Creative block

Caught up in the 21st century’s creative revolution, companies
are faced with a balancing act in attempting to marry innovative culture with
business ethics

Creativity is the modern corporate equivalent of the philosopher’s stone – a
mythical substance so powerfully imbued with magic that it was believed it
could transform base metals into gold and silver. Just as medieval alchemists
spent lifetimes in hopeful pursuit of this elusive commodity, so it is becoming
the norm for 21st century management to devote huge chunks of time
and resource to fostering a creative environment at work, in the hope that it
will lead to that most critical of competitive success factors – innovation.

If you want to make your fortune in the current business climate, forget
that great dotcom idea you’ve been nurturing and concentrate instead on
distilling Essence of Creativity. It will sell by the gallon.

The problem facing companies is that the formula for this most elusive of
elixirs remains as intangible and remote as the original philosopher’s stone –
indeed, many people question whether it exists at all.

Key influence

Yet "creativity" has already assumed such a pivotal position in
the new economy that its presence – or absence – in organisations is becoming a
key determinant of such make-or-break metrics as stock price.

As the partners of ?What If!, an "invention" consultancy set up to
spur on the creative revolution at work, point out, the so-called creative
sectors – chiefly communications, information, entertainment, science and
technology – are already worth $360bn a year in the US, making them more
valuable than automobiles, aerospace and agriculture.

Even relatively staid UK management experts are jumping on the creative
bandwagon. According to a recent report by management consultancy
PricewaterhouseCoopers, there is now such an inextricable link between
innovation and value creation that a failure to invest in the former
"could be the death knell of many organisations".

But how do you go about forming such an environment, without falling prey to
some of the wilder excesses of creativity?

Can you create an environment dedicated to innovation within the established
corporate framework, or does the process lead inevitably to disorder and
anarchy?

Even the movement’s greatest proponents concede that a certain amount of
disruption and disorientation is inevitable. "The whole point of
creativity is that you are stepping into the unknown," says ?WhatIf!
partner Dave Allan. "It is an incredibly wasteful discipline – nine out of
10 things will fail."

This might be one reason why, despite its current ascendancy in fashionable
thinking, creativity at work has established such a bad name for itself in the
UK. For some people the very idea of attempting to channel such an elusive
commodity into formal business constructs is risible. The problem is that one
person’s idea of a stimulating creative environment, is another’s idea of
office hell.

"I’ve been on training programmes where people come in dressed in funny
clothes, in the spirit of bursting through the creative block. But for many
people it is not inspiring, it’s embarrassing," says Brian Baxter, a
partner with organisational development and business psychology expert Kiddy
& Partners.

"A lot of this stuff is based on an extroverted model of the world –
the extrovert needs contact and a lively atmosphere in which to bounce ideas.

"But there’s another type of person, the introvert, for whom time,
space, silence and privacy are key to ideas. They cannot handle a glamorous,
colourful and jazzy environment. If you create that kind of wacky atmosphere,
you raise levels of anxiety. I don’t think it’s just British reticence – people
have simply realised that on this level the creativity is contrived, and they
know contrivances don’t work."

Divisive danger

Former Radio 1 marketing manager, Sophie McLaughlin, agrees. Indeed, she
maintains the attempt to impose a creative environment often leads to more
divisiveness than cohesion in organisations.

One major problem is how quickly creative ideas and images can go out of
date. "At Radio 1 we were trying to steer the station into the future
while still surrounded with the "wacky" paraphernalia of the past. It
was quite difficult to feel creative when you had pictures of Dave Lee Travis
and Floella Benjamin staring down at you."

Moreover, the station’s new wave of modernisers, as epitomised by McLaughlin
and her boss Matthew Bannister, endured flak for trying to stamp their own
brand of creativity on the organisation.

"I had a call from Andy Kershaw, who I had never met, accusing me of
being ‘a typical pony-tail-wearing, red-bespectacled marketing type’. People
who try to enforce creativity, especially in a place like the BBC which doesn’t
have the heritage, invariably get it wrong."

Now a partner with Blinc Media Intelligence, McLaughlin – also a stalwart of
the London advertising scene – has seen her fair share of redundant creative
constructs at work over the years.

