Hands up who has innovation fatigue? Well, you are not alone. Anyone in business, large or small, is constantly reminded about how the clever people at Apple, Google and 3M have working cultures that allow for lots of time to be creative. They come up with disruptive business ideas that are prototyped and rolled out, and then watch as the profits roll in. So how does that relate to the rest of us?
At the heart of these business successes is thinking creatively, something education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson argues every business must be doing well. “Creativity is not some exotic, optional extra. It is a strategic issue,” he says. Robinson published Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative in 2001, focusing on the urgent call for the world to embrace creative thinking as a social, economic and political imperative. Robinson, a master debater and orator, starts the first chapter of Out of Our Minds with a challenge: “When people say to me they are not creative, I assume that they haven’t yet learnt what is involved.”
Perth-based technology company Filter Squad is one of the industry’s most successful start-ups in recent years. Their game-changing products, the Discovr apps, have been number one on the iTunes store in 28 countries. With more than two million downloads, they have changed the way music fans find the tunes they like. At the heart of the company’s success has been taking radical ideas and turning them into new products. To do this, Filter Squad co-founder Dave McKinney invests significant time in harnessing creativity.
Typically, Filter Squad tries to avoid group brainstorming. Instead, McKinney gathers ideas everywhere, knowing how fragile and fleeting they can be. He likes to go bush, away from the WiFi, or sit on a beach for long, uninterrupted periods. He has a new van kitted out with a desk and a couch for these solo sessions. Ideas also surface after his 5am starts. “I put the music on and get to it,” he says. McKinney has notebooks in his car, on his desk, by his bed, in his bag. He then sifts through and consolidates these ideas. “In general, I like to let ideas run and let them come unjudged,” he says. The key then is to take the idea and turn it into something real. “An idea that doesn’t get made real and tested is nothing. Ideas must be executed to have any value.”
Sydney-based author and executive coach Irene van der Does de Willebois has a way to describe Dave McKinney’s creativity retreats – she calls the process “presencing”, having the time on your own to think things through. “You don’t have to be a Buddhist or sit in an ashram; it is simply centering yourself.” Van der Does de Willebois works with clients such as AMP and Macquarie Bank through individual coaching and group workshops to bring out people’s creativity and tap into their own creative drivers. “Being creative within themselves is actually going to be the number one competency that is required,” she says.
So many of van der Does de Willebois’ clients tell her that they are not creative.
But she begs to differ, building creative confidence, skills and energy in her clients’ work and lives. “It’s a discipline,” she says. “Once you begin to look for ideas, they start bubbling up, literally. The well of creativity is always there.”
The godfather of disruptive thinking, Clayton Christensen describes game-changing new products and services as “disruptive technologies”. They are not part of sustained progress; they are a whole new category (that can even cannibalise the company’s existing businesses). These new products and services ignore the status quo and go it alone.
Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, was the start of the disruptive thinking revolution. Christensen identifies why so many businesses miss market opportunities – because they stick to “traditional” ways of operating. (Case in point: Kodak, the once-great camera giant and creator of “Kodak moments” failed to embrace the digital age and paid the ultimate price, filing for bankruptcy in January last year.)
Melbourne-born, New York-based Luke Williams is another thought leader on disruptive thinking. Through his highly accessible book, Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, Williams breaks down the disruptive thinking process into five steps (see page 28) so that organisations, teams and individuals can learn to think and act disruptively, to “think what no one else is thinking, and do what no one else is doing”.
Williams’ speaking engagements this year are taking him across the globe to Madrid, Florence, Guatemala City, Malmo and London. His clients include HBO (creators of groundbreaking television such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad), Corning (producers of kitchenware, fibre optic cable and the “gorilla glass” used on more than one billion mobile phones), Crocs (those rubber clogs), American Express and Hewlett-Packard. He is a fellow at Frog Design, a leading design consultancy based in New York, and he has a prolific footprint across TED, Twitter, YouTube, vimeo and Google+. Everywhere Williams goes around the world, people are facing the same issues – coming to terms with the accelerating pace of change, high levels of uncertainty and that fear of “not wanting to be the next Kodak”, he says.
