Nine Ways To Unlock Creativity In Your Organisation

Inside Housing Deck

Some organisations are obsessive about finding the silver bullet—the one-shot wonder that solves everything. In an effort to strengthen performance, we’ll often make disproportionate investments in a single initiative to invoke change.

Others are fixed on generating ideas – jumping towards uncontrolled creativity as the solution.

However most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having. 

As David Burkus has said – it’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem. And it’s not always about creativity either.

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

When you’ve nailed the right problems – that’s the time to go looking for ideas.

This on its own though – isn’t enough.

Many of our organisations , without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

The discipline of innovation, and it is a discipline, takes commitment, resources, and the right skills set to challenge these norms.

Inside Housing Deck (1)

Your innovation approach won’t last long unless senior leadership has a deep investment in it. Innovation dies from the top.

At Bromford we’ve tried to focus on problems — those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues that need to be understood and defined before they can be incorporated into organisational strategy.

Once we’ve done that we involve colleagues formed from a horizontal slice of people from around the business – and grouped around non-siloed themesThey are a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning a wider cultural transformation.

We also link up with our Data and Insight colleagues to make sure every concept is supported by sound evidence. One of the big challenges of fostering an evidence-based culture is that it requires a shift in thinking. It’s not easy for people who are used to making instinctive gut decisions to transition to a world in which the smart decisions are data-driven.

How do you unlock creativity?

  1. You find space – mentally and physically to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisations overall strategy
  2. You bring people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before
  3. You nurture bright ideas and protect them from the established practices (and the people) they threaten
  4. You open up internal and external channels and become a conduit with organisations, individuals, and ideas outside
  5. You act as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into your organisation in a safe and controlled way
  6. You use a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions
  7. You don’t talk yourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex
  8. You build a culture around evidence and inquiry
  9. You constantly strive to ask better questions

Do that and you’ll always get better answers


This is an extract from a talk I’m doing on 29th October on Unlocking Creativity

Photos from Pexels by Jonas Svidras  David McEachan 

Failure: We Need To Move From Slow And Stupid To Fast And Intelligent

twitterpeek

In the history of pointless technology, it takes a lot to beat the Twitter Peek.

Aimed at those interested in Twitter, but who didn’t own a smartphone,  it asked customers to spend $100 plus a monthly subscription.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly designed to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.  If you were using Twitter in 2009 you could count yourself as an early adopter – the tech-savvy and digitally engaged folk who probably already owned a smartphone.


Last week we learned a new word from Samuel West, Founder and Curator of the Museum of Failure – Atychiphobia. We were presenting alongside Samuel to discuss why we find it so hard to talk about failure at work.

The Museum of Failure started as a collection of nearly 100 ‘innovative’ products that launched, but in one way or another ended up going horribly wrong.

Rather than condemning the failure – the museum is actually a celebration of creativity. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

It’s easy to laugh at likes of Twitter Peek, or Colgate Lasagne, but if we are honest our own careers will be full of bad ideas and false starts.

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Nielsen research suggests that “two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However, this is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  

In the social sector, where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

Chris Bolton has suggested we need our own Museum – a Museum of Failed Products for the social sector – to share the learning from things that haven’t worked.

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Our Problem With Failing

The truth is that even though the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, in most organisations we simply think of failure in the wrong way.

Amy Edmonson has outlined the big difference between knowing that failure is a valuable learning experience and actually making it a core part of your ethos.

As she explains,  every child learns at some point that admitting failure sometimes means taking the blame. Failure then gets inextricably linked with fault – and we learn that it sometimes pays to cover up failure , or even blame it on someone else.

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

There’s a world of difference between deliberately breaking the rules, thinking on your feet in a complex situation and purposeful exploration.

The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

Again we come back to culture – and the need for organisations to become places of psychological safety where learning from failure is openly discussed.

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

Good Failure/Bad Failure

In exploration, Failure is just an alert, warning us about the way work is progressing.

You wouldn’t close down cancer research on the basis of failed trials, you take the learning and use it to continue the research and development process.

At Bromford we are closing down our Starting Well Engineer pilot, but the findings we have are invaluable and will inform the next stage of exploration.  Indeed our Neighbourhood Coaching model was the result of five years of tiny failures.

Where we need to get better is we just aren’t fast enough.  We take too long and we now need to focus on smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Quick, decisive failures:

  • Save you from throwing extra resources at a poor proposition
  • Make it easier to learn – as actions and outcomes are close together in time
  • Mean you can rule out a given course of action and move on and do something else
  • Lessen the pressure to continue with the project regardless because your investment in it is not large

In reality – failure is never one thing. It is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

We need to shift our failure from being slow and stupid to fast and intelligent.

