‘It’s best not to walk in the footsteps of others’ – creativity tips from Dave Birss, author, ‘How to Get to Great Ideas’

‘It’s best not to walk in the footsteps of others’ – creativity tips from Dave Birss, author, ‘How to Get to Great Ideas’

Wednesday December 26, 2018,

14 min Read

The study and practice of creativity are key for success in the world of rapid change and digital transformation, as bestselling author Dave Birss explains.

Dave Birss

Dave Birss is the author of How to Get to Great Ideas: A System for Smart, Extraordinary Thinking (see my book review here). He spent 20 years as an advertising creative at agencies such as Poke, OgilvyOne and McCann Worldgroup. He was also Editor at Large for The Drum Magazine, author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind, and founder-editor of OpenForIdeas.org.

Dave’s book outlines frameworks for individual and organisational ideation, such as the five levels of creative thinking (discover, reproduce, refine, repurpose, combine), the thinking process called RIGHT (research, insight, generate, hone, test), the creative skill pyramid (imagination, judgment, adaptability, communications, persuasion, tenacity), and the brain’s four modes (feed, occupy, apply, rest).

Dave Birss joins us for a chat on his current research in creativity, the role of academia, creativity in government, limits of customer insights, the future of AI, and the key role of creativity in the entrepreneurial journey.

Edited excerpts:

YourStory: What are the typical creativity challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from startup to large enterprise? How can these challenges be addressed?

Dave Birss: Companies go through different life stages as they grow and these developments tend to increasingly stifle the organisation’s openness to ideas.

When the company is starting up, ideas are important. The team are inventing who they are, what they offer, how they make money and a myriad of other things. When they discover something that works, they systematise it. At this stage, the creative energy goes into developing a system that replicates the magic as consistently as possible and allows them to scale.

The final stage is focusing on efficiency, adjusting the system to make it work better, cheaper and faster. At this point, they have such a resistance to anything new that could potentially disrupt the system, that ideas are immediately attacked by the corporate antibodies. That’s probably why only 6 percent of CEOs are satisfied with their company’s innovation efforts.

The way you avoid this issue is to make sure you build an openness to ideas into your system right from the start. That means giving people time to come up with new ideas and setting an expectation that they will do just that. It means always being experimental and trying out new things in the business. And it all has to come from the very top of the company or it will never happen; you will naturally slip into a repetitive rut that it is very hard to escape from.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

DB: I put it down to strong strategic vision and openness to how you’ll achieve that. A good strategic vision looks at what you’re trying to achieve rather than how you’re trying to achieve it.

Think of the clichéd Kodak story. Their advertising strategy was bang on, saying that they were about capturing important memories. They called them ‘Kodak Moments’. But their business strategy was focused on being a chemical company for photographic processes. And that's what led to their downfall. It’s a tired example but it’s amazing how many companies are repeating the same mistake.

If you understand what you’re trying to achieve, you should then invest in exploring how you can do that better. If you only value your processes and IP, you’re putting your business in a very dangerous position.

YD: What is your current field of research in creativity? 

DB: I’m really interested in what makes some organisations better at getting ideas out of their employees and implementing them successfully. I’ve been collecting anecdotal information around that for a while now. I’ve recently teamed up with KROK Business School in Ukraine to do some more formal research. We are currently investigating the areas of inspiration and flow in business leaders.

I’d love it if some of your readers could participate in that study. You can find a short questionnaire here. And I’ll be sure to send you the results of that study early in the New Year. We’ve got some more studies in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

DB: It’s too early to have got much feedback on the book. I’m looking forward to finding out more about what people think. The one unexpected piece of feedback I’ve been getting, however, is that people love the frameworks. I didn’t write it with that in mind. But I’m delighted that people are consistently giving me that as feedback!

YS: How big a role do academics play in creativity? Can creativity really be formally taught?

DB: I think creative education is as much about how you teach as what you teach. The foundation of creative thinking is curiosity. And we are not currently very good at developing that in people. It starts at school when kids are taught what to learn rather than how to learn. And it carries on into the workplace where employees are told how to deliver rather than what to deliver. The focus is on getting the workings right more than getting the answer right.

