top of page


Episode 117: Unleashing Innovation Through the Wonder and Rigor of Creativity—with Natalie Nixon

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So on this one, we are going to talk all about creativity and how creativity can help you be a better consultant and serve your clients better. And I don't just mean sort of like casual creativity. We are diving really deep into this because I brought on an amazing expert on this, Natalie Nixon, who's with Figure 8 Thinking and she is a creativity strategist. She is going to talk about how to understand and use what she calls a wonder and rigor ecosystem when serving clients to help them truly innovate and shift their cultures towards a way that actually makes that innovation work for them and help set innovation stick. I can't even tell you how much fun I had on this episode. So I am delighted to have you meet Natalie and hear all the great things she has to say. I want to welcome Natalie Nixon to my show today. Natalie, welcome to the show.

Natalie Nixon: Hi Deb. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

Deb Zahn: I'm delighted. So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Natalie Nixon: I'm a creativity strategist and the president of Figure 8 Thinking. And I advise leaders on transformation, helping them to amplify wonder and rigor so they can amplify their business value.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And I love creativity strategist. That's probably the coolest term that I've heard a consultant use before. I love it. So let's dive into the wonder and rigor ecosystem that you've developed that you use with your clients, but let's start off. So creativity and the wonder and rigor that goes into that, why does that matter when you're working with companies or organizations?

Natalie Nixon: Yeah, it's interesting. The meta category under which I typically am hired to help and advise would be called change management organizational design. And typically, there are two questions that I am getting when people hire me. One is what business should we be in? There's the business that we've been churning in that we thought we should be in for the past couple of years or decades even and there's external factors shifting the environment. So what business should we be in? And that's kind of a business model innovation challenge. And the other question I typically get is around, we have way too many silos, how can we build a more collaborative culture? So again, it's really around change management, cultural change or design, and that my clients, from their perspective, they want to be innovative. They want to build a culture of innovation.

And what was increasingly apparent to me was that we were actually starting in the wrong place. Once we identify a gap or problem, we can't just go on and on about it without coming up with an alternative. Another way of approaching things. And so the alternative I came up with was that before we can really build cultures of innovation, innovate our business models, break down silos, we actually have to design for creativity, hire for creativity, incentivize and retain creativity. Now, I don't know about you, but a lot of my corporate clients, if I were to lead with the word creativity, they would shut down. Right? Right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah, forget about it.

Natalie Nixon: Because the first thing I realized is we don't really understand creativity. We assume that creativity is about being able to sing, dance, paint, draw, act. Right, right? Fill in the blank. We conflate creativity with the arts and it just so happens that artists are outstanding at wrestling with the ambiguity of the process. So what my work has really been about, especially really diligently in the past three years, is to come up with a simple and accessible way to explain creativity and connect the dots between creativity and business impact so that organizations, executive leadership teams can truly innovate. And so thank you so much Deb for already checking out my book The Creativity Leap and you know that I define creativity as toggling between wonder and rigor to solve problems, full stop. That's how I like to think about it.

Deb Zahn: That's my new favorite t-shirt because I saw that and I literally caught my breath.

Natalie Nixon: Really?

Deb Zahn: I did. I did it because that's the space that I love living in and that's one of the reasons that I am a consultant is to be able to help my clients toggle between those things. And the reason I'm an entrepreneur is so that I get to do it too. That's the fun part.

So describe a little bit, what is that ecosystem between wonder and rigor and maybe start off defining the two and then we'll dig into how they actually play together.

Natalie Nixon: Yes. So the slightly longer definition of creativity is that it's about toggling between wondering and rigor to solve problems and deliver a novel value at scale. And that value can be financial value, social value, cultural value, but the wonder is about dreaming, audacity, deep curiosity. It's about all and it's about pausing, which I was hoping that during the quarantine we'll get a little better at pausing, but so many of us have just kind of cut one right back to Zoomapalooza. But we know even through the neuroscience of creativity, that in order for…first of all, it's estimated that we're only probably optimizing 20 to 30% of our brains capacity, right? And in order to fully optimize all of the nuances and intricacies and definitely in ways that our brains function, we have to be able to allow different regions of the brain to rest, others to light up for those neural synapses to fire a bit.

