Think Inside the Box

Interview with Micael Dahlén, Author of Creativity Unlimited, Nextopia, and Marketing on the Web
By Vern Burkhardt
"Creativity is not about taking chances. Creativity is about ensuring success."

We need to strengthen our brain through training to enable us to be better at creativity and business creation.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You are a Professor of marketing and consumer behavior. I understand that the Swedish press often refers to you as "The marketing guru of Stockholm School of Economics." In what ways are you a marketing guru?

photo of Micael DahlenMicael Dahlén: I strive to be an academic in the best sense, in that the things I say and do are really well founded in numbers and rigorous tests, so that I am absolutely and undeniably certain about things. I try not to be an academic in the worst sense, which is detached from the problems and opportunities of the real world. Everything I do and say is meant to be of practical use. Does that make me a guru? You tell me.

VB: How did you, a student of the laws of economics, become interested in creativity?

Micael Dahlén: Economic value can come either from cutting costs or increasing revenue. Hence, there was a fifty percent chance I would choose either of the two paths.

I quickly learned that people tend to go for cutting costs – making things easier for themselves. Thus it was more fun for me to take the other path. When my research showed that people who go for increasing revenue by making things a bit more difficult for themselves and finding new opportunities actually feel better and even live longer, I knew I was on the right track.

VB: Thinking "out of the box" seems to have been accepted by many as a good way to be creative. You recommend instead that we "think inside the box" and "shake the box." If we focus on "thinking out of the box" will it reduce our achievement of creative results?

Micael Dahlén: To tell someone to think out of the box is like giving them a blank sheet of paper and saying, "Here, create something!" Ever experienced writer's block? That's what happens. Creative work is then at risk of being splintered and unproductive – the uncertainty can be paralyzing.

If you're venturing into totally unfamiliar territory, how do you know if what's in front of you is useful? It's like monkeys buying stock. Popular experiments have shown that they can pick stock just as well as any Wall Street broker, but obviously monkeys aren't able to make business out of their stock picks – though some would probably say monkeys have run Wall Street lately.

VB: What does it mean to "think inside the box," and why is it what creativity is all about?

Micael Dahlén: Thinking inside the box means not sitting down with a blank sheet of paper. It means having a paper that is filled with information that you rearrange and find new ways of using. It's finding new ways that you, unlike in the case of "monkeying around," are able to see the real value of.

Creative people are able to produce new solutions because they are clear about the limitations they are working within. The same applies to organizations – it can act as a metaphor for setting the boundaries of creative work.

VB: Is it possible to think without a "box?"

Micael Dahlén: Our brains are incredibly lazy and, as I mentioned earlier, most of us automatically go for reducing costs and making things easier for ourselves. If we have no box, meaning no limits to our input and output, the brain tends automatically to refrain from really trying. Instead it comes up with some old, stored, and standard solution.

So yes, one can think without a box, but one can hardly think in new ways.

VB: "The brain follows the path of least resistance." Would you talk about thought tunnels and riverbeds?

Micael Dahlén: A thought tunnel is an illustration of how we tend to, regardless of where we enter, always come out in the same place. When trying to think in new ways, we go into the dark and after a while we always wind up moving towards that same light in the tunnel. It's the old, time-tested solution we have come to so many times before.

Riverbeds illustrate the same thing. Once we have come up with a solution to a problem, it's like we create a riverbed. When new input comes, like water, no matter from where it pours it tends to gather and run towards the same end.

VB: What does it mean to "shake the box," and why is it the "very essence of the creative process?"

Micael Dahlén: Shaking the box means taking all the information and skills you have, and finding new ways of combining and using them. This is done through rearranging the contents time after time and seeing the combinations that arise.

Every piece of information and every skill are like a piece of a puzzle. You put them in a box, shake and open it up, and find that the pieces have connected in totally new ways. This makes beautiful patterns you could never have imagined before.

cover of Creativity UnlimitedIn Creativity Unlimited I write about shaking the box from side to side, and provide exercises that will help businesses make their product offering as attractive to the consumer as they can – success begins and ends in the mind of the consumer. I also provide exercises for learning how to continuously work on product and concept innovation.