But the best way to get to non-obvious ideas is with non-obvious thinking. You need to forge a new path if you want to end up in a different place. So I believe our education systems should be teaching kids how to be curious and explore new approaches.

YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of creativity you have come across?

DB: This is such a difficult question to answer. Mainly because I have a real problem with the word ‘creativity’. I define it as an idea that is non-obvious and offers us value. But the difficulty doesn’t stop there. You then have to define your level of non-obviousness: not obvious to you, not obvious to your peer group, not obvious to your field or not obvious to the world. You also have to define what you mean by value.

So if we are looking for something that goes as far up the non-obviousness scale as possible and is valuable, it’s possible to find examples in any field. And I use non-obviousness rather than ‘new’ because an old approach can be non-obvious.

I’m seeing examples of this in environmental solutions. People are looking to reintroduce water fountains to cut down on plastic waste. There’s increasing support for offering refunds for people to return bottles; something I used to enjoy as a kid. So old ways of doing things can be non-obvious and valuable too.

However, one of the most interesting creative developments I’ve seen recently isn’t from humans at all. It seems that the AlphaZero computer has developed a level of intuition in its chess algorithm. Chess computers traditionally use branching logic to calculate all the possible scenarios multiple steps ahead but their algorithm seems to be working with ‘hunches’ rather than calculations.

That’s a very human and creative approach. The researchers are describing it as a turning point in cognitive computing - and that’s one area that I’m particularly interested in. The question of whether computers can be creative is still very much up for debate but I believe that in the decades to come we’ll just accept that they can. It will be the norm. So I’m keeping an eye on the developments right now because this is the most exciting time for creative nerds like me!

YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature individuals and companies – what about creativity in governments and non-profit organisations? Any outstanding examples you can cite?

DB: Oh yes! There are lots!

One of my favourite creative approaches comes from the island of Palau. They are a small island nation that attracts thousands of tourists every year who come to enjoy their tropical paradise. But these visitors don’t look after the place quite as they should. In recent years trash and pollution have become a growing problem.

So they created a passport stamp that is actually a pledge each visitor has to take before they enter the country. Each person is required to sign the bottom of this immigration stamp saying that they will look after the island and protect the environment. I think it’s an amazing idea! They turned a humble administrative stamp into something so much bigger and forced each visitor to make a commitment by signing it. This is non-obvious thinking at its best.

YS: How do you see customers as a source of creative ideas for companies? What are some ways in which businesses can develop better processes for getting ideas from customers?

DB: The general understanding is that it’s good to listen to your customers. And on the whole, that’s true. You can do that from a distance by reading reviews, listening to what they’re saying online, analysing behavioural data, getting feedback from a sales team, and other ways.

Or you can do it more actively by spending time observing them or inviting them in to collaborate with you on the development of your product. But however you do it, you need to understand how to judge the feedback. Not all of it is valuable or valid.

If you were to show a picture of a new airplane to people on the street and ask them what they think, they’ll probably tell you something. They are the end customers. They’re the ones who’ll use it. But their feedback is uninformed and probably of limited value to the airplane manufacturer.

Also, remember that people don’t actually know what makes a great product. In the year 2000, music lovers were looking for a CD Walkman that didn’t skip when you went running. Then Apple released the iPod. So as much as I believe it’s vital to listen to customers, I also believe we need to understand how to judge and evaluate what they say.

YS: How has social media impacted the field of creativity? For example, broader inspiration but more plagiarism?

DB: You need to understand how to use any digital tool. It can be as much of a curse as a blessing.

Yes, social media - and the internet in general - connects people, gives them access to unlimited information and gives them a platform to share their thoughts and creations. But it can also lead to conformity of thought with people parroting the same thing around the echo chamber.

On another note, studies show that social media use is negatively correlated with people's sense of self-worth. In other words, the more we use social media, the worse we feel about ourselves. And if you're feeling worthless, you're not in a good state for coming up with ideas. Research shows that confidence and happiness are better for creative thinking.

