I was recently invited to deliver a seminar to a group of business entrepreneurs at a business show in Leamington Spa. The subject of the seminar was ‘The Power of Creative Thinking for SME Businesses’. As a passionate advocate (evangelical even), of both creativity and the business entrepreneur, this was a subject very close to my heart.
Now, I’ve spent the best part of 30 years in pursuit of creativity and in my experience, very few organisations have a clear idea of what creativity is and how fundamentally it is for businesses of all shapes and sizes. I was therefore grateful for the opportunity to stand up and spread the word.
In this blog, I have attempted to summarise the main points of my seminar with the hope of reaching a few more people and claiming a few more converts to the cause.
The power of creativity
To kick off then, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on creativity and how powerful it is. Now, I’m not a guru or all-knowing oracle on creativity (beware those who profess to be), but what I do know is that creativity - invents, improves and defines the world we live in.
If you stop and think about it, creativity is all around us. It touches all our lives every minute of every day, in every different way – from the clothes we wear, the buildings we live in and work in, to the food we eat, the cars we drive and the mobile tech appendages we constantly carry.
Everything made in our world that we can see, feel, touch, hear, taste and smell, started with single creative thought.
Simply put, without creativity there would be no new ideas and without new ideas there would be no innovation, without innovation there would be nothing new - the world would be a very dull place indeed. That is the extraordinary power of creativity.
So what is creativity?
A quick Google search will offer many definitions as to what of creativity actually is. It will also provide access to many academic studies attempting to understand how creativity works and how it might be applied. This mealy illustrates the complexity of creativity and our attempt to understand it. The definition that I have derived and the one that I like to use, purely because of its simplicity, is:
‘Creativity is the generation of new ideas, conceived by unleashing the power of our imagination unburdened by rules, boundaries or structures’.
Creativity allows us to see the world in new and different ways. It helps us make connections between things that are not obvious and find new ideas. This is achieved, in my opinion, by disregarding conventions of traditional linear thinking. By ignoring rules and boundaries that constrain our thoughts, we can reach areas of our brains that are able to spawn new, original ideas.
Just to be clear, when we say new idea, this can be a tangible thing – like a product, a gadget, piece of artwork or a brand logo, or it can be an intangible thing – like a process, an academic theory, or a logarithm etc. Also, I think it important to point out, that a creative idea is only an idea if it adds value - something that is useful or important and therefore has worth. In a business context, this is generally equated to efficiency, productivity or saleability.
Creativity is often confused with innovation and design, which are frequently interchanged in our common vocabulary. It is essential however, to recognise the difference between the role of creativity, innovation and design. They are all critical parts of the same process but are distinctly different.
If creativity is the idea then innovation is how we introduce change to existing systems and processes. It is also chiefly concerned with the work that is required to make the creative idea viable. Creativity is about the big idea – innovation is about turning that creative idea into a product, service or process that creates value and a return on investment.
So, what about design? Design is an integral part of creativity and innovation. Design supports the innovation part of the process and provides the detail of the innovation – the drawing and the plans, the blue prints.
Damian Newman’s visual representation below explains perfectly the process and the interdependence of creativity, innovation and design.
The big squiggly bit of the diagram represents the unleashing of our imagination – no rules or structures. The middle bit if where through the process of innovation we filter the ideas and assess their viability and value. The last section of the diagram represents the process of design, turning the viable innovation into a plan.
Damian Newman’s Design Squiggle
Why is creativity critical to business success?
Those that ignore creativity as a fundamental part of their business do so at their peril. It has been recognised for some time now that creativity and innovation in leading companies, is the ‘not so secret, secret’ of their success. Establishing a creative culture in companies can lead to new ideas that improve business efficiency, business processes, increase productivity, development of new products and services and attract and retain new customers.
Creativity is the driver for problem solving in businesses. Solving problems is the thing that gives us the competitive edge that we all need to succeed, prosper and sustain our organisations.
Here are a couple of examples of companies that failed to think creatively and innovate new ideas and a couple that did.
It wasn’t too long ago that Blockbuster Video was a household name with thousands of stores and millions of customers in the US and UK. It dominated the VHS, DVD and video game market and seemed unassailable against its completion. But in the early noughties along came Netflix and entertainment-on-demand. Ten years on in 2010 Blockbuster was forced into bankruptcy and Netflix is now worth around $28billion.
The irony of this story is that in 2000 Netflix approached Blockbuster with a proposal of a partnership between the 2 companies. Blockbuster declined the offer believing its dominance was untouchable. Blockbusters failure to see the need to create and innovate cost them dearly.
