Leader Volume 10, Number 1
creativity? How can we draw upon our creative powers to solve
problems? In simple terms, creativity consists of actions (or
thoughts) which are new and different. Ask most adults, "Are
you a Creative person?" and you'll receive answers ranging
from “No!” to “A little bit.” This is a pity, because most
of us are quite creative.
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an
artist once he grows up." The reason we lose our artistic
power is that we are taught to “No!” too much. We are told
there are no polka-dot cows and electric roses. That our ideas are
stupid, that it can't work and that, "If it were a good idea,
someone would have done it before!"
We are creative,
but for the most part, that creativity has been buried beneath the
worries of the day and the verbal abuse of naysayers.
You are creative.
If you require hard evidence of your creativity, consider each day
you voice hundreds, if not thousands, of sentences which have
never been spoken before. Consider that each night you relax, go
to sleep and dream the most fantastic dreams. Consider your sense
of humor which takes people by surprise and makes them laugh.
We are all
creative. Our problem
is how to remain creative in the corporate environment when
problems need solving, and being different is frowned upon? In any
profession you need the right tools, and there are tools to help
you remain creative.
When you are
being creative, you are being different. Being different is
difficult because people who are different are singled out and put
at risk. Try this experiment. Go out and buy a fluorescent pink
and green tie and wear it into work tomorrow. Notice your feelings
as the day goes by and people single you out for comments. Being
creative, just by being different is tough and risky work.
When you are
experimenting with new ideas you will need the courage to say,
"This is an idea, lets play with it for a while before we
decide it's 'useless.'" When you're reading this article,
you'll need courage to say "These are different ideas, lets
try them before we decide they won't work for us."
There are two
techniques called Reversal and Decomposition, which you can use to
force yourself into new ways of thinking about old problems.
When you use
Reversal, you take a viewpoint and turn it upside down. When you
use Decomposition, you take an established logical series of
causes and effects and disconnect them from each other. There’s
nothing complicated about either of these techniques, but each one
requires some getting used to.
The best way to
describe Reversal and Decomposition is to provide a detailed
example. The following is from a retail chain of women's clothing.
Shortly before Christmas, the problem of customers
returning gifts after the holidays was raised as we were preparing
ourselves for a two-hour meeting. The executives explained that
the volume of returns is significant.
against the basic concepts of retail! Normally customers come into
the store and take garments giving money in exchange for their
selections. But when you return goods, customers give the retailer
used garments and get money in return. If this were an everyday
occurrence retailers wouldn’t be in business for very long. It's
not unusual to hand back hundreds of thousands of dollars just
after Christmas. This negative cash flow takes the holiday spirit
out of Christmas for most store owners.
How can one solve
this problem? Customers are going to return goods and want their
money back. There is nothing the retailer can do about that. You
cannot change return policies just for the Christmas season
(unless your name is Scrooge).
The problem is a traditional one, and most retailers never
attempt to solve it. It's recognized as an insurmountable problem.
My role with this
client was to sit in on executive meetings and offer ideas when I
could. When the meeting was ending I suggested we spend a few more
minutes on the Christmas return policy. I stated we obviously did
not want the customers to return goods. Eight heads nodded in
agreement. I then suggested that instead of not wanting them to
return goods, we should reward them for doing so! At this moment
eight executives probably decided my contract should be
to note that at the time I had no idea if the idea had any merit.
I had reached for the creative tool labeled Reversal and applied
it. Even to me, the idea sounded stupid. If we paid customers to
return goods the negative cash flow would increase, not diminish.
It sounded like a dumb idea. This is where creative courage is
This is the
primary obstacle to creativity. When you offer an idea it is, at
first, just an idea with little substance behind it. It needs to
be fleshed out before you start looking for flaws. Every new idea
is riddled with weaknesses. Knowing new ideas are full of flaws we
sometimes stop ourselves from voicing the idea because we are
afraid of rejection.
When ideas first
arise they are weak and defenseless. It’s a very simple task to
destroy an idea. A manager need just raise an eyebrow and most
employees take the hint. They allow their ideas to die and get
into the habit of keeping their ideas to themselves. If you don't
give new ideas room to bloom, then you create a self-perpetuating
environment where ideas are crushed or never spoken aloud.
When you have an
idea (no matter how stupid it sounds) then you must voice it and
defend it. At least until you have explored it in some detail. You
will be surprised what can arise out of stupid ideas!
Back to the
retail example. One of the cause and effects in the problem was
that if a customer returns a garment then they must receive a
refund. Reaching into the creative toolbox I pulled out another
tool, Decomposition. I again applied it in a mechanistic,
non-thinking manner and decomposed the link between cause and
effect. The result was, if a customer returns a garment then we
don't have to give them a refund. Let’s give them something
The two tools,
Reversal and Decomposition worked together to create the following
solution. The retail store decided that when a customer came in to
return a garment, they would offer the client a gift certificate
worth 110% of the original purchase price. In effect giving the
customer a 10% reward for returning the unwanted garment.
The retail chain
handed out more than $180,000 in gift certificates (thereby
keeping about $164,000 in the cash registers). Customers were
pleasantly surprised by their experience (they told their
The real payback
arose when the customers returned with their gift certificates. If
you returned a garment worth $100, you now possessed a gift
certificate for $110. When you returned to the store, did you go
to the $50, $100 or $200 dresses? Many of the customers went to
the $200 dresses because it would only “cost” them $90. At
final count, the $180,000 worth of gift certificates resulted in
$250,000 worth of sales.
Being creative is
about thinking differently, but nobody said you can't use tools.
The tools don't have to be complicated. They certainly don't have
to be expensive. The only thing necessary to become more creative
is courage and faith in the process. So the next time you need to
be creative, Reverse the problem, Decompose your logic and wear a
fluorescent pink and green tie.