The words “creative” and “creativity” have been hi-jacked by the world of advertising. The word means something specific to those familiar with Mad Men or Thirty-something advertising stereotypes. In these cases – and the cases of classic advertising – creativity was visual, copy, or positioning cleverness applied at the end of the new product process, when it was time to market downstream.
The old view of the world buffers creativity from strategy or strategic planning or research and development. These departments were once reserved for eggheads, chemists, number crunchers, or analysts. If “creativity” were enacted in these functional areas, the deliverables and output would be suspect or suspended.
We are learning that creativity is anything that adds value and relevance to its intended audience. Smart companies are finding ways to move away from the Just-build-it-like-I-told-you model. They are discovering that the merely deductive way of handling strategy or R&D has more limitations than benefits.
To move more effectively downstream, companies are learning to be more creative upstream. This move signifies that we have moved out of the Industrial Era and into the Age of Innovation.
Upstream creativity means that companies immerse themselves with their customers and seek to invent helpful products and services. Upstream creativity means that the core business model is debated annually in different formats – and not just on a spreadsheet – intuitive downloads, sketches of new adaptations of the model, and market trends are role played as part of the new process. Upstream creativity means that there are markers and sticky notes in the boardrooms and executive chambers. Upstream creativity is a dynamic process that adapts to grow, takes calculated risks, and expects total engagement from its whole team.
The spirit of deep play can be found at such companies. The process of being creative for the sake of the business is a thrill and a form of bliss; peak moments in a career. Here, diverse project teams meet at the same table without prejudice about roles. They are intently focused on surprising the market by creating a new line of business that will change the game. They journey together through the discovery, the birth of a new concept, the drafting of a business case, and the path to market.
Inspired companies allow recursive thinkers to challenge, inspire, even provoke anything too status quo that inhibits growth. Creativity means looking through as many lenses of a prism of the same issue as possible.
Here’s the bottom line. The world has changed. The economy is now led by organizations that invent on a rapid, reoccurring basis.
In the Industrial Era, creativity was used as a means to differentiate products downstream. Now, in the Age of Innovation, the only way to win in the market is to get creative with the whole business: business model, R&D, distribution, etc.
“Creative” once described people with drafting boards who reeked of ink. Now, it is an honorific worthy of a pinstripe suit-wearing MBA grad in finance.
Welcome back, Creativity. You have been missed on many floors of business for too long. Upstream. Downstream. All around. Creativity is good for business and is worthy of praise.
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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.