Kodak is an epic business failure studied in many a business school. Their story also has an irony at the centre of its demise, for Kodak originated digital photography technology and then failed to do anything with it until, that is, it was too late.
The company invented the first digital camera in 1975 but decided to keep the technology ‘a secret’ in order to protect their hugely profitable film business. Unfortunately, even when competitors started to launch their own digital technology cameras and disrupted the market Kodak failed to respond. Eventually, in 2007 they ‘woke up and smelled the coffee’ as you might say. Problem was it was 30 years too late and in 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection. This Kodak 2007 promotional video makes the enormity of their catastrophe all the more poignant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxDfcyT92wQ
So, let’s have look as two companies that have successfully reinvented themselves through adopting a strategy of creative thinking.
We generation X-ers, born before mobile phones and the video game, remember with great affection those colourful little bricks made of plastic. Competition from all the internet-oriented game technology, which followed in the subsequent decades, left Lego with more than a billion dollars of debt. In 2004 Lego was close to bankruptcy, but it fought back.
It chose to refocus on what the company does best: toys that focussed on creativity. The company developed new and relatively inexpensive methods of interacting with its youthful customer through newsletters and through Lego-design competitions and contests. It has also had huge success with its social and digital media strategy by reaching the generation who are nostalgic about Lego and who enthusiastically introduced Lego to their children. Lego now delivers an annual profits of circa $800m
It’s not just the big corporates who need a creative culture to innovative, it is also critical for success for small businesses. One of my client provides a great example of this.
Phil Burnell started his accountancy business in early 2014 after working for a large practice in central Birmingham. Based in Sutton Coldfield, the company traded as Burnell & Co and offered friendly, down to earth, personal accountancy services.
With a small but strong group of customers, Phil had ambitious plans to significantly expand his business. He had a clear idea of how he wanted to grow the business – by offering more engaging, interactive, and a forward-facing range of services to clients.
To achieve this Phil and his team developed a creative approach that fully utilised progressive cloud-based accountancy software applications. These allowed the business to engage more with clients and offer higher value, broader ranging levels of support.
Since implementing a new business strategy Spark Accountants has seen fantastic results:
Revenue growth in year two, following the development of the strategy and its implementation, has grown by 90%.
The business has grown its customer base by 65%.
And the increase in business growth necessitated the recruitment of 5 new members of staff.
Finally, here’s some facts from a research study carried out by the Design Council to further emphasis the point that creativity and innovation are critical to business success:
Rapid growth businesses are six times more likely than static businesses to see creativity as integral.
For every £100 a business with a creative culture spends on design, turnover increases by £225.
Shares in creatively-led businesses out performed FTSE 100 by more than 200%.
83% of the innovation-led companies have seen market share increases, which is twice as much as the average.
80% of the creatively-led companies have introduced new products or services. Twice as much as the average UK companies.
Creativity boosts exports; for every £1 invested in design, businesses can expect a return of over £5 in increased exports
80% of the creatively-led companies have penetrated new international markets in the last three years. The average in the UK is 42%.
Source: Design Council
Digital tech – a world of opportunity for creativity
For me, the compelling reason for embracing creativity and innovation is digital technology.
An unprecedented period of innovation in digital technology over the last 25 years has irrefutably changed the world we live in. From the way we connect with friends and family to the way we access our news, from how we buy books and listen to music, to how we learn and acquire knowledge. The things we do today would have been unimaginable 25 years ago.
This creativity and innovation has been brought about new digital technologies that we simply cannot ignore, especially in the way we do business.
Mobile devices allow us to create new business scenarios not previous considered. The Cloud is driving agility and rapid accessibility of information from anywhere in the world at any time. Big Data is facilitating greater insight and understanding about the competitive business environment and social media is creating alternative communication channels and platforms. And now we even have Artificial Intelligence which is allowing our automated systems to think and make decisions – crazy stuff.
Whether we like it or not, these technologies aren’t going away. As businesses, if we’re unable to respond and to compete in this ever-changing dynamic environment, our organisations will ultimately not succeed. To compete, we must be creative in the utilisation and application of these technologies. There’s never been greater opportunity to create new competitive products, services, systems, processes, strategies and platforms top deliver bigger better faster solutions an ensure our business success.
The role of creative thinking through a creative culture in our entrepreneurial business, I hope you will agree, is clear. Critical to our success, if not survival, we must create new and valuable ideas. Not wishing to be too gloomy but, If there is no creativity there is no innovation, no innovation leads to business stagnation, which will untimely lead to business failure.
If you’re looking for help and advice on how to unleash the power of creative thinking in your organisation, please get in touch.