Unlocking Creativity

IdeaConnection's interview with Patrick Harris, Author of The Truth About Creativity
By Vern Burkhardt
"If knowledge is the mind of the Talent Age, creativity is its heartbeat."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You are the owner of thoughtengine® located in London, England. Would you tell us about this company?

photo of Patrick HarrisPatrick Harris: thoughtengine is a consultancy that works in the areas of strategy, creativity, futures and brand. We see these areas as closely connected – or at least they should be. Our work is cross-industry and spans government, telecoms, finance, not-for-profits, fast moving consumer goods, design, and more. More often than not, we provide an immersive experience that stimulates a change in organizational or personal behavior thereafter.

For example, more than once organizations have contacted us asking for strategic direction, imagining no more than a document at the time. In these cases we provide a document, yes, but we also help them create a robust strategic dialogue inside the company. The former is a healthy snapshot of a moment in time, while the latter has more long-term usefulness for the people who regularly provide strategic input.

VB: You were born in Louisiana, U.S. How did you end up living and owning a business in London?

Patrick Harris: Yes, I was born and raised in Louisiana.

After university, I worked in California and Florida, and spent some time as a competitive water skier. In 1990, I accepted an invitation from a friend, who is also a British water skier, to visit and work in London for the summer. That year, I met a girl, fell in love, and my summer in the UK quickly became 19 years. Over some of that time I worked for the mobile phone company, Orange, in Network Infrastructure and, after my MBA, in Group Strategy. My role in Group Strategy was as Director of 'Creaticity,' where I was in charge of an internal strategic think tank that built Orange strategy. It was the coolest job on the planet at the time. Having had the coolest job, though, makes you realize that your next step needs to be your own. So I set up thoughtengine and I've never looked back.

VB: In what way was your job as Director of Creaticity the "coolest job on the planet at the time?"

Patrick Harris: At that period of time Orange was way ahead of the competition, and was rewriting the rules of mobile telephony. Even its name was unique then, when compared to the 'net', 'com' and 'phone' names of other companies.

Specifically, I was given the task of looking after the company strategy by managing a strategic think tank, which was housed on the executive floor in a space called the Imaginarium. It was a dynamic, creative environment, and I was given the freedom to consider topics beyond the normal range. Our CEO felt that it was a good idea to have a small number of people investigating a wider brief than mainstream areas. When people visited our executive floor and came into the Imaginarium, they witnessed a very different environment to that of many blue chip corporations. Many of the people that worked with me then, contact me now to say how much impact that period of time had in their lives.

VB: The Truth about Creativity contains 46 "truths." How did you develop these "truths?"

Patrick Harris: Much of the material from the book comes from my time spent with Orange and subsequently from working with various clients via thoughtengine. I am lucky in that the work that I do – and enjoy – is about helping people reach creative solutions to intriguing questions. Most of those truths come from first-hand learning experiences, hopefully demonstrated by the number of stories in the book. In this sense, The Truth about Creativity is the handbook that I wish I could have had when I ran the think tank for Orange.

VB: Were there any truths you had to edit out of the book, or which you have since discovered that would be useful for people interested in improving their creativity?

Patrick Harris: My aim was to write a book that was about helping people to practically apply creativity inside their organizations, or within themselves, or both. Everything I wanted to introduce is in there – in one way or another.

VB: Which two or three of your 46 truths about creativity resonate the loudest with you?

Patrick Harris: I like the question, but let me say first that each reader should answer it personally. The truths are designed to be read in any sequence, depending on your particular need or focus. The book is divided into six sub-headings to help the reader find areas of greatest need. That said, there are a few Truths that speak to me:
  • Truth 12, Half-thoughts need to be heard, excites me as a concept that most organizations could use;

  • Truth 14, See what you see, not what you think you ought to see, is one that I like because of the simplicity of the lesson; and

  • Truth 46, Feed your creative spirit is enjoyable because it introduces a philosophical perspective and calls on the reader to act.

Reader feedback from those who are applying what they have learned from the book have been gratifying. For example, one reader shared her successful results of discovering some very helpful personal guiding principles, Truth 5, and of gaining still more still useful outcomes when undergoing a similar exercise with her colleagues at work. Another reader was struck by the concept of half-thoughts, Truths 12 and 20, and began straight away to use techniques to allow staff to discuss and use half thoughts in the work place.

But maybe the most salient feedback to date was this quote from another reader: "It has been some time since I was working, but I wish I would have had this book then. I can see so many opportunities when I read it now.

