Dr Puleng Makhoalibe on Creativity, Innovation and the Power of “What If?”
Join me and Dr Puleng Makhoalibe as we explore creativity and innovation through an African lens. Africa is the origins of creativity and therefore innate to all human beings. If we are to thrive in this Exponential Age, we’ll need to tap into her philosophy of African Alchemy Inspiration, which at its core, is returning to our creative origins.
Dr Puleng Makhoalibe is a Mom, wife, sister, daughter and former software engineer turned Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship academic and consultant. She is the holder of a BSc in Computer Science from the National University of Lesotho and an MBA and PhD from the renowned University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Dr Makhoalibe is the Head of the School of Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) at Henley Business School Africa. Henley Business School is the oldest business school in UK. Dr Makhoalibe is the author of The Alchemy of Design Thinking, the second edition of which features a foreword from Dr. John Demartini. She works with Knowinnovation, a global innovation company which has done work for NASA and she is the only one from Africa on Knowinnovation’s global virtual team of Innovation Specialists. Dr Makhoalibe is a former Board Member of the Creative Education Foundation in USA, a leading, global innovation and creativity organisation.
We live in very interesting times indeed. This is the Exponential Age if you didn’t know. An Age that is complex, fast-changing and technology-dense. Words like “disruption”, “innovation” and “creativity” are being bandied about in public discourse with ever-increasing regularity. Every sector of the economy is being swept along by this tide and my question as a Career, Executive and Leadership Coach is: are people ready? How should policymakers be reorienting the education system to produce a new kind of thinker? It takes a particular mindset to take all these developments in one’s stride. I invited the accomplished, amazing and humble human being that is Dr Puleng Makhoalibe, an Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship expert, to share her thoughts on ideal mindsets for the Exponential Age and her own personal journey that has primed her for such spectacular achievements. The Villa Moji at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa was the sumptuous venue for a deep, rich, life-affirming conversation.
Yours is a very interesting background, growing up in Maseru, Lesotho, what do you appreciate the most about your formative years?
I grew up herding my parents’ cows and milking them every afternoon for our daily dinner of pap and milk. My 3 older sisters and I also sold the milk around the urban village of Maseru East. I used to do my milking duties a few metres away from Maseru’s Kingsway Road because the cows grazed on patches of grass right next to the bustling Kingsway. Because there were no male siblings, there were no gendered roles in terms of chores inside and outside the home. We used to assist at my father’s cafe during school holidays so there was no time to watch TV during those school breaks and everybody was a productive member of the family. We did everything, from farming, rearing pigs to packing meat into bags for sale. My Mother raised chickens and we would eat the insides and the meat would be sold. So, I simply don’t know how to be idle.
I had an interview by a group of delegates in a leadership session I was facilitating a few years back and in my interview, I was asked what I was most proud of about the way I was raising my children. I became very emotional because the devastating realization was that, I was actually not proud because if I continued raising them the way I was, they would not grow up with a strong work ethic like mine. My parents raised us on strong values such as giving back to our community and being productive members of the family and society. When my Mother passed away a few years ago, we even discovered that there is a group of orphans who have adopted our surname, Molahlehi, because they consider themselves members of our family due to the impact my Mother had on their lives. After that interview I resolved that before my 5 and 7-year-old became irretrievably lazy and evolved into these gimme-gimme kids, I’d have to be more intentional about raising them. Yes, I’ve taught them how to pray and hold bedtime prayer sessions with them and we go to church regularly, but when it came to fostering work ethic I felt embarrassed at the time of that interview. Now I take them with me on my community outreaches and do my best to keep them occupied in the house with chores that they have to perform and account for on a daily basis.
As a former Software Engineer, what led you down this path of creativity and innovation and you consistently tapping into the power of “what if?” in your professional and personal life?