Williams has become adjunct professor of innovation at NYU Stern School of Business, teaching business leaders and MBA students alike about disruptive thinking. He sees a “massive chasm” between innovation rhetoric and the practicalities of applying disruptive thinking in a business. People he meets all around the world “are not quite sure what to do,” he says. “I wanted to write a book that anyone could pick up and use.”
Since Disrupt was published, Williams has run many creative disruption workshops and briefings with HR directors. (No brainstorming with water pistols, beanbags and other such creativity-stimulating tools allowed.) Williams empathises with the tough time HR directors can have driving change in their organisations. “They can feel like the least creative part of the organisation but what I tell them is that they are one of the most critical components in making disruptive thinking happen in an organ-isation,” he says.
This must occur through values and behaviours and how they are aligned in the business. It’s one thing to say the company “values” disruptive thinking; it is another to support the behaviour and have the courage to follow through. “How are you incentivising and rewarding people for disruptive innovation?” Williams says. “If the metrics and rewards are not aligned with the values, then you have a big problem. Until you line that up, nothing else happens,” he says.
In terms of HR, online shoe retailer Zappos has achieved this alignment effectively using disruptive thinking. The company devised a whole new way of looking at staff incentives, the ‘quit now’ bonus. Zappos does not offer new recruits sign-on deals, rather after a four-week training program, the company offers a $US3000 ‘quit now’ cash payment for people who wish to leave the company. The disruptive idea here is that it weeds out people who aren’t fully committed to the sales ethos of Zappos and keeps the staff that are genuinely committed to the program.
Just as Williams finds clients come to him “wanting to be the next Apple”, van der Does de Willebois has clients coming to her after realising “it’s probably a good idea” to develop the creative capacity of the executive team. Typically there is a so-called problem with the performance of a particular executive that the coach is brought in to rectify. “What is often the case is leaders are getting in the way of their teams,” she says.
Leaders have to embrace change in order to unleash genuine creativity. For van der Does de Willebois, creativity is business. “It is not for the wishy-washy people who like
to sit at home and dream and paint. If you want to be in business, you have to adopt creative thinking. Without it you are doomed,” she says.
In 2011, an IBM poll of 1500 leaders in 60 countries identified creativity as the number one leadership quality needed to manage companies. To address such skill gaps, van der Does de Willebois works primarily with leadership teams, encouraging a culture of creativity from the top down. “How are leaders going to talk to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world if they haven’t adapted to this new way of thinking?”
Former marketing director of American Express, Ken Hudson runs his own consultancy business, holds workshops and consults on creativity and innovation. Clients include Roche, Dell Computers, Hilton Hotels, Mars, Baxter Health Care, Plan, MYOB and Suzanne Grae. He has trained thousands of students and executives in creative thinking techniques. “When we start out, most people shy away, feeling very uncomfortable and embarrassed,” he says. If there is a golden rule with getting the creative juices flowing, for Hudson it is simple: “You’ve got to start.”
Hudson has a range of tools for individuals and groups to encourage creative thinking, and he works to break the habit of sticking to what has been successful in the past. “Leaders and managers get trapped by their own mindset,” he says. Hudson had success recently with a major household goods manufacturer that just couldn’t get excited about its products in a “low-interest, low-involvement category”. Through creative thinking processes, they worked with the hypothesis: How could we make this the most exciting product in the world? Together they devised a new deodorised garbage bag, boosted sales and moved up the rankings in their category. “Before they were trapped
by their collective mindset,” he says.
Hudson’s business case for creative and disruptive thinking is simple: “It will make your job easier. If you have it in your head that creativity is more like a muscle that has to be exercised, you wouldn’t go to the gym once every three months to lift weights… My sense is, wouldn’t it be better to do a little exercise every day?”
This article is written by Emily Ross and was first published in the April issue of HRmonthly.