How to Unlock Creative Thinking With Best-Selling Author Professor Michael A. Roberto

Michael A. Roberto
Michael A. Roberto

Professor Michael A. Roberto teaches leadership, business strategy and managerial decision-making at Bryant University in Rhode Island as well as for the Great Courses.

He’s also the author of several best-selling books. In his latest work, Unlocking Creativity, this New York Times best-selling proposes six mindsets that can help entrepreneurs and business leaders unlock creative thinking. Michael and I talk about:

  • How he tests his ideas for articles and books like Unlocking Creativity
  • Why he’s a morning person… and how this helps his writing routine
  • How he balances lecturing with writing nonfiction articles and books
  • What students want from courses based on books

And lots more.

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Transcript Below

Bryan Collins:                     You said that the idea for Unlocking Creativity was sparked by watching some bad television, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that?

Michael Roberto:             Sure. I was talking about the fact that when I grew up, when cable television was first introduced, I can remember before that having just three options, CBS, ABC and NBC. And Tuesday night, I wrote about Tuesday, September 11, I think, 1979, and there were three options on TV. Two completely forgettable shows that were very short-lived, one which was ranked … one of the 50 worst shows of all time. And Happy Days was the third option. And I said, “There really was no option.” Arthur Fonzarelli and the Happy Days gang was appointment television in my house.

Michael Roberto:             But it’s not like we had a lot of choice, right? I mean, there just wasn’t much there. And then the sort of revolution in television happened and yet, the networks have not been really at the leading edge of that, right? They’ve really clung to an old … not only an old business model, but an old formula for making shows.

Michael Roberto:             And I was struck by, why? What is it? What was the barrier? They’re still premiering shows in September, ending them in May, airing them once a week. In an era where people binge watch and there’s just a totally different creative atmosphere at places like Netflix and Amazon and HBO, and yet, the networks have clung to the old model, the same model that was there when I was 10 years old, in 1979.

Bryan Collins:                     How long did it take you to write this book in particular? Because I noticed in your previous book you said you started writing it in 1996?

Michael Roberto:             Yeah. Well, this journey started about seven years ago, when I started really focusing … I’d always written about decision-making and problem-solving, my area, and I really started focusing on creative problem-solving and design thinking work. And that was about seven years ago. Built a program at Bryant University, where I teach, for all first year students to get exposed to design thinking in a highly experiential, hands-on way.

Michael Roberto:             And then I started looking at how companies were adopting different methodologies, whether it’s design thinking or others, to try to spark creativity, innovation. And I saw a lot of frustration in companies, and so I started trying to understand the sources of that frustration. That was really the journey for the book.

Bryan Collins:                     Are there any particular companies that you would see as exceptionally creative over the past few years?

Michael Roberto:             Well, I mean, I had the opportunity to look at a company like Pixar. I interviewed Ed Catmull a couple of years ago as part of this project. And look at a company like that that’s been able to churn out so many hit movies, time and time again, delighting children and families. You have to look and say, “How do they do it? What’s going on there? How do they create an environment …”

Michael Roberto:             It’s not just that they hire great people, right? I think that’s too simple. The premise of the book is, it’s not just about hiring great people. It is about the environment you create. It’s about the mindset, how you approach it, that’s so important. Because, frankly, I sort of argue in the book that too many people blame … they say, “Wow, if we want to be more creative, what we need to do is hire more out-of-the-box thinkers, get better talent.” And I say, “No. In fact, in most organizations, the talent’s there but there’s a lot of barriers that get in their way.” The real job of leaders is to unleash that talent, to create that environment.

Bryan Collins:                     So how might a leader in a smaller business help his or her team members overcome those barriers and stimulate creativity?

Michael Roberto:             I think one of the premises in any business, particularly in a small business … often in a small business, the founder’s running the company, Bryan, you know. And so, I think in many cases that means they’ve set the vision, they’ve founded the place, they’ve got the strategy. But, if they really want to tap into the creativity of their people, sometimes they’ve got to back off a little and restrain themselves and make sure they’re giving room for those people to bring their ideas forward.

