Exploring Creativity

Patrick Collister, Author

Issue 43 | June 2017

‘How To: Use Creativity & Innovation In The Workplace’ is the latest in the How To Academy’s library of useful and usable books. The last issue of Directory carried a distillation of Steve Harrison’s masterful ‘How To: Write Better Copy’. Others in the series include ‘How To: Give a Great Presentation’ by Neil Chalmers, ‘How To: Speak With Confidence In Public” and ‘How To: Brexit’. All are available on Amazon. 

I’ve talked about writing a book about creativity for years. 

Then one day John Gordon called my bluff. 

John is a serial entrepreneur. In fact, one of his many ventures was to start Directory. He asked me be a contributing editor and eleven years later I’m still contributing. 

“Go on then,” he said. “Give me a book about how to use creativity.” 

So I did. 

In many ways, it was almost impossible to write. 

If you want to know to repair a gasket leak to the intake manifold of a car, that’s easy. 

There’s even a YouTube video to show you how to do it. 

How to make chutney, how to put together an IKEA dresser and, alarmingly, even how to make a real gun that shoots real bullets. 

There are step-by-step guides to all of the above in both books and video tutorials. 

But how to have an idea? 

They just pop into your head, don’t they? 

John Cleese has told audiences that he is often asked where he gets his ideas from. 

He gets them from Ken Livenshaw, who lives in Swindon. He, in turn, gets his ideas from Mildred Spong, who lives on the Isle of Wight. 

As Cleese explains, no-one really knows where ideas come from or why having ideas is so hard. 

What we do know is that new ideas are the fuel for change. 

When an idea is turned into an artefact, when you can make a prototype, then what you have on your hands is sometimes an invention but more probably it is an innovation. 

Whatever it is, it started with an idea. 

As a species, homo sapiens is unique in having the imagination to be able to project both backwards and forwards in time. 

We can discuss with each other things which don’t exist. Yet. 

That’s what an idea is. 

A projection forward in which you can envisage people using, enjoying, benefiting from what you have made. 

It could be a book or a painting or it could be a new low-energy lightbulb or a new way of containing rat populations. 

Be you writer or painter, designer or biologist, physicist or engineer you occupy a field of endeavour which can be called a creative domain. 

A domain is usually your specialist subject. 

The more your knowledge and understanding of the subject, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to have ideas and to innovate. 

And that’s where, perhaps, ‘How To: Use Creativity & Innovation’ can help. 

Ideas come to the prepared mind. 

You can’t predict when the synapses of the brain will suddenly snap, crackle and pop but when they do, it can be breath-taking. 

The book, then, is more a manual on how to prepare your mind than anything. 

It is intended to be of practical use. 

It provides practical tools to help you put your brain to work in very specific ways to generate ideas. 


Why do we need creativity? 

What’s the point of tools that may help you have ideas? 

Well, it has become something of a cliché that today is the day of least change you will experience in the rest of your life. 

If you are a creative person at heart, you will embrace this truism. You will want to be in charge of change rather than have it happen to you. 

When Ron Dennis was running the McLaren Formula One team, he came to the Cannes Festival of Creativity to say: 

“I’m brutal. If you don’t adapt and change, you die. 

If you look at our business, it’s a very competitive world. 

106 teams have come and gone in the time I have been involved in Formula One, which is somewhat over thirty years. 

These teams get created, there are huge sums of money involved and they fail. 

They fail because they don’t understand the fundamentals of being in a sport that doesn’t take prisoners. 

You have to enter Formula One with the mindset of being competitive. 

Now, there is a different between competitiveness and competing. 

When you compete, you are a participant. 

To be a competitor, you have to adapt and change. 

Our speed of development is mind-blowing. 

In season, we are making a new component, designed, developed and manufactured and going onto the car every twelve and a half minutes.” 

If you compete, you are simply taking part. 

If you are competitive, you don’t just hope to win, you plan to win. You expect to win because you do everything imaginable and quite a lot that’s not to make sure you end up on the podium. 

It was his obsession with the minutiae that helped Clive Woodward send out a team that won the Rugby World Cup. 

Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention to detail was equally remarkable. 

Sir Dave Brailsford took everything those other great sporting leaders did and turned it into a process. He called it “the aggregation of marginal gains.” 

If you can improve every aspect of the team’s performance by just one percent, those one percents together add up to a whacking great advantage. 

Tokeru Kobayashi has made a very good, if slightly eccentric, living for himself through his attention to detail. 

He is a champion eater in the U.S.A. 

In 2001, while still a student, he turned up and won Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating contest. 

The record stood at 25 dogs demolished in 12 minutes. 

He doubled it. 

50 dogs down. 

He wasn’t a large fellow by any means. Just 5’ 8”. 

What he did was look for marginal gains. 

He calculated that breaking a hot dog in half made it easier to chew. Also, it freed his hands for faster loading. 

He tested eating hot dogs sprayed with water or with oil. 

