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On Creativity

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For many years, I have been asked to run creativity sessions for some major corporations. It turns out that many companies think of themselves as not being particularly creative. Often it is the corporate culture that kills off the natural creativity that exists in any group. The more political the corporate environment, the less creativity issues forth. (That's why the government is so bad at innovating.)

When faced with one of these groups, I start out by reminding people that creativity is all about risk. The higher the risk, of course, the more reasons there are to say no to a particular innovation. Companies in peril thus often turn their backs on new ideas.

This is, of course, a bad decision. It is precisely the companies whose markets are going away and whose customers are defecting the most rapidly that need new solutions but, because of fear, they cannot make changes. I call these "frozen stick crashes." When the plane is heading for the ground, the last thing a pilot should do is nothing.

The good news is that creativity is not as difficult or abstract a concept as most people think. More than once, I have taken a room full of supposedly "non-creative" businesspeople and led them through exercises that produced surprisingly good results. By the time the session breaks out (sometimes late in the night), we will have come up with a totally new direction for the organization that promises to create a new line of business that will, in some cases, save the company.

How should you structure one of these creativity sessions? Here are some of my tricks:

1. Ask everyone in the room to think of the craziest business idea possible, and offer a reward for the person with the most far-out notion. This will distract people enough to undermine the politics that are common in the group dynamic particularly in larger organizations.

2. List these ideas on a white board or on a PowerPoint slide, and go through them one by one. Ask members of the group to discuss how, if forced, they would implement these nutty ideas. Often, a very creative solution to a company's problems will emerge when you suddenly take seriously a seemingly crazy thought.

3. Ask the group: Who will be your competition in 5 years? And what will the competition's business look like in 5 years?

4. Then ask: What are your company's core capabilities, and how far will these skills take it, assuming your market, your technology, and your resources remain constant?

If you're starting a company from scratch, you must resist the urge to carry the burden for creativity all on your own. You don't have to have all the good ideas. Get a good team in place as soon as you start, and use them to help refine and articulate the business's creative vision.

Go to trade shows outside of your target business. It is amazing how many good ideas are common practices in one industry while remaining totally absent in another.

Look at two businesses and ask what a mash-up of them would look like. This can be very surprising and help you come up with new ideas.

Finally, embrace the idea that creativity is generally democratic. Everyone has what it takes to be creative in business. My favorite statement is that, "Anyone that has taken a shower has had a good idea--but it is the person who does something when they get out the shower that make the difference."

So go take a shower.

Last updated: May 27, 2009




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