In our last True Insights we provided a clear definition of creativity and innovation, and described the types of thinking that support truly creative solutions that bring value to the organization.
In Today’s True Insights, we continue the topic of getting value from creativity by looking at the creative process and how you and others in your company can use it to create high-value, breakthrough solutions for the business.
A Creativity Story
First, let me share a story from early in my career. This is a story about how I used creativity to generate a big breakthrough in my business. You have to imagine me much younger, with lots of dark hair and a much smaller waistline.
My first job after completing my MBA program was as the Nevada area director for a medium-sized educational services firm, the subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company. The work we did was similar to the work I do now, but with a different set of services and a different type of client.
Then, just like now, one of my most important objectives was to gain access to larger groups of potential customers who might want to know about our service. If your product is education, you can’t just go door-to-door or cold call people. It isn’t effective at all. You need to find out where the potential clients are and then give them something valuable that makes them want to learn more from you.
In 1994 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, my target customers were in the high schools and the universities in the area. The largest university in Las Vegas was called UNLV.
To gain access to the high schools, I joined a local community service club (Kiwanis) that sponsored a few of the high school clubs and, after six months of active and sincere participation in the club, I had gained access to several high schools and was offering free practice tests to large groups of students.
Getting access to UNLV students was much tougher. I could not find a way in. The university had a policy that said that profit-making organizations like mine could not put up posters on campus, could not set up a table on campus, could not do any direct selling on campus in any way.
The only way to get in was to speak at a career event or at a student association activity. My target customers were pre-law, pre-medical, and pre-MBA students, so I started contacting the relevant student associations. I had very little success. The faculty sponsor of the largest group, the pre-law association, was particularly cold. He said “Your predecessor tried to get in here to sell to us before, and I told him to go to hell!” and hung up the phone on me. The door was closed, and I was locked outside.
I kept thinking about my goal: to gain access to students at UNLV planning to go to graduate school of some kind. I realized after a thorough analysis of the background situation and possible solutions, the most important question to answer was “How can I work through the pre-professional associations to gain access?” and more specifically, “How do I get these professors who guard the associations to open their doors to me? What are all of the ways I might do that?” Once I had the right question clearly defined, I started thinking of all of the possible options.
A few weeks later, we moved to a new office space. One of my employees asked a very good question: “Hey True, since the company requires us to buy all new furniture when we upgrade to a better location, what are we going to do with all of our old stuff?” We had four rooms full of tables and chairs, and about 30 large, almost new Hon filing cabinets. At that moment, I happened to be thinking of my “friend” who sponsored the UNLV pre-law association, and I saw a possible solution begin to form in my mind.
I collected my thoughts for a while and then called the man who had yelled at me (three or four times now, because I don’t give up easily and had kept trying to break through the wall he put up) and, before he could hang up on me, quickly got to the point: “Dr. Lee, we are moving to a new location and I have 30 beautiful filing cabinets I need to find a new home for. About 20 tables and 40 chairs too. Do you know someone on campus who could use them?” The man on the other end of the phone, the one who liked to yell at me and tell me to go away, suddenly became the friendliest man in Las Vegas. “Yes!” He said. “My own department needs them, badly. When can I send a truck over to pick them up?”
he result of this ice-breaking event was that within a few months, my company was scheduled to deliver one speaking event per quarter to his association. We set up large group practice tests, and were the official sponsors of the most important annual activity for the club. Through Dr. Lee, I was also introduced to the faculty sponsors of the other clubs I had targeted, and we were doing events there too.
We ultimately ended up sponsoring several events across campus, and were the official sponsor of the free essay booklets used for final exams (the entire back page was our advertisement). We had more revenue growth that year than in any of the past 10 years, I was ranked #2 in the region among my peers for key performance indicator fulfillment, I got a big bonus, and was promoted after only 15 months in my position. A year or so later, I was invited to train other area directors in the company on my approach to creating partnerships on campus, a method I continued to expand and innovate on.
Of course, I didn’t know that what I was doing was using the creative problem solving process to generate value. It was only later that I became truly “fluent” in the use of such a process and the related tools that support a successful outcome. Getting fluent in the creative process earlier can speed up the process of figuring out how to get value from creativity.
If you read my story carefully, you noticed that I actually followed a creative problem solving process. I just didn’t know it.
First, I started with a clear goal. A solution to my problem did not exist yet, but I was motivated and I had the ability to influence the outcome. These are the three criteria for choosing a goal to chase using the creative process:
- You can influence the process
- You are highly motivated (innovation is hard!)
- The solution doesn’t already exist. You have asked experts, and nobody is sure.
Second, I studied the problem thoroughly. Very often, this stage is about asking “What methods have we tried that don’t work?” You have to think about all of the factors (people, restrictions, resources, etc.) that influence the success or failure of your initiative before you can start thinking of solutions. Usually, there will be a few facts or pieces of data that are the most crucial to focus on, because they suggest what the real problems are.
Third, I thought a lot about all of the problems I needed to solve to reach my goal. I thought about these problems as questions to be answered. In the end, I realized that the key question was: “What are all of the ways to get the professors who sponsor the student associations to let me talk to their students?” The solution to a problem becomes much clearer once you ask the right question.
Fourth, once I knew which questions I needed to answer, I was able to focus on brainstorming (diverging) on several possible ideas. When the right idea became clear, I recognized it because I had been thinking so openly about the questions for so long.
Fifth, once my best option became clear, I took a little time to think it through before I took action. For example, I knew Dr. Lee would only give me a few seconds on the phone, so I prepared my script a little and delivered it clearly and quickly. In the creative process, this is called “strengthening the solution.” Lots of people fail with a good idea because they forget to stop and strengthen it for a while before running with it.
Finally, I had an action plan formulated and I executed it as planned.
This is the creative problem solving process, in six steps. The good news is, if you learn to use the process in the right way and learn several of the tools available to help you generate and select ideas, you can greatly increase your efficiency and the overall value of the solutions you come up with.
Here is the entire process, summarized:
Remember that with every stage except #6, you can (and should!) diverge first before converging.
In future newsletters, we will share tips and tools to help you with second half of innovation: Making sure good ideas are able to make their way through the organization and really get used to create value. In the meantime, at True Development we are constantly developing new tools to support our clients as they work to improve the effectiveness of their leadership, innovation, cross-team collaboration, and sales efforts. If you would like to talk to us about your own or your organization’s development needs, please feel free to get in touch.
Yours in learning,
True Development Co., Ltd.