Eleven years ago, I was in the IT field doing software development and systems and I decided to enroll in an MBA to gain business skills. As part of the program, we had an elective titled, “Creativity, Strategy and Design”. The Lecturer kicked off the first session with a question to the class, “how many of you think you are creative?” And my initial feeling was, well I’m not, I am not creative at all! And my unexpressed thought was, we’re here for our MBAs, this is about business, we are business people, so what’s the relevance of this question?
But that question sent me on a path of introspection and that moment was quite deep for me because it took me back to an experience I had had in church where the pastor had announced, “Church begins on Monday, Sunday is just a gathering where we infuse each other with inspiration but the real work is on Monday! God took six days to create everything that we see, on the seventh day He created man and the idea was for man to continue the work of creation that He started so man took on the God-nature because he was made in the image and the likeness of God to continue the work of creation so that God can rest”.
The interactions in that class always caused me to pause and ask myself, “what am I contributing to the world and what am I creating daily in my work? Am I continuing and living up to the calling and the purpose of creation?” And the answer was always a resounding and heartbreaking: NO. And I knew that I needed to change my story. The “Creativity, Strategy and Design” course represented to me, the beginning of changing my story, the beginning of exploring how I was going to go to work for 40 hours a week and be proud that I am continuing God’s work of creation which I am called to do.
Now, for me to create, I must be authentic, I must create from the heart, I must be me, I cannot be a clone, I cannot be a robot, I cannot be a manifestation of someone else’s intelligence. I must live out and draw out of my own intelligence and my unique contribution to the world and do what I am called to do. So that was the moment for me, that became my MBA thesis, it subsequently became my PhD thesis, and resulted in a new trajectory in my life and career.
In my subsequent research, what intrigued me was that I found people who were living out of the heart and were a living expression of this God-nature, and these were all people in the creative industries. I would speak to musicians, poets, comedians, dancers and others, and they would use words like, “I would live and die for this calling”, and you would then speak to an accountant or lawyer and they would not quite use those words. Jon Foster-Pedley, my Lecturer at the time, and now Dean of Henley Business School Africa, would regularly bring all these creatives to our class to speak to us. I’d walk out of those classes, get into my car and drive to the beach. After I’d parked, I’d just sit there and cry and wonder to myself, oh my God what has happened to this world? Because I was a Software Engineer at the time, I decided that my thesis would explore how I might bring creativity into the world of software development and so, the title of my thesis was, “A Creative Approach to Software Development”.
Now I had to study how creatives do their work, study their mindsets, their approaches and how they bring this passion, purpose, authenticity, their whole selves, their being, into their work and how I could inspire this way of thinking in software development. The deeper I immersed myself into this world, the more I realized that in the whole 8 years of my career in software development up to that point, they had missed out on me. Yes, they’d gained in terms of my analytical skills and my programming skills, but they had missed out on me painting my authentic and creative self into this portrait.
I developed so much curiosity about this world, which wasn’t difficult at all to do, I was endlessly fascinated and asked a lot of questions. I sought to see the world from these creatives’ perspectives and the reality was that their lives were so different from mine. But it was the willingness I had to say, if I am going to embark on this journey I am not going to do it half-heartedly, and this MBA thesis launched me into a full exploration of the innovation and creativity world in my PhD.
These explorations introduced me to two concepts which would change the way I perceived things and really transformed so much in my mindset. The first concept was Creative Problem Solving, developed by Sid Parnes and Alex Osborn. Alex Osborn, co-founder of the advertising agency, BBDO, coined the term “brainstorming” and was instrumental in the founding of the Creative Education Foundation which runs conferences in New York annually. I was privileged to be a Board Member of the Foundation in 2015 and 2016. The second concept I was introduced to was Design Thinking. It has become very popular now, but it has existed for a few decades. Only around 2001 it was realized that this type of thinking was necessary and relevant for corporates and businesses especially in terms of the volatility of the VUCA (Volatility Uncertainty Complexity Ambiguity) world that we now live in. An approach, a mindset, a methodology to engage organizations to get people to think differently was long overdue. So, my PhD married these two schools of thought.
