1 Jun 2017

Embrace creativity or risk extinction

Businesses run with a creative ethos are not mavericks or outliers; they're the new normal.

Jim Prior, Global CEO

You don’t need to see “INNOVATE OR DIE” posters adorning office breakout areas to know that creativity is a prized commodity for business leaders. The sustained success of ceaselessly inventive giants such as Apple – and the failure of less agile players such as Blockbuster – serve as confirmation that a creative culture is a bottom-line essential, not a fuzzy nice-to-have.

But a 2016 study by the IoD and Land Rover, with organisational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper, found that only 3% of executives felt they had their best creative ideas at work. With digital disruption staring so many companies in the face, Jim Prior, CEO of Superunion argues that firms risk extinction if they fail to take creativity seriously.

“Businesses need creativity not just to stay ahead of the pack, but to remain in it,” says Prior, who has worked with Ford, AirAsia, the National Gallery and Converse over his 30-year career. “We live in a world where the fastest-growing, highest-value firms are all driven by big creative ideas. Creativity is the driver of growth now… But too many leaders still think it’s all about days off for employees or great advertising, rather than about a holistic view of what an organisation does and how it meets its customers’ needs. Business leaders do recognise that creativity is important, but there’s this huge disconnect between what people say they should do and what happens in practice.”

The oft-cited example of creative empowerment in business is Google’s “20 per cent” policy, whereby staff have one day a week to develop ideas – an initiative that led to Gmail and Google Maps. That’s all well and good for billion-dollar Silicon Valley unicorns, of course, but are such practices viable for a British SME? “If you’re a Somerset manufacturing firm, you arguably need more creativity than Google or Amazon, because they’ve already done it,” he argues. “It’s the firms that haven’t done it that need it most. Creativity is about making your products and services more competitive, innovating for a consumer whose needs are changing all the time.”

Prior cites Paddy Power, the Irish betting firm that, thanks to a stream of innovation, had a turnover of £740m at the time of its 2015 merger with Betfair.

“Generating ideas on a constant basis is something that’s enabled a small Irish bookmaker, fighting against the influx of British rivals in Ireland, to take over the UK high street and challenge the dominance of well-established brands,” he says. “It has become a multimillion-pound brand from humble origins because everyone in the company thinks that way.”

Red Bull, which sponsored the record-breaking free-fall parachute jump by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner in 2012, is another company that Prior admires. “There really is no reason why that organisation should be successfully judged solely by its product. But building Red Bull around the idea that the brand ‘gives you wings’, from backing events such as air racing to sending someone almost literally to space, is taking ultra-high risks. You can’t imagine any other organisation whose top executives are debating such ideas. It’s madness, right? But it’s creativity – and Red Bull does it with such conviction.”

The maverick model

For every company that Prior cites – including Virgin and Dyson (“a revolutionary engineering idea coupled with imaginative product design and distribution, run by a charismatic leader”) – there’s still a feeling that these firms are viewed as mavericks whose creative successes are the exception, not the rule. This too is part of the problem, he says.

“Everybody thinks Virgin is odd, because it’s run by Sir Richard Branson, but the reality is that this is the business benchmark of today. People have been taught to say: ‘Oh, they’re kind of different.’ Then they default back to old practices, prioritising supply-chain management or cost reduction. Organisations spend an incredible amount on IT and infrastructure, but nothing on innovation. They somehow expect new products and services to materialise out of thin air. They need to stop seeing British businesses run with a creative ethos as mavericks or outliers. They’ve got to see them as the new normal,” Prior argues.

Business should also resist the myth that creativity is a mysterious entity that cannot be taught, he says. This often means that a firm’s so-called creatives are marginalised, rather than embedded at its core. “Leaders are often fearful of creativity because it doesn’t come from the things they know or understand. They consider it to be an esoteric, unmanageable thing that’s inherently wrong – that’s what years of business school does to them.”

Prior, who notes a tendency for creative people to be “pigeonholed as odd, difficult or poor managers”, believes that creatives are also guilty of sidelining themselves. This is “a form of Stockholm syndrome, where they think they’re doing OK if nobody is shouting at them. They need to stand up and start saying: ‘We’ve got some ideas about how to transform this business.’”

Although Prior stops short of recommending the instant elevation of the most creative employees (“I’m not sure board-level discussions of creativity are that constructive”), he does say: “It’s about encouraging people to think, allowing them to express and explore ideas, rather than killing these at the first sign of unorthodoxy. The cost of bringing in a creative thought process is tiny compared with the costs that companies routinely think nothing of, such as IT or HR programmes. These things are written into the budgeting process on day one, while creativity rarely is.”

Prior argues that heavy investors in innovation will see superior returns. “If you don’t embrace creativity, the worst that can happen is your company will be obsolete. Somebody will come and do the things you could have done, but didn’t,” he warns. “Unless you’re very lucky, whatever you’re doing today isn’t what you’ll be doing in 10 years’ time. You don’t want to be the last on the creative bus, because you’d get left behind.”

Originally published in an interview by Christian Koch in Director.