The Big Idea: The Power of Creative Thinking

Peninsula Team

November 11 2010

In a recent survey by Fortune Magazine, one of America’s leading business magazines, the majority of top executives from 500 companies across the USA ranked creativity as a more important asset than intelligence for success in business today. 

This led me to wonder what exactly is ‘creative thinking’? It’s a term we throw around but what does it really involve, and more importantly how can it be applied to the small business environment? 

Ed McCabe, one of the leaders of the creative revolution in advertising in the 1960s and 1970s, said that “Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.” How can we harness that power to our advantage?

In fact businesses, whether small or large, are quite simply being forced by the current economic environment to get creative. When times are hard, you can’t simply carry on doing things the way you’ve always done them. Whether it’s addressing your cost base, improving productivity or working out how to retain customers, innovation, clever thinking and new ways of tackling issues are more important than ever. But creativity is something that should be encouraged whether or not the backdrop is tough. 

Essentially through creative thinking we introduce a new idea into the mix. It can either be small and iterative, along the lines of the Japanese Kaizen method we discussed in a previous article, or it can effect a major shift in the business. Evidence shows that businesses that have the awareness to continually create, evaluate and successfully exploit their new ideas are more likely to survive and prosper. 

Finding time to encourage your organisation to be creative in its thinking is tough. The ongoing pace of a 24/7 connected business inhibits creativity and stepping out of an operational zone into a thinking zone is extremely difficult. But the advantages of taking that time are great.
Let’s learn from the big boys - Google is a case in point. It asks its employees to dedicate 20 percent of their time to developing ideas for the company. Whilst that might seem wildly unrealistic for a small business, there’s certainly no harm in setting aside some time every week for a creative meeting to share ideas or to set up an ideas box with incentives for the best innovations. In harder economic times, the need for every employee in a firm to contribute creative ideas and original solutions is greater than ever.

There are some principles you can put into practice to develop your own creativity, and encourage your employees to do so. The first is to be open to new experiences. Read widely, look at other industries and practices and think laterally. Creativity is based on original thinking and it’s only by keeping your eyes open that you will make connections that you might otherwise not have made to develop your business in a different direction. Go to different networking events, read different magazines, watch different TV programmes and keep thinking. 

Bringing together many diverse ideas and taking the best from them is often one of the main stimulators for creativity. Take notes, cut interesting articles out of newspapers and magazines and keep them in a particular folder or notebook where you can refer back to them.
Involve other people in the conversation – fellow employees, suppliers, contacts, customers, friends and family even. If they bring a different perspective to the mix then they can add something unique and fresh to your business situation. They might ask the obvious questions which can throw light on particular blocks to your business or make you reconsider why you have always done things in a certain way. 

The flipside to involving others is also to ensure you take some time out for yourself. Solutions often appear when you’re least expecting them, during your own quiet thinking time. It’s important to take some time out to relax. Studies have shown that stress, exhaustion, boredom and physical pain all serve as blocks to creativity. 

Creative thinking is different to analytical thinking in that you don’t follow a logical argument, work out the answer, eliminate incorrect paths and focus on the correct one. Creative thinking is much more about generating possibilities and looking for many right answers to a problem. So stop looking for one answer. “Multiple solution thinking”, as they call it in the trade, can help you to generate many ideas which ultimately lead to better, stronger and more resilient solutions than a single-minded approach. 

Essentially the different techniques that produce creative results are as follows, and it’s worth bearing all in mind when stepping into a creative frame of mind. If one isn’t working, try another tactic:

1. Evolution – new solutions stem from previous ones. Make something a little better here, a little better there, and gradually it’s a lot better than the original.
2. Synthesis – two or more ideas are combined to produce an innovative third idea. So a mobile telephone is combined with a camera to take pictures on the go, a laptop combined with a book to make an e-reader, and so on.
3. Revolution – sometimes the best new idea is a total step change or even reversal from what has gone before.
4. Reapplication – revisit something with new eyes. See beyond the obvious to think about different ways of doing something, using something or approaching something.
5. Changing direction – try to solve a problem by approaching it from another angle rather than staying on the same path. Change your perspective on the problem in hand to see if other solutions come to light. 

Also everyone has their own creative rhythms. For some people first thing in the morning is when they function best; for others it’s the middle of the night. Respect your own rhythms, be aware of them and most importantly ensure you have a notebook or laptop around at those times to capture your ideas before they slip out of your mind again. 

And if that isn’t enough, keep yourself in good shape – exercise, bringing oxygen to the brain, is shown to stimulate and improve creative thinking!
Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk

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