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Creativity: It's Not Just for Marketing

Credit: Deloitte Digital

You've heard it before, and you've seen it across industries: Running a steady and reliable status quo business just doesn't cut it anymore, at least not for the long run. Perpetual innovation is the new normal, and leaders who are brave enough to foster a culture that unlocks creativity and breeds innovation are increasingly coming out ahead of their competition.

After all, a creative mindset and culture are crucial in order to take advantage of rapidly evolving technologies and to keep up with the ever-increasing expectations of our customers. As leaders, keeping our organizations from falling into the comfort of habit really does take courage—sacrificing a certain level of efficiency to explore and potentially fail isn't easy when you're under pressure to demonstrate profitable growth. But even though investing in creativity can feel risky at times, when managed well, we know it can reap extensive benefits—leading to a more innovative culture, new and profitable business opportunities, and fresh products and experiences that your customers crave.

In just a few days, Cannes Lions kicks off and the marketing world will convene in the south of France for its annual festival of creativity. While this industry has long valued the role creativity plays in achieving success, it's interesting to note the evidence that shows the high-quality work is directly related to companies that have fostered creativity throughout the organization and turned it into business results. In short, creativity doesn't start (or end) with marketing.

James Hurman's "The Case for Creativity" makes a compelling case for this thinking. In his book, he reviews a long list of recent Cannes Lions award winners and demonstrates a strong pattern that connects them with standout business results during the same time period. Check out a few examples: The Cannes Lions Advertiser of the Year in 2000 was Sony. In 1999, Sony's share price increased 242 percent, 10 times the S&P 500 average. In 2002, Swatch was named Advertiser of the Year. In the three years prior, while the S&P remained flat, Swatch doubled its share value—one of the steepest periods of stock market growth on record. In 2008, Procter & Gamble won after a year during which its share price reached an all-time high amid a period of declining consumer spending.

Every other winning advertiser listed between 2000 and 2015 had a similar story to tell—the best advertising is linked with an organizational focus on creativity and innovation that led to great business results. In other words, leaders of these companies created a culture of innovation that ad creative was symptomatic of, which extended into the culture, the products and the day-to-day operations of the companies. And then customers and investors responded.

As creativity is increasingly recognized as a business imperative, as well as something leadership must set the stage for and foster broadly, the question becomes, how can you unlock this culture of creative innovation in your organization while maintaining efficiency and employee drive to meet the expectations of shareholders and other business stakeholders in the shorter term?

1. Smart constraints enable creativity. Describe the problem you are trying to solve, and then get out of the way when it comes to the process and strategy of achieving that. It's important to give people space to ingest information and play with new ideas without the pressure of coming to a solution rapidly. Focus and constraints can spur creative traction when used in a smart way.

2. Have the courage to engage in "combinatory play" across your entire business. Einstein described creativity as an act of combinatory play—the process of combining novel concepts in unexpected ways. For example, let's say a parts manufacturer starts to add sensors to its equipment. If they're thinking creatively, they might combine their parts manufacturing with the opportunity to offer insights from the sensors' data streams. Suddenly, this parts manufacturer may have a completely new revenue stream, possibly from a new customer set. Have the courage to release a "version one" as you creatively experiment with these new and novel combinations. Be agile, move forward with curiosity, test and learn through failures.

3. Flip everything. Kill the "business as usual" mindset—rethink your business model, customer model, operational model iteratively. Disruptors turn entire industries upside down by creatively rethinking the fundamental assumptions that have governed an industry, often for decades.

4. Cultivate intellectual diversity. Creativity is partly about developing original insights, and diverse teams have a noted advantage. The true measure of diversity comes from having a breadth of perspectives. In addition, intellectually diverse teams need to be able to effectively collaborate, feel comfortable and valued for sharing unique perspectives, and stay open to being questioned. The teams that master this balance have shown the strongest ability to land on high-quality creative solutions.

Creativity is an asset for any company, and the more broadly it is encouraged, the more impactful the benefits are likely to be. Leaders who are able to find a balance between freedom needed for novel ideas to germinate and needing to demonstrate growth and results have the strongest potential to outpace their competition. And as we head into the celebrations next week, we should all be in awe of the brands that are recognized—it is truly a testament to the entire culture and its ability to enable forward-thinking professionals to realize enormous ambitions.

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