Posts Tagged ‘creative thinking’

Ideas + guts + action = success

September 3, 2012

Last week I attended a networking event, held at the Anta showroom on George Street in Edinburgh.

For those not in the know, Anta sells the most beautifully designed, covetable things handcrafted in the Highlands of Scotland (have a look for yourself at and you’ll see what I mean. And order their catalogue – it’s got some fabulous recipes in it!)

One of the most inspiring things about the entire evening was the story of how Anta came about, as told by its founder, Annie Stewart.

Here are three key things that I took from her story:



Whilst many people start out with a clear vision of what they want to achieve, this isn’t always the case.

Far from having a lightbulb ‘eureka moment’ that was to shape the rest of her life, Annie speaks of leaving Edinburgh Art School with a degree in Fine Art, and having an ‘”oh sh*t” moment, when it dawned on her that she’d have to do something to make a living.

Capitalising on knowledge that she’d developed from her course, she approached a weaver of Scottish tartan and asked him if he’d weave a small bolt of cloth in a traditional pattern, but using pink and lime green wool.

Whilst the weaver wasn’t entirely delighted with what he’d produced, Annie set about making ties and other accessories with the resulting cloth.

Sometimes necessity really IS the mother of invention: sometimes you have to be in an uncomfortable place in order to feel the need to do something different.

The challenge is, what knowledge do YOU have (even if other people also have that knowledge) that could, with a twist here and there, be turned into something new and unique? And are you, in fact, too comfortable with the status quo to really bother doing anything with those ideas?



With a small range of accessories made of her lime-green-and-pink tartan tucked into a suitcase, Annie set off to visit a friend in New York.

While she was there, she telephoned round a few designers and department stores: note, we’re not just talking one or two small boutiques here, we’re talking Jasper Conran, Bergdorf Goodman – the highest end of the fashion market.

In short, she managed to blag her way in to see some of the biggest names in fashion at the time, and to begin to sell her accessories in prestigious locations.

Often, success requires us to be brave and step out and do something, even though we might be taking a personal or emotional risk. Success takes guts. It means taking a risk that someone will laugh at you, shut the door in your face, or just say “No”.

On the other hand … they just might say “Yes”.

So here’s the question: what are you afraid of? Is it just time to feel the fear and do it anyway?



Success in the States and recognition from major-league fashion houses brought its own challenges in the early days: the almost accidental design of tartan ceramics led to a commission from Vogue for corporate gifts for its advertisers, which in turn led to one of those advertisers placing an order for a large number of ceramics which they wanted delivered in a very short space of time.

Annie and her team of designers and craftsmen back in the Highlands of Scotland took the commission and, despite time pressures, delivered.

And here’s another lesson that often gets missed: once you’ve set yourself up as something, you have to follow through on it. This is about more than delivering on your promises – it’s about psychologically stepping up to the plate and becoming the person you aspire to be. It’s about not being afraid of success.

It would have been easier to take a step back and say “sorry – we can’t fulfil that size of order in the time” and take a step back. But that’s not the choice that Annie made.

And the challenge for the rest of us? To be brutally honest, most of the time, it’s just ‘easier not to’. But success requires you to get off your butt, rise to the challenge and DO something when most people don’t.


Now, some 25 years on, Anta is a thriving business providing a valuable outlet for the handiwork of dozens of skilled designers, craftsmen and women.

Who knows: but for an idea, some guts and some serious action, it might never have happened.


“Switch it off and switch it back on again”

August 23, 2012

I don’t know about you, but whenever my computer is playing up I’ll spend several frustrating minutes trying to figure out why and fix the problem (which, given my limited knowledge of IT, is unlikely at the best of times). Then I’ll try everyone’s favourite method of switching it off and switching it on again – and voila! It’s amazing how often it kicks back into life like nothing has happened.

You’ll have also heard people say that the brain is like a computer. So what happens if you put those two ideas together?

Like most people, I’ve taken a break over the summer, but this year I’ve done things a little differently.

In the past, even if I went on holiday, I’d take some work with me. If nothing else, while everyone else was eagerly reading the latest pool-side best-seller, I’d read a couple of books on management and leadership before letting myself read for fun.

This year, however, for a full week I consciously chose NOT to think about anything work related. I did this to the extent that if work-related thoughts crept into my mind, I’d consciously switch them off and think about or do something else.

Here are five of the most productive and useful things to have come out of that experiment.


1. Guilt lessens as you realise the value of switching off

Many people feel guilty about taking time out and simply allowing themselves to switch off – the self employed in particular, where there’s no one else to take up the slack if you take a break.

However, if you’ve set yourself a clear time frame for switching off, for example “this week, I’m not thinking about anything work related at all”, you’ll feel less guilty in the knowledge that you WILL be tackling these issues in good time. Just not now.

If you start to stress that you’ll forget something important, write it down somewhere, and then put it aside.

Trust me: the world won’t stop if you do.


2. You’ll get things into perspective

It’s all too easy to get bogged down in day-to-day matters which do have to be addressed, but which, if you give them too much attention as and when they arise, take up far too much of your focus and time.

I, for one, am often guilty of dealing with things immediately as they arise, in effect treating everything as an emergency and running the risk of faffing about with the small things rather than concentrating on the things that really matter.

Allowing yourself to switch off and, as it were, view some of these things with detachment, gives you a different, clearer perspective on what actually matters.


3. You’ll learn new things and make fresh connections

When you deliberately step away from your work you’ll find yourselves doing other things – things that engage and interest you. Even though you’ve deliberately ‘switched off’ from work, you’re not wasting time doing nothing.

Allowing yourself to focus on other things provides valuable opportunities to learn new things which can in the long term prove MUCH more useful than if you’d tried to stay half tuned-in to work.

I’ve been doing a bit of research on creativity and innovation, and one of the most useful things I’ve done in recent months is wander round a few art galleries. Not only was it a relaxing thing to do, it provided food for thought, and I met one or two interesting people who have provided me with valuable insights as to how the artistic process relates to innovation.


4. Subconscious works

In essence, when you deliberately switch off from work-related issues, you allow your subconscious to take over and figure it all out for you.

The power of your subconscious is not to be underestimated: it can and will draw upon hidden strengths and forgotten knowledge in order to solve problems, generate new ideas and so on … but it can’t work effectively if your conscious mind is constantly over-riding it. Switching off provides the opportunity for it to work for you. 

My personal example of this relates to a training workshop I’d been asked to develop and deliver at short notice. Instead of fretting in front of the computer screen trying to dredge ideas up from nowhere, I went for a run.

By the time I came back an hour later, I had a clear idea of the content and structure of the workshop, and even some of the props and visuals I was going to use.

There’s no way I’d have come up with the same quality of ideas if I’d tried to force them: it was a case of deliberately doing something else and letting my subconscious do the work.


5. When you switch on again

This, my friends, came as perhaps the biggest surprise of all, and is perhaps the most important point: if you take time to switch off, when you switch on again and tune back in to work, you’ll find that during the time you’ve switched off, something has happened.

You’re better able to focus, you have better ideas and you’re more motivated – not in spite of, but BECAUSE you’ve switched off and switched on again.


So here’s the thing. Take time to switch off: you don’t have to go on holiday, you can take a ten minute breather. It’s counter intuitive, but sometimes switching off rather than ploughing on can be the most productive thing to do.


Unlock Your Hidden Creativity: Step 2 – Create, don’t just Edit

May 10, 2011

Creativity is serious business. It’s about creating new things, coming up with new ideas, establishing new ways of doing things. It’s what can give successful companies a sustainable competitive edge.

Many individuals and organisations, though, settle for editing existing versions of products or processes, never really coming up with anything new, just with a load of stuff that’s a small shuffling step or two away from where they started.

Here are 3 top tips for genuinely creative thinking … as opposed to sticking to familiar patterns and making minor amendments to the status quo.

Please bear in mind that I’m NOT giving a list of techniques here – you can do a Google search for that and come up with dozens of techniques and processes like brainstorming, SCAMPER, role play, blah blah blah … I’m focussing on fundamental pre-requisites to creative thinking. If you don’t have your head in the right place to start with, even the best creative thinking techniques won’t help you.

1. “Set phasers to ‘stun’!”
Before I start, I wouldn’t mind betting that some readers are already thinking, “well, you can’t just come up with new ideas and implement them! You have to do a risk assessment / scenario plan / costing strategy …”    WOAH WOAH WOAH!!!

To those who are doing that, hold on a moment: we WILL do those things. Creative thinking doesn’t stand alone, it must be partnered with practical implementation … but that bit comes later.

At the start of the creative process, you’ll have to ‘knock out’ the internal editor or analyst (hence the Star Trek terminology).  We don’t want to kill them off completely, because they are vital to implementing creative ideas … BUT left brain logic mustn’t interfere too soon.

For some people that’s going to be really difficult, as it cuts across habit and mindsets. However, on the premise that EVERYONE is creative, it can be done.

It’s critical to allow creativity full rein at the beginning WITHOUT the logical editor or analyst coming in and saying “we can’t do that because … have you thought about … we tried that before and …”

Take a piece of paper and a pencil and try this 5 minute exercise.

Think about everything you’ve done since you woke up this morning, starting from the moment you opened your eyes, and start to write it down. Write it down EXACTLY as it comes into your head.

How easy or difficult is that? How long is it before the ‘editor brain’ kicks in and you find yourself correcting spelling and punctuation, revisiting sentences that don’t make sense, THINKING about what you’re going to write rather than just writing what you think?

Freely thinking creatively can take self-discipline. It’s important to learn to silence the inner editor and think freely … otherwise ideas will be stifled at birth and never allowed to develop.

Learn to silence the editor within and give your internal ‘creator’ space at the beginning of the process, whatever specific technique you are using.
2. The Catwalk Model
One concern that logical, strongly left brain thinkers can often have is that allowing too much creativity will lead to the lunatics taking over the asylum. That strange and ridiculous ideas will come to fruition. That profitability and common sense will be sacrificed on the altar of irrelevant arty-fartyness. That reckless and meaningless expenditure will have to be awkwardly explained to demanding shareholders.  That pie-in-the-sky projects will detract from the serious business of generating profit.

Not so.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s watched a TV clip of an emaciated catwalk model (stay with me here, the metaphor is relevant!) wearing something completely bizarre, her hair backcombed to within an inch of falling out, aunt sally make-up, tottering along on impossibly high heels and thought “Who on earth would wear THAT?!”

And funnily enough, on my local high street, and in the fashion magazines, I never see people actually wearing the catwalk outfit … I  DO, though, see people wearing similar but more practical versions of it in terms of size, colour, shape, cut, length and so on.

Creative thinking that initially conjures up the bizarre and  somewhat alarming, actually translates – through a process of analysis, editing, elimination and implementation – into practical new ideas that work.

Tempting though it is to start with the safety of the status quo and tweak it, genuine, groundbreaking innovation comes from new thinking.

Strongly logical left brain thinkers in particular need to remain calm and positive during the creative process, and not shut it down because it looks like it’s getting out of hand.

Strongly creative right brain thinkers need to acknowledge that not everything is going to work out in real life.
3. Get out more!
Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that my clarion call to Do Something Different is one which I repeat often … in this case, it’s an exhortation to get out more!

Creative thinking benefits from inspiration. This is more easily achieved by bringing in external influences, or by going out and doing something different, and not by sitting round a table in an office or training room somewhere with a heap of post-it notes and coloured pens, pontificating.

Excessive inward focus is far less likely to lead to inspiration than looking outwards and GOING outwards in order to make connections and discover new things. 

So be creative about your creativity. Don’t expect to come up with startling innovations by editing what already exists and thinking in the same old way in the same old environment doing the same old things that you always have done.

Do something different. Because doing something different leads to inspiration …
which leads to creativity …
which leads to innovation …
which leads to commercial and competitive edge …
which leads to profits and sustainable business growth.
Next week, more on how you can develop an environment that fosters innovation and creativity.

Unlock your hidden creativity – 3 key steps to getting it back again

April 30, 2011

 Creativity and innovation are what give a company its competitive edge… so how come the idea of ‘creativity at work’ can sometimes feel like a contradiction in terms?

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing 3 key ways of uncovering your creative potential, as an individual or organisation. You DO have it… you just might have lost sight of it.

Before I start, an acknowledgment: I have my friend, the artist Blythe Scott  (at ), to thank as the inspiration behind this blog series: in addition to creating her own remarkable paintings, she also teaches people to draw, and it’s from THIS, together with my own research and the work of acknowledged experts in the field of creativity, that these insights have come.

Step 1.   “Turn the Chair Upside Down”

I’ve got no hand–eye co-ordination, and I simply CANNOT draw. I can’t replicate the 3D image I see in front of me on a flat piece of paper… for nearly 40 years, that’s what I thought. Yet in the last 2 months, I’ve learned to draw in a way I never thought I could.

I’ve heard many people over the years say that they are not creative, and whilst this is their genuine perception, it’s simply not true. They ARE creative.

Two things to bear in mind :

a) some people will be more ‘creative’ than others, and

b) ‘creativity’ does NOT equate to talent in the arts – it manifests itself in many different ways. Companies and individuals want to be ‘creative’ – they don’t all want to be artists or performers.

