Creativity in Business Contexts with John Bessant

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Radek Czahajda & Valueships

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Creativity in Business Contexts with John Bessant

Executive summary:

In this episode of Science of Business I will be talking with John Bessant,  Senior Research Fellow from Innofora, that dedicated his 40 years of career to explore the world of creativity and innovation.

We will be discussing different research pieces in the field of creativity and the ways they apply in modern business contexts. Some topics we will cover include:

➡ Where is creativity needed in business contexts?

➡ How to properly run a creative session?

➡ What can go wrong in a creative session?

➡ Big and small "c" creativity in business?

➡ Facts and myths about creativity

Transcription:

Radek: Welcome to Science of Business podcast by Stanversity. My name is Radek, and together with experts from various industries we discuss some new research pieces and their application in business life. If you’re a manager or simply you want to be up to date with science that can be applied in your work, this podcast is exactly for you. 

Alright, welcome everyone to Science of Business podcast. Today we will be talking about creativity. I have a special guest here, John Bessant, that has been working on this topic for years and what’s especially super inspiring for me is that in how many books you appeared that relate to creativity, innovation entrepreneurship, as far as I remember, over 40, right? 

John: Yep, I think so. 

Radek: To warm up, I wonder if you could tell me, after so many years of playing with innovation with creativity, why is it still something interesting for you, but what is more important, how do you perceive it now? What is creativity for you after all these years, how do you understand it now. 

John: Thanks, Radek, it’s great to have a chance to share some ideas with you. Yeah, nice, small question to start with [laughs]. I guess the simple answer is creativity is everything. Quite simply, why is creativity important? If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be around. As a species, as human beings, we’re not very fast, we’re not very big. If you go back in time, we just wouldn’t have survived as a species without that ability to imagine, and imagination is the source of creativity, it helps us to find new tools, it helps us, particularly in those days, to interact socially and cocreate something. 

So, it’s not just a solo thing, it’s sharing. It’s got us to where we are today and you don’t have to look far to see there are plenty of problems out there for which we need creative solutions. I think the other side, which I do love, you can see some evidence behind me, creativity creates wonderful artifacts, music and writing, and theater, and dance, and that obviously is a part of being a fulfilled human being, and I think that’s the other side.

As an individual it gives me pleasure, we know from the neuroscience it’s given me some nice, happy chemicals to reinforce that, but it’s also at a shared level a wonderful thing to do, to create something in a social space for its pleasure, as well as sometimes solving some rather urgent problems. So, yeah, creativity, pretty big in my life, and I suspect in everybody’s. 

Radek: I wanted to ask you about those instruments in the background later on, but since you mentioned them, something I’m wondering about creativity, on one side we have those problems, those big ones that we deal with, let’s name it climate change, diversity, all the things that we now try to solve as humanity. But then there is also this playful creativity that allows to make music, to play music, to make puns, and I wonder, how do you see those two interacting in a way? Because for me, sometimes I’m a productivity freak and then when I think, okay, I will just go and play instruments or do something silly, it feels like a waste of potential. I wonder, can I somehow explain to myself why I’m playing? 

John: Yes, and indeed, you can justify the playtime. You can actually allow yourself, because it’s quite important. Yes, there’s plenty of theory. Creativity actually isn’t that cartoon moment, bing, the light bulb – that’s created; it isn’t like that. It has been studied extensively and it’s a process. It starts with recognizing there is something we want to get a solution to. It may be a problem, it may be we’re trying to create a work of art or a piece of music, there’s a start, but we don’t necessarily find the solution instantly. Sometimes we do, it’s like a supermarket, there’s an obvious answer, take it off the shelf, there we go. 

But, very often, and this goes back to this evolution, we’ve got this ability to search, and that searching doesn’t take place in linear fashion. It’s very much about interesting branching pathways in the brain making odd connections. If you think about your dreams, go in very weird places. I won’t ask you to go into detail about your dreams, but dreams go in strange places. But, what’s going on there is your brain is associating in a very freeform fashion. That association is really important. 

So actually sometimes playing a piece of music or going for a walk, or doing some crazy dancing, anything that turns you on, isn’t just fun in itself and possibly creative, it’s also a stepping stone to somewhere you might need to get to in that productivity challenge. So, that kind of playful creativity is a key part of the whole thing. I think the evidence is that our brains have evolved to reward those kinds of playing behaviors, it’s a kind of learning. It’s a way of learning, finding things out, experimenting which is going to be essential for survival. So, play is pretty important in creativity. 

Radek: I recall also some research generally about things that we fear and things that we find pleasure in, they are sometimes connected strongly to our survival. So we could say, also, having fun in the very same way. And moving further, I want to tackle the business context. I found a very interesting piece by Beaty and Farnham. 

They did a review of research in terms of creativity and they found out that in many ways what we have as a given in business is in contradiction to what allows creativity, and just to name a few is that risk taking is one of the factors that support creativity, while in business it's not always the case that we will risk much, and then the same goes for the boundaries, sometimes when we are too strict with what we can do, this also can restrict the creative output we have. 

