Recently, traipsing around Chelsea Markets in New York (as you do), I was reminded how essential a change in perspective is to creating energy in the thinking process and sparking new ideas or thoughts.
Successful brands, campaigns and businesses are those that are not afraid to challenge the existing status quo and their own assumptions or sacred cows to grow and thrive. They are businesses that are led by innovative thinkers and it is this fresh thinking – creative thinking - that allows them to seek out, explore and capitalise on new opportunities.
Innovative thinking, however, requires inspiration. It is very hard, if not impossible, to come up with new solutions or opportunities to grow businesses and solve problems within the boundaries and constraints of that business.
Or, as Albert Einstein, supposedly said: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
This may be because we humans naturally think in patterns. These patterns allow us to process vast amounts of information and they create short cuts to solutions. The help us quickly evaluate things. They are absolutely important in decision making (and survival). But, those patterns also mean it is difficult to see alternative outcomes with the same inputs. Whilst work processes and procedures might well drive efficiencies, they are toxic to fresh thinking.
Henry Ford: "If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got."
Inspiration is the fodder for creativity - for ideas. Inspiration is what allows your mind to jump the well worn thought pathways entrenched in the way you think, and see new opportunities, approaches or strategies that can transform your business.
Of course, it is impractical to jet off to a foreign land every time you feel the need to shake up the idea machine in your head. So, here are five different ways you can kick-start your creative thinking juices right here at home.
Assume a different perspective
Looking at your business or problem through the eyes of someone else prompts you to think about things you might not normally consider. Using the different characteristics of well known people gives you permission to stretch your thinking into new areas which you may not be comfortable with, or able to do, within your existing company cultural constraints.
Use the characteristics of well known people to lend a new lens to your problem. What would Steve Jobs or Walt Disney do if walked into your office today? If you look at your business through the entrepreneurial eyes of Richard Branson, what ideas can be identified?
Take time to identify those characteristics your want to explore. And then apply them to your situation. What new ideas emerge?
Learn from others
Learning from the experiences of other people provides a great deal of inspiration in tackling your own problems.
From Dietrich Mateschitz (Red Bull) to Elon Musk (Tesla), from Kotex to Avis, there are countless examples of entrepreneurs and businesses that have successfully navigated difficult situations to win and bring about change.
Review what they did. What happens if you apply that same thinking to your business? Start building yourself a library of case studies and learn from the experiences of others.
Connect with real people.
Get out from behind the spread sheets and the one way mirrors and have direct contact with people in your target market. How do end-users talk about your categories and brands? What needs are not being met out there by you or your competition? Strike up conversations in store, at coffee shops or while waiting for the bus. Set up consumer connections in interesting and unusual places. (There is nothing interesting about a group room). Observe how your products work in the real world, and the differences between what people say and what they do.
The task is not to talk too much, but to listen, and more importantly to observe. Observation, after all, unlocks insight. And insight is the foundation for ideas.
Visit the Fringe
Particularly useful for mass marketers, take time to learn from the fringes of the category. What are the early adopters buying? What trends are nibbling away at the edges of your category? New ideas are already bubbling up on the edges of your market. Your category is no doubt already full of niche products that may offer exciting ideas for future development. There are interesting products in your categories that are being sold in different ways at farmers markets, in delis, at health food stores, online.
Immerse yourself in an alternative view of your category and see what you can learn. How can you apply those learnings to your business problem?
Do something seemingly completely unrelated.
Do you know Steve Jobs apparently took a calligraphy course when he was trying to explore how to apply aesthetics and beauty to the clunky world of computers?
When we explore a completely unrelated world with our problem in mind, our brains forge new pathways and connections which allow new ideas to emerge. What can you learn from doing something quite unrelated?
Of course, there is a skill (and ironically, a process) to turning inspiration into ideas,and initial idea sparks into solid, investigable concepts or strategies. Whether it is for a specific project or to drive cultural change, imbedding an immersion programme and turning that inspiration into insight takes effort and planning. Utilising a skilled facilitator will help unlock the creative power in your organisation and help you unleash ideas that might just put you ahead of the pack.