And sometimes that requires us to rest, to dream, to pause. And I'm really happy to see in kind of the zeitgeist, there's a bit more in our popular culture. We really are acknowledging the value of taking a break of pausing, arresting, of even incorporating this idea of a sabbatical. It's also incredibly interesting to me that all world religions, no matter what religion we're talking about, have integrated into their philosophy the value of the pause, right? The value of, in the Judaic tradition that even on the seventh day, God rested, right, in order to revel in his amazing creation. Anyway, that's a wonder. Wonder is about dreaming, audacity, curiosity, blue sky thinking, all and pausing.

Deb Zahn: And actually, if I could jump in because it reminds my husband is a behavior change expert and he refers to that as mush mind where you're not directed. So it's not like meditation where you are sitting in whatever your meditation practice is. You're doing that practice. It is truly just floating. And which is the term I know that you've used in your book and the amazing things that will come out of that if you truly allow yourself to just float.

Natalie Nixon: Can we geek out a little bit more on that point before I talk about rigor? So two things with that on a personal level, even before I really settled into this toddling between wonder and rigor to solve problems and the way that it's explained and promote creativity, I started doing something called floating. Floating is something that really emerged in the 1970s, and then it died out in the 1980s with the advent of HIV/AIDS. People were terrified that if I float in this isolated chamber of water that's at like 90 or 85 degrees and the ratio of salt is like the dead sea ratios, so that you literally are floating. We were scared that I'll get AIDS if I am in these chambers. So it kind of dissipated, but here's the cool thing about floating. I encourage all listeners to really check it out.

It has an unfortunate tagline, which is about sensory. It's a sensory deprivation tank, right? But so that word deprivation has a negative tone to it. But really what it's talking about is we don't realize throughout the day, and especially now with social media and how much digital technology we're exposed to, our senses of sight and hearing and smell and texture and taste are constantly being bombarded and are required to be on. And the value of kind of all Zoom, all systems off. All systems shutting down. I've now tried floating in my hometown of Philadelphia. I've done it in London. I've done it in The Hague. When I was traveling a lot more before COVID, there's two things I always sought out in cities because I believe in rest and a word I made up "weisure," which is work plus leisure.

I thought "lorking" would be a little creepy blend of them, right?

Deb Zahn: I like your choice. I like your choice.

Natalie Nixon: But I always seek out either floating places or Korean day spas because the body scrubs are really great for your lymphatic system. Anyway, floating, as it turns out, is one of those ways that we can put ourselves into that zone and it's incredible how much more revitalized you become. The other thing I wanted to just nerd out a bit, which is I've only just recently started to read up on more and study for myself is the parasympathetic nervous system. So one of the things I learned as I was researching intuition is that humans, all of us, are really hard wired to be intuitive. And what I mean by that is we have a nerve in our bodies called the vagus nerve, right?

Deb Zahn: Big fan of the vagus nerve. Anybody who has anxiety should know about the vagus nerve.

Natalie Nixon: That's right. V-A-G-U-S is the second longest nerve in our body. The first is actually the spinal cord. And by the way, the spinal cord is an extension of the brain. But the vagus nerve starts in our cranium in our brains. It goes down through our hearts and into our guts. So literally when we say things like my gut is telling me, there is something to that, right? So they're intuition, I call pattern recognition as a type of sonar or a type of muscle. And the more we use it and exercise it, the clearer, stronger it gets, the more we ignore it, the flabbier and flaccid it gets. And of the 50 people I interviewed for the creativity leap, when I started talking to them about intuition, I remember I was talking to a PhD in electrical engineering who was the CEO of a tech firm.

