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The importance of creativity in business

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The blog post on 30 May, talked about creativity being at the heart of scaling up, but creativity is also at the heart of developing and building any business, as Dr Leonie Baldacchino, Director of the Edward de Bono Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking at the University of Malta, explains in this interview.

At the SME Assembly in Luxembourg last November you explained how everyone can be more creative. Could you give a brief overview of how this can be achieved?

leoniesmall

I view creativity as a skill.  Since a skill is an ability that is learned through practice, I believe that everyone can be more creative by engaging in regular creative thinking exercises.  

Let’s take swimming as an analogy.  Human beings are born with the potential to learn how to swim but, in order to become competent swimmers, they must first acquire basic swimming skills, followed by many hours of training in the pool to enhance their technique, strength and endurance. Similarly, human beings are born with the potential to be creative, but attaining this potential requires skill acquisition followed by regular practice to internalise creative thinking skills and develop expertise.  

One of the simplest exercises that one can carry out to enhance creativity is the application of divergent thinking to everyday objects. Divergent thinking refers to the generation of multiple responses or solutions to a particular stimulus or problem. This is regarded as a key skill in creativity as it enables individuals to generate many different ideas. Getting into the habit of generating alternatives by, for example, thinking of many different (and unusual) uses for common items like a sock, a wheel or a piece of paper, enhances one of the most basic skills in creativity.

Many tools and techniques are available to help us be more creative. Some may seem awkward or difficult to the uninitiated but, just like swimming becomes effortless to the swimmer who glides through the water after mastering the relevant techniques, creativity becomes second nature to individuals who make use of creative thinking tools on a regular basis.

A great deal has been written about innovation and its importance for entrepreneurs. How does this differ from creativity and how do you see the role of creativity in business?

I view creativity and innovation as overlapping constructs at two ends of the creative process.  Creativity is the first stage in the creative process and occurs when an individual has an idea that is both new and useful. Innovation is the last stage of the process and refers to the implementation of a creative idea in order to derive value. Innovations can take various forms, including products, services, processes and technologies. The defining feature is that they must be different from and better than what is already available in a particular context. Therefore, before ideas are implemented, they are generally screened to determine their novelty, added-value, feasibility and compatibility with business objectives to ensure their appropriateness for particular settings.    

It has become widely accepted that creativity and innovation are crucial for business success, especially in the ever-changing and uncertain world which we live in today.  Creative thinking is required to regularly come up with new ideas to solve problems that may arise, and to address the challenges brought about by changing customer requirements, market structures, or competitive fields.  However, the reactive function of creativity in the face of change is only one half of the picture.  Creativity is also concerned with instigating change on the basis of a new idea or concept, not because there is a problem to solve, but because an opportunity for improvement has been recognised.  Entrepreneurs who run high-growth businesses do not simply adapt to changes in their environment, but are actively involved in disrupting and creating new markets, i.e., they are trendsetters, not followers.  This proactive side of creativity is especially important in today’s highly competitive business world in which players are constantly striving for that added advantage, thus rendering the mere maintenance of one’s current position insufficient.  

Some businesses outsource their R & D and their product development but it seems likely you would not suggest this solution, but would, rather, encourage the business to build their capacity for creativity. Can you offer some guidance on increasing creative capacity across a business as a whole?

There are many ways in which entrepreneurs and managers can increase the creative capacity of their businesses.  First, they must realise that they have a very important role to play in providing top-down support for creativity and innovation as their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours invariably lay the foundations on which their organisation’s practices and policies are built.  Second, they should appreciate that, if given the opportunity, each and every member of an organisation has the potential to contribute to the creative capacity of a business, as they often have ideas that could lead to an improvement in some aspect of the organisation.

Business leaders must therefore walk the walk by creating a climate that is characterised by a high level of trust and open communication across all levels to foster creativity and innovation.  Furthermore they should actively encourage idea generation, risk-taking and experimentation, and they should treat failures that are made in the pursuit of innovation as learning opportunities.  Furthermore, a system must be in place to facilitate the generation, communication, evaluation and implementation of employee ideas. Such systems, which are generally referred to as idea management or innovation management systems, are a set of procedures that dictate what should happen when employees have ideas that they would like to propose to their organisation.  Many people believe that structures and procedures are detrimental to creativity and innovation, but without such a system, ideas are likely to fizzle out and die before they can ever be implemented.