VB: You refer to the importance of fulfilling your creative spirit. What is "creative spirit?"

Patrick Harris: I see it as the innate capacity that we all have to want to seek, explore, find explanation, and understand. For some people this is traveling, expressing themselves via music or... whatever.

If you look closely enough, you can see the creative efforts of someone else in almost everything around you. I still remember the first time that I used compression fittings for the sprayer and sprinkler heads on a garden hose and I thought, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?'

VB: Is creativity one of the most valuable skills we can develop personally, and encourage in our organizations?

Patrick Harris: Yes, absolutely. Maslow said the same, more or less, applies at a personal level when he wrote of progressing from a basic level of meeting physiological needs to that of self-actualization.

In organizations, creativity should be highly valued. After all, organizations are just collections of people, right? And the task of the organization is to get the best out of its people, in order to deliver the most to its stakeholders. I firmly believe that a team of people who feel comfortable enough to create and contribute – and who see the results of their contributions – is a healthy, productive one.

VB: "Rules are there to be challenged." Should we challenge all rules in an organization if we wish to be creative?

Patrick Harris: No, of course not.

Many rules are there for excellent reasons and even creativity needs some limits. But we do need to recognize when some rules have reached their "sell by" date.

In the book I give four examples of rules that can be challenged:

  • Outdated or inconsistent rules;

  • Taboo, or sacred cow rules;

  • Neglected items that are seen as too hard to tackle; and

  • Situations when people say, "That's just the way things are done around here.”

VB: "Creativity is a thought system, just as logic and scientific method are systems." Can all members of a team or even a large organization increase their individual and collective creativity if they take the time to understand and implement your truths about creativity?

Patrick Harris: I'd like to think so.

"Practice makes perfect," says the expression. It makes sense that being more aware of creative techniques and trying them out should increase our creative abilities. Of course, each team and organization that reads my truths will have other influences and distractions to deal with as well.

VB: Have you seen cases where people have increased their creative abilities by your truths and, if so, is it sustainable?

Patrick Harris: I have seen teams, indeed whole organisations, take on various commitments with regard to thinking more creatively. These can be a widespread culture shift, teams that want to set the pace for change, or just a few energetic individuals looking to make a positive contribution.

Some activities are more successful than others. The long-term effects will vary and can be based on factors beyond the creative suggestions in my book, such as variable market conditions. The situations that are most lasting are ones that truly value individual creativity and are not risk averse.

VB: "The value of an idea is not just a measure of how good it is. Valuable ideas have three intrinsic traits of quality, acceptance and execution." "Anything less is just wishful thinking." Is this the most important truth about creativity?

Patrick Harris: It is certainly a valuable truth, as it is a concise way to communicate that having a good idea is just the beginning.

Following through on your ideas by gaining the support of others and by good execution is just as important. There are lots of great ideas that are still gathering dust on a shelf because they lacked follow through.

VB: "Being creative means not stopping at the first idea that comes along…[because it] will probably only represent an incremental change." Should our goal in creativity almost always be to strive for radical thoughts?

Patrick Harris: No, radical and disruptive solution is not always the answer. In fact, a creative process can just as easily take you towards obvious, workable solutions as it can to more obscure and radical ideas.

In my experience, however, it is typically the case that people tend to be incremental in their thinking, and therefore leaving the first idea until other ideas have been considered is a wise way to ensure that the topic is explored properly.

VB: "When you explore a half-thought with a colleague, the outcome is an unplanned, organic – entirely creative – conversation." How does this work?

Patrick Harris: My definition of a half-thought is a concept, based on instinct and probably without a completely determined direction. Basically, a half-thought is the default idea that you turn to when you encounter a colleague in the hallway, away from your desk, email, reports and files. When exploring a subject in these situations you have to rely on gut instinct and say what you think.

What I like about half-thoughts is that there will be a lot of value in accessing the instinct of individuals, but organizations tend to only have 'full thought' processes. Organizations want reports, presentations and agendas – all prepared knowledge. Half-thoughts have more soul, and are often in line with the crux of the matter.

VB: You advise that metaphors can be used to creative advantage when writing and speaking. Do you have any tips for how to develop useful metaphors when making a presentation or leading a workshop?

Patrick Harris: As a presenter, using a mind map or a sketch of your talk is one sure way to convey metaphors in a workshop setting. Draw images that relate to your topic and those that highlight certain aspects that you see as key. Images of a tilting see saw, for example, with 'growth' at one end outweighing 'consolidation' at the other provides a really clear message.