Michael Roberto:             A founder or a leader of a small business can sometimes be a very dominating presence, and that isn’t always helpful when you’re trying to really tap into the creative talents of people in your organization.

Bryan Collins:                     Does that same approach apply for the CEO of a larger business?

Michael Roberto:             It does. I mean, I think there, what you find is that it’s not necessarily that … because the employees, especially on the front-line, they’re not interacting directly with the CEO, but the CEO sets a tone. He or she is setting the climate in many ways. And the way they approach problems, the way they approach their people, trickles down, right? So they are exemplars, good or bad, for how to lead, how to put together a team. And if they create a culture of fear, if they have a mindset that gets in the way, it sort of trickles down, that tone. And so, their people lead in the same way in many cases.

Michael Roberto:             And then you find, three, four levels down, you’ve really inhibited people. And again, it’s not because they’re directly interacting with the CEO, or his or her team, but because of the tone that’s set right from the top.

Bryan Collins:                     One of the things I liked about the book was how you proposed six mindsets for unlocking creativity. I was wondering if you could describe those mindsets?

Michael Roberto:             Sure. So the premise is that, we hear a lot of arguments such as, “The things that get in the way of creativity are hierarchy, bureaucracy, short-term financial expectations.” All true. But I look at this idea that there’s a deeper explanation, which is that there are certain mindsets or organizational belief systems, shared belief systems, shared by many throughout organizations, that get in the way.

Michael Roberto:             And so, if one is the linear mindset, the notion that we approach problem-solving or planning, in many companies, in a very linear way. You do research and analysis, you develop a plan, you implement that plan. It’s very linear. And the creative process is fundamentally non-linear. It involves a lot of iteration, experimentation, a lot of feedback loops. And we hate to iterate. We like the linear process, many managers do. And the notion of a somewhat non-linear process is uncomfortable, and the notion of getting feedback, or iteration, of experimentation, and the failure that comes with it sometimes. So a linear mindset gets in the way.

Michael Roberto:             The benchmarking mindset gets in the way, which is, we’re obsessed with benchmarking our rivals. It’s important to keep up with the competition, but benchmarking leads to fixation. We fixate on what they’re doing and we end up copying them, rather than learning from our competitors. And, in many cases, we copy badly, because we don’t really, truly understand the roots of their success because we’re far removed from their own culture, their own organization.

Michael Roberto:             Three is the prediction mindset. We’re obsessed with the question, when someone comes up with a new idea, “Will it move the needle? Is this a big idea? How big is the market?” What we’re saying is we want them to predict the size of the opportunity, but the premise there is that they can accurately do that when an idea is in its nascent stages. And I provide a lot of evidence that we can’t. We’re not that good at predicting at those early stages of an innovative idea. And so we’re putting people in a really tough spot where they’re being forced to predict, something they can’t do well. So they either have to under-promise and not get funds, or over-promise and then they run the risk of under-delivering and putting their career at risk. It’s so difficult.

Michael Roberto:             Quickly, four is the structural mindset. This is the notion that, “Well, the real way to spark creativity is all we have to do is make the organization flatter. If we just reduce a certain amount of hierarchy, if we just reorganize.” I’m not against trying to make organizations flatter, but what I argue is that it’s too simplistic a view the notion that if we just change the boxes and arrows on a org chart, that will drive creativity. And yet, I argue, leaders go … it’s like a crutch. It’s the easiest thing they can change, and so they lean too hard on structure rather than thinking about a lot of other key leverage that they can [inaudible 00:08:19]. Harder, more difficult ones to change, like culture and climate.

Michael Roberto:             Focus mindset is number five. That’s the notion that we all recognize now that multi-tasking is really bad for us, particularly when it comes to creativity. But the totally opposite end of the spectrum, total focus, building war rooms and innovation hubs and isolating teams and saying, “If you just get away from it all, you can come up with the breakthrough.” That’s not quite right either. The highest odds of coming up with a creative breakthrough come from intense focus, punctuated with a few purposeful attempts to get some distance from the problem, to help really stimulate ideas.

