How UAE businesses can encourage creativity

Forget about painting the office walls a different colour or holding a brainstorming session. Inspiring creativity in employees is all about getting them to think in new boxes, according to Alan Iny, who is a principal and senior global specialist in creativity and scenarios at The Boston Consulting Group. The co-author of new book, Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity, who was in Dubai in May to inspire BCG staff and clients, speaks about what creativity is and how businesses can encourage more of it.

What is your take on creativity?

Creativity for me is changing perceptions, changing an idea. It is a little bit of a counter -intuitive definition for some people, but it all starts in the mind. It all starts with our mental models and how we think. And if you accept that we all think using these mental models or what I call boxes, then creativity for me is thinking of new boxes, coming up with new models, new boxes. Most people think that creativity is about new ideas.

And it’s not?

I think new ideas are always welcome, but they are really not required because creativity can also be about changing existing ideas. If you have existing ideas about how we work or who we are or how we think about our customers or how we have always done this or how we think about our competitors, any of these things, all of these are mental models. If you are willing to challenge one or more of these existing boxes, then the result can be just as powerful as coming up with something new. By that logic it can apply to the way you work, the work that you do and working in general.

How can companies become more creative?

Step one is first of all, the title of my book, Thinking in New Boxes; this is a good place to begin. We have been told for 50 or 60 years already to think outside the box, and yet you can argue that creativity is more important than ever because the world is changing quickly and the lifespan of an idea is shorter than ever before; people remain frustrated with the classic approaches to ideation and creativity and brainstorming.

So how do you think in new boxes?

The first step, and this is why I think most brainstorms fail, the first step is to actually take the time to understand your existing ones. Here is a business example: let’s think about the low-cost airlines now that they are ubiquitous here and elsewhere in the world. But 60 years ago they weren’t. And so how would one create the first low-cost airline? You have to actually list the current boxes you are holding and then think which of them can I challenge and which of them are really set in stone? Every airline executive would have said I need different types of planes to fly to different destinations and different markets. [The founders of the first low-cost airlines said] no, we are going to have one type of plane. And this was a fundamental change in box. Every airline executive would have said we need to fly to primary convenient airports. [They said] no, we are going to fly to secondary, out of the way, airports. There are so many others, assigned seating. We are going to have open seating. We consider safety our No 1 top priority? Let’s keep that one. It’s a question of which of our existing boxes do we want to challenge and which of them are really set in stone like the safety one, because some of the other ones probably felt set in stone at the time.

What about painting the walls a different colour or installing a slide in the office? Do these type of initiatives make people more creative?

If there is a scientific study, and I have read many of them, that say painting the walls orange is beneficial for creativity, then all else equal who am I to quibble with that? But what I am saying is that it is neither necessary nor sufficient. I think that certainly painting the walls orange and then forgetting everything else that has been said is not going to help. The thing that is really required is the cultural aspect and allowing people to think in new boxes and challenge assumptions and so on. Then all the rest is nice to have, but neither strictly necessary nor sufficient.

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