Creative License

By Sally Anne Flecker | Spring 2017

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Why the next big business innovations rely on creative mindsets

In John Sherry’s new undergraduate marketing course, students keep a dream journal. They write a creative autobiography. They compose a poem about a trendsetting brand, say The North Face backpacks, using only the letters that are in the name. Or they hang out for a day at a child development center, or head over to nearby Eddy Street Commons to observe the “retail ecology.”

While the activities appear diverse, and perhaps even unrelated, the course, Imagination, Creativity & Commerce, highlights a growing reality: Creativity and business, if not the new yin and yang, can each benefit from embracing the other.

Creativity, of course, was never the sole property of artists, children and the flea-market makeover gang. But increasingly, businesses are finding that fostering creative thinking throughout their operations is a critical challenge — one that may be the difference between leading innovation or falling under its wheels.

And it’s no small challenge. How does a company nurture a creative mindset? Four experts in creativity, innovation and design thinking weigh in.

The play’s the thing

Analytics and big data are significant trends in marketing these days, says Sherry, the Raymond W. & Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Marketing. “You amass all this data. You analyze it with very precise methods. But at the end of the day, you’ve still got to tell a compelling story, and you’ve still got to find insight in the interpretations that you’re making,” he points out.

Sherry has positioned Imagination, Creativity & Commerce as the complement to analytics. While the marketing department at Mendoza is blessed with a rich curriculum covering the innovation spectrum, Sherry, who chaired the department from 2005 to 2014, says, “What we didn’t cover is the pre-inventive phase — what comes before innovation. You have to create a context and a mindset among students that predisposes them to tapping into their imagination and creativity.”

He’s adopted the word “ludics” — from the Latin word for play — to describe a dimension of marketing and consumer behavior that is about imagination, creativity, playfulness and embodied experience. “It’s the kind of perspective that’s meant to put a soul into the database, so that once you teach students the research methods to develop new products or create advertising campaigns, they’ve got some intellectual and emotional content to draw on,” says Sherry.

His goal is to get students thinking creatively about the elements of marketing to enhance and deepen their skills in future coursework. When they move on to a course in advertising, for example, they’ll be better storytellers because they’ve had practice telling stories against the data. “If it’s a branding class, they’ve done brand design and market design thinking around particular brands,” he adds. “When they enroll in the innovation courses, where they’re actually going to be expected to create a new product, they will have come in with their imaginations jump-started already and be able to take better advantage of the research techniques they’re about to learn.”

He emphasizes that even though some of the class work involves poetry, dreams and “fairly ethereal” activities, students also are using techniques such as close, precise observation. “They are relentlessly looking at the assumptions that they bring to any kind of a situation,” he says. “To me, the more interesting an instrument you can help a student become the better they are going to be at their job once they get out — and the more fun they’re going to have in life in general.”

Walk & roll

In the early days of her career, Kathleen Brandenburg was a visual and interactive designer. But the co-founder of IA Collaborative, which regularly hosts Mendoza students on “innovation tours” of its Chicago facility, quickly realized the enormous potential of bringing a “design mindset” to bear on business challenges. In fact, when you ask an innovation expert such as Brandenburg about the role of creativity in business, the conversation quickly turns to design.

“Creativity is fundamental to business,” claims Brandenburg. “It is business. Every industry fundamentally is about creating something, whether it’s a product or a service.”

Popular perception might depict design as what happens after a product or service has been developed — the pretty bow on the outside of the package, as it were. But in many business and industry circles, design has come to mean a systemic approach to innovation.

“Our goal with immersion is to get us as close to that user experience as possible. And that’s a key to creativity,” she says. “A traditional, analytical method of research is about statistics, analysis, cost savings. It’s very incremental. Evaluative research does have a great place at the end of the process. But it’s not how you would begin a project if you’re seeking to find innovation breakthroughs.” In other words, creativity, play and real experience all have their moments in the design process on the pathway to innovation.

“Design is the process,” Brandenburg contends, adding, “When you can wrap your mind around that, it changes everything.”

Part of the infrastructure of Brandenburg’s systemic approach involves immersive kinds of experiences for those involved with the project, including the client. For example, when a major health-care supply manufacturer asked IA Collaborative to redesign its rollator — aka, a walker on wheels — Brandenburg gathered a multidisciplinary set of people from all different areas of the manufacturer’s company.

“We duct-taped their knees. We had them wear really heavy weights and gloves and did things to essentially cripple their ability,” she recounts. Then they gave them rollators and sent them on their way in Chicago’s downtown loop to purchase milk and sundries. “It was awesome. They came back absolutely thrilled, enlightened, because they’d found themselves in the user’s shoes.”

Don’t create, innovate

Howard Tullman, entrepreneur, art collector and CEO of 1871, the Chicago-based nonprofit startup hub, isn’t the kind of person to beat around the bush.

For his purposes of mentoring viable startups, he finds it useful to draw a distinction between creativity and innovation. “People think that creativity leads to innovation. In our practice, in the nature of what we do, that’s not true,” he says. “Creativity is about inventing things, and invention is very hard. It’s very costly. It’s very challenging. It takes a substantial amount of time.” At 1871, he adds, the focus is on innovation as an incremental process of improvement.

