Managing Creativity

You know it needs to be done. But is it possible?

  • The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman (Doubleday, January 2001)
  • Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook, by Maurice Kanbar (Council Oak Books, January 2001)
  • How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends, by Don Gabor (Fireside, January 2001)
  • Absolut: Biography of a Bottle, by Carl Hamilton (Texere, November 2000)

Manage creativity? It sounds like an oxymoron. Can you manage the blinding insights that lead to a definitive understanding of the time/space continuum, or to a way to tape a message to an object without leaving a mark? Nope. But as you also know, you can't just leave creativity to chance. Not in this environment, Bunky.

Because there isn't much helpful material on the subject, many managers are left to conclude that creativity cannot be managed. They turn their attention to other things. That's a huge mistake, argues Tom Kelley, general manager of Ideo, a leading design firm that has worked on projects ranging from Regina vacuum cleaners to the Palm V.

In his straightforward and engaging book, The Art of Innovation, Kelley contends that creativity is a skill that can be developed just like any other. He doesn't mean that if you follow his approach, you'll end up being another da Vinci -- or even Herb Kelleher. But that isn't the point. Innovation, Kelley says, is "like an Olympic decathlon," in which "the object is to achieve true excellence in a few areas, and strength in many."

And as with sporting events, there are certain rules you need to follow. Kelley breaks the innovation process down into five specific steps, all targeted to solving a problem or creating an opportunity:

  1. Understand. You need a good grasp of the "the market, the client, the technology and the perceived constraints on the problem. Later in a project [you might] challenge those constraints, but it's important to understand current perceptions," Kelley writes.
  2. Observe. You don't want to create another swine-flu vaccine -- that is, a solution for which there is no known problem. Spend some time watching how customers use the sorts of things you're thinking of inventing or improving. Don't rely on focus groups. Watch your customers in action. Don't have them tell you what they want; have them show you. Just because you can invent the electric-powered flyswatter doesn't mean that you should.
  3. Visualize. Dream a little. How might someone use what you have in mind?
  4. Evaluate and refine. Build a prototype -- and break it. "No idea is so good that it can't be improved upon," says Kelley. Count on making a series of improvements based on what your market testing tells you.
  5. Implement. To Kelley's credit, there are dozens of case studies in the book -- almost all from Ideo's design work -- that show how to put the five-point framework into practice. He argues repeatedly that the most successful creative efforts stem from small, focused teams working together and not from the lone individual.

OK, but what about the inventor who wants to go it alone? You budding Thomas Alva Edisons should pick up Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook, by Maurice Kanbar, the man who brought you the D-Fuzz-It Sweater Comb and Skyy vodka. Like Kelley, he gives you a checklist to follow: solve a problem, prove it works, protect your idea, decide if you'll manufacture or license, and "market with a twist." Kanbar also describes his experiences in delivering on all those points. Particularly intriguing are his explanations for why he thinks that a couple of his inventions -- a dental product and a rolling cane -- didn't work. The tone is engaging; you've got to like a man who goes out and buys his own small publishing house and then decides to donate the profits from his book to charity.

Creativity applied
To witness creativity in practice, take a look at two radically different books.

How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends is an updated version of the book by Don Gabor, first published back in 1983. No, this is not Tolstoy. And yes, some of the advice is pretty insipid. But for the most part Gabor does an excellent job of covering the ways to start a conversation and keep it going.

Creativity is based on ideas, and ideas are often sparked by other people. You can't take full advantage of their thinking unless your conversational skills are as strong as they can be.

If you need an opening gambit, you could say, "Have you read Absolut: Biography of a Bottle, by Carl Hamilton?" This may be the winner of the Strangest Book of 2000 award. One reason: the writing. The book was originally published in Swedish, and it shows: "Sixth Avenue opened up like a fjord in front of the three Swedes as they turned the corner at 49th Street..." And then there is the conspiratorial tone as Hamilton, a Swedish journalist and TV host, discovers that advertising people sometimes stretch the truth. Shocking! But such quirks are more entertaining than annoying, and in the end the book turns out to be a good case study of creativity in action.

How come there aren't more books about ...?
Rafe Sagalyn is one of the smartest people in the book industry, and not surprisingly, he doesn't work for a publishing house. He's an agent who had four of his books on the New York Times best-seller list last year. (Full disclosure: Sagalyn has "coagented" projects that this reviewer has worked on.)

Sagalyn always places a book he is pitching in a broader context. "If you loved the way Mr. X described the best way to tie a shoelace, you'll love Ms. Y's book on how to pair up loose socks," he'll say. What Sagalyn never says to a potential publisher is, "I know XYZ was a best-seller, but I have a book on the same subject that is even better." The reason is simple: publishers believe certain best-sellers in the field can't be topped, so they usually don't buy books that try.

That appears to be the case with books on creativity. Edward de Bono has seemingly cornered the market, and publishers are reluctant to try to take on the champ. There's no doubt that de Bono's Six Thinking Hats (Little Brown, 1999) and Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step (HarperCollins, 1990) are extremely useful. But you could hardly say they exhaust the subject. Yet publishers are acting as if they did. You'd be hard-pressed to name another major book on creativity that has been published in the recent past, other than A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger von Oech (Warner, 1998). It will be interesting to see if books like The Art of Innovation reverse that trend.

Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of

Executive Reader

Dennis Barnes
President and founder of Marketing Direct Inc., a $5-million direct-marketing agency based in St. Louis

On his car's tape deck
Inside the Tornado, by Geoffrey A. Moore. "Moore categorizes companies as gorillas, which dominate industries; orangutans, which are the next tier down; and chimps, which are driven to support the other two," Barnes says. "He says that if you can be a gorilla, you'd better exploit that opportunity. At the same time, he notes that it's not bad to be a chimp if you're a profitable chimp."

Recent fave
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. "He follows the patterns of two mice and how they adapt to changes in their environment. The patterns he sees are very important for an organization like ours."

Favorite best-seller
Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom. "He says that we recognize that people are helping us both when we're babies and late in life. But he points out that when you're in the in-between part of your life, you don't always recognize that people are helping you." --Mike Hofman

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