Are you creative? The typical response I get to this question is a resounding ‘No’. “I can’t draw. “I wasn’t very good at art at school.” “I don’t come up with lots of ideas.” Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as being creative. Which is odd. Because as a species we all are. It’s one of things that makes us human.
After all we all dream. We all fantasise. We all solve problems day to day. Fundamentally, creativity is the capacity to imagine. And it’s our ability to imagine that allows for moments of inspiration to occur.
A little like our primitive ancestors picking up a rock to smash a bone for the marrow. Day to day problem solving. We do it naturally.
You will have heard people being described as left brain (creative) or right brain (analytical). But modern neuroscience has proven this idea to be fundamentally wrong. We all use both sides of our brain equally, sparking connections between them. Smart companies like Procter & Gamble bring their scientists into the early innovation stages of a project, recognising their capacity to imagine.
Pigeon-holed too early?
The problem is we get pigeon-holed early on. A careless word of criticism can damage our creative confidence. Other voices, louder than ours, may lead us to steadily take a back seat. Before you know it you’ve gone from a creatively charged child imagining your mum’s sofa is a horse to someone who just “doesn’t do creative”.
Which is a shame as creativity is your comapny’s greatest asset. A recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 chief executives from 60 countries found that creativity was the attribute they valued most highly. In our complex world ideas mean success. The difficult part is harnessing this creativity and breaking through what can be a lifetime of conditioning. Fortunately this can be achieved in around 30 minutes.
The first step is to recognise the two mortal enemies of creativity. A blank sheet of paper and criticism.
A blank sheet is not creative
Firstly, staring at a blank sheet is not creative. Routine is not creative. Sitting at your desk day in and day out is not creative. Go for a walk. Carry a notepad with you on the Tube. Look at a magazine. Don’t try to force ideas, and don’t expect that quantum leap of the imagination that will crack a problem in one stroke. Creativity is often a series of small steps, a daisy chain of thoughts and ideas occurring when you least expect them. So give yourself a little space to imagine.
Secondly, criticism. Not to be confused with rational thought, testing a solution or applying a little common sense. But in those early innovation stages if you are going to enjoy the space to imagine, others can’t start slamming doors. The mind needs to be allowed to wander. To explore different possibilities. Remember, solutions are reached in small steps. The smallest seed of an idea, even something which seems irrelevant, can grow into “the big idea” if given a little space.
The best way to judge a creative idea is to look at the intent – what are you trying to achieve? If the intent and the idea work perfectly together you’re on the right track, but just be cautious about making these kinds of judgements to early on.
Brainstorming doesn’t work
We can achieve all this in 30 minutes or so if we apply the right structure. Brainstorming won’t work. There’s too much pressure to come up with the big idea. The best way is to work with a creative technique.
Over the years I have worked with finance brands large and small, from The Royal Bank of Scotland through to independent insurers. With the right technique I have seen people who would never have considered themselves in slightest bit creative begin to generate imaginative ideas.
This is achieved by not fixating on the problem as defined – the mental equivalent of staring at a blank sheet. Instead, we think around the problem. For example, we may break it down into a word game, a role playing exercise, storytelling, character creation. Anything to encourage the group to think creatively – to find the space to imagine.
We then bring this exercise back to the problem as defined and see how we can apply these ideas, going deeper into what we need to achieve. This use of lateral thinking moves us to the problem as understood and a series of ideas and solutions that we may never have arrived at by simply focusing on the issue.
Encourage groups to work together
There are huge advantages to this approach. Firstly, client and agency are equally engaged in the early stages of creative process, leveraging the very best from one another. In the case of The Royal Bank of Scotland creative agency, internal communications, departmental managers and on the ground staff shared the same creative space to come up with a richer, well-rounded solution.
What began as a brief for a monthly printed magazine developed into a brief for an intelligent online system that understood the information employees really needed to help them in their day to day jobs through their online behaviour. The final platform surfaced content based on both segmentation, relevance and crucially what users are actually doing.
Secondly, this group involvement creates engagement and advocates internally. Within large organisations with multiple departments and perhaps a little more bureaucracy, this can go a very long way toward expediating the project delivery process. In fact, one of the questions I am often asked when discussing these techniques is, “Won’t it all just take more time?” The truth is, it saves time by getting to an appropriate creative solution faster with more people onboard.
Open creative forum
Lastly, this open creative forum lifts the tight constraints of a brief and allows for the incidental. Quite often the key that unlocks a project is mentioned in passing and this broader form of discussion is therefore invaluable when it comes to insight – reaching the problem as understood.
For these sessions to work well certain ground rules need to be in place; everyone is equal, ideas won’t be ridiculed or judged prematurely, a fun and creative atmosphere will be created. Get this right and it’s amazing how quickly people let go and lose that fear of being creative.
30 minutes in fact – or thereabouts.
Everyone in your organisation has all the tools they need to be creative, including you. Create the right environment for creativity to happen and your business will reap the rewards long into the future.
Roj Whitelock is creative director at Jacob Bailey