Creativity happens in the shower
Creativity happens in the shower

I’ve always had my best ideas in the shower. Or when dropping off to sleep. There’s a scientific explanation for this. One which can help us design our working practices and environments to be more conducive to creativity.

In my previous post I looked at how we all have the capacity for creative thinking because we all have a left and a right brain. When we’re given a problem to solve, the left brain logically considers the various possibilities. When no solution presents itself, brain activity shifts to the right hemisphere, which allows more unexpected possibilities to be considered.

An idea occurs to us when a new configuration of neurons forms in the brain. Giving the brain some downtime aids this process. During relaxing activities, such as taking a shower, more alpha waves radiate from the right hemisphere. Studies have shown that until these waves are produced the brain will be unable to solve insight puzzles.

So, time to relax is important, but we can’t all work permanently from our showers. Another aspect to consider is fresh perspectives. These can help the brain to form connections that it may not previously have considered. In his TED Talk, Steven Johnson explains that throughout history ideas have tended to come from places where people from different backgrounds are likely to have new, interesting and unpredictable conversations.

Many of the world’s most creative businesses have applied this principle to their office designs. At Pixar, the toilets, kitchen and other communal facilities were purposefully placed at the centre of a circular office so that everyone would be forced to bump into people from different departments. They wanted to foster chance conversations. In our own office, we’ve covered the walls in magnetic sheeting and everyone sticks up work-in-progress rather than keeping it secret on their computers. This encourages spontaneous comments and observations.

Team composition is another important principle. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, explored this by studying Broadway musicals. He evaluated 472 different productions between 1945 and 1989, measuring the “social intimacy” of the teams working on the productions. A team that had worked together several times before would have high social intimacy. His work showed that musicals with low social intimacy were more likely to fail because the artists didn’t know each other and struggled to share ideas. But equally, when the social intimacy was high, success was also compromised. Uzzi concluded that creative collaborations have a sweet spot: “The best Broadway teams had a mix of relationships. These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant they could interact efficiently, but they also managed to incorporate new ideas.”

This doesn’t mean we should all work in a constant hubbub surrounded by colleagues with whom we share medium social intimacy – or at least not all the time. Periods of lone working are as important as serendipitous interactions. Steven Johnson gives the example of Darwin, whose autobiography says that his theory of natural selection arrived in a Eureka moment while sat in his study. However, a scholar named Howard Gruber went back and looked at Darwin’s notebooks. He found that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for months and months before his claimed epiphany. He had the concept, but was unable to fully think it through or articulate it. Great ideas often fade into view over long periods of time.

Susan Cain, in Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, highlights how difficult it can be to find time for ideas to gestate in the modern world: “Calls, texts, emails … even when we’re alone we’re never really alone any more. In the old days a two-hour train journey might be a time when a manager would sit and think about some issue or other they’d put on the back burner, or just let their mind roam over how the business was doing and what they could improve. Now, there’s no reflective time.”

Jason Fried’s TED Talk highlights a similar point. You cannot ask people to be creative in 15 minutes. To think deeply about a problem and be creative you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. Yet offices are inherently places where people are interrupted a lot. While open-plan offices and meetings can help foster creativity on one hand, there is also the need to allow the time and space for solitary working.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative, but by thinking about our workplace design, collaborators and working practices, we can all unleash more ideas within our organisations.

–RG

References:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain
  • How Flashes Of Inspiration Work, Wired
  • Where Good Ideas Come From, TED Talk, Steven Johnson
  • Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work, TED Talk, Jason Fried
  • Work With Strangers, Wired

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The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family
The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family

The Questions We Asked goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with prior to briefing us. Sarah Dunning, CEO of The Westmorland Family, takes up the thread:

We’re a second-generation family business. Mum and Dad were and still are hill farmers just outside Tebay in Cumbria. In 1967 the M6 was being built through the corner of their farmland. The government decided there was to be a motorway service area at this point and my parents, in their 30s and keen to get on, made a bid to build and run it. They won the bid and in 1972 they opened Tebay Services northbound.

