How to make creativity contagious

Companies may identify fresh thinking as a core value, but this doesn't square with a corporate strategy in which minimising risk is seen as a virtue. How can an organisation adapt its culture to embrace innovation? Stefan Stern reports.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Somewhere in the machine code that made possible the great gift to humanity that is Microsoft PowerPoint, there must be a line that generates a ready-made presentation on creativity and innovation. We have probably all had to sit through it at one time or another.

You know the sort of thing: 'Incremental improvement isn't good enough any more ... we need crazy ideas for crazy times ... kill or be killed ...', and so on. We are urged to worship at the altar of magical, mysterious inspiration, which will be dropped by the Muse from the clear blue skies over our heads.

It is little wonder that we cling on to this metaphysical notion of creativity.

It goes right back to the very first things we are ever taught. According to the Book of Genesis, God was the original, ultimate Creative: 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep ...'

If only the good Lord could look down as kindly on the creative efforts of us mere mortals. But that is the trouble with creativity and the Creationist mythology that underpins it: we are constantly waiting for the next miracle.

In business, you will wait a long time for miracles. Coming up with new and successful ideas requires effective management and hard work - perspiration as much as inspiration. What are the real challenges that businesses and organisations face if they are ever going to unleash the creative genius lurking within their walls?

'Every company I meet has identified innovation and creativity as core values,' says David Walker of international creativity consultancy Synectics, 'but around 90% of them do nothing about it. Their behaviour just doesn't allow creativity to emerge.'

The problem here is fundamental. The processes that businesses have traditionally wanted to hone and develop on the path to operational excellence run counter to creativity itself. 'We once assessed breakthrough innovations over a 10-year period for a large packaged goods company, to find out where their best ideas had come from,' says Walker. The answer was that the firm's top-performing innovations had all come from a small number of people - universally described by their colleagues as 'difficult to work with' - all of whom had subsequently left the company.

This is one of the key difficulties that corporations wrestle with - creativity can be disruptive and is not always compatible with the smooth running of a well-oiled commercial machine. Explains Walker: 'You get promoted in business for getting things done on time, for driving out inefficiency and being tough on costs. Reducing risk is seen as a virtue.

Minimising change and uncertainty is good. Management's watchwords are "control and optimise", and "remove surprises".

'But creativity is about creating surprises,' he adds. 'The creative world view runs counter to the operational world view. Creative people want to make up their own new rules, see how things can be different, experiment in the marketplace, and then migrate that back to the operational side of things.'

One of the other big problems with the Biblical perception of creativity is that it's a capricious and supernatural feat. If we have the gift, then - kerpow! - we are supposed to cry: Eureka! Click our fingers and something will just happen. But the truth is that - like evolution - creativity is hard work and takes time.

'There is a crisis in capitalism about all this,' says Professor James Woudhuysen, the leading design and innovation guru. 'There is panic that we are not being innovative enough. We are constantly being told to "think outside the box". What is wrong with a bit of "inside the box" thinking? You have to do some hard work here. I look forward to the day when a CEO will stand up and tell us to think inside the box.'

Roger Coveney, a director of business psychologist consultancy Kaisen Consulting, also sees a practical human dilemma at the heart of the debate on unleashing creativity. 'You have to understand what really motivates people,' he says. 'Recognise the things that people value. Try to praise and reward people who try new things, and allow them the freedom to have pet projects. And don't have too many rules.'

Leadership is vital too. 'You need a leadership that is tolerant of uncertainty,' says Coveney. 'Senior managers who are very cautious and deliberate and need to know for sure before they try anything will be very uncomfortable with creativity.'

But the freedom to experiment may be limited. As Synectics' Walker explains, if an FMCG company sets up a test market, competitors will find out about it. 'It is very difficult to contain test markets these days,' he says, 'although some retailers may be able to experiment in a limited way in a couple of stores.'

Time pressures will be felt keenly at the top too. 'One of the greatest barriers to creativity is short-termism,' says Walker, 'the pressure to get things out this year.'