Michael Roberto:             And lastly, the nay-sayer mindset. Too many organizations are filled with people always finding the reason why things won’t work. They’ve taken the idea of the devil’s advocate, which I argue is a very effective technique for enhancing critical thinking, a step too far, into nay-saying, into blocking ideas. And so, I talk about being an effective devil’s advocate, versus a nay-sayer. So there’s the six, in two minutes or less, Bryan. There you go.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. It’s a fantastic synopsis, Mike. And in the focus mindset, one idea that you talk about is focus plus distance, and you used the example of U2 and The Unforgettable Fire. So I’m just wondering if you could explain just a little bit about how somebody should sometimes have some distance from their work, if they wanted to achieve a creative breakthrough like U2 achieved with … I think that was one of their first or second album?

Michael Roberto:             It was one of their early albums. It’s a great story of how they go to Slane Castle in Ireland, they isolate themselves. They eat there, they sleep there, they record there. I argue that, often we have this image of, “This is for our creativity, this is what we do. You go to the mountaintop and get away from it all, and you can see things more clearly.” I’d point out, though, that actually, U2, while they did do incredible work in that castle, when they isolated themselves, they didn’t finish the album until they took a bit of a break and then came back together at Windmill Studios in Dublin, and finished the album.

Michael Roberto:             I talk about how Mark Twain would take a lengthy break sometimes. He said, “When the tank ran dry,” and his ideas weren’t flowing, and then returned to a manuscript. Or how Tolkien took years to write his incredible books. And so, the idea is that you don’t have to take a seven year break like Mark Twain did when he wrote Huck Finn. It can be shorter. It can be just a walk, sometimes, to clear your head. But also, there’s some ways we can actually get distance.

Michael Roberto:             So one of them, for example, is that psychologists have shown is that if we can step into someone else’s shoes, role play, or walk a mile in our customers’ shoes, or do some other thing to step out of our own skin and adopt a different perspective, that’s a way to get distance from a problem and spark creativity. Another is if we travel. If we experience how another culture looks at something, it turns out physical and cultural distance sparks creativity as well.

Michael Roberto:             If we imagine ourselves a year in the future. I talk about how Amazon asks some of their software folks in the Cloud division to, when they’re working on a project, before they begin, they actually imagine they’re a year in the future and they’re writing the press release and the frequently asked questions document that will go with this new software service. And by stepping ahead and then coming back, they’re gaining some distance from the problem. And the psychology’s really clear. Social distance, temporal distance, physical and cultural distance, all of these ways are powerful ways to spark creativity, in addition to taking a break, taking a walk, which can be helpful, too.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. Well, taking a walk can be fantastic for unlocking fresh thinking if you’re sitting at a desk all day. I’m just curious, what strategies did you employ when you were writing this book, or your previous book, because they strike me as books that you would’ve spent a lot of time researching, and the various strategies and research that’s built into the books. So how did you gain some distance from your work?

Michael Roberto:             Yeah. It’s a great point. So, for me, one of the things that I’m able to do is, while I did … In this book in particular, I took a sabbatical. So I did step away from the daily grind of teaching to get some ability to focus, right? But I also had some travel in there. So I got to Japan, I got to Europe, I traveled in the US, while I was working intently on writing the manuscript. I think that really helped.

Michael Roberto:             And then I did get out there, and I still didn’t walk away completely from some of the executive work I do, leadership development work. So getting still in to see different companies and different company cultures periodically while I was writing was a great way to get away from the manuscript for a few days. And it sparks ideas, I think, continuing to see how different companies approach the workplace and different cultures.

