Turn It On

Creativity is crucial to your business' success. Here's how to fire it up.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the November 1996 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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."

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."

Steps To Creativity

There are still more concrete ways to maximize creativity in your workplace, and USC professor Kathleen R. Allen has plenty of experience in spelling out little steps that, when diligently applied, can result in great ideas.

  • Carry a notebook. "You never know when an idea will occur to you--an idea for a new business or a better way of doing what you're presently doing. As you drive, watch TV, eat lunch, ideas pop into your head. Unless you write them down, you will not remember them," says Allen.

  • Think opportunistically. "Wherever you go, really pay attention," Allen advises. "Most of us navigate through our world on autopilot, but when we start paying attention--when we start questioning what we are seeing and why--good ideas can occur to us."

  • Network. "So many ideas come up when you meet new people. Somebody will say `I wish a company did this,' and, bingo, an idea for a business comes to you," says Allen.

  • Think in opposites. "Everybody says recessions are bad--but haven't they been good for some businesses? The past recession gave birth to a huge outsourcing industry, for instance," says Allen. "For every idea--for every sacred cow--there is an opposite idea, and, sometimes, exploring the opposite is where entrepreneurs will find the best ideas."

  • Reinvent the wheel. "Ask yourself how you can put a new twist on an old product or service. Think about the addition of baking soda to toothpaste, for instance," Allen says. Take any product, and come up with 50 unexpected uses for it. "Keep in mind that sometimes the most creative uses [involve] literally smashing the product and coming up with something entirely new," says Allen. Can you list 50 uses for a Styrofoam cup? An ashtray? Don't quit until you complete the list because, frequently, persistent elaboration of an idea is what finally yields a commercial creative success.

  • Challenge your ruts. "We do the same things, the same way, every day. This is a primary barrier to creativity," Allen warns. "Often we need to feel a little uncomfortable--we need to experience new things--to get creative sparks." If every day you lunch at a burger place, start mixing in stops at Vietnamese or Italian eateries. If you always drink a beer with Friday's dinner, drink a glass of wine. If you only listen to country music, on tonight's drive home, tune in to a rock station. Alone, none of these steps may trigger creative ideas, says Allen, but taken together, "anything we do that forces us out of our normal environment will let us see things in new, different ways."

Advanced Creativity

Follow the above steps, and creative ideas are sure to start bubbling in your brain. But then what? How do you turn those ideas into viable business plans? Two tactics are central to making the most of every good idea:

1. Reality-test. "Ideas are great, but how do they match up with marketplace realities?" asks Vance. In other words: Don't become self-satisfied just because an idea seems good out of the box. "Test every good idea against what the marketplace needs and wants," says Allen. "Start by asking friends for feedback, then expand into a broader test."

2. Keep refining. "A key lesson I've learned in interviewing many highly creative people is that they continually criticize their own ideas. Traditional brainstorming techniques taught us not to criticize, but really creative people do the opposite, looking for ways to make their ideas better," says Jack Ricchiuto, a Cleveland certified management consultant and author of Collaborative Creativity (Oakhill Press). "Criticism doesn't stifle ideas--it makes them better.

"The creative process frequently involves going beyond the first idea. Uncreative people commonly marry the first good idea that comes along. But creative people detach from their ideas and refine them. They know that the more ideas, the better."

In the end, the real secret to creativity is practice. "The more we do it, the better we get," says Ricchiuto. "The mythology is that creativity is a genetically determined trait. But it can be developed in all of us--if we keep questioning what we see and keep looking for creative solutions and ideas. Practice is why the truly creative stay truly creative--and it's how all of us can get much more creative, too."

Contact Sources

Creative Thinking Association of America, 16600 Sprague Rd., #120, Cleveland, OH 44130, (216) 243-5576;

Forum Conference & Education Center, 1 Fwy., 5th Fl., Dallas, TX 75207, dmc@dallasmarketcenter.com;

Jack Ricchiuto, (216) 766-8280;

Roger von Oech, P.O. Box 7354, Menlo Park, CA 94026, (415) 321-6775.

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