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Blaire Palmer

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Success in a recession: Be inventive

innovation

Those who predicted our current economic slump were able to develop imaginative strategies to avoid the worst, whilst the rest of us were left on the back foot. Blaire Palmer explains what HR professionals can do to promote a more creative culture.

 
 
 
 
HR budgets are under pressure (they always are, of course, but today the scarcity of resources is even more apparent). Professionals in the field need to choose between the must-haves and the nice-to-haves and justify their decisions with demonstrable advantages to the business.
 
So it is not too surprising if many companies are saving ‘creativity training’ for a time when growth kicks back in and we can all breathe more easily. However, the ability to see around corners, predict what lies ahead and then develop an idea to address the unknown must surely be a priority right now.
 
And what do we call this talent for predicting and preparing for what lies ahead? Creativity. And, the best thing about it is that everyone can do it, if they have learned the tools.  
 
Clearly, some people have an innate gift. They are able to generate ideas at the drop of a hat. Others require more help. But even they could generate ideas…maybe at the drop of six hats instead of just one.
 
In the research for my book, The Recipe for Success, creativity (or ‘invention’ as I termed it) was a key differentiator of success. Most commonly associated with the arts – painting, poetry, music, drama – creative thinking can actually be found in any industry and any walk of life. Every time you solve a problem in a new way, you are being creative whether you are inventing new products, resolving a dispute between two employees, generating funding for a project or achieving your goal without funding.
 

Asking questions

 
Creativity is about approaching situations with a fresh eye and having ideas about how to address them. One skill that some have innately and others have to learn is the ability to question assumptions and rules about ‘how things are done around here’. People rarely question assumptions like, ‘recession inevitably means job cuts’ or ‘most people just come to work to earn a living’ or ‘a big party will perk everyone up’ but when they ask the naïve questions like ‘is that really true?’, ‘what if it were not true?’ and ‘what alternatives could there be?’, they discover that some of these assumptions are flawed and limit the scope of new ideas.
 
Creative people believe that the future is not yet decided. They, and the people around them, have the opportunity to create the future by questioning today’s assumptions and making different decisions.
 
At one time, it was assumed that no one would pay more than £1.50 for a cup of coffee. Today, thanks to Howard Schultz and his Starbucks chain, people regularly pay over £3 for a hot drink. People told Schultz that there was no appetite for such expensive coffee. What is so special about one type of coffee that ordinary people, not connoisseur coffee drinkers, would shell out nearly a fiver to sit on a squishy sofa and drink flavoured milk foam? But they do. Schultz didn’t let the norms of his day stand in the way of his thinking.
 

Nuture new ideas

 
As usual, it is the leaders in your organisation who set the tone. How they treat ideas is crucial. Jerry Hirshberg, the founder of Nissan Design International (now Nissan Design America) said that organisations are ideally suited to killing ideas. Watching Sainsbury’s recent attempts to find ideas from the shop floor reminded me how little support is offered to embryonic ideas (and to those who generate them). A new idea is a delicate thing and needs to be nurtured and supported if it is to survive the long term. Leaders who shoot down ideas which are not born fully formed need to be shown how to encourage ideas, even if they haven’t been properly thought out
 
If your business requires people to question assumptions in order to generate fresh ideas the easiest way is to facilitate discussions where the fundamental assumptions of an industry or business are challenged. Coach teams to identify every assumption that exists around a particular problem. If it helps, ask them to step in to someone else’s shoes (their mother’s shoes, their child’s shoes, someone from another industry’s shoes) and see what is a belief rather than a fact.
 
Then ask simple questions – if that isn’t true, what might be? What would the opposite of that be? If we didn’t believe that, what might we believe? What would someone from another planet suggest?
 

Initially many people will find this exercise difficult and wonder whether any valuable ideas can be generated. It can seem like a purely intellectual exercise. But in most cases it probably only takes one exceptional idea to transform a situation. It doesn’t matter if most of these questions lead you down a blind alley. Explaining that ultimately only one good answer is sufficient may free people to make bizarre, weird and potentially wonderful suggestions. 

Previous articles in the series:

Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too, is out now (publ A&C Black) and available from good bookshops and Amazon.co.uk. For more information on her work visit her website at www.blairepalmer.com or her blog at www.letsbesuccessfulagain.com

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