Michael Roberto:             So, for me, that was really useful. It did help to step away from the daily grind of teaching to get, obviously, some focus. It’s important. But I didn’t literally hole myself up and in the home office and not talk to anyone. I think that interaction’s key. In fact, I did a lot of writing in a coffee shop, to be honest, because I found a little bit of human interaction was kind of good. I’d put the headphones on and get some focus if I needed it. I found the buzz of the coffee shop was useful at times.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. I often write in the coffee shop. I’m also curious. You’re a lecturer for The Great Courses and I’ve taken a number of The Great Courses over the years. What advice would you give to somebody who has written a book and they’re thinking of turning their non-fiction book into a course? But perhaps they’re doing it on a modest budget or don’t have a huge amount of resources?

Michael Roberto:             Yeah. I’ve built several, three courses, with The Great Courses. And I think it’s, for me, the way that people learn now, right? The ability to learn on the go, and to learn independently. So I’ve met people who say, [inaudible 00:14:30] … My courses are both in audio and video. A lot of people, they only listen to the audio, right? And so, they’re like, “Gosh, you’ve been with me on my commute every day for three months and I’ve listened to your voice, I’ve never met you, and now I get to see what you actually look like.”

Michael Roberto:             But they’ve used this time, which otherwise would be this dead time in the car, to really better themselves. Or other people say they listen at the gym, while they’re working out and that’s been really effective. So they’re like, “Yeah, we listen to music, but we also take some time.” And in The Great Courses, my courses, at least, they’re 30 minute lectures. So they’re small enough bites that kind of work for people, right? It’s hard to get people to sit for a very lengthy period of time these days, especially busy executives and managers.

Michael Roberto:             But I have people that are doctors and lawyers and other professors, too, not just business people, that have found some of the courses on decision-making, for example, useful. And it does seem like people are striving to better themselves and they’re trying to use their time wisely. And so, things like the commute or working out turned out to be really effective times, that they get a lot of learning done, which is pretty interesting.

Michael Roberto:             So for me, it’s been rewarding. It’s another way for me to get my ideas out there. I think the books are useful, but sometimes there’s other mechanisms that work better for others. And so, being able to do that, it’s a great way for me to share my ideas. You work really hard as a scholar to develop these ideas and you just want to be able to get them out there and have an impact. For me, an impact on how leaders are out there working in the world in some way.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. 30 minutes is a perfect length, I think, for a course. It’s enough time for a commute or a walk after the working day. I’m just curious, how do you put together a lesson plan for something like The Great Courses? Do you draft up the lecture titles, or do you go back and review your book chapters, or do you have some other approach?

Michael Roberto:             So for me, it was a combination of working from the books and also working from course outlines that I have for the courses I teach at school, right? So I look at my course outlines at Bryant University and I look at the books that I’ve written, and I begin to build an outline of what I think a course structure would look like. And then, The Great Courses have some fantastic people who’ll work with you to help you on that.

Michael Roberto:             For me, the biggest transition was that, in my actual courses with students at the university, whether it was at Harvard Business School or NYU or now at Bryant University, I teach in a highly interactive fashion. I’m teaching by the case method. I’m not doing a lot of lecturing. I’m asking a lot of questions. It’s much more of the Socratic method that I teach by, and the students have prepared some material in advance so that we can do that. So maybe we’re talking about Netflix today, and they’ve read a case study on Netflix or they’ve watched some video about the company. They’ve read a Wall Street Journal article and now we’re having this discussion. Or I’m doing activities, experiential exercises that help them understand the material.

Michael Roberto:             For me, that’s difficult. Then I have to transition that for Great Courses to turn it into a 30 minute lecture where it’s just me talking. And that’s challenging. So that’s the biggest piece of work that I had to do, because I didn’t have lectures in the can, because I don’t lecture traditionally in the way I teach. And then of course, the second piece is, I had to be able to build a course that, for those who weren’t watching the video, they could still understand perfectly. So I had to be able to say, “This is something that, if they’re in the car and they can’t see me, they can’t see any slides, can they understand it?” And that’s a real challenge, too, to really think carefully about how you present the material to do that.

