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The Creative Discipline

Creativity is less an art than a discipline--and surprisingly practical and accessible

If you think creativity is the province of a privileged few--the proverbial black turtleneck and pony tail crowd--think again. Our work with hundreds of teams, from CEOs to customer service reps, has convinced us that a few relatively simple techniques can help anyone generate new and creative ideas.

The key is to focus on perception. Neuroscientists tell us that as our brains evolved, they learned to take perceptual shortcuts to save energy. In other words, they stuff experiences into well-worn patterns. But when we bombard our brains with new information, our brains are forced to re-categorize these new experiences and move beyond old patterns. That's when we come up with new ideas. 

In our creativity workshops we apply four practical techniques. We didn't invent them, but we have seen their power again and again.

1. Immerse yourself

Surprisingly, you shouldn't overestimate the ability of facts to change people's minds about what is and isn't possible. The human mind is surprisingly adroit at finding ways to support its deep-seated ways of viewing the world, while sifting out evidence to the contrary. Indeed, academic research suggests that even when presented with overwhelming facts contrary to their deeply held opinions, many people (including those who are well educated) simply aren't persuaded.

The antidote is personal experience: Seeing and experiencing something firsthand can shake people up in ways that abstract discussions around a conference room table can't. We find it extremely valuable to start creativity-building exercises or idea-generation efforts outside the conference room, setting up personal experiences that directly confront participants' implicit or explicit assumptions.

This was the case with an animal-health pharmaceutical client that was considering expanding to China.  We spent days reviewing facts about the opportunities there, but at the end of the workshop they were no closer to a decision about whether to enter that market. So we took them to China, visiting dairy farms, processing plants, retail outlets, among other relevant stops. Their visit brought to life all the differences, difficulties, and complexities of competing in China in a way that PowerPoint slides never could.  For example, they learned that scooter-riding sales representatives wouldn't be able to haul all the equipment that their American counterparts could.

This works when it comes to understanding your customers as well as exploring new markets. The basic advice is the same: Get out of the office. Go through the process of researching, comparing, buying, and using your own products and services as a customer would. Observe closely: talk to as many real customers in the places they buy and use your products. Take notes. Take pictures.

2. Overcome orthodoxies

Another way to jolt your brain out of the familiar is to explore deep-rooted company (or even industry) orthodoxies. All organizations have them: the conventional wisdom about "the way we do things," for instance, or the unchallenged assumptions about what customers want, or an "essential" element of strategy that's rarely, if ever, questioned.

By identifying and then challenging these kinds of beliefs, companies can learn to embrace new ideas. The rewards for success can be massive: Best Buy's $3 million acquisition of Geek Squad in 2002, for example, went against the conventional wisdom that said consumers wouldn't pay extra to have products installed in their homes. Today, it's a $2-billion-a-year business. Likewise, some analysts chided Apple for opening a retail network at a time when Dell's online direct sales model appeared supreme.  
Sometimes external forces spark the change. The recession led McCormick Spices to challenge its internal orthodoxy that it was a spice manufacturer and position itself instead as an enabler of healthy and affordable meals. By emphasizing the functional and health benefits of exotic spices, McCormick was able to launch a campaign promoting meals under $3--an innovation that required no new products but helped its customers stretch their food budgets.

To overcome orthodoxies in your company, ask yourself questions about your customers, industry norms, and even your business model. For example:

  • What business are we in?
  • What level of customer service do people expect?
  • What would customers never be willing to pay for?

Then ask yourself, which of these are stifling your ability to do new things?

3. Use analogies

In testing and observing 3,000 creative executives over a six-year period, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen noted five important discovery skills common to innovators: Associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Of these, the most powerful was associating: asking people to make connections across "seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas."

A list of questions like the ones below can serve as a jumping off point.

  • How would Google manage our data?
  • How might Disney engage with our consumers?
  • How could Southwest Airlines cut our costs?
  • How would Zara redesign our supply chain?
  • How would Starwood Hotels design our customer loyalty program?
  • How might Apple simplify and integrate our products and services?

We used this technique effectively with a global credit card company. Some of the conclusions they drew were:

  •  Apple would not offer 10 credit cards; it would offer one that fully integrated with other banking services
  •  Disney could treat consumers as "guests" and make them feel welcome when they called
  •  Amazon would help consumers make smart credit decisions through referrals and tracking of behaviors
  •  Starwood would reward "good" behavior (like paying on time), whereas most credit card companies actually reward "bad" behavior (that is, charging more) by increasing your credit limit and awarding more points

4. Create constraints

Imposing constraints to spark creativity may seem counter-intuitive. Isn't the idea to explore "white spaces" and "blue oceans?" Our experience, however, is that necessity is the mother of invention. Imposing artificial constraints injects some much-needed stark necessity into an otherwise low-risk exercise.

Start by imagining a world in which

  • You can only interact with your customers online
  • You can only serve one type of consumer
  • The price of your product is cut in half
  • Your largest channel disappears overnight
  • You have to charge a 5x price premium for your product
  • You have to offer your value proposition with a partner company.

Creativity is not a trait reserved for the lucky few--with a little discipline and a few practical approaches, it's accessible to all. Try these techniques and tell us how they worked.

This post was adapted from Sparking creativity in teams: An executive's guide, which ran on in April 2011.


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