Sunday, February 26, 2012

Making Deposits to the Creativity Bank

Executive Summary:
Creativity is the power that enables invention, innovation, and good problem solving.  It often defines the success of our products, services, or business.  Take some time and give some serious thought to how you ensure your business has a solid pool of creative juices from which to draw.

The Rest of the Story:
Think for a moment about the products, services, business models, or businesses that you most admire.  Are any of them obvious, humdrum examples; or are they ingenious and different?  Creativity is a resource that those we most wish to emulate exercise in abundance or with authority.

What do you do for yourself or your business to develop your creative, problem-solving talent?  Have you considered the potential impact that creativity and creative people can have on your business?  If not, do so now and read a little further.

If we distill the challenges of business success down to a single, simple axiom, it might be thus.  Success in business comes from our ability to solve problems.  Think about it.  Our products and services sell because they solve problems or otherwise improve things for our customers.  Successful business models solve problems for organizing, managing, and executing business.  Successful marketing solves the problem of reaching new customers.  Successful sales solve the problem of convincing customers to buy our offerings.  Successful process improvement solves the problem of making what we do easier, more efficient, and more effective.

Everything we are about, in every sort of business, is solving problems.  To solve problems we must understand problems.  This requires observation and learning.  Once we understand problems, however, we must have the ability to visualize a practical solution as well as the ability to manifest what we imagine into a real solution.  The ability to visualize a solution and make it into a real thing is all about creativity.  Have I got your attention?

I perceive that creativity is as much a learned skill as it is a natural talent.  People who engage in creative activities with other creative minds do indeed pick up some of the method and ability through observation, mentoring, and exercise and practice.  At the very least, recognize that people who are really good at solving puzzles or playing games generally are those who practice solving puzzles and playing games the most.

Regardless of where we individually start on the creativity and problem-solving talent scale, we can increase our ability with practice.  (Keep a finger on this thought because we will return to it)  While some of us may have a talent for creativity, it is a skill that can and should be nurtured and developed, just like any other.  The ability to draw on our creative talents, on-demand, and turn our ideas into real solutions is absolutely a skill.  This skill is what we should be trying to maximize for our businesses and ourselves.

There are a wide variety of things we can all do to increase the creative capacities of our teams.  Let’s discuss them in three contexts:
  • How to improve our existing capabilities
  • How to increase or acquire more capability
  • How to look to the future 

To improve our potential for creativity at work, we can address three things.  We can practice and exercise, we can improve our tools, and we can increase our access and understanding.  By the way, these things we can do for ourselves, personally, as much as we can do them for our teams.

To exercise creativity at work, encourage and enable creative problem-solving games and exercises.  My favorite tool is to engage others, in small groups, in thought experiments or games.  Pick a real or imagined business problem, common problem, or political problem and pose it to your colleagues.

For example, go to lunch with two or three peers and challenge them to help you solve the problem of keeping more industry local instead of transferring it to other regions.  Let the ideas flow.  Discuss the challenges, roadblocks, and behaviors and attack them with possible solutions.  You don’t have to actually solve the problem at lunch.  The point is to exercise your skills to understand the problem and envision solutions.

Here is another idea that works well.  Challenge your product development team to develop a better pencil sharpener, or your marketing team to promote your daughter’s cheerleading squad.  Offer a prize for the best and most creative solutions, such as a prime parking space or the privilege of throwing water balloons at you at the company picnic.

In addition to exercise, go shopping and invest in problem-solving tools and methods for your business and your teams.  Tools and methods don’t solve problems; creativity solves problems.  However, tools and methods can help us to understand problems, organize information, communicate problems and solutions, and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our problem-solving efforts.

Creation is an inspired activity.  However, even inspired inventors and artists have tools and methods that help them to create and to feed the inspiration.  Many of the problem-solving tools and methods available to our businesses do the same thing.  Examples many of us have heard would be Lean, TRIZ, Six Sigma, Value Innovation, Value Engineering, or Axiomatic Design, just to pick a few familiar titles.

To maximize our creative talents and skills, and make the best use of our tools, we can increase access to the problems as well as the talents and improve our communications.  It’s no good to have great problem-solving talent and skill if that talent and skill isn’t directed at the problems.  Begin a practice of sharing real business problems and customer problems with your business personnel.

