Totally Different Questions

by Ken Lizotte

In a high-speed global marketplace that reverberates daily with quick-shifting customer expectations and demands from the marketplace to immediately respond, companies may no longer rest on their laurels or keep doing things the way they've traditionally been done. The smartest, most successful companies, for example, take pains to pursue not only present customer desires but anticipated, as-yet unexpressed, customers needs and desires in the future. Such projections require both research and imagination.

Take Toyota, for example, perennially ranked among the top five sellers of cars and trucks in the US. Its management tinkers constantly with fresh ideas for customizing its vehicles to meet customer desires, each year introducing more models, lighter weight materials, faster cruising speeds, even a first-of-its-kind hybrid engine utilizing electric as well as gas fuel sources. Toyota managers search round-the-clock for ways to do things better and different.

"The companies who are innovative ask totally different questions from those who are not," says Jack Ricchiuto, a creativity consultant based in Cleveland and author of Collaborative Creativity: Unleashing the Power of Shared Thinking (Oakhill Press). "A traditional set of management questions begins with 'How can we listen to our market better?' and 'How can we meet customers' requirements?' But creative companies like Toyota ask 'How can we SURPRISE our market?' Answering that one requires a high level of commitment to management creativity."

For such reasons, creative companies and managers continually re-evaluate, re-tool and revise what they're doing, forever gazing beyond the horizon, eager to glimpse what's to come. Their transition from the traditional to the creative rarely proceeds easily, however, especially with so many managers conditioned since grade one to tow the line and think of themselves as LACKING creativity.

Research in this area reveals, for example, that differences in creative behavior between adults and children represents a very wide gap indeed. One study found that only 2% of adults of any age level can be accurately classified as "highly creative" while over 90% of children five years old or younger can be classified this way. The huge drop-off begins at ages 6 and 7 (only 10% in these age groups were found to be considered "highly creative") and at age 8, adult levels begin. Only 2% of children aged 8 and above test out as highly creative and this figure does not rise again for any age group thereafter.

The researchers directing this study concluded that repeated instructions throughout our school years on how to do things "right", after years of hearing such admonitions as "no", "bad", "wrong", and "incorrect" take their toll. Negative signals sear little minds with the impression that there's only one way to do things. Disagree with that and you're officially "deficient".

With society officially downgrading the idea of creativity so strongly, it becomes problematic for businesses to get their managers and other employees thinking truly freely and "out of the box". Also, genuine creativity, by definition, subverts the status quo by facing down long-held assumptions and uncorking new ways of approaching things. Thus, employee and manager alike may resist attempts to uproot established company traditions or fiddle with untried, risky procedures. Their responses to creativity initiatives may in fact take shape vigorously, adamantly and fearfully.

"I always ask my clients what they're experimenting with," says Ricchiuto. "The scariest response I hear is, 'We don't like to experiment — it's messy and we don't like to fail.' Of course that's just kidding yourself. Innovative companies understand that you've got to put up with 'messiness' and failure in order to succeed."

Ricchiuto continues, "The truth is if you want to learn to do it better, you've got to try a lot of things, many of which won't work. Most artists will tell you the biggest item in their studios is their dumpster. A leading design firm uses the motto, 'Fail often to succeed sooner.' That's how successful companies and individuals truly employing their natural creativity think."

It's a wise move, then, for a company to consider injecting innovative thinking and action into its corporate atmosphere. However, taking into account that creativity, by definition, knows no bounds, there's no absolute or guaranteed formula for making the switch. However, creativity experts do agree on a number of vital tenets that must be observed. Here are four:

Let "ideas" flow. Our schools and workplaces have fostered for centuries intellect-dependent relationships. "Right" answers are those in the minds of a teacher or boss, the thinking goes, "wrong" answers are in the heads of everyone else. Variations of course play themselves out in the workplace every day, especially during meetings, i.e., someone volunteers an idea, then is quickly dismissed by the manager, moderator or someone else at the table. Naturally, the effect will be that all such volunteering soon stops.