In high school I had a teacher called Mrs Howard. She was a fantastic teacher, who I followed like a moth to a flame. Every subject she taught, I excelled at. Even geography, a subject which I previously and subsequently have shown very little passion for. The following year I had a geography teacher so timid that she wept when the class clicked their pens in unison in a (successful) attempt to unhinge her. This year I was bottom of the class, even despite a half-hearted
attempt to cheat on the tests. (Note to all – don’t include me on your trivia teams if geography is a
likely question as I won’t be an asset).
Possibly this was when the USSR caused havoc with map makers the world over, but it is more likely that nothing particularly significant occurred on the geographical front year to year. The difference was obviously a great teacher. A great teacher captures your attention, inspires you to learn, and keeps you engaged along the process. A great facilitator does well to steal from the teacher’s toolbox:
“Good Moooooorning Mrs Cordeiro”: We start the day by sitting in front of the group, gently establishing who leads the discussion. Interaction is welcome and in fact essential but the teacher / facilitator is in charge of moderating the process and helping to guide the
“You – in the corner!” : A bully can throw everybody off in both a classroom and a workshop environment. Obviously the power of a facilitator to send someone to the principal is limited, but we can try to keep their effect under control by limiting their airtime, partnering them with strong people in group work, and directing discussions away from their line of thinking.
“Everybody on the mat now please!”: One which the timid geography teacher had yet to learn but crowd control is a key element of both roles. For a group to do their best work, a facilitator must keep people focused, manage their energy, rotate them through group exercise, keep the activities well paced and engaging, tell them where to be and when.
Show and Tell: Using stimulus is a great facilitator trick. Getting people to bring items from home starts the brain on course before the workshop and provides a great icebreaker. Using stimulus during the workshop helps to engage, break monotony and tap into different channels.
“Now I know my ABCs, Won't You Come and Play with Me?”: It’s no coincidence that the alphabet is learnt in a song. Getting participants to sing, to draw or to move helps to tap into those different channels to find new perspectives on a problem or activate memory in a different way and also keeps energy levels raised.
So as you can see, facilitators do well to peer into children’s classrooms and see what they can learn. Mrs Howard also understood the versatility of the teacher’s toolbox – she used the tools in her toolkit all the way to the local council, where she became mayor. Clearly I wasn't the only person who she inspired!
I have a friend who is a property stylist. She makes her living creating dream houses for people to sell. She’s the one we always call when fancy dress is required, and her children’s parties look like something out of Vogue Living. But I have become her
unofficial personal assistant: I make sure she gets her forms back on time, that she knows when key events are happening, that she buys her tickets early to get good seats.
Why have I taken on this role? Because I am ruthlessly organized. For me, there is a certain thrill in getting something DONE. Crossing it off the list. (Tick!) I am so organized that it disturbs me that others might not be same.
So this pretty much rules out my chances of a career in a creative endeavour. Why? Because efficiency is the death of creativity. The brain is like a series of filing cabinets. We learn, over time, what is in each drawer and the best way to find
it. The more we follow these behaviours, the more hard coded they become. Don’t believe me? Try the following exercise by Michael Michalko
Read aloud the following colours as fast as you can. Not the words themselves, but the colour that you see within each word.
It is really difficult isn’t it? Because your brain keeps accessing the filing cabinet with which it associates the written word.
Efficient people have well worn brain pathways that allow them to do things quickly and efficiently. They literally “barely have to think” to do some tasks. Creative folks are usually less efficient as they let their brains wander a bit more, which gives them access to all sorts of interesting ideas - but means they forget their banking
password from time to time.
But all is not lost for us filing cabinet types. Although it may not be our natural state, there are plenty of ways to fire up those new neurons. Here are a few:
1. Do it differently:
Drive a different way to work or God forbid, get the bus! Change your morning routine, sit in a different place at work every day (surprise and delight your colleagues!), or just wear a different scent. It can be disturbing for those of us who find comfort in the familiar but it shakes the brain out of those grooves for a little
2. Access a different “channel”:
We all have a certain preference for how we process information. Some are visual people who need to see something to understand it; some are auditory people who need to have information told to them, and some are kinetic/feeling people who need to physically or emotionally sense something to comprehend it.
Using the channel that you aren’t comfortable with can unlock ideas. You could try shutting your eyes during meetings to access a latent auditory channel (and perhaps much derision from your colleagues). Drown your office cubicle in art, to see what happens for those who aren’t very visual. And non kinetic people should whip out a hula hoop at lunchtime (or just a stress ball for the less extroverted.)
