Mar 21

On Creativity

My oldest son, Andrew, now living in Canberra, Australia with his wife and son (a fine grandson I should add) asked me about ingenuity and creativity and how an individual might be able to improve in that area. I believe ingenuity is important in business and in life and that you can improve in this area with effort. (To that end, I highly recommend reading “The Ingenuity Gap” by Thomas Homer-Dixon.) Here is my answer to Andrew:

Andrew, I like most of what you have said about the importance of ingenuity with one notable exception. Many ingenious insights are a product of a few moments of inspiration, maybe as few as 35 microseconds. Now I agree that often those moments of insight happen because: a) they are preceded by a lifetime of study and thought on the subject, and b) there is a focused effort on the particular problem.

And what focuses human minds fastest? Why the thought of being “hung in the morning”. That is why, the threat of war, war itself, fear of failure, fear of peer review or review by your boss/client/patron/audience, fear even of parental authority, mobilizes most individuals to be at their creative best. Human beings are most creative when their personal interests are threatened or at stake or their personal interests can be ameliorated to a significant extent.

Creativity results from these factors (some stress is needed but not too much) combined with periodic intense pondering of the problem interspersed with time for the subconscious to work on it (i.e., when you are asleep or playing or your attention is elsewhere). Other factors that we have talked about as well as are the importance of physical wellbeing, which obviously includes enough rest, proper nutrition and diet, adequate exercise and the absence of any type of drugs or alcohol.

If you look closely at the above marketing piece done by advertising guru George Lois for the Garry Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov chess showdown, you will note how George created a white King in the negative space between Kasparov’s and Karpov’s profiles. This is an amazing achievement, one which even the usually obvious chess genius Kasparov approved of. How did Lois create this marvelous image? He didn’t. He says he discovered it instead.

When I was young in the 1970s, I worked on a farm picking apples. I noticed that we left many apples unharvested on those trees because they were in hard-to-reach places. So one day I went into their tool room and invented the Firestone Apple Picker!

Bruce M Firestone Apple Picker
Firestone Apple Picker, Circa 1975

The Firestone Apple Picker (FAP) had a metal collar with a V-cut (to snip off the apples) and a mesh net with a choke point to slow their descent (to prevent bruising) and catch them. I just used a sawed-off broom handle and a shoulder strap to complete the ensemble.

Not only could we increase the harvest by about 6%, we reduced the number of ladder movements around each tree; reducing tree damage and improving yields in subsequent years. It also took less overall time to complete the harvest.

FAP is in wide use to this day. A happy byproduct of this simple invention is that anything that increases productivity for farmworkers or other low paid wage earners is a step in the direction of higher earnings for them.

More recently, Home Depot made their store associates more productive by giving them access to Social Media tools. Read more at:

Lululemon turned selling into buying, increased employee productivity and used guerrilla marketing to boost their stock price. Read more at:

How do you increase your sales force’s productivity using non-linear selling? Read more at:

How could you give workers in the fast food industry a living wage? The only way is to make them more productive. Here is my bash at that: turn biz processes inside out and make workers curators instead. See my sketch at:

Creativity comes, in part, out of necessity and opportunity. I would never have invented FAP sitting at my desk in Ottawa, ON.

Another Example: Dirt Becomes Top Soil

An architect determines that a site needs to be cleared and that there are 10,000 cubic metres of dirt that need to be removed and replaced with engineered fill. “How much will that cost to excavate and remove the material?” he asks the GC.

The GC says: “Hang on a minute. That’s good top soil. It isn’t how much it will cost us, it’s how much will someone pay us for 100s of truck loads of top soil?”

Here they are turning a cost centre into a new revenue stream.

Example: Gino Rossetti’s Eureka Moment

Gino, a renaissance man and a great architect, was on the floor of Joe Louis Arena with the owners of the Detroit Pistons. “Pardon me for asking a stupid question. But why do the people who pay the most money (suite licensees) sit the furthest from the action?” Gino asked them. “Because that is the way all arenas are done,” they answered.

Rossetti immediately got out his sketch book and showed them how you could put suites in two or three rings, many of them closer to the floor or ice and, hence, much more exciting places to watch the action from. The result was he revolutionized design of arenas, their economics and he made them more intimate too by rotating and translating the balconies in toward each other which makes his arenas more intense places to perform for athletes and rock bands.

Example: Local Architect Designs a Suite with Six Seats

In the renovation of the Ottawa Civic Centre circa 1992/93, local architect George Nicol produced a plan for us to add two suites only 18 rows from the ice but with just six seats each. The seating capacity was too low to justify the cost of installing these suites.

But by rotating the seats 45 degrees and creating a rake inside the suites by stepping up each row (and taking advantage of the extra height available in the building at those points), we were able to get 16 seats in each box and a much more valuable piece of real estate.

Example: Accretive Finance

A local festival organization with no surplus money, has a problem. Their productivity is $100,000 in top line revenue per employee per year for a 12-person organization. This is far too low. Consulting companies of similar size (and they should be at least comparable to those organizations) do at least $250,000 per employee per year and some do as much as $500K. Their network is creaky and old. It doesn’t really qualify as a network.

A computer network that allows: a) file sharing, b) email address sharing, c) library management of documents, d) integration of their intranet and the web into work flow processes (reversing out the work to suppliers (supply chain management or sponsorship agreements, for example), e) e-commerce transactions (ticket sales, F&B, token sales, gift certificate sales, sponsorship sales, patronage, sponsor sales, merchandise), f) use of password protected spaces for schedule management, management of volunteers, work on confidential documents with sponsors, etc., g) d-base management to communicate with sponsors and patrons and the public and much more, all this will double their productivity.

The only problem is the new network, installed with proper specifications and software will cost around $15k per employee or $180k, money they don’t have.

The creative solution is not to restate the obvious: that they need a network ‘upgrade’ and this is a $180,000 ‘problem’ for them. They already know this and they are frozen like deer caught in headlights because it seems to be an insurmountable problem. The creative idea isn’t that the lead consultants do the work for ‘free’ or that their suppliers do it for ‘free’ too. It isn’t to ask for another government handout either. The reality is that the lead consulting group needs the client and needs to be paid. So what to do?

Well, the idea is that the lead consultants will spec the n/w and their affiliated network people will implement it and manage it. The latter is important because this is a sustainable business model with on-going monthly cashflow. The way the festival organization would pay for the whole thing is to have the lead consultants not only spec it, budget it and finance it (i.e., spread payments out over time with a bank or other fixed asset lender) but then get three sponsors to pay the annual cost of this over a period of time (say, three years). That way the Bank or fixed asset lender is not financing based on the covenant of the festival organization but on the strength (and covenant) of the sponsorship contracts tied specifically to the network financing requirement. There are lots of ways to get sponsors interested in this type of deal: they will be promoted on the festival’s web site, at the actual RL (Real Life) event; they may even use the festival as a testimonial in their marketing campaigns plus they may get access to the festival organization’s d-base. They will entertain potential clients at the Festival itself. Festival performers might visit sponsors head offices. The idea is that the Festival management will find ways to drive sales for their sponsors not the other way round.

This is called providing client solutions à la entrepreneurialsist culture: not only solve the client problem but also find a way for the client to finance it at no cost to the organization. Another example of entrerpreneurialist culture at work, n’est çe pas?

Example: Sprott Naming Rights

Eric Sprott, a 1965 graduate of the Carleton School of Business, donated $10M to the School this past April 2001. The School was then renamed the Eric Sprott School of Business.

Sprott created his wealth as a financier and was the Founder of Sprott Securities.

Sprott put a condition on the $10M donation to Carleton. The condition was that the fund be managed by his firm. So Carleton signed his cheque to the University back to his company! Therefore, Sprott essentially ended up managing the same amount of money as before and he got a tax receipt too!

A very creative way to help Carleton, his firm (financially and in terms of marketing too) and his taxes all in one*.

