Thursday 23 January 2020, Bristol

2020 got off to a rip-roaring start at PM Forum South West as we were treated to a talk by Dr David J Hall, an expert in creative thinking. David is the managing director of The Ideas Centre.

So what makes David an expert in creativity? Well, he began the presentation by telling us. And it was quite some story. A career which encompassed manufacturing within the oil and gas sector, animal doping testing and electronics, pivoted on the decision to enrol on a creativity course. Incidentally, a course which most people dropped out of because it was so strange.

Describing what he learned as “bonkers stuff”, he started coming up with fantastic ideas. And better still, when he implemented them, they all worked. Budgets, which perennially overran by 25% started being undercut by 15%. The animal doping testing organisation he took over had run deficits every month for 38 years. He was charged with turning this around in six months and achieved it easily. So much so that they eventually took the organisation private as it began generating so much profit. And so on.

Why do organisations have a problem with creativity?

With his audience suitably captivated, David gave his analysis of why there is a problem with creativity: fundamental issues, such as embedded evolutionary traits that make us wary of change, that we look backwards as a species, that the experts in our companies built the world “that is”. But to be creative, we need to embrace “what might be”.

It’s tough to do. But once you are aware that these barriers to creativity exist, you can apply techniques to break free from them. Similarly to Moore’s Law, the rate of change in the world, and the opportunities on the horizon are ever expanding. But if you can scan the environment for opportunity and simply go for it, you are in a great position. Why? Because most people/organisations find it so hard.

There’s a catch though. The techniques you must use to break free feel weird! 

Defining creativity and innovation

In David’s experience, just about all companies claim to be innovative. But none can provide a standard definition of what innovation is. David has one. And he has one for creativity too.

Creativity = The generation of novel and useful ideas. Got to be both.

Innovation = Making money out of, or adding value with, creativity. 

A fail-safe technique for generation creative ideas

And now we come to David’s trade secret for being creative. Taking his definitions as a starting point, David stated that you can’t develop a useful idea which is also creative. You have to flip it round.

First, you must start with a novel idea... that is also useless. 

Second, identify the characteristics of the idea. 

And third, find a useful/working way of recreating the characteristics. 

And what’s the best way of doing this? Bring in the kids. 

In David’s words: Kids are great at novel thinking, rubbish at useful thinking. Adults are rubbish at novel thinking, great at useful thinking. 

So strike up a relationship with a local primary school. Bring your problem to a class of seven-year-olds (not older or younger). Explain it to them and have them draw solutions to it in pairs. Take the drawings away and analyse them. Congratulations you have an in-tray full of novel, but useless ideas. But your adults can now turn these germs of their characteristics into working solutions.

Schools love this kind of arrangement. And it is great for your CSR. David stakes his reputation: If properly facilitated, it can’t fail. He shared a humorous yet serious example of how “Bob the communication fish” transformed into communication ambassadors at a major tech industrial company to hugely improve workplace relations. 

Patterning systems

After that revelation, there were one or two more before the talk came to an end. David used several engaging examples to demonstrate how the human mind looks backwards through its experience for pattern matching to cope with new challenges. 

First with reference to a scene in the Jim Carrey film Bruce Almighty. And then with some examples of visual challenges with hidden pictures of Jesus and a cowboy on a horse for our brains to decipher. 

He went on to make the point that it is getting increasingly difficult to pattern match as our world becomes ever more complex. 

David ended the talk by hinting at the large repertoire of techniques he utilises for stimulating creativity, and then dipping into the detail on one: Superheroes. 

In this, a group of four to six people (including the problem owner) are attributed individual superpowers by a facilitator. They must then each solve the problem at least once, using at least one superpower. It’s important to go into detail in each solution. 

One idea is then explored to work out its essence and how it can be translated into a workable solution. If a dead end is hit, move on to the next idea. Look to present two ways forward to the problem owner. 

David’s closing tips for this exercise were to never have more than six participants; to ensure the buy-in of senior leaders; and to ensure everyone taking part “wanted to play”. 

Come along to our latest talk

This was a sterling example of one of our regular expert marketing talks. We hold about eight a year in Bristol. If you want to mix with other professional services marketing professionals and learn from a roster of expert speakers, get in touch to find out how you can attend our next event.

Written by Huw Bendon, Managing Director and Founder
On Point Copywriting