3. Try to find a different perspective:
A great way to trick the brain is to pretend it belongs to someone else. If you force it to think about a problem from the perspective of a child, a famous person or a great brand, you are jumping past those hard wired pathways onto new ones.
So best of luck with your new creative endeavours, and I hope you find satisfaction in your choice of career, property styling or not. But just don’t blame me if you are late to
Hiring an experienced facilitator can seem like an expensive business, so are they worth it?
We obviously think the answer to this question is a resounding YES, in particular with regard to strategic and creative thinking workshops. While hiring an experienced facilitator won’t guarantee you success in your workshop, NOT hiring one is almost certainly dooming the workshop to failure.
Here are several reasons why:
Excellent facilitation is not only an art form, it is also a specialised skill set. The job of a facilitator is to guide a variety of different parties (with their attendant differing agendas, perspectives, personalities and ideas) towards an agreed objective. Not only does the facilitator need to be aware of, and manage, different group dynamics, which can often derail the best laid plans, they also need to ensure that each person is contributing to the best of their ability and feels valued enough to continue doing so. The facilitator is also charged with keeping energy high and the mood positive, thereby creating a safe and stimulating environment where discussion and ideas can flow. Further, the facilitator is responsible for keeping track of (and often recording) the multitude of ideas and discussions that emerge in a workshop, and ensuring that discussions continually head in the right direction, all while keeping a close eye on the clock. In short, facilitating is a skilled, multi-faceted job that requires the facilitator to wear a number of hats and keep quite a few balls in the air. Without the skills that come largely through experience, this can be a daunting task.
Mitigating the Seniority Effect
A key aspect of strategic and creative thinking workshops is challenging existing mind sets and assumptions and exploring new thinking and ideas. For a workshop to be at all useful, the facilitator needs to ensure all voices are heard equally and everyone’s contribution is considered. The facilitator’s job is to create a safe and non-judgemental environment, where everyone feels free to speak honestly and openly. Only in this way can ideas be properly explored and break-through thinking achieved (which is why you want the workshop in the first place!)
One of the key threats to this process is the group dynamics that emerge from having different levels of seniority in the room. Quite often the facilitator needs to keep the more senior people from dominating the discussions with their own agendas. This is a very difficult ask of someone internal who may feel they could be jeopardising their career by telling their boss to behave.
As external facilitators are not part of the internal politics of an organisation and their day-to-day happiness is not dependant on pleasing various people higher up the food chain, they are better able to mitigate the negative dynamics seniority can play within the workshop by using specific techniques and strategies not always available to a “team member”.
Hiring Trust and Objectivity
For a workshop to be successful, the participants have to trust both the facilitator and the process. The facilitator will often have to take participants out of their comfort zone, to help them look at issues from a different perspective. Participants have to feel that the facilitator has the best interests of the group at heart. They have to trust the facilitator is objective. This is impossible if the facilitator is part of the team. A team member automatically has a position regarding the problem at hand, however hard they work to be objective.
In a sense, the facilitator holds the role of an impartial arbitrator in a workshop environment. This is a full time role, and as such, a team member cannot be both the facilitator and a participant and achieve a successful outcome. Even if a team member does opt to be the facilitator and somehow successfully maintains a level of objectivity, the group will then lose out on the valuable knowledge and insights that he or she would have been able to contribute to the discussion as a participant.
Strategic and creative thinking workshops are almost always about bringing people together to try to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. To paraphrase Einstein, “You can’t solve the problem with the same thinking that created it.” To be addressed, problems need to be tackled from a different perspective. When you brief an external facilitator to run your workshop, you effectively bring in fresh eyes to the problem from the get-go. The external facilitator is not bound by your existing thinking. They will encourage you to question your assumptions and force you to look at things from a new perspective, thereby enhancing the probability of achieving break-through thinking and innovative ideas within the workshop itself.
Time is Money
Finally, while it might seem like an external facilitator is expensive, add up the cost of having all those the participants, often more senior personnel, in the workshop and you will soon realise that buying in the expertise to ensure your workshop has the best possible chance of success, is money well spent.