Creativity and Product Innovation

Posted on Categories Edison Awards News, Thought Leadership

On a business trip to the US, Honda’s CEO found fumbling for change at tollgates a problem, even an irritation when the cars behind impatiently started honking their horns.  Coin trays in cars today are taken for granted, but Honda was the first, due to their CEO’s smart observation of an important, but undetected, problem “tollgate hell.”

Think about the hundreds of General Motors and Ford executives who went through tollgates for years without an ounce of inspiration. The “mundane world”   we live in offers triggers for creativity every day as we go about our daily activities, however, will these triggers be recognized or simply pass us by like a ship in the dark of night?

Most of us aren’t very creative. It can’t be plucked like low hanging fruit from a tree nor does it come automatically with an MBA from a prestigious business school. A two-year-old child is more creative than their parents because the barriers to creativity have yet to strangle the child’s “creative juices.”

Creative Barriers

William J. Altier identified six major barriers that diminish our creative fusion over time:

  • Experience
  • Assumptions
  • Judgments
  • Thinking Patterns
  • Right Answer Syndrome
  • Fear of Failure

Now let’s look at each barrier in greater depth.

Experience: The first and foremost barrier is our personal experiences. The advertising legend David Ogilvy bluntly remarked, “The majority of business people are incapable of original thought because they are unable to escape the tyranny of reason.”

As a diving coach, I have seen two-year-olds jump off a 15-foot high diving board while their teenage counterparts recoil in terror at the prospect of doing this. Some even cried and retreated to the sidelines. The difference is the two-year-olds had no experience. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. Bring it on!

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Both Atari and Hewlett Packard listened to sales pitches from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak about manufacturing and marketing personal computers. Both of these companies expressed disinterested, sending the “the two Steve’s” packing. On the surface, the rejection seemed plausible, reinforced by earlier observations from seasoned business leaders. Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM observed. “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” The founder of Digital Equipment Corporation told those attending a World Future Society Conference there was no need to have computers in the home.

Everybody was suffering from an acute case of experience, except the “the two Steve’s.” They retreated to the garage of Job’s parents and founded a company named Apple. Experience can be a liability in the arena of creative thought. It also can be an asset but be sure to use it wisely.

Assumptions: Altier reminds us that the assumptions we make represent another barrier to creativity. Procter & Gamble lost millions attempting to market Citrus Hill orange juice, assuming that all it took was a better tasting OJ, lots of money, and their legendary marketing smarts. These blithe assumptions encountered a ferocious competitive response from Minute Maid and Tropicana. Others have marketing smarts too.

Moreover, the major differentiation for OJ brands was price, not taste. Only one thing counted in selling OJ––– two cartons for four dollars. Dealing patterns made orange juice a commodity product category. Proctor & Gamble should have known this. After almost a decade of trying, P&G pulled the plug on Citrus Hill.

The Executive Committee at Johnson& Johnson almost “vomited” when the black package for Reach, a uniquely designed angled -head toothbrush, was presented to them. The universal assumption from the EC: “Don’t you marketing guys know that black is not an oral hygiene color.” “But it should be” protested the Reach marketing team; their passion for black fueled by the point-of-purchase reality that all the packaging for competitive toothbrushes were white (at that point in time).

The assumption about black was fatally flawed. Nevertheless, additional consumer research was conducted, to the tune of about a $100,000, to assuage the out-of-touch black paranoia in the executive suite. Consumers consistently voted “yes” for the eye-catching black package, a perfectly predictable result with or without research, and the EC’s reluctance wilted, faced with indisputable facts that black was an acceptable oral hygiene color.

There are sometimes days Executive Committees should stay home, or better yet get out of the way, and let the peons do their jobs.

Judgments: Judgments made are a third barrier. Killer phrases–– little zingers like “We’ve tried that before” or “They’ll never replace horses (said about automobiles) ­­­­­­ are easy to use and occur regularly in conference rooms, both intentionally and unintentionally, stifling creativity and innovation.

Post-it-Notes might not be around today if the product’s internal champion at 3M Spencer Silver had not resisted the initial judgments of his peers: “It’s a lousy adhesive that doesn’t stick very well to anything.” Silver was destined to spend almost five years wandering the 3M corridors pitching his non-sticking adhesive to his colleagues. Surely it must be good for something. Silver was a lousy salesman, but his cheerful, optimistic personality made him a tolerable chap so a few colleagues listened to him, even five or six times extolling the virtues of his creation.

The adhesive was a solution looking for a problem to solve. The “eureka moment” surfaced when Art Fry, another 3M employee, applied the adhesive to strips of paper serving as page markers for hymns to be sung at church. It was the birth of Post-it Notes, the most successful new product in 3M’s history.

Art Fry poses with his creation.
Art Fry poses with his creation.

