The art of creating creativity
From nature to chance encounters, companies are seeking new sources of innovation
From the Financial Times, by Alicia Clegg
Frank Stephenson, design director at McLaren Automotive, remembers standing in a hotel lobby in the Caribbean and gazing at the arcing torso of a wall-mounted sailfish. “It was just a fast shape, it didn’t look as if it could ever go slow,” he says, reliving the moment years ago when his passion for fast cars and fascination with nature met head-on.
The encounter influenced his design of aerodynamics for the McLaren 12C supercar and the P1, which made its debut at this week’s Geneva Motor Show, emulating the way water is channelled around the sailfish’s fins.
Flashes of insight when ideas connect, long popular with corporate storytellers, have lately attracted more serious attention. Businesses are under pressure to do more with less, find new markets and offer cash-strapped consumers something extra – requiring staff to be more creative.
In their book The Innovator’s DNA, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen highlight the role that making “surprising connections” – so-called associational thinking – plays in business success. Taking a calligraphy class after quitting college provided Apple co-founder Steve Jobs with the idea for the typography that gave the Mac a reputation for style. Scott Cook, Intuit’s founder, invented Quicken after spotting that home computers created a market for software that households, such as his own, could use to manage their finances. Some individuals – the Jobs of this world − are prodigious creators, but with practice anyone can improve, the authors say.
In Your Creative Brain, Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist, explains why some people are bold connectors of ideas and others are not. To avoid risking failure or ridicule, many people subconsciously reject information that contradicts received wisdom without exploring its possibilities. Deadlines make things worse. When faced with a challenge, says Martine Haas, a management professor at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, people focus on what is obviously relevant. This makes tasks more manageable, but confines thinking to predicable paths.
Organisations can help employees overcome the cognitive barriers that kill off ideas. For example, running frequent low-cost pilot schemes on the assumption that some will succeed and others fail – a practice popular at Intel, the semiconductor group – makes thinking differently less daunting. Small-scale experiments can also spur creativity says Frans Johansson, a strategy consultant and author of The Medici Effect and The Click Moment. An innovation team with a large pot of money, he says, is likely to recruit teammates in their own image, but a tight budget forces people to look outwards. For example, one client, a financial services company, wanted to explore using a Microsoft Xbox game to reach customers without sinking money into development. The team persuaded a gaming company, looking to diversify its markets, to loan 15 developers for free. “Zero dollars forces you to think creatively, because, almost by definition, it forces you into another field,” Mr Johansson says.
Exposing people to different industries and cultures helps cross-pollinate knowledge. Innovation consultancies often move staff between sectors, deploying a chemist to pharmaceuticals after, say, a haircare project. “By not anchoring our teams in any one industry, we allow them to take webs of associations [knowledge] from one set of challenges to another,” says Dan Edwards, managing director at Sagentia, an innovation business.
Some conglomerates also trade people internally. For many years Tata group’s subsidiaries rarely talked to each other and managers would spend their entire career at one company. Now, a Tata chief executive will typically have worked in two or three of the businesses. The head of Tata Chemicals previously worked in the hotel and auto-components companies. Tata believes this shift, made in the 1990s as it expanded into new markets, has made managers “less siloed” in their thinking. “If you have been doing the same thing for 30 years, the mind can become quite closed,” says R Gopalakrishnan, director of Tata Sons.
Rather than trying to meld business ideas, some companies look to nature − a technique dubbed “biomimicry”. Some ideas can be lifted directly from nature, says Jane Fulton Suri, creative director at Ideo, an innovation consultancy. Eiji Nakatsu, designer of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train and a birdwatcher, modelled the front on the kingfisher’s beak. The shape enables the train to handle pressure changes the way the diving bird does.
Redesigning workplaces can also encourage the serendipitous coming together of ideas. Richard Huntington, director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi London, the advertising agency, says putting tables and chairs and the coffee bar into the reception area turned it into a communal meeting space. “It increases the chances that people will run into each other and have a conversation,” he says. In the US headquarters of animation studio Pixar, not only are the café and shop in the atrium, the main washrooms are too, obliging everyone to pass through.
But while these strategies might seem simple, Prof Dyer warns that fostering an innovation culture takes time. Success is never guaranteed, but learning to live with uncertainty is part of encouraging people to link ideas and experiment. “You might come up with something valuable, and you might not,” he says.
Tata’s experience of forming innovation groups of staff from across the business is typical. Out of a handful of projects, one produced the Tata Swach, a low-cost water filter for families without access to clean drinking water. The rest “died an early death”.
Other times, says Ms Fulton Suri, nature suggests “metaphors and models” for new designs. Interface, the US carpet-tile maker, for example, reflected that “waste from one kingdom of nature is food for another”. Nigel Stansfield, chief innovations officer, says it led to the idea that waste from other sectors might be “food” for carpet-tile production. The company now sources limestone for carpet backing from industrial waste instead of buying virgin limestone.
Mr Stephenson says taking inspiration from nature is not “genius work. “It’s just creative curiosity … these things have been around for hundreds of thousands of years,” he says. “They are there for us to find.”