4 posts categorized "Creativity"

05/29/2013 “I’m Not Creative”

At a recent corporate training I held, one of the participants blurted out “I’m not creative. I can’t do this.” Actually, she said that no one in her division ever asked her to be creative and it made her feel uncomfortable.

It was a shocking statement, but not surprising.

Let me give some context: The training was primarily to educate employees and vendors about certain company policies and best practices. I mixed in a number of design thinking exercises to make the training more hands-on and collaborative. The last part was key, since the policies would work best when people from different silos worked together.

The last exercise allowed people to take some leaps, to improvise and innovate, to create. It was loose enough to allow lots of leeway, but focused enough to provide direction. The last exercise built on the previous exercises in a consequential way.

The person in question was, in my mind, creative in her own right. She had asked good questions during the training. She dealt with people, often difficult people, all day, so she had to be adept at crooked paths. She did admit she liked to organize things, a creative talent to be sure. 

But to label herself as a non-creative person because no one at her job asked her to do so is a sad statement. It’s a sad statement about her state of mind and a sad statement about her enterprise group. What’s most disappointing is that I don’t think this as uncommon as it sounds. 

People in business are busy getting things done. Usually they are busy doing the things other people tell them to do. The Tellers want things done quickly. They want them done in the ways they’re used to, rather than done in the ways that will have the most impact. That last part is critical: that’s where the creativity comes in.

When we’re so busy doing, we don’t have the license or time to be creative. There is no constant culture of innovation, failure and insight. After all, those things could reflect badly on you at review time.

The problem isn’t that the woman doesn’t feel valued for her ideas. The problem is that her managers have created or accepted that culture. They’re the ones who need re-programming. And their bosses, and their bosses.

Not being creative reinforces a safe status quo. Since most businesses would rather have predictability than constant innovation, they don’t see a problem with this. It’s only when things get tough that they realize they’re too late to change. Then things get ugly. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of this ugliness. Unfortunately, the ones who suffer the most are people like this woman who’s never been asked to be creative. So when she looks for a new job, she won’t find many like her old one.

Corporate America, even Small Business America, needs a mental reset. Competition sucks, but it is, after all, a cornerstone of the very capitalist model we’ve all embraced. Not being creative is not an option for the future.

09/06/2011 Ideas are not enough

We’ve all had this happen: we have (what we think) is a great idea. It’s based on a combination of customer insight, business, actual behavior and a bolt from the blue. It makes so much sense you’re amazed no one has done it quite like you’re thinking. You can see both the path and the success.

Most of the time, though, it doesn’t end that way. Here are some of the reasons why that idea never quite made it to reality. 

  1. It’s not just your story. An idea needs a story around it. Most of the time, you’ve constructed one that you tell to your team or your boss; that’s how you’ve sold it. If it’s a good story, it moves ahead.

    The problem is that too often the idea and story initiator is the only person who can tell it correctly. If you want your story to live and succeed, you need to make sure that others can tell the same story, with the same enthusiasm and belief.

    One of the ways I can tell when I have a good idea is when I see my teammates tell the story as if it were their own. When you can hear it with someone else’s voice and words, your chances of success have increased dramatically.

    When you see that your team still has problems articulating your story even when everyone is deep into the project, you’re in trouble. Make sure you take the time, early on, to ask people to tell you the story back or even to embellish it. It’s amazing to see how people can reinterpret the idea into different stories over time, even ones that are diametrically opposed to what you initially thought.

  2. Face it, when we have good ideas, we fall in love with them. Usually, though, most other people don’t. In fact, some people don’t really care that much about them at all.

    Projects and ideas move ahead for a variety of reasons. But not all projects and ideas are created equal. While your idea may be brilliant, a game changer even, you might only have limited support and resources to move it along. An even stranger combination is when you have resources but not the attention of key stakeholders to succeed.

    One way to get around this is to understand where your idea fits into the overall scheme of things. You can do that through a simple step: Ask! Take time with your key decision maker(s) and see how they prioritize your idea and where it fits in the grand scheme of things.

    It may turn out that people you expect contributions and support from are just too busy to do so. This can result in a slow, painful death to your idea at worst, or just lousy execution at best.

    If you can find the sweet spot for your idea and story, you have a better chance of bringing it to life.

  3. What or who are the potential roadblocks? It’s better to spend some time finding this out at the very beginning rather than the very end. There are lots of horror stories of great ideas and projects dying at the finish line because a final roadblock (legal, brand, accounting) decides that something is not quite right.

    It’s better to figure out who will say No early on, so you can start telling them your story. If you can understand their resistance, you might be able to figure out a way around it with their help. Again, the story is the key here.