We Need To Be Boringly Reliable and Radically Disruptive – At The Same Time

Our organisations are generally bad at innovation. That’s because they are designed that way.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any foreign antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

Purposeful thinking – especially thinking differently – isn’t always rewarded.  Middle managers blocking innovative ‘ideas’ are simply doing their jobs and protecting operational performance. You don’t mess with success.

As Steve Blank has pointed out – there’s no point trying to act like a startup when you’re no longer a startup. 

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

To truly transform organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time.

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies often need to exist in both worlds—innovation and production simultaneously – and that’s hard to do.

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At Bromford – we see the connection between these, but also the value in keeping them at arm’s length. We’ve just completed discovery sessions designed and facilitated to support radical ideas around the ‘how might we’ questions that make up our current exploration pipeline.

In many organisations, these promising ideas often fail because they can’t cross the barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

The system we designed is essentially that:

  • A space to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy.
  • Bringing people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before.
  • Nurturing bright ideas and ensuring they solve the problems that matter.
  • Acting as a conduit with organisations, individuals and ideas outside Bromford – and as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into Bromford in a safe and controlled way.
  • Using a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions, and not talk ourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex

This means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Organisations design pipelines of exploration to get narrower and narrower. They want to dismiss ideas quickly that don’t fit the norm. Working in this way means your organisation is being slowly disabled and will become less skilled at handling different, more challenging thinking.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (9)

Over the course of our Discovery Sessions, we welcomed over 45 colleagues into the Lab from very different service areas. All sessions were shared across social media and drew further contribution internally and externally.

This approach to working out loud is deliberate. The history of innovation reveals that great breakthroughs almost always emerge from the coming together of disparate insights.

Most of us have grown up at work with the belief that we shouldn’t share things.

  • Don’t share things as someone will steal your ideas.
  • What if we want to sell this?
  • That’s not been approved — it isn’t ready to share
  • Sharing things will just worry people unnecessarily
  • Don’t tell people — we don’t wash our dirty linen in public

The work you see outside Bromford – is exactly the same as you see inside Bromford.

The truth is most of our current challenges can’t be solved alone. The starting point is to build a network with people that can help us nurture ideas into reality.

Openly sharing work has an additional benefit. It mitigates the fear of change as you are working transparently. It gets colleague buy-in as you actively draw volunteers to take part in tests and further exploration.

It’s this that helps people understand the difference between innovation and business as usual.

In the exploration phase, failure isn’t just tolerated, it’s anticipated.

And if you’ve done your exploration in the right way, and effectively supported the transition into reality – things won’t fail when they matter.

Too often we see people put the emphasis on the creative phase.

You hold meetings in a brainstorming room, you sit on beanbags, you wear De Bono’s thinking hats. You have a lot of post-it notes.  

That’s not innovation.

That’s innovation theatre.

Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea (actually making it happen)
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

To achieve this we must learn to live simultaneously with the values of innovation and production, knowing when to bring them together, and when to keep them apart.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (5)


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the images

5 Reasons You Need To Question What Customers Are Telling You

Despite little evidence of impact, each year millions of pounds are spent on market research, focus groups, and ‘coproduction’.

The danger of listening to customers is you end up focusing on wants not needs. Often what a customer wants is diametrically opposed to what they need – and want is often more of a powerful motivator.

To really generate quality insight you need to avoid five traps:

Customers Don’t Tell The Truth

The truth is that people lie. They don’t mean to, but they’ll certainly present an alternate reality where an honest answer might cause them embarrassment.

It’s the reason most of us tell our doctors that we drink less and exercise more than we actually do. We are presenting an idealised version of our actual behaviour.

There’s a great bit of advice in the Well Told Story podcasts where they relate the dangers of asking direct questions.

Asking an 18-year old male “when did you last have sex?” almost always drew the response of “last night”.

But asking the question in a non-personalised way – “When would you say your friends last had sex?” resulted in an entirely different response – “within the last two weeks”. 

Asking about the behaviour of a person like you removes the tendency to present an exaggerated version of ourselves.

The Law of Triviality and The Bike Shed Effect

People give disproportionate weight to trivial issues and that takes them away from the issue at hand.

In his book the Pursuit of ProgressC. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new nuclear power plant. He observed how the committee spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself.

I witnessed the bike shed effect just the other day in Bromford Lab. A session about using artificially intelligent stock delivery systems nearly turned into a discussion about who was going to wash the vans.

We can’t help it.

We like to focus on the trivial.

Being Out Of Context

As Stephen Russell said asking customers in false settings is a poor proxy for actual behaviour or preferences.

Focus groups and panels are often wasted time as they take everything out of context

As soon as a customer is in your office – they are in your office  – and that’s not their natural environment.

That was what led to the failure of New Coke. ‘Tell me what you think of this drink in a blind test in a lab setting’ is out of context compared to the experience of drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day.