You were beginning to connect a lot of dots but what would you say was the shift of all internal shifts during the MBA?
One of the things that shifted me the most, was when we had the comedian John Vlismas as a guest lecturer in the MBA class. When he walked in for the first time, I judged him completely. His appearance, the tattoos and the language he used, I wondered what in the world he was doing at a business school. The way he looked and spoke challenged everything I’d ever known and the ideals I stood for. Well into his 2-hour lecture, I became very reflective and realized that, firstly, this guy doesn’t have a problem, he’s on a roll, he’s enjoying himself. So, guess who has a problem? Me. My own issues, judgements, and walls I’d constructed around myself were the barrier to my learning. Some of the foundational principles of Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking that I had learned were the necessity and ability to suspend your judgment, to have ambiguity tolerance, to be a in a place where you don’t know, and you’re open to whatever emerges. Now I found myself in an unexpected scenario where I had to put these principles to use. I had to see John Vlismas as a human being first, and focus on the message, wisdom and lessons that I could possibly benefit from. It was such a big turning point for me because I sat there and listened to everything that he was saying.
A lot shifted inside of me. I shifted from, categorizing people and judging them and opened myself up completely and broadened my horizons, but I needed to deal with the issues inside of me. I opened myself wide and tapped into the world of creatives and began to understand them. I did not compromise my Christian-grounded values, but I began to see humans as humans. And that is the heart of Design Thinking, we call it a human-centered approach. And the starting point is, can we be human before you classify me as an “employee” or “client” or “CEO” or “young” or “old” or “Christian” or “Atheist”? I now co-facilitate corporate disruptive programmes with John Vlismas.
Creative Problem-Solving tools teach us how to practicalize all these principles, for example, there’s this notion of diverging which requires us to give ourselves time to diverge in our exploration when doing brainstorming. These principles include: seeking quantity not quality, suspending your judgment, listening with an intention to build on each other’s ideas, seeking wild and wacky ideas and writing everything down. In these spaces, there’s no age difference or qualification or deference to position, we don’t exalt anybody over others, these are safe spaces for all of us and we bring our whole brain to think. Only after diverging, can you converge towards a solution, having assessed the multiple options that are before you, then you can say, this is what I’ll move forward with.
This makes so much sense, so what took so long for it to take flight in the mainstream?
The organizations that were built and founded in the Industrial Age, for the Industrial Age, were all about command and control and rigidly organizing processes and systems. It was all about, you arrive at 8 you leave at 5, your KPIs and deliverables were non-negotiable, and there just wasn’t a human element to it. It was all very mechanistic. Now, what happened when technology took over, when globalization became a reality and when change became a constant? Things were changing so quickly that these mechanistic approaches were soon rendered obsolete. But the thinking was not changing and aligning with the demands of the times that were upon us and therefore, many people and organizations were stuck in that old paradigm.
The main issue is that we’re educating children for jobs that are not going to exist, some are already obsolete, and yet our education system largely remains the same. I still remember 10 years back when we were exploring with an international community of experts in this creative space and we were saying that imagination is going to be such a premium skill that in organizations there are going to be Chief Imagination Officers and there was still this question of, is that really going to happen? But today you go into my LinkedIn, I have several Chief Imagination Officers who have connected with me from across the world!
Right now, there are scientific debates around the left brain and right brain, but what they are not challenging is that your brain has the logical, scientific, analytical and reasoning side and that it also has another side that has dreams, love, happiness, creativity, imagination, joy and laughter and so much else. The education system is siloed and puts you inside a box and labels you “engineer”, “scientist”, “doctor”, “lawyer” and ultimately this does nothing for the imaginative side of your brain. I’m not saying accountants and engineers are not creative, there are many of them who are and they create beautiful manifestations, but my thing is, how often do you tap into that creative energy and engage it and are intentional about it each day with your teams and the way you run meetings, projects, strategies? How often do you capitalize on what you know and what is, instead of “what if?” and letting your imagination run wild?