Westmorland-Family-Grade-66

Over the next 30 years they grew the business and in 2005 Dad handed over the reins to me. The challenge for me was to retain the DNA of the business whilst redefining it for a new generation. It is easy to feel between the devil and the deep blue sea – you don’t want to be the one that destroys the work of the past generation but you know you must be bold if you are to move it on.

We formed a new leadership team and agreed that we wanted to grow and that another motorway service area seemed like the logical step. It took seven years to plan but we finally opened the northbound side of what became Gloucester Services in May 2014. So in the last 10 years we have gone from a local Cumbrian business employing 450 people to one with businesses 300 miles apart, employing 1,000 people.

Westmorland-Family-Gloucester-Shoot-04

One of the decisions you have to make as a business is when to bring in external expertise. This can be difficult, especially when it relates to your core brand, but that’s sometimes when you need it most. In 2012, prior to opening Gloucester Services, we were discussing problems that were strategic but also creative. Squad were a small and young organisation, they knew our business and had some empathy with it and they came with both a strategic and creative background. And so we set about working together.

There were many questions at that time, which tended to pose themselves in the order that the problem arose. One of the first ones was what to call our new services in Gloucestershire, partly because we had to invest a lot of money in motorway signage. However, in trying to answer one question, we often found that we couldn’t do so without first answering a series of other questions. It became apparent that the initial question wasn’t always the most important one. Often there was a question behind the question that we needed to address first.

It became clear that the most important first question to resolve was what the brand stands for. Our ethos, which sat at the heart of the business, was very much about being a Cumbrian family business that had grown out of the farm and remained tied to it. However, we had to square this with our desire to grow the business and specifically with the opportunity we had to build a business in Gloucestershire, which inevitably would take us out of our own Cumbrian farming community. This dichotomy extended to many aspects of our business - our product offer, our buildings, our branding - so we had start with some fundamental questions.

Should the buildings in Gloucestershire ‘feel’ like Tebay Services? Should the food be from Gloucestershire, or should we bring some from Cumbria?

We knew our businesses couldn’t be ‘rolled out’ as Costa, Pret and M&S are. It’s much harder to grow a business this way, because each business has to be bespoke. It also means we’ll never grow to be a giant as some businesses do; but perhaps that’s a good thing – there is something to be said for staying smaller and true to purpose.

However, whilst Gloucester Services should have its own personality, as distinct as Tebay Services, we wanted the customer to feel that they were still siblings, albeit not twins. We had to consider how the buildings and landscape should read back to our identity. We wanted to capture the essence of our Cumbrian businesses but re-express it in an appropriate way for a new build. So whilst both feature heavy timber and stone, and feel quite earthy in their way, we exchanged the agricultural and rustic approach of Tebay, for a more contemporary and sleek design.

The Westmorland Family Gloucester Services-Shoot-50

So how could we create a brand and branding that ties together our businesses with a recognisable thread, yet preserves that character and independence of them?

I have always believed that a business’ ethos should be the compass for every initiative and every innovation you undertake. Only by doing this will the customer understand what you are about. It is not enough to articulate your ethos (even if you can) but you have to deliver it through every touch point because some things are better felt than articulated.

Delivering it through every touch point is quite involved for us because we have around 100 acres of space, about 15,000 product lines and 1,000 people working in the business. We have 10 million customers a year through our businesses and our aspiration is that each one will leave with a sense of what we are about. I have no doubt that we regularly fall short of this aspiration, but we have to keep on trying.

So how could we make sure our branding was present but with a light touch - not like a rubber stamp?

To see how The Westmorland Family’s questions were answered, read the case study here.

Sarah Dunning and RG gave an extended talk based around this article at the 2016 Family Business United Annual Conference and the Cumbria Family Business Conference at Rheged the same year.

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Internal vs external agencies: How should it work?
Internal vs external agencies: How should it work?

Research has shown that client–agency relationships are experiencing turbulence. Much of this stems from the demarcation between internal and external teams, which is increasingly blurred and constantly evolving. We took up the debate with Joanna Williams— representing the client side—to thrash out how it should work.

JW:
My first question is what do we really mean by internal agencies? What functions should they perform? Creative? Media? Digital? Brand? Strategy? All of these? I think too often internal agencies are just seen as design studios.