At advertising agency Chiat Day (now St Luke’s) she recalls "a sunken
bit in the floor, with fish at the bottom made of red carpet, designed to be a
think-tank. After two weeks it was completely defunct.

In many ways, she concludes, "creativity" is still perceived as
the antithesis of "cool", and that is what turns people off. The more
experts tell us to forget our adult assumptions and re-enter the inventive
world of childhood, with its bean bags, bouncy balls and wide-eyed
encouragement of ostensibly lunatic ideas, the more we revert to sulking
adolescence.

Some commentators like Baxter, who has been round the block in terms of
living through repetitive business cycles, believe such cynicism is justified.

He claims the last time creativity was in vogue, at the height of the 1980s
boom, the atmosphere of Friday night beer busts and morning doughnuts with the
boss created "a trivialisation of business". People were so busy
congratulating themselves on the positive vibe they had created, they forgot
what they were supposed to be using it for.

Widespread cynicism

No wonder creative work gurus, such as David Firth of Leigh Firth
Associates, and author of How to Make Work Fun! and The Corporate Fool, claim
it is virtually impossible to push creativity too far in the corporate world.
Far from leading to disruption and anarchy in companies, he says the real
problem is getting people to think creatively at work in the first place.

"Ten years ago business struck me as a pretty stuffy place," he
says. "It has loosened up since then, but we are still dealing with
business people with an eye on the bottom line. They could never be so creative
as to damage the company."

He claims effective corporate creativity is about finding the right balance
between structure and creativity. "Too much of the first and you get
rigidity. But too much creativity leads to chaos. "I don’t think the
business world has got the ability to move all the way over to chaos. People in
business are conditioned by rationalism."

But some companies have taken significant steps in that direction. Allan
admits when he and his co-partners quit the stuffy corporate world to form
?WhatIf!, they took the creative impulse a little too far when dealing with the
accounts. "We thought it would be fun to have a random invoicing system:
we would go straight from invoice 272 to invoice 1,000,000."

The group was only dissuaded from this apparently cockeyed idea when its
accountant reminded them the Inland Revenue might not look too favourably upon
such a zany arrangement.

Structure need

"The story illustrates how creativity needs structure," concludes
Allan. "When you have complete creativity everything’s possible – but the
world is too big. There might be blue sky, but you get lost if you have no
reference point.

"Jazz musicians complain people think improvisation is flighty, free
stuff. In fact it cannot exist without structure. The same is true of
creativity," says Firth.

And Allan agrees, "Creativity has been dressed up as a sunken room with
bean bags – it is easy to be cynical about that because there are no results.
People think being creative is about having really good fun. But actually it’s
hard work."

He claims his research demonstrates that real creativity in companies stems
from the ability of team leaders to create "benign structures".
"The teams which do well on our MBA courses have got a level of leadership
distinct from the others. The leaders do not typically come out with the ideas
themselves, but they are the facilitators. In our jargon, they build a
‘platform of understanding’, create a shared vision and a positive and
supportive environment. They are also characterised by their resilience."

The real question, of course, is how to structure this framework for
freethinking. ?WhatIf!, which has coached such blue chips as Heinz, Colgate
Palmolive, ICI, Pepsi Co and Cadbury Schweppes in the art of formulating a
productive creative environment, suggests making a clear distinction between
the rules which apply in the "emergency room" atmosphere of the daily
business environment, and those in the creative "greenhouse".

"Greenhousing was born out of a realisation that creativity needs a
different environment from that offered by normal business behaviour.

But the greenhouse need not be a physical place, nor do participants necessarily
have to book a formal time in which to storm ideas. In fact, it is a state of
mind that can be switched on and off.

"The knack to informal greenhousing lies in recognising a creative
situation and putting up a pocket greenhouse on the spot. It may last just a
few minutes, but it is a safe haven for creativity."

The most important thing, however, is that in the greenhouse environment
anything goes – "normal" business judgement is suspended.

Allan points out that the modus operandi of the greenhouse also needs to
reflect the common culture of the company if it is to find real acceptance.
"Define what you think creative means in your culture," he advises.
"Identify where you are in current creativity and where you want to go.
Ask how people will act and behave differently than before. Ask what structures
you need to put in place."

