Cultivate Creativity for Business Success
Creativity is an invaluable skill… one that everyone wants to possess but not everyone has. It is a quality that companies desperately desire in their employees, but one that has been nearly impossible to test for, spot or measure in any discernable way. From the smallest shops to the most successful Fortune 100 companies, everyone wants the most creative talent. Why is creativity so sought-after yet so elusive…. so needed and yet so scarce? It is because creativity makes people more effective and resourceful problem-solvers… and ultimately solving problems is what businesses do. That’s the crux of it. Solving problems is how companies make money.
In fact, whereas once upon a time, critical thinking – which is the ability to synthesize and evaluate information -- was hailed as the essential process skill for success, today ‘creating’ is the most valued of all higher order thinking skills. In today’s fast-paced world, people need to be able to reframe challenges, extrapolate and transform information, and deal with uncertainty in order to spot opportunities and craft solutions. In fact, a 2010 IBM survey of 1500 CEOs in 33 different industries found that “creativity” was ranked as the most crucial factor for success. Given the increasing value of creativity, it is not surprising that more universities have added not only “Creative Studies” courses to their menu, but also full Creative Studies degree programs. That begs the question then, can creativity be taught, improved, and harnessed?
College students in disciplines as diverse as nursing, criminal justice and safety are taking Creativity classes and even adding Creative Studies as a minor. Why? Understanding the growing value of creativity in the marketplace and in the world today, students from all different industries and occupations want tools to help them solve problems and deal with community issues, and they want the credentials to take to market of having that skill. It stands to reason that if students are taking classes to be more creative, then creativity is a skill that can be taught, and therefore also measured and evaluated.
Indeed. Educators now believe that every person is creative and can learn to be more creative. If on-demand imagination sounds preposterous, it’s not. Of course, some people may have more natural ingenuity than others, just as some people may be more naturally-talented writers or communicators. But that doesn’t mean a below average writer can’t be taught to be a solid essayist. Likewise, a marginally-creative person can be taught to be more inventive. But how?
Failure on Steroids
Using the tools of divergent thinking (which means generating multiple ideas) and convergent thinking (which focuses on parsing through all ideas to find what works), it is possible to improve creativity. But to do that requires a lot of trial and error. So apparently, a big part of the process of becoming more creative is to fail… a LOT. One college course called Failure 101, taught by Jack Matson, an engineer and an instructor at Penn State, is premised on the idea that frequent and intense failures are an implicit part of creativity, innovation and change. (Interestingly, embracing frequent failure is also an intrinsic part of sales success which is the lifeblood of any business, and all businesses exist to solve problems. That, in turn, requires creativity.)
Case in point. Brad Keywell, a student of Matson’s and founder of Groupon, is a big believer in the necessity of failure in the creative process. Perhaps that is because Groupon itself took off after the failure of another idea called ThePoint.com, where people were supposed to go to organize for collective action. Although ThePoint.com failed, it led Keywell to realize a way to organize discount group purchases. The key then is not just to be willing to fail but to recognize that failure is a critical avenue to a successful end.
Mixing Disciplines to Spur Discoveries
It is now believed that creativity and the greatest innovations, however, will come from not only identifying problems and trying to parse a solution through a process of trial and error, but also by augmenting cross-discipline interactions. This is where people from two different fields or industries collaborate to find solutions to unique problems.
Case Study 1: Architecture + Insect Ecosystems = A Super Energy-Efficient Building
Case in point. In the 1990s, an architect named Mick Pearce accepted an intriguing challenge from Old Mutual, an insurance and real estate conglomerate: Build an attractive, functioning office building that uses no air conditioning-- and do it in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Sounds ridiculous, right? After all, Harare can get pretty hot. The warm season in Harare lasts from September 23 to November 26 with an average daily high temperature above 83°F, with the hottest days hitting 86°F. However, Pearce -- born in Zimbabwe, educated in South Africa, and trained as an architect in London -- was up for the challenge. He achieved it by basing his architectural designs on how termites cool their tower-like mounds of mud and dirt.
Generally, termites and building construction are not a good mix. But in this case having knowledge about both was gold. You see, termites must keep the internal temperature of their mounds at a constant 87 degrees in order to grow an essential fungus. This is not an easy job since temperatures on the African plains can range from more than 100 degrees during the day to less than 40 at night. Still, the insects manage to maintain the right temperature by ingeniously directing breezes at the base of the mound into chambers with cool, wet mud and then redirecting this cooled air to the peak. By constantly building new vents and closing old ones, they can regulate the temperature very precisely.
Pearce was interested in more than just architecture. He also had a passion for understanding natural ecosystems, and in that situation, the two fields intersected. Pearce teamed with mechanical engineers from the firm Ove Arup to bring this combination of concepts to fruition. The office complex, Eastgate, opened in 1996, and was the largest commercial/ retail complex in Zimbabwe at the time. But that’s not what was most notable about it. The most interesting aspect of the building was that it maintained a steady temperature of 73 to 77 degrees and used less than 10 percent of the energy consumed by other buildings its size. In fact, at that time Old Mutual saved $3.5 million immediately because it did not have to install an air conditioning plant.
