Learning the unlearnable; creativity in business

Creativity and innovation are attributes that we’re either born with or we aren’t, they can’t be taught. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom tells us.

Well, I believe conventional wisdom to be wrong. I think that both are skills that can be taught – with a prod in the right direction.

All of which should be good news for business. After all, as far back as 2010, a global IBM survey of more than 1500 CEOs[1] rated creativity as the most important factor for future success.

And a study by Adobe and Forrester[2] four years later found that 82% of companies believed there was a strong connection between creativity, innovation and business results. In fact, it also suggested that companies which actively fostered an innovative mindset could outperform their rivals in revenue growth, market share and competitive leadership.

Sadly, despite the encouragement of several such studies in recent years, I think that creativity is something which many companies are still struggling to get to grips with. Fostering an innovative mindset requires more than simply asking employees to “get creative”. Nothing will change unless creative tasks, tools and techniques are incorporated into business strategy and execution.

That’s why I think that, uncomfortable as it might feel at first for some organisations, creativity needs to be on their strategic agenda. Senior executives should ensure that goals relating to creativity are included in the company’s business strategy.

Thankfully, I believe that we all have a degree of natural creativity. Enhancing this simply requires practice, making it no different to improving our musical or sporting prowess, for example. Every one of us can learn about the tools and techniques for enhancing creativity and building an environment that fosters innovation.

Admittedly, any talk of tools and techniques might appear counter-intuitive in the context of something as ethereal as creativity. Since creativity necessitates doing things that haven’t been done before, a ‘guide’ might seem worthless. But just as scientists adopt tried and tested scientific methods to design experiments, applying a formal set of tools for idea generation can boost your creativity and innovation.

From childhood, we learn how to ask probing questions, to unpack all the assumptions, and to design experiments to reveal the answers. This important skill and the associated vocabulary are honed for years until they become quite natural. I see no reason why a similarly structured approach cannot be applied to creativity.

Creativity is not just something you think about; it is something you do. And doing it means:

  • Building your creative and innovative competencies and skills which will ultimately serve as the catalyst for firing your collective imagination;
  • Learning and applying a process to facilitate creative problem solving and idea generation;
  • Instituting a culture that continually reinforces a creative mindset.

Such a mindset is central to solving complex problems, developing new strategies, facilitating innovation and driving change within the organization. It allows us to look at problems from different angles, to connect and combine concepts and challenge traditional assumptions.

It also worth remembering that creativity is the by-product of the interplay between our internal thought processes and our external environment. So many factors within that external environment can influence the creative process, such as the teams we work with, the physical space we inhabit and the rules and rewards which apply. Most importantly, these are factors which we can control.

To make all the effort pay off, I tend to find that the most creative businesses and leaders have also invested in really getting to know their audience; understanding what’s important to them and being able to describe their ‘pain points’ in great detail. That knowledge is used to create smart, provocative experiences that make both customers and prospects think or see things differently.

At the heart of all this is a simple correlation: higher creativity leads to greater innovation within the organisation and greater success over the long run.

The most successful executives know this. They are inspiring leaders and smart strategists but they also have an innovative mindset, appreciating the opportunity for creativity which exists in everything around us.

They’d be the first to admit that it costs nothing to generate amazing ideas but that the results are priceless.

[1] https://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/31670.wss

[2] http://adp.cat/web/wp-content/uploads/en.creative-dividends.pdf