Your Business Needs a Creativity Consultant


In 1996, Lee Kun-Hee, then the chairman of Samsung Group, had had enough. The electronics firm was following, not leading. The marketing department would track sales figures and tell the engineers what the company could charge for a product. Their market analysis would determine the engineering budget. Original equipment manufacturers would provide lists of desired features. That would tell the engineering team what to build. The company would churn out a new television or a video recorder that met those criteria, and when the engineers were finished, the handful of designers at the company would “skin” the product. They’d do something to make it look vaguely attractive in the electronics stores.

Lee decided that if Samsung was going to become an electronics leader, it needed to emphasize design. The company needed to become driven by innovation instead of by efficiency. An account in the Harvard Business Review describes how Samsung added an entire new element to its production system. In addition to the engineering and marketing sections, it would have a design section that would be a driving force in the company.

Samsung hired faculty members from a local, respected art college and asked them to build training programs, an internship, and an in-house course that would take designers out of their departments for as long as two years. The goal was to make designers recognize that they had a vital role to play in the company and to make them an intrinsic part of the production process.

The change created friction. When Lee Min-Hyouk, Samsung Mobile’s creative director, designed the “Benz phone,” the first flip-cover mobile phone without an external antenna, he had to persuade the engineers that a design without an antenna was worth making. Telling them that the phone looked better wouldn’t cut it. Lee researched hinge design and paint types that enhanced signal reception to prove that the innovation wasn’t just attractive but also functional. When the company introduced its One Design flat-panel screens, it had to create a new supply chain, reducing shipping costs, in order to persuade a manufacturer to drop an inner cover and keep the new screens as thin as possible.

The result though, was that Samsung became a company known not just for efficiency but for innovation, one of the world’s leading designers of mobile phones, televisions, and other electronic devices.

How to Build a Creative Company

The Korean company, of course, isn’t the only electronics firm that found new success with a shift towards innovation-led production. Apple’s transformation into a trillion dollar company had as much to do with Jony Ive’s design work as Steve Jobs’ management skills. It’s no wonder then that as manufacturing has become a service that can be outsourced to a giant factory in Shenzhen, businesses increasingly regard creativity and innovation as the source of their value.

But where does that creativity come from? How can companies build a store of a skill that they can’t see and is difficult to measure?

One approach is to follow the theory of lone geniuses. This model suggests that creativity is produced by talented individuals who can see things that others miss—a version of the Great Man theory of history. The discovery of electricity is down to the foresight of Thomas Edison. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Without the genius of Carl Benz, we would all be riding horses to work instead of driving in cars. Companies that can identify the most creative, visionary individuals—a new Jony Ive or Christian Dior or James Dyson—and persuade them to share their ideas for a high salary and a share of the profits will have a competitive advantage and the talent to dominate their industry. That talent is rare and difficult to find so when a company does find it, they have to pay for it and do their best to hold on to it.

But while the lone genius idea of creativity makes technology origin stories easy to understand and simple to tell, in practice, creative thinking rarely happens in isolation. Creative thinkers don’t pick concepts out of the air. They track what others are doing and build on their ideas. Carl Benz wouldn’t have been able to advance his ideas without the competition from other contemporary inventors like Gottlieb Daimler. Thomas Edison competed with Nikola Tesla, and both depended on teams to turn their insights into prototypes. Even Jony Ive used a team to produce and hone his designs, and when he left Apple after 30 years to form his own company, he did it with Marc Newson, an Australian designer.

The concept of the lone creative genius might be alluring but it’s not a particularly innovative way to tell the story of inventions and breakthroughs that are usually the result of inspiration and collaboration rather than individual flashes of insight.

The Science of Creative Collaboration

So companies don’t need to interview the graduates of design schools and art courses to find the most creative individuals of their generation in order to give themselves an advantage. Instead, they should be looking to foster creativity within the teams they already have. They should be looking to form processes that encourage ideation, feedback, and collaboration.

In a 2010 paper, Karan Girotra, a professor at INSEAD, together with Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich of the University of Pennsylvania, described an experiment that they performed to produce the best business ideas. They recruited 44 volunteers from an elective design course at the University of Pennsylvania and divided them into groups of four. The teams were asked to produce ideas for a new sports product and a new household product. One set of teams had 30 minutes to work together to produce their ideas, then five minutes to select their best five concepts. The other set of teams broke up so that individuals worked alone for ten minutes. They then ranked their own ideas before reforming into teams to discuss each others’ concepts and choose the best five.

