Five ways to jumpstart the creative process, inspire your employees and improve your bottom line
Blu's Womens Wear president John Leavitt tells us what improv comedy taught him about business
by Conal Pierse
Creative thinking is your lifeblood. It’s the difference between you and the competition, the thing that distinguishes a household name from just another thing. But creativity isn’t about putting glitter on poster board and sticking it to the fridge with alphabet magnets. It’s about creating new solutions, and ultimately – and perhaps more importantly – about making more money.
Companies like 3M and Google allot between 15 and 20 per cent of an employee’s workweek to personal, creative projects that are unrelated to core work tasks. And while allowing your employees one day a week to fool around might seem like a staggering waste of time, the results have been impressive. Some of 3M and Google’s greatest successes – from Post-it notes to masking tape and even Gmail – came from so-called “creative time” projects. And, considering that creativity was cited as a key factor for success in a 2010 IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries, outside-the-box thinking is not something you can afford to ignore.
The proverbial box is probably the last thing you want to be thinking inside, in fact, but the hard part is figuring your way out. Creativity is the ticket. But how do we bring creativity back into business, which is often anathema to the creative process, to provide new ideas and solutions? Here are a few inspirational ideas.
Fun Is Serious Business
John Leavitt, president of Blu’s Womens Wear in Edmonton, got hooked on improv comedy after taking a workshop with Rapid Fire Theatre, the city’s largest improv troupe. He’s since brought the lessons and philosophy he learned there into his stores, by conducting skits at staff meetings and holding improv training with some of his floor staff, generating an overwhelmingly positive response.
A key tenent of improv involves reacting positively to suggestions and responding to what has been said by adding more information, rather than trying to anticipate what might be said, or shutting down a suggestion as wrong. In practice, someone says something and you say, “Yes, and,” both agreeing and adding to the idea.
Leavitt says these skills have been a great asset on the sales floor, creating better, more organic communication between staff and customers. “Any time there’s sales involved, creativity is a big part of it,” he says. “If we create this atmosphere where people want to be around us, it has a huge impact on whether they return and how they think of us.”
Leavitt says encouraging his staff to be creative has also resulted in higher morale and a better sense of teamwork. By adopting the attitude of “yes, and,” there’s less fear of judgment among staff, he says, and confidence levels have soared. “It rejuvenates you in some sort of mystical way,” he says. “It’s a refreshing feeling.”
IF YOU HOPE TO SUCCEED, FAIL, FAIL AGAIN
Getting comfortable with failure is the first step in developing your creative potential, says Amy Shostak, the artistic director of Rapid Fire. The 28-year-old conducts corporate workshops that teach everything from team-building to approachability, and while it might seem to the outside observer like a collection of silly games and exercises, well, it’s not. Each improv session is crafted to push people outside of their safe zones, setting them up for happy failure and forcing them to react, rather than anticipate.
“Fear is the reason so many people shut down,” Shostak says. “The general go-to is assuming that someone else will cover it, so you just play in the background.”
But so many ideas and opportunities are squandered because we fear looking foolish or being laughed at, Shostak says. If people are exposed to failure in a supportive setting, so they can relish in their defeat, they can get past it – and that’s when the magic happens.
One of her favourite games to achieve this is called dolphin training. One partner has an action in mind they want the other to do, like sit in a chair or stand on one leg, but they can only communicate positively through clapping and cheering when their partner starts to do what they want, otherwise remaining silent. It’s sort of like the childhood game of Hot & Cold meets SeaWorld.
Because of the limited verbal communication, both partners spend the game failing repeatedly through no real fault of their own – something that can be frustrating, but ultimately numbs them to failure in a safe setting.
“If we’re having fun and are satisfied, you’re in a place where everything is fun,” she says. “Working from a place of fear is never going to be satisfying. Both parties are in a bad spot, because the company is not getting the best ideas, and employees are holding on to their ideas, saving them for a rainy day.”
By getting her students to own and accept their failures, they’re more willing to take risks and take ownership of ideas. It can work in business, too. Just ask any innovative company, or consider the many failures and harebrained ideas that came before their big breakthrough.
EVERYONE IS CREATIVE
Too often we think of creativity as solely the realm of artists and performers, says Jan Henderson, an instructor in the University of Alberta’s drama department. Henderson teaches workshops on creativity at the Banff Centre and says creativity is simply another process through which we solve problems.
From the eureka moments of great scientists and thinkers to children exploring their world, the creative process is an invaluable tool we all use that enables us to see old objects in a new light. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” she says. “It’s just how we look at it and how we see it.”
It doesn’t matter what unlocks that potential. For some it might involve jugging a ball, pacing a room or doodling blindly. The key is to get yourself into that creative mindset and accept the process, rather than being a stickler for logic, she says. “The process I teach is about accepting everything about yourself. Accept when you don’t know, accept the harsh critic, accept the failures, because you learn more from them than anything else. Giving yourself permission to not know and to bring all of yourself and really see it, and really feel it, enables you to deal with it most fairly and most productively.”
Keeping this lesson in mind in a business setting will be difficult, but ultimately rewarding and profitable.
FIRST, LEARN TO PLAY
Your best work doesn’t happen when you’re miserable, nor does it happen during times of solemn contemplation. All creativity comes from a place of play, and in order to think creatively and effectively, Shostak says we need to get serious about having fun. “People think having fun isn’t serious, but having fun is completely serious and
In her workshops, she’s seen stodgy forestry professionals transform into jubilant children with beards and hiking boots. By allowing ourselves to play, she says, we gain far more fulfillment from what we’re doing, and the experience can be liberating.
LOSE THE LOGIC
Too often people stymie creativity by looking for the one true answer to a problem rather than exploring a wide range of solutions, says Christine Lesiak, a professional clown and instructor of the creative process at Guru Digital Arts College in Edmonton. “Mistakes are part of the process and sometimes mistakes are where the gold is,” she says. “Sometimes you need to make a mistake in order to see the problem a different way.”
The lesson, like many here, is to embrace the seemingly wrong, strange, half-baked ideas in order to see issues differently. Freely generating ideas can help you see a problem under new light, Lesiak says, and allow you to fully explore a problem without worrying about which solution is “correct.” Once at this point, you can pare down ideas and work on refinement. “No work is ever wasted. Creativity takes time and moments of inspiration will come where they will.”