So, often, we have individuals with nice big hats on, on graduation day, who are equipped to optimally use only one part of themselves and it is not working. This brave new world demands that you be creative as an actuary or engineer, you are now expected to continue the work of creation. As an artist you are expected to monetize your skills and apply rationality and use your talents to build a successful business. So, we’re now focused on building creative acumen for business on the one hand and building business acumen for creatives on the other hand and what we are really seeking to do is to make us holistic human beings and engage the whole brain to challenge the way we are taught and expected to be. When we talk disruption, we’re saying, forget about everything you know and think you know, emerge from your core, that’s where newness will come from.
So, we need to ask ourselves as a society, is the way we are teaching, and educating helping? Is it truly education? How many of your school subjects do you still remember today? How much have you retained? Wasn’t it all just memorization and regurgitation? Now we are focusing on experiential education because truly speaking what kind of traditional lecture can I really give you on ambiguity tolerance? Can I throw journal articles at you and bombard you with information? Will that make you ambiguity tolerant? No, not unless you experience it for yourself, and all this is achieved without a single PowerPoint slide or a single quote. So, we’re priming people to have shock absorbers for the disruption that comes with living and doing business in these times.
What would you say to those who may not afford to be in business school, or attend one of your sessions, and be exposed to the cutting-edge knowledge that you’ve shared here?
Be intentional about starting to ask yourself, “What if?” because that will launch you into a possibility mindset, it will bring back that innate curiosity and imagination. Statements and questions like, “it would be great if”, “imagine if” will ignite your imagination side. Furthermore, questions such as “in what ways might we?” can unleash a world of possibilities. So, for example, when my son says, “Saturday is going be boring, we’re not going anywhere”, I encourage him to think and ask differently e.g. “in what ways might we make Saturday more interesting at home?” or, “in what ways might we entertain ourselves without buying a new toy?”
That simple shift of language, because language is generative, can really open the world up to you. The question you need to ask yourself is, am I consistently using possibility language, or do I use creativity killer phrases. In the corporate context, corporate killer phrase refers to language that’s stale and demoralizing such as, “it’s not in the budget”, “we’ve tried that before”, “just do as you’re told”. You must connect to the language that you use, it becomes the core of who you are. Instead of killing ideas before they’ve even been explored, phrases like, “yes and” instead of “yes but”, could lead you to unchartered territory. Develop a mindset which intentionally builds on ideas as opposed to immediately killing them.
Personally, I cannot stand negativity and intentionally keep away from it. People are so used to complaining and speaking about burdens and pains. My advice would be, protect your energy, let your day to day activity be about protecting your energy, be the biggest security guard for your energy and choose to hang out with people who help you overcome and dream. We all go through challenges and painful things that blindside us and when those come up they have to be dealt with but here I am talking about your daily approach to life. For example, I hardly watch TV and when I do, it must be something that gives me something. I cannot pass time watching junk on TV, I’d rather sit in the garden and read a book that feeds my soul than be in front of a screen and subject myself to mindless things.
Your PhD journey took you to interior places you’d never been before, what was that journey like?
I lost my Mom at the age of 30 and it was devastating. In that same year, I sat back and thought, here I am motherless, I’ve got a whole life ahead of me and I haven’t brought children into this world yet, what legacy will I leave those children? My Mom’s death connected me deeply to her legacy of having initiated prayer movements in Lesotho that have outlived her, having been part of the top leadership of the Girl Guides Association and initiator of many stokvels. She was a teacher for about 50 years and had impacted so many lives. We shared her with the world, she didn’t have 4 daughters, she had hundreds of daughters and sons.
I looked at myself and really questioned what I would leave behind, and I went on a 40 day fast. I did a lot of journaling during the fast in an attempt to answer the questions: when I’m 40 who do I want to be? what do I want to be known for? what do I want my kids to say about me? What personality do I want my children to see when I leave for work in the morning?