I thought, oh my gosh, he's going to laugh me out of the room. I start asking about intuition, but he included, they all credit intuition for their strategic decision-making. So there's so much more we can be doing to be attuned to our parasympathetic nervous so I didn't actually define that, apologies. Parasympathetic nervous system, it's part of the autonomic nervous system. And the sympathetic nervous system is our heart speed vitals having to tell us. Our stomachs and intestinal tract digests our food, right? It's on autopilot. The parasympathetic nervous system is fight or flight. I think it's called feed and breed is another way. But intuition is also part of that parasympathetic nervous system. So I love this to have as a guide, and it's so in tune to creativity and when you talk to entrepreneurs, successful ones, in most of their origin stories, they credit their intuition. There are these motions, they'll say things like something told me not to do the deal, right.

Deb Zahn: Something told me to run away.

Natalie Nixon: Something told me to run away. Super relevant. Sorry, I just wanted to nerd out a bit.

Deb Zahn: No, nobody. I mean, unless they're watching this video, they can't see me smiling from ear to ear because I am geeking out right there with you because I love this stuff. And I do think working the muscle of intuition and creativity will make you a better consultant. I have innovated because I thought, well, wait a minute, something's not working. A communication strategy that everybody thinks, well, we've always done it this way really and it's never worked. OK, so let's sit back and say, well, why don't we do a podcast instead? And suddenly everybody's doing something in a different way. It was intuition that enabled those things to emerge. So I think if you want to be a sought after consultant, this is the stuff you need to know.

Natalie Nixon: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. The rigor portion. Rigor is about discipline, time on task, deep focus. It's often very solitary. It's not particularly sexy and it is an essential component of creativity. And by the way, rigor is not rigidity.

Deb Zahn: Thank you.

Natalie Nixon: All right. And the way I explained the difference, the way I think about the difference between rigor and rigidity is that rigor accounts for context. Rigor is situational. And the metaphor I like to use, I'm from Philly and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And one of the things we're known for is the groundhog and groundhog coming out and saying how many more weeks of winter. So would you think of that, about that little creature, the groundhog emerging out of its burrows and kind of sensing the landscape and peeking around. That's in the similar way rigor adapts. Rigor says it's not safe. Well, we said that we were going to do X in this amount of time and even though all alarm bells are going off, no, rigor adjusts, and adapts.

And the cool thing is that any of us who have spent any time studying one of the traditional art forms, for me it was dance. For others it's visual arts, it's writing, it's photography, whatever it is, you are so aware that you don't get to do the fun, hot, sexy stuff before you know your reps. In dance, you must master the plie and the releve, and you deconstruct the muscles in your body. And it is not fun all the time. And it's hard, sweaty. It's hard and it's mundane. It's full of repetition, but the American dancer choreographer Twyla Tharp, author of an incredible book called The Creative Habit. She's also the one who quipped, wrote in her book, “Before you can think out of a box, you have to start with a box.”

She's what I call one of my rigor mentors. I don't know her. I've never met her, but I love her approach to what she shared in her book is that every morning she wakes up no matter how tired she is, just wants to get out of the warm, cozy bed. If it's a winter morning, it's into a cab. She's in New York city and goes down to a studio where she incrementally stretches her body. So creativity loves constraints. We have to know the constraints so we can understand how to push up against them, rebound off of them. But you got to incorporate the rigor.

Deb Zahn: And solve within them. So one of the things I do is I write poetry. And when I was younger and trying to hone my craft, I wrote sonnets because they have a certain structure there, iambic pentameter. They have a certain rhyming scheme, and it's hard. Hats off to Shakespeare. That stuff is hard. But that's how you have to think about language and what words you're going to use because you don't have three syllables, you have two syllables. So what's a two syllable word that captures the essence? Oh, and that just went in an interesting direction because now I had to change up how I was doing it. And again, no different within companies and organizations and no different when you're a consultant. You’ve got to know your stuff. You have that rigor. And then once you have it, just as you're describing it, the creativity can flower, can really blossom.

Natalie Nixon: It can flower, it can blossom. And the reason why understanding creativity from this perspective is essential for consultants is because I annoyed myself by saying, I am a creativity strategist. I'd never heard of that term before. I made up my job title because I had the opportunity to do that. And I decided to name my work something that reflected what I love and what I'm good at. And the bottom of my business card says strategy is creative. And the reason why I affirm that is because in my view, strategy is all about reframing and the best consultants are really excellent at reframing. And sometimes that reframe is a shift of five degrees, and it's like, oh my God, we never thought about it. And just as you were saying what some of your work is about just asking a different question which prompts a whole another series of thoughts that are very energizing to the process.

