By Lisa Leslie Henderson
In whatever field we work in, if we want to be employable, now and in the future, we must learn how to think creatively. In a world characterized by constant and rapid change, where our most innovative offerings are rapidly commoditized, the ability to think creatively on a consistent basis is what enables us to both identify and take advantage of opportunities and to resolve complex problems. Indeed, a global IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEO’s found that creativity is the single most important leadership competency for companies operating in today’s complex global marketplace.
Multiple influences are dramatically altering today’s business landscape. Social media is setting new expectations for customer experience, transparency, and privacy, and continues to generate new touchpoints and styles of communication for marketers to master. Big data and analytics are shifting managers’ focus from backward glancing descriptive analysis to predictive, real-time decision-making. Companies are morphing from stand-alone entities to platforms, and are in many cases, partnering with organizations they formerly considered competitors. Consumers are embracing the sharing economy, causing companies to consider other customer-use options beyond outright purchases. Personalized and context-aware communications are replacing generic messaging, requiring marketers to develop new competencies in behavior analytics, marketing automation, remarketing, and converged media. And that is only the tip of the iceberg in today’s complex global marketplace.
Each of these shifts requires us to move from “where we are” to “where we want to be.” This puts us in unfamiliar territory—we do not have a proven path that will lead us from here to there. Creative thinking is what will get us through the interstitial “challenge space” to the other side.
Increasingly we find ourselves, and our organizations, in even less clearly defined situations. We may know where we are, but we have not precisely defined where we want to be. Do we want to develop a platform model? Does it make sense for us to create a sharing option for our customers in addition to a purchase option? How might predictive analytics enhance our customer experience? In these situations where there is an emergent goal that requires further definition, creative thinking helps us define the opportunities, generate numerous options, and design, test, and execute the most promising option.
What exactly is creative thinking? Creative thinking is not a magical talent reserved for “creative types” nor is it the “ah-ha” moment we often associate with innovation. It is a proven process that mirrors the actual creative process, providing users with a blueprint to productively consider opportunities and solve challenges. Several frameworks have been developed in recent years to codify the creative process including Creative Problem Solving, Design Thinking, and Synectics. By replacing ambiguity with structure, these frameworks make creative thinking accessible to everyone. When applied systemically, these methods can help enterprises and individuals sustain innovation, improving existing operations and jumpstarting new ventures.
While market shifts are ushering in a level of complexity that is making creative thinking imperative for organizations—how else can we make sense of and profit from these changes?—most business leaders believe they do not have ample creativity thinking capability within their organizations. The reasons for this lack are many.
Decades ago Albert Einstein warned, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” For many years we have places a premium on knowledge, leaving inventive thinking to the creative types in design or R&D. With the Internet now in our pocket, knowledge is easy to come by; it is what we can create with that knowledge that is at a premium. Harnessing the talents of a diverse workforce has been shown to be far more fruitful than leaving it to a smaller, isolated group, and to do so requires that we create new processes, systems, reward structures, and more hospitable environments. This takes time and experimentation.
Similarly, for the past several decades, businesses have focused primarily on efficiency, using adaptive creativity (creativity with a small “c”) to generate incremental changes. Now companies have to think in terms of creating or adapting to disruptive change, which requires innovative creativity skills (creativity with a capital “C”). The ability to think bigger requires new skills and a dramatic change in mindset.
Finally, given the pace of business today, most organizations are running on empty, with little time to stand back and think differently. Although times of upheaval require fresh, adaptive thinking, they often leave a workforce depleted. As a result, many organizations are, as David Kelley, founder of the Stanford d-school and of the innovation firm IDEO, explains, “discovering that they are driving a car with the emergency breaks on.”
Creative thinking has always been important; it is how species have adapted, survived, and made meaning. Imaginative thinking has provided an evolutionary advantage to those who are able to use it to impact their surroundings. Creative thinking lead to the flake tool, the hand axe, the wheel, penicillin, and the iPhone; it has allowed everyday people to successfully react to changes in their environment and proactively choose how they want to live and work. Today it is even more important. If we can develop our creative thinking abilities we will not only be employable in two years’ time, but we will also be able to take our organizations where we want them to be.