Relearning creativity for business impact

How to get beyond business-as-usual to a creative breakthrough: be real, angry, paranoid. Be a thief and be yourself


Creativity is a word that often conjures up visions of artists furiously at work in a messy studio, a brush stroke bringing life to a blank canvas, or children happily moulding brightly coloured clay. It almost feels as if creativity belongs to these situations and these people. But, as teachers and practitioners of innovation, we believe that everyone is inherently creative. And, as Sir Ken Robinson said in his top-viewed TED talk, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

Indeed, Professor George Land’s 1968 study of creativity affirms that “non-creative behaviour is learned”. He found that creativity plunges from around 98% in four to five-year-olds to only 12% in 15-year-olds. More worryingly, by the time we enter the workforce, only 2% of us demonstrate the creativity of most five-year-olds. What happens? Why do our education, upbringing and environment squeeze this imagination out of us, and what can we do to reignite the creativity that lives in all of us?

The problem stems from requiring our brains to be both divergent and convergent at the same time. As we grow older, every time we use our imagination, our rational self immediately judges the wackiness it produces and challenges every creative impulse with the “I can’t”, “It won’t work”, “That’s stupid” reactions that too often dominate our thoughts.

Divergent thinking

                                               Convergent thinking

- Imagining

- Creating

- Challenging

- Dreaming

                                          - Testing

                                          - Judging

                                          - Deciding

                                          - Evaluating

 In businesses, where decision-making is a primary driver, the convergent thinking muscle is incredibly valuable. But learning when and when not to use it, and creating the right conditions for divergent or creative thinking, are equally valuable when used appropriately. And, at a time when the world is changing faster than ever, the spirit of experimentation – and a growing role for the creativity that supports it – needs to be put at the heart of any future-focused organisation.

What If! co-founders Dave Allan and Matt Kingdon offer some great tips in their book Sticky Wisdom. So if you really want to reignite creativity, in yourself and in your employees, what’s the right approach?

  1. Be paranoid
  2. Be angry
  3. Be a thief
  4. Be connected
  5. Be real

1. Be paranoid

With time and experience comes expertise, and before long we can often become complacent due to the nature of the everyday workflow. We get comfortable in a repetitive approach that ‘works’ and we begin to relax and shut out the changing world around us. Companies who succeed tend to declare success, then stop innovating. That’s why the list of companies who were once truly innovative but now feature in cautionary tales in business school case histories grows ever longer. Atari, Kodak, Nokia, Sun Microsystems – all companies who were once leading lights in their industries, overtaken by changing needs and competitors innovating around them.

Many of the biggest tech disruptors of the last 10 years, such as Airbnb, Uber, Netflix and Apple, were not the product of breakthrough technology. They were the result of complacent incumbents letting big consumer problems go unsolved as new entrants appeared with a fresh take and human-centric solution.

  • Netflix didn’t kill Blockbuster – ridiculous late fees did
  • Apple didn’t kill the music industry – being forced to buy full-length albums did
  • Uber isn’t killing the taxi business – difficulty of access and fare control are
  • Airbnb isn’t killing the hotel industry – limited availability and pricing options are

To fend off complacency, we need to instill a little healthy paranoia to ensure we constantly challenge the reason, purpose and relevance of what we are selling, who we are selling it to and how we are doing it. A powerful example of a company who stays paranoid is Amazon. Despite being 24-years-old and valued at more than US$1 trillion, it continues to instill an ‘it’s always-day-one’ mantra in everyone who works for it. Paranoia is good because it means opening up to what’s possible. Celebrate successes, enjoy being number one, but never assume you’re done. Some try to achieve this sense of paranoia through stretch targets and growth objectives, but these are not sufficient to get to creative solutions – nor is paranoia per se. But it’s the starting point for everything and gives you the need to look for creative solutions.

Being paranoid in practice:

  • Challenge the assumptions in every business process and practice. Stay paranoid by identifying the ‘rules’ and seeking to break them.
  • Think about some of the rules or conventions around your challenge. Then find ways to ‘remove’ a rule – exaggerate it, twist it and follow the thread to find the underlying principle which might give you the germ of a creative idea.
  • Write a business plan from the perspective of a new entrant to your industry and challenge yourself to work out how you would ‘kill’ your business if you were coming in to compete against you.

2. Be angry

We live in a world of cross-sector thinking. The way that we approach things is a result of many different inputs and decisions. Take, for example, your job today. It may have been impacted by who your parents were, its location, an experience you had with the brand as a child, or a hundred other things.

But when we look at people who make and sell things, we tend to build a sector-focused echo chamber. We compare our goods to other products in the same sector; we look at language that traditionally defines our business and restricts us; we keep talking to people who like our products. And we avoid the provocations and conflict that come with opening our eyes and ears to the outside, locking ourselves in a self-designed echo chamber we’ve created to filter out the rest.

But this isn’t how your customer views you. Your offering is simply one piece of their interactive, cross-sector ecosystem. The impact of something their bank does might make them angry with their airline, or a frustration with their car might make them buy a different mobile device.

The good news is, there’s nothing more precious than being angry. Some of the most powerful innovations have come out of anger or frustration with a problem, or from people who broke conventions or ‘rules’ that few others even questioned. Jack Ma of Alibaba said, “Opportunity lies in the place where complaints are.” So, how can we channel frustrations into meaningful results?

