Creativity – 5 Faces of Genius

By June 3, 2010Business

When Greg Dyke was head of the BBC, his vision was to make it the most creative organisation in the world. He therefore enlisted the help of the Stanford Research Institute, and a series of BBC executives attended programmes to teach them how to ‘waterhole’ new ideas. The process involved elevator pitches, affirmative and additive commentary, and iteration, until an innovation was finally born.

Lots of organisations have identified innovation as their route to success, and many of them invest in these kinds of initiatives to try to embed ‘creative’ practices into day-to-day-organisational life. But there may be easier ways. One of these ways is what Silicon Valley used to call ‘conflict capital,’ or the ability of an organisation to sustain just the right amount of difference to let new thinking emerge, which in turn can be used by analysts as a barometer for assessing the innovation pipeline. While research on the superior performance of diverse teams is legion, some organisations still struggle to achieve this tricky mix, and some find that difference too easily becomes difficulty.

Another way, then, is to re-define what we think creativity is. Too often, ‘creatives’ are seen as brightly-dressed mavericks with extraordinary vision, and if organisations have them in-house, they are kept in a playpen well away from the core business. Annette Moser-Wellman describes the visionary as just one ‘face’ of genius. She calls this face the Seer, literally one who sees. Such a person conjures up newness in their mind’s eye, like the developer who ‘sees’ the potential in an old ruin. JK Rowling also talks of ‘seeing’ Harry Potter in the carriage on one magic day as her train sped south. But Moser-Wellman identifies four other ‘faces of genius.’ Another one is the Sage, a person who innovates by simplifying things, stripping them back to their essence. No-frills airlines like easyjet and Ryanair have based their entire business model on this face. A third face is the Observer, a person who innovates by noticing detail. When Richard Branson noticed that the worst part of a frequent flier’s journey was the trip to the airport, he introduced a limo service and drive-through check-in. Tesco’s Club Card key-rings, and Barclaycard’s OnePulse which combines in one a travel card, credit card and contactless payment, use similar attention to detail to innovate. A fourth face is that of the Alchemist. Alchemists create gold for businesses by mixing together ideas from different places. Doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital called on the Ferrari and McLaren F1 teams to learn from the tight organisation of their pit crews. In analysing the handover from the operating theatre to Intensive Care, they managed to reduce errors by 40%. Interface carpets’ biomimicry innovations are a further example of this kind of thinking, where Interface used the patterns of the forest floor to design modular tiling that could be laid in any combination, drastically reducing laying times and thus cost. Moser-Wellman’s final face is that of the Fool. Innovation in this mode arises from the absurd, or by turning things upside down. Rumour has it that when the Metropolitan Police wanted to improve their arrest rates for robbery, one bright spark suggested that they just ask burglars to hand over the stolen goods. After his colleagues had stopped laughing, they played around with the idea, and increased their arrest rates by working with those pawn shops where burglars literally do hand over their stolen goods. Similarly, in London, a number of local authorities have been working on library innovation. When I was little, libraries were imposing buildings, up flights of stairs and full of books and silence, and signs that said NO FOOD OR DRINK. They were open while I was at school, which meant getting there was a bit tricky, and you had to join each library separately if you wanted to use more than one in your area. If you turn all of these variables upside down, you get Tower Hamlets’ Idea Store concept. Purpose-build, user-friendly buildings co-located with the shops, with extended opening hours to match. Book clubs with wine to encourage participation, and partnerships with on-site coffee shops to get people to stick around. Lots of talking, lots of computers as well as books, and an electronic library card that works borough-wide. In the London Borough of Newham, this approach increased library visits by 239%.

For managers, in a field where the mythology differentiates between ‘creative’ and ‘uncreative’ staff, who tend to be the ones that stick to the detail or ask difficult questions, the Five Faces model serves as a reminder that everyone can be creative, and that innovation can surface through any or all of these channels.

Leave a Reply