The Importance of Day-to-Day Creativity in Business
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Much is made − not least by me − of the importance of creativity in corporate innovation. After all, innovation is the implementation of creative ideas in order to generate value. So, without creativity, innovation will not happen. Nevertheless, a creative mind is also a useful thing to have in day-to-day business both for the creative employee and the organisation that employs her.
Let us look at ways in which day-to-day creativity comes in handy and then explore what managers should do to encourage daily creativity from their teams.
Analyse Situations from Various Perspectives
The most powerful advantage of having a creative mind is the ability to analyse situations from various perspectives and, as a result, see options that others might not see. For example, if a negotiation is about to break down because the price your company is willing to pay for a service is less than the price the seller will accept, you may see non-financial options that could be brought to the table that could turn a failed deal into a win-win deal.
A prospective client comes for a meeting and you discover that something went wrong when you booked the meeting room. Worse, all the rooms are booked and in use. Rather than panic, you notice that it is a nice day and decide to use one of the outdoor picnic tables normally used for lunches. Rather than looking unprepared, you impress the client with a memorable outdoor meeting.
Find Alternative Solutions to Problems
When the average person faces a problem, she tends to try the conventional solution to the problem and, if she does not know the conventional solution, she Googles it. Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, she can do this nearly anywhere on the planet.
The thing about Google is, that if you search for a solution to a problem, you are given the most conventional solution. Often, this is fine. But, it can be boring, may not fully solve the problem and usually fails to impress people. It's like sharing a popular cute cat video on Facebook. The video is delightful, but all of your friends have seen it many times before. It's still cute, but it's also boring.
For example, if you need to make a business presentation to a highly desirable potential client, you could Google "presentation tips" and get a long list of web sites offering such tips. And all of those tips will be pretty much the same. Follow them and you'll have a good, professional and conventional presentation that will utterly fail to stand out from the other vendor presentations the prospective client has been subjected to.
In the 70s, British Rail (BR) invited ad agencies to make pitches for their business. Most made slick presentations with well drafted advertising ideas that all kind of blended together. Allen Brady & Marsh tried something different. On the day of their presentation, in their offices, they made a group of BR's top executives sit for over a half hour in a waiting room with overflowing ashtrays (this was when smoking was more acceptable than today, of course), congealing coffee and nasty sandwiches. There was no explanation for this.
Just as the executives got up to leave, one of the ad agency's executives burst into the room and said, "That, gentlemen, is what confronts your customers every day. Let me now show you how you can rectify your image." They not only won the contract, but their stunt made advertising history.
Imagine that! Imagine coming up with a sales presentation so creatively effective that it becomes a case-study in business text books. Wouldn't that be cool?
Make the Best Use of Existing Resources
When I was an art student at Richmond University in London, the school had recently established an art faculty which was still rather small. One year, a group of students from a big American art college (It may have been Pratt Institute, but I am not sure any more) spent a term at Richmond to gain international experience. Many of the visiting students complained loudly about Richmond's lack of facilities and boasted about all the great stuff they had at their fingertips back home.
Sure, it must have been nice to have the best gear readily available. But art school is not like real life and well equipped art schools even less so. I imagine many of these students were in for a surprise when they went to work in organisations with limited resources or became independent artists only to discover just how much good resources cost!
I won't deny envying their resources at their home institute. Nevertheless, having limited resources forced me to use creative thinking to work out ways to turn my visions into sculptures and videos (my two areas of focus). This probably better prepared me for the working world. Unless you are employed by a massively successful organisation with a purchasing division that models itself on Santa Claus, you will almost always face limited resources at work.
Fortunately, the creative mind sees limited resources as less a subject for complaint and more of a challenge. Sure, it would be nice to have a state-of-the art machine shop at your beck and call for making prototypes, but a few Euro spent in a toy shop or craft shop will allow you to buy some basic goodies to build some kind of prototype sufficient for playing with.
Solve Client Problems
Having spent a significant part of my adult life running small, internationally oriented service businesses in Bangkok and Erps-Kwerps (a village 20km from Brussels), I have learned that the thing that impresses clients most is how you solve problems. Things go wrong (especially if you are running a service business in a developing economy) and most clients realise that. If something goes wrong in your delivery of a service and you solve it quickly and effectively, that can actually impress a client more than if everything runs smoothly. Clients know things go wrong. They've doubtless experienced it before. Some vendors will try and blame the client, one of their suppliers or anyone but themselves. But blaming others impresses no one outside of a criminal trial. Others will make the client wait for a solution because the problem happened over the weekend or there is a waiting list or the necessary tool to solve the problem needs to be ordered from Estonia.
On the other hand, if you can say to the client, "I am sorry. Something went wrong and we have failed you. Now, here's what we are going to do in order to deliver your service over the short term and here's how we are going to fix it over the long term," you will impress that client.
To do this requires creativity and a willingness to make quick decisions based on that creativity.