Sharing business challenges with more than your elite business experts has several benefits.  It gets your greater team thinking about the big picture, enhancing their interaction and understanding and expanding their perspective.  It works like the other thought games mentioned above and encourages problem-solving practice and exercises skills.  Finally, it vastly increases the brainpower and creativity invested in solving your problems.  Also, sometimes someone who is not confined to tradition or paradigm can solve the problem better.  An idea for a great product or service doesn’t have to come from engineers or marketing teams.

There is something very powerful we can do in addition to exercising and enhancing our existing creative capabilities.  We can acquire more.  There are two ways.  We can contract it or partner with it, and we can hire it.

Don’t balk at the idea of engaging outside expertise to help you solve problems.  Today there are a plethora of consultants and agencies with a myriad of expertise from solving process problems to inventing new technologies and products.  These resources possess highly focused and practiced skills in specific problem-solving arenas.  You would be hard pressed to mimic or replicate those skills within your own organization.  If you need a short burst of creative genius to solve a specific challenge, go engage it.

If you want to increase your internal capabilities, hire creativity.  When you hire new personnel, I hope that you do more than run through a checklist of experience and credentials and check for a pulse.  Do you actively, purposefully seek creative talent?  Make a point, from here on out, to ask candidates to demonstrate or describe their most creative solutions.

Consider this.  As much as we can exercise our creativity, as mentioned above, many of those among us with the greatest creative talents and skills have developed those skills since childhood.  It is relatively easy to teach someone how to use specific software platforms, or to mentor them in specific systems or build their experience.  It takes much more work to teach someone to be creatively excellent.

We are better off hiring highly creative problem solvers that might be missing a couple of credentials.  Not needing to train someone in a specific credential is convenient, but bringing on the ability to solve difficult problems effectively is very powerful.

Now consider a bigger picture.  What if you could ensure that your future employees received training and mentoring, encouragement and skills in creative tools and problem solving so that you could hire them?  We don’t often recognize it, but it is taking place in our children’s schools all the time.

The art, science, and shop programs in our schools engage professional educators for the specific purpose of teaching our youth how to be creative and encouraging them to exercise and develop their creative potential.  We often consider these programs secondary in importance to the “standard” academics of reading, writing, and mathematics, but I’m not sure that it is correct to do so.

Sure reading, writing, math, history, social studies, etc. are all very important, but it is our alternative courses that show us how to look at problems differently, how to observe and study, how to use limited materials at our disposal to invent or problem-solve, and how to think beyond the obvious or the pre-programmed.  In our schools we have professionals whose responsibility and passion is to show us how.

Without going off on a tangent about public school systems and the challenges therein, I want us to consider what we have discussed above concerning the power of creative problem solving.  A single Web post is not enough writing space, or attention span, to discuss the whole spectrum of possibilities and challenges.  Instead I will encourage you to take some time this week and think very devotedly about the real power and potential, and where our development of these skills comes from.

To fuel your thought I offer you the following observation that should be valid regardless of your national loyalties or regional location.  The U.S. economy and industry has led the world for generations in significant part because of the innovative and inventive nature of it, because of the creativity.  Some of that creativity-turned-economic-success came from investments made to it during cold war arms races and space programs.  Some of it was enabled by a root culture that values creativity and encourages entrepreneurial success.

If you decide that investing in the greater future is something that you would like to do, then I offer a handful of very pragmatic ways you and your business can make a difference.  If your business has the collateral to make a significant contribution to your local school district, it can be a real game changer for that district.  Don’t be afraid to discuss with the district leaders how the contribution should be allocated and used.

If you are interested in encouraging students to consider your business as an employer, focus on the colleges and high schools.  If you want to make the greatest difference in your community and your youth, infest at the elementary school level where interests and talents begin.

Another way to support local creativity programs is to set up a scholarship through your school district Parent-Teachers’ Association (PTA).  Your business can specify the nature of the scholarship and partake in the selection of the recipients.  If you can’t provide a scholarship on your own, you can work with the PTA to pool your contribution with other businesses’ to provide the scholarship.

If significant tax write-offs are not in the cards for your business, there are some very affordable options to consider.  There are a wide variety of programs for schools of all levels that support arts and science, but which require some sponsorship to be made available.  Two that I can recite are Young Rembrandts and Science Matters. 