Managers must resist a temptation to blurt out, "No, no, that would never work!" The essence of brainstorming, after all, is to let ALL ideas fly, no matter how wild, impractical or outrageous. First spend a few minutes scribbling everyone's ideas down on a topic before analyzing them for practicality. Even putting up totally wacky ideas on a white board or flip chart, where all can see them, could end up inspiring, by the end of the meeting, the most workable solution.

Make failure OK. Many companies pay lip service to the idea that it's OK to fail, make mistakes, get things wrong. But then, whenever something really does go wrong, KA-BOOM! There's yelling, recriminations, weeping and wailing.

Instead, truly creative managers invite open discussion of mistakes and failures on the theory there's always a lesson to be learned from them. Risk-taking, after all, by definition, means sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Failure is understood as one possible outcome in the overall game. Don't try playing without it!

When creative managers truly understand this, they exhibit their support of it in extraordinary ways. One of Henry Ford's the First's VPs once made a colossal inventory error, for example, that cost the pioneering car company over one million dollars, a lot of bread back in 1920. Assuming he would be fired anyway, the VP wrote up his resignation and handed it over to his boss.

Mr. Ford looked at the piece of paper, then tore it up on the spot. "Do you think I would fire you after what just happened?" he asked. "My boy, I've just invested one million dollars in your education. Now get back to work!"

Mix in color and music. The first things to go when budgets get tight in our schools are "non-essentials" like art and music. Yet much brain research in the last twenty years has determined that creativity amplifies if coupled with such traditionally "peripheral" educational activities. Along with drawing, painting, singing and dancing, brain scientists also tout the practical value of taking breaks, relaxing, meditating, playing games (recess!) and daydreaming.

Thus, creative companies find ways to add music to the office or factory air, maintain colorful decors, sponsor company (fun) events and reimburse for programs or seminars that allow employees to (as Stephen Covey says) "sharpen the saw".

Travel down roads rarely taken. If a company intends to truly transform itself into one that routinely practices high creativity, it must take risks as a culture by choosing unknown directions, attempting grand experiments, leaping off cliffs!

Has an ages-old marketing approach been failing to produce results lately? Try something dramatic, different, loony. A salesman I once knew named Jed, for example, had a terrible time getting a prospect to look at his marketing materials. Every time he made his follow-up call, the prospect insisted he just wasn't interested in Jed's service, so why should he look at Jed's stuff?

One day, out of frustration, Jed did the total opposite of what he'd learned back in sales training class by packing all his marketing materials in a big cardboard box and writing over it warnings like, "Do NOT open this!" and "Do NOT look inside!" and "Whatever you do, keep this sealed!" Then he mailed the box to his prospect, with no return address.

You can guess what happened: The prospect couldn't help looking inside, thus immediately encountering Jed's lively marketing materials and before long he has read them all, called Jed up and gave him his business. By taking a rarely traveled road – actually, a NEVER-traveled road, in this case! – Jed's pursuit of his prospect finally succeeded.

The ability to be highly creative resides within us all. Despite pressures and suggestions to the contrary, it arrives into the world the day we do and, even if rarely used for many years, it never dissolves or goes away. Happily, it can be reactivated surprisingly quick, and managers who understand this can activate their employees' creative abilities to extraordinary competitive advantage. Yes, it may take time, it may take patience, it may take newly acquired skills. But indeed it can be done. Smart companies, then, the winners, the leaders, make a firm commitment to doing so, then bravely and effectively forge ahead.

Copyright © Ken Lizotte

About the Author

Ken Lizotte CMC is Chief Imaginative Officer (CIO) of emerson consulting group inc. (Concord, MA), which transforms consultants, law firms, executives and companies into "thoughtleaders". This article is an excerpt from his newest book, Beyond Reason: Questioning Assumptions of Everyday Life. Visit for more info.

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