News & Views

Cultivating creativity

by Contagious Team

Creativity, innovation and agility are often cited as the most important qualities for modern marketing, yet many organisations struggle to infuse those qualities into their businesses.

Global design and innovation consultancy IDEO has spent the past two decades creatively solving problems using a unique process it calls design thinking. The company has got a knack for it. It has worked with clients across a vast range of sectors, including GE, Apple, Ford, Walgreens and North Face, and has helped design households objects including Apple's first mouse.

In recent years the company has begun to share its proprietary processes and thinking with the world. Founder David Kelley set up the design thinking-led at Stanford University in 2004, and the company has released handy tools like its Human Centred Design kit and method cards to share and spread its methodology wider. Furthering that mission Kelley teamed up with IDEO partner and brother Tom (a two-time author on the subject of innovation) to write Creative Confidence.

Based on interviews with 100 experts in a variety of fields, the book explores the route to insight, and strategies for building courage, moving from thinking to action and collaborative creativity. Contagious' Ed White caught up with Tom to talk culture, design thinking, the Maker Movement and who creative confidence can supercharge modern businesses.

What specifically do you mean by creative confidence and why should people in businesses adopt it?

We think of creative confidence as a combination of a couple of things. One is this natural ability to come up with breakthrough ideas. We think it is natural, and that everyone has it, it’s just kind of buried deeper in some than others. But it's natural ability combined with the courage to act on those ideas.

We did 100 interviews for the book and what we discovered is lots of people have an idea but either based on their personality or based on the business culture in which they find themselves, they self-edit. They discover that it's better overall for them to sit through the meeting without raising their hand, rather than to launch their creative idea and suffer the critique from people whose first reaction is to tear down their idea.

It is just wonderful to find people who have gained this creative confidence. What has happened to them is at some point in their lives - here in the US our research suggests that it happens around the fourth grade or so, around 10-years-old - people opt out and say ‘I’m not really so creative’ and then as soon as they do that the world becomes smaller.

What we find is for individuals and for organisations if you can regain that creative confidence your world becomes bigger. It is really fun to be around these people because they are willing to take on bigger challenges, they have more resilience when faced with an obstacle, they have more perseverance, and so for individuals and for organisations it’s pretty valuable.

Ken Robinson talks about this subject a fair bit, he’s suggested talent was being squandered in lots of ways by an education system that didn’t help foster that sort of creative thinking.

Yes, so Ken was one of the 100 interviewed. He’s got the idea that creativity is as important is literacy, and it’s exaggerated for effect but in a sense it is true.

Especially in the developed countries, if you want to compete and succeed, even survive in a global economy where you are competing against people with labour costs one tenth or one 20th of what you have, you better be damn creative!

For those of us who want to have a good shareholder value and a comfortable life I think in the 21st century creativity is going to be our competitive advantage.

Anything that can be codified in any way is currently being captured by software somewhere here in Silicon Valley or anywhere in the world, and these smart systems are getting pretty clever. One that is in the forefront is a system called Watson. If a problem is just purely deductive reasoning, a computer will be doing it 10 or 20 years from now.

So therefore this expansive, divergent thinking based on creativity is going to be hugely important and valuable to people.

You’ve talked a lot of about design thinking in the past and how design can filter into business. How does unlocking creative potential fit into that in your mind?

It is very closely related in my mind with design thinking in the sense that design thinking is kind of a tool set, it is an approach to problem solving.

We guide our clients, and David’s students at the, through learning and adapting these tools through a process that we call guided mastery. Part way through (and I have seen this in hundreds and hundreds of clients) they intellectually understand the tools: ‘Ok we are going to start with empathy. Then we are going to prototype a lot, and we are going to have some failure. But it's failure in the context of experiment. Then we are going to come up with solutions we like and we are going to develop storytelling.’

They understand the tools, but it is still kind of distant, intellectual. But then what has really been fun, we have seen in many clients, and in almost 100 out of the 100 interviews we did for the boo, is then they get to a point in which they embrace it, which it is their chosen approach for problem solving.