I journaled for 40 days straight and I did a whole lifestyle audit and constructed a new map and strategies. At the end of the 40 days fast, I had a complete 10-year blueprint. I had clarity on which conversations to stop, which platforms to disengage from and which ones to engage with and I went off Facebook. The blueprint did not specifically cater for a pregnancy at that stage, but I found out that I was expecting not long after and I made the decision that I would go ahead and pursue my goals but that nobody else would suffer as a result (contrary to very limiting opinions that were shared with me by others about how none of these things could co-exist). Children, a good marriage, a full-time job, a PhD and all those things were in the blueprint. So, during the day, I was fully with my family, in the evening we’d have meals together, on weekends we’d do church and spend time together. I’d wake up in the early hours at 2 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day for four years. So, in the wee hours I was “Ms. PhD” and the rest of the time I was everything else: mother, wife and full-time worker.
I’m also fortunate to be married to someone who reflects, ignites and shares similar values. My husband is a Futurist and Strategist, in one of the leading global consultancy firms, has also been continually studying part-time and is now doing his MBA while we are raising our two kids.
I was also keenly aware of my limitations in the domestic space and I needed a live-in helper to assist with taking care of my kids, housework and occasionally cooking. I felt blessed to have very good domestic help. I said to my new helper at the time when I embarked on the PhD, “in my house you’ll never be treated as a domestic, you and I are going to become partners and take things to the next level; give yourself only 4 years here and maximize it.” My helper enrolled at Intec College and 4 years later she had a qualification specializing in Secretarial Courses. She also joined stokvels and she left at the end of the 4 years with enough of a nest egg to start her own small business.
It was only on two occasions in that 4-year period where I booked myself into a guesthouse down the road for a week or so to focus on writing up my thesis. I also suddenly lost my very inspirational father the morning I had to submit the first draft of my thesis and had to allow the grieving process to take its toll, picked up the pieces and reconnected with the PhD again. During both my pregnancies, which were very healthy, I studied a lot, but closer to the time of delivery, I disengaged from the PhD and for 6 months exclusively breastfed my children. I would hit the pause button on the PhD to focus on my babies. So, I had to deliberately sustain the balance all the time in all the domains of life that were critical to me. There were, of course, lots of ups and downs, engagement and disengagement with the ebbs and flows of life. I experienced it all: guilt, mixed emotions, self-doubt and feeling inadequate, feeling like I was not good enough, and getting to grips with really difficult English in journals. I cried, I cursed myself, I blessed myself and felt like I had this noisy little bird on my shoulder torturing me with guilt-inducing dialogue. I also fasted, prayed and not prayed, but through all of that, the end goal was so clear: that PhD at 40 while working full time and doing consulting work. I was humbled to see the manifestation of all I had written in the fasting blueprint at age 38, two years prior to the targeted age of 40.
What would you say to others who may be facing similar predicaments in their journeys towards achieving their goals?
Well, firstly I hope that this journey can encourage many who have lost their loved ones. Losing a loving parent at a young age is one of the most devastating things in life and can leave a person in gloom and dismay. Let alone losing both parents. Trust God, look up to Him, you still have your whole life ahead to continue to leave your own mark and build on the legacy of your loved ones.
Finally, what is African Alchemy?
I’m on a mission to show the world that our African origins have the innovative solutions the world needs. The Chinese have a version of Alchemy inspired by Taoism. The Indians have their Dharmic Faith inspired Alchemy and of course the West has their version of Alchemy inspired by the Greeks. In Africa, we are now beginning to translate our cultural heritage into a creative landscape to influence the modern age. My work will aim to lead this change. African Alchemy Inspiration will share in a process of reclaiming the creative instinct from the programmed and schooled mind. We’ll unleash your creative origins and spark an internal joy which originates from the foundation of humanity- born in Africa.