to succeed.

How do you discover and create possibilities?

There are many steps you can take that will help you think in new ways about what is possible:

Start with yourself

You probably have millions of good ideas located right there in your head, already. You just have to get hold of them and pull them out. There are many different methods you can use to catch the good ideas that are zipping around in your brain.

Here are some techniques that you can try to generate creative ideas:

Keeping a journal

Writing down your ideas and experiences can help you get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper where you won't forget them. Also, when you are writing in a journal, you don't have to censor or judge your thoughts, so they often flow more freely. Later, you can go back and read your journal entries and pick out the ideas that have the greatest potential.

Keeping a dream diary

Nighttime dreams hold hidden treasures. Your unconscious mind is busy producing all kinds of new ideas. If you write down your dreams when you wake up, you can record your unconscious thoughts. Later you can read them over and cull out the treasures.

Getting someone to listen to you

One way to capture your creative ideas is to get people to listen to you, without interrupting, while you think out loud. Talking to a friend who knows how to listen can help you think courageously and creatively; it can clear a path to your best thinking.

Setting aside a regular time in the day to focus on creating new possibilities

In our busy lives, we often don't have time to think. If you make time to think new thoughts, you might be surprised at what ideas emerge. Being creative is a discipline - the more regularly you do it, the easier it will become.

Carrying a notebook or recorder most places you go

Ideas often come to us right in the middle of our busy lives - in a meeting, on the train, or while you are washing dishes. It is easy to forget those thoughts if you don't record them immediately. Carrying a notebook or even a recorder can allow you to hold onto these inspired thoughts.

Sketching or doodling

Drawing and doodling is one more entry way to our unconscious thoughts. Many ideas first come to us as images. Sketching those images is another way to record them. And remember, you don't have to be an artist to draw and doodle. Sketching can be a tool for thinking - not just a way to produce art.

Jogging, walking, or any other form of exercise

When going for a run or walk be yourself, those endorphins kick in and can get your mind moving. The solitude and scenery can also be a help in letting your thinking run free.

Taking a break

Einstein said that you can often find the answer to a difficult question in the bite of an apple. He would turn away from a difficult problem and take a break. As he would bite into his apple the answer he was looking for appeared in his mind.

Taking time to rest

You need time to rest, relax, and chill out. Once you get caught up with yourself, thoughts may more easily surface.

Other ways for generating ideas

You probably already have many of your own techniques for generating ideas. Some people do their best thinking in the shower. Other people have thoughts come to them while they pray. Whether you access your best ideas while you are gardening, singing in a choir, or doing your morning stretches, try to make sure you can make some time regularly to do the activity that works best for you.

Now that we've looked at different techniques to generate ideas, let's explore other tools to help you create and discover new possibilities.

Learn about your community

In order to discover and create possibilities as a community builder, it helps to find out what is going on in your community. You need to gather enough information to form an overall picture of people's interests, struggles, similarities, values, and differences. Once you have an overall picture of your community, creative ideas will naturally form in your head.

There are many different ways to collect information and some can be quite enjoyable. You can collect information by getting out and asking people what they think. If you really listen to people, they will be happy to fill your ear with what's on their minds.

You can also visit organizations, attend public meetings, go to cultural events, volunteer, and read the local paper. Don't be afraid to get to know people different from yourself. Most people are eager for someone to overcome barriers and get to know them.

The more information you collect, the more detailed a picture you will get about what is going on in your community. You may find out how people feel about the tax increase, or why there are so many more homeless people in town. You may learn about the important issues among the different cultural communities, or how elders spend their time.

As you put this information into a larger picture, you can begin to think about new possibilities. For example, you may consider whether the newer immigrant communities and the more established immigrant communities have something in common and can be brought together for a dialogue. You may talk to the city arts council to see if they are aware that the local youth organization is trying to get an art program going. You may think up an economic venture that could bring in funds from both government and businesses, while training local workers in technical skills.

Build relationships

Building relationships is an important step in creating possibilities. In fact, establishing a new relationship is often the catalyst in helping people to consider doing things they never did before.

Why? First, because people often give each other confidence and hope. With borrowed confidence and hope, we can become more daring in our thinking. If someone has confidence in you, it will help you have more confidence in yourself.