We need to create a self-awareness and humbleness to be open to this anger, putting ourselves in the position to seek out the issues that challenge our business. We need to move from engaging in an arms race with our competitors and the norms of our industry to exposing the frustrations and ‘hacks’ that reveal a real need.

We can do this by gathering obscure clues in uncommon ways; whether by walking in our customers’ shoes or getting inspiration from the ‘naive’ experts who might not know our business but know a lot about our challenge. In doing so, we should ask: “What makes my customer angry, and should I be angry about it, too?”

Being angry in practice:

  • On your next challenge, seek out a naive expert who would never use your product. Explore some of the factors behind their perspective and use it to reframe your challenge.

3. Be a thief

Creative ideas don’t come from nowhere. Knowing this relieves the pressure to think you have to invent the next big idea from scratch. It’s not about starting with a blank sheet of paper; it’s about building the muscle to make the right connections to get us there. ‘Knowledge’ will only get us so far, because most of us are creatures of habit who follow the same routines day after day. To ensure our brains are continually supplied with fresh stimuli, we need to keep our eyes open for fresh sources of inspiration that allow us to escape our usual thinking patterns and make new connections.

Walmart founder Sam Walton famously said: “Great ideas come from everywhere if you just listen and look for them. You never know who’s going to have a great idea.”

It’s the kind of thinking that led to the creation of the rollerball deodorant – inspired by the ballpoint pen – and Michael Phelps’ medal-winning swimsuit – inspired by nature in the form of shark skin.

Being a thief in practice:

  • Use the power of analogy to expose yourself to new things. Look outside your industry for inspiration. First ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve?” then, “Where else in the world has this challenge been faced?” Immerse yourself in that world. Get into the mindset of others and see how they solved their challenge. Finally, get creative by applying the principles to your challenge and using the stimulus to generate new ideas.
  • Create opportunities for your people to get out of their normal work mindset – visit a theatre or museum together; volunteer for a day; put on a show together.

4. Be connected

Most of us start a new role or job with great enthusiasm, brimful of ideas. But often the initial burst of energy doesn’t last – it’s hard to continue to care with the same intensity you felt on day one. But not feeling the purpose behind what you’re doing is a real problem, leading to a stagnation of ideas and reliance on routine. For creativity to thrive, you need the energy to care.

Reactivating the passion that’s declined as you’ve settled into your job comes from finding a connection that matters to you. That means reconnecting with the problem you want to solve and seeing at firsthand the impact of the work you’re doing, in order to reactivate your brain. This will help get you out of your habitual patterns of thinking, enabling you to look at things with fresh eyes and re-engage with the purpose behind your work.

If you’re a leader, you will be familiar with the constant refrain about role-modelling the behaviours you want to see in in your organisation. But this goes beyond role-modelling. This is about pushing for creativity and innovation because you care – and demonstrating that you care by risking something yourself.

Being connected in practice:

  • Put yourself in the place of the consumer or end user – literally. Spend time with them in their homes or their work environments. This will help you leave your customary patterns of thinking behind and get into the minds and hearts of the people your work serves.

5. Be real

You’ve nearly made it. You’ve been paranoid, become angry, stolen inspiration and reconnected with your passion to solve problems. But you can’t make an impact alone. Bringing others along with you is the biggest battle – you want them to understand the journey you’ve been on and see the potential for the solution. You need people to look at your ideas without pre-judging and try things out. How? By getting real.

Joe Rohde is the brains behind some of Disney’s most ambitious theme parks, including the Animal Kingdom. His passion for building it was ignited on a safari, experiencing the animals up close – feeling their breath, smelling their scent. But he was unable to convey this powerful experience to leadership when pitching the idea as their minds immediately imagined a zoo experience. As a last-ditch effort to convey what being ‘up close and personal with animals’ meant, he brought a live, 400lb Bengal tiger to the presentation. “The day that Joe brought that animal into the meeting made all the difference in the world,” said long-time Disney executive Marty Sklar.

Being real in practice:

  • Experiment with ways to help people visualise and experience the power of what you have developed to enable innovation to take root.
  • Use real quotes, photos or video clips from the outside world that bring your target user or challenge to life for others within your office walls. Make your ideas real by drawing them (you don’t have to be an artist!), model them, or make a video about the problem you are solving.

Creativity can be something we only make space for in our leisure time – but it is invaluable at work. Fortunately, creativity is like a muscle: the more we exercise it, the bigger it gets. So, instead of falling prey to the ‘business-as-usual’ mindset, try unlocking your inner creativity in your everyday business practice and see what happens. By embedding the creative behaviours that will pay off in bolder, faster and more agile ways of working, you’re laying the groundwork for a future-proof tomorrow.

What if you got angry?

While working with a financial services company, ?What If! spent time with people who don’t have bank accounts to try to understand the fears and frustrations that prevented them engaging with the company’s offering. By recreating the challenge from their perspective, we experienced their anger and used it as a basis for creating an entirely new value proposition that changed the rules of the product category.

What if you turned thief?

?What If! worked with a global toy manufacturer who gives employees a $15 ‘freshness budget’ when they travel away for work to buy something of interest, such as a handmade toy from East Europe or a new gadget from Japan. The company has rooms stocked with these items that employees tinker with when they’re in need of inspiration.


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