While creativity is desired among CEOs, author Josh Linkner says it is in short supply. Itís not fostered at a young age and people are afraid to express creativity in the board room, he told a recent CMA Ontario Strategic Management conference in the Toronto area.
The numbers may tell the story of a business at any given moment, but an organizationís capacity for innovation will write its future, author and entrepreneur Josh Linkner told 300 attendees at CMA Ontarioís Strategic Management conference in Mississauga, Ont.
Large corporations remain vulnerable to startups because they struggle to infuse and nurture creative thinking within their ranks, he said, pointing to Research in Motion, Sears and Blockbuster as examples of brands that have stumbled or failed.
"A survey of 1,500 CEOs asked them to rank what leadership attributes would be needed to succeed and the number one choice was creativity," said Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity and chief executive officer of venture capital firm, Detroit Venture Partners.
But creativity is in short supply, warned Linkner, who also finds time to be adjunct professor of applied creativity at the University of Michigan, a regular contributor to Inc. Magazine and Fast Company and to play jazz guitar professionally.
The problem is twofold, he said. One, creative thinking is being squeezed out of kids in the school system, teaching them how to study for exams and follow in-the-box structure ó while penalizing those in the workforces whose thinking is outside the box.
"We need to think about creativity much more than we have in the past," he said, arguing more companies will find themselves under fire for market share as nimble startups gain a creative edge and attract attention.
For example, he pointed to Dollar Shave Club, which dared to take on big razor blade brands such as Gillette and Schick when it launched in the spring. Its cheeky sell ó subscribe for between $1 and $9 a month and itíll ship to your door ó via a madcap $4,500 YouTube video landed 17,000 subscribers in seven days.
"At this pace, itís a $60 million a year business," Linkner said. "Instead of competing on price, theyíre competing on imagination. Creativity has become the currency of success. Itís the one factor which cannot be outsourced and the one true sustainable advantage. You canít rely on an operating manual; the world is changing too fast."
Linkner, a four-time tech startup entrepreneur, said a Harvard University study found 85 per cent of creativity is fostered by nurturing ó meaning itís a learned skill.
But those who do escape the educational system with creative spark are too often afraid to express their ideas within the corporate world because they quickly discover itís not a rewarded behaviour. In fact, he said, most large corporations imprint a culture of risk avoidance.
Entrepreneurs, however, know that failure is the price of success.
"James Dyson invented a vacuum cleaner and went on to be a billionaire," he said. "But he failed 5,100 times building his prototypes."
What successful companies learn is they must unleash creativity within their organization, and Linkner suggested five steps to that end.
"First," he said, "is getting curious and asking these three questions: Why? What if? And why not? And then ask them again and again."
The process, he said, helps distill the issue to the essentials and provides clarity: "It forces you to challenge conventional wisdom." For example, he pointed to Little MissMatched, which questioned why socks were sold in matched pairs when one always got lost. In reaction, it sells its socks in three and five packs and none match. At $14 a pack itís a hit and again, he said, it is not competing on price but concept.
Two, he said, companies should encourage responsible risk taking. "One company I know celebrates the team and product of the year but also the failure of the year. Another gives out two corporate get-out-of-jail cards. If you go out on a limb and it fails, hand in one of these cards and no questions asked. In fact, theyíre upset at review time if you havenít used both your cards. They want to encourage responsible risk taking."
Third, Linkner said, challenge assumptions. If something has always been traditionally done one way, ask why ó as in why not sell razor blades online?
Fourth, he said, think small. "ITW is a giant manufacturing company with $16 billion in revenue but every time one of its businesses makes $200 million in revenues they slice [the company] in half. Theyíd rather have several small scrappy $100 million businesses than a giant funky bureaucratic mess."
And fifth: "Shatter conventional wisdom." Doveís beauty myth campaign started with a zero budget and an idea from its agency to challenge the way beauty products were sold. Instead of artificial, Photoshopped images, it used real women without makeup and talked about inner beauty. The result was a customer bond that transcended the definition of brand loyalty.
"Let your imagination soar," Linkner said. "Opportunity waits for us all."