    You may end up discovering that the people who you expected to say No actually provide you with some even better ideas and insights than you originally had. They can make your story better and you can give them ownership.


There are a number of books, like Buy In, that help you sell your idea into a group of skeptical people. But once you’ve gone past that, there’s no guarantee that your idea will happen. 

If you can make others love it even half as much as you do, you’ve got a pretty good chance of succeeding.

(Image from the brilliant Tom Fishburne's Marketoonist Blog)

09/16/2010 The Creativity Conundrum

For most of us who work in marketing, we consider ourselves to work in a “creative” industry. That is: we’re charged with coming up with creative solutions to marketing problems and, usually, the ones with the best creative ideas win. If you work in an agency, you’ve probably heard, ad naseum (Latin for: until it makes you sick) that Creative is King.

The bigger question for me is: where does this creativity come from? Or maybe a better question is: how do you foster a creative environment?

A number of recent articles make some interesting points and seriously call into question the practices of so-called “creative workplaces.”

The first article by Timothy Williamson of Oxford University, talks about Imagination. He posits that rather than fictional flights of fancy, early humans developed imaginative skills built on real experiences. It was the evaluation of alternative “realities” that gave imagination its evolutionary power. Imagining different ways a saber-toothed tiger might eat you increased your chances of survival.

Imagination is the critical ingredient for creativity. But you have to have lots of real-life experience to have a really good one.

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide” penned an article that shot down one of Malcolm Gladwell's aha points of Outliers. He jumped on the idea that practicing something singularly for 10,000 hours will increase your chances of becoming a superstar. Instead, a recent study of professional athletes showed that those who group up in small towns and played a variety of sports growing up were most likely to become professionals. It flew in the face of the Tiger Woods theory that focusing on one sport, intensely, was the best path to stardom. Variety of experience, and lack of success in many of those experiences, actually makes us perform better.

The same is true of study habits. In our schools today we think that immersing ourselves in specific topics and studying them intensely will increase our knowledge and test scores. Actually, studies show the exact opposite to be true. Varying the types of materials studied, or even varying the content studied, yielded better results. Here’s the money quote:

“The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College.”

Finally, once you have all of these experiences and have gathered knowledge in different ways, what do you need most? Time off, actually. In studies about our “always on society” research shows that what our brains need most is time to process all of the different inputs we receive during the day. Always on is stimulating, but it doesn’t make us smarter. Here’s why:

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

So you’d think that business that specialize in creativity would:

  • Encourage people to experience many different things
  • Allow people to work on a variety of projects and clients to increase their reality-based experiences
  • Provide an array of research and creative materials, across disciplines, to make people smarter
  • Make sure people don’t do the same thing all the time, every day
  • Ensure that people have enough down time, either at work or at home, to process everything

In short, companies would be in the business of develop more renaissance, or hybrid, people (See more here, in an older blog post). It’s those people who should have the greatest chance of creative thinking and doing, which in turn should drive business results.


Unfortunately, today’s creative workplaces are nothing like this. People toil long hours focusing on the same types of work and projects day in and day out. Companies talk the talk about interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration but they walk the walk of siloization and isolation. 

And time? We’re expected to work longer, and more intensely, with every passing year. It would be one thing if creative companies provided down time, or thinking time, at work, for everyone, another if they provided sabbaticals or longer vacations to do the same. But if they’re doing that, I haven’t heard much about them.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Some are born creative, some achieve creativity, and some have creativity thrust upon them. 

As creative business people, we should help our people achieve creativity. But we won’t succeed unless we radically alter the way we’ve built up our business and employee practices.



10/20/2009 The Quality of Your Work is Up To You

I often hear people complain that "I'm not working on anything fun" or that "our clients won't let us do great work." Whenever I hear that, I know that the people saying and feeling those things are in a rut. The one thing to remember in those situations is that you can't control what other people think and do, but you can control what you think and do.

Honestly, if I simply did everything the clients (or my bosses) wanted, I'd never have done any interesting work.

Here's a mantra for the week: Clients depend on you to give them unexpected ideas and great work (it's a little long, sorry Maharishi!).

That's right, they depend on you. They may not articulate it and you may not be able to sell the on it.  But you owe it to yourself and your clients to take those inert metals in front of you and start changing it into gold. Simply put, you can do that with everything you work on.

In the long run, this benefits everyone. You'll get in the practice of adding unexpected creativity to your work. More importantly, you'll get the crucial practice of SELLING your wonderful ideas. Ultimately, the idea doesn't matter unless you can sell it in.

You'll also train your clients to start expecting surprises and extra ideas. They'll love it.

So stop complaining and get creative.

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