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October 11, 2012 / davebirss

Creativity – what every business needs?

I’ll shortly be posting an abbreviated version of the talk I did at Silicon Beach last week. And in advance of that, I thought I should share a short article I wrote for the event booklet. It’s kind of the prequel to the talk.

What every business needs

London didn’t have much sun this year. But on one of the few days that it did, I was sitting in a large, darkened auditorium with several hundred businesspeople looking to augment their knowledge. Or possibly just people who wanted to get out of the office for a day.

I was due onstage in 10 minutes to talk about my new book. And in the meantime was listening to a lady who runs a large division of a London Council. (Her talk was a lot more interesting than you’d imagine.)

She asked the attendees what they saw as the most important thing their organisation needed.

More budget? A few palms went up.

Stronger leadership? A scattering of fists were raised.

Creativity? More than half the room raised their hands.

I nearly spat out a mouthful of cold tea in surprise.

These weren’t advertising people. They were businesspeople. And they wanted more creativity in their organisation?

That was brilliant news.

And it set the audience up perfectly for my talk on understanding creativity!

So was this just an anomaly?

After a day of missing out on my precious vitamin D, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if this desire for creativity was normal.

A quick Google search took me to an IBM study from 2010. They’d conducted interviews with over 1,500 CEOs and business leaders from all around the world. The intention was to discover how they planned to respond to changes in the business environment.

Again, the number one quality they were seeking was creativity.

What do they mean by ‘creativity’?

The word ‘creativity’ is a troublesome one.

Many people see it as an ability that some individuals have and others don’t. Parents coo over their child nibbling on the end of a Crayola and proudly boast that they’re ‘creative’. It’s a blessing or a talent or a gift that’s bestowed on the lucky few.

Complete piffle!

Other people see creativity as a big negative. They attach it to the word ‘accounting’ to mean unreliable, fictitious or dishonest. It just can’t be trusted.

Utter tosh!

Lots of people see it as a glamorous job title. They want the word ‘creative’ in amongst their ‘assistant artworker’ title to impress the hipsters they meet at Shoreditch house parties.

Total balderdash!

So when it comes to the businesspeople in question, what are they getting at with the word ‘creativity’?

For them I think it just means ‘fresh thinking’. They’re looking for something non-specifically different; a new approach to their established market.

But why are these organisations looking for  fresh thinking in the first place?

I have a theory:

Nothing else has worked

Over decades the world of business settled into an established way of working. Things hadn’t changed that much in corporate land. It was all about refining your process and structure until it was as efficient as it could be.

Then Sir Tim Berners-Lee came along and spoiled everything.

By connecting people with other people, information, tools and businesses – the consumer started evolving at a terrific rate.

Using the classic SWOT terminology, the strengths of traditional companies became their weaknesses. And newer, nimbler businesses started up to take advantage of the opportunities that established businesses saw as threats.

Big business was facing a whole new set of issues. They had to take action.

Accountants did what accountants do; cutting costs to become more competitive.

Holding companies bought, sold and merged in an effort to streamline their business.

Lawyers got busy trying to protect companies’ rights.

Marketers threw money at every new media channel that appeared.

And none of it has had the desired effect.

Something else needs to be done.

Fresh thinking is required.

So under these circumstances the business leaders are right; they need creativity.

But will creativity work?

Here comes the uncomfortable truth:


No, it won’t.

Not with organisations the way they are.

Because organisations are set-up to resist new ideas. They’re set up to maintain the status quo. They demand proof before they’ll implement something different.

I’ve even seen this happen in advertising agencies. And they’re supposed to be the pinnacle of creative business.

Many agencies – especially the larger ones – are hamstrung by their own structure and processes. The leadership are perpetuating an old model that’s becoming less relevant by the day. And the adjustments they’re trying to make are all about minimum disruption rather than maximum impact.

So if these bastions of creativity are doing such a bad job of thinking differently, what chances do their clients have?

Where do we go from here?

We can agree that creativity in business is a must. And also that businesses aren’t set-up to handle creativity.

So how do we get out of this sticky wicket?

That’s a problem I’m working on right now.

Recently I’ve been trying to discover exactly what it is that hampers creativity in business – as well as what makes it thrive.

The more of this we understand, the better chance we have of making creativity work for business.

Some of it is psychology, some of it is ignorance, some of it is organisational structure and some of it is process.

At the moment it’s just a bunch of notes for a possible follow-up book.

My first epistle was about how to boost creativity, so it seems apt that the next one should be about how to kill it.

That’s what I’ll be sharing with you at Silicon Beach.

And I’ll also be bringing my Speedos.

Just in case.

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