But I'm not going to say we need to ban it! Like most things, it's fine in moderation.

YS: What are some ways of ‘unlearning’ old concepts and rules while entering new domains?

DB: Unlearning is something I speak about a lot. It's great that companies are focusing on learning new things to help them prepare for the future but the problem is they’re continuing to hold onto old things that are anchoring them to the past. If we really want to move forward we need to invest in unlearning as well as learning.

When I’m working with teams to do that, we usually start by tackling assumptions. We’ll pick an area and list all of the beliefs, understandings and perceptions we can. I then give them exercises to help them judge which of these is still valid and which ones could do with being reconsidered or dropped. These exercises have the side effect of revealing opportunities for the organisation. So it’s always a very positive experience.

YS: How can trust be formalised in the culture of a company, so as to sustain creativity? 

DB: I think formalisation is maybe the wrong approach. You can’t build trust using a corporate box-ticking approach. Trust happens at a human level. And it has to happen from the top if you want it to become part of the company culture.

There’s no secret to it. It’s about retaining your humanity when you walk through the doors of the office. If you want a simple guide, if you treat your colleagues in a way you’d be embarrassed to treat your family, you probably need to rethink your approach.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for creativity, or can the creative and entrepreneurial bug strike you at any time?

DB: Again, this depends on our definition of creativity. So let’s go with my definition, to remain consistent! Kids can be great at coming up with non-obvious stuff but because they have little understanding of how the world works, they’re probably less likely to come up with valuable ideas. Very quickly, however, they are conditioned to conform, which results in more obvious ideas. And this tends to only get worse throughout life as their routine becomes ever more routine.

If you want to have the ability to improve your chances of coming up with great ideas, you need to remain curious and open. Or try to become more curious and open, if you’ve already lost those traits.

One way to do that is to regularly be seeking new experiences. It can be as simple as trying a drink you’ve never had before. Or reading a newspaper you wouldn’t normally read. Or as radical as immersing yourself in a group of people whose views you fundamentally disagree with. Then listening and trying to understand their point of view, rather than simply arguing.

If you do this through your life, you’ll spend your last days on the planet with the most interesting and powerful mind you’ve ever had. And a whole heap of interesting stories. The alternative to that terrifies me!

YS: It’s one thing to fail with a product, and a bigger dimension to fail with a company. How should founders regroup in these two situations?

DB: Failure is just a negative term for unexpected results. I’m pretty scientific about things and believe that results, whether positive or negative should be analysed. So I would spend a serious amount of time doing an autopsy on why things didn’t turn out as expected and working out what you would do differently next time. If you do that successfully, it wasn’t a failure at all. It was a lesson.

YS: Who are some of the creative people you admire the most today, and why?

DB: I’m not into hero worship. A lot of the stories we get in the entrepreneurial community suffer from survivorship bias. In other words, the factors that these people cite as their reasons for success may be things that the people who don’t succeed also do. Or may even be the reason their project didn’t work out. But we don’t hear about those stories because the people didn’t make it big. The stories you hear are the myths people want you to believe. I’m more interested in digging deeper.

The people I admire most for creativity are the everyday people who refuse to fit in with expectations. The people who forge their own path because they don’t want to just walk in step with the herd. They may have success ahead of them or they may not. But they’re living a life that’s more vibrant and meaningful than most.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

DB: I’ll be releasing an updated version of my first book, A User Guide To The Creative Mind, early in 2019. And another book called Out Of My Mind which is a collection of articles that I've written over the last couple of years. I’m currently trying to work out what I’ll write after that. I’ve got a few ideas. But whatever it is, it will most likely have something to do with creativity and innovation.

However, after being involved in seven books this year, I want to focus on something different next year. And that will probably be film and online education. As well as continuing to consult for companies and travel the world speaking.

YS: What is your parting message to startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

DB: Don’t try to be a startup or an entrepreneur. Just giving yourself that title forces you to conform to certain expectations. If you truly want to liberate yourself and come up with approaches that break new ground, it’s best not to walk in the footsteps of others. But even more important than that, enjoy yourself and be nice to others!