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How to generate breakthrough ideas for good

alexinch Creativity Leave a Comment

To tackle the biggest challenges humanity faces – climate change, financial turmoil, conflict, food security, health epidemics, immigration… and increase customer value will require us to create more breakthrough ideas than ever. Tackling these issues can’t be left to governments. If there is no market in 30 years time, there is no business.

The most innovative companies outperform the S&P by 40%James Hurman

Creativity drives innovation. And innovation drives markets.

Thus, today, creative, socially inspired business is not just good business. It is the only business.

Culture kills creativity

However, for most of us, the level of creativity required to do this is beyond our current capability. The education, skills and culture just isn’t there to create the innovative business models needed.

The answer to the question Sir Ken Robinson asked, 10 years ago, in the world’s most watched TED Talk, ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ is yes! They do. So do most businesses.

We are trying to tackle today’s problems with Industrial Age solutions. That’s like trying to build a car with Stone Age tools.

A few years ago, I worked for Unilever. A few years after that, I worked with P&G. These two companies have been the bastions of consumer innovation for the last 250 years. Not anymore, it seemed.

The innovation pipeline in FMCG companies appeared to have dried up until Paul Polman took over Unilever. All I saw on the shop shelves were lots of low value, low investment innovations – change-the-colour, change-the-flavour types of innovation… you know, the sort of innovation which leads to 3-5% change at most, when what humanity needs now, is 50-100% change.

If we achieve our sustainability targets and no one else follows, we will have failed.Paul Polman

Brainstorming workshops with innovation agencies and in-house innovation tools (funnels, matrices etc.) aren’t the solution.

We don’t need more stuff. Incremental innovation isn’t the answer. That’s the problem! We need more breakthrough ideas that solve humanity’s problems for good.

And most of the NGOs and agencies linked to the UN, who are designed to do this suffer from exactly the same issues.

Where do breakthrough ideas come from in the first place? How do you tap into genius? How did Albert Einstein develop the Special Theory of Relativity or Sergey Brin come up with the algorithm behind Google, or Steve Jobs design the Apple II?

Part of the problem is that our education system hasn’t fostered a generation of visionaries, innovators, changemakers, creatives with the necessary skills to take on these big challenges.

Part of the problem is business culture. The predominant culture kills creativity.

So the innovation is left to others.

Consider Alibaba, the world’s biggest eCommerce company. It has over 300 million customers, and just launched an online bank, called MyBank. A Chinese company launches a bank with an English name. What do you think its vision is?

And where does that leave the big banks? How should HSBC, UBS or Santander respond? And it’s not just banks or FMCG companies. Every organization in every industry that was created more than 15 years ago faces the same problem.

How can they create a culture that seizes high-potential opportunities and creates sustainable customer value? How can they generate breakthrough ideas like Alibaba, Grameen Bank or Tesla?

Change is Overwhelming
The enormous increase in information in the last few years is exposing the culture in traditional companies.

The window of opportunity for these organizations to transition to a more valuable, sustainable business model is closing. 90% of the world’s information has been produced in the last 2 years. And that will increase 10 times in the next 5.

Organizations that are still structured hierarchically in a top-down pyramid are so overwhelmed by the amount of information, that they end up being overtaken by competitors with more innovative business models or taken over, as is the case with many banks.

Rather than focus on creating customer value, they end up managing risk: adding more rules rather than adding more value.

At the top of these organizations, Executives may review the strategy or impose new processes but they are pulling the wrong levers.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”Albert Einstein

Employees at the bottom of the organization, who are more likely to have the answers feel, in far too many cases, more disconnected from the strategy and vision than ever. Some may pressure themselves to work harder. Others resort to delivering what they know, rather than what their organization (and humanity) needs.

The silo-based processes, which were designed to increase productivity in the Industrial Age, trap creative potential in the Creative Age.

And as change accelerates, so does the distance between those at the top and the bottom. The best get frustrated, or take unnecessary risks, which aren’t aligned with the strategy and leave.

And so the vicious cycle continues.

More Value, Less Coaches
The smartest leave with great dreams, to become a coach, or set up a consultancy, or to travel the world until their breakthrough idea comes to them. They leave because they are frustrated and imagine there is something better.

There is, but most of us don’t have the skills to convert our frustration with the system into a great idea that generates sustainable customer value. We don’t know how to do it, because, we never had to do it on our own before. We were just one cog in a very big wheel.