Separately, don't fill a PowerPoint presentation with lots of small print on each page, instead use images that illuminate your points and talk to the slides instead of reading them out.

Another great technique is to convey a story, or have your audience build stories for a given work situation. Give them simple rules for creating their stories like replacing humans with animals, or ask them to apply their story to a specific setting like a forest or beach.

VB: "Make sure that you purposely insert a diversion into the midst of your creative problem-solving." Is unconscious thought generally more creative than conscious thought?

Patrick Harris: Unconscious thought, or inattentiveness, is a necessary part of the creative process. It is great for dealing with complex problems and for making new associations. On the other hand, conscious, focused concentration is particularly good for analytical processing and problem solving. The two methods work well together to help you explore a number of options.

VB: "Limits do not inhibit creative thinking – limits enable it." This seems surprising; would you talk about this apparent contradiction?

Patrick Harris: Everyone likes to know what is within and outside the bounds of exploration. Setting a few investigation goals at the outset of a creative exercise can help to focus everyone's attention to solving the problem instead of meandering off topic.

In my book, I name three examples of what I mean by this:

  • Frame the topic.

  • Name the type of challenge. For example, is it specific research? Do you want a company-wide competition? Are you fulfilling a quest? Is it about maintaining thought leadership in a given area?

  • Engage the people and resources that you need.

VB: "Customers do cool, investigative, socially linked things to find out about goods and services. Organisations tend to adhere to what they have always done." Do the business leaders you encounter in Europe understand the need for a sense of urgency in order to change what they have always done?

Patrick Harris: The quick answer is that some do and some don't, which is not that helpful, I realize!

In the main, I see organizations trying to embrace the technologies and media of consumers, but there is almost always a time lag. Even if a particular business leader is keen to trial an approach, organizations typically respond quite slowly by comparison. Unlike individual consumers, organizations also perform trials and reviews before setting off.

Some alternative organizational techniques such as gaming, storytelling, and returning to the shop floor are being used more regularly.

VB: "Too much choice makes decision-making difficult for customers." In your November 2009 thoughtengine® and Truth About Creativity newsletter you bemoan the fact that in the UK there now are 12 varieties of Special K cereal. Is this a phenomenon of creative product development gone mad in our affluent society or a lack of understanding of what customers really need?

cover of The Truth about CreativityPatrick Harris: Choice is a double-edged sword, isn't it? It is a good thing, up to a point. But when faced with too much choice, a consumer can feel flummoxed. They can sometimes make bad choices. Worse, they can feel bad, simply because they made a choice and then they become more aware of what they are missing out on.

To your question, it would be unfair of me to say that creative product development has gone mad. After all, there are market forces at work, and companies are keen to grab the entire market share. In theory, we are providing what someone, somewhere has researched and genuinely believes people will buy.

I do sometimes wonder, however, what would happen if we could manage to take all the energy and talent that is applied to giving 1% of the world's population a new variety of shampoo or breakfast cereal, and, instead, focus that resource into topics of greater world importance.

VB: Is the ability to identify patterns one of the keys skills we should develop if we wish to increase our creative abilities?

Patrick Harris: Yes, absolutely.

Pattern recognition is a great way to complete a picture, or to fill in the gaps on otherwise disjointed knowledge. In the book, I give an example of a maintenance team who first observe the walking patterns of people in a square before they construct new concrete paths.

One of the keys in spotting a pattern is to look at the context behind the content you are given. This involves not only looking at what is happening, but also why it's happening. This point is illustrated in the book with a story about a postman and a newspaper delivery person – but I won't spoil that story here.

VB: "For a team to deliver creative world-changing solutions, they will need passion. They will also need to feel the freedom to challenge." Would you talk about this?

Patrick Harris: Passion in the workplace is an external expression of commitment and determination. If it is coming from all of the members of a team it usually means they have a shared understanding, and that they have faith in their ability to perform as a unit. The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

VB: In your book you tell how a newly hired person at a company you worked for said, "Busyness is the refuge of the incompetent." Do you think this contains a strong element of truth?

Patrick Harris: Yes, there is an element of truth for some. Some people are always busy, but it is difficult to see an overall plan behind their activities. It is as if the 'busyness' sometimes rules them and prevents them from thinking clearly.

I heard an expression once that said, 'If you don't have your own plan, you can be sure that you are in someone else's plan.' What I am saying is that a little planning should accompany your busy life, and you should be the one in charge… not the busyness.

VB: "By welcoming humour, you encourage a culture that is attractive to existing and prospective employees." When there is a lot of laughter and humour in an organization is it a sign of a highly creative one as well?

