3 posts categorized "Creativity"

September 25, 2014

What It Means To Be Creative At Work

If you've attended a conference or visited the business section of a bookstore recently, you've likely been encouraged to bring your creativity to work.  There are dozens of books out, promising help you get unstuck and start your creative juices flowing.  Almost half of the lectures involve a discussion on the pressing need to be innovative and creative to survive.  A recent piece on this in the New Yorker (Creativity Creep) quotes a 2010 IBM study of 1500 executives to identified creativity as the #1 attribute they valued in employees.  

It makes sense, actually.  The business world is more complicated and turbulent than ever, putting pressure on everyone to "think outside the box."  This reminds me of all the marketing and branding books that came out at the turn of the 21st century, along with the proclamation that "Everyone is in the marketing department now!"  The best of those books (The End of Marketing As We Know It) finally defined marketing functionally, which empowered readers to actually become effective at it. 

We are at that point with the business creativity boom.  We know we need to be creative.  What most people aren't clear on is as to exactly what the heck 'being creative' means in a business context.  I'm writing a new book on creativity in the sales process and doing quite a bit of research along the way.  I've been looking for a very practical definition of creativity that applies to professional life.  And I think I've found a good one. 

In The Handbook of Creativity, Cornell professor Robert Sternberg offered a crystal clear business-centric definitinon of creativity: "The ability to produce work that is both novel (unexpected) as well as appropriate to the situation (useful)."  While other creativity experts argue that any new idea should be deemed creative, I like Sternberg's framing of the concept.  Like any other piece of business acumen, the proof is in the pudding. 

If you are creative at work, you produce the unexpected, the new...but it solves the problem and doesn't produce complications.  Notice I didn't say that creativity required completely original ideas as there is no such thing.  It's all about approaches that are unexpected.  

The reason we need to produce unexpected work (processes, products, ideas) is because people quickly develop tolerance to our expected approaches (often termed "best practices").  Think of the joke that you laughed at the first time you heard it, chuckled a little the second time you heard it and then didn't even respond the third time you heard it.  That's how a prospecting or closing technique plays out with customers.  That's how products become stale with customers, creating opportunities for incumbents to be disrupted with a fresh approach.  

The opposite of creative thinking is reproductive thinking.  This is where you use a conventional approach to reproduce success.  Your tried-and-true products yields customer delight.  Your conventional sales tactics yield revenues.  In the past, best practices had a long shelf life.  Companies could hatch them quicker than customers grew tired of them.  But those days are long gone.  To be successful, we have to take it upon ourself to produce the solution and not just rinse-and-repeat.  

What does it take to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the problem at hand? Sternberg points out that creative work stems from ordinary thought processes that happen to produce extraordinary results.  It's not divine inspriation or genius thought processes.  Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile describes creativity as the "Confluence of intrinsic motivation, domain-relevant knowledge and creativity-relevant skills." That's it.  

If you care enough, learn enough and develop chops relevant to the problem space, you can produce creative work.  You can solve the problems that stand between you and success.  Creativity requires a lot of hard work on your part, and it starts with a clear understanding of your product, your customer and the processes that drive your business.  If you have the motivation to do all of this work, the fresh and useful ideas will emerge.  

In the end, regardless of your desires or effort, you'll need to be objective about the efficacy of your ideas.  You need to be able to test them for usefulness and be ready to jettison the out-of-the-box-never-been-done-before ideas that don't solve the problem.  They aren't creative.  They are merely imaginative and that's not what the CEOs in IBM's study were looking for in their talents. 

To borrow from designer Tim Gunn's lexicon, "Be the new, but make it work!"

June 24, 2014

Your Schedule Is Killing Your Creativity

Most people I know sabotage their career by being to efficient with their time.  They fill up their daily schedule with meetings and phone calls, thinking that they are being highly productive.  The result is a week of conversations, with little time left to "work on work."  

A recent IBM survey of over 1000 CEO's found that creativity was the top skill required for leadership success.  This makes sense, as innovation is the prescription for dealing with a highly disruptive business environment.  Technology, media, globalization all come together to put creative demands on leaders and manager everywhere. 

The problem is, creative thinking requires a lot of white space on your calendar.  It's not something you can schedule or squeeze in on a long flight or a Sunday afternoon.  Filmmaker David Lynch believes that "It takes four hours to get one hour of creative work done."  By that he means that we must enter into a problem consideration mode for extended periods of time to induce free association...which leads to innovative business solutions. 

But if your calendar is full of every call request and meeting invitation that comes your way, you won't have any time to think.  This is why I block out two hours of unscheduled time daily to work on my projects, research problems, white board solutions and passively think creatively while doing low mental-requirement tasks.  It's in these gaps where our breakthroughs occur.  

As a leader, you aren't paid to meet or talk to others.  You are paid to think.  Einstein, Edison and Jobs put their feet up on their desk or took long walks to actively consider solutions – and that's where their eureka moments happened.  

Make every meeting and calendar item fight for its life.  Pick the ones that are truly business drivers.  Limit your "getting to know you" lunches and out-of-office meetings to one a week and make them count!  If you find enough time during your most fruitful mental states (M-F days), you'll achieve the creative breakthroughs you need to make your mark. 

August 21, 2013

Few Want To Buy From A Stuffed Suit, So Be Creative


If you are a creative person, don’t hide this fact in your sales life.  No one gets up wanting to buy something from a stuffed suit.  They’d love to do business with an artist who also sells or delivers a world-class product.

You don’t need to stifle creative endeavors in your life.  They are your greatest assets for solving the deal.  For those of you sneaking off to write music, capture breath-taking photos, paint or draw…I’ve got a message for you.  You are successful because of your creative tendencies and not despite them.

For too long, I segregated Tim the sales guy from T.S. the lead singer in a rock band.  Several of my bosses thought they conflicted with each other, and encouraged me to leave them behind along with my youth.  They were dead wrong.  When I proudly took my artsy ways to work, and applied to complicated situations, the difficult became easy (and remarkably fun).  As one of my mentors told me back in the day: Integrity is when you are singing the same song on the outside as you are on the inside. 

Integrity sells.  People gravitate to the real, from what they watch on TV to whom they invite over for burgers on a spare Sunday.  No one wants to journey with a conflicted soul.  They want to do business with the real deal: brimming with passion, but fueled by a unified purpose you can smell.  You aren’t a good enough actor to fake it…especially with the customers you respect the most.    

Bring creativity to work.  Let your freak flag fly.  Walk it past product and marketing, dropping off a little in legal and finance.  Make sure it ends up, with your backpack, in the sales department.  The next time you are in the field, be creative when it comes to helping your customer succeed at doing business with you.  Be a little foolish.  Don’t be afraid to tinker with the system.  Cajole your hot prospect to do the same, for the sake of the future.  No one is married to the structure, just the outcome. 

You’ll not only solve-the-deal, you’ll find rays of joy at work.  Yeah.  Not just with the pitch, but also in the stitching of the enterprise: Where budget, procurement, policy and ambiguity collide to create barriers to all but the imaginative.  You will stand out as a creator in a world of funnel squeezers.  Your passion will trump their closing skills (which are more manipulative than creative).  You’ll bring your customers with you, enriching their lives at the same time.

And they will remember you.  They will want to introduce you to their friends and even their boss.  You aren’t just money.  You are fiscal fun.