Michael Roberto:             Because visuals are helpful, but if you can’t use them, you’ve got to find another way to communicate your ideas.

Bryan Collins:                     Do you find the readers of your books also take your courses, or is it the other way around?

Michael Roberto:             It’s a little bit of both, interestingly, right? Some people discover me through Great Courses and then go read the book. Others read some of my material and then they go … I think there’s some value in hearing directly and in my own voice, me talking. And of course, some of the examples are different. Over the years, you accumulate, depending on the timing of exactly when I wrote the book or when I do the course, you’ll see some stuff. The business strategy course has got some material in there, a fair amount of material, that I haven’t necessarily written about in any of the three books. So there’s some material that’s different there as well.

Michael Roberto:             So it goes both ways. People discover you in one avenue and then migrate to the other, which is really kind of neat, too. Again, it’s just so rewarding to get the feedback and hear from people who have discovered your work and see it has an impact. But one of the most interesting has been doctors. I just find that really interesting. Physicians have … particularly the course I did on decision-making, but even the business strategy and leadership course, they’ve discovered the course and found it useful.

Michael Roberto:             I never quite thought about that as an audience, but I’ve gotten emails from many physicians of all kinds of fields over the years who’ve discovered my work on The Great Courses, and have found it useful because they’ve found that, look, they have to make critical decisions. They have to be able to do that. It’s not business, but I use a lot of examples outside of business, so I think they’ve found it applicable because of that.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. I was struck when you said “over the years”, because, if I remember correctly in your previous book, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, you describe how you started writing the book in 1996, and the book itself was published in 2005, if the information I’m looking at online is right.

Michael Roberto:             Yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     So how did you sustain your motivation for a big project like that for some nine years?

Michael Roberto:             Yeah. So what happened there, so I explain the nine year journey as, in 1996, I left working at Staples as a project manager to go back to Harvard Business School to earn my doctorate. So the first four, four and a half, years there were me achieving my doctorate, writing my dissertation. I wasn’t really writing the book yet. I was figuring out what I was really interested in and writing this dissertation on strategic decision-making processes in senior management teams.

Michael Roberto:             Then, in 2000, I graduate and I join the faculty of Harvard Business School. I’m writing some articles, as you normally do, and some case studies, and I’m not transitioning right to writing the book. I’m getting my feet under me teaching, too. And then after a couple of years of teaching, get some articles and case studies published, I said, “Okay. I really want to really now put this together in a book.” And so then I start writing intently there, to write the book.

Michael Roberto:             So the journey starts in ’96, but it goes through the dissertation and some teaching, some case study development. Which is always great because you teach those case studies to students and you start getting feedback. You start recognizing when ideas really resonate. I wrote this case study in 2002 about Mount Everest expeditions and the tragedy that occurred in ’96. I read Into Thin Air and I read a bunch of other books. I interviewed Ed Viesturs and David Breashears, who were great climbers, who were on the mountain when the tragedy happened. They had turned around when others kept going.

Michael Roberto:             Did all this research, wrote up an article, wrote up a case study, started teaching it, and realizing … I had an inkling. Obviously that’s why I wrote the case and the article that these ideas might be really useful for any leader looking at how his team’s failed. Turns out it resonated incredibly well, and so, there you go. Now I go, “Okay, I’ve got a great example to teach a set of concepts, but also to write about.”

Michael Roberto:             I did a case on the Columbia Space Shuttle accident. Same thing. It really resonated. I’d go, “Aha.” And so, as you write up case studies and teach them, you realize what examples are compelling, and those flow into the book, if that makes any sense.

Bryan Collins:                     It does. It does. So you’re testing your ideas as you go and then refining them. I’m just also curious, then, what your writing routine looks like these days, whether it’s for a course or an article or a case study or even a book?