Second, because when people get to know each other they often think about the work they might do together. People love to work with friends on a project. Often the opportunity to work closely with a friend is their main reason for getting involved. The spirit of camaraderie is often what fuels many creative endeavors.

Think about the future

It's true that none of us has the crystal ball that can determine exactly what is going to happen in the future, but we can make some educated guesses. And those guesses may help us figure out next steps that work for our communities.

As a leader, you can get in the habit of anticipating changes and thinking about their implications for your community. For example, you can think about whether the industry in your town is likely to move to an overseas plant. If so, what will that mean for community members?

Considering the future can help view changes as opportunities. You can also prevent crises from taking place and help people see themselves as powerful in dealing with change.

Research resources inside your community

Find out what treasures your community already has. New possibilities might reveal themselves when you notice what people or organizations have to offer. Are there retired people who have skills or connections that could help your community or organization? Are there businesses who would like to contribute to the community where their employees are based? Is there a university nearby whose teachers might be able to lend their expertise, and whose students could participate in community service?

Research resources outside your community

For a community leader, researching outside resources is especially important, and especially cost-effective. This is because some of the best ideas often come from what other people are doing in communities other than your own, both near and far. You hear about an idea, and you say, "Whoa, that's really interesting. Maybe we could think about doing something like that right here."

Another point about those outside resources is that generally they are free. Community ideas are not patented. In other words, you can be an importer of innovative community ideas, without tariffs, or import duties. This is free trade.

All this means is that you need to be in a position where you can most easily find out about what other people are doing, and be able to import those ideas you like. How do you do this? There are several different ways.

It helps to:

  • Subscribe to journals and newsletters in your field.
  • Read or at least look at recent books in your field.
  • Get on mailing lists of groups similar to yours.
  • Check out Internet sites that feature new community ideas.
  • Investigate and subscribe to list-servs in your field, using electronic mail.
  • Go to conferences, both regionally and nationally, to meet new colleagues and learn more about what they are doing.
  • Develop a network of professional contacts, who may both directly and indirectly send valuable ideas your way.

And when you do run across a new idea, it helps to write it down someplace, so that you won't lose track of it. It's frustrating if you've ever thought, "Gee, I remember hearing something about that sometime, but I don't know exactly where." You may not be able to do anything with that new idea right now. But maybe someday you will. And if you do ever need it, you'll be able to find and use it.

Test old assumptions

When discovering and creating new possibilities, it is helpful to reexamine your assumptions about a situation. You can sit down and take each assumption and see if you can find a crack in it that might reveal a new possibility.

Here are some assumptions that people or institutions sometimes make that can be reexamined in order to open up new possibilities:

  • When people don't get involved, it is because they are apathetic.
  • In health care, diagnosis and treatment are what is important, not prevention.
  • There aren't the resources available to make this change.
  • Some people just don't want to cooperate.
  • Bigger is better.
  • It's too complicated for people to understand.
  • People from that ethnic group want to keep to themselves.
  • We tried it before and it didn't work.
  • In order to motivate people, you have to scare them about the consequences of inaction.

It's good to test any assumption you have in order to think in new ways. If you change some assumptions, you might be pleasantly surprised. Let's say, for example, that you question your assumption that people don't get involved because they are apathetic. Then you can explore the alternatives. Maybe they don't get involved because they don't feel welcome. If so, you can figure out ways to help people feel that they have something to contribute and that they are wanted and needed.

Get beyond hopelessness

Often, people have a difficult time being creative and thinking about new possibilities because they feel hopeless or discouraged. Sometimes we are not even aware on a conscious level that this feeling of hopelessness holds us back from thinking creatively. Instead, we just believe that we don't care, or that nothing is possible, so we conclude that we shouldn't invest our efforts in trying.

If you suspect that hopelessness is holding you back from thinking creatively try the following:

  • Get a friend to listen to you while you brainstorm possibilities. When you are brainstorming let your brain think of different ideas quickly, so you don't censor your thoughts. Don't give those feelings of discouragement a chance to interrupt your thinking.
  • Tell a friend why you feel hopeless. Were there particular events that clouded your thinking? Did something happen in your personal life that held you back from thinking of wild ideas? Was there something about society at large that made you feel passive? Whatever your experience was, if you can tell someone about what happened, you can heal from it, and develop a new outlook that will help you think afresh about possibilities.