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You’ve already described the creativity process and how to build and develop creativity as a skill set, could you now give a brief outline of the academic programmes in this field that you run at the University of Malta.

The Edward de Bono Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking at the University of Malta offers a Master in Creativity and Innovation, a part-time evening Diploma in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as a PhD programme in these subject areas.

The Master in Creativity and Innovation is an interdisciplinary programme designed to assist participants to expand their perception, employ creative skills, develop ideas individually and within teams, sustain a creative climate and manage innovation.  This programme attracts professionals from a broad base of disciplines from the local and international scene.  

The Diploma in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship is aimed at individuals who would like to further their education and improve their career prospects but are not in a position to attend full-time day courses due to other commitments. Students shall develop knowledge, transferable skills and attitudes concerning creativity and idea generation, innovation (including innovation management), and entrepreneurship.  

The PhD programme is aimed at individuals who would like to undertake research at a Doctoral level in one of the Institute’s subject areas, namely creativity, innovation (including innovation management), entrepreneurship, or foresight (futures studies).

For further information:

 

Creativity is at the heart of scaling up

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Product life cycles are getting shorter and the pressure is on to find new innovative products to sustain the development of the business. Creativity is the key.

Be Creative keyboard

American humorist, James Thurber observed that “the hardest thing is to convince my wife I’m working when all I appear to be doing is looking out of the window” and for many people, being creative requires simply looking out of the window. But, with shorter product life-cycles, the demand for new products is on the increase. It might have taken years to come up with the innovative new product that you’ve just launched, but you’ll need the next big idea (or major improvement) within months if the business is to scale-up sustainably. And that demands some creative thinking!

One look at Apple Inc. and the iPhone tells you that one way to approach the subject is to see how you can ‘improve’ an existing product simply because it is becoming increasingly hard to find the next big idea – and doing so ‘on demand’ is near enough impossible. Or is it? This point was put to Dr. Leonie Baldacchino, Director of the Edward de Bono Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking at the University of Malta, who believes that creativity is a mental discipline and can be taught.

“Creativity is a skill and, just like any other skill, it can be nurtured and taught. Everyone has the potential to improve their creativity, but becoming an expert creative thinker requires practice and perseverance, determination and discipline. It is not enough to want to be creative – one must take action to nurture the mindset required to generate ideas that are novel and useful.”

Taking a similar approach, thriller writer, Alex Hunter points out: “Writing the next book while the current one is going through the publication process is the difference between amateur writers and professionals – a new book every one to two years is essential.” Or consider horror writer, Stephan King, who has written over 100 novels and stories since 1960, and he puts this phenomenal creative output down to the discipline of sitting down every morning and writing. It’s that discipline that unlocks his creativity.

So, beyond sitting down and focusing on developing new products and leaving the day-to-day grind of running the business to others, what else can you do? Here are five things that will help:

  1. Give yourself time and space to think. Make it a regular activity and remember, it’s your responsibility as the head of the business to think; others can do!
  2. Understand that there are no bad ideas; some ideas are simply better than others.
  3. Think every day. Creativity has to be practiced!
  4. The best ideas come by not forcing them. Creativity is often a subconscious process.
  5. Brainstorming releases creative energy.

Dr Leonie Baldacchino again:

“A variety of tools have been developed to help us be more creative, and when we teach our students how to use these tools we see a marked boost in their creativity. The more they practice, the better they become, which builds their confidence in their creative skills. This in turn encourages them to try out new creative ideas and solutions, leading to further skill improvement.”

Constant creativity is hard work, but it’s absolutely essential if your business is to grow and become sustainable no matter what field you’re in.

Links

The Edward de Bono Institute at the University of Malta

Think Speak Act – Leone Baldacchino on YouTube

14 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

 

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