The importance of creative thinking (and how not to kill it)

By Joseph Gelman

I grew up as a consultant in the school of "fact-based problem solving" where opinions were irrelevant. What mattered was building a strong fact base and approaching the issue with a systematic process. In the past, surprisingly few consultancies and even fewer agencies were able to provide this service.

No longer. Today, coming up with data, analyzing it and transforming it into fact-based recommendations is easy to achieve. Any big company can do it in a very powerful way. The problem is that their competitors can do it too, so developing marketing, branding and innovation decisions based strictly on facts is no longer enough.

What truly differentiates a brand is taking those facts, completing them with non-traditional sources of inspiration and applying a process to spark creativity and result in powerful ideas. And this is truly hard to do.

The main issue is that most companies find it hard (if not impossible) to think in a creative way. They look and look at data and do not know what to do with it. Or they come up with a powerful analysis that provides great strategic business direction, but does not translate into powerful brands or breakthrough products.

The issue is finding ways to fire the inspiration that fuels creative thinking and innovation as outlined by Andy Stefanovich, Prophet's chief curator and provocateur, in Look at More Stuff.

Conversely, however, there are some very tactical behaviors that can kill creative thinking. Here's my take on some of them:

· Being driven solely by financial results. Excessive focus on market share, revenues or profits kills the soul of the business and prevents employees from being inspired. Employees are human beings, and if those in your company are driven purely by money, then you probably have the wrong ones.

Businesses need to define and communicate to their employees a higher-order objective, and this objective needs to be inspirational. It can be articulated around the social impact of the product, the development of new intellectual property, the challenge of building something new, the recognition from clients, or the desire to crush the competition. The trick is to find the inspirational objective that fits best with the organization's situation and ambitions.

· Working from home. Modern business life aims at providing work-life balance by encouraging remote working. But the truth is that excessive remote work presents a barrier to team problem-solving, which is key to creativity. Also, working remotely inevitably results in working alone, hindering the sharing experiences (both professional and personal) that can spark the creative process. Stop working from home and start sharing with and learning from your colleagues.

· Political correctness. There is always some "corporate policy" that makes no sense. Take employees of a big insurance company who mainly interact with each other who must wear suits and ties to work. Such "politically correct" behavior is reinforced as "the corporate culture" and dictates how to dress, how to behave, and what to say. It's another enemy of creativity, as it reduces people's desire to take risks. Let your employees be free, let them wear anything they want when they are not meeting a client, let them go out for lunch, let them speak freely, take them out and don't censor their behavior. Let them do anything that inspires them.

· Routine. If you have done the same job for a long period of time, staying inspired requires considerable self-discipline and intellectual curiosity. So break your routine by doing small things. Change your agenda. Meet with employees from departments with whom you have never worked. Go out to conferences. Meet with people who are doing your job in other industries. Businesses need to reinforce this behavior, and avoid the pitfall of thinking such activities are a waste of time.

There are many ways to kill creativity. The challenge is to go ahead and discover those "creativity destroyers" in your company -- and find ways to either eliminate them or reduce their level of influence.


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