If you ask a roomful of first graders who among them is creative, they will all raise their hands and a gleam will come into their eyes. But if you ask executives in a conference room the same question, a lot of them will start gazing at their shoes.
It’s not that we lose the capacity to be creative as we get older; rather, somewhere along the way, the passion and excitement that drove our creative impulses as children fade away.
I blame that loss of passion on our educational systems and our workplaces, where we are taught that value lies in solving problems, not in being creative. That mindset needs to change if organizations want to be as innovative as possible.
In its typical art or science context, creativity is difficult to define and is usually thought of as an inherent trait—either you have it or you don’t. But in the business realm, creativity is neither elusive nor exclusive: it’s both possible to define and to put into practice. Creativity in business means going beyond mere problem-solving to what I call problem finding, a skill that anyone can acquire.
Don’t get me wrong. Problem-solving is crucial to innovation. The best idea in the world will remain just that—an idea—unless an organization can successfully turn it into a product or service, bring it to market, and commercialize it. But many organizations make the mistake of thinking that problem-solving alone is enough to succeed. They believe that innovation means researching their target customers and markets and developing products and services to fit specific needs. But solving problems that customers already know they have usually results in incremental innovations. To achieve innovation breakthroughs, you need to combine execution with creativity.
Leading into the unknown is the point where most executives give up. They outsource creativity to agencies to come up with radical new product ideas, or they hire a bunch of designers to come up with ideas internally. Both of those routes can work, but they don’t scale well. Few businesses can afford more than one-off relationships with agencies, and fewer still can hire enough designers to hit the 1:10 ratio of designers to employees that consumer-focused companies like Facebook or Google have. For most companies, that ratio is more like 1:1,000 or 1:10,000.
Yet finding a way to institutionalize creativity, to scale it across the organization—especially to employees and managers without art or design degrees—has become a crucial part of company value. A portfolio of 16 publicly traded companies that the Design Management Institute considers to be expert in creativity and design outperformed the S&P 500 by over 200% each year from 2013 to 2015.
To achieve breakthrough innovations, organizations must find problems that are relevant to customers but that no one else is working on.
Scaling creativity requires a structured process that reignites the passion that we all had as children—that makes it fun and easy, just as it was then. The most important element of the process is to start without a specific hypothesis. At the design school at Stanford University, where I taught in 2014–2015, we liked to illustrate this with a quote from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” To achieve breakthrough innovations, organizations must find problems that are relevant to customers but that no one else is working on.
Craft a Problem-Finding Culture
The techniques for problem finding are all based on the principles of design thinking that originated in the 1970s. Design thinking is a broad term for using collaboration and iteration techniques to identify and solve problems and to scale the use of such techniques across the organization. There are many different design-thinking methodologies. At SAP, however, we follow a few basic guidelines:
- Take a human-centric perspective. Problem-solving looks at market feasibility and technical feasibility and works toward a solution from there. Problem finding introduces a third element: the desirability and usability of a product or service from the customer’s perspective. Start by empathizing with the customer’s needs and desires and work backward to discover the problem that needs solving.
- Bring together people from different backgrounds. In problem-solving, it’s usually most effective to assign tasks to specific groups like marketing or engineering. In problem finding, it’s best to have a team of people from different disciplines who can see the potential opportunities through different lenses. By brainstorming and iterating as a group, the team can bring those different perspectives together into a solution.
- Define the experience first. Since problem finding is a user-centered process, organizations should never move into product or service design until they have defined the experience from the user’s perspective. The user perspective should dictate product or service features and functions.
- Let designers lead. Problem finding should be part of your product and service design process. While not everyone on the problem-finding team needs to be a design expert, you need an expert to make sure that the team hits specific goals in the process. For example, the team needs to define the persona of the customer it is trying to reach. It’s also important to map out how customers will interact with the product or service you ultimately define, which is a skill that requires years of design experience.
- Stop shipment of bad design experiences. Give the organization permission to make decisions based on the results of the design process. Having the ability to halt development of a product or service that would sacrifice the customer experience is critical to getting the organization to become serious about the importance of design.
- Create the right space. Having a flexible design space creates visible, physical testimony that design matters to the organization, and it reinforces the types of behavior, such as open collaboration, that are important to the design process. But don’t build a new space before building the design culture. Without training, people won’t know how to work in the new environment and the whole process will fail.
- View executive sponsorship as necessary but not sufficient. Developing a creative culture requires executive sponsorship, but that’s not enough. There must be a level of buy-in that can survive the departure of key leaders and the normal ebb and flow of organizational dynamics and politics. Middle managers must believe culture change is necessary and be willing to take responsibility for creating the processes to support it. They must also be empowered to support the unconventional decisions that arise from the problem-finding process, to enforce the right values, and to shelter their teams from attacks by conventional thinkers.
Developing a creative culture takes time—usually 3 to 5 years but up to 10 years at very large organizations. To begin to make a difference, business leaders must ensure that there is value associated with creativity. The design teams must show results early and often. They must demonstrate that doing things a different way leads to unexpected results that were never possible in a business-as-usual culture.
Practicing creativity across the organization inevitably leads to success because it takes the design process out of its traditionally narrow confines and ensures that customer needs always come first. Instilling creative confidence among those who never went to art or design school also has a positive impact on company culture. Work becomes more fun for everyone, restoring that gleam in the eye that many thought was lost forever. D!