RG:
Remit is interesting. A connected question is: what are clients seeking to achieve by developing in-house capabilities? Cost savings have to be part of the equation. Service is another motivation. Having people on-site under a client’s sole control should improve responsiveness. The other important aspect is quality and I suspect this is where it’s less clear-cut. There are examples of internal agencies delivering great work—4Creative, M-Four, Specsavers and the Government Digital Service spring to mind—but do you think quality is as high across the board?

JW:
I think this is why many clients go down the hybrid route. They seek to benefit from a balance of internal and external resources. The digital and social worlds demand the agility to respond in close to real time. This is where internal resources really come into their own. But most clients recognise there are higher-end skills they need to buy in, ad hoc, to complement the day-to-day capabilities they have in-house, such as brand positioning or strategic thinking.

RG:
When clients go down that route I think the people issues become an important consideration. All parties need to work well together, but crucially everyone needs to be motivated. If clients adopt this approach and outsource higher-end work do you think the creation of a glass ceiling for internal creatives causes a problem?

JW:
The challenge is, if your motivation is cost savings and efficiencies, then your primary objective for internal resources is getting through volume. Ads, banners, internal posters and let’s not forget prettying up endless PowerPoint presentations—it all needs to be done, which doesn’t leave much time for creating the next big idea. In reality, rarely does an in-house team want to just churn out artwork. The key to managing this is demarcation of roles between internal and external resources. The word “creative” in itself can be deceiving. Often the client is really asking for the idea. The process by which this is handed over to the internal team is crucial and, if done well, can give them scope to get involved with the higher-level tasks.

RG:
We’re often brought in to work with internal studios in the way you describe. On two recent projects we’ve been asked to go further than strategy, but not as far as what we’d traditionally have called a creative idea. Essentially we’ve provided a creative idea but expressed through words rather than visuals. I’d describe it as a creative narrative. Their internal teams have then taken this and translated it into visuals ideas for all the components of the campaign. I think this can work well but it does have implications for the client–agency relationship. Essentially it becomes more project-based and more consultative. I’m a big believer that the best relationships are long term and built on a mutual commitment. As the nature of relationships change it’s important not to undermine this.

JW:
I agree. I also think there are many issues at the moment that are making client–agency relationships challenging. Marketing budgets are becoming more fluid to accommodate changes in needs and activity. Therefore, overcommitment to long-term spend can prove difficult. There’s a reluctance to go through comprehensive pitch processes or detailed briefings for every piece of work. These were the bedrock of choosing and committing to long-term relationships. Trial and error is much more common with agency relationships. On the agency side, specialisms are fragmenting, which creates the need for more relationships. Equally marketing departments are becoming fragmented, sometimes split by distribution channel, brand, product, or communication discipline. This results in lots of budget holders wanting to maintain their own agency relationships.

RG:
In my experience one of the major implications of having these more fragmented relationships— and this goes back to the quality point— is the lack of consistent creative direction for the brand. When clients had lead advertising agencies, the agency creative director often played this crucial role, working closely with the marketing director. But one of the crucial aspects of this was end-to-end involvement in the creative process. Sir John Hegarty once said, “great work is 80% idea and 80% execution”. Can this happen when you essentially separate responsibility for the idea and the execution between internal and external teams?

JW:
This is where the question starts to become: how important is great creative these days? Quarterly campaigns that need to deliver numbers may not need big ideas or the highest quality creative—sometimes good is good enough. As budgets get spread more thinly over a wide range of activity there isn’t the same amount available to invest in any one element—either the thinking or production. Given the short shelf life of most campaigns these days, a business wants to get some value from their investment, so has think about the longevity. KPIs, ROI and budget management have become the main topic of meetings and management decisions, so you can see why some Marketing Directors may not see creative as the main priority.

RG:
I think this is where creative is too often seen as something fluffy rather than commercial. I recently saw some research from the IPA that found short-termism and budget pressures have cut the effectiveness of campaigns in half (“Selling Creativity Short”, June 2016). We need to re-establish that the reason for creativity in our business is to deliver greater returns. The challenge to all of us is to find a way in which creative quality, and therefore effectiveness, can be maintained within new ways of working. I think cracking the question of who the Creative Director should be is central to this.

