This post is by Andrew Armour. Andrew is the M.D. and Founder of Benchstone Limited and creator of CollaborationCafe and MarketingCafe programmes. He is a consultant who specialises in marketing collaboration, partnerships and innovation.
Everyone is a creative and everyone wants innovation. At least, that seems to be the case if you read any business magazine or scan the business shelf in the airport bookshop. Does any executive dare not to support the drive for new ideas, change and creativity? Modern marketing leadership seems to be all about the ability to manage innovation. As Paul Adler wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2011; “Today, reliability is no longer a key to competitive advantage. The organisations that will become the names of this century will be renowned for sustained, large scale, efficient innovation.”
Nilofer Merchant, in her excellent book ‘The New How’ argues that modern strategic leadership is now less about command, control and competitive advantage (a notion which she says is now a dead concept) – and more about harnessing creative work, talents and collaborations. She says; “To be successful, you need to facilitate two things. You must enable and then encourage people to step into their roles as co-creators of solutions. You will need to help your entire organisation to think more strategically. Your ability to do these things forms the centrepiece of your new approach to leading.”
Yet most businesses struggle to be genuinely creative, to be progressively innovative, to be truly original. And despite all the courses, books and management presentations, innovation is easier read – than done. As Scott Berkun says in ‘The Myths Of Innovation’ – “Reading a book on innovation is passive and safe. Putting it down and starting a project is active and has risks. No matter how many books you read, this will never change”.
The notion of original creative ideas is inherently linked to the concept of innovation and there is often a blurring of these topics. But is that right? Does every innovation require truly creative ideas? Much of the research suggests, perhaps not. Much successful innovation is built upon entrepreneurship, an open culture and incremental systematic progress over radical leaps and creative breakthroughs from maverick geniuses. A cunning fix developed in a moment of crisis is viewed in retrospect as highly creative and breakthrough work.
In one famous example, Captain Kirk and the rest of his Enterprise crew in Star Trek were originally meant to travel down to a different planet in each episode by using their little shuttle. However, once into production, they discovered the model making and animation required was too complicated and expensive and the series faced disaster with the pilot episode barely complete. The solution? The writers and production team created the famous Teleporter and Mr Scott built a career on beaming people down and (most importantly…) beaming them back up. The idea for the legendary Teleporter evolved not because the writers were being great science fiction creatives but because it was the cheapest and smartest option to fix a problem. Necessity can indeed be the mother of invention -even for Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise. (You can read the full story – here )
Of course ideas still require a creative spark from one individual to get the fire going. Someone has to start it. However, as Brian Fitzpatrick (Chief Engineer at Google) puts it in his book Team Geek; ‘working in isolation leads to disappointment’. No matter how good the idea, nor how smart you are, creative delivery more often than not requires getting others involved. Increasingly, within an ‘Open Innovation’ approach those vital connections are not just across the business but outside of it too, with partners and specialist suppliers. So how do we balance the need for a creative individual versus the demands for working with others? How can you avoid becoming the creative genius working alone in a shed performing to an audience of one? And just as importantly how do we prevent the horrors of corporate group think, delivering average ideas approved by a numbing committee?
Recently, I met with Gordon Torr to discuss his excellent book ‘Managing Creative People’ in which he addresses a lot of these questions. Torr is well placed to explain and suggest some potential answers. Starting in his native South Africa, his career saw him lead international campaigns for JWT across the world, managing the teams producing the creative advertising work for brands such as Diageo, Ford and DeBeers. Unlike some commentators and lighter reads from the airport business book shelf he does not believe that everyone can be creative. He also criticises the abuse of brainstorming and other mechanistic systems to ‘manage creativity’. Most importantly, Torr is clear that there is a big difference between an original idea (which has to come from an individual) and any innovation, campaign work or implementation, which may need collaboration. As he puts it ‘creativity is about turning money into an idea. Innovation is about turning an idea into cash’. Which is perhaps the simplest and most useful explanation that I’ve heard.
Torr does not shy away from criticising the role of corporate media companies and their approach to productising creative work either. Likewise, he agrees that a lot of great creatives can be a right pain in the butt to deal with. He is honest. And his experience delivering advertising, planning and production means he is pragmatist. Whilst he rejects the notion of big creative teams developing an idea he recognises that small, smart creative partnerships can deliver great work under a climate of patronage and support. As he puts it his book; “Creativity works best when individuals or small groups are empowered by patronage. Sometimes patronage is bestowed. Sometimes it has to be demanded.”
He sets the bar high, the kind of Creative Director who would reject work that was just ‘OK’ – or thinking that was ‘alright’. And so over a coffee in the gallery in the basement at Adam Street Club in London, I began by asking him about the C-Word…
What About The C-Word?