VB: Can members of a team or other group be more creative if they consciously and collectively decide to alternately "shake the box" vertically and horizontally?

Micael Dahlén: Undoubtedly. In this case, I can give a very short, non-academic, answer. We've tested it time and again. It works without a doubt.

VB: You describe the four walls of the box, and advise they have a tendency to grow inwards over the years if we don't actively push them outwards. You also say one of the walls, common sense, "is one of the most destructive concepts in existence, and should be banned from common usage in any language." Would you talk about this?

Micael Dahlén: "Common sense" is our cheapest way of escape. It can either incorrectly simplify or complicate problems and lead you in the wrong direction.

Your first solution is not always the best, but "common sense" would lead you to think it is. To counter the tendency to accept this first solution we need to ask whether just about anyone could have thought of the idea – if so, the solution is not a creative result. Someone likely has already had that idea, and it is therefore neither unique nor meaningful.

Referring to common sense relieves people of even trying to see things from new perspectives and coming up with new solutions. "Common sense" said the earth was flat, the sun revolves around the earth, high jumping can only be done by diving head first over the bar, and personal computers will never exist.

VB: You say, "As a Swede I am tempted to think that my consciousness is made in Sweden, it is so attached to the idea of 'not too much and not too little'." Is this a "national" trait of Swedes and, if so, does it tend to inhibit or enhance their creativity?

Micael Dahlén: It is pretty much part of our culturally learned conventions, one of the box walls that may limit our thinking. It risks keeping us from really stretching, and maybe even being "content" – another dangerous word – with what we already have.

VB: Is this attribute of "not too much and not too little" predominant in other Scandinavian countries or in any other parts of Europe?

Micael Dahlén: It's a pretty European thing, I'm afraid.

VB: "…the brain thinks long before we are conscious of it." How can we use this knowledge to become more creative?

Micael Dahlén: For one, we can realize that our immediate gut feelings have, in fact, nothing to do with our guts. They are products of the brain and should be immediately entered into the mix without suspicion.

By getting people to record their immediate ideas and thoughts, we increase the pieces of the puzzle and possible solutions by about thirty percent. This is for two reasons. Immediate ideas can be surprisingly useful ideas. Expressing those "gut feelings" opens up people's thinking for a better flow of ideas afterwards.

VB: You say there is "no such thing as useless knowledge," and "knowing a little more … makes you much more creative." Why is this?

Micael Dahlén: It's like a hammer and a nail. Viewed separately, they may not seem to be very useful, but together they can build houses.

To be successful, you and your business need to be challenged continuously to think creatively and innovatively, and constantly acquire new knowledge. This includes but isn't limited to knowledge about people's everyday lives into which your product must fit; economics; business; and the behavior, drives and motivations of people.

Every extra piece of information means all the existing pieces can be combined in new ways. It increases exponentially and explosively with every extra piece we add.

VB: Isn't creativity about being able to use and apply the knowledge we have, and therefore doesn't it need to be organized and focused?

Micael Dahlén: Yes, we need to be more organized and focused in our creative processes! One of the major damaging preconceptions about creativity is that it's random and totally free from constraints. That's why so few companies dare to rely on creativity in their daily operations. As you suggest, recording ideas and putting them to use requires organization and focus.

VB: You say that one of the most important reasons why many innovations fail is "We create habits that are difficult to break, and we are loath to change and lean new ways of behaving." Are there any proven ways we can become aware of and break these habits?

Micael Dahlén: It is hard to spot them yourself. That's why one of the smartest things is to ask people to observe each other. We've done a lot of group or pair exercises, and it gives people shocking insights.

VB: You advise, "...concentrating on creativity is the best investment you can make." Are companies in Europe and, more specifically Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries, following this advice to invest heavily in R&D and open innovation?

Micael Dahlén: Sorry for the cliché, but "Rome wasn't built in a day." Though it took some time, it sure was magnificent and long-lived once it was established. It's pretty much the same with creative investment policies. But I can say a lot has happened in the last three years.

VB: Can creative, extensive marketing by a company compensate for the fact it is not, in fact, creative and able to find superior solutions for the future? Does this happen very often or does the marketplace quickly find out the truth?

Micael Dahlén: I would say there are no sustainable superior solutions. Sooner or later – probably sooner – something even greater will materialize. That means you need to immediately make the most of the great idea you have. Marketing is crucial in that sense.

We found in a study of marketing campaigns that creativity in marketing products is related to the quality people attribute to the product, and their expectations that the companies' future products will be of high quality and satisfy their needs. Creativity is needed to continuously meet those expectations.

VB: You say that product creativity and marketing creativity explain 77% of companies' increases in sales and market share, and 61% of companies' customer satisfaction. When business leaders learn about these relationships does it shock them into action?

Micael Dahlén: Yes! What business leaders care most about is the bottom line. If you can prove that creativity is all about the bottom line, rather than some glamorous stuff one can indulge in on occasion, then leaders get to business focusing on being creative and helping their organizations improve their creative abilities.

VB: You also say that, with the possible exception of high technology companies, the conceptual and strategic development of product marketing is more important than concrete product creativity. Is this the case because of the proliferation of like products in mature marketplaces?

Micael Dahlén: The amount of new product introductions is mind-boggling. To use your short window of opportunity, you need people to realize the value of your product in an instant. That's where concept and strategy come into play.

VB: What aspects of marketing creativity should companies pay particular attention to if they wish to increase sales and bottom line profits?

Micael Dahlén: Categorizing your product. I cannot emphasize this enough – answer the question in one sentence. "What is this product?"

VB: "…most of the successful innovations – with the exceptions of TV, cars and telephones – are not particularly revolutionary." Would you talk about this?

Micael Dahlén: This relates to earlier questions. In the frenzy of new product innovations, most people don't have the time or energy to learn very much about your product. If it takes too much to learn about and adapt to it chances are people won't. This has so often been the case; almost everyone remembers the Segway.

VB: It may surprise some of our readers that you say, "…almost all patents registered throughout history have concerned small changes to existing products." Would you talk about this; is it true throughout Europe as well as North America?

Micael Dahlén: Yes. We tend to forget that creativity does not have to mean upsetting the entire world. Talk about performance anxiety!

VB: How can a small or start up business avoid being discouraged because of "first-mover advantages," the "law of scale advantage," and "double jeopardy." [Vern's note: Companies that are first to market may enjoy first-mover advantages. "Scale advantage" means that a large player in the market is in a better negotiating position with its suppliers, and normally becomes stronger in the market at the expense of other companies. For example, advertising in a market by competitors favors the market leader by making consumers and businesses (in business to business dealings) aware of the availability of the products. Smaller companies are in "double jeopardy" because they get fewer customers and large customers almost always choose to buy from market leaders.]

Micael Dahlén: By realizing that "me-too" is not the way to go. Never take any market for granted, they are dynamic. A few winners and many losers characterize almost all markets.

This is why it is necessary to constantly launch new products. The economy and society are perpetually dependent on innovations, which provides new opportunities and variations for small or start up businesses to grow.

VB: How significant is "brand gravity" to the success or failure of most businesses? (Vern's note: Micael Dahlén points out that brands automatically bring to mind thoughts and ideas, and stimulate certain behaviors in us – "brand gravity.")

Micael Dahlén: Once a company has established its brand, there can be a great deal of flexibility for it to develop new products and concepts. When a new product is introduced under a well-known brand people will be more curious and eager to try it than if it is introduced under an unknown brand.

Brand gravity can be a smart way of creating meaningfulness and helping people immediately understand what the product is about. It can also be a great guide in new product concept development.

VB: "Efficient complexity is an excellent way of describing a really successful business." Would you talk about this?