And then ambiguity, that we try to resolve always, we try to be certain, we try to be confident in business, we try to have a strategy, while when something is ambiguous, that's good for creativity because we can think about it in different way, like you, John mentioned, when we have this creative funtime that actually brings some new inspiration. 

So, yeah, I’m wondering how is creativity connected to business? How it supports it, how it destroys it, what can we do about it to make sure that we keep on being creative in business? Because that's how we solve problems, we already set that in stone. So, what’s your take? 

John: Another little question, huge, let me break that into two parts. The first part what I’m reading on the screen, where is creativity needed? Everywhere. Just as human beings, we have to be creative to survive, any organization has to innovate to survive. It has to come up with ideas and deploy them to survive. And that's as true for the public sector as it is the private, and it's certainly true in the not-for-profit world as much as the profit. 

We'll come back to it, I’m sure, but a lot of my current research is around the humanitarian set so people like Save The Children or The Red Cross, they're in situations, disasters, natural or manmade, they need to find solutions and very often the mainstream, the things you'd normally do, the sort of supermarket or take that off the shelf and do it, you can't do it. You have to create to come up with something new. But, everywhere you look we need creativity. So, let's take that as a given. 

Then, the second part of your question is the context and of course you're right, the assumed context of business is we want to do something and control it so we can do it again, and again, and again. If we allow variation, it's just to do it a little bit better. We have a sort of bias towards that, not surprisingly. That of course is difficult for creativity because as you suggested it tends to sort of constrain the space in which we can do it. 

But I think the smarter organizations know that. They do know that we need to allow some space, it doesn't have to be giving people a week off to go and do crazy things up a mountain side. If you take a company, one of the companies I've been impressed with for a long time, Toyota, Toyota may not make the most dramatic cars in the world, though their Prius was quite game changing, but they are, however, and have been for thelast50 years, the most productive carmaker, and productivity matters in that business world. That comes not from just doing one or two things it comes from a steady stream of creativity and they tap everybody's creativity.  

When you signup to work in Toyota you sign up not just to be a pair of hands, but to bring your brain to actually contribute, and their theme is very much what they call “kaizen”, little improvements from everyone, little pieces of creativity. And in order to make that happen, they allow a small amount of time every day in their production schedule. So if you visit a Toyota plant anywhere in the world they'll take typically 15 minutes before they start working to do some thinking and the thinking is controlled creativity, so theirs is high frequency every day but relatively little. That's different from Google, who say we think our engineers need 20% percent of time to play and things like Google Mail, G-mail, came as a result of one of those play projects. 

So, it makes a difference. Whether it's 20% or 15 minutes doesn't really matter. it's the sense of giving an appropriate amount of space and with it the permission. And I think your point about the Farnham article, it’s very much, does the company want this? Well, frankly, any company that doesn't want it is probably stupid and probably not going to survive very long. So, we need creativity but we also need to construct the context in which it can happen. 

Radek: Wow, that's already a very pragmatic outcome I’m taking for starting the day with some thinking, how can I make things better, how could we make things better? What maybe upsets me in my day-to-day work and how could we fix that? 

That's a brilliant case and it reminds me in the book of Tim Ferriss I was reading recently, about a practice just for the muscle of creativity which is to write a list every day, to put a problem in front of yourself, it can be something that you're dealing with or something absurd, it doesn't matter, like how to make sure my house is always clean even though I don't want to clean, and then you start brainstorming, you start writing down the ideas just to keep the creative juices flowing, keep using this part of your imagination. 

But, yeah, why not to put it into something concrete? I’m wondering about this and still keeping the topic of business and creativity because for me actually, to be frank, as a trainer that sometimes deliver creativity sessions, they were always brought up around some bigger topic. For instance, when the autonomous vehicles were introduced we were doing some workshops in one of the manufacturers, how the interior will look like, what changes will be there when you don't have to drive a car, how it could be designed. 

So, a big problem that can bring a lot of a lot of solutions, or naming workshops when you figure out, okay, I have a new product, I have a new brand, how to name it properly. But what I’m hearing from you is that it's maybe even more important to tackle this everyday creativity. If you had to choose as a business owner which to focus on more, which to develop on more, these little changes or these big ones that can twist the entire organization? 

John: It’s a simple one to answer, we need both. Let me just elaborate a little. If you imagine a spectrum, one end of the spectrum is doing what we do a little bit better, that's what we call incremental innovation and that really is important. That's what Toyota specialized in, there wasn't one magic thing that made them the world's most productive car maker, it was little, little, little, little, building over decades, millions of ideas every year which they mostly implement. 

So, one end of the spectrum is that, the other end at the extreme is doing something we've never done before, something wacky, completely different, radical. And we need that, because from time to time we need a jump. And to go back, if I can, to Toyota, the Prius was not an incremental improvement on Henry Ford's car, it was a radically different concept, this hybrid engine, and it has changed the world, it set the pattern for the beginnings of electromobility. 

