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Tools to help creativity flow


According to research, a five year-old child asks 65 questions a day - a 44 year-old manages six. Could this be the reason that as adults, we find it so hard to be creative? Mike Levy investigates what tools can help encourage greater creativity.

Dr Allègre Hadida, who teaches business creativity to MBA students at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, thinks that all are born creative but many have it drummed out by formal education: we stop asking questions.

“Creativity is all about making connections between seemingly disparate things,” says Hadida. “Most of what we call business creativity is in fact about adaptation rather than complete blue sky thinking.”

It is, she believes, feasible for all of us to rediscover our innate creativity, to break what author Adam Morgan calls ‘the normalies’ (‘normally, we don’t do things that way’). One of the toughest barriers to break in any organisation, she says, is the sense of proprietorial ownership jealously guarded by those with 'creative' in their job spec. Creativity in any organisation needs to be democratised and, she says, it also needs to be de-mystified: creativity is learnable – just follow the tools.

"Most of what we call business creativity is in fact about adaptation rather than complete blue sky thinking." Dr Allègre Hadida, University of Cambridge Judge Business School

Hadida categorises creativity tools into four types.

Energisers & brain exercisers

First, the energisers and brain exercisers. They are often fun and do require getting out of the seat and perhaps putting you into an unfamiliar but exciting world where the mind starts making those elusive connections which lead to ‘aha’ moments.

Reframing the issue

A second category of tool is 'reframing the issue'. This entails tools which help you look at an issue or challenge in a very different way and thus open up some new approaches. One way Saatchi and Saatchi do this is to choose 'an inspirational panel', says Hadida. Here you choose five people - alive, dead or mythical - and ask ‘what would they do in our situation?’ Hadida says that this simple tool is extremely effective – not least at stimulating discussion. She also points to the dramatic new business model created by Cirque de Soleil. This multi-million pound circus business drew up a completely new (and very successful) form of entertainment, and exemplifies Kim and Mauborgne’s‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ approach. Hadida says that the ‘Four Actions Framework’, which forms part of this approach , is an amazingly powerful tool that should be much more widely known and used. The four elements are: Raise, Reduce, Eliminate, Create. A business asks itself what it would do in each category. “The biggest mistake here is to split the action into two groups: Eliminate/Reduce, Raise/Create - make sure each of the four has equal time devoted to it,” advises Hadida. Which is the hardest one for any business to face? The answer she says is ‘what can we eliminate?’ It is difficult to throw off old ways.

Problem solving

Problem solving tools mark the third category in Hadida's list. These include the classic Buzan Mind Maps and de Bono’s thinking skill tools such as Six Hats and Lateral Thinking (more on problem solvers below).

Swiss Army Knife tools

The fourth category is what Hadida calls ‘Swiss Army Knife’ tools – multi-purpose tools which awaken fresh creative reflexes; different ways to see the world. She cites music, art or theatre as one approach. Her MBA students, for example, work with professional musicians who encourage the business leaders on the course to learn a new instrument and start composing music. Even the most ‘I am not a creative type’ of person suddenly finds the creative streak they left behind at primary school. The essential ingredient here is the opening up of creative processes but, warns Hadida, it must be more than a bit of fun. Creativity tools must be allied to solid business metrics – they must also be firmly embedded within an organisation, otherwise the training given is just seen as a fun day out. More fundamentally, the organisation also needs to view them as what they are: tools aimed at increasing its long term performance through the fostering of creativity. “Creativity is a process which must permeate the whole organisation,” says Hadida.

"The most significant creative breakthroughs tend to be associated with deep knowledge of a field, and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom." Tudor Rickards, professor of creativity, Manchester Business School

Creativity in business has been given a new lease of life thanks to the credit crunch says Tudor Rickards, professor of creativity and organisational change at Manchester Business School (MBS). He and Susan Moger have recently asked over 50 world experts in creativity where we are today. The results can be found here. According to Rickards, “The idea that creativity is just about a set of useful tools is giving way to a more strategic view. The traditional approach is that creativity occurs at the ‘fuzzy front end’ of projects after which the process can be split up or chunked into discrete stages. There is now a newer perspective: creativity drives design and innovation…. the most significant creative breakthroughs tend to be associated with deep knowledge of a field, and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom.”

For Rickards, the emphasis is not so much on tools but allowing a creative environment to flourish – it is about leadership. “The so-called creative industries have sprung up, thriving on uncertainties. Paul Jeffcutt suggests that one vital change for the future has to be a rethinking of the nature of knowledge, which will avoid the sealed-off ‘silos’ of professionals and encourage that much desired policy goal of joined-up change initiatives. The implications for the new web-based networking systems in collaborative actions are clear,” report Rickard and Moger.

The four rules of brainstorming

Rickards is still a strong believer in tried and tested creativity tools. He cites the original work on brainstorming carried out by Alex Osborn. Osborn’s four rules of brainstorming are: postpone judgement, freewheel, hitchhike and quantity breeds quality. He also supports the work of WJ Gordon and his formulation of Synectics – a problem-solving tool that has gone somewhat out of fashion.

Stripping & dressing

Another problem-solving tool is cited bySchmitt and Brown who looked at the way Starbucks used ‘Stripping and Dressing’. This allows companies to get to the essence of an issue and differentiated that essence from the non-essential. First – the stripping; look at a successful brand (it may in your industry or not) and highlight all the essential features that contribute to its success – eliminate non-essential features and get down to the core essence of the business. A test that you have reached the core is that if the feature identified is removed, the brand fails. The goal is to strip down to the very core sensory experiences that make the brand what it is. The next stage – dressing – is to build up again from the core essence to reach some strategic objectives. The very process of doing this will, they contend, open up all manner of creative insights into building a brand.

"Creativity is a process which must permeate the whole organisation." Dr Allègre Hadida, University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Schmitt and Brown suggest another useful tool is ‘exploring new context’. This removes a business issue from its usual context and applies a new one in a metaphorical way. The way to do this, they suggest, is to imagine the organisation going shopping, to a party or on an adventurous trip. What would it buy? What would it wear? Where would it go? They suggest that these open questions provide a rich contextual metaphor which encourages many new creative ideas.

In his recent survey of creativity techniques, Kanes Rajah highlights several well-tested tools which use creative problem solving to resolve business challenges. He urges people to become more curious and ask questions. We should, he says, explore the inexperienced and imagine we are great explorers going somewhere never before reached. Ask ‘why’ five times. Questions it seems, lead to some very creative answers – try more than six today.

What are your favourite tools? Please let us know - post a comment below

Suggested reading

Blue Ocean Strategy, Kim and Mauborgne, Harvard Business School Press 2005

Creativity and the management of change, Rickard, Blackwell 1999

Business Creativity, Rajah, University of Greenwich Press 2007

Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, Adam Morgan, John Wiley and Sons 1999

The Routledge Companion to Creativity, Tudor Rickards, Mark A. Runco, Susan Moger, Routledge 2008.

Build Your Own Garage: Blueprints and Tools to Unleash Your Company's Hidden Creativity, Schmitt and Brown, Free Press 2001

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