Be courageous

In order to be creative you may have to be courageous. You may have to dare to think in ways that are different from others.

We all know what it was like to go to school and have to think and act within the bounds of what our teachers thought was appropriate. We all have had experiences, when we were children, of having our creative and wonderful ideas belittled by adults.

Having had those experiences, it is no surprise that we get in the habit of thinking in ways that others will find acceptable. Breaking those habits can be a challenge. Thinking beyond prescribed boundaries is a great act of courage. And thinking creatively is the first step to acting courageously.

Go ahead and think courageously. You may surprise yourself by what can happen.

So, now you have some methods to discover and create possibilities. In this next section, we will show you how a group can help you come up with possibilities even better and more quickly than you can on your own.

How can you use a group to discover and create possibilities?

The more people you have thinking together, the more possibilities you can unearth. When people come together they often inspire each other to think in new directions. People often come up with more and better ideas in a group than they do working by themselves.

There are lots of different methods of generating ideas in groups. Here are a few:

A discussion

What could be better than a good old-fashioned discussion or talk among friends, neighbors, or coworkers? Some of the best ideas are produced when people get together and talk.

Sometimes a little structure can help more ideas surface; sometimes people do better without much structure. What is your own group like? How much structure would work best for you?

One of the main challenges of a group discussion is getting the quieter people to talk and keeping others from dominating. There are different ways of structuring a discussion to help with this. One way is to have a guideline that everyone in the group should speak once before anyone speaks a second time.


Brainstorming is a tried-and-true way to come up with ideas in a group. The method is simple. A problem is stated or a question is asked. The facilitator stands in front of a room with some newsprint or a blackboard. People in the group say whatever ideas pop into their minds. No idea is too outlandish. The facilitator writes all the ideas down. Nobody comments on how good or bad the ideas are and there is no discussion about them. People keep producing all kinds of ideas for a period of time.

Brainstorming works because one idea stimulates another and because no one judges the ideas that are generated. Discussion, analysis, and idea selection come later. This allows participants to think without the worry of being put down for their thinking. It helps people overcome their own censoring mechanisms so they can come up with new ideas.

Idea writing

Idea writing is especially helpful to people who like to write. It also helps many people generate and comment on ideas in a short amount of time.

Large groups should be divided into small groups of five or six. A problem is presented or a question is asked. Each person writes their response on their own pad of paper. Then each person puts their pad on a table in the middle of the group. Next, everyone takes someone else's pad and comments on the idea. People keep doing this until everyone in the group has commented on everyone else's idea. During or after the meeting, all the ideas are discussed or summarized into a report.

Support Groups

Bringing people together with common goals and interests can produce all kinds of possibilities. Together, people who face the same problems can gain perspective on understanding those problems. People can see that they are not the only ones facing a difficulty; then they can stop blaming themselves for the problem. This frees people up to look for solutions.

Example: Troubleshooting a town's funding problems

A group of grant writers in a small town started meeting for lunch on a monthly basis. At first they talked about their own experiences as grant writers in their own organizations. After some meetings, they noticed problems they had in common. They began to suspect that money from foundations was not being awarded to programs in their town as much as in other towns.

They decided to research foundation funding patterns for their town in comparison to others nearby. They found out their town's organizations received significantly less funding than other comparable communities. Using that information, they invited several foundations to learn more about the problems, strengths, and needs of their town. Their efforts improved relationships with foundations and resulted in more funding for the town's organizations.

Bringing people together

Just bringing together a new mix of people can reveal possibilities that were not previously apparent. People may find that by virtue of living in the same community they have a lot in common.

If people from different organizations and interests come together for a discussion or social event new relationships are formed. Those relationships become fertile ground for ideas to emerge.

How do you choose among all the possibilities?

Now that you have thought of all those possibilities, what do you do with them? How do you choose which possibility is the one to invest your precious time and resources into?