Eastgate ultimately became a reference point for architects; articles and books have been written about it, and the award-winning Pearce is credited as a groundbreaking innovator for launching a new field of architectural design that “copies the processes of nature.”
What enabled this breakthrough? He was not a world-leading expert in architecture, and he certainly was not an expert in termite ecology. But he did not have to be. Instead, Pearce used his knowledge of one field and leveraged it with ideas and concepts from another, seemingly unrelated field. In other words, he stepped into the intersection between those two fields and found innovation.
Case Study 2: Marine Biology + Epidemiology = Bacteria-Resistant Equipment
If termite-inspired building design sounds like a creative fluke (a great idea but a fluke nonetheless), think again. It is precisely at the intersection of two very diverse disciplines where creativity lives and innovation is born.
Like most bursts of creative genius, this innovation began with a problem: how to keep algae (barnacles) from coating the hulls of submarines and ships. In 2002, Dr. Anthony Brennan, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Florida, was visiting the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Oahu as part of Navy-sponsored research. The U.S. Office of Naval Research solicited Dr. Brennan to find new antifouling strategies to reduce use of toxic antifouling paints and trim costs associated with dry dock and drag.
Dr. Brennan was convinced that using an engineered topography could be a key to new antifouling technologies. At the conference, Dr. Brennan and several colleagues watched an algae-coated nuclear submarine return to port and remarked that the submarine looked like a whale lumbering into the harbor. Brennan wondered aloud why whales have barnacles on their skin but sharks do not. His colleagues brushed off the question, saying that sharks simply swam too fast for the algae to grow. Dr. Brennan was not convinced.
Dr. Brennan decided to take a closer look at a shark’s skin. He noticed that a shark’s skin, while smooth when rubbed in one direction, was coarse like sandpaper when rubbed in the opposite direction. He was inspired to take an actual impression of shark skin, or more specifically, the dermal denticles. Examining the impression with scanning electron microscopy, Dr. Brennan confirmed his theory. Shark skin denticles are arranged in a distinct diamond pattern with tiny riblets. Dr. Brennan measured the ribs’ width-to-height ratios which corresponded to his mathematical model for roughness – one that would discourage microorganisms from settling. A synthetic copy of this pattern was created in a plastic coating dubbed Sharklet. The first test of Sharklet yielded impressive results. Sharklet reduced green algae settlement by 85 percent compared to smooth surfaces.
Dr. Brennan then evaluated Sharklet’s ability to inhibit the growth of other microorganisms. In the lab, he tried to grow human bacteria in a petri dish in which half was uncoated and the other half was coated with the Sharklet film that mimicked the shark’s dermal denticles. In the half of the uncoated petri dish, bacteria multiplied and flourished. But in the other half of the dish coated with the Sharklet film, no bateria would grow. Why? Similar to algae, bacteria take root singly or in small groups with the intent to establish large colonies, or biofilms. And, like other organisms, bacteria seek the path of least energy resistance. Research results suggested that Sharklet keeps biofilms from forming because the pattern requires too much energy for bacteria to colonize. Smaller than a human hair and invisible to the naked eye, the Sharklet micro-pattern mimics sharkskin to create surfaces that are inhospitable for bacteria. The consequence is that organisms find another place to grow or simply die from inability to signal to other bacteria. Sharklet has proven to be a mighty defense against bacteria. Beyond its application to ship hulls, new applications for the pattern emerged including urinary and central venous catheters, endotracheal tubes, intraocular lenses, and films that can be adhered to hospital beds and doors, and other places where bacteria are inadvertently transferred and thrive.
Sharklet's technology sits smack in the middle of a burgeoning field called "biomimicry," which explores how nature can be copied to solve human problems. Bacterial resistance is an especially hot topic, thanks to growing concerns about the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. In 1976, only 5% of staph infections were resistant. Today, more than half are, meaning they're tougher to treat and far more deadly. Without using antimicrobials or chemicals, Sharklet is an innovation that stands to eradicate the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
The key to creativity is allowing people to think out of the box and break out of established patterns in order to see things in a different way. It means allowing employees to try things and fail often. And it means bringing people together to collaborate, throw around ideas and share knowledge. Indeed, in the fast-changing world that has emerged during the last couple of decades, finding innovations at such intersections is necessary for long-term survival. These intersections are the surest way to nurture creativity and develop groundbreaking ideas. The next time a business or company has a problem it needs to tackle, or its clients have an issue that they can’t solve, harness the creative juices of the team and collaborate with other disciplines to fine a solution. It may just lead to the next big breakthrough, and creativity will again pave the way to business success.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought."