Over the last few years, I’ve heard stories of companies flying to San Francisco to go on a Silicon Valley safari. It sounds like great fun. They get to visit some of the tech behemoths, as well as to witness some exciting startups in their natural habitat.
They drink organic coffee, see some pretty impressive facial hair, and wish they were as confident as the 22-year-old CEOs they meet. The whole purpose of the trip is to be inspired by the scene and pick up some lessons on how to innovate.
I think they’re wasting their time.
The way I see it, these companies are like an incontinent pensioner asking nursery kids for bladder- control advice. The kids might tell them a thing or two, but they don’t have as much experience as the pensioner, they don’t understand the pensioner’s priorities and most of them haven’t even mastered the skill they’re being asked to advise on.
People at different stages of life have different needs and understandings. And the same goes for companies.
All businesses start out creative—even health and safety training providers. They have to work out who they are, what makes them special, what they mean to offer, how they mean to offer it and where they will find clients. That all involves applied thinking and new ideas. They’re creating something out of nothing. This is the most exciting and glamorous stage of a company. Creating stuff makes you feel good. Every little win gives you a buzz. The upward trajectory feels as if there’s a world of opportunities. Your focus is on finding and creating the magic that will become the foundation of your future success. Some companies even survive into the next stage.
If you find your magic, the money comes in and you grow. Again, super-exciting, but for different reasons. The founders of the business get excited, and that spreads through the company. Employees have to put in more effort to service the increased workload, but they’re part of something bigger, so it’s worth it.
The company has to make an adjustment from making it up as they go along to creating something scalable. Their creativity is focused elsewhere. They now have to develop a way of repeating the magic as effectively and predictably as possible. That involves creating systems, processes, methodologies and consistent behaviours.
Once this is done, creativity is unnecessary unless it’s part of the offering.
Once a company has created the systems and processes to replicate their secret sauce, there’s only one thing left to do. It’s time to focus on efficiency and profit. You earn more money by doing more things cheaper and faster. So the energy goes into cost-cutting, rationalisation, and new business. Some of it may go into developing new products, but too many companies value what they’ve already got above anything they could possibly have. They don’t want to risk that.
When an organisation focuses on efficiency and profitability, it turns its back on any form of risk. In fact, if the company has shareholders, it has what is known as a “fiduciary duty” to act in their best interests. That interest is to maximise their investment. Anything that can be seen as risky or unproven runs counter to that. An idea that is too adventurous could be seen as a breach of fiduciary duty.
At this stage, a company is set up to kill interesting ideas, which is why I find it ridiculous that mature companies with everything to lose would try to learn from startups with little to lose.
Businesses don’t want creativity
With this understanding of business-life stages, I think it’s a good idea to read between the lines when companies say they want creativity. I don’t actually think they do. I think, instead, what they want is a great solution or an idea that could add value to their business.
Most organisations want the end result of creativity, not the process.
And if we understand that, it means we shouldn’t just throw ourselves headlong into brainstorms in the futile hope that an hour locked away in the boardroom with a bowl of M&Ms will solve our problems and open up opportunities. Instead, we need to use a better process that gets us to more effective ideas more effectively. But that’s an article for another day.
Dave Birss is the author of “How To Get To Great Ideas” and a number of other books. He also helps organisations of all ages and sizes benefit from better ideas. His website is here and he can be found on Twitter here.