JW:
It’s interesting that some Marketing Directors become the de facto Creative Directors as they are the common touchpoint between internal and external agencies. To be honest I don’t think this is the skill set of marketing departments and most have probably fallen into it rather than actively creating this situation. I respect and admire Marketing Directors that invest in a creative lead within their organisation. Having said that, too often these roles are really about brand guardianship—policing the identity —as opposed to having full responsibility for creative direction. I think many clients will continue to look outside their organisations for this role, but creating the right long-term relationship is vital if it’s to work.

RG:
Staying on the quality and effectiveness point, another important issue is how close the creative team should be to the brand. In my experience, maintaining some distance from the business, and all the internal issues that can bog people down, is essential to great work. Equally, having a broader range of experiences to draw on is important. Distance is also important in terms of the relationship. Sometimes you need to work all night to crack an idea. In the morning you’ll present it to the client and they’ll say it’s not right. As an agency leader you have to pick the team up and get them going again. Without this separation, when you’re all part of the same team, it can be harder to have such brutal and honest conversations. These are essential though.

JW:
The key word here is perspective. In my role as a consultant I find that this one attribute is perhaps the most powerful and useful in terms of seeing the issues and generating impact. At times you have to be outside a business to be inside a business. The environment and culture that creatives desire is another aspect that clients can find it hard to offer, though they do try hard.

RG:
There’s an interesting company called Oliver who’ve developed a way to deal with this. Essentially they set up and manage an agency that sits within the office of the client they are working for. This seems like an interesting proposition because it gives clients better value and responsiveness, but allows the agency team to maintain a slightly different perspective and culture from the marketing team, who are ingrained within the business. This is an idea I’ve mooted to clients before but it’s never really got off the ground. How do you think clients perceive this proposition?

JW:
I can see how this can be uncomfortable for clients. They probably had to work hard to secure a budget and headcount for the in-house resource, and had to present a business case for cost savings. As such, to hand over that function externally could be seen to compromise the objective.

RG:
So perhaps that particular model will be right for some but not others. I guess that’s the theme here really. There is no silver bullet. It’s clear that there’s a lot to think about in terms of agency relationships as we adapt to a rapidly changing communications landscape. I think both clients and agencies will evolve their offerings and as they do so an open and honest dialogue will be vital to making it work well for both parties. At the end of the day I guess it’s all about people. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re internal or external: the key to success will be creating the structures, processes, relationships, cultures and environments for everyone to work together effectively.

—JW & RG

This article was based on a discussion with Joanna Williams. Joanna has a broad UK and European experience having held senior marketing and strategy positions at MBNA, Bupa, Brother, BPP and Hansgrohe. She now offers independent consultancy.

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Brainstorming (still) doesn’t work
Brainstorming (still) doesn’t work
How To Think Up (First Edition) by Alex Osborn (via RankAndFileVintage on Etsy)

Brainstorming was invented by Alex Osborn in 1939 and popularised in his book How to Think Up, published three years later.

It has since become commonplace in meeting rooms across the world. Many of you will be familiar with the rules of such sessions, the first being that no idea is a bad idea. Criticism is to be avoided.

A couple of years ago I wrote about how brainstorming doesn’t work.

I recently came across some more research about why.

Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley divided 265 undergraduates into five-person teams. Each was given the same problem and 20 minutes to invent as many solutions as possible.

The teams were randomly divided into three different group types:

The first group were given no instructions. They were free to approach the task as they saw fit;

The instructions given to the second group were classic brainstorming rules, emphasising the need to refrain from criticism. This group generated marginally more ideas than the first team;

The third group were told to say anything that came to mind but also advised to debate and even criticise each other’s ideas.

On average this group generated 25% more ideas.

After the exercise the groups were asked if they had any more ideas. People in groups one and two contributed two more on average, compared to seven more in the group told to debate.

This makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. Many of our creative breakthroughs stem from moments of tension and debate within the team.

At the time it was invented brainstorming may have improved on the absence of structure that came before, as this research supports. But it also shows that now is the time embrace new approaches.

One of the key challenges is culture. Many of us are conditioned to refrain from criticising each other’s ideas. It is in our collective best interests to become more comfortable with this.

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