By Marian Salzman, Tuesday, July 24, 2012, at 9:00 am.
This is the seventh in a series of 10 posts about different aspects of CEO branding.
How quickly could you come up with a dozen examples of great creativity? My guess is it would take you an hour at most if you have a good Internet connection. Your examples might include a few movies, books, some pieces of music, a few gadgets, some architecture, some advertising, and maybe a business model or two.
Now how quickly could you come up with half a dozen examples of your own creativity? Experience tells me it would be a longer and more hesitant process. Most CEOs happily describe themselves as hard-driving, focused, effective and decisive, yet many balk at thinking of themselves as creative. They’re quick to recognize how important creativity is in today’s business environment, but like most people they tend to think creativity is a matter of chance—something you either have or you don’t. Fortunately, they’re wrong; business leaders (and anyone else) can become more creative by refusing to think “I am not creative” and deliberately choosing to think “I am creative.” It all starts with a mindset.
Whatever your business, there’s always room for an extra dash of creativity to freshen up the mood, the workforce and the product offering.
You can break new ground by making your workplace more inspiring. You might not have the funds to transform your office space into one as cool as Google’s headquarters, but that’s not the point. What you’re after is an environment that jogs everyone out of well-worn mental ruts and triggers them to take different perspectives; complacency and familiarity don’t do much for creativity. It can start as simply as setting aside a “creative war room” full of magazines, art, comics and cool new products where the rule is “Abandon ruts all ye who enter here.”
Rethinking your location is another great way to stir up creativity. You can start by asking yourself what your business needs to make it work and if alternative locations could fit the bill. Chances are, you could do what you do somewhere else but with more floor space or easier access to talent or more options for employees to walk or cycle to work. Take a serious look at what’s on offer in some up-and-coming places such as Charleston, S.C.; Detroit, Mich.; Omaha, Neb.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; or Tucson, Ariz. You might conclude that you’re already in the perfect location, but even the act of thinking about a move will help you see your space with new eyes.
For a gentler creative shake-up, you could do a lot worse than the approach adopted by Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea. Back when he was building his business, he told each of his stores to think up three new things to try each day and take note of what happened. He then went from store to store to see what was working and would tell other stores about those ideas. Orfalea was intuitively applying a sort of evolutionary approach to innovation.
Look into any other example of creativity and there, too, you’ll see evidence of cross-pollination—bringing together elements from disparate sources to make unexpected new combinations. Picasso was reportedly influenced by tribal masks when creating his groundbreaking painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”; the Rolling Stones mixed American blues with suburban British attitude; elements of what became the first Apple Macintosh computer were inspired by work at Xerox’s PARC research center.
There are lots of ways that CEOs can harness the power of cross-pollination. One of the simplest is to take a little time (yes, take time; you are the boss) for mini field trips of 20 to 30 minutes. Instead of eating lunch at your desk, get out of the office and check out the latest food truck or a new store or gallery show, or chat with a few random people. Take some of your staff with you, put on your researcher cap (metaphorically) and imagine you’re visiting a foreign country so that you can see things with fresh eyes and an inquiring mind. You and your team will generate more creative ideas and insights than you could have done in the same time at the office.
Judicious mixing of disciplines on the payroll can be creative in itself, and it can lead to creative breakthroughs. Alongside deep specialists, be sure you’ve got generalists who can adapt to today’s flux. And sometimes a little radical recruitment is a great way to stir things up: Find people who aren’t classically trained to do the job but have entrepreneurial moxie and the chops to get it done. Magazine editors, for instance, make good PR people; graffiti artists could lend a hand in designing your annual report or collateral pieces; millennials with huge social media followings could help spread the gospel of a brand’s offerings. Sure, you need seasoned pros, but looking beyond the typical candidates will buzz up the office and bring new energy and insights to the mix.
I know that there are some business leaders who think creativity is irrelevant to their business and want nothing to do with it. My guess is you’re not one of them. (Right?)