And yet, humanity needs our brilliance. It needs our genius.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do.”Marianne Williamson

So we sign up for this course and for that course, but too often we don’t learn the skill we really need: that we have all the answers already.

And then we face the harsh reality of generating revenue. We have to do everything from strategy to sales, HR to finance… we sacrifice hours with our family to make our idea work.

We end up making ends meet by focusing on what we know, rather than what we imagined doing. We do projects we said we wouldn’t work on. Or we sell our services back to an organization full-time. And yet, we know we can do so much more.

We are the Fernando Alonso of the business world: genius, but without the necessary machinery to convert our obvious talent into results.

So the world is now awash with super-smart coaches and consultants, all fighting over an ever smaller pool of clients who have ever smaller budgets.

Where are the people creating value, rather than advising others how to create value?

Yes, I know, there are more TED Talks than ever. And there are more events or platforms for the enlightened to share their brilliance with the world.

And there are also some really, really great innovations, like Tesla and microfinancing and the Huffington Post. But not enough. The UN recalibrated its Millennium Goals because we missed them. We missed the goals to tackle the world’s biggest problems. That’s not good enough. Is it?

Our kids deserve better. So what’s the solution?

Culture alone isn’t enough
We need more walking and less talking.

We need more truly creative ideas, that generate sustainable customer value and change your world.

We need better ideas, more courage and different skills.

“Creativity takes courage.”Henri Matisse

And this is what I have been working on my entire life.

When I was 16 two things happened in quick succession: I painted the best painting I had ever painted and I was told I would never be a successful artist.

I remember where I was in my art department at school, with the sun streaming throught the window. And suddenly pink appeared on the canvas, then turquoise. The painting started resonating on another level. Someone told me I could sell the piece for £200.

£200? I was over the moon.

Then my dad told me, he’d talked to my art teacher and I would never make enough money to be a professional artist.

So I took his advice and went to business school. And in that moment, my creativity died. (It wasn’t my dad’s fault or my art teacher’s, just to be clear. All they were doing was picking up on my own lack of self-belief… the skill I lacked.)

The next 7 years were tough. I had eating and drinking problems. I ended up in hospital twice. It was messy. I lost my first job, in part for not being creative enough.

And then I started to turn it round.

I rediscovered the artist inside me. I started painting again. And with each painting a new insight came to me.

I taught myself how to be creative everywhere.

And I discovered, the solution to our challenges isn’t out there. It’s inside us.

Culture alone isn’t enough.

Consider Jobs’ iPad, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Tesla’s AC, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Mozart’s Figaro or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Each tapped into something deep inside them.

Albert Einstein was working as a technical expert third class at the Patents Office in Bern when he came up with the Special Theory of Relativity. Not exactly the best culture to enable creativity.

The same goes for Van Gogh. He was living in the Yellow House in Arles on a busy square next to the railway station when he created his Sunflower series.

It’s why I paint in extreme locations all over the world: it doesn’t matter how often the weather changes – I’ve painted Mont Blanc at -10°C, on a beach in The Carribean in a tropical storm and Lavender fields in 70km/h winds – it’s still possible to create a piece of art.

I’ve yet to find a place where it isn’t possible to be creative.

So if culture is only one part of the equation, what’s the other?

Intuition is the doorway to creativity
The doorway to creativity is our intuition. And that comes from our stomach, not our head.

We are using the wrong tool.

“I rely far more on gut instinct.”Richard Branson

For businesses created more than 15 years ago, the solution is to turn the traditional pyramid upside down.

An organization is a fractal of a person: the head does the thinking; the body does the work.

That’s fine if things stay the same, but what happens when things change?

Change requires creativity. And creativity comes when we get out of our head.

Thus, the question for businesses is how to create a culture and foster the skills to unlock the full creative potential of the body of the organization, every single day?

“Intuition is more powerful than intellect.”Steve Jobs
And for each of us, as individuals, it’s time to stop.

It’s harder to hear your intuition when you’re constantly rushing or haven’t had enough sleep. My best ideas come to me just before I go to sleep or just after I wake up. So take your time coming back into your world.

It’s easier to hear your intuition, your sixth sense, when go out of your mind and turn off your first five senses.

And sleep is critical to that.

So slow down.

Stop overwhelming yourself. And tap into your intuition, just for a moment. And in that moment, ask yourself: what is your breakthrough idea? What is your unique gift? How do you tap into your genius? Not just some days. Every single day.

That’s what humanity needs now. Before it’s too late.

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