Competing on creativity

thinkingImagine you are in a room of complete strangers. Someone asks the group to line up according to birthdays without talking. How would you do it?

If you tried to use some sort of improvised sign language to communicate, you would be in good company – most people tend to do this – but you probably wouldn’t be very successful.

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You’d be better off getting everyone to write their birthday on a sheet of paper, or drawing a timeline on the floor and having everyone stand on it, but far fewer people think of these methods.

Tina Seelig has been giving students this task for years in her course on creativity at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. In 2012, she literally wrote the book on creativity – inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity – based on her classroom teachings.

“The results of this simple exercise are surprisingly predictable across ages and cultures… Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the first solution they find [which] very often leads to predictable and mediocre results,” Seelig writes.

The case for creativity in business could hardly be stated more succinctly. Who would choose predictable and mediocre results if there were an alternative? To some, however, creativity is a poor fit in the black-and-white world of profit and loss. The creative genius is a loose cannon, whose output is unpredictable and whose value can’t be easily quantified.

That’s where design thinking comes in. Borrowed from architects in the 1990s, design thinking is a method of problem-solving that is highly collaborative, human-centred and solution-focused.

Proponents say this concept produces better and more creative ideas than any other, which is why it has seen such widespread uptake across industries. Chances are the most innovative companies apply design thinking principles to their creative process.

Inside Room Y

4. John LewisTake John Lewis. A few years ago, the UK department store built Room Y, an innovation hub at its London headquarters, where a small team of engineers and designers use design thinking principles to come up with creative solutions and ideas for the business.

Most recently, the Room Y team worked with Jaguar Land Rover on the toBoot app, which lets John Lewis customers send online orders to the boot of their car. It’s a clever use of connected cars and GPS data, but the technology is simply a means to an end, according to John Vary, innovation manager at John Lewis.     

“The technological world we live in will keep evolving at a phenomenal rate. Maintaining the human element at the heart, and [understanding] how it converges with digital is so important,” he told IRW.

Vary believes the best ideas start from a place of genuine empathy with the customer. And like Seelig, he sees creative thinking as a process of continuous refinement, or, as they call it in Room Y, prototyping. The first idea is almost never the best version.

“At the end, you want to have something tangible that someone can engage with. It doesn’t matter if it’s five or six different prototypes – that’s fine,” he said.

The physical reality of Room Y plays a key role in driving innovation at John Lewis, as the team has a designated space to do NSFW activities like 3D printing and laser cutting. But naturally, creative ideas aren’t hemmed in by four walls.

“One thing I noticed from the beginning was there are lots of pockets of innovation across the John Lewis partnership. It is actually about asking how we can bring it together and empower those areas,” Vary said.

Into the Shark Tank

This question is also being asked at Naked Wines, which has been running an internal Shark Tank-style competition across its teams in Australia, the US and UK for the past five years.

According to CEO Luke Jecks, everyone in the company – from the head office down to the call centre and warehouse – is invited to pitch an idea to improve the business. A panel of judges decides which ideas get through to the final, and the whole company votes on the winner.

Jecks is quick to add that the competition isn’t really about team-building, although that’s a nice side effect.

“We ask people to find partners to work with because we want the ideas to be really robust. We actually implement the winning idea, so we don’t just do it for fun,” he told IRW.

The biggest benefit of the Shark Tank competitions, according to Jecks, is the ability to come up with ideas that leaders in the business wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.

For instance, last year’s winning idea, the Taste Match Connector, came from a call centre employee. The feature uses Naked Wines data to help customers find and follow other customers who enjoy the same type of wine.

“Naked has always been about the democratisation of wine, so this was an idea that really captured what we are trying to achieve,” Jecks said.

Other winning ideas have been less exciting on the surface, but still deliver tangible benefits, like improvements to our CRM system or how we capture data.

“Most people have good ideas, they just need the opportunity to express them,” he said.  


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