Creativity in Business

This, from The Book of Life:

"...business creativity is a little different from artistic creativity. A company is a group of individuals gathered together to solve a problem for other people. This helps to define what the true focus of business creativity should be: intense and lateral thinking about what could be missing from the lives of customers. Business creativity means skill at identifying and profitably meeting the needs (many of them unspoken and vague) of customers. Everything else – the factories, the technology, the logistics, the spreadsheets – is in a sense secondary to this aim; whatever efforts are subsequently lavished on execution, a business cannot succeed if it hasn’t zeroed in on a real, that is, sufficiently urgent, human requirement."


Visual Cues, Habits and Motivation

Progress

My first job after University (which was actually a Polytechnic if you can remember back when there were such things) was selling space in recruitment directories. There was a recession on at the time (hence very few jobs for graduates with non-vocational degrees) and I kind of fell into it. But in many ways I think it was the best start I could have had. It was a telesales job, cold-calling businesses, selling them advertising space. I had to make at least 80 calls a day in order to reach a daily target minimum of 20 effective phone calls (ones that reached a decision-maker). I learned about how to persuade. I learned about persistence, I learned about the importance of listening. About matching benefits to needs. I learned how to sell. It's a skill that I think is fantastically useful.

One of the things that stuck with me from that time was how we always had visual representations of bookings and targets up on the wall. You could see, as every booking was made, the target coming ever closer and closer. It was hugely motivating. And I was reminded of this when I read this short piece on the power of visual cues in building and maintaining good habits. It's so true. And it makes me wonder why, when we have access to so much data now, companies don't use this more (beyond obvious vertical functions) in the service of creating simple visualisations to enable staff to see progress toward a specific objectives. Such a simple thing, and yet so powerful.


The Creative Company

Creativity

I thought this Scientific American piece on the messy minds of creative people (based on research by Psychologists Guillaume Furst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart) was the best thing I’d read on how creativity works in ages. 

What was fascinating about it was that it acknowledged the many different (and sometimes contradictory) components, characteristics and personality traits that comprise creativity, and how they play a different role at different stages of the process.

What was also interesting for me though, was how much you could apply this thinking to companies as well as individuals (after all, an organisation is but a bunch of people put together). We all know just how important creativity is as an organisational differentiator, and not just to creative sector businesses  - an IBM survey a while back found that global CEOs believed it to be the most important quality in being able to navigate an increasingly complex world. So taking the key points in the piece, here’s how you might view the critical attributes of a creative organisation.

The researchers identified three “super-factors” of personality that predict creativity: Plasticity, Divergence, and Convergence.

Plasticity

Plasticity comprises personality traits including extraversion, high energy, being open to experience and inspiration. The common factor in this is a high drive for exploration, and the comparator here is with organisational willingness and propensity to be externally facing and exploratory. Too many companies become increasingly internally focused as they scale, mature or face ongoing challenges and this is about outwardly-looking organisational energy, curiosity, scrutiny and ambition. About a willingness to try new things, to experiment and learn at a fast pace.

Divergence

Divergence consists of 'non-conformity, impulsivity, low agreeableness'. For me, this is about organisational independence of thought, a willingness to be misunderstood, to try new and different things, stubbornness and uniqueness of vision.

Convergence

This relates to qualities such as precision, persistence, critical sense and conscientiousness. The equivalent organisational qualities here might be taken to be data-driven decision making and validation, a strong purpose, a focused approach, aligned and informed decision-making.

The article goes on to talk about how convergence often related to plasticity and how 'those who were open to new experiences, inspired, energetic, and exploratory tended to also have high levels of persistence and precision'. I can see this being true of companies too. But they also mention how these different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory characteristics may be used at different stages. Those who were creative were able to combine both generative (coming up with lots of original ideas) and selective (being able to critique, evaluate, and elaborate on ideas effectively) skills. And I think this is true of companies as well.

Being able to imagine lots of different possibilities, originate quality ideas but also focus on those which have the most potential value are key attributes of the creative organisation. And it is those that are able to combine these different behaviours and switch between them in flexible ways, that are best suited to world in which we now find ourselves.


Google Firestarters Comes to Australia

FirestartersNYC

I'm really excited to announce that, on the heels of our events in New York and our recent one in Austin at SXSW, Google Firestarters is coming to Australia. We'll be running two events in one week - one in Melbourne on the 21st April, and one in Sydney on the 22nd April - both on the theme of 'Adapting Strategy for the Adaptive Age'. We want to delve into how strategy and planning is changing in response to the impact of digital technologies on the practice of marketing and advertising.

It's a broad subject, that will no doubt touch on themes that have arisen at previous Firestarters - the intersection of technologically-native practices like user experience, service and product design with planning, impact on agency remuneration and the way agencies work with clients, iterative strategy, and how agencies innovate. But it's also a defined enough topic for us to have some wide-ranging but cohesive debate and it will be fascinating to gain a new and potentially different perspective.

As always with Firestarters we have some excellent speakers. Google's Head of Strategic Planning out of New York, Abigail Posner, will be in Australia and on the roster for both events. And I will be there to moderate both events. Our full line up is:

Melbourne 21stApril, 6pm, Clemenger Auditorium:

Dave King, Director of Strategy at The Royals

Eaon Pritchard, Head of Strategy, Red Jelly

Roger Box, Director of Digital, Clemenger BBDO

Abigail Posner, Google

Sydney 22nd April, 6pm, Google HQ:

Simon Small, Exec Strategy Director, Isobar Australia

Sudeep Gohil, CEO, Droga 5

Jason Lonsdale, Exec Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

Abigail Posner, Google

As always with Firestarters, I have some guest passes to give away to readers of this blog, so if you'd like one, please leave a comment below or contact me direct (stating whether you'd like the Sydney or Melbourne event). 

I'm so pleased that Firestarters is coming to Australia and expanding globally in the way that it is. It's a hugely exciting and positive thing. 


Why Small Teams Work

Small-teams-big-impact

(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)

'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel

There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention. 

I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.

As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:

“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”

Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:

“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."

Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.

It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.

Image courtesy