Andrew Armour (AA): In your book ‘Managing Creativity’, you explore the topic in a very broad perspective; from art to psychology and from skill to branding etc. But have you missed one vital ‘C-word’? I’m thinking – ‘CONVERSATION’? What is the role of personal dialogue and conversation in the creative process?
Gordon Torr (GT): It’s definitely a kind of conversation. But it’s not one where you find yourself having to explain yourself. In a good creative relationship you kind of know exactly what the other person is thinking – even if to other people that conversation is incoherent.
AA: So, what’s going on?
GT: It’s bouncing of ideas. It’s kind of magical process, especially if the disciplines are different. The writer would be hearing something but an Art Director is seeing something. And they are sharing cultural references. It’s the mood and feeling and an exchange of information. Isn’t that the basic ingredient of creating?
AA: The historian Theodore Zeldin (who has looked at the role of conversation in the history of society, culture and business) says that a great conversation is where both parties ‘enter into it with the willingness to leave it as slightly different people’.
GT: Well, that’s it. In a way a great conversation creates a third thing and out of thoughts of two people often comes another.
AA: A good conversation creates something new?
GT: Yes it can. But unfortunately most of our business conversations are highly transactional. It’s too often about wanting something, persuading, self-defence, fixed principles. And you end up negotiating a compromise rather than having a really creative conversation. I think it’s about finding that ‘third thing’.
AA: Zeldin goes on to say that he wants a conversation ‘on the edge of what he understands, with people he does not know’.
GT: That’s lovely. And isn’t that true? I like people I can completely disagree with or tell me something I never knew and it gives me a different perspective. If you think about what was going on in the great cafes and salons of the 19th century it was all big debates and arguments around art, society, music, politics. It’s about lots of different opinions.
Shall We Do A Brainstorm?
AA: A few years ago, commenting on the technique of brainstorming, The Daily Telegraph famously said that it was possible to have ‘hundreds of ideas and for every one of them to be fatuous’. And the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, (in his book ’59 Seconds’) as well as showing most academic research proves they are not effective, says brainstorms actually encourage ‘social loafing’, a kind of lazy group think. You are also fairly damning of brainstorming and other ‘creative process techniques’. So, despite all the evidence of their ineffectiveness why is brainstorming still so stubbornly fixed in the minds and meeting invites of advertising and marketing people?
GT: I think that brainstorming is the default position when you can’t think of anything else to do. And I think one of the reasons is that it makes lots of people accountable, rather than just one person with an idea. The higher up you are, the bigger the risks and so you default to a brainstorm which normally brings in all the people from across the business to make sure that they are all represented. It’s a kind of animal response; it is a form of protection.
AA: And that group thinking is he kind of social loafing that Wiseman talks about?
GT: Yes, it’s like the lizard brain. Fight or flight, anger and fear. The kind of good creative conversations that you’re talking about building and promoting need very high tolerant cultures. The problem is what is the alternative to the brainstorm?
AA: Well, I think the Café Workshop process is a good alternative. It looks to develop a flowing marketing or advertising conversation and to explore the issues in an open way and share information without trying to solve or create anything immediately, as a group. In fact, it may be best for one person to engage in the conversation, take away some of the input and inspiration for a few days and come back with some ideas that they create, either working alone or with a key partner.
GT: I believe that if you are problem solving then you can use techniques and disciplines. You can problem solve in a group and download and converge the thinking. And as a Creative Director I spent most of my time solving problems rather than pure creative work. But then, you will get the one or two people to have that walk outside, to step away from the group and come back with the great idea.
AA: A brainstorm often feels lively and fun too. And as you said when I saw you present at Henley Business School it’s often easier to come up with lots of poor ideas rather than one good one?
GT: The thing is (and this is what I said at Henley) – if you already have an idea and you want to build on it then brainstorming can be fantastically productive. But, you don’t do a brainstorm when you don’t have an idea in the first place. If you want to solve a problem, just limit the thinking. You can say, ‘I just want solutions with a letter ‘P’. Suddenly that becomes very productive because it releases people from the blank feeling. Those little frameworks are useful when well managed and work well in collaborative environments that are fresh. Most of the time we are trying to manage things incrementally better – and that is often what a lot of innovation is. And I like the sound of your Café…
AA: Do you need to be a really strong character to be creative?
GT: Yes, good creative people have to be strong. Not necessarily extroverted but strong enough to protect their ideas. And sometimes they can be hostile and difficult. But conversely, not all hostile people are creative – it doesn’t work like that.
AA: So creative people have to focus and believe in what they are doing?