He put himself on camera so he could watch what he did and develop better ways of ‘chesting’ and swallowing. 

Marginal gains. 

The Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle has become a beacon for what can be done in healthcare when you examine your processes minutely. 

Doctors and nurses were encouraged to be open about the mistakes that occurred. 

Identifying the errors led to changes in labelling on the drugs they used. In moments of intense stress, they are now clearer to read and to understand. 

Coloured wristbands were attached to patients to help with diagnosis and treatment. But any nurse who was colour blind could easily get these wrong. So text was added as well as colour. 

And so on and so on. 

The result has been a 74% reduction in the liability premiums the hospital pays its insurers. 

If you’re going to fall ill, try to do it in Seattle. The Virginia Mason is one of the safest hospitals in the world. 

Learning to fool around 

In the workshops I run, I try to get the participants to be playful. To have fun. 

When I was at school, I was often told to “stop playing the fool.” 

But as Shakespeare recognised, the fool is often the wisest head in the room. Disruptive only because (s)he calls things as (s)he sees them. 

Only the fool has the nerve to tell the King he’s wrong. 

The fool uses humour to circumnavigate opposition. 

(S)he has the ability to come up with ideas that are strikingly absurd but, in their absurdity, work. 

Odysseus was no fool. But what a bizarre idea to suggest that the Greeks should build a horse, stuff it with soldiers and leave it outside the gates of Troy. 

What a stupid idea. 

But it worked. 

Stupid ideas can make you stupidly rich. 

One of my favourites is the Pet Rock. 

Gary Dahl invented it in 1975. 

Pet rocks needed no feeding or grooming. They would never throw up or be disobedient. 

The 32-page booklet he wrote that went in every box was hilarious. 

He sold one and a half million pet rocks at $4 each. 

The Snuggie is a more recent retail phenomenon. 20 million of these blanket-cum-romper suits have sold at around $20 a throw, allowing inventor Scott Boilen to laugh all the way to the bank. 

So, here’s how to fool around: 

• Become deliberately contrarian. See what happens when you zig when everyone else is zagging. 

You will really get up other people’s noses. But that’s the whole point. 

As the fool, you will start arguments which flush out what people really believe, including you. 

You’re not being bloody-minded. You are flexing your brain. You are breaking habits. 

• Do a Duke. This is Duke Ellington, musician and composer. He once said, “I began by tinkering with some old tunes I knew. Then, just to try something different, I set to putting some music to the rhythm that I used in jerking ice-cream sodas at the Poodle Dog. I fooled around with the tune more and more until at last, lo and behold, I had completed my first piece of finished music.” 

That’s pretty good advice. 

Look at the product or service you offer. Then think about all the other products out there like yours. Start riffing off them, what they do and how they do it and see how that changes how you think of your own offering. 

• Be prepared to be completely wrong. And to make mistakes. But bear in mind, when you do cock up you need to clean up quickly and move on. 

• Accept that there is no single answer to the problem you are dealing with. There may be dozens of solutions. How to get them to reveal themselves is the challenge. 

The creative toolbox 

In this chapter, I detail a series of different ways with which you can generate ideas. But it starts with a warning. 

As Thomas Edison is reputed to have said, “Creativity is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” 

I have an exercise I do in my workshops. 

I ask people to choose two words at random. 

They shouldn’t be words that are related to each other like ham and eggs or glass and water. 

Random words like peach and car. 

These were the two words Mandy jotted down. 

Next I ask attendees to spend five minutes trying to create a new product or service by connecting or combining the two words in some way. 

From peach and car, Mandy thought: what do peaches do? They grow on a tree and when the weather gets sunny, the skin gets thicker and changes colour to protect the fruit inside. 

Then she made a connection. 

Why can’t my car do the same? Or rather, why can’t my car’s windscreen change in sunny weather? Like reactolite lenses in sunglasses, a band across the top could go darker and make driving in sunlight safer. 

When she explained her idea, everyone in the room went “oooh!”. 

It was an idea that solved a problem. 

Met a need. 

No-one had seen it before. 

It was an idea everyone could see made sense and had value. 

All Mandy needed to do now to make something of her idea was to put together a polished presentation. 

She would have to show it to as many venture capitalists, banks and business angels as would see her. 

She would have to quit her job. 

She would need to raise around £200,000 to do feasibility studies, make a prototype and test it. 

Only then could she start approaching glass companies or car manufacturers. 

Then, if the response was positive, she would need to raise a few million to start making the factory that would make the product. 

By now she would have had to trade as much as eighty percent of her company for the investment she needed. 

On the whole, Mandy thought she’d rather stay an art director in an ad agency. 

Creativity is bloody hard work. 

You only get to the eureka moment after days, weeks, years of thinking. 

Or, if you do have the sudden leap, once you’ve leapt you have to knuckle down to the process of testing and refining. 

Not everyone is prepared to do it. 

James Dyson made over 5,000 prototypes of his cyclone cleaner before selling one. 

But if you think you might be up for it, do we have a book for you! 

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