Getting the Best Out of Your Creative People

A CEO friend of ours recently complained about the difficulty of keeping creativity alive in his business during this difficult period. He had previously cut back on "discretionary" spending—such as development of new products and marketing plans—in order to survive the Great Recession, and he hasn't yet seen his company's revenues bounce back enough to invest heavily in future growth.

We told him he was nuts—that creativity is even more important in times when sales are harder to come by and customers are less loyal. We also told him that two separate research studies (one by Bain, the other by Booz Allen) showed long ago that market share gains made during bad times are more likely to stick than those made during growth periods. Despite our scolding, he still felt he couldn't afford to invest more resources to foster creativity, and simply had to get more from what little resources he had. So, could we help him or not?

We gave him the same guidance we'd give to any business leader: If you need more creative ideas and can't afford to invest more resources to get them, you'll have to do what every leader wants to do, but that very few leaders actually know how to do—get better results out of your existing creative types. How to do it? By better focusing their activities.

Creative Constraints

Stop telling your people, "Get creative! Think outside the box! Anything is possible!" These old bromides are ridiculous for at least two reasons. First, in every company, there are many, very real constraints—in product development expertise, in manufacturing capability, in sales force attention, in media budgets, you name it—and any ideas that ignore those constraints will be destined to fail.

Second, decades of psychological research show that the vast majority of people, even professional creatives, actually have a hard time thinking of truly breakthrough ideas when they are given no constraints at all, because their minds don't know where to concentrate—which target segments or customers, which products or services, which attributes or benefits—and consequently they skip around among so many divergent ideas that they rarely achieve intellectual traction on any one of them.

Instead of telling your creatives to think outside the box, help them to think inside a very carefully designed box, by spelling out as specifically as possible the (legitimate) constraints you're under, and then demanding solutions that work within those constraints. We guarantee you they will succeed.

We illustrate this concept in our client workshops by first asking participants to "invent a new business of any kind" in 20 minutes. Not only do they almost always fail, but they also become very frustrated in the process. Next we conduct an exercise that illustrates a particular business "formula" that's been used to create more than 25 different categories of companies over the years. Then we ask them to use that same "formula"—and to limit themselves to only that formula—to invent a new business, again in 20 minutes. This time, despite having their creativity severely "limited" by this constraint, 80 percent to 90 percent of them succeed. A few have even decided to pursue the idea they hatched in that 20 minutes as the next stage of their career.

Clear Focus

So tell your people you need ideas that will be powerful, but that focus in area X or cost less than Y to execute. Then set them loose, and you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results. For example, we recently worked with a midsize bank whose guidance to workshop participants was as follows: "We want growth ideas that can be implemented in all of our branches within 90 days, at a maximum cost of $5,000 per branch, and can pay off within 12 months. While we are willing to entertain new products, new pricing schemes, or new sales processes, we will not entertain any ideas that require new regulatory approvals." With this clear guidance, the participants produced a number of worthwhile ideas by the end of the session, including focusing the majority of the bank's marketing efforts on those branches located near other banks that had recently been described in their local newspaper as being likely to fail.

Want another example? We recently helped Kevin's wife, Gergana, the founder of a new startup company that sells diabetic desserts via the internet, to expand her company's reach. We think her cakes and cookies are truly delicious, and they are far healthier than their regular, "fully loaded" counterparts—but she faced several challenges. How do you convince skeptical persons with diabetes that the cakes don't taste like all the awful diabetic cakes that previously claimed to taste great? And how do you convince anyone looking at a Web page that your desserts really do taste better? That's an easy claim for anyone to make on the Web—and a hard one to prove.

Being a startup, she also faced a major constraint: very limited funds. We helped her focus her creative efforts—and gain maximum leverage from her budget—by first not seeking to convert all persons with diabetes, but a small, critical target audience of key influencers: certified diabetes educators (CDEs). The personal recommendations of CDEs carry tremendous weight with their patients, because CDEs view it as part of their job to have tried every diabetic dessert under the sun. By focusing narrowly on the question of "How can I leverage CDEs to build my business among persons with diabetes?" Gergana hit on the idea of discovering where CDEs gather and offering free desserts at those gatherings. She then videotaped the overjoyed reactions of 25 CDEs upon their first tasting of her cakes, and posted them on her website. With those videos, she had a compelling new sales pitch that could speak not only to the patients served directly by those educators, but also to any potential customer anywhere who visited her website.

So forget the old exhortation to "think outside the box." Focus the efforts of your creatives by helping them to think inside a very carefully designed box. By recognizing the (legitimate) constraints you're operating under, you'll find that your organization's creativity will actually be enhanced, not limited, and you'll be able to prosper even during these difficult, resource-constrained times.

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