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Capitalising on creative thinking to achieve competitive advantage

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With the focus on innovation in business intensifying, we need to develop new ways of thinking in order to design better solutions, services and experiences that solve customers’ problems.

For decades, creative thinking in business has been overshadowed by an information dependent approach to problem solving. Analytical processing has, to a large extent, conditioned our thinking and has resulted in a limiting of our ability to conceptualise beyond the bounds of logical rationality. As companies increasingly prioritise innovation to achieve competitive advantage, thinking “outside the box” has become an important capability.

Creative thinking enables us to expand our worldview and increase our frame of reference to consider everything as a source of inspiration. Creative thinking invites us to consider the abstract, the unconventional…even what we may think impossible to generate ideas of what could be possible. We all have the ability to think creatively – as shared by leading experts in innovation, design, and creativity and IDEO founders Tom and David Kelly in their book Creative Confidence “Too often, companies and individuals assume that creativity and innovation are the domain of the “creative types.” This is not the case as creativity and analytical thinking harnesses the entire brain to process information and originate ideas… and we all possess this. We just don’t tap our creative neural pathways because so often our conditioned beliefs in needing to be right versus wrong, to achieve quantifiable results versus develop new concepts, to meet external expectations, and fit in with social systems and structures to be accepted and validated stifles our creative freedom. This award winning Pixar-esque short animated film “Alike” portrays so well how compromising our individuality to confirm with social expectations can kill our creativity.

If we have seldom had the opportunity to exercise our creativity then we need to practice. Developing our creative confidence is a good place to start. It starts with a positive mind-set about our own strengths and talents. Believing that the way we view the world around us differently, that our innate sense of curiosity to question what we hear and see, and how we interpret situations are positive attributes. Once we believe that who we are and how we think differently we know that we are not stupid, just different… and that’s ok. In fact, it’s a real advantage as creative thinkers as we have the ability to gain deeper insights compared to people who simply accept situations as they are. When we know this, we know that our difference is strength. From this understanding we can develop our self-trust and learn to rely on our sense of conviction to stand firm in what we know.

Yet, it is not easy to be confident when we often find ourselves in situations when we stand out of the crowd and contradict convention. Human nature instils a desire to be accepted, to belong, to be counted. Going against accepted thinking and doing is to be an outlier and that can often mean a lonely journey. As highlighted in his book of the same name, Malcolm Gladwell convincingly presents the case for those of us who dare to be bold, brave individuals as exceptional because we know that we will often face negative criticism and rejection.

If we are to fully harness our creativity we need to give ourselves permission to ‘free ourselves’ of our ‘learned’ knowledge and ignite our imagination to create new possibilities. When we do this, we tap our individual knowledge: our intuition. Intuition enables us to understand our environment instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. Yet, it can also create a false sense of certainty because we tap into what we feel comfortable and safe with. Gladwell’s book Blink popularised the notion of listening to ourselves and ‘trust our gut’ which is all very well when we can be sure that known thinking applies, but can have dire consequences where what you know no longer applies. As is the case in business today, where disruptive technology is changing the rules of… everything to present an unknown future.

As cited in Alf Rehn’s book Dangerous Ideas: When Provocative Thinking Is Your Most Valuable Asset “if you are more interested in developing new thinking rather than becoming very good at what you already know… then you need to face the fact that your instinct is primed to take you into your comfort zone”. So how do we move away from that which gives us certainty and comfort to truly push the boundaries of our creativity? Start by questioning the questions you ask to challenge your brain for any conservative and habitual bias. Are these the questions that will uncover what you don’t know or are they simply probing what may – when you examine them – probing what is presented? When we take this approach we recognise that inspiration brings us passion, which in turn gives us pleasure. This crates a sense of comfort. The objective of true innovation is not reinventing what already exists but to develop the ability to be radically creative and develop solutions that result in a new approach, method, or application in the form of a product or service that is viable. To do this we need to push ourselves into the realm of discomfort, to think ‘dangerously’. As Rehn states, “to a level that is truly challenging, radical and revolutionary. This is the level at which mavericks have achieved.”

Thus we need to break the bounds of our own conventions, question conservatism and encourage people in our companies to do the same. Design Thinking – a framework to solve complex problems by understanding human needs – encourages innovation. Design Thinking nudges us out of our comfort zones to immerse ourselves in other people’s experiences. Applying this in business enables us to gain different perspectives and apply our insights to define customer needs and generate new approaches to fulfil them. In order to do so we need to more often than not relinquish the old to make way for the new.

Whether established or entrepreneurial businesses, companies that have broken their own rules have proven successful in reinventing themselves to remain relevant and competitive. They have had business leaders who have been prepared to build a culture where people are given licence to question existing business strategies and change the very core of their operating models. This has enabled these companies to attract and build a culture of innovation and harness creative capital as an advantage.

Companies that have proven successful in pursuing radical innovation include: Western Union, once best-known for telegrams, Western Union has reinvented itself as a money transfer business; IBM, from a hardware manufacturer to a software services company; Berkshire Hathaway, from a textile company to a powerful investing firm; Royal Dutch Shell from a sea shell importer to an energy company; Wipro, which started out selling vegetable oil, and today is a leading technology solutions company; American Express, started as a package delivery service is today a leading financial credit business; and Nintendo, started in selling playing cards and became a radically innovative video game producer.

Nicola Columbine is a thought-leader, speaker, features writer, and management consultant specialising in organisation design, development and change. She is owner and manager of Integrative Consulting, an innovative advisory, consulting, training and solutions design business.

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