Finding creativity in plain sight: How to question convention and allow inventive thinking to flourish

It’s people that are creative, not organisations.

By Keith Kent Epigram

Creativity is something that is in high demand, falling under the set of ‘soft skills’ that are now a huge advantage in business. 

However, creativity exists outside of learned expertise, it’s more about the way an individual perceives reality. With this in mind, it’s important to note that it’s people that are creative and not organisations.

The most obvious characteristics that come to mind are artistic; such as painting, sculpture and music. These are indeed creative, but these are skills that have been honed over many years, practised, fine-tuned. They are a form of learned expertise, just like accountancy and medicine.

The less obvious forms of creativity are when we talk about thinking creatively. This is far more interesting, and far more accessible for everyone to do: It is just thinking. 

Most ancient cultures lacked the concept of creativity, seeing it as a form of discovery and not creation. They assumed that all around them was divine, furnished by the Gods, and not humans. Humans didn’t have the divine right to imagine something into reality. That was reserved for Gods.

Humanism allowed us to move past this view though, and a combination of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment accelerated it. It removed the authority of thought, a single, all-encompassing view.

This lead to a questioning of conventional ways of doing things, and allowed inventive thinking to flourish, new ideas, new concepts and completely new ways of viewing the world arose. But when conventions are questioned by someone, they aren’t viewed as creative thinkers, they are viewed as troublemakers.

We don’t like change so we shun the unconventional thinkers, and this is the key point. Creativity can be challenging. It’s about questioning assumptions, proposing the preposterous and not being bound by the perceived right or wrong outcome.

Harnessing creativity 

Many people consider business creativity to be the domain of only certain departments or people. This is a drawback, as it thrives on diversity and cross-departmental input.

It’s about ideas, observations and innocent questions that can spark new and valuable ways of doing things. To foster this though, a structure needs to be in place to allow people to contribute in a meaningful manner.

In 1951 Toyota launched its creative idea suggestion system. Its slogan — Good Thinking, Good Products — is in Toyota factories around the globe to encourage all employees to suggest improvements or ideas. This differed from the normal ‘suggestion box’ approach in that it had very clear guidelines and a clear path to resolution.

It meant ideas were evaluated on their merit, and not on who was proposing them. It also explicitly stated that permission for suggesting improvements was not required, thus removing the hierarchal barriers that can impede creativity.

Intermingle expertise

One of the reasons that scrappy start-ups become successful is that they are working on a limited budget, which means that they can’t afford a specialist for every role. This can seem like a handicap, but it is one of the reasons they succeed.

An organisation stocked with experts tends to have a conventional way of doing things, as informed by each of their specialisms. When that expertise isn’t available though, a different way to do what’s needed will be found.

This new, non-traditional approach can be the reason that the start-up finds success. It brings a different perspective to proceedings, one unencumbered by traditional patterns of thinking around the discipline. 

One way around this limitation in larger organisations is to create a system that allows departments to seek fresh viewpoints from other internal teams or departments. This isn’t a form of offloading problems, rather it allows for different points-of-view to be applied to it, and sometimes a novice in the field might propose something that everyone else has missed.

Create areas to focus on, not goals

Conceptually it can be hard to view goals as a negative thing, we are primed to achieve them from an early age. For creative outcomes, it is important that they are removed.

By setting fixed goals the results that are defined are already set. This is the opposite of what is required when seeking new ideas and outcomes. When you ask for the expected, that’s what you will always get.

Instead, create areas of focus to concentrate on. These can be centred on optimising or innovating, customer-facing or inward-facing, departmental or company-wide. It’s not important which, what is important is that there isn’t a fixed goal in mind for what you want the creative thinking to apply to. This allows for a range of results to indicate success. It can also present results that can surprise because when the narrow success goals are removed, creativity flourishes.

Most organisations are brimming with creativity, but they need to seek it out to get the best results.

Designing environments and structures to enable this is crucial, and finding the people that are willing to ask the questions, explore the unknown and to challenge everyday assumptions. They can be young or old, just in the door or part of the furniture. They may be known internally as lacking experience, difficult or trouble makers. Find these people and creativity will thrive.

Keith Kent is the founder of Epigram, which works with organisations to improve their business through innovation. 

Get our Daily Briefing with the morning’s most important headlines for innovative Irish businesses.