GT: I think you then get into the area of creative leadership; having a single minded purpose and vision. The creative people who have a clear vision are more likely to succeed than those that give away on things more easily, just for the sake of collaboration. Creative people need to be managed because they often do not have the social skills to properly sell and value their work. But yes, great creatives, entrepreneurs and engineers tend to be incredibly self-disciplined in their work.
AA: It’s been noted recently (see Superteams by Khoi Tu) that the Rolling Stones are more about being a great creative team and a management network more than being brilliant musicians?
GT: What I like about the Stones is that they are more about the attitude than craft skills. The Beatles or The Who had much more craft and technique than the Stones. Whenever you look at this subject (creativity in music, advertising, sport, business etc.) – you have to separate the importance of the original creative idea from the craft & implementation. You can see a lot of good ideas poorly implemented and a lot of bad ideas well implemented. And it’s often difficult to tell which from which. How do you form an opinion? How do you know that’s valid? You are often assessing the craft as well as the idea itself.
AA: Originality is a really important word in your book. But, if we look at the story of Pixar Animation for example, the creativity is an amazing combination of three very different individuals; a computer and data genius (Ed Catmull), the great entrepreneur (Steve Jobs) and beautiful storytelling and design (John Lasseter). That’s what made it brilliant. And it was Lasseter who said ‘It’s not whose idea it was that matters – we use the idea that makes a better movie’
GT: That takes a huge amount of generosity and trust between those people. And I’ve heard before that the three guys from Pixar had that. But so often in corporate culture you don’t get that generosity. Years ago I went to Barcelona to a great agency and I asked them how come they were so consistently creative and the guy said ‘we just don’t like doing shit’. It was an amazingly creative and generous environment. They even gave up space in their offices to outside artists, animators or writers – just to do their stuff.
On Disruption And Cuckoo Clocks
AA: Do you need to disrupt good creative teams to keep them fresh?
GT: No, no, you don’t disrupt good teams. Because they are special. I’d rather hire and keep one or two people to come up with the right ideas, rather than twenty people working in a big team brainstorm. The answer to the whole creativity thing is simply to hire great people, give them a brief and let them get on with it. That’s how great things have always happened but you have to keep that bar really high.
AA: In a digital world, where so much content is being produced with speed and everything is measured and monetised do you think the overall creative quality is in decline?
GT: Well, what do you think? There is great work around but it’s very hard to find because there is so much stuff about. As soon as you go after the money you go for easy solutions and things that are easy to buy. But no, I’m not down on the creative industries. There are great things to be found that you don’t expect but often the best work, as always, is on the fringes.
AA: A big theme now is the use of lean and agile thinking and production, especially in digital and innovation work. Do you think it’s good to get stuff out quick and test with the market place, even if an idea is not fully formed?
GT: I think there was a time when digital and websites were seen with a sense of awe. But now, I don’t think we will really want to frame a website. For me websites are roads and road signs – they are functional things to take you from A to B. Billions of websites are often billions of failed brochures. So, if you are doing digital you need to break your own creative laws. I would put a load of sites into beta and test what works and maximise time and space quickly – yes, absolutely. And I would say, yes to do that in the most agile way as possible.
AA: But you can’t do brand strategy or design in a lean and agile way?
GT: Definitely not. I once worked with a website designer for Bentley Cars and when I asked him to explain the creative concept he just showed me a beautiful photo of a Bentley. And that was it. There was no real theme, no concept of the brand or an original idea, it was just the photograph on the site. And that was a real shock and it was very difficult to work with.
AA: Finally, in ‘The Third Man’? Harry Lime, the notorious criminal played so brilliantly by Orson Welles, famously says to his friend; “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” It’s a great line. Do you think Welles was on to something? Do we need a bit of friction and conflict to be really creative?
GT: Sometimes, you do have to destroy things to build the new: a creative destruction. There is a lot of theory around that. Because unless you can give up bad ideas it’s hard to move on to new ones.
AA: Thanks Gordon…
There are plenty of ways of approaching innovation, encouraging creativity and stimulating the right collaboration across your business. For Torr, whilst some systems and processes may help, the best ideas still require the right talent to be involved in ideation. Collaborating, on the foundation of a bad idea, will not create the right outcome no matter how good the interaction between the players. And even with a good idea you need the right management and perhaps structure to nurture it. As with many things, success is a mix of art and science. As Torr says at the end of his book;
“There is no certainty in the business of creativity, except this: that more ideas are better than fewer ideas, and that it is now within our power to increase the chance of producing better ones and reduce the chance of getting bad ones. Systems and processes won’t do it. The only thing that will is the judicious management of the maze by people who know how it works” – Gordon Torr, ‘Managing Creative People’