A tree, a song, and seven vs nine


Once I lived in a house on stilts. A blue-tongued lizard owned the back garden, and in the front, a lone tree dominated a steep incline.

The tree accepted Darwin’s tropical gifts with equanimity. Basking heat, warm pearly raindrops, shocking electrical storms. It could take anything. Lucky tree.

At the time, I did not feel quite so resilient. I was 21, and I’d been in crisis for close to a year. I was lost, directionless. I had no idea how to be happy. During the day, I waitressed. At night, I focused on remembering how to breathe.

Then one night, everything changed. I sat under that tree until sun-up, cradling my flatmate’s guitar. I couldn’t play it. Nonetheless, I spent the night writing my first song. And although the song was terrible (and it really was), it was also wonderful. The messy knot I’d been carrying around began to unravel.

On the surface my breakthrough was about the articulation of human emotion. But beneath that, and more importantly, there was a fundamental change of perspective. Music was the vehicle, but it didn’t have to be. What mattered was that I was moved outside my thinking prison. The music gave me a new framework though which to connect and order my thoughts. It was creativity at work.

I didn’t understand the significance then. But looking back, I can see that I had discovered a power that would become a fundamental enabler in both my personal and professional lives. I accepted creativity as a means of thinking more clearly, and ever since, it has been a wonderful teacher.

The creative toolkit I have developed over the years is hauled out every day. Of course, I use it for the traditional creative processes that are part of my career in digital. But I also use it in other ways: to manage relationships, spot new business opportunities, identify and solve problems, conduct research, test assumptions and, above all, to learn.

I’m not alone in recognising this power. You can see it in the language that flourishing businesses use: agility, courage, authenticity, change, connection. At its core, creativity is about noticing the kaleidoscope of inspiration around us (and inside us) and funnelling it into something new.

It’s been my experience that in agency life, we do not value creativity enough. We talk a good game, but when budgets or timeframes are cut, creative thinking time is the first thing to take a hit. There’s a perception that clients don’t see its value – at least not compared to some of the other, more quantifiable elements of the process. There may be some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story. I was not surprised to read the results of last year’s global Holmes Report on creativity in PR. Asked about the value and relevance of creativity to clients, agencies put it at seven out of ten. Our clients put it at nine.

So how can we foster creativity in our teams? What can we do to shift from a seven to a nine? To start with, we can lead by example.

1. Encourage curiosity. If you know what you’ve always known, you’ll think what you’ve always thought. Make time every day to learn something new. There’s fuel for this everywhere: numbers, stories, data, trends, technology, people. Thirty minutes spent following a few links over your morning coffee could plant the seeds for the idea you need in the afternoon. Let your team know it’s okay to spend time seeking knowledge and inspiration. These are the building blocks of creativity.

2. Be empathic. New ideas come from connecting knowledge to insight. Walking in other people’s shoes humanises the abstract, makes it real. It gives our thinking meaning and relevance. It drives the awareness we need to notice gaps and find opportunities. So slow down, listen actively, and seek to understand others’ perspectives, even if they don’t make sense to you.

3. Think flexibly. Our brains naturally want to maintain the status quo. But cosy as that is, you don’t often find creativity in the comfort zone. An easy way to shortcut habitual thinking is to introduce physical change. Sit somewhere different, hold the meeting outside, or take a walk when you’re stuck on something. New people also help us to keep questioning assumptions. Mix teams up, work across disciplines, and hire people who challenge you.

4. Make courage possible. Often, a bad idea is exactly what’s needed to get to a good one. Even then, good ideas don’t usually pop out fully formed. They take time, and teamwork, to refine. So it’s critical to build an environment where people feel safe to contribute without judgement. That doesn’t mean ideas can’t be criticised. But separate the idea from the person when you share your feedback. Don’t tolerate ridicule, even if there’s humour in it. Managers, this is one where you must lead the way. If you are fearful of looking foolish, your team will be too. Fear is the enemy of creativity.

I know it’s not easy to make time for all of this. Creativity takes commitment. But for me, it’s worth it. These days, I’m a lot more resilient, like the tree. And that comes from the trust I have in creativity. Whatever the challenge, I know there’s always a new way to meet it.