Creativity is vital for successful business, yet most businesses just aren't designed for creativity. Branding expert Mark Simmons discusses how to inspire creative thinking and how to apply it to business to stay a few steps ahead of the competition.
What's the secret weapon that will give a business an unfair advantage over its competitors? No, I'm not talking industrial espionage or insider trading. I'm referring to creativity. More specifically, the ability to come up with ideas and successfully bring them to life in the marketplace. Actually, that's not really a secret at all. Time after time, in survey after survey, executives say creativity is what will drive their businesses in the future.
Creativity is vital for successful business, yet all too often it's not part of the culture. Most businesses just aren't designed for creativity. Instead they tend to be efficient machines with established processes, systems and rules that allow little flexibility for the more unstructured thought necessary for ideas to form and flourish.
Creativity is about exploring the unknown and so feels very risky. It's tempting to cordon it off into certain departments, assign it to off-site meetings or outsource it to outside agencies and consultants. That's a shame because we all have the ability to be creative. We were all born with great creative skills, it's just that sometimes these skills get sidelined or smothered through the rigidity imposed by schools and in businesses.
There's plenty of evidence that the parts of our brains responsible for the logical thought-processes inhibit the ones where the creativity occurs and that without the freedom to play it is not allowed to flourish.
"Time after time, in survey after survey, executives say creativity is what will drive their businesses in the future."
Stuart Brown, an author who has studied the 'play histories' of 6,000 adults, says "play-deprived adults are often rigid, humourless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances. It is not just an escape. It can help us integrate and reconcile difficult or contradictory circumstances. And, often, it can show us a way out of our problems." Play doesn't just give the brain a rest. “Play is an active process that reshapes our rigid views of the world," he says. Playfulness is a vital ingredient of creativity and one that is often at odds with the serious environment of the business world.
There are techniques that help retrain us to think creatively once more, techniques based on an understanding of how the brain works.
The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide (Pearson 2010), which I co-authored with rock musician and creative genius Dave Stewart, is a user manual to creative thinking and how to apply it to business to stay a few steps ahead of the competition. Here are just six of the tips contained within the book for how to make your business more creative.
- Celebrate mistakes. It's okay to fail. In fact, it's a valuable part of the creative process and those who have many successes tend to have had more failures along the way. The point is to reduce the downside of failing so it won't kill you. Find ways to reward small risks, perhaps with a prize for the bravest ideas.
- Slip into something less comfortable. We all have things we feel comfortable doing and tend to avoid the other stuff. But it's the other stuff that often allows us to think in new ways, so break your routine, talk to people you don't normally talk to, and make it a goal to try something that scares you at least once every few days.
- Learn how to play. It's usually business or pleasure, but to be creative you need to have both because the more you can let go, the more fun you'll have and the more likely it is you'll come up with unexpected ideas. Use music, humour and games to shake things up and help you and others think in new ways.
- Idea spaghetti. Quantity of ideas is the single biggest predictor of creativity, so don't wait for the Big One: keep generating as many ideas as you can, by questioning what you see around you and thinking of ways to improve them. Set yourself a daily goal for the number of ideas you want to come up and write them up in a notebook
- Flood your brain. Creativity is about making connections, often between two completely unrelated things. So it stands to reason that if you can feed your brain with a lot of different stimuli you'll have a greater chance of making connections. Make sure you read, watch, listen and do to a wide variety of things as often as you can.
- Collaborate. 'Plays well with others' applies now even more it did on the school report. It's almost impossible to bring good ideas to life without partnering with outsiders, so we should be less paranoid about signing NDAs and more willing to collaborate with people who share a common vision and can add expertise we don't have.
"The more you can let go, the more fun you'll have and the more likely it is you'll come up with unexpected ideas."
Creativity is not something that can be managed in the traditional sense, and that can make many business people, used to having control, feel a little uncomfortable.
The best we can hope for is to manage for it. Robert Sutton, professor of science and engineering at Stanford University, says: "Managing for creativity, I've discovered, means taking most of what we know about management and standing it on its head. It means placing bets on ideas without much heed to the projected ROI. It means ignoring what has worked before. It means taking perfectly happy people and goading them into fights among themselves. Good creativity management means hiring the candidate you have a gut feeling against. And as for those people who stick their fingers in their ears and chant 'I'm not listening, I'm not listening' when customers are making suggestions? It means praising and promoting them."
While it's not always easy being making creativity a part of everyday business, in a world in which it is difficult to maintain differentiation without innovation it's a necessary part of business life. As Richard Branson, who wrote the foreword to the book, says it's about having a spirit of adventure. "Catch the cow, Ricky," his mum used to tell him, “If you want some milk you can't just sit in the middle of a field waiting for a cow to come to you, you've got to go and catch it and milk it yourself."
Mark Simmons is a branding expert, innovator and co-author of The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide (Pearson, 2010). Over the past 20 years he has been a senior global marketer at Coca-Cola, run advertising agencies in the UK and US, and been an advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. Simmons frequently speaks at conferences about creativity, marketing and branding.