So what if you’re ‘not very creative’ and you want to be?

One of the things I remember Blythe saying a while back is that if someone who “can’t draw” turns a chair upside down, they are more likely to be able to draw it accurately.

Far from just being a metaphor for taking a different perspective in order to be creative, there’s some science behind this.

Understand that even in creativity, there is science. It’s not a dangerous free-for-all state of chaos to be feared or contained.

In her book ‘How to draw with the right side of the brain’ (lent to me by Blythe!) Betty Edwards explains that with most “non-artists” after about the age of 10, the logical left side of the brain dominates. It will look at a chair, face or house and say “Ah yes, a chair / face / house. I know what a chair / face/ house looks like” and draws not the thing it sees, but its own remembered symbol for a chair / face/ house.

People who “can’t draw” are probably drawing like ten year olds, because this is what happens.

Turn the chair or the image upside down, though, and the left brain doesn’t have a stored symbol for an upside-down chair or face or whatever, so the right brain kicks in and draws what is actually in front of it, resulting in a much more accurate drawing.

Accept the paradox that looking at some things creatively – not logically – can result in a more accurate, better quality result.

 Another factor explained by Edwards is that right brain creative work is very absorbing. It’s easy to get into a state of ‘flow’, or be ‘in the zone’ and lose track of time. Some people might have issues with ‘letting go’ in this way.

Be prepared to give creativity time, and to ‘go with the flow’. Experiment, test, try.

I’ve tried this ‘upside down’ technique with line drawings, furniture and photos… and it works. Drawing isn’t just about hand-eye co-ordination, as I’d thought for years. It’s about learning to see things in a different way. Now that I know how to see things in a different way, I no longer have to turn them upside down every time.

Understand that to be creative, you have to challenge yourself to see things in a different way, and from a different angle.

Have a go yourself. If you “can’t draw”, take a simple image or a chair, turn it upside down, and focus on what you SEE, not what you think you know is there. See what happens. To be honest, if the result is NOT an improvement on your usual ability to draw, you’ve either allowed some left brain interpretation in there and taken your eye off the image itself, or you’ve become a slave to time and rushed it.

Consider your own field of work. Where’s the metaphor here? Is there a process that’s existed for years that you can ‘view upside down’ in order to see it more clearly? A product perhaps? A behaviour pattern that’s just ‘the way things are’ that can actually be challenged?

If you remain sceptical about your own creative ability, think about small children and they way they draw, play and create in a very uninhibited way. ALL kids, given the chance and barring disabilities which might prevent it, will do this… even the ones who end up as lawyers and corporate strategists.

Somewhere along the line, through education, social factors and other things, their emphasis shifts from the creative to the logical.

But guess what? In my training programmes (which use a variety of creative methods) as soon as people are ‘allowed’ and ‘encouraged’ to be creative, or are given no option BUT to be creative, they can all do it. They can all contribute creatively in their own way. Some might feel awkward at first if they’re not used to it, but that’s natural. Given the right encouragement and environment and a mandate to be creative, people can. They just can. Without exception.

Allow yourself to think in a childlike way (NOTE – childlike, not childish – there’s a BIG difference).

Allow yourself to put aside the comfort blanket of left-brain logic and ‘go with the flow’… you’re only thinking, and no one’s going to get hurt!

Allow yourself to be creative: stop telling yourself that you’re not, start telling yourself that you’re re-discovering your creative abilities. And then do something different to prove it to yourself.

Next time,   I’ll be looking at your creative versus your editor brain, and how to make the most of both… so watch this blog space for Step 2!

Change without difference

February 28, 2011

Is there such a thing as change without difference? No. Of course not.

I can’t help feeling, though, that many organisations around the world rather wish that this WAS the case. Mediocre and even fairly well-performing companies look with envious eyes at the truly innovative, and wish they could enjoy a similar success… but seem unwilling to go through the necessary shake up to make it happen.

 How many organisations do you know or have you worked for where the clarion cry is for creativity, innovation, doing things differently, challenging the status quo, improving products and services… only to find that, once you scratch beneath the surface, what’s actually wanted is stability, familiarity, maintenance?

What if more organisations opened themselves up – even tentatively – to genuinely doing things differently: not inviting chaos and disruption, but encouraging facilitated innovation and change, and carefully monitoring the results to ensure and capture the benefits?

How much more productive could we be?

Are there any organisations out there prepared to do something different  (that’s ‘different’ and not ‘recycled’ or ‘reinvented’) …without coming up with a string of excuses as to why it can’t be done?