Peter Freedman, director of thinking at ideas consultancy Think Inc, agrees. 'Two of the biggest ways that companies stifle creativity is by not allowing staff either the time or the permission to be creative,' he says. 'When he was asked how he discovered the law of gravity, Isaac Newton did not reply: "Well, I attended a 20-minute brainstorm and we all had to role-play being an apple, hanging on a tree." Instead, he said: "I thought about it all the time."'

It is as simple as that. Apart from anything else, you need time to let your subconscious work its magic. You need time and space to think. 'Giving staff the permission to be creative often means giving them the permission to make mistakes,' adds Freedman. 'In short, not having a climate of fear.

As the writer Erica Jong once put it: "If you don't risk anything, you risk even more." That idea has to be communicated to staff.'

Does this overplay the significance of big new ideas? Are we in danger of falling for the bloodcurdling words of that PowerPoint presentation mentioned earlier? Perhaps not.

Julian Birkinshaw's recent book Inventuring, co-written with Andrew Hatcher and William Buckland, makes a powerful case for bold corporate innovation. The authors offer this example: consider a business executive arriving at Heathrow on a Virgin Atlantic plane. On the Heathrow Express into town, he calls the office on an Ericsson phone. Then, on his IBM laptop, he does some shopping on the site, which he pays for with his Egg credit card.

All these transactions have taken place thanks to risky new ideas backed by their corporate parent. Virgin, BAA, Ericsson, IBM, Tesco and the Prudential established these businesses on the back of (and sometimes in spite of) what the core business was already doing.

In Birkinshaw's book, Egg's founding chief executive Mike Harris explains how big-company politics could so easily have strangled this bouncing baby at birth. 'Big companies like Prudential have processes to stop people making mistakes, and some people within the company, especially in strategy, felt that this was a big one. None of this was predictable. It required a different sort of risk management and therefore different people.'

What sort of corporate culture will foster creativity and innovation of this kind? For John Knell, partner in new ideas consultancy the Intelligence Agency, fear is the enemy and diversity the key. He advocates building a corporate culture where creativity is contagious.

'If you have had to work with a bullying boss, or in a workplace culture dominated by fear, that is risk-averse, that is unable to celebrate success or difference, that has no sense of purpose or aspiration, you will already know that anxiety and desperation can spread like a contagious disease,' he says.

'The creative person in this environment, infected with a virulent creativity virus, is unlikely to be able to pass on the condition to anyone else.

Organisations with an inspiring core purpose, great leadership, that value their people and value their contribution, are more likely to be creativity emitters and attractors. Here, creativity is quite likely to be contagious.'

Diversity is not merely a fashionable buzz-word or legal obligation.

It can help deliver more creativity, argues Knell. 'Organisations that genuinely value difference and are genuinely diverse make better decisions, anticipate customer needs more effectively and create better ideas.'

Environment matters. The space you give people to work in, the colour of the paintwork: some of the so-called new-economy ideas, discredited by the collapse of businesses, had merit. 'Creativity is a right-brain activity,' says Kaisen's Coveney. 'Music, the arts, play can all stimulate it.'

Unilever is one big business that has understood the importance of some of the touchy-feely arguments. Unilever House, the august corporate HQ in London's Blackfriars, will be redeveloped in 2004 with a view to making it a more dynamic, creative workspace. The firm has also had a long-standing relationship with the charity Arts and Business.

Project Catalyst, part of the firm's drive for new ideas, has been running for a number of years, and has included everything from poets in residence and exchanges with theatre groups and companies to art collections. The 'Seven Sins of Magnum' campaign, which ran successfully last year, was the bright spark of a junior marketer in Australia, who felt encouraged to share her ideas with the company at large.

'I'm all in favour of free expression,' says the headmaster in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, 'provided it is kept rigidly under control.' That irony is echoed by Woudhuysen. 'Everyone tells you to "fail fast!". When was the last time a manager rewarded you for your mistakes?'

And failures will always be made in the pursuit of breaking new ground.

The person who never made a mistake never made anything. In Unilever's case, bright spark ideas included a string of barber shops - an attempt to boost sales of male grooming products - and the myhome company, which would have cleaned your house and done your laundry. In tests, both proved to be a brand extension too far and so never made it to the high street.