Girotra and his colleagues invited MBA students to judge the quality of the ideas the groups produced. What they found was that a hybrid process that started with individual brainstorming followed by group discussion created not just the largest number of ideas but also the highest quality ideas. Companies that can combine individual idea generation with group collaboration, the researchers concluded, will produce the most valuable concepts.

That might suggest that the choice of individuals is still key but creativity experts now largely reject the idea that creativity is an innate talent that is either present or absent. Instead, they see it as an ability that anyone can learn.

“If you think about creative thinking as a skill, then the more you practice and develop this skill the better your creative performance will be,” explains Derek Cheshire, a British creativity and innovation specialist. “Some people are better at generating new ideas, for example, while others focus more on testing these.”

Cheshire has worked with businesses in industries including oil and gas, manufacturing, electronics, education, and the non-profit sector to improve creative thinking. His seminars tend to start with disruption. He might pile up the furniture in the room, then ask attendees to decide how to set up the space or invite them to assemble their own buffet. The idea, he says, is to prompt participants to forget where they’ve come from. He’ll then talk them through various creative techniques, such as brainstorming and visualization, so that they feel more confident when tackling unfamiliar tasks and more willing to put forward ideas in the workplace. “Both attendees and their employers should notice a difference in intrinsic motivation and have an idea of a) how much effort and b) how much cost is involved in embracing creativity as part of innovation,” he says.

Ken Hudson, a Singapore-based creativity trainer and the author of three books about creative thinking, uses a similar approach. His workshops give participants a creative experience related to a real problem or challenge the group is facing. For Hudson, telling people to be creative or think outside the box is rarely helpful. “Give them a tool and they have something tangible to play with,” he says.

Hudson provides a selection of different tools. “The Power of 3” encourages participants to produce three kinds of solutions for a problem: a set of tested ideas that have worked in the past; some new variations on old ideas; and a group of radical, innovative, and even “crazy” ideas that haven’t been tried before. The result should be a collection of new concepts that can be used individually or in combination.

In an “Ideas Blitz” each member of a group tries to produce nine ideas in two minutes. The group then connects the ideas, enhances them, and develops an action plan to implement at least some of them. It’s a kind of roadmap for brainstorming. Columns marked “best,” “not quite right” and “scary” for big, apparently unworkable concepts provide one simple way to evaluate ideas. It’s often those “scary” ideas that turn out to be the most inspiring, argues Hudson.

“The initial results would be (hopefully) a breakthrough solution to their problem,” he says. “And then people would learn a few tools they can use immediately. In the longer run it’s about greater creative confidence and awareness.”

Both creativity trainers are making two assumptions. The first is that everybody has creativity and anybody can be creative. Derek Cheshire notes that when he makes excuses to his wife for neglecting to take out the trash or mow the lawn, he’s engaging in a form of creativity. We all have a part to play in organizational creativity, he argues. Ken Hudson agrees that everyone is needed when a company is looking for creative ideas and innovative solutions.

The second assumption is that that creativity is more effective when pooled. As Karan Girotra and his colleagues have found, individuals might start the process of idea generation but there’s more to creativity than seeing something new. Ideas also have to be assessed, evaluated, prioritized and implemented, a series of tasks that requires the creativity of multiple viewpoints and experiences. Creativity trainers don’t just try to enhance individual creativity or foster the development of lone geniuses. They raise everyone’s ability to think of new solutions and pool their creativity so that the idea that goes into production is the best that the team could have come up with together.

Creativity Starts at the Top

That emphasis on creative teamwork means that leaders have a special place. Ken Hudson argues that it’s up to leaders to encourage creativity. They have to talk about its importance and be open to new ideas themselves. “It all starts with leaders,” he says.

But it also has to end there. Derek Cheshire warns against bringing office politics into the creative process. “Bosses like to make things look like their own or use phrases like ‘tell me more’ to try and stall or undermine,” he says. When a creative concept is a team effort, the idea belongs to the team, and it’s the team that has to find a way to develop and implement it—and eventually take credit for it. Companies should also encourage play in the same way that they expect engineers to build prototypes. That playing allows for mistakes to be made in a safe environment and enables learning.

Like a creative workshop, none of those steps is guaranteed to build you a new Apple or transform your business in the way that Samsung changed but it might just give it a bigger store of what is now the business world’s most important corporate asset.

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