What I’ve Learned About Creativity.

I was speaking with a CEO a few weeks ago who said his team was struggling with new product innovation. I mistakenly assumed that the team had too many ideas, could not prioritize and focus, and, therefore, were diluting their efforts. Lack of focus is a problem I’m seeing with a lot of clients right now. 

But that was not his problem.

His problem is a lack of good new product ideas. He knows the organization needs to innovate and diversify revenue but the only ideas they have are operational improvements.

He thinks the current uncertainty and customer behavior changes are making it hard to develop new ideas. But he also thinks his team just “isn’t creative.”

The good news is that creativity is not a fixed quality that we are born with. It can be taught even to the most analytical thinkers among us, myself included. And the research supports this. For example, a study published in the Creativity Research Journal (yes, such a journal exists!) showed that eight months after a group of employees were trained in just four creative thinking techniques, they increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent.

Tina Seelig’s groundbreaking book,  inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, explains that anyone can increase creativity, just like they can increase musical or athletic ability through training and practice. Seelig also argues that creative idea generation starts with a fresh look at a problem. “Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool for increasing your imagination because it unlocks a vast array of solutions,” says Seelig. And I agree. 

What I have found, is that the best place to start when it comes to reframing the problem is first collecting customer voice.

Identifying Customer Problems

At Vecteris, we typically use a modified design sprint process to help companies design new products. When we walk clients through the idea generation phase, we start by cataloging customer problems with the goal of identifying which ones are  urgent and expensive

That takes some important pre-work:  listening to customers through interviews, surveys, and advisory boards. Asking about their pain points, frustrations, and annoyances. Listening to them describe their current processes, what they’ve tried in the past, what has worked well, and what they wish they had.

We can also listen to what they are saying without being prompted.  Social listening is a great way to do this because it allows us to analyze the conversations and trends happening about our company and industry as a whole. We can use those insights to better understand the problems our customers are facing, not just the ones they told us about when we asked. 

Customer interviews, surveys, and social listening can also help us find out which problem is most important and which problem is the most costly. Then, we can rank the customer problems based on their urgency and expense. 

Competitive Offerings

In addition to identifying pain points, we also need to understand how customers are trying to solve their pain points. This could range from inefficient workarounds to nothing at all. A quick  competitor analysis can help us identify existing product ideas that we could improve upon.  Although I always recommend following our customers’ needs, before following our competitors’ actions, there is research that says fast-followers are more successful than new-to-world innovators.

It’s also a good idea to talk to companies in adjacent spaces to hear what they are doing or considering. And not just the obvious competitors. Talk to start-ups and smaller vendors who tend to be better adept at innovation. In that vein, we should keep an eye on emerging start-ups in our sectors using tools such as CB Insights and plugging into local accelerators and innovation hubs. 

Enlist Our Employees

Last but not least, enlist our employees. Yes, even if they “aren’t creative.”

​We can tap into their knowledge about our customers and our competitors.  Even if they are not naturally gifted at recognizing patterns or visioning, they can describe customer needs and the other players in the market. Plus, it’s a good way to let employees know that you actually want their input - which they may be holding back. A recent SHRM poll found that 38 percent of employees lacked initiative because they felt leaders weren’t open to hearing ideas or dismissed them too quickly.

If you are really struggling, I have found that with a little bit of outside facilitation to teach ideation and concept-creation skills, creative ideas can surface. Even organizations facing a creativity drought can develop a robust list of new product ideas to test. Try SCAMPER, for example. It’s an acronym for seven different types of reframing questions to ask about a product or process that we are trying to improve: 
  • S – Substitute (i.e. What can I substitute, material or so as to make this better?)
  • C – Combine (i.e. What ideas, materials, features, processes, people, products, or components can I combine?)
  • A – Adapt (i.e. Which ideas could I adapt, copy, or borrow from other people’s products?)
  • M – Modify (i.e. What can I tone down or delete?)
  • P – Put to another use (i.e. What else can it be used for?)
  • E – Eliminate (i.e. What would happen if I removed a component or part of it?)
  • R – Reverse (i.e. What would I do if part of your problem, product or process worked in reverse?)

I also encourage the organizations I work with to create a volunteer team of more junior employees to be champions for innovation, creativity and applications of new technology. For example, we recently helped a client create a grassroots  “Team Innovation” to:
  1. promote a culture of innovation;
  2. inspire new business processes, new business models, new insights, new technologies, new media, new products, and services;
  3. showcase new technologies to elevate knowledge and spark bold thinking;
  4. encourage cross-company collaboration to generate ideas; and, 
  5. look for opportunities for process and productivity improvement.

It’s important to include employees from all areas of the company. Innovation tends to flourish in cross-functional teams because they have more diversity of perspective and can act more rapidly to develop and test product ideas (for more on how to create a culture of innovation, check out this blog). 

Following this process should generate new ideas, even in the face of uncertainty. Try them out and let me know what you discover. If you are already overflowing with ideas, I’d love to hear more about your process for generating them. Please share!