After-school, supplementary programs may be facilitated by volunteers or trained professionals.  Either way, the supplies and materials must be made available from some budget.  For some schools the school budget can carry the program or the PTA can, but for some it is simply not possible.  Generally, these programs can be funded for a single school for a few hundred dollars.

Lastly, your business could consider sponsoring a chess club, science club, art club, or other after-school program.  Send one of your personnel to the school once a week, maybe your personnel rotate the responsibility/privilege, to facilitate the club.  Many schools would be very accommodating of these volunteer-led activities.

If your business makes a program or scholarship available to youth in your area, it might go unnoticed by many.  But then again, a student, or a sibling, or a parent might very well notice and remember that your company demonstrated its belief in the power of creativity and, since they share the same value, might make an effort to become part of your company.  I know that is a lot of “mights” but it is hard to put tangible benefit numbers to our investments in society and culture.

Certainly, we can see that even volunteering personnel’s time at a school can cost your business some little amount.  Scholarships and district program sponsorship can cost significantly.  Even the small investments in tools, methods, and exercises can be considered a cost.  Don’t look at them as costs.  They are investments.  Each one, large or small, is a deposit in your creativity bank account.  One day, you will be very glad for your investment when creative solutions by skilled problem solvers begin saving you other expenses, improving your business effectiveness, or developing your breakthrough product and service offerings.

How far you want to go in terms of investing in creativity is up to you, but I strongly urge you to meditate on the ideas I have posited in this post.  The creative capacity of your business might very well be your greatest and most powerful resource.  Take measures to maximize it.  Exercise and encourage it.  Hire it.  Contract it when you need more than you have.  Consider where it comes from and how a small investment on your part might make a big difference to your community and potential future resources.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. Very interesting article...I appreciate your insight. I have several observations / comments on this topic that you may or may not find interesting or useful but I'll offer them for what they may be worth.

    My perspective comes from about 40 years as a design engineer, then a systems engineer, then an engineering manager followed by owning my own engineering consulting business for the past 20 years. Also, I have taught control systems and dynamics as a part time lecturer at a local university for the past 5 years or so. In spite of all this, I do not consider myself to be particularly innovative but I think I do have a pretty good knake for recognizing innovation.

    My comments are:
    1. engineers don't tend to be innovators or inventors. They are trained to be specifically analytical and to know "what's inside the box" which is often detrimental to "thinking outside the box". It is very difficult to teach innovation.

    2. engineers who have been in a particular industry for years often have to be risk takers to be innovative because, by this time, they have a reputation and therefore they see failing as more significant than, for example, a young engineer new to the industry who does not yet have a reputation at stake.

    3. Risk taking is predominatley a personality trait that many engineers don't have and must be recognized and carefully cultivated and managed (it can be a two-edged sword). Also, I think an innovative personality may often come with other personality traits that may not make an innovative engineer the best liked individual in the office which can also have an effect on the acceptance of thier ideas by others.

    4. True innovation often appears as off-wall-thinking. Innovative ideas shouldn't be expected to be immediatley obvious to most people which is why it's an innovative idea in the first place. All the obvious ideas are already known so you wouldn't expect the potential benefits to be obvious to anyone else at first.

    5. Innovative ideas not only have to be generated somehow but, in order to have some benefit, they have to be accepted and implemented. It may be useful to assume that there is probably more innovation going on around us on a daily basis than we are capable of recognizing and that many good innovative ideas die an early death.

    6. Just because an idea is new or innovative doesn't necessarily mean that it is good or should be implemented (the corrollary to 5 above). However, giving the innovator clear reasons why thier idea may have been rejected is crucial to keeping them from being discouraged from further innovating.

    From my experience, the best thing a manager can do to encouage innovation is to recognize it (by understanding the above) and carefully manage it by cultivating it and removing impediments. Finally, I belive the economy of the U.S. in the future may be very much linked to our ability to innovate since we will have increasing difficulties compeating in the world market. However, we have a definite advantage here in comparison to much of the rest of the world because the freedoms we enjoy are also conducive to innovative thinking.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your well-formulated comments. I find them to be insightful and other readers will also find them interesting. I especially agree that the greatest strength of U.S. industry for the last several decades has been our innovative character and that revitalizing that culture will be paramount to competing in a global economy where others are rapidly catching up to a level of industrial prowess that the U.S. has experienced.