Sometimes the paradigm shift is 170 degrees, right? But still the power of having the fresh eyes of a consultant in a process is to help people who've been staring at the weeds for so long to be able to zoom out, to be able to reframe, to be able to ponder very new and different types of questions. And creativity is the best on-ramp to do that.

Deb Zahn: I love that. So let's get down to the practical in terms of how this works because I've worked with organizations that want to be innovative. They want to switch things up. They want to do all kinds of things, and yet it's also hard. And so sometimes they say they do, and then you get in there and there's more limitations than you thought. So when you're approaching an organization or company that says, we're ready to innovate, this is what we want to do, how do you get them to really embrace the ecosystem, the wonder and rigor ecosystem as you're defining it, as a journey that they should be going on with you?

Natalie Nixon: So the first principle that I stand on is that I really am about teaching people to fish. It probably is the innate teacher in me. It was a chapter in my life where I was a middle school English teacher. I was a professor for 16 years. And so I'm one of those rare consultants where I'm OK if after a spell, you don't need me anymore. In fact, that's actually, if I'm doing my job well, that's how it should be. So I'm all about teaching you to fish, but the best students are open and receptive to the lessons and even to the unforeseen lessons that might abound. So the first thing that we want to be clear on is what's the story behind how you landed? What got you to this point, right? So really getting a bit of context initially from leadership, making sure that leaders are really behind all the different ways this journey could take us in terms of costs and budget and time commitment and incentivization.

The other thing that's really important in my work is that we have a cognitively diverse group of people involved in the process and that we even include a few Debbie Downers. We included a few Negative Nancies. And the reason I'm totally open to that is number one, oftentimes those folks who have incredible institutional memory and institutional knowledge, which we need to have as part of the process. And we do need that annoying, critical question to help us explain why this matters. And the moments in my work when that person raises a doubt and instead of it being me who speaks up, I'm just quiet. And there's someone now in the group who begins to reframe for that person why this might be a good option, how we can approach it as a prototype. And that's another thing that's part of my process. I have a background in anthropology and fashion and design thinking.

And so, we're big believers in the value of prototypes of having rough draft ugly mock-ups. We can prototype services, experiences and processes and there's something about really instilling that method and way of working that shifts the playing field because instead of the way most organizations work, which is that we go off in secret and you're working in some big thing for months, you've already invested millions of dollars and there's going to be a big reveal in six months and nine months. Prototype says, no, let's oxygenate the site. Let's air it out in small editor stages. And in that way, we get collective buy-in along the way. It's co-created. It's a lot cheaper because you can figure out what's not sticking. What does it make...What makes no sense even though it made sense back in the meeting room. It makes no sense to do it that way so let's shift. So those are some of the things I like to have in place to move forward as positively as possible.

Deb Zahn: And I know the culture is obviously one of the things that, again, you also talk about in terms of by doing some of the things that you do with them, you're also very deliberately shifting culture. How does that come into play with this?

Natalie Nixon: Because culture is a product of shifting mindsets, which leads to shifts in behaviors, which leads to shifts in culture. And it doesn't happen overnight. It's time to stop saying this. I just need to get a t-shirt that says, “It's culture, silly.” Right? Because that's you find also that ultimately so many of the barriers to entry are around we've always done it this way. And it doesn't mean that you're going to radically change the culture, but sometimes we need to kind of do an audit on the culture. And what are some things about the culture? Culture consists of language, artifacts, ritual, all of those that I learned so many years ago and sitting anthropology are transferable into how we think about culture of systems and organizations.

