Turn It On

Building Blocks

So how can you up your creativity? When Vance steps in to put a business on a creative path, his first suggestion might seem odd: Get real.

"Forget all the positive thinking stuff you've learned. It's a barrier to creativity," urges Vance. "The only place to start being more creative is to ask yourself how things really are--and to honestly answer that question. Often entrepreneurs kid themselves, seeing only what they want to see. But the universe isn't so forgiving."

Mind you, Vance isn't advising entrepreneurs to plunge into pessimism. "You need a dream," he says. "Walt Disney, with whom I worked for many years, certainly had dreams. But he understood reality and what he needed to do to succeed."

So let's put it bluntly: Don't overestimate your product or service, don't underestimate your competitors, and never exaggerate consumer demand for what you're doing. That leads to delusion, not creativity, says Vance.

The next building block, says Vance, involves turning up the tension. Doesn't tension stifle creativity? Not according to Vance: "I must have 5,000 books in my library that say you need a relaxed, at-ease environment to promote creativity. But my personal experience says the opposite works best. The creative juices flow where there's conflict and tension that puts people on edge."

Vance isn't suggesting that companies adopt cultures akin to war zones, but he praises workplaces where people can speak their minds--even when it ruffles feathers. "At Apple, Steve Jobs was the grain of sand in the oyster, the irritant--and the Mac resulted," Vance says. "Almost any company will benefit from irritants on staff. Don't put too much emphasis on harmony--that can undermine the commitment to creativity."

A third building block is laughter. "Humor can really foster creativity," says Vance. "Thomas Edison started every workday with a joke-telling session--and look at the creativity that came out of his lab. Humor is the unmasking of the hypocritical, and what makes us laugh often is seeing how things are screwed up--then, sometimes, seeing how we can fix them. Whenever I go into a company and don't hear much laughter, I know it's not a creative place."

The fourth building block is to equip a "kitchen for the mind," an idea Vance brought home from his tour as a soldier in the Korean War. Over there, he called a sleeping bag home, and a lonely, even frightening home it was--until an idea clicked in his head, and he transformed a standard government-issue sleeping bag into his own "kitchen for the mind," a place where he could go beyond fear into creativity. He did so by augmenting the spartan sleeping bag with personal touches--family photos, books, writing paper, a radio, tins of cookies, and other creature comforts scrounged from a limited universe of possibilities. These small changes radically transformed the bag into a place where Vance felt at home--and where good ideas came into his head.

The relevance for business? "Every business needs a kitchen for the mind--a space designed to nurture creativity," says Vance. Supplies needn't be costly or elaborate--a chalkboard, a meeting table, a coffee pot, maybe a stereo, possibly toys (like the Girards' darts), and "anything else that stimulates creative juices in you and your team," adds Vance. "In teaching creativity for years, I have found that one of the biggest ingredients is having a communal meeting space that encourages it."

Corporate behemoths from GE to Motorola have been busy setting up their own creative kitchens, equipped with everything from VCRs to high-powered multimedia computers. Can't compete with those expenditures? The good news for entrepreneurs is that "when people's resources are limited, their ingenuity can go crazy, [and they can] really come up with great ideas," says Vance. "Never listen to people who say entrepreneurs don't have the resources for creativity. You have all you need."

A final building block agreed on by almost every creativity teacher is to challenge the status quo. "Conformity to the status quo is a real enemy of creativity," says Vance.

Need an example? Twenty years ago, everybody knew that computers were coming and believed that the fight for dominance would be between mainframes and minicomputers. As for personal computers, they were hobbyists' toys, useless for business computing. Silly as that sounds, everybody believed it to be true--and only renegades like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs saw a different potential for PCs.

"The real beginning point for creativity is emptying your mind--pushing out the ideas you know to be true," says Gleason. "The more successful a businessperson is, the more resistance there can be to doing this. But if you don't, you cannot be really creative."

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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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