Further, it’s not possible to be creative on demand, insists Tullman, who is a frequent guest speaker at Mendoza. “These ideas — they don’t drop out of the air and hit you in the head like an apple,” he says. On the other hand, like Brandenburg, he believes you can build a process where you find problems and then develop solutions in order to improve things.

“We think that the largest opportunities for businesses these days are not around inventing new things, but using available, accessible technologies to improve the way they do what they’re currently doing — which can bring about enormous results and improvements, long before they have to invent completely new things,” he points out.

By way of example, he mentions a startup at 1871 that’s overhauling the car insurance adjustment process. (Insert cheers here from anyone who has ever had a car accident.) Adjusters who came to the customer were only able to see two cars a day on average. But analysis showed that in six out of 10 cases, the cars were either so old that they’re not worth repairing, or so new that they were being replaced with a new vehicle. There was no need for the adjusters to drive halfway across town to reach a conclusion that was determined by the age of the vehicle alone. For the remaining four cases, the startup’s offering was an app that allows the client to take pictures of the damage and upload it to the adjuster, who is sitting in an office rather than in traffic somewhere.

“There may be one-in-a-million instance of fraud, but by and large, what’s going to happen is instead of waiting for three weeks and having stayed home for two days waiting for the adjuster to show up, you’re going to hear in three hours when you’ll be getting your money,” says Tullman. “The net effect is that those adjusters, who are sitting in front of a screen receiving this information, can do 20 estimates a day instead of two. That’s what technology enables. All of that is of a piece with making a crazy process much smarter, faster, more efficient. And we have hundreds of companies like that, looking for those kinds of gaps and those kinds of opportunities to improve the way we’ve done things for the last umpteen years.”

Tullman also says he has learned a thing or two from the art community. “I regard artists as very creative,” he says. “But when you ask an artist how they go about their process, they say they don’t wait for inspiration. They go into the studio every single day, and they paint. That’s how they make great art.”

Genius is 10 percent inspiration …

Inspiration, actually, is where the design process starts for Dennis Boyle (‘75), founding partner of the international design firm IDEO. To be clear, he is not talking of inspiration in the muse-speaking, lightning-bolt sense. The groundbreaking insight of this longtime design veteran is in understanding inspiration as the problem that needs to be solved.

That makes inspiration a requisite stage in “design thinking” — a term describing a process he believes is akin to industrial or engineering design process, but can be used to much wider purpose. “Product design, financial services, the design of education, alleviating poverty, it seems to work for everything,” Boyle says. “You have to be very creative in every aspect of this design-thinking process. It’s like being in shape as an athlete and getting ready for a competition. Being creative in every single step of the way is important and essential.”

The inspiration phase of design thinking gives permission for the team to have a period of time to carefully define the problem and understand the needs of users through many different lenses. This is a different approach than being given a problem and solving it directly, Boyle is careful to point out.

“You think you know how to solve the problem because of your experience, but this leaves you wide open to picking some of the wrong paths right at the beginning,” he says. “Then you end up in a place that isn’t that valuable or maybe is completely off. You have to step back.

“It’s like going back to first principles when you’re doing a technical problem. You really have to start from the beginning. The initial conditions change dramatically all the time because of a difference in technology, a difference in culture, a difference in laws and trends and who you’re focusing on. The more experience you have, you have to actually watch this tendency and desire just to start solving the problem before you’ve defined it carefully. That’s one of our biggest insights.”

Boyle has put design thinking to work on everything from the development of the early Apple mouse to Swiffer dusters and sweepers. He currently leads the medical products and health systems side of IDEO. “Medical and health services have been touched less by design than most other areas,” he says. “This area has some of the most impact of anything you can do as a creative person as a designer, as an innovator. It touches human life so directly.”

As with Brandenburg’s IA Collaborative, observation, immersion and the development of empathy for the user are vital in design thinking. Interestingly, Boyle says, the team often tries to look at people who are on the extremes in terms of whatever is being measured. “They’re very young; they’re very old; they’re very expert at something; they’re very not expert at something; they’re extremely skilled in language or in some pursuit or they’re not,” he says. “What you find is you get all these extremes and tensions. You end up finding what people are doing on the fringes of the bell curve — and that really helps you see people that are doing something very novel or something that they have to do because they aren’t very good at it or their skills aren’t very good anymore because they’re elderly. You’re finding workarounds. You’re seeing outliers.”

“Hit ’em where they ain’t,” he adds, borrowing an old expression from baseball. “If you want to create a whole new category, a whole new market, and make something dramatically different and better, you have to take disruptive leaps that are riskier to end up with something that is new to the world and valuable to the world,” he says.

In the end, the role of creativity in business is allowed greater and lesser importance, depending on the personality and mission of the organization. One thing seems clear: Creativity is always in service to the larger purpose, never an end unto itself.

Does it have a place at the conference table? In most cases, yes. Pull up a chair. But know, dear creativity, that you’re not running the show.