Negotiation Mastery Blog

Is creativity the most important business skill?

I had a bit of a clear out recently and came across an old magazine, a special 75th anniversary edition of Business Week, and I had to sit down and read it again, as you do, because the whole edition was dedicated to the subject of innovation. They had looked at the 75 years of economic growth tracked by the magazine and realised it was all driven by innovation.

And yet, despite this, I often find that in business, people are quite resistant to any kind of thinking that is different from the norm and give very little time to anything that is new.

I am a Visiting Lecturer on a Masters programme called Innovation Design Engineering, run jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College. The course was initiated about 40 years ago when the two colleges, sitting next to each other in Kensington Gore, realised that the different disciplines would benefit from working with each other. Creativity and engineering – and it is refreshing to see how the students really do like to push back the boundaries.

Compare this with a programme I ran a short while ago in Paris for a group of about 20 senior managers (regional “Heads of” etc) at one of the major management consultancy firms. The programme was called “Excellence in Idea, Excellence in Execution” – a title they really liked.

What they did not like, though, was that to reach excellence they had to be creative, and this was outside of their comfort zone. I pushed them to come up with ideas beyond the normal level of thinking, in fact I insisted that they should come up with a minimum of five per project, and at least one of these to be actually impossible. From there, they can ask a second question: what is the minimum they need to do to bring it back into the world of possibility?

They didn’t like this at all and there was a lot of muttering! They obviously thought “that Simon, he’s a nice chap, but what on earth is he going on about having an impossible idea, what has that got to do with running a successful business?”. So they decided to catch me out, not in any malicious way but by coming up with ideas that they thought were totally ridiculous.

Their first idea, was to get rid of all their staff. “Ha”, they chuckled, “that will show Simon”. But I thought about it. Maybe it’s not so outlandish, after all. What about Wikipedia? One of the biggest brands in the world and they have about 25 staff.

So they went on to their second idea, to invent a mind-reading machine so we could know what our clients are thinking. They smiled, proud of its absurdity.

But let’s think about that one too. Isn’t that what Google Ads does? Type into Google “Management Skills Trainer London” and it knows that you are thinking about a Management Skills trainer based in London and then it places ads accordingly. It is genius. Compare that to a television campaign where only a tiny proportion of the viewers may be thinking of buying your product. Google Ads is perfectly targetted and it is this “mind-reading machine” that has turned them into the giant business they are now.

So it turned out their “impossible” ideas had already been put into practice and had made billions of dollars!

Of course, it is not just about having the great idea, execution is equally important. But creativity helps here too. Creative ways of delivering can help you resolve that price/quality/time triangle. Indeed, if you want all three, you have to be inventive.

So why are business people so uncomfortable with creativity? A lot of it is because they are scared of looking foolish if they do suggest an impossible idea. And also because it is seen as a bit of a mysterious process – think hard, furrow your brow, and hopefully some magic happens and out pops an idea.

But actually there are some systematic ways for generating new ideas and the creativity courses out there abound with them, just as management courses abound with ways of managing budgets and developing your staff.

One interesting method is called TRIZ, the name coming from the Russian words for “Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving”. It is an algorithmic approach, devised by Genrich Altshuller, a Russian inventor who had his first patent granted when he was 14. Later, he wrote to Stalin, decrying the state of Russian inventiveness and he was imprisoned in Siberia for 25 years in reply.

But during the long days of the gulag he developed his ideas of a systematic method for inventive problem-solving and published them on his release in “And Suddenly The Inventor Appeared” and “The Innovation Algorithm”.

Of course, the other thing that stops people from being creative is simply they are out of the habit. So, I urge you, get in the habit! Start thinking differently. Just start asking yourself what are different ways of doing things. And thinking is free, you don’t actually have to put anything into practice.

Think of five different ways of going home tonight. Think of five different ways of cooking your dinner. Think of five different places you could go on holiday this year. And make at least one of them impossible!

You may come up with a good idea. And, you never know, it may just be possible after all…