If we deconstruct that, what are some of those elements of culture that have kind of gotten buried? They actually may serve well, based on the trajectory where we're trying to go. Most answers are totally within, they're totally within. And it's just a matter of, again, the fresh eyes that I bring as a creativity strategist, as an outsider to get people jazzed about what they already have to work with.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I think of a small example recently, which did not come from me, but this fantastic facilitator Leanne Hughes who I've had on my podcast. I was working with a client, and I brought her in to help with designing this process around a facilitated exercise. And she said, start the meeting at 10:03 because everybody's always late. So don't start at 10:00, start it at 10:03. And she explained the logic that we're just small, innovative things. Oh my gosh, they loved it. And everybody was there, and we added a dance party at the top. And this is typical of organizations, but we've never done that. But even small shifts can make a really big difference.

Natalie Nixon: I'm just curious. Did you all announce the larger group that it was starting at 10:03 or you just knew amongst yourselves it was going to start at 10:03.

Deb Zahn: We announced without explanation that it was starting at 10:03, which makes people kind of like, 10:03, is that a typo? And 10:03 everybody was on.

Natalie Nixon: I love it, love it.

Deb Zahn: But this is great. So as you're working with organizations, I would imagine that resistance also comes up, not just from Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy, but where folks start to get pushed out of their comfort zone and they want something to hold on to, to hold fast to, how do you help them work through that or with that?

Natalie Nixon: So early on in my consulting practice, I got hip to the fact that no matter how much I try to prepare the leadership that probably to pivot, we're going to need to adapt. There'll be a point where we hit a wall. There's going to be a point where we don't know what the heck is going on. It's going to feel completely ambiguous. This is not a straight line. I have diagrams. I have doodles, all that. I tried to prep as much ahead of time, and we still hit the wall. There's amnesia. So one of the things I've started incorporating is I call it a loss audit because a lot of the time when we're talking about change, as leaders we're still excited about this future state that we just know is so possible and that will lead us to all these great new things and we just want to bring people along with this kind of excitement, which we hope will be a contagion.

And what we miss is that change. Yeah, it can mean gain, but change also means loss. And there's so much value and just laying out on the table and acknowledging what are people's fears about what they could lose. And sometimes those fears are totally rigid. Other times, those fears, the answer is we don't know yet. And sometimes those fears are no, not at all. In fact, we're going to need XYZ in this format and this situation even further. So that's been a tremendous way to give people some kind of angry. It's a mental priming. And there's always something just about allowing people the space in time. It's the confessional booth, right? There's something about that that just kind of clears the way.

Deb Zahn: So one other thing that comes to mind is as I was reading your book, and as we're talking is I'm reminded, I don't know if you've ever read the book by Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty and-

Natalie Nixon: No, but I will.

Deb Zahn: It's very, very good. And it's essentially the notion that uncertainty can be so frightening for so many people because you're going out into the wilderness, and you have no idea what's going on. Instead of looking at it as a wide-open space. And often when I've worked with groups where we're designing something, there gets to be that place where they're like, well, just give us a model. Who else has done this and can we just do that? And I have to remind them folks, we're making this up. And it's good that we are and we're drawing really cool things to help us do that, but there is that often discomfort with uncertainty. How does that manifest in some of the work that you do with folks?

Natalie Nixon: Very similar to what you just described, where people want models, people want other examples of where else are we seeing this? For example, when I talk about the need to have KPIs for creativity at this stage in the game, that's something that I'm offering for people to think of. And I give them guidance and guidelines about how to start doing that. But are there examples that I can point to where there is an organizational culture where at its core, it's really leading with creativity the way I've been thinking about it? Not really, not yet. It might be a department, there might be pockets here and there. So I can pull those examples. I actually encourage people to do something very different that actually has less to do with the work at hand and that is to become a clumsy student of something.

And first of all, I believe that's important because work is inside out. We forget that organizations are organisms and they're made up of humans who have a backstory and a family. And we've been able to see a little bit more of that through the COVID quarantine being on digital visual video meetings all the time. But what I mean by becoming a clumsy student of something is literally on your own time, start to become a student of something that you've been curious about that you love to tinker in. And the reason I do that is because this is totally anecdotal. I don't have any kind of scientific data set. It's through my own personal experience. I have experienced that when I am a clumsy student of something, when I have to get a lot more comfortable with I'm not the smartest person in the room, I don't know what the heck I'm doing. I have to ask a lot of questions. I have to really observe. I have to humble myself.