Micael Dahlén: Efficient complexity comes from evolutionary biology, and means that species that mutate a lot have greater chances of survival and proliferation. The future is always uncertain; having a vast array of alternative solutions – mutations – raises chances that any given solution will be just the right key to any upcoming challenge.

Same thing with businesses. Not all of your new ventures will succeed, but the likelihood of success increases dramatically with the number of new ventures, far outweighing the costs.

VB: Have you encountered interesting and novel ways companies have intentionally used the "Florence Nightingale effect" to their advantage? (Vern's note: This effect indicates that, where a company has stable customer relations and well-known brands, and therefore loyal customers, a failed product can actually strengthen the customers' views of the company. One explanation is that the defective product shows the company has weaknesses like everyone else, and customers may appreciate that the company is making an effort to improve.)

Micael Dahlén: There are a lot of interesting cases, ranging from Coca-Cola's Vanilla Coke to Porsche's Cayenne, and the Swedish brand Kalle's "banana cheese." You gotta love them.

I wouldn't suggest that companies intentionally set out to have failed initiatives in order to take advantage of the Florence Nightingale effect. All new initiatives involve risk, but a company is also taking a risk if it doesn't think creatively and in novel ways. The solace may be that for companies with good relationships with their customers failed initiatives can increase customer sympathy for the brand. It is possible that Coca-Cola's and Pepsi-Cola's many "odd" product launches that flopped in recent years didn't have significant negative impact on them because of the Florence Nightingale effect.

VB: You identify what you call an "important insight" – "that creative people are not particularly special beings." Would you talk about this?

Micael Dahlén: Like in all other aspects of life, practice makes good. Never excuse yourself with "I'm not a creative person." There are no such things as "creative" and "not creative" people. We can all learn to generate and develop many ideas.

VB: If you were advising business leaders on how to put a creative process in place in their organization, to what would you recommend they pay particular attention?

Micael Dahlén: Awareness. Increase awareness of what everyone is doing, and enable everyone else to tap into that awareness.

The pieces to the puzzle are always there. You just have to find and use them.

VB: How did you "invent" the many creativity exercises in Creativity Unlimited?

Micael Dahlén: I took all the insights I could find from the psychology literature on how and why people think or don't think in new ways. I coupled these with all the insights from the innovation literature on what kinds of new products and processes are most successful. And I experimented with hundreds of students, and thousands of employees in numerous companies.

VB: Why are these creativity exercises useful in helping to improve our score on the self-test for creativity you include in your book, as well as our capabilities for business innovation?

Micael Dahlén: Because they provide you with processes to practice and act on which, after a while, become more or less like a self-playing piano. It's like learning to dance. Do it over and over again, and soon it becomes totally natural and automatically leads to more advanced routines.

VB: If we faithfully and repeatedly work through your creativity exercises, are we almost guaranteed to become significantly more creative?

Micael Dahlén: Promise. My Swedish edition even had a bold money-back guarantee. No one has taken advantage of this and asked for his or her money back.

VB: You say the average age of people making breakthroughs in business, technology, culture, and the arts is increasing because people in their 40s and 50s are being more creative. Is this primarily because many are using their creative capacities constantly?

Micael Dahlén: Yes, it's becoming a natural and necessary part of our lives. We cannot stop!

VB: Is your book, Nextopia, going to be translated so it will be available to the English-speaking world?

Micael Dahlén: It was actually written in English, but because it coincided with the English translation of "Creativity Unlimited" it was put on hold and translated to other languages first.

VB: Is Nextopia an example of the paradoxical fate of human beings? (Vern's note: Micael Dahlén describes "Nextopia" as "our evolutionary drive to always strive for the next thing, next date, next job, or next product we're going to buy." The next anything will be the best one, a utopian hope that the next whatever will be the perfect "one," and will provide meaning to our lives. The force behind Nextopia is our drive to strive for the next thing in combination with our society where there is an abundance of opportunities. Nextopia forces companies to never be satisfied with their accomplishments, to always strive for improvements. In Nextopia we're open to expressing ourselves in new and different ways.)