See Opportunities Others Do Not
One of the skills of the creative thinker is the ability to see more options in a given situation than less creative people see. Sometimes these options are non-obvious opportunities. Indeed, many of the hottest new businesses of the past few years have been based on ideas exploiting smartphones. Uber enables you to find a ride; Instagram enables you to tart up images and share them; Tinder enables you to find romance. These big businesses were born in the minds of entrepreneurs who saw smartphone-based opportunities, that others did not see (or at least not exploit).
Opportunities need not be big things, like billion dollar businesses. You might see that some customers use your product in an unintended way and instead of correcting them, see a business opportunity. It might be something as simple as realising that a customer who buys a notebook may also want to buy a pen.
The creative thinker may also see opportunities to improve processes. She may simply realise that some steps are redundant or other steps might be combined to speed up a process. Alternatively, the friendly service of a waiter in a restaurant might inspire ideas about how customer service could be improved in a completely different business by allowing customers to award call centre staff with virtual tips, for instance.
Sense of Humour
I have been inside organisations lacking humour. They are sad, dreary places where people follow the rules, do the work assigned to them and are anxious to leave at the end of the day if not sooner. Humourless offices are not nice places to work. They are nice places to flee. Fortunately, many creative people have a sense of humour. After all, jokes are usually a matter of looking at situations in new ways that surprise the listener, which is also a rather good definition of creativity.
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?" − according to Laughlab, this is the funniest joke in the world.
Humour can give life to a workspace. It can lighten up a tense situation. It can bond people. Moreover, humour can inspire people to be more creative. A joke about a situation enables people to see situations in new ways and that leads to creative insights.
In many years of organising creative thinking activities of all kinds, I have noticed that the groups that laugh the most inevitably also have the most creative ideas. This can most clearly be seen when a large group is broken down into smaller groups all of whom are working on similar problems. The groups that laugh the most will have the most creative ideas.
I believe there are two reasons for this. Firstly, it is because laughter breaks down inhibition. If everyone is laughing, it is safe to say crazy things. The worst thing anyone will do is laugh at you − and they are laughing already. Secondly, joking breaks down barriers to thinking and that allows people to think more freely than they would normally do.
What Managers Can Do
If you are a manager, it is clearly in your interest to encourage your team to use their creativity on a day-to-day basis and to share their ideas so colleagues can learn from them. The result should be improved efficiency, improved service and improved products, not to mention a more fun working environment.
To make this happen, you need to do three things: communicate that such creativity is desirable, provide the right kind of creativity training and establish a system for sharing ideas. Let's look at each.
Communicate that Day-to-Day Creativity is a Good Thing
Everyone is creative to some degree even if not everyone is a creative genius. In most businesses, averagely creative people learn to reign in their creativity and follow the status quo as this is usually perceived as a safe option. Even creative people learn to keep their ideas to themselves in such organisations.
Thus the first thing you need to do is to communicate that creativity is not merely okay, but it is desirable. Encourage people to share their ideas and praise ideas that succeed. When ideas do not succeed, praise the effort and discuss what could have been done differently.
The Right Kind of Creativity Training
A lot of creativity training involves learning how to use tools in order to generate ideas. These tools might include structured creative problem solving, brainwriting, mind-mapping and the like. These are all great tools − and it is worth learning how to use them − however, they are not so useful when you need to think on your feet quickly and on your own.
Instead, your team needs to learn how to look at situations more deeply and see beyond the obvious. They need to learn to ask themselves questions about the situation. What are the factors involved? Does the situation have parallels with other, unrelated situations? How do people feel about the situation? What needs to be accomplished? And so on. Mindfulness is one way to do this. Learning to get back into your imagination and play with situations is even better.
People need to learn to try and solve problems without Google. People need to consider alternatives besides the obvious ones, and explore those alternatives. People need to learn quick tricks for boosting creativity. And more.
Ideally, such training should include role-plays and games that emulate real work situations. This can allow them to practice creativity, see that unconventional solutions can work and discover how good it can feel to try a crazy idea and see that it works.
Lastly, people should share their ideas, both successful and unsuccessful, so that others can learn ways to work better and ideas to avoid (or to try out in different ways). The obvious way to do this is with a software that allows people to share ideas, comment on ideas and possibly vote on ideas. However, this is a lousy way. People may post their ideas, but few will bother reading all ideas − so there will be little learning. Voting is only a popularity contest that will discourage divergent thinking, which tends to garner few votes.
Instead, I suggest regular team meetings in which everyone shares their best ideas and worst ideas of the month. After each person speaks, others will be asked what they can learn from their colleagues' experiences. Those ideas that are the most creative and which have the most profound effects can then be shared across the organisation in some creative way (I'll leave that creative way to you, this article is long enough as it is!)
Day-to-day creativity is not as exciting as the big, bold and exciting creativity that leads to new products and new ways of doing business. However, it is a powerful engine for improvement. It is a way to enable people to enjoy their work more and, learning to use creativity on a daily basis can only encourage a higher level of creativity which may eventually lead to big ideas for new products and new ways of doing business.
So, do not discount those little ideas that make your business grow. Encourage, embrace them and implement them.
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