In the wake of its success, Art Fry became the corporate poster boy for Post-it-Notes on the PR circuit. The less heralded, but persistent, Spencer Silver drifted back to his basement office tinkering with his test tubes and beakers, a bit bruised and battered from playing the innovation game, but proving once again that every idea has a modicum of merit if given a bit of fresh air. Don’t turn off the oxygen too soon.

Thinking Patterns: Our thinking patterns like experience can be both an asset and a liability. We can’t survive without thinking patterns, but they can seriously erode creativity. Altier noted that “the key lies in knowing when to depend on them and when to lock then in a closet. The Noble Prize winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi observed, “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everybody else and thinking something different.” In the vernacular of the business world, this is often called “thinking out of the box.”

Most people think reproductively, worshiping at the “altar of past success.” They attack problems in ways that worked in the past. Movie sequels are an example of this kind of thinking. Let’s do another Batman movie! Let’s bring back Superman! And the beat goes on ending with the ultimate in sequel stupidly; Superman versus Batman, an easily predictable box office failure. This kind of Hollywood mush is common fare these days from an industry perceived to be a temple of creativity?

Altier’s “lock box” analogy challenges our decision-making instincts as we labor in the vineyards of product innovation. There is no textbook formula or equation to provide us with a precise guidance, except our instincts­­­­––– time to pull the trigger. We either make a deposit or withdrawal.

In contrast to those whose thinking patterns are driven reproductively, creative people tend to be productive thinkers. Advertising agency copywriters will crank out 500 headlines for a print ad, even if they are deliriously happy with the first few. Creative people keep looking even after they have found the solution to the problem.

Ask a room full of high school students to write down the answer to the following question: “What is one-half of thirteen?” The answer from vast majority of the students will be 61/2or 6.5. An outlier might answer “thir” achieved by drawing a line through the middle of the word thirteen. Another outlier might answer “1” by drawing a line through the number 13. The 6.5 students are thinking reproductively while the outliers, rethinking how to visualize the problem, are more creative with their answers.

Creative people think differently. Always strive to have a few outliers on the innovation team. A good example would be Nike’s founder Phil Knight, assembling a formidable crew of eccentric but brilliant misfits working together to build something unique and paradigm-changing. A famous Harvard business professor studying Nike over the years told Knight how lucky he was to have so many senior managers that were outliers who didn’t fit the mold of more typical corporations. All of these “misfits” are millionaires today.

The Right Answer Syndrome: Altier’s fifth barrier to creativity––– the right answer syndrome; this barrier is locked into our brains shortly after we enter our school systems directly impacted by the left-brained, get-the-right-answer composition of the educational system. They turn out students who can memorize and “parrot back” the right answer but are inferior at turning out people who can think and create.

The right answer once was “the world was flat.” For five years at 3M, The right answer was “Spencer Silver’s adhesive is useless.” The right answer was “toothbrush packaging should be white.” The right answer at P&G was “Citrus Hill is a better tasting orange juice” but only in the minds of those who developed it. Consumers could not detect any differences in tasting Minute Maid, Tropicana, and Citrus Hill. But they sure did notice the price differences between the brands. When packaging engineers first saw the initial prototypes for Post-it-Notes, the right answer was “it is impossible to make a product like this.”

The inability to explore the possibilities to find the next right answer limits the creative process. We find ourselves marooned unable to move beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. As expressed by Emile Chartier, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”

The Fear of Failure:  The final obstacle to creativity is our fear of failure. IBM’s Thomas Watson believed failure was a rich instructional tool, offering the following sage advice to colleges and employees––– if you want success double your failure rate. When a friend chided Thomas Edison about his hundreds of attempts to develop an electric storage battery, Edison remarked, “I’m not a bit disappointed. I found a thousand ways that don’t work.”

Spencer Silver came from the school of creativity embraced by Watson and Edison. He was not afraid to jump off the diving board. In his lonely vigil through the corridors of 3M, the judgments of coworkers and fear of failure only enhanced his resolve. Silver refused to shut up because failure was not an option.

There are no easy journeys to the Emerald City as one travels down the yellow brick road of innovation, littered with Altier’s pot holes. One does have choices. You can be a Spencer Silver plodding along not knowing the final destination, much like a ship without a rudder sailing through an ocean of Altier’s immutable barriers that decimate creative thinking.

Or you can be an Art Fry with a creative penchant for seeing opportunity that others do not see. A Vice Chairman at Johnson & Johnson one described this ability as making “invisible stripes visible.”

As pointed out earlier, 3M’s packaging engineers did not believed that Post-it-Notes could be manufactured on a mass basis. Fry jumped back into the fray after hearing this.  Although it was not in his job description, Fry  retreated to his basement conceptualized and patched together a manufacturing process, broke through his basement wall to get the “stuff” to 3M, had  the equipment up and running in  the morning  when the process engineers came to work. Fry’s thinking patterns made the impossible possible.

We have choices. Which do we want to be–––– Spencer Silver or Art Fry?

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