But, we need everything in between. Two things about it, if you take the lowend, it's very safe, this is not high risk, because it's mostly doing what we know a lot about, a little better. It's the shop floor worker or the woman in the call center who already does a job but thinks I think I could improve this, we could improve the customer service or we could cut that time down a little, those things matter and they accumulate, and that's perhaps the key message, the small things add up. I could bore you with some statistics if you really want, but we know from studies of countless innovations, most innovation, most of the time, is incremental, it's that doing what we do, better, and its impact is cumulative. 

Occasionally the radical change comes, but even when it does you need a lot of the smaller stuff to make it work. If you have a radical idea for a new car engine or a new service concept, and so on, it doesn't just magically happen, you need a lot of small creativity to make it happen. So, we've got this spectrum, the risk goes up, the challenge goes up, but we can do it. We need both. 

I think the other thing for me which is in a lot of my work in organizations, everybody is creative and that's perhaps a myth we'll come back to, but this notion that there are somehow special people with a big C on their chests, I am creative, it's not like that, everyone's creative. Look at any bunch of kids in a playground if you want reminders. 

We may not choose to deploy our creativity in always the same dramatic fashion, but basically everyone can find a space along that spectrum. And so if we're serious about using creativity in our organizations a big question we have to ask, particularly as senior leaders, is are we managing, are we working to draw that creativity from our employees? 

Radek: Wow, this already connects to the next research I wanted to tap into and something that actually when I was writing a summary, a review of research and creativity, this one literally blew my mind, because in pop culture what we what we tend to do is to tell10 things that Steve Jobs did that made him creative, or think like Einstein, what was the way that he was inventing so many amazing things. 

But Kaufman and Beghetto, what they did in their research, they tried to differentiate between what you call the spectrum, so the things that are the little everyday creativity and the overwhelming life changing, world changing creativity that totally disrupts what we know in the given field or in general, even. So, I wonder if we could maybe tap into this a little bit even more. 

So, for the small everyday creativity, what is needed? How we can embrace it? How we can improve it and then later on, second, for the big C, if we're all creative, how we can spark that for these dramatic changes that make a difference. But, starting with the small C, how do you think this everyday innovation can be embraced? 

John: It’s a great question and really big territory again, but I think a very important question for organizations is how do we get everybody to contribute in their own way and particularly in their comfortable way because they're giving ideas, they don't have to. So, they've got to feel safe to do it. 

But, how do we help them with that? The good news is it's natural. If you take those people away from work they do it, in their family life, in their social life. People are not just what they are at work and when you study them, when you look at them in other contexts, they can be very creative. I’m absolutely convinced this is my one article of faith, people are creative, but they can be more creative. 

You used a nice metaphor earlier when you talked about the creativity muscle and in our book, I'll give a plug for our book, we wrote a book around creativity in organizations but we had the idea of The Creativity Gym. You go to the gym to work out and develop and so on, and what you're really doing is you're fit, or you think you're fit, but you want to get fitter, and it maybe you want to develop, just, I want to be fit, or you may say I really want upper arm strength or I really want strength in my legs, and what you have in the gym is essentially resources to help. 

You have equipment, specialized, as well as general. You might have a personal trainer, a coach you have all sorts of other things, but you've got to put in the work so it does come around in the end to you. But the good news about creativity is there's plenty of those tools, techniques the equivalent of the gym equipment and the workouts and so on, to help do that. If I take a specific example, we talk about the small C, everybody can do it but how? 

And one of the big questions is well, where do I start and who's going to listen to me? One thing we're seeing a great deal more of is the idea which certainly wasn't Toyota's idea, but the idea of the suggestion box. Back in the 19th century and even before that, I've got an idea, I'll post it in the box and hope something happens. That's not really going to lead to much change. 

What we now have is the way of engaging lots of people many thousands sometimes in an organization in contributing their ideas and helping make them work. And they're typically called collaboration platforms or innovation platforms. What they do is provide a structure. It's like going to the gym, they allow people to work on a machine, they try out, they learn how to do a creative thing, they take their idea from their heads, post it, elaborate it, develop it, and possibly implement it. Oh, that was good, I'll try again. 

So, they're developing their muscles. And the evidence from this kind of collaboration platform is pretty compelling. You have organizations, Liberty Global is the world's biggest cable company, and they have brands like Virgin Media and so on, certainly in the UK, they've got tens of thousands employees, many of whom work in call centers or work in fixing the cable in the engineering in somebody's household. These are “ordinary jobs,” not radical creativity jobs, and what Liberty Global has done is to say let's share our ideas. 

And they're getting savings worth millions of euros year on year from thousands of employees. And this is a regular process, not because they've said please, we want you to be creative, they put in place the enabling structure. It's like a kind of company gym where people can do it. There are lots of simple hacks and there are formal training techniques but people can learn to be creative. Everyone is creative, but we can all learn to be more creative in all sorts of ways. 

Radek: So, if I wanted to put it into a process that would be first they just post the ideas so it's not that much demanding, but then they also have the framework to develop them. So, it's more than creativity, it's the full innovation process that allows the employees to contribute to how the innovation is dealt with in their business. 

John: Yeah, so in those platforms, they're called innovation platforms, that's exactly it, and the idea is very much, the smart way to use them is not simply to say just drop an idea in, but giving a target. What matters to the organization? We want to improve customer service by 30%, we want to cut quality problems by 5%, whatever the strategic target is, it becomes what's called a “campaign.” That's what we're all going to work towards and we need all the creativity we can get. 

So, there is a focus and there's some sense of updating that we are making progress. There's a lot of leadership involved in this to keep the motivation to create, but yes, it's an enabling process. It very importantly is a process which is not just about individuals. 

You might post an idea but think Facebook kind of world, other people can say, hey, Radek, that's a cool idea, I like that, and they put their idea, and someone else chips in theirs, so you’re collectively creating and these people don't even have to be in the same country, they can be spread across a global organization. This kind of tool I think has accelerated the possibilities of the small C becoming widespread. 

Back to what we started with, I think the small C is really important because everyone can do it. There's the possibility of high involvement, high volume creativity, but it's not to say that the big C isn't also important. 

Radek: Yeah, and exactly switching to it, my biggest concern was when I read the paper of Kaufman the first time, was that we praise Leonardo da Vinci, we praise Bill Gates, we praise all the people that achieved a great success and brought some innovation into the world, but the authors claim that there are so many factors that affect it that you cannot really figure out what is the true process of big C creativity. If da Vinci didn't live in the times of great support from the patrons to art we wouldn't see his art, especially because he was so not really timely and not really finishing what he starts. 

And the same goes for every single one of the things that are now “the thing,” the things that we discussed that were greatly impacting the world. So, I wonder if this is such a nunpredictable field, creating world changing innovation or business changing innovation if we want to speak a little bit smaller, how can we control that? How can we manage that in any way? How can we spark it in our organizations? 

John: Another great question. Let's move along our spectrum to the extreme end, the radical, the big stuff. Can I then puncture another myth which is innovation that that creativity deployed into something that changes the world. It's very, very, very rarely a solo act. You beautifully described it, even Leonardo da Vinci or one of the wonderful people still needed a lot of support. But there's also something, people like that who may be very radically creative, and there's some research that suggests the line between that and what we would label a kind of madness, is quite a thin one. So there's very interesting sort of neurological things going on. 

But those kinds of people are exceptions outside the norm and very often outside of companies, outside of the world of business. There's a lovely book I'd recommend by Melissa Schilling and the book's called Quirky. In English we have this word “quirky” which means kind of odd. She makes a study of some quirky people, Nikolai Tesla for example, who apart from giving his name to a kind of car, was a genius, incredibly bright, but slightly crazy. I mean, he came up with some amazing ideas and some really stupid ideas. He was very compulsive, he disliked the number 6, wouldn't go anywhere near a number 6. 

It’s a wonderful example of the kind of extreme creativity which we kind of associate in the world of art. Think Van Gogh or someone like that. We get that the line between creativity and dysfunctional mental behavior is very thin. So, put those people to one side, let's stay with the world of business, the world of organizations trying to achieve something. We probably don't want, we probably couldn't handle those kinds of people, but in any case they're very much at the very edge. What we are interested in is the kind of group the team, the collection of people who can achieve something radical. And the great news is there's plenty of examples. 

We take the COVID-19 crisis now, that was a great example of crisis demanding innovation in life and death. When we started we didn't know what this virus was and we needed protective equipment. We needed ventilators so people could breathe, we needed vaccines, this is serious stuff or which we need mega creativity. The great thing is, teams formed, not just inside organizations, this was an example where the challenge was so big they cooperated across, but it was the team, and the team is really important and we've known about this for a very longtime. 

Another book I would recommend, amongst along reading list, is the book called Skunk Works. We hear the word “Skunk Works” very often in the context of creativity and innovation. It has a very specific meaning and a specific history. Back in the Second World War things were getting tight in the early1940s and particularly the Americans who just joined the war realized with the British and the other Allies there was a serious problem in the sky, because the Germans had a flying jetfighter faster than anything else jet powered, and nothing else that the Allies had could come near it, that was all propeller driven. 

So, there's a really urgent challenge, we have to have a jet fighter to combat this, otherwise we're in deep trouble. So, there's the challenge, it was given to the Lockheed company in California, we need a jet fighter and you've got six months to do it. Okay, that's pretty challenging. 

And the way it was done, they basically set up a team, a special team, handpicked under the leadership, and this was a very special kind of leadership, of a man called Kelly Johnson, and they couldn't even find any space to work, so they rented a circus tent, an old circus tent which still smelled of elephants and things, and on the other side of the airfield they started trying to solve this almost impossible challenge. 

One of the parts of the challenge was they didn't even have an engine to play with. The only jet engine in the world that they could use was in Britain and it would take two months to travel by sea to get to California. Okay, so, some serious challenges, the great thing is they succeeded. They succeeded within the six months and the plane flew first time. It eventually became the trainer that all the forces after the war used to transfer from propellers to jet planes. 

Now, that wasn't an accident that was Lockheed understanding that was a particular way of organizing for a team that gave them a lot of freedom, gave them a lot of space, gave them very clear leadership of a very special kind. Quite supportive, quite challenging, but that sense of never mind the rules I'll keep you safe. 

So, lots going on in there and of course Lockheed said this worked and one of the things about that team in Burbank was they'd given themselves a name, it was after a cartoon character but they called themselves The Skunk Works. This is the place where people didn't want to get too close because it smelled badly, but the Skunk Works name stuck, it's now trademarked by Lockheed because it's the place where they have developed many really radical innovations. 

All the stealth technology, if you think about stealth airplanes, that's physically impossible in the laws of physics you want something that's invisible to radar but you can't put a piece of metal in the sky and not expect waves to bounce off it. How do you make an invisible airplane? That's a Skunk Works challenge. And so all of that technology came from there. So, long stories, but we know a lot about big C and when we need it, we can make the teams, they need to be often specialized and this may be where you need specialized skills to come together. 

I would stress very strongly it's a team effort. I would really be surprised to find any solo genius in that kind of context who could do it all. And therefore you're bringing in questions like how does the group trust each other, how do they work together, how do you lead them, how do you make sure you don't give them too much space so they all fall asleep, because it's such an easy life. These are challenges but I think the good news is just as we know how to make the small C work, we can construct structures and develop support mechanisms to enable the big C. 

Radek: I’m soaking in all this, it's a lot of nice examples. If I was to sum it up in some practical advice it seems like the most important thing is focus around safety. When you said about Tesla and all his projects that were great, but also those that maybe weren't that good, we don't hear much about them, because the great ones were more of a public phenomenon. 

So, in a way it's risk-taking, but also like you mentioned from Lockheed is this possibility to have space for errors, to be safe because your leader is protecting you and is offering you this opportunity that you can play and fail. I wonder, would you add something to this summary? 

John: I think the very good news about this whole theme of creativity is we have done a lot of research and we know a lot about it, not just from the psychological, neuropsychological stuff, but actually how to make things happen in practice, how to develop these skills. I think that the individual skills are important, no question, and there are things we can work on as individuals. But, where it really matters in organization is at that team level. I think the evidence is there are four things that really are important. 

The first one is vision, the sound of stretching target, and that of course avoids the Tesla effect of doing something which is just wild and wacky, just because it's interesting. So, a clear focused target, this is what we're going to get, but a stretching target, not something that's easy to do, stretching. We really want to do this and that's really important. So, that's the first one. 

The second is that concept you just alluded to. If you're going to get somewhere stretching you're going to have to take risks and you're going to have to try stuff out that maybe doesn't work. The term that describes that kind of context is psychological safety, and it's really an important space because we need to feel safe if we're going to, amongst a team of other people, volunteer our ideas. 

At the limit we don't want to lose our job, obviously, but we need to feel safe to take risks and to fail. We need to look stupid and not worry that our colleagues are going to say we're stupid, because sometimes being stupid gets you somewhere you wouldn't otherwise have got to. So this notion of psychological safety becomes really important. 

For me, I have a lovely kind of memory. I spent a year when I didn't want to be the engineer I became ,I spent a year when I left college, in a theater group. We were touring the country, playing music and performing, probably not the best way to earn a living, but great fun and also I learned a lot about creativity in that context and one of the things, actors and musicians, they do a lot of training and so in their kind of muscle building, one of the exercises they do is a very simple one, you see the team the rest of the team, the other end of the room, they're30 meters away and they're standing there. And you run and you get faster and faster and then you leap into the sky, hoping they're going to catch you. 

Now, if you think about that, as you leap into the sky you have taken the biggest risk because if they don't catch you, you crash, it's going to hurt. Of course, what he’s trying to do is to build that sense of you can trust them and everybody has a go, so everyone at the end of the session says I trust these people, whatever happens to us on stage in front of an audience we'll get through. Psychological safety, it's a really powerful concept and important to bring into place, and I think that's a key to some of the successful creative teams for the big C project. 

Two other things which perhaps we can bring in, you've got to support people, you've got to build on what they say. The whole thing about creativity, it's not the perfect idea, it's often a lot of different things that come together to create something. Again, back to the theater, but it's perhaps a good reference point, if you ever watch improvisation, and there's lots of TV programs now where you can see it, it's great, but the one principle of improvisation is whatever somebody gives you, you don't say, oh, I don't know how to deal with that thing, you say yes, and... 

So, Radek, you might say John, your grandmother's just turned up in a spaceship from Mars and she's got this important thing for you. And I don't say Radek, are you crazy? You say, “Yes, and what she brought me was this piece of moon rock,” you have to hand it on you have to work with it. But it depends on everyone in the team supporting and building. Almost certainly you and your audience have heard of brainstorming and that has its origins in a very special specific place. It came out of the advertising industry trying to get more creative ideas to sell products and the idea was fairly simple; don't judge an idea too early, postpone judgment. 

That's pretty good. The trouble is that it's these days often, don't criticize. Any idea goes, paper the wall with post-its, it's all okay. No, the evidence for that is very clear, that supporting climate is very good, but my fourth factor is we need creative conflict, we need creative criticism, we have to challenge ideas otherwise they're never going to be good ones they're just going to be any idea goes. 

So again, what high performing teams work on is a culture which is safe enough hat you can challenge, but also productive enough that at the end of it, having built on ideas, there is something. Again, a great reference point and another lovely book is the one written by Ed Catmull, and Ed Catmull was for many years involved in Pixar, the movie company. Pixar, if you think about making a movie as innovative as Toy Story was for its time, and then continuing to repeat that trick, there's a lot of creativity going on. 

But his book is full of the reflections of how they do things and it's all about building this climate of creative conflict. Every day they challenge what they did before and what survives, this robust challenge, is going to be strong and a great idea. And the important part, the psychological safety part, is people don't feel I’m attacked, oh, stop hitting me, Radek, it's, “Okay, Radek, you don't like that idea, well how about if we did this?” So, it changes the dynamics. Those are four factors which we can train and in training that we can build really high performing big C creative teams. 

Radek: Alright, actually, you mentioned something I wanted to build up on. Another research by Farnham about brainstorming, and this very classical approach to brainstorming, the popcorn one, when we gather people in the room and they have to shout out the ideas. Farnham was criticizing this approach, like first off he mentioned a very old study from1880, I think, that was mentioning people rope pulling, that they put less effort if the more people are pulling, so the more we are, the less we are individually involved and same goes for such a big group brainstorming. That was one. 

The second one was this fear of judgment, but I believe it's still true, if w ecreate a meeting and we say okay, don't judge the ideas, people can steal fear judgment so they still could hesitate to share their idea when they perceive it to be stupid, especially when we didn't build this psychological safety first. And lastly he mentioned also something that is also quite obvious that when you have let's say20 people in the room and only one is speaking at the time you are wasting the time ofthe19 others that could do something in the very same time. 

So, there are some tweaks into that, but generally I wanted to introduce this topic of facts and myths about creativity that you already mentioned that could give us maybe some concrete guidelines on how to think about it. So, one is don't bring people in the room and ask them to shout out ideas. But I wonder from your practice and from your research, what are the other common myths and some facts that we should know about creativity? 

John: I think there are plenty of them and I think that's part of the problem with creativity. We often are working with incomplete ideas, mythological ideas sometimes, about it. So, let’s just knock a few down, we've talked about several of them. Everybody is creative. 

This idea of the perfect person who's super person creative, not here's the spectrum, what the psychological evidence says is that we have different styles. We prefer to be creative in different ways. So, at the extreme, the place where the Teslas of the world are, it's a fairly uncomfortable place but that's okay. For most of us it's probably somewhere in the middle of our spectrum. But, everyone is creative, that's clear. 

The second thing is creativity isn't somehow a fixed quantity, we can develop the skill. So, we touched on those and I certainly can come back. I think the big and small C is also a question we've touched on, please remember the spectrum, because there's plenty of room for us to be creative along the spectrum. It's not just about the big stuff, it's also not just about the small stuff, it's managing. 

If I take the one you've just touched on, brainstorm is a great example. If you go back to the original work by a man called Alex Osborne, 1957, the advertising executive. This was a nice and a useful tool at the time. He didn't say every idea is great, they hadn't invented post-its then, but if they had, they would have picked -- no, no, what he said was very clear, “Postpone judgment.” 

In other words, in the very early stage we want to remember the improvisation, yes, and... listen to someone's idea, hear it, and at least allow it to take existence. Postpone the judgment until we as a team have come up with it and then say, “Now, let's just take these ideas that are up there and challenge them.” 

So, we're not judging, we're postponing judgment. And that's a very subtle thing which so often, you're absolutely right, has got missed. So many organizations, let's brainstorm this, and they don't mean anything more than let's just talk, let's shout, let's not listen, let's paper the wall with post-its, lots of ways to get nothing done. So, very important, we are much more precise and we use some of the knowledge. 

We know, for example, and it's a fairly obvious one, if your boss is in the same room as you are, you're probably not going to be uninhibited in the things you suggest. So, there's something about having a process facilitator that manages to, if your boss has to be in the room, then make sure he or she doesn't dominate things and bringing up. If you have someone who talks all the time, turn them down, if somebody doesn't talk, turn them up. 

This idea of facilitating a session, nominal groups are really rather powerful. What you've alluded to, you don't always have to be all together and that's perhaps one of the strengths of the virtual world, you can still share your ideas if you post them in different ways, if you first of all write them down and then share, lots of different tools. 

In other words, brainstorming is actually a toolbox; used well, you can build some great creativity. Use badly and you just smash the place up, nothing happens. I think for me there's a lot of myths around the way in which creativity can be deployed, and they're dangerous, because what tends to happen is organizations say, “Ah, creativity, that's just the playground, the real job is...” but if we go back to how we started this conversation, every organization does need creativity. 

We have near where I live the big government office called Meteorological Office and this is where all the weather forecasting is done. And if you think weather is actually big business these days, because if you want to plan an event you need weather information if you're a farmer you need weather information. It's still technically part of the military in Britain because if you're a general or an admiral you need to know about the weather. So, we have a thousand people in a dedicated center who are trying to do the job of weather forecasting and improve particularly the services they can offer. So, it's a kind of innovation business, as well. Okay, how do they do it? Well, creativity, there’s got to be a scope for that. 

What was interesting is how much that organization has transformed over the 10 years or so I've been looking at it. From one in which there were a very small number of bottom-up people who convinced the chief executive, they'd like a space. So this is quite a nice modern building and it has a lot of glass walls. One of the rooms was the creativity room. 

And at the time, it was the space where it didn't look the same as other offices. There were no desks, there were a few comfortable seats. There were some wall charts, there were post-its, and so on. That looks a bit odd, and most people in the organizations thought, "That's where the crazies are," and so on. That's the playground, the kindergarten. But gradually, those people were drawn in. 

And very importantly, what happened in that room was not playtime. If it had just been what you've described — the post-its, the talking, and everyone has an hour off work while they have some fun, and so on, and then they go back to work. What began to happen was, as people were drawn in, they realized, "This is a space where we can pause, we have some space to think, we've got some different challenges, perhaps different people, different perspectives, many of the things that make a good session." 

And they went back with new ideas, new projects. And they told their friends and more. If you go there today, they can't get in the room. The room is fully booked, they've had to expand to provide extra space. Because the space that they allocated for being creative is now becoming so important to the organization, they need a lot of it. So, in essence, what they've learned is to move away from the myths and the elements that appear almost childish and don't belong in a real organization. They've made it part of the organization. And it pays for itself. It justifies in terms of the new products and services they're able to introduce that have come through this. 

Radek: There's something that came to my mind right now is that, like I was thinking when seeing all those big corporate organizing these rooms for creativity, for playfulness, and that's lovely, but it seems like redundant in a way. I mean, so now you can't be creative if you don't have a slide in your office? You can't be creative if you don't have those nice, comfy seating bags in your office? And I wonder like, it seems it matters, actually, right? 

From what I'm hearing from you, it matters. It should be some sort of a creative place, fun place. And I wonder if we can design it, you know, if we don't have a budget to create a separate room with slides and all those colorful, fun tools to play. How can we spark this fun during a creative session in a budget, let's say? 

John: Yeah. Let's be clear. What's going on in that example I gave was symbolic. Its power was its symbolism. It became, "Hey, we got to think about this creativity thing and let's go through the door and find out what's going on and learn." There's a real risk at the moment that organizations think all you need to be creative is to have such a room. So they open the room, they put all the fun stuff in there and that's it. They don't have to do anything more. That's totally wrong. 

What we're looking for are spaces within which innovation, creativity can happen, particularly that thinking. And what we know about it is there are spaces where we can think differently. Spaces where there isn't the same pressure we have to produce, and so there's a kind of time bubble there. Spaces where it's okay to challenge, you know, break the taboos of the organization, challenge it. These are spaces, they are places where there's permission to think differently. 

Radek: Yeah, so it's more about the rules than about the physical environment, right? 

John: Absolutely. For me, it's the permission, the structure, the enabling space that does not have to be that physical fun room. But that can sometimes help, particularly in our organization. This was, I mentioned, a government department. It's a challenge to the rather bureaucratic civil service mentality that might have been in the old world. 

But it doesn't have to be to do this other side of the factory floor. In the humanitarian sector, when this happens, this may be out in the field. This can happen. I think we've learned a lot about things that can enable this at a physical level. So it's about the giving the permission, the space, enabling tools. 

But there are also some practical things. So much of creativity is around playing, as we've discussed. And sometimes having a thing to play with helps us explore. Prototypes become really important in this space. And so, the idea that we can say, "I've been working on this and I've made a mock-up, Radek, what do you think?" 

And you can get hold of this and play with it and feel it and so on. A prototype. Being able to play with prototypes in that kind of space and bring different stakeholders together is a key part of that process. So I think the notion of innovation, creative spaces is really important. The danger is they become playgrounds, just like the danger in brainstorming is it becomes just a place to have a little sleep off work. So it's about managing a very serious — creativity is serious because it's about survival. That doesn't mean it doesn't have to be — doesn't mean it can't be fun, can't be enabled in a different fashion. 

Radek: Wow. That's promising. I mean, it seems, with some 100 euros or more, you can already create such an enabling environment. That's lovely. And I have one last question to ask you. By the way, there was a question about all the books you mentioned, so we will need to list them after this episode. There is plenty. 

