Creativity at Work

Creativity at Work

In a still-recovering economy riddled with ups and downs, bullish and bearish market outlooks and contradicting job numbers, businesses are getting creative. Finding new solutions to existing problems isn’t a novel business practice per se, but innovation has assumed new prominence in the twenty-first century, no matter the industry. As technology evolves and becomes more ubiquitous, it’s the human brain’s ability to connect logic and vision, think and feel, left and right, that’s in high demand. That’s good news for a place like Madison, where indicators such as the highly educated workforce and vibrant arts scene led the city to an appearance on Richard Florida’s list of creative class metros is his oft-cited book, The Rise of the Creative Class. And our signature quirk probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Creativity comes in many forms, and the practice isn’t exclusive to ad agencies and tech companies that have innovation built into their day-to-day. To get the ideas flowing at the Alvarado Real Estate Group, execs make sure employees have opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. President Sara Alvarado says that means emphazing interpersonal skills and fun in the workplace. “To do that you have to use that other side of your brain,” she says. “We don’t focus goal setting just on how many houses you sell in year.” The Madison real estate company holds team retreats at Sundara Inn and Spa in the Wisconsin Dells and regular social activities outside of work. “Ideas flow differently than if it’s 9 a.m. at a conference table.” 

KW2 president and all-around creative guy Andy Wallman shares some insight on his favorite topic.

What does creativity mean to you? Is it a skill? A mindset? A practice? Creativity is like love: It’s in all of us; it comes easier to some than others; when we participate in it, we feel better no matter how challenging it can be; and we make ourselves and others feel great when we share it.

Some people don’t think of themselves as creative. Can it be learned? I hear this all the time. People who don’t think they’re creative are wrong. Everybody is creative. Not everybody is “da Vinci creative” or “Steve Jobs creative.” But still, when people say, “I’m just not creative,” well, duh, you won’t be very creative.

Creativity can be learned. But like learning how to grow tomatoes, you don’t just whip some seeds in the ground and make salsa the next Saturday. You have to learn about gardening from experts, fuss with the garden, spend time in it and talk to others about it. The more time you spend making creative stuff, and the more you surround yourself with people who are great at it, and the more you continually learn about your area of creativity, the better your creative work will be.

Books like Imagination First, Ignore Everybody and Think like da Vinci are great resources. And it’s easy as pie to find cybermentors online; those leaders in the area of creativity that you want to push have their work, processes and ideas plopped all over the internet for your 24/7 inspiration and edification.

Any advice for unleashing creativity? It starts with telling yourself you can be a creative person. If you don’t believe, it ain’t going to happen. Then, learning about personal or professional things you want to unleash your creativity upon so you know what the creative leaders in your area of interest; the more I studied sketch comedy, the better I got at writing and performing it. Last, you have to fearlessly dive in, and make the effort to relentlessly create. We say at KW2 that one way to a great idea is to have a lot of ideas, so getting a great creative result comes in part from volume. When the Onion was based in Madison, they had meetings every Tuesday to review literally hundreds of headlines to get to the twenty to twenty-five that wound up in each week’s edition.

I’ve done a lot of professional improv comedy and sketch comedy, been in a band for over twenty-five years, briefly wrote a column for this magazine, and have been in the “creative rock & roll” category of the business world—advertising—for almost twenty-five years. So I know these three things will help you unleash creativity: deliberately go for the unexpected, as the “creative” things in the world around us are not the things that blend into the woodwork; try for technical excellence, as most creativity involves some kind of skill or craft, and the better you know your craft, the more creative you can be at it; and never take your foot off the gas, as the more you chase something, the closer you get to it. Being creative takes hustle. It’s work. But damn, when you do it right, it feels like joy.

I use three things to spark creativity: questions, combinations and inspiration. When we are asked a question, our minds go crazy until the question is answered. So asking yourself a lot of “what if?” or “why not?” or “what about?” kinds of questions will help your brain come up with a lot of cool, creative answers and ideas. Combining things is one of great shortcuts in creativity (newspapers + comedy = The Onion). And getting inspiration within and outside of the area of creativity you’re interested in will help you learn, get stimulated, and force new combinations of things.

How does workplace culture play into the creative process? Culture, environment and creativity are closely linked in business, because when people are comfortable and inspired with like-minded people, it’s simply easier for great ideas to be born. Culture is a very big deal to us, and we try to inspire our people with “rotating art gallery” in our lobby, with a new artist’s work on display every six weeks, sharing great creative work, and keeping the vibe positive. And we encourage folks to vary the environment in which they create. Would da Vinici been da Vinci if he sat in the same cube eight hours a day with a boss saying, “Be creative, cube boy!” No. Vary your environment, and you’ll vary your creativity. Look at how many great songs were written by a band on tour.

As a marketing firm, KW2 is in the business of creating. For some of your clients that may be in industries that seem more technical or straightforward, how do they exercise creativity? Creativity in business is simply a tactic used to reach business objectives. So if we have a client in a B2B category, or the public sector, or in a traditionally staid category like finance or insurance, we lick our chops, because making our client stand out can be relatively easy. There is a lot of fear of differentiation in those categories. People can be afraid to stand out and be different. So we arm ourselves with data and research and insights so that the creative work disrupts and differentiates for smart strategic reasons. We call this “intelligent disruption.” It works.

Do you see Madison as a creative city? (Grace, I did a big interview with Maggie about this around a year ago. Feel free to pull from that. I have strong theories on why Madison is an incredibly creative city. Crosslink to it in this story if you’d like to goose your SEO and analytics!)

Madison is a very creative city. Across the country, people recognize Boulder, Austin, Portland and Madison as places where people aren’t afraid to try new things, and where creativity is an expected cultural and business asset. (To read more about Madison as a creative city, see our 2012 interview with Wallman.)

Is there a particular asset or two that makes Madison a creative place? Here’s my formula that explains why Madison is creative: Take a beautiful natural setting, add a historically festive and celebratory culture (thanks to our convivial Germanic and Irish forefathers), add a stimulating stream of new young students from around the world, add a halo of local creative greatness (Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keefe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, The Onion, Chris Farley, Garbage), add an expectation that this is a place where big ideas are born, and you’ll get a city that provides the perfect environment for people to create and share incredible new things.