Sam Thomson is our next guest writer on the Spring blog. Sam is someone I’ve known for 30 years, who never fails to spark my thinking and challenge the position I’m taking on any given subject! Currently contracting, after a 20 year career in leadership and marketing roles in the Health & Beauty industry, Sam’s featured here to share some ideas and provocations around creativity. Enjoy.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein
I am colour blind. Not badly, but enough that some people can’t understand why I can’t see the red flowers in a tree, or others point at a red London bus asking me what colour it is and are confused when I answer correctly. Apart from crushing my dreams of becoming an airline pilot, I didn’t think my colour blindness had really had any significant impact on my life, until I remembered a time in art class when I was about 11 and I was told off for painting trees “the wrong colour”. Now to be fair to my teacher, I’m sure the trees weren’t the shade of blue I chose – but it’s how I saw them, how I experienced them, and as far as I know it never stopped Claude Monet from doing all right for himself!* More important than that, however, was that from that moment I started to get into my head the idea that I wasn’t any good at all this creative stuff. And right to this day, in a recent conversation with a recruitment consultant, I stated without thinking that despite a successful career in marketing, speaking 3 languages and playing multiple musical instruments, I “wasn’t really creative”. She quickly challenged my assessment, causing me to reflect upon my own creativity, what “being creative” really means, and what role it should play in a successful organisation in 2019.
CREATIVITY ISN’T THE “C” WORD
Over the years, it seems to me that creativity has often been unfairly treated in the corporate world. The agency creatives were caricatured as sitting around smoking weed but doing very little; the internal creative people raised eyebrows as individuals who had lots of ideas but no clue how to actually turn them into business-building activity; saying someone was “creative” somehow gave them the right to act like a diva. Then, when it came to annual performance reviews, we struggled to find SMART KPIs for creativity so we softened it into areas like collaboration and innovation. And we didn’t encourage failure, such a critical component of creativity (see COURAGE below). Finally, outside work we started hearing about things like “creative accounting” in the same breath as tax avoidance and rigging the system. Far from being something to be proud of, we’ve somehow made creativity a bad word. It’s time to let it off the naughty step!
“The creative adult is the child who survived.” Ursula Leguin
At the heart of creativity is a naïve sense of wonder at everything that is out there in the world around us. It’s asking “why?” a lot; it’s asking “why not?” even more. It can be infuriating when children ask you “why” for the 50th time that day…but there’s a lot of value in learning from them to face the challenges in today’s volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world. Making time to be curious is hard when there are hundreds of meetings to attend and dozens of fires to put out, but although it may not be urgent it’s certainly important. And despite what some old-school managers may think, a little bit of day-dreaming and internet-surfing can be hugely valuable when it’s done with the right intention. It’s never been easier to be curious and to stop being limited by the thinking of your “key competitors”; in a recent project at The Body Shop around customer experience I was inspired by a bank, an ice cream shop and a game I’d downloaded on my phone. So, get out there, open your eyes wide and discover!
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something…they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” Steve Jobs
It’s one thing to discover lots of interesting ideas; it’s another thing entirely to connect them into meaningful and actionable plans to move your project or business forward. Ideas are like balls of plasticine (showing my age – perhaps pots of slime are a more relevant example these days): they have a form and structure, but you can mould them into something different or join them together to create something new. And bringing in ideas from other industries, other departments and other countries is like combining different colours and textures to create something unique and exciting. The same benefits can be generated by connecting internal dots differently too. Who said creative ideas were the prerogative of the marketing department? In my experience, never underestimate the potential of the finance team when it comes to idea generation (and drinking ability!). And definitely, definitely never think that great ideas can only come from people with big titles and bigger offices; the magic often happens on the shop floor, and it’s our job to be ready to listen and turn it into reality.
“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Charles Mingus
If there is one area of creativity that is currently most under-rated, I would suggest it’s the ability to distil ideas, messages, products and services down to their absolute essence. To understand exactly what is needed and then deliver it, perfectly, every time. We’re no longer in an age where 6 blades are better than 5, where bigger is necessarily better or where whoever shouts loudest wins. It’s time to stop asking what else we should be adding to our products and services and focusing on the few, critical elements that make a meaningful difference to our customers. It’s time to start with a marketing budget of precisely £0/$0/€0 and build plans from the bottom-up. And it’s time to get ourselves, and our teams, making (and sticking to) lists of things that we are not going to do. Although it may not feel like it, this in itself is a highly creative act – and what makes it all the more powerful is that it creates a virtuous circle where there is space for more creativity.
“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.” Cal Newport, “Deep Work”
A big advantage of plans which are clear and simple is that they maximise the chances that you and your teams are focusing your creativity on the same end goal. In a world where (depending on the article) only 10-20% employees understand clearly their company’s strategy, there’s a great deal of creative value on the line by first simplifying things and then using that focus and energy to drive performance. Creativity needs constraints. The real skill is not thinking outside the box, it’s thinking around the edges. And then working tirelessly to achieve your goals. This is the grind behind creativity, the hundreds of baths you have before your eureka moment, the dozens of shattered lightbulbs before one finally lights up. It’s the years of discipline that make creativity look effortless – whether you’re Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Karina Canellakis at The Proms, or the introvert stepping calmly on stage to speak in front of 1000 people at a conference. Creativity is hard work and takes time – so like every elephant-sized challenge, break it down into small pieces, approach it systematically, and be a creative accountant (just not that way!)
“The chief enemy of creativity is “good” sense.” Pablo Picasso
Thankfully, there’s a fair amount of common sense around in the world (although worryingly perhaps not in the hands of those with access to the nuclear launch codes). What’s missing, however, is a good dose of “uncommon sense” – the ability to join the dots differently and then have the time, resources and permission to create something new. And it goes further than just coming up with a new idea and presenting it on PowerPoint; it’s about actually making it come to life and putting it out there, knowing there’s a decent chance it might fail. Of course, it’s not about risk-taking for the sake of it, and there are many ways to help frame and encourage calculated risk taking. But as Bre Pettis puts it in his “Cult Of Done” manifesto “laugh at perfection, it’s boring and keeps you from being done…failure counts as done, so do mistakes”. It’s a mindset that exists out of necessity in the start-up world; it’s an approach that technological advancements have enabled in areas such as digital marketing; it’s still, in my experience, the exception rather than the rule in larger corporate cultures. The ability of big businesses to embrace “courageous creativity” will be, I believe, one of the determining factors as to whether they thrive in the years ahead, or whether they continue to be outmanoeuvred by smaller, more agile organisations.
The final word goes to the inspirational Maya Angelou: “you can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have”. In a world where we have finally recognised the value of renewable and sustainable sources of energy, it’s perhaps time we gave the same status to creativity.
What are your thoughts on creativity and its perception and role today? How should we be encouraging and enabling creative thinking in the workplace? What are the barriers to this, and how can we start to remove them?
With best wishes,
*Although not the main thrust of this article, if you haven’t seen Ken Robinson’s seminal TED talk on education and creativity from 2006 then I encourage you to invest 15 minutes of your time watching it.