Finding creativity in business

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One of the questions I’ve been asked repeatedly lately is how to get more ideas, more creativity, more inspiration in business. The answer is elegantly simple: you can’t. Business isn’t especially good at creativity. In fact, I’d argue that business is the antithesis of creativity, and here’s why: business is really good at systems.

If you’ve got a system, you can scale the system. You grow your business by repeating the system, by enhancing it, by adding more resources to it – and to do that, everything has to be defined, outlined, regulated, and measured. The people you hire for your business have to be able to pick up a manual, follow the steps in it, and replicate their portion of the system flawlessly in order for the business to scale and grow.

The disadvantage of systems is that by definition, they should not be creative. They inhibit creativity, because creativity tends to make systems more inefficient. Sometimes it even breaks the system outright. You don’t want the guy on the assembly line getting creative (which is why we’ve replaced many of them with robots who can’t be creative). In order for there to be changes to a system, new creative ideas must come from people who are allowed to make changes, the changes have to be tested, proofed, and then put into production. The catch is that many of the folks who are in leadership positions in companies are products of the system they worked their way through, and thus they’ve had the creativity beaten out of them.

This is why you see the boom/bust cycle in companies and industries. Small company has a great idea, gets big, gets stagnant, withers, and gets overtaken by a new company that has fewer restrictions on its creativity. The cycle repeats itself endlessly. The exception are companies where you have leaders who are willing and eager to have things broken, to be in a perpetual state of inefficiency in order to maintain creative market advantage. Look at the biggest enduring names in business like Apple, Google, GE, Ford Motor Company, etc. and you see companies that are intentionally breaking things in order to stay ahead of the startups.

So how do you create more creativity, if you’re not going to find it in business or you don’t work for a company willing to break things? You have to look outside of business. Look into fields where creativity is mandated. Look at art, music, literature, dance, performing arts, even some martial arts. Play video games that have great stories and amazing art.

Creativity functions a lot like a water well. A well is only as good as the environment around it – so if it never rains, if water never enters in the area, you can tap out a well fairly fast and then have to spend a lot of time digging deeper for diminishing returns. If the environment is rich with sources of water, the well replenishes quickly. That’s what you have to do with your creative well – flood yourself with sources of other inspiration, then pick the things that resonate most with you and your business and import them into your business.

Here’s a small but real example from my work at WhatCounts. There’s an app called Paper by FiftyThree Software that lets you do pencil and ink sketches on your iPad. I’m rather fond of it, and one day while I was putting together an issue of the newsletter, I found I was struggling with finding an appropriate graphic on Flickr for one of the section images. On a whim, I pulled out my iPad and drew the idea instead:


And suddenly the newsletter got a whole lot better, because now instead of the same generic stock photographs, it had hand-drawn original art.

More holiday email

Drip campaigns

And so on. A bit of art from the outside drastically improved a business system inside.

The reality is that nearly every human being is born with creativity. Our minds in the first few years are as creative as they are exploratory, and it’s only through schooling and systematization that we forget we are creative creatures. Go back through your childhood and try to recall the areas of the arts that you loved as a kid and see if now, today, you can reawaken that part of you, fan the embers back into a fire, and then shine the fire’s light into the darkened heart of your business.

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2 responses to “Finding creativity in business”

  1. Chris, you describe a business with perfect systems, employees and clients who behave themselves, technologies that don’t change, marketing campaigns never grow stale or look dated, when a company purchases another company their data integrates seamlessly, etc.

    What I hear you saying about systems is that there are a lot of things about business that work. When they work, don’t go fiddling with them. I agree. I disagree that business is ONLY systems.
    It’s like that with creativity. Consider a dance band. You need a solid rhythm section. Period. The drummer and bassist run the show and everyone else builds their creativity from there. And there’s a good reason that dance songs are in 4/4. This not the situation for writing songs in 9/8. There’s plenty of room for nonsensical lyrics, political ranting or no lyrics. It can even be super boring for the bassist and drummer because they’re the foundation
    With business, there are things that work and fit in a system and there are things that are never settled and require insight and creativity. There are systems that aren’t quite right and it can take years of examination and creativity to get them smoothed out. The trick is in knowing where.

    Companies are constantly fiddling with what skills belong in which department? They might even create a whole new department. A solo-preneur may get creative about how their invoices look, how they incentivise clients to pay on a retainer, the look of their website and the layout of blogposts. The SYSTEM may be that the blogging has proven to work best on Tuesday mornings. That won’t change. But the layouts, topics and images are going to be a creativity wonderland.

  2. Hi Chris. Having worked for companies large and small, you are absolutely correct when you say ” businesses are really good at systems..” In my view they are very good at repetitive movement and the optimization of that movement. For example, having a background in ecommerce, I know that companies will spend large sums optimizing an open rate or offer to gain a tenth of a percentage improvement. In most cases all effort is placed on what can be measured as success, based on historical data or best practices. Creativity requires a break from process and process can’t be allowed to dictate the execution of the creative concept or it will never survive. Your example is very good. It is subtle and effective. Thanks for the great post!

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