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By Ben Strutt
Last week our FEI team attended the 5th Global Innovation Forum conference in London. The annual event brings together thought leaders and executives from a wide range of businesses such as Unilever, Nestle, Roche, GSK, Adidas, Nike, Lego, BMW, McLaren and many more.
On day 2 we led a session talking about how process and culture can combine to create more consistent innovation results. Something we touched on in the session, and will talk about in further detail here, is our relationship as professionals, humans and individuals, with creativity.
As a society, we have evolved to believe that categorisation of people by job roles, personal qualities and skills is both positive and necessary to navigate a successful path through life. But is this the correct approach? Everyone is defined and labelled in a multi-dimensional range of social, cultural, attitudinal, educational and professional classifications. We are branded as introvert, extrovert, left wing, right wing, science, arts… This happens from the earliest days of our life, through school and further education to Myers-Brigg-style personality tests in the workplace and it’s not surprising that once defined, we begin to believe there are things we can and cannot do. In my opinion the most common and destructive myth we are led to believe is that we are either left brain or right brain, sometimes crudely interpreted ‘creative’ or ‘not creative’.
This categorised thinking encourages us to see ourselves as siloed caricatures and can be a barrier to creativity in business. There are many more misconceptions around creativity and innovation. For example, innovative ideas just appear in a flash, or some people are genetically more creative than others, or that throwing unfounded ideas around will somehow produce breakthrough opportunities. Such myths can lead businesses to conclude that only certain people can be tasked with innovation and that it’s an unpredictable and unmanageable activity.
However, the existence of a successful creative sector in the UK suggests otherwise. If it were genuinely the case that innovation was a dark art, it would be impossible for those businesses specialising in innovation support services to run sustainably. These heavyweight professional innovators are consistently successful, but how do they identify and translate valuable insights into profitable products and services for clients? Is there a systematic approach that can be adopted by any business?
Whatever your aspirations, no new idea or initiative is without it’s constraints. For any new concept to progress beyond paper it has to have integrity and a business case founded on technical feasibility, commercial viability and ultimately, user desirability. Indeed, many highly creative businesses actively apply challenging constraints to their innovators knowing that it will enhance creativity, and there is much evidence to support this.
The start-up culture of the last few decades has seen a succession of businesses progress from a room in someone’s home to a $bn exit in just a few years because their lean origins forced the founders to be disruptively creative. Many global businesses have been inspired to spin out small, lean teams operating outside of the constraints of corporate red-tape with the aim of being more agile and creative.
As professional innovators we find two common innovation myths are particularly common.
Often, we find it is constructive disagreement that is pivotal to driving new directions of thinking in teams, rather than the aspiration for a state of ideation harmony. The difference between this working well in a business and being destructive is the way in which conflict and differing points of view are managed.
Many businesses that foster collaborative conflict provide an environment in which people from different backgrounds, skills and experiences can effectively challenge, rather than compete with each other to solve the problems. Many of these businesses encourage the most junior members to engage on an even keel with more experienced colleagues.
Another common issue is experts who are so familiar with the challenge that it can actually inhibit breakthrough thinking, trapped in the realms of the state-of-the-art, when what it really needed is a fresh perspective.
Significant advances have been made in recent years in understanding the creative brain, in particular how the so called ‘association centres’, are now believed to be central to our ability to take knowledge and multi-sensory information about one idea and apply it to another.
The apparent “eureka moment” is therefore not a spontaneous invention, but the result of the subconscious connections of knowledge and ideas that have been collated over a period of time until a viable combination is drawn to the conscious surface. Having many diverse experiences is therefore advantageous and can enhance quality and quantity of creative output. But what we do next with these ideas is critical. As Sir Ken Robinson reflected in his 2008 TED talk Do schools kill creativity?:
“Education is meant to take us into a future that we can’t grasp, and while children entering school this year won’t retire until 2065, nobody has a clue what the world will look like in just five years; yet we’re meant to be educating them for it!”
The major advantage that kids have over adults is that they are instinctively creative without fear of being wrong. However, with age comes responsibility. The consequences for a creative five year old being wrong are unlikely to be too severe but when business executives decide where to place their innovation bets, the wrong decision can cost them their job, their business and other people their livelihoods.
Successful innovation therefore requires an environment which promotes multidisciplinary creative collaboration; that manages failure as a constructive and value-adding learning activity; has a philosophy of focussed prototyping and applied experimental refinement and a structure for exploiting healthy disagreement to create an evidence-based plan.
Business teams must create a framework for being as right as possible, as early as possible… consistently.
Ben Strutt is a partner at Cambridge Design Partnership. He has 15 years’ experience in innovation working with companies ranging from start-ups to $bn brands. An industrial designer and chartered marketer he is a named inventor on numerous patents and has carried out insights research, and consumer product and packaging development for companies around the world. He is a firm advocate of stakeholder-centred innovation and the power of front end, design and engineering teams collaborating closely to create solutions with the highest potential for market success.
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