For example, one client, Bass Brewers, while generally accepting much of the
?WhatIf! theory, found the notion of expressing these ideas in "London
agency speak" unappealing. It consequently adopted its own greenhouse rule
terminology to discourage people from treading on the ideas of others. Anyone
making a negative remark was shown a yellow card, while persistent offenders
got a red one, and were asked to leave the meeting. "This was done very
playfully, but there was a very serious intent behind it."

Allan notes that encouraging creativity comes much easier to smaller
companies "where everyone knows each other. But in larger companies
efficiency becomes the dominant paradigm. The key challenge is how to encourage
entrepreneurialism in a large environment. Companies that are successful are
those learning to create acorns from old oaks. Big firms should experiment more
with doing smaller things."

Creative spin-off operations that have been used to good effect include
British Airways’ Go operation, and the Saturn branch of General Motors.

Separating these more dynamic environments from the main body also has the
effect of reducing corporate tension, claims Andrew Parker, a senior partner at
Forrester Research. "A separate structure creates a level of insulation
from the rest of the company and makes it less problematic if things go
wrong."

Sharing ideas

When it comes to implementing a creative strategy, Allan advises a
"land and expand" approach. "One thing we have noticed with
clients is that when we have started on one section of the company, others have
said, ‘this clearly works, we would like to do it too’."

Other creative thinkers have taken a different approach to the problem. In
The Corporate Fool, for example, the authors explore the idea of using an
individual to question existing assumptions in an organisation, thus encourage
creativity. It was an idea famously taken up by British Airways head of
strategy Paul Birch, who restyled himself "Corporate Jester".

"My only objective was to swan around, sticking my nose into other
people’s business and being a pain in the rear," he said in 1997.
"Humour in business is necessary. It will become the big issue as people
realise much more gets done when people have fun."

Birch left the operation in 1998, but many of his ideas influenced the ethos
behind the £200m new BA building with its free-flowing cafe structure, dubbed
"the biggest friendly building in the world".

Corporate Fool author Firth concedes that much of the "foolish"
nomenclature in the book was a mistake "because it made people
titter", but it masked a serious purpose, namely the importance of
bringing independent judgement to bear.

"A fool has three principles – first, to see things as they really are,
second, to say them as they really are, third, to communicate."

It is the sort of role which might usefully be taken up by a non-executive
director, he adds. "They have that objectivity. They are sort of in the
court, yet out of it. This is one of the roles with the potential to change the
status quo. As soon as you put the ‘foolish’ concept to one side and look at
the characteristics, you will see these people are common in companies."

What’s in a name?

The most obvious way to demonstrate your creative corporate credentials is
to come up with a zany job title or two.

This might sound frivolous, but there is growing evidence that companies are
beginning to take the issue of job nomenclature very seriously indeed.

In a recent survey quoted in The Guardian, an astonishing 70 per cent of
office workers claimed they would be prepared to forgo a pay rise for the sake
of a more "motivational" title.

Unsurprisingly companies at the forefront of this movement are often
marketing companies looking to use their own organisations as a showroom for
what they might do for clients. At the Fourth Room consultancy, for example,
titles are informal, colloquial and ad hoc – designed to indicate a person’s
basic job function. They include "managing directors" (someone who
organises senior management) a "members only" (the person responsible
for customer lists and marketing), a "man of ideas" and "a
path-finder".

A similar situation also exists within ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry – though
it will be interesting to see whether such quaint titles as
"flavourmeister" and "serving supremo" survives the
company’s recent takeover.

Proponents of ad hoc job titling claim the system helps boost self-esteem
within individuals, as well as breaking down corporate hierarchies. And there
is evidence that the practice is gaining ground in established blue-chip
operations as well as new wave companies. At Polaroid, for example, there
exists a "senior creatologist".

Meanwhile, at US software house Netscape, the dreary connotations of
HR/personnel have been replaced by the unforgettable "director of bringing
in cool people".

The Virginian-based marketing company Play boasts a "whatif", a
"checkplease" and (more traditionally) a "growth officer".

The one caveat to this informal approach to nomenclature is what happens if
a person’s performance or behaviour fails to live up to their title. Should it
then be changed to a more realistic one? How long before someone gets saddled
with "office lech" or "official team loser"?

As a final word of warning, whatever happened to the Major administration’s
Minister of Fun?

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