Credible creativity

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Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 16 July 2014

I was speaking at an event the other day and was giving delegates tips on how to keep fresh in their day-to-day work. I was extoling the virtues of mixing up your routine, for instance running meetings in different ways, because the truth is that we will always be creatures of habit and breaking habits can sometimes lead to great moments of creativity.  

I then gave some examples of how some companies allow for this. I cited the classic example of the Google 20 per cent time where Google staff spend 80 per cent of their time at work on their core role, but they have an allowance of time to commit to ‘pet’ projects which are on the periphery of their core job. Sounds good in theory, after all, it’s allegedly where Gmail and Google Earth came from. However, one woman in the crowd called out “It’s bullshit!”  She had previously worked at Google and, when I pushed her to tell more, she said that it’s not a reality for everyone there. Having a few pals who work at Google, I did know this. It’s taken seriously in the engineering side of the business, but elsewhere it’s not absolute best practice. However, it did make me think. Why is creativity de-prioritised? Is creativity relevant anymore?

If you look at credible studies it’s clear that creativity is relevant and needs to be treated with more respect. IBM’s CEO study clearly shows that creativity is a key leadership attribute in the increasingly complex world of business.

In 2012, Adobe interviewed 5000 people in five of the world’s largest economies. Eight out of 10 stated that creativity was the key to unlocking economic growth. However, the study also revealed a workplace creativity gap where 75 per cent of people said they were under pressure to be productive rather than creative, despite the fact that they were expected to be increasingly creative in their work. 

Nearly half of the respondents stated lack of time as the main barrier to creativity. “Lack of time” - that’s the answer I get from every single one of my clients when I push them on why they aren’t injecting more creativity into the projects they are working on. I personally don’t think this is a valid excuse. Time is not real, it’s attitudinal. If I was to drop you on a deserted island with only a day’s worth of food and water, do you think you would re-prioritise what you needed to do? Would you create, experiment, fail fast and learn? Of course you would.

However, in most workplace scenarios we aren’t put under that kind of pressure. We can survive a day by doing what we have always done in the past. We upset less people by conforming. But if we were to just press the PAUSE button, and look around at the glaringly obvious needs and opportunities to be creative and try things in new ways, our attitude would surely shift. Weekly team meetings that drag on, in the same dull environments, can all do with an injection of fresh thinking.

The way we spend so much time internally reporting rather than dealing with the outside world needs immediate attention. The amount of projects that you are juggling all at the same time needs some creative culling and re-focusing.  Consider all of this with the backdrop of the fact that people are increasingly working longer hours and skipping lunch in order to get through their day-to-day work.

We also live in a corporate world, like it or not, where over-working, saying how goddamn busy you are, still gets rewarded.

It also that the word ‘creativity’ has a bad reputation. Ted Levitt, who used to write for the Harvard Business Review argued that “creativity as it’s commonly defined—the ability to come up with brilliantly novel ideas—can actually be destructive to businesses”. Organisations, by their very name and nature, are put together to promote order and routine and therefore often have ‘allergic reactions’ to creativity. Those who don’t understand organisational realities are doomed to see their ideas go unrealised. I think this point of view is valid but it implies that creativity is extra-curricular, a nice-to-have, rather than a core behaviour and skill to improving our work and the businesses we work for. 

So, we believe that it’s our job to make creativity credible.

Here are a few tips on how to do this: 

EVERYTHING WITH A PURPOSE. Don’t do creativity for creativity’s sake. People will hate you for it. Only apply to areas of your work that feel flabby or predictable. 

ALWAYS SET IT UP. All too often people run full steam into a moment of creativity without explicitly explaining to the group you’re working with what you’re about to attempt. 

AVOID CLICHES. People still walk round saying “let’s think outside the box” or they want to encourage “blue sky thinking”. Create your own creative vocab that sounds like you and not like a cartoon character! 

A BIT OF SCIENCE. We often use a bit of science to explain the need for some creativity. For instance, share a bit of how the brain shifts from conscious to subconscious. 

MAKE YOUR TIME PUNCHY. Most people have a perception that creativity takes too much time, and requires wearing baggy cardigans and moccasins. Show them that it can be the most productive time in their day, and that style of clothing is irrelevant!


Matt Bolton-Alarcon is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at


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