Patrick Harris: Humour is a great creative tool, but it does need to be applied sensibly and sensitively. For instance, in your question the phrase 'a lot of laughter' can be seen as creative by some and time wasting by others.

The first point that I make about humour in my book is that it is revealing about individuals. What you find to be funny tells others about you and makes for richer, more expansive exchanges. Separately, the basis of humour is that it mentally takes someone to a different destination. I saw a cartoon in a magazine recently. A man is in his yard, with dark clouds overhead. He says to a nearby husband and wife passing by: 'Looks like thunder.' The passing husband responds, 'She always does.'

This simple joke takes a reader to a different destination than expected, which is great for spurring new connections. And new connections are the basis of creativity. So, yes, humour can be a good sign of a creative workplace.

VB: In your paper "Giving Strategy Some Momentum" you say, "Achieving strategic momentum is fundamental and boldly displaces the business mantra of seeking buy-in." What is strategic momentum and why is it fundamental?

Patrick Harris: Let's start with buy-in, the rather dull process that typically occurs in organizations. Here, a senior executive delivers dozens of pages of a presentation and then says, "I need everyone to buy-in to this." Yet, when the room clears minutes later, no one can recall the first slide, much less the other pages.

Momentum, on the other hand, is when the individuals in an organization appreciate what is being asked of them, are allowed to interpret the message to their own specific situation, and then respond as they see fit, but in keeping with the overall aim. The best way to illustrate this is the use of principles. If the key message can be condensed to just a few action-oriented and memorable phrases, it can mobilize a workforce. Everyone knows what to do. They can apply the message even when working individually, or under changing circumstances. They also know that others are enabled to do the same, removing doubts and concerns.

Importantly, momentum needs to be sustained like anything else by rewarding the workforce for applying desired behaviours. The staff also need to regularly see key individuals taking actions that are consistent with the principles.

VB: Is sustaining momentum key to ensuring employees are imaginative, creative, and excited about their organization?

Patrick Harris: All of the truly great companies that I've been allowed to work with have had a strong sense of purpose, and an underlying momentum in the workforce to make dreams into reality.

VB: Managers and leaders talk about getting "buy-in" from their employees. Why is "buy-in" a flawed concept?

Patrick Harris: Buy-in assumes that the senior executive's message is 100% accurate, that it is communicated with 100% effectiveness, and that each individual will implement it with 100% efficiency. This is a pipe dream. It must be remembered that organizations are collections of individuals. What individuals do best is appreciate the gist of the strategy, or key message, and then adapt it to their situation.

VB: When you are working with clients to "unlock futures thinking," how do you encourage them to creatively identify drivers of change and possible scenarios looking forward 10, 20 or more years?

Patrick Harris: Futures thinking has its own set of tools, just as marketing or strategy has tools. These tools help people deal with uncertainty, which is an obvious condition when considering the longer term. Scenario Planning is perhaps the most well known and widely used of these tools, but there are many others.

Working with futures concepts is engaging and rewarding, but the important thing to remember is to use the tools, not focus on them. It is the dialogue that takes place that is of most importance. We really only look at the future in order to make better decisions today, so keeping the dialogue open and expansive is key.

VB: How do you help organisations build lasting brand value?

Patrick Harris: My focus is neither 'above the line' nor 'below the line.' It is about branding within the organization. A brand is a promise, which is kept or broken at each engagement. Therefore, a brand is only as solid as the next customer experience that takes place.

In order to ensure that the next experience is a good one for the customer and is consistent with the brand ethos, you must give staff solid brand awareness and enable them to 'live the brand' in all of their actions. I recall a customer service centre where representatives felt free – even compelled – to tell customers when they were spending too much money on the wrong monthly service package. To the representatives, they were reinforcing the brand value of honesty. The result was that customer loyalty increased, as did uptake of more service options. This is a prime example of building lasting brand value.

VB: You are a director of The Medinge Group, a not-for–profit think tank. "We stand for brands with a conscience." Would you talk about Medinge and its goal of influencing businesses to become more human and humane?

Patrick Harris: The Medinge Group celebrates humanity in brands and the organizations that they represent. We believe it is entirely possible to do good, while doing well as an organization. Our most visible activity is our annual Brands with a Conscience awards, where we draw attention to brands that are successful while contributing to the betterment of society by sustainable, socially responsible, and humanistic behaviour. More about Medinge and BWAC award winners can be found on the Medinge website

On January 28th Medinge will host a celebratory event and press conference in Paris, where we will announce the 2010 Brands with a Conscience award winners.

