Oh sheesh! Another article about creativity

Dave Birss Consultant, Speaker, Filmmaker, Lasagne Cook and Author

Issue 49 | December 2018

If I asked you what creativity is right now, what would you say? Would you be able to answer without hesitation? Would you trot out something clever someone else once said? Would you dredge up an old cliché? I had an inkling that the word 'creativity' was a problem, so I decided to pose the question to the internet. I created a webpage to ask people to write their own definition. It's one of the most disappointing experiments I've ever conducted.

Over a couple of months, I received hundreds of responses from people all over the world. I discovered there was absolutely no consistent understanding of what creativity was. But there were some pretty consistent misunderstandings. And these misunderstandings are the very things that prevent, damage or destroy ideas in the workplace.

Some of the categories included:

Unimaginative clichés

It probably comes as no surprise to you that the most common answer was 'thinking outside the box'. Man! That disappointed me every time. It's not that the thought is wrong, it's just that using a cliché like this betrays a lack of thought and, in turn, a lack of understanding.

Fluffy nonsense

This was the next worst category for me. I believe that clarity is what we're after, yet many of the answers were a bunch of unhelpful woo-woo. Statements like "the soul manifesting itself into the world" caused me to bang my head repeatedly on the desk.


This is a slight improvement on the previous category. It included entries like "the unfettered freedom to explore idea space" and "the jump from the obvious to the wondrous". These would be beautiful on letterpressed posters. But they're not massively helpful.

The us-and-them theory

A large proportion of people seemed to think that creative abilities are bestowed on some blesséd individuals and not on others. Sadly, this kind of elitist tosh is rife in the creative industries. It eliminates valuable input from everyone outside the creative department and bolsters the egos of those inside it.

So, what is creativity?

The leading academic view of creativity is that it's an idea that's both new and valuable. I think that's a good place to start. But as soon as you try to implement that thinking, you then need to define what you mean by these two criteria. Does the idea need to be new to the world, new to your industry, new to your organisation or just new to you? And what do we mean by valuable? Do you need to measure everything by the financial contribution it delivers? Or can you value things by their aesthetic harmony or emotional payoff?

I like to simplify things a little bit further and measure creativity by obviousness. Or, rather, by non-obviousness. Because creativity's not a binary state. It's a sliding scale that goes from bleedin' obvious to what-the-heck-is-that? And what separates the extreme ends of the scale is hard graft.

If you put in little effort, you're likely to end up with obvious ideas. Much of the time, these lazy suggestions involve doing what you've always done or copying what other people are doing. These kinds of ideas are of very little value because anyone could come up with them.

However, if you put in more effort and push yourself beyond perceived limitations, you'll get to the non-obvious ideas. The more time and effort you apply to this, the greater your chance of hitting a brilliant idea that people are unfamiliar with. You're highly unlikely to come up with something that's new to the world but there's a good chance you'll come up with something that's new to your peer group or industry.

This effort is what makes great creative people creative. They always go beyond first thoughts to best thoughts. And the more they travel into these unknown mental territories, the better they get at it.

I'm fascinated with how people and organisations can come up with these highly valuable ideas. Which is why I wrote a book about it.

When Dave asked the internet "What is creativity", a large number of people displayed their lack of understanding of it by answering "Thinking outside the box."

Putting the thinking into practice

I've recently been heavily promoting my book on every channel possible. And having left the advertising industry nearly ten years ago, I came at it in a way that I wouldn't have if I'd still been working in a creative department. I didn't focus on crafting headlines or paining over art direction. I didn't create a cross-media campaign. I wasn't influenced by the latest award-winning work. I was the client here and the most important thing was to enjoy myself. (And the second most important thing was to work to a media budget of zero.) What I've done is unlikely to ever make it into an awards annual (or appear on the pages of this prestigious magazine). I don't claim it's the most outstanding work I've ever done but it's worked for me.

One of the best ways to reach a non-obvious idea is to react against what everyone else is doing; to zag when everyone else is zigging. And that was very much my approach. I'd seen what was being done for other business books and found it a bit boring. Typically, pre-sales and bulk-purchases are incentivised with webinars, private talks and one-to-one sessions with the author. I'm not criticising anyone who does that. I just wanted to react against this standard approach and try to get more attention by doing something different.

My first activity aimed to get people to spread the word for me. I did that by offering people a free bad portrait in return for getting other people to sign up to my book's mailing list. The tenuous reason for offering bad portraits was that my book has some bad illustrations on its cover. Designers would call them 'stylistically naive'. So I thought that I'd offer bad portraits to go with the bad illustrations. And it's the 'bad' element that got people talking about it. If I'd just offered portraits, it wouldn't have worked as well. As it turns out, the bad portraits weren't as bad as all that. And many of the people who earned one are now using it for their social media profile pic. This generated hundreds of signups to my mailing list and a lot of activity on social media. All for no money and a little bit of sketching.

My second activity was focused on generating pre-orders in a short period of time. In a reaction against the webinar route, I decided to offer some ridiculous incentives, including home-made gluten free lasagne. Again, the unusual approach attracted a lot of interest. And it succeeded in generating enough pre-orders to get me to the top of half a dozen Amazon lists. Including philosophy. Yes, philosophy.

But nowhere in any of this activity did I do anything that could be referred to as an advert.

I didn't create banners. My films were nothing more than me babbling at a camera. In fact, the only ad I've done to promote the book is nestled in the front cover of this very magazine. Is it creative? That's for you to judge. Personally, I don't think it will bother the jury at Cannes next year. Or The Caples. But then again, I don't need to worry about that any more. I'm an author now.

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