I write a regular column – Neely Ready– which appears in an (exellent) magazine, Australian Anthill.

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How creative is your business?

Entrepreneurs and scientists use the concepts of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ interchangeably. This is not surprising, as both play an integral role in the new product development process. They are not the same, however they do have a symbiotic relationship: each is largely useless without the other.

Creativity is the process of coming up with new ideas. Everyone is capable of being creative, and there is no single, definitive methodology for generating creative ideas.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a broader process of implementing a creative idea – or ‘applied creativity’. Innovation is intrinsically harder than creating ideas, and there is again no definitive methodology. However, it is the process of creativity – coming up with the spark of an idea that kick starts the new product development process – that most individuals and businesses believe they require assistance with (perhaps because creativity is seen as a behaviour, whereas innovation is seen as a process).

To be creative, a business (via its employees) must have three things: creative thinking skills (how you approach the problem), motivation (a desire to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity), and expertise (the knowledge or understanding to do so).

Motivation and expertise are a given, so let us look at creative thinking skills: how do you think creatively?

Creative thinking is about drawing connections between possibilities. In its simplest form, it is about exploring experiences from different viewpoints to arrive at alternative (and desirable) outcomes. A rough process might look like this:

  • Define concisely the issue that needs attention (what is the “pain”?).
  • Gather data. What do you know about the cause of the pain? What don’t you know? Hard data and information is essential, but do not exclude feelings, intuition, and perceptions.
  • Summarise, in less than 50 words, the heart of the problem you are trying to solve. If you cannot articulate the problem in less than 50 words, you don’t yet understand the problem.
  • Brainstorm – individually first, then as a group – ideas for resolving the stated problem. Do not make any judgements about the ideas. List them, and organise them into logical groupings. Try pairing ideas to see if they generate new or different ideas.

Before you can evaluate the ideas, you need to establish criteria for determining the optimum solution: time-to-market, price, cost, expediency, resource requirements etc.

  • Once you’ve decided upon one or more potential solutions, give them a ‘reality test’. Re-examine your data and assumptions. Devise a realistic plan for taking it to market. Approach market participants for feedback. Talk to potential customers.

Outlined in step-form, the process sounds easy but it can be a challenge. Often there is a ready short cut: mimic a successful product, service, or practise from a completely different industry with similar challenges.

An example: Cemex was in the business of delivering ready-mix concrete to construction sites in Mexico . Many variables affected its delivery schedule, including weather and traffic. Construction delays were also rife: despite stiff penalties, nearly half of customers cancelled their orders on delivery day. To solve delivery problems and to integrate sufficient flexibility into their internal processes to respond to last minute cancellations, Cemex executives toured the operations of three dramatically different organisations: Fed Ex, Domino’s and an ambulance service.

By studying the approach these organisations took to resolve or manage efficiency bottlenecks, Cemex was able to completely re-design their approach to managing delivery logistics. As a result, it dramatically reduced the number of trucks it needed to service clients, and was able to guarantee delivery within a specific time window. It soon rode these competitive advantages to become a global player.