11/08/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Giving Shape to New Ideas: Sculpting in Clay

When crafting a new idea, concept or paradigm, consider the challenge of sculpting a shapeless mass of clay.

In both cases, you need to start with a healthy dose of inspiration. What is it that you hope to achieve? How can you channel your skills and creativity to optimize the end result? Only in capturing the essence of your idea can your handiwork captivate the spirit.

In most cases you have a clear idea in your mind of what you would like to achieve, but you are not sure of how to get there. If the next steps appear daunting, firstly identify two to four salient points that you want to convey, or goals that you want to achieve. This was the approach our Quality Enhancement Plan team took when given the somewhat nebulous task to "enhance education." After drilling down to their goals -- campus-wide involvement, multidisciplinary interaction, a clinical focus with an emphasis on improving cultural competency -- the plan very quickly began to take shape. You won't stay stuck for long if you have a basic framework of goals or ideas to work from.

Once you're inspired and ready to begin, remember that the process of achieving your goal is just as important as the outcome. As I blogged recently, codifying the process is vital in creating a road map to keep you on track and guide you to your destination.

The process of creation is iterative. Like ideas or initiatives, a sculpture starts out as a shapeless lump of clay. You then use your clay knife to rapidly, almost surgically, cut portions of the mass, uncovering underneath the general shape you intended, be it a bust, a horse or a hand. Likewise, your ideas should be visualized and expressed initially in their global context. Details will follow.

So, initially resist the urge to have every "i" dotted or every "t" crossed before moving forward. In most cases, you'll need to proceed with incomplete information. That's okay. One of the joys of creation is the process of discovery. Keep your mind open to learning new things as you progress toward your goal, realizing that your new found experience might inform or alter your original plan.

Indeed, some of the best sculptures are intentionally rough and only broadly indicative of the artist's underlying intent. Most leaders strive for this, preferring flexibility, fluidity and the potential for future refinements.

However, more often than not we need greater information regarding our idea, and we will continue working on our lump of clay, adding details, so that it will be easier for the viewer to see what we intended. Likewise, we will work on more details regarding our idea's implementation plan, target audience, ultimate goal, deliverable and so on. This process is often collaborative, involving feedback and responses, much like the artist who asks his close associates their ongoing impressions.

And so the process goes on, the clay model resembling more and more the likeness you envisioned when an idea was held in your mind's eye ever so fleetingly.

Keep in mind the modeling of a clay sculpture as new ideas are presented and vetted, recognizing that more often than not, they initially present the overarching vision, and that most will need further and careful work as they develop into the final product they were meant to be.