Tue, Nov

How to get creative

Every company would like to be more creative, which is why there is no shortage of books offering advice on the topic. Yet too many managing directors aren’t sure how to ignite the creative spark in their businesses. But in a rapidly changing, digitally driven, economy we need to get used to the idea that ‘no normal’ is the ‘new normal’ and behave accordingly. 

What is creativity - and how do you apply the concept to your business? Whatever it means, it’s bound to take you out of your comfort zone, which is perhaps why it gets ignored. Here Walter Hale helps you focus on the topic that could be key to your company’s continued success. 

1. Don’t prejudge

Many bosses believe their staff aren’t creative enough. Their well-intentioned attempts to change that often founder on the same rock: the fact that they start the process by defining g the outcome they desire. Clearly, creativity has to be focused on a goal but that doesn’t need to be narrowly defined. It could be as simple - and as broad - as: what do our customers want that we are not doing already? An even better question might be: what don’t they want?


The implication that you have already reached your conclusion is bound to demotivate staff, reduce momentum and deter creativity. Better to tell staff you have an open mind - even if you haven’t.

2. What preconceptions?

Forget your preconceptions about your company, the outside world and how the outside world sees you. 

I have worked with many organisations, of many sizes, in many sectors and many countries that recognise they have a creativity crisis - and there is one common factor which makes it much harder for them to rectify this. If I was a scientist or a French engineer (see next tip), I would call this Hale’s Law - every organisation finds it nearly impossible to truly understand how the market sees them. 

This is partly about behaviour - too much time in the office rather than in the market  - but it is also about legacy (“But we’ve always done it like this”), hierarchy (a surprisingly influential factor even in smaller businesses), the stories we collectively tell ourselves that define our image of our company and, on occasion, strategic blindness (I’ve worked with businesses where managers say it is easier to pretend they can change the market than to try to change company policy). As a consequence, we are liable to miss potentially lucrative opportunities by playing safe, developing incremental innovations that look creative to us - because we can see the changes we have had to make as a business to enable them - but are barely noticed by the outside world. 


Here we could learn something from the giant consumer companies, such as L’Oreal, that are investing heavily in what they call ‘social listening’. The beauty of ‘social listening’ is you don’t have to spend millions to do it. It can also provide the raw data to help challenge entrenched internal assumptions about what customers want and help to reveal what is really happening in the marketplace. 

3. Creativity is not a team effort …

You may have never heard of Maximilien Ringelmann but his research could help your business become creative. The French engineer observed that the larger the number of people involved in a particular task, the lower the productivity per head, a phenomenon we now call ‘the Ringelmann effect’. He outlined two reasons for this: firstly, that some group members would be tempted to sit back and let others drive the process, behaviour categorised as ‘social loafing’; and secondly, that coordinating the group inevitably led to inefficiency and waste. Luckily for the hotel industry, which has made gazillions out of renting rooms for corporate brainstorming sessions, Ringelmann’s research has not been widely publicised. Managers who think creativity can be brainstormed should think again. After all, Ringelmann’s studies effectively just prove the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth.

4.… but neither is it the preserve of the lone genius

Traditionally, John Lennon has been regarded as the most creative Beatle. There are several reasons for this. One is that Lennon told us this was the case. Another is that he fits the stereotype of nonconformist genius defined by the likes of Da Vinci, Einstein and, more recently, Jobs. He also did not live long enough to sully his own myth, as McCartney did with such inconsequential ditties as the ‘Frog Chorus’, ‘Ebony And Ivory’ and ‘Mull Of Kintyre’. Yet the album that is widely regarded as the Beatles’ artistic peak, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, was driven by McCartney. 


As the concept - and the production - became more ambitious, Lennon was occasionally moved to protest that he was just a Teddy Boy. He was being slightly disingenuous – ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ were primarily his work, and he collaborated with McCartney on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ - but he wasn’t the creative genius behind the project, McCartney was. The subsequent careers of the most famous songwriting partners in popular music also seem to suggest that they were at their creative best together. Nothing they wrote separately - not even Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ - would change the world as radically as their Beatles music did. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ proves two things: sometimes, two geniuses are better than one, and that genius might not conform to our expectations.

5. Be prepared to break the rules

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most disciplined authors of all-time. He wrote from 9am till noon every day - even Christmas Day - and, even if he felt he was in full flow, always stopped after three hours. He found that regimen useful in part because it helped him confront the uncertainty at the centre of his art. As he ruefully observed once: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” There are more than three rules about creativity. Unfortunately, no one can quite agree on what they are. We do know there are some things that impede creativity: bureaucratic turf wars, arcane internal processes, a reductive focus on best practice of questionable relevance (e.g. “why can’t be like Apple?”) and internal meddling. 

Josh Valman, a consultant who advises large companies, says that many innovations die of interference. “The most effective approach is often to give a project the green light, give the team their independence, and a budget that shows you have faith in the project reaching the next stage and that you trust the people involved not to spend the money on office furniture.”

6. Iteration is better than procrastination

You can spend time and resource refining forecasts for your new idea or doing the umpteenth bit of market research to assuage doubts (or cover everyone’s asses) or you could just put it out there and see what happens - maybe testing it with a select customer or two. In the digital economy, first increasingly beats best. New ideas should reach the market, in some form or other, within three to six months. That way, even if the innovation fails, you can move on quickly – and possibly more cheaply – to the next one. 

7. Behaving like Jim Trott does not stimulate creativity …

One of the funniest recurring gags in ‘The Vicar Of Dibley’ is the way parish councillor Jim Trott, likened to a lecherous, hairy troll by one unkind critic, begins almost every sentence “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no” before stopping to catch breath and saying “Yes!”.  Yet in business, too many managers who talk the talk about creativity behave almost exactly like Trott. The difference being that they never eventually gasp “Yes!” 


Many innovations are killed by micromanagers who, considering a new concept as it if were the finished article, think far too literally and ignore the bigger picture. You don’t have to accept every new idea but you need to give them the time and space to develop. Even if your knee jerk impulse is right - and the idea is bad - the way you manage the process will set a precedent that may stifle better ideas to come.

8. … yet giving people space to be Picasso does

The uncomfortable truth about creativity is that it makes many of us uncomfortable. It’s not something we can readily quantify or judge and it makes us take risks. It is often harder to calculate the risk of missing an opportunity than it is to figure out the costs associated with trying to seize one. And whatever directors say about not playing the blame game, the risks to the sponsor of a failed innovation are significant. There is also the uncomfortable yet undeniable fact that some of the most creative people behave like petulant children. Yet their apparent disregard for conventional wisdom is actually a strength, not a weakness. As Picasso said once: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Upcoming Events