Managing creativity is the ultimate paradox: it’s the balance between unleashing creative freedoms, yet directing creative thought.
Creativity, by nature, is enigmatic and imprecise, but unlocking the creative potential of your organisation doesn’t have to be a mysterious process. Like everything in business, creativity benefits from well-defined goals, a clear structure and a supportive culture.
For Professor George Day, creativity is a necessary paradox—the balance of creative freedom and directed thought are essential for inspired, measurable results.
A consultant to Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T and General Electric, Day is no stranger to managing creativity for business growth. Here, he shares his strategies for harnessing creativity in your organisation to deliver business success.
FIND A CREATIVE FOCUS
The irony of creativity is that in order to be successful, it needs a focus. “Creativity without discipline is ineffective,” says Day.
He explains that for the creative process to be productive, it needs clearly defined goals, and by imposing boundaries on creativity, you actually enhance it.
“Putting constraints on creativity turns out to be a powerful inducement to innovation,” says Day. “It’s the old notion that necessity is the mother of invention. Creativity flourishes when you force it to ask, ‘How do I get around this constraint?’”
He also points out that while creativity and innovation may be closely related, they are not the same thing, and to transform creative thinking into purposeful innovation, it’s important to confine it, restrict the parameters and focus on specific goals.
WORK FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
So how do we find a creative focus? The starting point is to consider the question, ‘What should we be creative about?’ Answering this may seem challenging, but Day proposes a simple solution.
“Start by forcing yourself outside the boundaries of your organisation. When you put yourself into the shoes of your customers, you start to think like a customer, and then you start to get some clear answers about what they might want.”
By developing a clear understanding of what the customer wants, you establish a creative goal for your company—a clearly defined objective that not only focuses the process, but also aligns it directly to improving your bottom line.
“It’s not about what you think you can achieve, but about what people want.”
RISK SHARED IS RISK CONTROLLED
Harnessing creativity benefits the whole organisation, but for that to happen, the company must also take responsibility for the associated risk.
“People need the confidence and support to innovate and try things, and that is embedded in the culture of the company,” says Day. “It’s called the syndication of risk—and leadership needs to be seen to be sharing it.”
Central to this lies the understanding that even an unsuccessful innovation can provide valuable insight. “Take a company like 3M,” says Day. “They have a lovely term, ‘well intentioned failure’, which sends the message that we can learn just as much from failure as we can from success.”
When risks are shared across the leadership team, an organisation creates a culture that encourages people to take risks. And it’s this that delivers real opportunities for improvement, irrespective of the outcome.
ALIGN ALL ASSUMPTIONS
Developing creative strategies often involves predicting market behaviour, but there’s no need for that process to be guesswork.
“An assumption is a sort of hypotheses about the future, so you want to make well-grounded assumptions that you validate as best you can,” says Day.
“Quite a bit of my work as an outside facilitator is to test assumptions, and many clients claim I'm a complete pain, because I say, ‘You've made this assumption, so, tell me what you've got.’ If it doesn’t grab me, I tell them and ask point-blank why they think it’s compelling.”
To ensure assumptions are solid, you need to isolate and test them against each other, examining them from multiple perspectives—it’s important they all point to the same answer.
And remember, take the time to ensure everyone in the team is working under the same assumptions, with the same understanding of what they mean. Without this alignment, creativity has no direction and can just float away.
TURN IDEAS INTO ACTIONS
There’s little use in having so many ideas that you can’t implement any of them—creativity only leads to innovation if you can act upon your insights.
“The challenge is to avoid diluting your energies and spreading yourself over too many projects,” says Day. “Better to limit yourself to a few ideas and then focus on getting them out the door.”
This process not only requires discipline, but the establishment of an innovation plan that identifies customer needs, and defines steps towards solutions. Day cites the mantra, “Think big, start small, celebrate your early successes and scale carefully.”
SUPPORTING TALENT ATTRACTS TALENT
Research shows that high-profile commitment to creative talent is a defining feature of market leading businesses.
“Google’s motto is, hire people who don’t need support, and then support them,” says Day. “They are all about talent, and the way they attract talent is to signal that talent is their highest priority.”
The importance of attracting the best talent is clear: while many things can be taught—technical skills, financial planning, communication—traits like conceptual thinking and creativity are difficult to instil in someone who lacks them.
“It’s better to find a person with those harder-to-learn competencies, and then support them to develop more technical skills.”
FALL IN LOVE BUT KNOW WHEN TO LET GO
Enthusiasm and creativity are both essential for business growth, but knowing when to quit is equally important.
“We know that in order to be successful in innovation, you have to be passionate, and an advocate for your ideas. But at a certain point, that gets dysfunctional. If something isn’t working, you need to be able to disengage and cut the program off,” says Day.
Management can assist this process by balancing expectations against realistic outcomes, especially the expectations of the creative leaders who often drive projects, as they’re often the ones that find it the hardest to let go. At a deeper level, businesses also needs to foster a culture of open communication.
“Innovators should feel that they can approach leadership and say, ‘The prospects here are very, very poor’, without worrying. Disappointments need to be treated as opportunities for learning—and that is the key.”