Micael Dahlén: Kind of. Or, in a philosophical sense, it's another truth about us – we never reach our ultimate goals. We never cross the finish line. That's why we keep running.

VB: Is knowledge of Nextopia likely to motivate us to be creative and innovative, or only lead us to being constantly dissatisfied with our lives? As you say, "People can't be happy for more than three months."

Micael Dahlén: Nextopia leads us to be more innovative and creative because we always expect the next thing will be worthwhile. What waits around the next corner is always going to be better than what we have.

It is because we are never completely satisfied with what we have that we keep pursuing new things.

VB: Nextopia aside, do you think a longer-term happiness is possible for people?

Micael Dahlén: No. Happiness is a bump in the road. Ultimate happiness does not exist, three months is the deadline.

But if you stop striving for ultimate happiness, you can expect many more road bumps in your life!

VB: Is the phenomenon of Nextopia more prevalent in an affluent society?

Micael Dahlén: Yes. In affluent societies, which describe the majority of all countries, we become increasingly aware of all the new things we have not yet experienced.

VB: Does the concept of Nextopia help explain the economic laws underlying capitalism?

Micael Dahlén: Gross Domestic Product and Nextopia go hand in hand. Our economies would never have proliferated without people chasing Nextopia.

VB: Can the "expectation society" survive the challenges we will face with climate change, resource depletion, and exploding population?

Micael Dahlén: I think so.

In our chase for the next thing, we tend to warp our consumption in the direction of consuming smaller and smaller bits of things. Examples are: eating mini burgers instead of gargantuan ones; watching the five-minute trailer instead of the whole movie; and subscribing to music online instead of buying CDs. This kind of consumption is more efficient and less taxing.

VB: What generally is the reaction of your audiences when you talk about the concept of Nextopia?

Micael Dahlén: Shock, laughter, embarrassment, and even outrage. They pretty much love or hate it, not much in between.

VB: You say that after reading all the books you could find on creativity you conclude most are only entertainment because they don't lead to concrete results. They aren't directly linked to business creation. What books about creativity and innovation would you recommend and why?

Micael Dahlén: I love the classic Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas by James Adams.

VB: What interesting research or other projects are you currently working on?

Micael Dahlén: I'm working on something right now that is so controversial I dare not talk about it. It will be out late next fall, and I need to prepare myself and my family for the impact.

VB: That should be interesting!

"By far the most important aspect of creativity is the creative result. The result is creative if it fulfils two criteria. Firstly, it must be new and contribute something to the field that was not there before. Secondly, it must serve a purpose. Novelty has a very limited direct effect on a company's result. It is more important that the product is perceived to be meaningful."

When discussing the importance of creativity, Micael Dahlén advises, "The more you use your creative capacity, the stronger it becomes. This is a natural law, just as a muscle gets stronger the more work it does."

He indicates there are a number of paradoxes that distinguish the qualities of creative compared to non-creative people. Creative people are characterized by:

  1. Being both conventional and rebellious;

  2. Using both divergent and convergent thinking;

  3. Having both an abundance of energy and a great need for relaxation;

  4. Combining humility and pride; and

  5. Being to a great extent both introverted and extroverted.

Micael Dahlén challenges us to develop our creative talents by working through his exercises, and to make creativity and innovation part of our everyday working life.

Micael Dahlén's bio:
Micael Dahlén is Professor of Business Administration, Marketing Strategy, and Consumer Behavior at the Stockholm School of Economics. He is a rising star in the academic field and has published a great number of articles in academic journals on the subjects of branding, advertising, public relations, and media.

Professor Dahlén has written the "Kotler-like" university textbook Brands and Marketing Communication (2008), Creativity Unlimited (2008), and Nextopia in the Swedish language (Nextopia: livet, lyckan och pengarna i Förväntningssamhället), and Marketing on the Web: Empirical Studies of Advertising and Promotion Effectiveness (2001). He co-authored with Fredrik Lange, and Terry D Smith Marketing Communications: A Brand Narrative Approach (2009).

Micael Dahlén is also a frequently hired lecturer and consultant to companies and schools.

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