Julian's blog: Breakfast for the brain

January 13th, 2011
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I hugely enjoyed taking part in a Wf360 Inner Circle™ breakfast hosted by TBWA in London this week. The cast was stellar, with luminaries from banks, logistics, airline, technology and entrepreneurship. The topic was innovation, and a very thought-provoking two hours it proved – particularly coming on top of my session a few days earlier with Professor Semir Zeki on BBC World Service’s The Forum. Semir is a top neuro-aestheticist whose view is that creativity springs from dissatisfaction, and this same view was proposed about innovation at the breakfast. But does it – and are creativity and innovation the same thing?

Taking the second question first, I suggested at the breakfast that innovation is channelled creativity. My friend Andy Hobsbawm put it very succinctly: creativity is necessary for innovation, but not sufficient – in other words, you can’t be innovative without being creative, but you can be creative without being innovative (the advertising and fashion industries were suggested as examples of this state). 

 

I also think there are two kinds of corporate innovation: doing what you do in new and better ways (like mobile boarding passes) and doing something completely new (remember Virgin Cola? and will Facebook really become a credible bank?). The second is obviously more dangerous, and you could argue that it was banks dabbling with this form, rather than staying in the safer waters of the first kind of innovation, that brought our economic system to the verge of collapse. 

 

The core issue is knowing what you are really doing, which is where innovation can be structured: it’s vital to ask the question “what value do we really add?” from many different perspectives, and continuously. That’s how you discover that you’re a top global logistics expert not a courier (UPS), a superb ecommerce service not a bookstore (Amazon), or a service provider not a box shifter (IBM). Many companies have gone to the wall by getting attached to one perspective on what they do, and not seeing their own full value.

 

And what of the question of dissatisfaction: is creativity just scratching an itch? Does the artist have to be tortured? I think there is more than one dimension here too. Many musicians I’ve met speak of the music coming through them, of effectively being a channel for a force which is not of them; they are almost involuntary in the moment of creation. There is a strong spiritual dimension to creativity like this, and I don’t think it has anything to do with dissatisfaction. Also I strongly believe that creativity is a basic human quality (though we educate it out of our children – see Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on this); given reasonable circumstances, we’re naturally creative – and in fact if this natural state is denied the result so often is destructive behaviour.

 

So while a creative solution certainly requires a problem in order to come into being, and while there are many itches that get creatively scratched all over the world every day, there are also a vast number of creative acts that spring from some sort of muse (the spiritual path) or just from the joy of creating. Maybe the best companies have discovered the trick of nurturing the joy of innovating, and well as being good at problem-solving.

 

Wf360′s founder Susan Willet Bird has blogged about the breakfast and my work here, and Wf360′s Inner Circle™ program is described here

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