Creativity in Business

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Creativity in the work place is not only fun but necessary to success and corporate survival.

But why is this so? Why be creative? Why challenge the rules? Why run the risk of failing and looking foolish? Well, there are two very good reasons: (1) to discover new solutions to problems, and (2) to generate new ideas when old ones become obsolete.

The inventor-explorer plays with knowledge, he alters his perspective, making the ordinary extraordinary and the unusual commonplace. For example, Johann Gutenberg observed how grapes were crushed for wine in a wine press, and by combining two previously unconnected ideas invented the printing press and movable type.

Here is an exercise in creative thinking: How can two people stand on the same piece of newspaper face to face, unrestrained, and still not be able to touch each other? The creative answer is to put the newspaper on the floor in a doorway – door closed – with the people on opposite sides of the door. Chances are, a mental lock impeded you from immediately seeing the solution. You may have been trained to ‘follow the rules’ or to search for ‘the right answer’, or even to ‘avoid ambiguity’.

So, how do you open your ‘mental locks’? One way is unlearn them, temporarily forget that wine presses squeeze only grapes, go in a new direction with a less cluttered mind, release yourself from routine and familiarity.

The Right Answer”

Our educational system channels us to seek ‘the right answer’. We are taught to solve problems, not recognize opportunities. If you think there is only one correct answer, you will stop looking as soon as you have found one. To quote Linus Pauling, “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” Professional photographers, for instance, take many pictures of a subject so that they can experiment with lighting, different filters, and changes in exposure, in order to find exactly what they are looking for.
Try changing the original question – play with the wording to approach it from a different angle. Instead of “What type of paper should I use to print this marketing brochure?”, you might ask “What sort of image am I trying to convey, and how do I do that​?”

That’s Not Logical”

Logical, analytical thinking is hard thinking. Soft thinking, on the other hand, is divergent, fantastical, visual and often poetic. There is a place for both, but true creativity usually begins with soft thinking, where similarities and connections between objects or situations can be explored. Most people have developed as sort of creative rigor mortis due to excessive hard thinking. They don’t give themselves license to use imagination or metaphors.

A metaphor is a ‘mental map’; a tool to compare something tangible to something abstract. Niels Bohr explained how an atom might look by comparing it to the structure of the solar system, with its central sun (nucleus) and revolving planets (electrons). By showing how dissimilar things are similar, good metaphors enable you gain a new perspective on both the unfamiliar and the commonplace. Try some metaphors to help you solve business issues. How is motivating a sales force like feeding zoo animals? How is a problem you are dealing with like building a house?

Follow the Rules”

Rules, routine and patterns are important in business. However, almost every major innovation in art, cooking, medicine, agriculture, engineering and marketing have occurred when someone challenged the rules and tried a different approach. In sports, if someone had not challenged the rules, football would not be a passing game, and in basketball there would still be a jump ball after every field goal.

A rule sometimes outlives the purpose for which it was intended. The typewriter keyboard, for example, was originally positioned with letters in an illogical sequence in order to slow down typists and keep the key’s hammers from hitting each other. Now, although high-tech machines allow for much faster typing without jams, we continue to use the same configuration because, ‘its the rule.’ You should strive to eliminate any rule or regulation that limits your thoughts and actions to one particular approach.

That’s Not My Area”

Today we live in a world of specialization – relief pitchers in baseball, specialists in medicine. Therefore we have a situation in which people know more and more about less and less.

To avoid tunnel vision, actively search for ideas outside your field, look for history in a hardware store, find fashion in a flea market. Coach Knute Rockne came up with the idea for his famous ‘Four Horsemen’ defensive strategy while watching a burlesque chorus routine. The roll-on deodorant was an adaptation of the ball point pen. Nature inspired the Velcro fastener and the design of windmill blades.

Don’t Be Foolish”

We all tend to go along with the crowd to a certain extent; in fact, seeing how others do things is a good way to learn. But when “everyone thinks alike, nobody is doing very much thinking,” to quote Roger van Oeck.

In classical times a king would hire a court jester-fool to give him insight, which was frequently in direct opposition to advice given by the ‘yes-men’ of the court. Parody, irreverence, analogy, and offbeat observations were the fool’s priceless wares. And today, thinking like a fool may be essential to breaking through and jolting new and fresh ideas into your mind. After all, some of the foolish notions of the past are the realities of today.

So reverse your point of view, disagree with yourself, sometimes do the opposite of what is expected.

Designer Christopher Williams instructed his landscape crew to wait to put sidewalks in around a new cluster of buildings. Over the subsequent months, as the buildings occupants traversed the grounds, the new lawn became laced with pathways the followed the most efficient curves linking building to building. Only then, in response to user needs, did Williams have the sidewalks paved.

Lose Your Metal Locks”

In business , doing the unexpected or seeing yourself from the other side’s viewpoint are effective strategies to catch the opposition off-guard.

Children do most of their learning through play. There is a close relationship between the ha-ha of play and the ah-ha of discovery. Do not be afraid to play with new ideas.

Keep your ‘risk muscles’ in shape by regularly trying something new and innovative. Thomas Edison knew 1,800 ways not to make a light bulb. Do not be afraid to try and fail. You may learn new ways of seeking answers.

Seed your imagination with ‘what-ifs’ and questions. They will help you to generate ideas, as well as cast off the constraints of the real (status quo) world. Although ‘what-iffing’ does not always lead to practical solutions, these kinds of questions make excellent stepping stones to workable, creative solutions for any business.


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