Glenn Cole, founder of the advertising agency 72andSunny, is a practicing optimist. But before you dismiss that as some power-of-positive-thinking malarkey, he wants you to hear him out.
“Optimism is the ultimate creative act,” Cole tells an audience of 60 people who’ve gathered at 72andSunny’s new office overlooking the Brooklyn waterfront during the Fast Company Innovation Festival last week. “It’s imagining the best possible outcome or world without any constraints. When you create the conditions for it, you inspire others to move toward that future.”
Over the years, 72andSunny has created a number of evocative campaigns, including Benetton’s “Unhate” advertisements featuring lip-locked world leaders, and the new Google Home Mini commercials. Cole believes the secret to developing a culture of creative problem solving is in channeling optimism into a bias for action.
As he puts it, “Optimism is not being a cheerleader–a mood you indulge, wishful thinking, blind faith, about ignoring discouraging signs, or only focusing on positive aspects,” he says. “It’s not a luxury or overlooking the need for risk assessment [either].” Instead, Cole explains, “when you have an optimistic orientation, you position yourself as an opener, not a closer. You’re more inspiring, you’re more fun, you’re way more magnetic.”
Here are seven of his top tips for practicing optimism as a problem-solving tool.
1. Acknowledge The Bad, But Focus On The Good
“Don’t start with the good–you’ve got to know where the land mines are, where the cliffs are,” says Cole. “You have to know what all the obstacles are to getting what you desire. You have to be brutally honest.”
This isn’t always easy. “It can feel like you’re not being optimistic, like you’re quite cynical in those moments,” he concedes. “But it’s part of the process to identify or acknowledge where trouble might lie. Once you have all of those set, then focus on the good. Seek those out, identify and articulate them so you have a common understanding, root out self-doubt, and then explore the possibilities.”
2. Look For Partial Solutions That Keep You Moving
“You don’t have to build something all in one go. It’s overwhelming,” says Cole. “The job if you’re the leader of a team is creating momentum . . . It’s not always at the same pace, but it has to keep moving forward. When you or your team feel like you have momentum, you have more ideas, which increases momentum.”
3. Plan For Play
“Every Monday [at 72andSunny], one team asks, ‘What’s the thing we can do that will surprise and delight everybody this week?'” Cole says this simple weekly habit proves really powerful.
“That team consistently has the most optimistic orientation in the building–[despite also having] the most challenging client–and the thing that makes them [successful] is the fact that they make play something they have to plan for,” Cole believes. The reason why, as he sees it, is because “that team has a constant sense of possibility.”
4. Create (And Protect) Room For Optimism
“This is about physical room and mental room,” says Cole, pointing out that it’s up to leaders to “create the conditions for success,” with one of them being “an environment where optimism thrives. On the other hand,” he continues, “if you’re just scheduling–like, ‘We’ve got to have something in three hours, I need this, I’m stressed!’–[then] probably conditions are not going to be optimal for optimism, and you’re probably not going to see those results.”
What conditions are those? It depends according to “company, project, brand, and team composition,” Cole notes, “but as a leader, I aspire to identify what any individual group needs [in order] to be in an optimistic mind-set, and [then] create those conditions.”
5. Believe Everyone Has The Best Intentions
“This is one that seems easy but is hard. If you go in believing this, then chances are the final result will be better, and the way you roll as a team will be cohesive,” Cole explains. “If you assume everyone is trying to make the project better, chances are that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t trust the intentions of a production partner or a team member or a client, the work will suffer. It flat-out will.”
Optimists are optimists because they’re constantly giving people the benefit of the doubt, Cole suggests. But it’s difficult to do when others clearly aren’t assuming their colleagues or collaborators have the best intentions. Yet, counterintuitively, “That’s the most important time to believe in best intentions,” Cole says. “You can control your intentions in the project” even if you can’t control other people’s, but by readily assuming the best in others, he explains, “chances are you’ll bring this other person along with you.”
6. Ask For Optimism (Repeatedly If Necessary)
When Cole finds team members who just can’t match his level of optimism, he has a straightforward solution: “What we do is ask for it . . . If you see someone who’s down, you grab them and say, ‘You’re struggling with this thing. Can you get there?’ And generally they’ll say they can’t, and here’s a list of reasons why.”
After hearing them out, Cole says, he’ll say, “‘I’m asking you to be optimistic about this. Can you?’ And almost always they say, ‘No, I can’t.’ So I’ll say tell me more, why, what are the concerns, what are the debilitating issues, and that usually runs its cycle again.” The key is to stick with it, says Cole. “It takes me three or four rounds before we get unstuck. [But] if you keep asking, I guarantee at some point in that conversation they will come around to, ‘Yes, I’ll give it a shot.'”
In Cole’s experience, that’s because “they already know how to. They don’t want to be stuck in ‘cynic prison’ in their brain. They want to get out, but they need help to do it.”
7. Just Try It
Cole says it really is that simple: Optimism just takes practice. “This is one of those things where if you’re trying it [and] you can’t get there [and] you’re not sure if it’s the right thing to do, go back to step one.” He adds, “You can be surprised how fast you get unstuck if you tell yourself, ‘All right, what if I just try to be optimistic about this thing?'”