Creativity is a key competitive trait for any business and leadership’s challenge is to discover the ways in which their business can be creative. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to creativity but there is a right way to seed it.
As a business leader, how do you lead your business to deliver more customer value than anyone else in your market? You can’t just follow everyone else. You need to step out and do something that no one else is doing. And you need to do it in a way that lifts your strengths to the forefront.
Do you need to focus deeply? Do you collaborate widely? Or do you recruit specialists or generalists? Is there a right approach to staying ahead?
Business leaders have cycled through a whole range of approaches to out-compete others in our markets. We have been advised to:
- Build core competencies.
- Outsource everything.
- Build alliances.
- Form ‘agile’ teams.
- Embrace disruption.
- Be innovative.
- Specialise in deep skill sets.
- Be generalists and see the bigger picture.
- Create blue oceans.
And so the list can go on and leaves leaders a bit lost as to where to go next.
I recently read two related articles that raised interesting questions for business leaders as to how they support their businesses and create customer value through creativity.
In an article for Fast Company titled ‘Want To Be More Creative And Successful? Fight The Urge to Focus’, Jeff Goins explores what makes a creative person successful. It speaks, I believe, also to the underlying capability that businesses need to create to grow. And it provides a connection across all the approaches noted above.
Here are some of Jeff’s thoughts:
- The best creative people are often generalists, ‘… an underappreciated hallmark of successful creatives — they’re rarely specialists in just one thing. In fact, too much focus can prove risk.’
- Mastery requires that you master multiple crafts and become what some describe as a ‘comprehensivist’, someone who has developed a diverse portfolio of interrelated skills rather than specialising in just one skill.
- Being a generalist means you invest in yourself and explore a range of related fields as, ‘a wandering mind can be an asset if you learn how to use it.’
- Citing Darya Zabelina of Northwestern University, he writes, ‘There’s a link between creative achievement and the ability to hold multiple, conflicting ideas in mind at once. This preserves the tension between those ideas so that they naturally build upon one another.’
- Creative people innovate because their minds are always going so fast and they are seeing so many possibilities that the opportunities just emerge.
In the second related article by Lisa Baird, ‘Want To Be More Productive and Creative? Collaborate Less’, also in Fast Company, the theme of ‘comprehensivism’ is expanded.
A few key points raised by Lisa:
- Collaboration is about bringing a diverse range of individual skills together but ‘knowledge workers with competencies in multiple disciplines threaten the culture of collaboration that’s ruled the working world for decades.’
- Collaboration can be inefficient and ‘… doesn’t seem to have solved our intractable productivity needs, risk of burnout, and communication breakdowns.’
- On the collaborative design process, she writes ‘… reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different potentially superior ones.’
- In groups, the ‘individual’ can be suppressed as evidenced by the fact that ‘… groupthink is also characterised by a loss of individual creativity.’
- But collaboration is here to stay and does have benefits, so the answer is not to engage only with ‘comprehensivists’ or only to collaborate but to know when to use each.
The underlying capability that businesses must nurture for growth is creativity. That is, the ability to move beyond just following everyone else in the marketplace. And instead, lead the marketplace with new ideas and enhancing customer value every step of the way.
Creativity Seeding Growth
I believe in a model of growth that progresses through the growth phases of expansion, monitoring and creation with market share and capital value exponentially growing through each phase. The ultimate goal is to be a business that is growing across all three phases.
The expansion phase is what most businesses focus on daily to achieve growth. They seek to win new customers for existing products, expand geographically, expand the existing product range, increase sales per customer, increase margins, reduce costs, acquire like-businesses etc. This approach to growth doesn’t really improve customer value; it’s about selling more of the same.
The monitoring phase is where your business begins to become more conscious of the customers’ real needs and what is changing in the marketplace that may impact those needs. It’s the start of understanding the customer and being responsive but it is reactionary to change and often limited to what is happening in the traditional marketplace.
The creation phase is where opportunities for growth are being seized in the expansion and monitoring phases and the business is completely aligned with the needs of their customers. They are redefining what value looks like for their marketplace ahead of their competitors and the market, and they are leading their customers to experience, and then expect, new levels of value.
As your business progresses through each phase, your focus on customer need sharpens and the value you are delivering strengthens. It is built out of your sense of business purpose but it requires creativity within your business to transition through the various phases.
Real value lies in developing your business toward the creation phase where it is leading the market and setting the standards for customer value. For everyone else in the marketplace, the game then becomes about playing catch up with you.
As your capability as a business passes through each growth phase, so too must your ability to create, innovate and step out from your competitors.
What Type Of Business Are You Building?
The type of business you build will determine the level of creativity that you allow to exist within your business.
The type of business you build is defined firstly by the purpose for which it exists, secondly, the way you design your business to operate and thirdly, the culture which you create within your business. All of these aspects are determined or materially influenced by your leadership.
But in each of these areas, your view of what creativity really looks like in your business, its importance to being successful, and how you seed it to flourish will ultimately determine whether your business is creative or not.
Creativity is defined in many ways. From ‘the use of imagination or original ideas to create something (Oxford Living Dictionary)’ to ‘the ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative (Cambridge Dictionary)’ to ‘the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. (dictionary.com)’.
The last definition is the one that I like best because no matter what type of business you are in, your ability to create new levels of customer value is going to depend on your capacity to ‘break away’ from what has been done in the past.
Who In Your Business Is Creative?
If you are the founder of your business, then I would assume you to be a creative person. Entrepreneurship requires creativity. I think creativity also requires faith in oneself and a willingness to take risks. Again, I believe these are traits you find in those who have stepped forward and commenced their own businesses.
However, as your business grows, creativity must be seeded in others throughout the business. I would describe these champions of creativity as ‘leaders’ but that does not mean they hold, or have to hold, formal leadership positions. They may well be informal leaders in your business, the type of people many turn to for guidance and example.
As the articles mentioned earlier highlight, creativity cannot be assumed, and putting a group of people in a room and asking them to ‘be creative’ will not likely yield the ‘leap’ in thinking that your business will require.
Creativity requires a passion for learning, exploring and a humility, which allows open thinking. These are traits held by individuals, not teams.
You must identify these people and ensure they are positioned in the right places in your business. Remember, you are looking at their character traits, not technical skills. And they must be supported and protected. Why ‘protected’? Because in being creative they are likely to challenge accepted traditions and thinking. And people and businesses at times do not like change, so they may be attacked.
Creative people are often comprehensivists, people who have a breadth and depth of skills and experience, over being a single-skilled technical person. They may also be entrepreneurs with the ability to discover the synchronicities that can emerge from connecting customer needs, with disruptions, innovations, emerging technologies, changing marketplaces, and see opportunity.
Sound impossible to find such people? No, l don’t think so, it’s generally because we don’t recognise their role or importance. Nor do we create an environment in our businesses where they can thrive. We don’t recognise the importance of ‘success as the fuel of life’, and therefore creatively inclined people leave and go and do their own thing.