Michael Roberto:             Well, my routine for the book, this last book, Unlocking Creativity, was … on this case, I was on sabbatical, so I had a full year away from teaching. And, for me, I’m sitting here now in this very nice home office, and yet I wrote almost none of the book here. As I say, I did write a lot of in the café. And the reason for me was, for me what worked was getting up, showering, getting the kids off to school, and then going somewhere. I didn’t drive all the way to my university office, because I knew then I’d be interrupted by lots of people I knew. So I went to a café. I didn’t go to the one closest to my house, so that I wouldn’t see too many people I knew. And that routine of getting out of the house and then getting to there was my way of really focusing that.

Michael Roberto:             And then, whenever I travel, I don’t write on a plane or anything. I’m reading voraciously. That’s when I do a lot of my reading. I spend all that time on the plane and I use it to read, or listen to podcasts, or do other things to get more examples, get more insight. Even though I’ve done all this research, you’re always still looking for another good example, or you’ve discovered a new psychological study you want to include, and so you’re reading it.

Michael Roberto:             So travel on the plane or the train was what I was doing, continuing to read like crazy. And then the café is where I would have my daily routine of writing.

Bryan Collins:                     Is that what your routine looks like these days, or your early morning routine?

Michael Roberto:             So I am a morning person, yeah. So, it’s funny, because, if you go back to the first book, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, which came out in ’05, and my routine looked very different. My two girls were really little. My son wasn’t even born yet. I was younger. I would write a lot at night. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve just have gotten older. I’m an early morning person. And I find that my mind’s fresh and I really like that. And also, other things in the day have not begun to interrupt me and the emails haven’t started flowing, et cetera.

Michael Roberto:             I think that’s key because, back to the research, multi-tasking is really harmful for us.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. Multi-tasking is particularly harmful. So do you try to remove the devices from when you’re focused on a particular project, like a phone or email notifications?

Michael Roberto:             You know, I do not completely, only because, as a dad, I’m mindful of if my kids are ever trying to get a hold of me or something happens, or my wife. But I at least try. I always silence it. You just try to commit to, “Hey, I’m going to shut the email application down on my computer and shut the browser off and I’m going to work for a while.”

Michael Roberto:             But you’ve got to have breaks. And so, I would [inaudible 00:25:24] café, [inaudible 00:25:27] I would even leave my stuff there sometimes and I’d go for a walk and go have lunch down the street. I literally had a loop I walked. It was like a half mile loop that sometimes I’d go for a walk. So being able to do that was useful.

Bryan Collins:                     Have you got any plans to record any more Great Courses or any other books?

Michael Roberto:             I’ve had some discussion with them about … because I have not done a full course on creativity, on creative problem-solving. I had a little bit in some of my earlier courses, so I’m thinking of turning some of the ideas in this new book into a course. And so, I had told them, “I’ve got to get the book out.” And once the book’s out and I’m settled a little bit, start thinking about how to turn that into a compelling set of audio lectures, right? So that’s the hope. I’m looking forward to it. I love doing it still. But I needed to get the book out and breathe a little bit before turning to that.

Bryan Collins:                     It sounds like a good plan, Mike. I look forward to taking that course. So where could people find you or your books online, or your courses?

Michael Roberto:             Sure. They can find me and information about the courses and the books and my teaching, et cetera, at They could find me on social media as well, and of course, has tons of information about the courses. They have a full outline. You can see what all the lectures are and you can see the different formats in which you can purchase, the download, DVD, audio, video, however you like, so as I say.

Michael Roberto:             But yeah, But, for me, it’s And I’m on social media. Twitter is a great way to find me and follow me. I post blog posts and the like there as well.

Bryan Collins:                     Thank you, Michael. It was really nice to talk to you.

Michael Roberto:             Thanks, Bryan. I appreciate it.

Bryan Collins:                     Great. Okay, so I’ll be in touch then, in about two to three weeks with a draft of the article, and they’ll publish the podcast some time after.

Michael Roberto:             Super. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Bryan Collins:                     Have a nice weekend. Bye. Bye, bye bye.

Michael Roberto:             All right. Take care. Bye bye.

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