30 years later and organisations are still making the same mistake.

Confirmation Bias

People search for information that confirms their view of the world and ignore what doesn’t fit.

Someone seeking to dismiss an idea they don’t like will seek out some anecdotal evidence of when something similar failed or went wrong.

That’s why social media is such an effective tool for group-think.

Liberal or Conservative we all get what we want: our viewpoints confirmed.

Distinction Bias

When making a choice, our brains are in comparison mode, which is completely different to experience mode.

And all the evidence shows we are terrible at making choices as we have a tendency to over-value the effect of small differences when comparing options.

We’ll almost always choose the house with the extra bedroom, buy the bigger TV or go for the higher salary. Your brain is (often incorrectly) telling you that more is better.

So if you’re getting customers to compare things side by side instead of living them out – you’ll get a false return.

As Philippa Jones has written, to fully understand what customers need, and how that will impact and shape operational improvements, we need to take a far more bottom-up, holistic and all-encompassing approach.

In other words, we get to the truth by understanding stories, by listening carefully, observing behaviours and not by ticking boxes.

Organisations don’t always value customer insight because they value predictability, they love perfection, and they don’t like not having all the answers.

If you really listen to customers and really observe how they behave – they’ll surprise you and make you question everything you do.

And most of our organisations hate surprises.

Ending The Myth Of Collaboration

The best organisational cultures are tolerant of the loner, the thinker. – John Wade

“If I was you,” said a colleague recently “now would be a very good time to involve customers, to get more people involved”.

No, I thought, right now that would be the worst thing we could do.

Collaboration can kill creativity.

Most people in your office have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – all the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘brainstorming’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces any results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

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Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at keeping people apart.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

As Simon Penny and Michelle Butler write knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

At Bromford Lab, we’ve learned:

Collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.

More is not always merrier.


Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

We Need To Promote Outcomes At Work Not Presenteeism

“Presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity. Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous than absenteeism” – Professor Cary Cooper

A full car park and people appearing busy at their desks is zero evidence that any meaningful work is taking place.

UK productivity, our output divided by the hours spent producing it, is a problem.

Almost every company will measure sickness absence: being away from work and doing nothing. Very few measure the hidden costs of presenteeism – being at work , but still doing nothing. 

We need to start setting principles that promote outcomes rather than reinforcing cultures of presenteeism.

With that in mind Bromford Lab have been setting some new principles for how we work. It’s very much a first attempt as we envisage we’ll change it as we go. It drew quite a lot of attention on Twitter so I thought I’d outline the thinking behind the initial principles.

Focus on outcomes not hours 

It’s time to abolish the 9-5. In a digital age and with increasing congestion on the roads, why do we insist on our employees all rocking up, and leaving, at the same time?

We want people to focus on the quality of their hours not the quantity. Accordingly we’ll set our own schedules and work patterns that boost our mental and physical being – whilst being focussed on the outcomes we need to deliver for our customer.

Design your own unique day

 ”Most offices are the average of what works for everyone,” says Mike Del Ponte, the founder of the water filter company Soma. “But they are perfect for no one.” Mike established an approach to encourage people to work from anywhere –  giving employees an opportunity to find inspiration in new places.

Accordingly we are encouraging the team to be intentional about where they work and to seek out places they’ve not been to, are unusual, or provoke thought. We’ll be getting the team to blog about this and the effects on productivity – good or bad – at least twice a month.

Work out loud 

We can underestimate the challenges to working out loud. The gravitational pull internally is to communicate internally. We are defaulting to make everything publicly accessible , including our job profiles, our weekly meetings and our resources and toolkits.

Kill meetings 

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What if every meeting had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We expect to put some more guidance around our approach to meetings such as:

  • We’ll only have one team meeting each week and it’ll never be more than an hour.
  • Never schedule a physical meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished by video or phone.
  • We won’t schedule meetings before 10 or after 4. Sleep in when needed, go to the gym or do something with your family and friends.
  • Leave space between sessions for reflection and after-work.

Use open tools 

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems Digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

Accordingly we’ll default to openly accessible Google tools and will not hide information or thinking away on intranets.

If we are truly committed to social outcomes we need to stop hiding our organisational intelligence. We have a moral duty to ensure our work contributes towards change.

Get work out there 

Slow decisions and no decisions are harming our productivity. So our final principle is about being happy with less than perfect. We are committed to high quality work but we want to avoid obsessing over detail or waiting for approvals.

That means you might spot typo’s in our content, links that don’t work or poor formatting. As a team we’ll watch for each others mistakes and correct it as we go.

The priority is on getting work shipped and moving forward.


This is Version 1 of our work principles and we’ll amend our publicly accessible document based on what works and what doesn’t. A number of people have said they’ll try some of these out themselves – let us know how you get on!