Walker at Synectics sees creativity as a serious challenge to management.

'The number one issue is getting senior managers behind it, as much as they are committed to operational excellence,' he says. 'You need creativity every day to get operational excellence. You have to be able to operationalise creativity, otherwise you just have people involved in random effort, but nothing ever happens - which is frustrating. But there is no magic answer to finding a structure that works. There can be too much hierarchy, with everyone under pressure to deliver.'

And you may find that the truly original and creative people just won't stick around anyway. 'They often just don't fit in a big organisation,' says Walker. 'They find it frustrating to be in an operationally fixed environment. When creative people are asked: "Will this fit operationally?" - well, that's just not a creative question.'

The challenge to managers is to build a company fit for and receptive to new ideas and fresh thinking. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of media giant WPP, puts it this way: 'Every CEO wants the power of a global company with the heart and soul of an entrepreneurial company.' Now that is an original and a creative idea.


So how do you do it? When the talking has to stop, what practical steps do you take to bring some creativity to life?

The innovations company ?What If! (sic) has published - a real rarity, this - a genuinely useful book for managers on the creative process. Called Sticky Wisdom, it offers a six-step programme for starting something exciting in your company.

The six steps are ...

- Freshness - You need to jump out of one 'river of thinking' and enter another. This gets us out of our hard-wired, analytical, left-brain approach to everything. There are four river-jumping techniques: re-expression (finding an alternative way of describing or experiencing the issue), related worlds (finding an alternative but similar issue or benefit in another world), revolution (identifying, then deliberately challenging the rules and assumptions), random links (using a deliberate connection with a random item).

- Greenhousing - Young ideas get destroyed in the Emergency Room (ER) culture of today's organisations. We need to switch between ER and greenhouse at the right time. Stay in the SUN (Suspend judgment, Understand and Nurture), and keep out of the RAIN (React, Assume and INsist).

- Realness - Make ideas real as soon as possible. Reproduce the experience you are thinking of and bring it to life. Don't be a perfectionist. Share prototypes.

- Momentum - The management of energy. Momentum is contagious, but so is inertia. Momentum breeds high corporate self-esteem and makes people feel that anything is possible. Companies lacking momentum create a culture that is self-defeating. Ban dull away-days in boring hotel rooms.

- Signalling - Tell others how you want them to react to your ideas - build it or find the holes in it. Without signalling, you cannot greenhouse an idea. Signalling takes five seconds or less to do, but years of practice to do well.

- Courage - Creativity is closely related to bravery because it requires the creator to expose themselves to potential judgment. Brave people do not think of themselves as brave, they are merely being true to themselves. Show your struggle, stretch your comfort zone, cloak yourself in positive self-commentary, find your friends and support each other, get convicted (don't wait for belief to come to you, but visualise how things could be).

It won't always be easy to operate at a creative level, but by making yourself change the habitual, comfortable things; by letting go of the familiar world of quick judgment; by creating an alternative view when time tells you to move on; and by making things real, you will succeed.

Welcome to the revolution.


1: It's too risky/unpredictable. (In the Gold Rush of 1849, people made money through the creative production of commodity shovels, not from stab-in-the-dust exploration.)

2: Best to be a fast follower, not a first mover.

3: It will cannibalise sales of our existing products and services, in which we've made a large investment. You can't just write that off.

4: We haven't got a budget for that/we'll have to cut money from other departments in order to find the funds.

5: Engineering/Human Resources/Legal/Ethics/shareholder activists say it can't or shouldn't be done.

6: We're too big and cumbersome to make the most of this and other ideas. We need to form partnerships with SMEs, government labs and universities, or set up an autonomous unit.

7: We/somebody else did that before and it failed.

8: Our suppliers will never rise to the challenge.

9: The punters are so dumb they will never buy it/will snap up every one we've got.

10: Punters and sales staff will be too slow to grasp how it works. Anyway, they don't need to know that and, apart from a few geeks, aren't usually interested.

11: We need to protect our intellectual property and our brand at all costs: diverting resources into this innovation doesn't help in that.

12: It's impossible to forecast the market for this innovation.

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