By Jim Prior Friday, 11 March 2011

MT Expert - Innovation: Don't just think creative, be creative

As the business world gets back on its feet after the downturn, companies are going to have to think outside the box if they are to beat off competition from rivals.

There’s a growing consensus in the business world that creativity is the key to future success. Creativity means innovation in products and services, more imaginative business propositions driven by better understanding of the market, re-thought processes, enhanced customer experiences, more engaging marketing and more effective communications. It means transformation of the business model and radical, brave moves forward. It means following in the footsteps of companies like Apple and Google – both of which have risen to market leadership by placing creativity at heart of everything they do.

Put like this it’s easy to see why so many business leaders are sharing the belief in creativity as the key driver of business success. Our own survey of three hundred senior executives in UK SMEs has shown overwhelming support for the idea, as has a subsequent study of 1500 CEOs, in 60 countries, across 33 industry sectors, by IBM.

Yet there’s a problem. Whilst a majority are quick to express their belief in creativity, far fewer are prepared to actually do anything about it. Our same survey shows 77% of respondents don’t take creativity into account when writing business strategy, and 89% never discuss it at Board meetings. In IBM’s study, more than half the CEOs said they were ill equipped to manage it.

It seems like the biggest business paradox of our time: The thing acknowledged as the most important driver of business success is the thing that business seems to systematically ignore.

Why is that?  Well, the most telling statistic from our survey is the 56% of respondents who say that they’d like to be more creative but don’t know how. Not only is creativity something that few business leaders have been trained to participate in but it’s something that a great many of them have been taught to actively avoid. What’s needed, if business is to take advantage of the route to future success, is a comprehensive re-education in thought processes and decision-making; a new mind-set for the creative age.

This opens up a great opportunity for fast-moving SMEs to respond. So, if you want to seize the opportunity to drive a successful future, here are three things that you should start doing now:

1. Lead from the top
The mistake many business leaders make is to silo creativity as purely a marketing function in which they do not require to get personally involved. Whilst it’s true that creativity is important in marketing, it is certainly not the only, or most valuable, area in which it may be employed. Organisations that think creatively across their business need their leaders to support and demonstrate it personally at all times. Make it part of your conversations with your leadership team, customers, shareholders and media. You’ll find that alignment comes quickly and the objections of dissenters soon subside.

2. Make it part of the culture
If you want more people in your organisation to be creative then you have to encourage and support them to do so. Consider financial incentives or internal awards for creative ideas that get adopted. Write it into people’s job descriptions and assess it in appraisals. 3M instructed their employees to spend 15% of their time pursuing innovation projects of their own making – leading to, amongst other things, the Post-It™ note – and Google followed suit, raising the time stake to 20%. The office environment, the social calendar, the way you conduct meetings, can all have a huge impact on the extent to which your organisation is creative, or not.

3. Seek external support
With the right kind of leadership and encouragement any organisation can become more creative. But there will always be limits to how much you can achieve on your own. Just as traditional management consultancy can add value to a business through transference of best practice and deep specialisation, so can creative consultancy. No, it’s not all about sitting on beanbags and drawing pictures of clouds. It’s about gaining deep understanding of your business problems, re-framing them in inspiring ways. It’s about re-imagining what’s possible without the baggage of unnecessary protocols or politics. It’s about using non-linear thought-processes to make powerful connections between market needs and your business’ potential in ways that conventional thinking would fail to find.

Jim Prior is CEO of award winning branding agency The Partners.

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