Of course if they come up with a simple problem that they can just make a quick spreadsheet, they can almost see the answer at the beginning, but there are other toolsets in their mental toolbox but when it’s a complex problem and they can’t see the answer on the horizon yet, they have confidence that this process, the design thinking process, will take them there.

So it’s that mindset or that feeling or that embracing of the tools that says ‘I don’t see the answer yet but I know this process is going to get us there.' That confidence, that mindset is what we call creative confidence.

What examples can you share of IDEO working with businesses that have successfully unlocked their creativity?

In the book the longest example is Proctor and Gamble. We worked with them over a number of years. They are an Ohio-based company and my brother David and I are from Ohio,  and I would characterise P&G at the beginning of that period as a very solid, mid-western company, very trustworthy. A steady, successful company for 100 years. So it’s not like they were in trouble or anything like that in the before picture.

But what we witnessed under the administration of the CEO AG Lafley, and a very influential executive we talk about in the book named Claudia Kotchka, is a good company becoming great.

Under A.G’s guidance Claudia, and many other people, started these programmes to teach design thinking to everybody, and she said this is not just for the R&D people. She said our finance people had great ideas; our HR people had great ideas.

When her CEO came to her with a question he wanted design thinking on it, it was actually an HR question not an R&D question. So what we witnessed is a company come together and embrace these tools of design thinking. We saw it in their rate of new product introduction, we saw it in their stock price and we saw in a bunch of measurable things, but at the same time there were some not-so-measurable things happening.

I was having lunch one day here in Palo Alto with one of their mid-level managers, a guy in his mid-50s, just a regular guy. Near the end of lunch I said to him 'Hey, so P&G are embracing design thinking and innovation, this must be a good time to be at Proctor & Gamble?' This guy has been totally laid back throughout lunch, he leans forwards towards me and gets this fire in his eye and says ‘Tom, guys like me have waited their whole lives for a moment like this’. And I am thinking let me bottle that up! You try to beat a company where there’s that much passion throughout the organisation.

It was a thing of beauty to watch and it was billions of dollars’ worth of value in the process.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter talked about creative destruction: that feels like an idea that seems to be very much coming to the fore these days.

It is an extraordinary time and we are very much embracing this maker culture; we are hiring what we call hackers in the positive sense of that word. Basically they are makers in the digital space.

The firm started in 1978 and from the beginning when we were interviewing people we were looking for - the terminology ‘maker’ didn’t exist in 1978 - but back then we called it ‘tinkerers’. We asked people ‘Tell me about stuff you’ve built’.

Take engineering for example, we have and have always had, a ton of engineers. We think there are engineers for whom everything happens inside their head, it’s all maths and science. By the way those engineers are really valuable to the world, they come up with these new constructs, but for us we’ve always wanted the other kind of engineer, the tinkerer, the person who took apart the washing machine when they were a kid, built structures in the back yard and things like that.

Fast forward to 2013 that’s called Maker Culture; we just didn’t have the terminology for it then. We actually think that this is a hugely important thing for individuals but especially for companies.

This is probably off our subject but the human brain and the human hand co-evolved so it’s no coincidence that we have what we call ‘build to think’ in which you express things with your hands but it helps you learn.

David and I were in Los Angeles last night and David was telling a story I have heard many times before about the original Apple mouse. Originally we were sure that we had to have precision in the mouse in which if you move the mouse one inch to the left the cursor on the screen would move exactly an inch, and we have this ball that floated and we were having trouble getting precision. But then we had users test and we discovered it doesn’t matter; you have got your brain in the loop! Your brain very, very quickly adjusts, it doesn’t need to be precise at all. It’s this connection between the hand and the brain, and so we think that the Maker Culture is very wrapped up in that. We think its great fun.

Tom and David Kelley's book Creative Confidence is published by William Collins.

David's TED talk about Creative Confidence is available here: