Turn It On

Creativity is crucial to your business' success. Here's how to fire it up.

Is there creativity in a soft rubber dart? Evelyn Girard thinks so--and if you disagree, watch out: "I'll shoot," swears Girard, co-owner of the Forum Conference & Education Center in Cleveland.

Darts often fill Forum's air--and not just because Girard is peeved. "Some of our best ideas happen when darts are flying," says Girard, who frequently enlists toys as helpers during in-house strategy sessions. "With toys in our hands, creative ideas really get flowing," she says.

Sound wacky? Listen up: When Girard and her husband, Francis, started Forum six years ago, businesses were baffled by the idea of a facility that provided only meeting rooms, not sleeping rooms too (as hotels do). But the couple persisted, and today Forum has expanded into a 20-employee company whose meeting rooms are constantly booked by both Fortune 500 companies and smaller firms.

The secret to their success? "Our ongoing commitment to thinking creatively about meeting client needs," Girard says. That same creative impulse has prompted her to put baskets of toys (including dart guns, Frisbees and footballs) into the rooms Forum rents out. "Usually, at the end of the day, we go into the meeting rooms and toys are just everywhere," says Girard, whose continuing struggle is to differentiate Forum from its competitors. Then again, how many hotels offer meeting attendees both video conferencing capabilities and dart guns?

"Our clients tell us these toys help people open up," says Girard. "It's hard to be stuffy when you've just been hit by a dart."

The Girards' business is creativity in action--taking a tiny idea (making meeting room rentals your only business) and creating powerful business magic. So often in business, the "creative" label is limited to big, bold ideas--"but much creativity lies in what seems like small ideas," says Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head (Warner Books). "To me, there's potential for creativity in every job and every business."

Just think about Starbucks. What could be more mundane than a cup of coffee? But creative product delivery and marketing have transformed a humdrum staple into a multi-
million-dollar business. "Every business needs to be looking for creativity in everything it does," says Kathleen R. Allen, author of Launching New Ventures (Upstart) and a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. "It's not just about being creative with the product. You need to be creative in how you deliver it, how you market it and how you interact with customers. There are so many areas in business where creativity makes a difference."

Either way, though, big idea or something more mundane, "creativity is a business survival skill," says von Oech.

Raymond Gleason agrees. "Without creativity, you are standing still--and nowadays that means you're losing ground. Lose enough ground, and your business will die," says Gleason, a professor of strategy and creativity at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and co-founder of engineering design firm Santa Barbara Applied Research in Santa Barbara, California, which he helped grow into a multimillion-dollar business before he sold his share to pursue his dream of teaching. "Any entrepreneur absolutely must be creative to succeed."

But isn't it hard to be creative? Von Oech doesn't think so. "Everybody is born creative," he says.

So why does creativity often seem so difficult? Mike Vance, former dean of Disney University (The Walt Disney Co.'s training program) and now chairman of the Creative Thinking Association of America, has wrestled with instilling a more creative spirit in companies as diverse as Apple and GE, and he knows why the process seems difficult: "So much that's said about creativity is both unhelpful and untrue," contends Vance. "You just aren't going to get more creative following the techniques in most books. But there are ways to heighten creativity."

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Turn It On.

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