The creativity gap between ideas and profit

Nigel Collin | January, 2013

It’s no secret that ideas make money. A single idea can help an organization to outpace its competition, better connect with it’s market, drive performance and profitable growth. However, there’s a gap between the value an organization places on ideas and its ability to tap the creative talents and resources of its people to create and implement viable ideas. Businesses want and need ideas that will make them money but are often failing to invest the time and money to come up with them.
 
A while back we conducted a survey of both business leaders and creative people and one of the questions we asked was, ‘In business, should creativity have a commercial value?’ Pretty straightforward and, as you would expect, most people answered yes – 90%, in fact.  Not surprising, when you think about it. In the commercial world, creativity simply isn’t useful unless it leads to a positive business outcome. 
 
BUT… the surprise was the result from another fairly straightforward question: ‘Do you fully utilize the talents of your creative people?’ Only 17% of people answered yes! I don’t know about you, but that rings alarm bells for me.
 
On the one hand, business emphatically understands the need for creativity to be commercially valuable – yet 83% don’t make full use of their creative people’s abilities and wisdom to achieve this. What’s even more amazing is that they know they don’t!
It’s like building a bridge across a canyon to get a heap of stuff to the other side, but only using 17% of that bridge’s capacity. You’d have to limit how much you carry across or do multiple trips. Either way, it’s inefficient: you’re not making full use of a very useful bridge. You wouldn’t utilize only 17% of the bridge's capacity, so why use only 17% of your organization's creative capacity?
 
The answer lies in the challenge facing organizations in regards to being creative. The challenge is not actually to find creative people and it's not to teach your people how to be more creative. The real challenge facing creative organizations is knowing how to lead the creative talents of your people and your innovative thinkers. It is knowing how to tap into their talents, harness their genius, and direct it so you get profitable ideas.
 
Film industry is a great example of this. Why? Because Bollywood is all about the business of creativity. It’s all about making money from ideas.
 
It taps into the potential of very creative and very clever people, it lets them do their thing, but it directs and funnels that potential to become commercially successful. When we think of either hollywood or bollywood, we often think of the actors, directors, writers, set designers – all of whom are immensely creative. But we also need to focus on the producer. Their role is to make a profit from creative ideas. It’s to bring the creative talents of those people together, let them do what they do best, but then steer it and direct it so that the film pays dividends.
 
Like it or not, film industry is about making money from creative people. And that’s not a bad thing: it allows many talented people to do what they love doing. Sure, you can train up your actors, directors, and set designers (and you should) but the key to business results is to orchestrate their talents and genius.  
 
It’s all about leadership
It’s important to focus on building individual talents, but it’s even more important to focus on building the right leadership skills, the right environment, and the right processes that allow your creative people to thrive – with all their creativity, thoughts, and ideas. That is where the future gold of your business resides. You need to understand how creative and innovative people work, what they need, and what obstacles you need to break down. In many ways, the leader’s role is to support and guide, not interfere or constrain.
 
The Top Four Leadership skills for creative and innovative thinkers
 
Give your people permission to think and act on their ideas: Creative thinkers and mavericks love having clear direction, knowing what the rules of the game are and what boundaries to play within. But they also need the freedom to figure out how to get it done.  They need your permission. Without they simple won’t give you the ideas and disruptive solutions your business needs. Leaders must be brave enough and smart enough to let their people to do what they do best without getting in the way – just steering and guiding them occasionally when they get off-track. Give them the challenge, the opportunity or the task and let them come up with the ideas.
 
To lead ideas people effectively you need to be a nurturer and custodian of their talents. You need to be a mentor and a coach. You need to know how to empower them, guide them, earn their respect, and let them play. The last thing you want to be is their boss. Perhaps we should change the word ‘lead’ to ‘nurture’ or ‘empower’ or ‘be guardian of’ and perhaps we should change the term ‘Creative Leader’ to ‘Creative Conductor’.
 
Tell them what needs to be done - not how it needs to be done: Creative thinkers and innovators hate being told how to do something. When you think about it, it’s condescending. The reason they exist in your business in the first place is because of their expertise and unique ability. Imagine you’re standing on a mountain, telling your people that you need to get across the valley. Let them figure out how – that’s what they do best. The role of the  leader is to support and guide, not interfere or constrain. The ‘blunderbuss’ style of leadership – the ‘Follow me!’ style – is telling them how. But the leader standing on the mountain is telling them what needs to be done. Creative people love a challenge; they love being set a task. As leaders, you need to give them the what. Set the goal, the vision, the assignment, and the challenge – but let them figure out the how.
 
Stop Micromanaging: Micromanagement leads on from the first point because it’s more than telling them how, it’s actually doing it for them. We’ve all had the experience of someone telling us how to do something and managing a project from over our shoulders – though surely none of us are guilty of that! While creative people love having clear direction and knowing what’s required of them, they hate someone doing their job for them. Micromanaging tells your team you don’t trust or respect them. Direct them, steer them, guide them, and lead them, but whatever you do, stop micromanaging, don’t tell them how to do their job, and don’t start doing it for them!
 
Give them the right resources: You need to give your creative people the right tools to do their jobs. It sounds simplistic. It’s so simple, in fact, that it’s easily overlooked or discounted. I’ve learnt from first-hand experience that you need to provide the very best resources you can. 
 
As Robyn Munro at Atlassian once told me, ‘We give them awesome resources to do their jobs with – fast computers, large monitors, comfy Aeron chairs. We keep the office well stocked with snacks and drinks, so that if they get in a creative groove, they can keep at it without going hungry or ducking out for food.’ Having the right tools of the trade allows your ideas people to deliver not only the best quality of work, but also great efficiency. 
 
Closing the gap
When you lead and inspire your people to be their creative best, when you support, nurture, and respect them the creativity gap closes naturally. Closing the gap isn’t about things – it’s about people. It isn’t about doing stuff – it’s about leading and inspiring people to be more creative. It’s knowing how to help people be their creative best. The right leader of ideas people understands that creative thinkers think, feel, and do differently, and knows how to help them do just that. It’s a different way of thinking and, as a result, a different way of leading.

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