The skills needed to run a small business don’t always lend themselves to being creative. As the boss, your feet need to be firmly on the ground to make rational decisions. But there are plenty of challenges your company will face that require you to respond imaginatively: how to grow, how to compete, where your business should be in five years’ time – all of these require you to be original and inventive.
So how do you learn to think outside the box? Despite reading a handbook on creative thinking being rather counterintuitive, the reality is that creative thinking is something that can be learnt, just like a foreign language.
Research shows there’s no creative gene. People who are passionate about something and are prepared to work their fingers to the bone will come up with the best ideas. As Thomas Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Neither is it true that people with great ideas are struck by eureka moments. Creativity is often the result of a lot of logical thinking. Take James Dyson. His revolutionary vacuum cleaner took 15 years to develop, during which he developed 5,126 prototypes. It was version 5,127 that hit the market and was hailed as his eureka moment.
So here are five tips to help you think more creatively:
Creativity isn’t one person’s job. The best new ideas often come about through teamwork, rather than individual inspiration. The best combinations are usually between experts and amateurs, because it’s good to have someone in the team who doesn’t know all the reasons why something can’t be done.
Don’t just brainstorm. Brainstorming is the current fashion, where people are encouraged to throw out ideas and discuss them in a criticism-free environment to kickstart some inspiration. But there’s no evidence that companies which brainstorm are any more creative than those whose employees simply sit at their desks and beaver away. Also, criticism can be good – it pushes people’s creative limits.
Don’t only surround yourself with like-minded people. Those who have a wide circle of contacts from different backgrounds are more creative, because they pull in and adapt ideas from different walks of life. Steve Jobs went to great lengths to try to get Pixar employees to mix when he was in charge there. First, he put the cafeteria in the middle of the building, but people from the same departments just sat next to each other. So he created just one set of bathrooms, to force people to talk to each other, and stimulate new ideas.
Get away from work. Give yourself the space to think. Designer Philippe Starck retreats to an isolated log cabin for three months each year to do his creative thinking. You don’t need to go that far, but getting away from your desk and doing something completely different often refreshes your brain. Einstein had been grappling with how to reconcile his theories of space and time for a long time, but it was when he was travelling home on the tram and he looked at Bern’s clock tower that everything fell into place and he realised the theory of relativity.
Don’t only think about the bottom line. The best ideas are those that address a specific business problem or gap in the market, rather than the need to increase sales. Walt Disney’s mantra was: “I don’t make movies to make money – I make money to make movies.” To be creative, turning a profit can’t be your sole concern. Money will flow from good ideas.