Want to be more creative? Here's how

Matt Kingdon helps blue-chips come up with brilliant ideas. This is what he tells them

How do you get a focus group to talk about sex? Matt Kingdon’s answer was to ask the participants to name as many sex words and definitions as they could until even the most taboo subjects were aired and became normal.

Then the group could talk about sex with no inhibitions.

He’s also pretty good at getting psoriasis sufferers to open up about their skin. How? He got the focus group to go swimming together. In the pool, clothed only in skimpy costumes, the group found it so much easier to talk about their potentially embarrassing complaint.

Kingdon is an unusual man with an unusual job.

The firm he co-founded 20 years ago, ?WhatIf!, helps firms discover creative answers to tricky problems. If allowed, he goes one further – he can show firms how to improve their culture to become more creative.

Normally this pitch has us rolling our eyes.

There are dozens of similar consultants of wildly varying quality.

But Kingdon’s the real deal. Not only does his firm have a stonking list of blue chip clients (Unilever, Google, Virgin, PepsiCo etc), employing 250 people in London, New York, Manchester, Singapore and Shanghai but also he’s written a book, distilling all his ideas.

I was sent a copy out of the blue. Instead of filing if in the traditional circular filing cabinet, I opened it, and loved it. The Science of Serendipity is jam-packed with eye-opening real world examples of how brilliant ideas can solve difficult real world problems.

I asked Kingdon why his book was necessary. Why do so many firms crush creativity?

“When people love their jobs and get good at their jobs they repeat what worked yesterday. When you have a lot of people who are working together in the same way week after week, without realising it things can become too inward facing. Innovation thrives on diversity, stimulus, provocation, experimentation. All of those concepts mean you generally have to get up from the desk.”

This last statement sums up his philosophy. Stop talking, and start doing.

“Creative people do very little talking. They listen to colleagues as much as possible. They try to experiment with early stage prototypes rather than trying to work on a finished presentation which can’t be altered because so much effort has gone into it. They are suck-it-and-see, done with a lightness of spirit.”

To some people the order to be more creative sounds a bit like an order to be more Irish. How on earth do you do it?

Kingdon has a hundred ideas or more.

Matt Kingdon: The Science of Serendipity

Take office space. He argues that offices need to be flexible. Open plan is useful at times. But so are closed cubicles, which allow for undistracted work. The book has pictures of Google’s semi-private spaces – arched recesses within which a pair of colleagues can retire, not quite out of view but withdrawn from the main office. He explains Innocent Drinks’ Cake Decorating Club, Cycling Club, Cheese Club and others. These clubs get workers mingling, sharing ideas in a non-work context.

There’s PechaKucha, a concept whereby a group of workers share a beer, and take it in turns to give 20 second presentations. If 20 workers participate that’s 7 minutes of talking. No time to get nervous or even prepare. This approach, he argues, educates workers, accelerates bonding and throws up all sorts of crazy ideas which would otherwise be lain dormant.

The idea I enjoyed the most was his concept of what a leader should be: “Captain one minute, pirate the next. Someone who respects their organisation but doesn’t revere it.”

They must know when to shut up and listen (“smartarses don’t make good innovators”), know how to collaborate and guide others, and – crucially – are not necessarily creative but are good finishers.

In the Kingdon world you get triple bonus points for tenacity and seeing things through. Airy solitary dreaming… not forbidden, but done to excess is a cardinal sin.

One last question for our innovator – how did he manage to write a book. That is, surely, a solitary activity?

“I had a very big network of clients in experienced positions who were willing to read multiple drafts. I had maybe 100 executives who offered their ideas and experiences. The book went through over 30 iterations, so the production was very innovative in itself.”

He also had a wife who selflessly “ignored” him for three months, and took care of his children to minimise the distraction. “This allowed me to become obsessional,” says Kingdon.

I honestly recommend the book. And that happens about twice a year with the business press. Like I said, most works in this category get filed in the circular filing cabinet.

Kingdon’s is practical, and consistently surprising. All the examples are sourced from the real world. If you are sceptical about whether creativity really can be fostered then do yourself a favour and buy a copy.

Kingdon’s Top Ten Tips for Developing a Prototype

1 Plan for multiple rounds of experimentation – not just one long experiment

2 Because this is an experiment you can afford to go against the grain. So don’t self-censor. Let yourself go, and get radical

3 Look each other in the eye and anticipate that not everything is going to work well. I like Facebook’s motto: “Move fast and break things”.

4 Start with several hypotheses, and resist the temptation to think you’ve got a winning idea early. The name of the game is to explore alternatives.

5 Recognise that you may need to kill your favourite prototype. Get over it. Don’t get too attached; stay passionate but stay objective.

6 Start fast. Start quietly. Get your confidence up before you go public.

7 Start low cost and stripped down. You can always add more into the mix later.

8 Show your simulations or mock-ups early and frequently.

9 Be decisive in your adaptation. Testing ambiguous or weak features benefits no one. It’s actually better to ramp up elements of your design to ensure a clear reading.

10 Be generous. Nothing is ever your idea. No one person will ever make it happen. Experimentation needs a community and a co-operative spirit.

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