But about the creative session, about the very nitty-gritty details when we try to organize one, I think there is plenty of information on the internet, how to do it well. But what we might be missing is what can go wrong, what we should avoid, what we should pay attention to when we think about bringing people together in such a room and creating that space. What are your experiences in that? 

John: I guess we've covered a lot of it and then kind of take all the things we've talked about and reverse them. If I were trying to design a guaranteed failed creativity session, no purpose, "Let's just take people away for an hour and let's be creative," there's no focus. It doesn't have to be as life-threatening as the COVID one or as dramatic as the skunkworks, but there's got to be purpose. And we're asking people to commit their time. They're not stupid, they're not going to join in with something that's purposeless. So purpose. 

Get the process dynamics, the group process all wrong. So have different levels of the hierarchy and loud people and quiet people and that kind of thing. I do remember one vivid session I was running for the military, it was a training program for senior military figures. And it took place in what was called a war room. And these are one of these high-tech environments where all the walls are blank and then you can project pictures of the enemy. So it's really high-tech, but the worst possible environment physically to try and get a bit of creativity going. 

So sometimes it's the physical space alone, but that can go the other way. So as we've discussed, if you just have a playground that feels like a kindergarten and it feels like there's no reason for being here, we're just hanging out and so on, that's not going to work. No psychological safety. So people are allowed to bully other people. "Oh, don't be stupid, that's a stupid —" That's not going to help. Sometimes people having their own agenda. "I've got the great idea and I'm going to insist on it." That's not good. So taking many of the things we talked about, putting it back together. 

Now, I guess maybe the other thing I would challenge — or not challenge, pushback — what I'm reading on the screen the way you formulated the question, what can go wrong in a creative session? That kind of implies that we're mostly doing stuff and then occasionally being creative. The real challenge is, can we create the kind of organization where this is the norm, this is part of day-to-day working life? I believe we can, but that takes it away from being episodic. It becomes part of the continuing thing. 

And two words you sometimes read in this area, we talk about the creative climate, which is the kind of weather system that would support being creative. And we've touched on the things that matter. Safe structures, psychological safety, good leadership, time and space, and so on. But, like weather, it can change. And organizations may do this, particularly if they're working on an important big project, and then, "Puff, that's done. 

Now let's get back to normal." The other word you hear a lot of is creative culture. And a culture, for me, is the way we do things around here. The pattern of behavior that describes how this organization works, that's long-standing. And I believe creative cultures are what we're aiming for, which is where this is the way we do things around here every day. It's not a passing weather system. We are creative. 

And one of my many hero examples would be — it's not perfect, but one of my hero examples would be 3M, as a company. It's a product innovator well over a hundred years. But from its earliest days, many of these principles about giving people space, trusting them, letting them fail, and so on. It's in there. Not surprisingly, they've got hundreds of thousands of products out there. This year is the celebration of sandpaper, their first product. It's now a hundred years old, and I can still go down to the shop and buy it today. Coming up with that kind of great product regularly isn't an accident, I believe that comes from a creative culture. 

Radek: Okay, just one last question, a case study. So I would like to get my team to be more creative and I would like to start this regular stream of creativity. Would it work if I would set up some, let's say, Creative Tuesdays when we have a dedicated time, like 20 minutes every Tuesday? Because I feel the problem is that there should be some dedicated time, and I cannot really do it every day. 

So do you think if I said I'm — "Okay, on Tuesdays 9 am to 9:20, please don't check your email. Open our innovation box and share some of your votes on the given problem of the given week." Do you think would that help? Or because it's episodic still, it could harm in any way, our regular creativity? How would you approach that? To give the context, I don't have time for every day 20 minutes, but I want to spark this regular creativity among my team. 

John: Two things I'd say. The first is, why? My point about purpose. People are naturally creative, but what we're talking really about is focusing that creativity towards a target. So why is it important for you and for them and for the organization? Otherwise, doesn't matter how long you give it, there's no real edge to it. I think the second is episodic's fine if there's enough time and space to get something done. My instinct is that 20 minutes once a week, it may be a little too small. An hour a week certainly would make a message. And I've seen organizations do this. 

So I think at that level — the Toyota model is repetitive high frequency, little time. But certainly, focusing attention — it's also you as a sort of leader in the organization, committing to the fact that's not time that they will be doing productive — "productive things" — that's a different kind of time. So it's signaling, "This is the space," like Google's 20 percent, and so on. This is signaling, "This is the space where we're going to try and think differently." And it's not going to happen in one session. It's repeated. So yes, repeated, I'd recommend an hour with a purpose. That would probably be a good start. 

Radek: All right, thank you very much for your time. I think we will be closing the session. So yeah, once again, it was a pleasure. It was a lot of votes. I have noted and I will be listening again when it appears as a podcast. So, thank you. 

John: My pleasure. It's been a really interesting conversation. I had no idea how much time had gone past because it's been such a pleasure. So, hopefully, we can carry on the conversation as well. But thank you.

Radek: Thank you for listening to this episode of Science of Business Podcast. Follow Stanversity on Facebook and LinkedIn to be up to date with future episodes and live streams from the recording. 

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