Dave Lewis: Creating the Creativity Economy

December 03, 2008

In Canada, a group of Nike employees meets once a week in the same place at the same time for a creative brainstorming session. The meetings go the same amount of time.

But there's an element that keeps the sessions from going stale. The meetings are on a Toronto subway car.

The attendees from Nike get on the same stop and get off at the same stop. They also have some guests. They interact with other passengers on the car.

"Gray Formica meeting spaces lead to Gray Formica thinking," Dave Lewis told an audience at the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University's 19th Annual "Compete Through Service" symposium.

The name of Lewis' company is a copy editor's bad dream, but the mission of ?What if! The Innovation Company is to shake folks out of stale thinking, so it works. But Lewis knows that there isn't necessarily a fast train that takes companies to a more innovative and creative place. Creativity that leads to innovation, Lewis said, tends to be more a habit than a destination.

What is it?

Creativity is a term that gets thrown around a lot but is sometimes difficult to define.

?What if! has a working definition of creativity: It's "the habit of continually doing things in new ways to make a positive difference to our working lives," Lewis said.

?What If! was launched in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s by two Unilever employees. Charged with innovating, they were frustrated with company's bureaucracy, so they went off their own, keeping Unilever as a client and adding dozens of other well-known companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clarke, Marriott and Wal-Mart.

In the early years, ?What If! worked on specific projects, but the principals soon found there also was demand for teaching clients the skills of innovation. Business Week noted the trend in a 2005 article: "The Knowledge Economy as we know it is being eclipsed by something new -- call it the Creativity Economy."

?What If! has grown to more than 300 people with offices in four cities, including New York. Lewis, one of the first hires in North America, joined the company after finishing his MBA at Columbia. Starting in high school, Lewis had spent 10 years at a Philadelphia-area basketball apparel start-up called ADD 1. He attended graduate school with the idea of launching his own business but was attracted to ?What If! by the combination of the entrepreneurial and academic atmospheres it offered.

For the past three years, Lewis has traversed North America trying to jump start innovation processes and culture in organizations.

Everyone can play

At the companies he visits he too often hears that creativity and innovation are jobs for the marketing department, or someone with innovation or insight in their title.

"I don't really think that's true," he said. "I think everybody has an opportunity to do things in new ways. How many here have ever cooked without a recipe? How many have ever redecorated a room?"

Both endeavors engage the type of creativity that can spur innovation in industry, he said. "Creativity can be something as small as that," Lewis said. "It doesn’t have to be revamping or revolutionizing a business, a process or a product."

It's also something that can be practiced everyday, he said -- something like an athlete honing a skill. "When we can do something every day, it becomes second nature," he said. "That's what habits are."

Turning to action

While creativity shouldn't be limited to a few elites at a company, some discipline is required in order to make creativity useful and valuable for a business.

"I believe in creativity that gets you somewhere," Lewis said. "I don't believe in creativity just for having fun. I think creativity has to add to your bottom line. If it doesn't, it's not worth it. It's what we consider crazy-tivity. It may be a good time, but it should be outside of work."

Creativity and innovation are distinct entities, Lewis said, but the two words are often interchanged in the business world.

Creativity plays a role in all the aspects of innovation, he said, beginning with the generation of ideas. "You have to be creative in where you go to get your insight," he said. If a firm consults the same research all the time, it comes up with the same insight.

But creativity is not the goal. Creativity should lead to innovation -- a combination of insight into customers' needs and wants with ideas, creating impact, Lewis said.

Many companies are masterful at ignoring impact. Red tape and bureaucracy can turn a breakthrough idea into incremental change, he said, and in this way, game-changing ideas … get turned into the same-old same-old."

What works and doesn't

Lewis gave a couple examples of innovative products -- one that was executed well and one that wasn't.

Listerine recently launched a popular new product: strips that dissolve and freshen breath. This new product started with an customer insight: that everyone needs a discreet way to fight bad breath while out in public. Working with Johnson & Johnson, Listerine developed a new technology -- the dissolving strip. It was being used as a spermicide in Asia.

When Listerine introduced its mouthwash product, sales surpassed 12-month projections in the first three months. The company actually ran out of inventory. The technology has since been adapted for other products, including flu remedies, vitamins and pain-killers.

The Segway, however, exemplifies creativity and innovation that didn't go so well.

The two-wheeled, electric personal transportation device made a splashy debut in 2001. "Steve Jobs himself said this will be as big a revolution to the human race as the personal computer," Lewis said.

Although the company told the Wall Street Journal last summer it expected a 50 percent jump in sales, the Segway does not appear to have swept the country. (Segway, a privately held company, does not divulge sales figures.)

Lewis said while the technology is good, the Segway backers lacked insight into their customers' lives -- the kind of perceptive observation that made Listerine successful with the breath strips.

"What was the consumer or market need?" he said. "The challenge with the Segway is where do you drive it?" It's too big for the sidewalk and it doesn't have enough power for the open road, Lewis said.


Lewis frequently encounters teams that walk in saying they can't be creative. "You might as well turn around and walk right out the door," he said. Attitude is everything.

Employees are seldom given the opportunity to acquire the skill sets to be creative, he said. The knowledge of how to facilitate an ideation session is an example of a skill you can learn, he said. "But unless you invest the time and energy in acquiring these skill, even the right attitude goes for naught."

Companies can build structures, such as rewards and measurements, that ensure that change happens. Surroundings may have to change. "How can you be innovative in the place where you're doing your financial planning?" he asked.

One of the best ways to come up with ideas is a "greenhousing" session where ideas are nurtured before they are judged, Lewis said, because "ideas are never presented in a fully formed fashion," Lewis said.

For example the iPod was not first conceived as a hand-held device that would play MP3's, sport a touch screen and connect to an iTunes store where consumers buy music downloads. The first idea likely was small.

"Someone had the seed of an idea," Lewis said. "It was collaborated on, built upon, they added some constraints, worked around them, and then created the product."

Eventually ideas are judged, but often the fateful moment comes too soon. Some are killed; some are mortally wounded.

The words "yes but" are often the sword that delivers the mortal wound, because "yes but" can discourage all but the most persistent. A better approach is "yes and," Lewis preaches. This way ideas are refined by addition, rather than worn down by criticism.

When Lewis goes to a company to help their innovation and creativity skills, he often encounters some push back.

"I look forward to those engagements," he said. If someone has enough energy to voice objections and try to prove him wrong, he said, at least they're showing passion.

Bottom Line:

  • Creativity in the business world is a habit that can practiced and honed.
  • The practice of creativity in business should not be limited to so-called "creative types." Everybody in the company has the ability to be creative and should be encouraged.
  • Creativity in business has to add to the bottom line. That requires focus and discipline as well as skills.
  • Businesses need to give employees the skills and structure to bring change to marketplace.