Creativity is the key to business success. So why is it so rare?

The moment you feel that little tickle of fear you’ll know you’re onto something. Embrace it, run after it, jump on its back, says Kevin Chesters

‘There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress’

EDWARD DE BONO

I’ve lost count of the amount of people, especially ‘business’ people, who have told me that they are ‘not a creative person’. Frankly, that is a stunning admission for anyone with aspirations to be in a success in business.

If you look up the word ‘creative’ in any dictionary – but I’ll use the Oxford English Dictionary – it simply says:

‘Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something’

That is remarkably close to the definition of another word in the same dictionary – ‘innovate’:

‘Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products’

Now I would guess that the same people who are tempted to say that they are not creative would never dream of telling people that they weren’t believers in innovation, or that they didn’t think that innovation was the key to business or category success.

Creativity is simply the pursuit of the new. It is looking at what exists right now and wondering how it could be done better. Creativity isn’t a job title. It’s not about being an artist. Creativity isn’t even about being able to draw (despite what your art teacher told you). Creativity is a way of looking at the world in whatever field you are in. Even a big muddy field. Creativity is possible in every industry. Every walk of life. Breakthroughs in science or technology don’t come through accepting what people have already told us. The future is in the hands of creative thinkers.

Creativity (or new thinking, or doing things differently, or innovating) has been proven time and again to be the key to business success. Whether that is doing something genuinely new (very rare) or having a new take on an existing category/product/service, one must be different to stand out from the sea of same.

So much of the same

So why is there so much ‘same’ out there? Every category is swimming in a sea of same – especially when it comes to positioning or brand values. I’ve lost count of the number of brands and businesses that define themselves by the same fat, meaningless words like ‘bold’, ‘curious’, ‘passionate’ etc. It’s like a fridge poetry box of repetitive cliches. And so many products or services are entirely unremarkable or undifferentiated.

The business world doesn’t seem to have very much….creativity in it.

The fact that doing things differently is the key to business success but that businesses all seem to do and say the same things really intrigued me and my business partner, Mick Mahoney. So, we started to investigate WHY was it that although innovation and creativity is what pretty much ensures business success (and inoculates you against business failure) there was so little of it about.

And this was the genus of The Creative Nudge, a book that explores why humans struggle so much with being creative, even though creativity is the thing that brings happiness and success to our lives, at home and at work.

And we discovered something very fascinating. We uncovered a conspiracy.

I don’t mean a tinfoil hats, QAnon and pizza basement style conspiracy. I am talking about 50,000 years of human evolution, and 500 years of societal conventions that work against us all. This conspiracy is something that will throw up every psychological, subtle, and unconscious barrier to you doing new things (or old things in new ways).

Biology

The first part of the conspiracy is biology – all your natural evolutionary instincts that stop you from exploring the new. There is a genuine phobia of the new – Neophobia – that kicks in all your natural evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ instincts. Back in the caveman days then there was a high chance that something you hadn’t encountered before might kill you. This is now hard-wired into your brain – even if it nowadays just an idea someone puts forward in a workshop that challenges all your usual preconceptions. New things tend to scare humans – but that feeling you get when you see something unfamiliar is an alarm bell that might lead you to a game-changing, category re-defining innovation.

Sociology

The second part of the conspiracy is sociology – all the societal conditioning that you’ve been surrounded by since birth driving you to ‘fit in’. Modern business really rewards convention, it glorifies in homogeneity. We don’t like mavericks, we love ‘team players’. The same thing happens out there in the ‘real world’ – as Jim Morrison once said, ‘No one remembers your name, when you’re strange’.

Brainstorms are not about new ideas; they are about conformity and groupthink. Businesses tend to like slight nurdles on what they’ve already done, not giant leaps into new areas and innovative process. Humans don’t like the new – so we create systems, processes, and entire corporate structures to strangle it at birth. So that we can return to warm bath of the familiar, the lovely warm pillow of sameness.

But as we saw earlier, doing new and innovative things is the key to standing out. Standing out is the key to separating ourselves or our ideas or our business from the herd. Separating from the herd is the only thing that will give you a chance of succeeding as product excellence simply becomes table stakes in the modern business world. Now back in the Savannah days, separating from the herd is what led you to almost certain death, but in the modern business environment it is the only thing that can guarantee your survival.

But how are you going to fight against 50,000 years of evolutionary programming and all those societal conventions driving you to ‘fit in’ and follow the pack? Well, all it takes is a few nudges. You are going to need some help. Our book outlines nine simple sets of nudges – scientifically validated – that will take you from underconfident creative wallflower to empowered creative powerhouse. We will explain what is stopping you from fulfilling your creative potential and give you fun, practical tips and tricks (some physical, some verbal, some visual) for how to break your natural human instincts and accumulated beliefs. Who knew that simply eating an apple with your nondominant hand could make you a more creative person? I’ve been running nudge workshops recently with BT, Lego, Google, M&S, and Intuit amongst others to help people break the programming.

And it is vital that we do it. Because regardless of what you so for a living or where you do it in the world, we’re noticing a tendency toward increased homogeneity. Whether it is the services that they offer, the words they use to describe themselves or even the logo designs they employ the world is getting to look and feel increasingly similar. Globalisation of commerce via digital channels doesn’t help in terms of differentiating either. Every category I have worked in recently – from finance to fitness, from telco to coffee, from property to booze – is drowning in a sea of same. It’s not getting easier to do business out there due to so many external factors. My hypothesis is that you need to be as bulletproof and brilliant as you can be around the factors you can control – and how you choose to position yourself and talk about yourself is one of those.

Success

There is no map to success. It’s tempting – especially if you read all the usual business texts – to think that there is some magic formula (normally consisting of alliterating processes and multiple chevrons) that will lead you to the summit. But that’s the problem with maps; they will show you the way that everyone else takes and everyone else can easily copy.

The key to success – in life and business – is taking the road less travelled. Motorways are amazing but they’re only good if you want to go from A to B (and take the road everyone else is on). Taking the less conventional, less obvious, category generic path to success will be scary. But good scary. The moment you feel that little tickle of fear you’ll know you’re onto something. Embrace it, run after it, jump on its back.

New is hard. New is lonely. New is unproven. But doing new and interesting things is the key to success in life and business. It’s the only thing that has ever worked in 50,000 of human evolution. As the great Coco Chanel once said:

‘In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.’

Kevin Chesters is Strategy Partner at Harbour – a London-based communications consultancy. He’s led strategy at British Telecom, Wieden+Kennedy, dentsumcgarrybowen and Ogilvy. He is a visiting lecturer in creativity at three universities and runs training for companies including Google, Lego, Twitter, BT & Diageo. The Creative Nudge is his first book.

Kevin Chesters is Strategy Partner at Harbour – a London-based communications consultancy. He’s led strategy at British Telecom, Wieden+Kennedy, dentsumcgarrybowen and Ogilvy. He is a visiting lecturer in creativity at three universities and runs training for companies including Google, Lego, Twitter, BT & Diageo. The Creative Nudge is his first book. 

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