VB: You have a number of mind maps on your website that pertain to consulting work you've done with clients. Do you use mind maps extensively in your consulting work?

Patrick Harris: Yes, I use mind maps quite a bit. They are good for conveying a complex set of thoughts. I also find them personally helpful in structuring my work and presentations.

On my website, I have placed an audio recording where I talk through a mind map, explaining the benefits of their use in more detail.

VB: Do you find mind maps to be one of the most useful tools for creativity?

Patrick Harris: Every person is different and mind maps won't appeal to all. Personally, I get huge benefit from using mind maps, but I also enjoy the communicative power of tables, which are completely different tools.

By far, the most useful tool for creativity is dialogue – what you share and discuss. Mind maps, tables and many other activities can be useful in building rich dialogue.

VB: Truth 4 in The Truth about Creativity, "Map your journey before you explore," recommends that we be aware of our innate guiding principles when creatively solving problems. One of the questions you recommend we ask ourselves in order to become aware of our guiding principles is, "How would the people closest to you describe you in just one or two words?" How would you answer this question when applying it to yourself?

Patrick Harris: That is a great question, Vern. When I was in university, pursing a degree in Construction Management, my mother said to me, "If you are going to build things, you'd better build for Disney!" Perhaps she saw more about me than I did. I have been told more than once that I bring to my work intuition, intellect, and an inquisitive nature. I am happy with that description, although it probably only means that I am nosy!

VB: Do you consider yourself a creativity coach?

Patrick Harris: No, not really. What I do is help organizations, and individuals, address significant, and often difficult issues. At times, along the way, people alter their stance but I would say that I only help them to find that positional change, not coach them toward it. That sounds like more of a mentor to me.

VB: Now that The Truth about Creativity has been published, what other projects are you working on?

Patrick Harris: I have a number of consulting projects on the go; each is helping an organization to address specific issues.

My Directorship in Medinge also requires some of my time.

I have plans for other books, one at quite an advanced stage.

Each year I do some pro-bono work too. This year I am focusing on the creation of some positive futures activities; – a way for people to see big issues like climate change in a positive light, and to know how their contributions matter.

VB: Any plans for The Truth about Creativity to be translated into other languages?

Patrick Harris: I understand from my publisher that a Korean version is already planned.

VB: Do you have any other advice or comments you would like to share with our readers?

Patrick Harris: Just one thing. So much of what I believe about creativity requires individuals to apply themselves – their whole self – to the situation at hand. So, as much as possible try to organize your work and personal environment so that you can be yourself. If you can be yourself, and earn a living from it, then you are doing what you love and you will love what you do. What could be better, or more creative?

Author and consultant Patrick Harris provides 46 truths about creativity that provide useful and practical insights. Anyone interested in creativity and innovation should learn about these truths.

Patrick Harris observes "that there is a massive creativity chasm between organisations and their customers. Customers do cool, investigative, socially linked things to find out about goods and services. Organisations tend to adhere to what they have always done." This chasm needs to be bridged. The question is what will each of us do differently tomorrow to do something better, faster, or more innovatively than before?

Patrick Harris's Bio:
Patrick served his apprenticeship in heavy industry. His first job after graduating from university was Maintenance Planner for Cajun Electric Power in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Disaster planning for a 1,800 megawatt power station gave Patrick Harris a keen appreciation of bottom-line practicalities.

He is a former non-executive Director of France Telecom UK R&D. Much of his expertise and recognition emanates from his work as Director of Creaticity for the Orange Group. Working directly for the legendary CEO Hans Snook, he co-designed and managed the Orange corporate strategic think tank that underpinned the company's strategy from 1998 to 2002. His vision helped set the multi-million pound agenda for some 30,000 employees in 20 countries.

After leaving Orange, he founded thoughtengine, a consultancy working in numerous sectors and focusing on creativity, strategy, brand and futures. Patrick Harris has stamped his creative mark on projects for some of the biggest names in business, government and education. His high profile projects have won him acclaim in the national and business press such as The Times, The Independent on Sunday, and European Business Forum.

He is currently a Director of Medinge, a brand think tank focusing on furthering the humanitarian efforts of brands and their organisations. He is recognised as an engaging and thought-provoking speaker.

Patrick Harris was born in the USA and complemented his early career with ten years of competitive water skiing. He holds a BSc and an MBA (Hons). He lives in London.
Patrick Harris is the author of The Truth about Creativity: "Rules are there to be Challenged" (2009)

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