I have to be OK with not knowing. I have to intuit a lot more. I have to figure out a different way to ask the question. That is wiring synopsis in my brain that when I return to my work at hand, I have discovered incrementally a newfound confidence in saying, I don't really understand. Would you say that a different way? Or I will pose a question or I will just sit with the discomfort of ambiguity a lot better and of late my...I'm a clumsy student of social ballroom dance.

Deb Zahn: I love it.

Natalie Nixon: So I danced for many years. I studied modern as a girl and then jazz and hip-hop. And I still study hip-hop dance. I'm not great at the waltz and the foxtrot and swing and cha cha and salsa. But it's a movement that I love so, so that already gets me there because I just want to show up because I love the endorphins and how it makes me feel. And it's humbling. I'm not always...Sometimes I nail it and a lot of the time I don't. It allows me to be exposed to all sorts of different types of teachers. It requires me as typically as the woman in the social ballroom you have to follow her. I'm pretty good at leading. I'm not great at following. Right?

So whatever your jam is, become a clumsy student of it. And that is a directive we can give people we're consulting and say for this chapter of us working together, suspend judgment and I'd like you to become a clumsy student of something in your own personal life and we're going to weave your learnings or your awakenings of that into this process, into this project.

Deb Zahn: I love every single word that you just said. So mine is woodworking. People are like, “Oh, that's a really cool chicken coop.” I'm like, Don't look too closely. Just from a distance is really how you want to look at it.” But it's also you gain, as you were saying, that comfort with discomfort and you get to experience new fruits of discomfort, which then hopefully you can apply when you're in a work setting. So what I love is clumsy student and ugly prototype. And by embracing that messiness in that process of discovery, you unlock things you otherwise couldn't unlock.

Natalie Nixon: That's right.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I just love that. So obviously I could keep you on for days and days and days. So other than reading your book, The Creativity Leap, which everybody should do, what advice would you give to consultants who listen to this and they're like, you're right, I need to go about this differently. What would you tell them to go learn or do to help them do that?

Natalie Nixon: Well, we're come we landed is now become students of something, but also read more fiction. And the reason I say that is that fiction is one of the best ways to build our capacity through curiosity. Through fiction, we can be in another time, a different geography, different ethnicity, gender. And what's exciting about that is I have this diagram that I posted on LinkedIn a couple of weeks ago. I'm still iterating on it and so I have another version I need to post later this week, which is that curiosity leads us to empathy. And the reason I say that curiosity is the precursor to empathy is because before you can empathize with anybody, you have to be curious about them. We have to be able to frame a question about why do they sit over there and not over here? Why do they do it that way, not our way?

And there's so many people who go through their days and they never, they never post questions about they are the center of the universe. Most of us are, right? But really being intentional about being curious means that you're the groundhog. You peek your head up out of the earth and you kind of make sense. So curiosity is a precursor to empathy. Empathy leads to action, ideally, and action hopefully results in equity. So for me, there's a through line from being curious to really building more equitable systems in our society. And so one of the ways that I think everyone should, especially since it's summertime, hopefully we're giving ourselves some breaks and pauses, is to check out some fiction.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I just love that. And I love that I had no idea what you were going to say and then you said something cool like that. So that's wonderful. So where can folks find you if they want to dive into this more?

Natalie Nixon: So if people just simply go to the Figure 8 Thinking website, They can get access to a free sample chapter of The Creativity Leap and will also see that later in summer of 2021, the wonder rigor lab online creativity course is launching. It's a DIY, self-paced course. And I can't wait to see how people engage in it. It's really to help people get unstuck and to learn some of the creativity hacks that I've applied to myself and for my clients.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And when is that coming out?

Natalie Nixon: Summer of 2021, probably August of 2021. But just go to There's actually a registration page that people can register for the course, and we'll add some links to those by the notes.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. So everybody can get access to that. So go get the book now and then get ready for the lab.

Natalie Nixon: Yes. Thank you.

Deb Zahn: Love it. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it, share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

bottom of page