Choosing which path to follow is often a painful process. Picking one possibility often means you have to say goodbye to another. If you decide to expand the youth center this year, it may mean that the mentoring program will have to wait. However, once you make a clear decision you are free to pursue that goal wholeheartedly.

In order to make a decision about which possibility to choose, you have to consider many factors. For example, you may have to assess whether you can raise the funds to expand your youth center. You may have to decide if the timing is right. Thinking through all the factors carefully will improve your chances of success once you begin to work towards your goal.

Here are some criteria that might help you narrow down the possibilities and decide which ones to pursue. Some of these criteria may not apply to all projects. Use the ones that are helpful to you:

Which possibilities will bring about the most desired results?

  • This may seem obvious, but you need to choose ideas that are going to accomplish your goals and get the results you want. Which possibility will do that for you and your group or organization?

Which possibilities are most likely to succeed?

  • In choosing possibilities, you have to consider how likely it is that your effort will be successful and also how much you have to lose if it doesn't work. For some endeavors there will be nothing to lose by trying something. For others the loss can be great.
  • Once you estimate how great your gains and how great your losses could be, you have to balance that with the importance of the initiative and all the other potential benefits. Then you can decide whether the risk is worth it.
  • You should also consider the history of your organization. If your group does not have much of a track record, or if it needs a victory at this moment, then you might go the high-chance/lower-risk option this time. But if you have a strong group with a good history, and you can absorb a possible loss, that's an argument for going for the riskier/less safe option.
  • Sometimes big risks are well worth it. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thousands of African-Americans and risked their jobs and sometimes their lives to secure their rights. After the boycott it was obvious that their work was well worth it, but before it began no one could predict what would happen.
  • It's OK to risk and lose; however, if you know what risk you are facing you can prepare for that possibility. You can be ready with Plan B or have damage control lined up in case you need it.

Which possibilities are you and your group most interested in or passionate about?

  • Without passion and interest, a great idea can go nowhere. In taking on a new project, there needs to be excitement to fuel the work that lies ahead.

Which possibilities have the greatest organizational commitment?

  • Are people committed to this project? If not, can they be won over? Do they understand how long it will take and what they will need to contribute? Are they clearly ready to take on the challenge?

Which possibilities have the greatest potential of spin-off benefits?

  • Sometimes the side benefits are as important as your main goal. For example, you can consider if the project will attract new supporters to your cause. Will the project give your group a more positive standing in the community? Could it open up some other doors? All the indirect but important extras should be considered in choosing an initiative.

Do you have the resources to carry out a possibility?

  • You want to succeed, don't you? It is better to assess ahead of time whether your group or organization has the necessary people, money, time, political power, and other resources to successfully complete the initiative. If it doesn't, can the resources be rounded up? Assessing your resources ahead of time is important in deciding which possibilities to pursue.

Are the external factors favorable, outside of your own organization?

  • Are people in the community concerned about the issue? Is there support outside your organization? Are the local politicians likely to help, at least in spirit, if not by giving funding? Is the timing right for this initiative?

Which possibilities will you learn the most from?

If you can learn while you are working on something, it will make your organization more skilled and powerful. Learning will make you all stronger for the next challenge.

In Summary

Now you have gone through the process of narrowing down and choosing the possibilities. Are you excited about what lies ahead? As you set forth on your adventure, more possibilities are likely to reveal themselves. Keep your eyes open. You never know what might turn up.

Human beings are amazing in what they can imagine and carry out. Our technological advances are just a small part of what we can create. What people can do as community leaders has at least as much potential for building the kind of society we all hope to live in.

Marya Axner

Print Resources

Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

DePree, M. (1989). Leadership is an art. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Gardner, J. (1990). On leadership. New York: The Free Press.

Heifitz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M.. & Beckhard, R. (Eds.). (1996). The leader of the future: New visions, strategies, and practices for the next era. San Fransisco: Jossey -Bass.

Jackins, H. (1987). The enjoyment of leadership. Seattle: Rational Island Publishers.

Moore, M. (1987). Group techniques for idea building. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications

Sher, B., & Gottlieb, A. (1979). Wishcraft: How to get what you really want. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.


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