Steps to a More Creative You

Here is my list on how to be more creative:

1. creativity comes from an overarching need to be creative; a financial crisis, for example, or a war can cause an explosion in creativity;

2. creativity comes from a total mind and body focus on a problem, sometimes over an extended period of time;

3. an extended period of time will also allow your sub-conscious to work on the problem;

4. there are three kinds of thinking— linear, lateral and quantum thinking ( only the latter two lead to ‘creative’ insights;

5. people need to avoid alcohol and drugs and get regular exercise to realize their maximum potential in this regard;

6. people need to be open to new experiences and life time learning— a lot of creativity comes from observing how others are doing things and then realizing that something you learned in a completely different field of endeavor could be applied in a unconventional way to this seemingly unrelated task at hand;

7. creativity comes from a deeply felt human need to be creative— it is intrinsic to the species and is a powerful drive just like sex and money and ambition and power and fear;

8. creativity comes from SEEING and QUESTIONING— it is a way of training yourself not to accept what everyone else does simply because that is the way it is done and the way it has always been done;

9. creativity comes from being able to reduce problems to their basic building blocks— creativity comes from simplicity and clarity not complexity: even Einstein’s theory of general relativity reduces to a simple proposition (when explained by the right person);

10. creativity is contagious and is inspired by contact with others who are upbeat, positive, creative types;

11. however, creativity should not be confused with enthusiasm— truly creative ideas are not full of holes; ideas are improved through trial and error;

12. creativity is often enhanced by verbalization even if that verbalization takes the form that it did in the film Castaway where Tom Hanks has to verbalize his ideas to his ‘doll’, Wilson—Tom starts making better and more creative decisions after he invents ‘someone’ to talk to;

13. put things down in a written form— that can take the form of a flow chart, a written description, a spreadsheet, whatever— the discipline of writing something down and the formality of it helps complete your ideas;

14. read a lot;

15. creativity has two dimensions—creativity that changes the technology used in a product or service and creativity that affects the technical processes of making or delivering a product or service—most of us think only about technological changes but technical changes are probably at least as important**;

16. remember that ideas are (relatively) cheap— there are around 35 million clever Americans in their basements at any one time thinking up cool new ideas— so while creativity is important, so is execution.

“Sometimes I can’t recall my mental blocks, so I try not to think about them,” Emily Greenfield, 5th year Architecture Student, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Exactly right, Emily. Think hard about a problem; then if no solution arrives, sleep on it. Let your subconscious mind work on it for awhile. If no solution comes to mind the next time you turn to the problem, repeat the procedure.

@ profbruce

Postscript: Where do ideas really come from? This is like asking what is consciousness? No one really knows. What we do know is that ideas are the only thing we are certain are in infinite supply. Every number represents an idea; think about the number zero, or a negative number or the square root of -1, how useful these concepts are. Of course, numbers are in infinite supply. Q.E.D.

Where do my ideas come from? Dunno. But last night (I am writing this postscript in the early morning of April 18, 2012) around 3 am (when most entrepreneurs are awake and writing notes to themselves BTW) I woke up and two little characters by the names of Quod and Qui were talking to each other in my dreamscape which was called the Quadrangle. They were talking about biz dev/politics and the law/science and engineering/love/romance/mysticism, all elements in my novel, Quantum Entity, We Are All ONE.

So I sketched them. Here’s what they look like:

Quod and Qui from the world of Quadrangle

Another image of Quod and Qui from the world of Quadrangle:

Quod and Qui from Quadrangle

What’s going on? Again, dunno. But could be I’m worried about the launch of Quantum Entity in June of 2012?

* Submitted by Darcy McRae, Eric Sprott School of Business Graduate

** For example, an entrepreneur I know in the moving and packing supplies industry built the number one firm in his city in just six years by being creative in an industry not known for creativity.

He did seemingly simple things like offering to deliver packing supplies to the customers of all his moving company clients rather than delivering it to them. In that way, sales people for moving companies (who were previously re-delivering boxes, wrapping paper, tape, bubble wrap, etc. to their clients) could spend more time selling moves and less time delivering boxes to people who had purchased moves from them.

As a result of this innovation, 98% of all local movers became clients within two years. Creativity applies to the processes of business as much as to its technology.


In a review of Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Harry Tucker identified seven key areas that must be understood in order to maximize creativity:

1. The adjacent possible – the principle that at any given moment, extraordinary change is possible but that only certain changes can occur (this describes those who create ideas that are ahead of their time and whose ideas reach their ultimate potential years later).

2. Liquid networks – the nature of the connections that enable ideas to be born, to be nurtured and to blossom and how these networks are formed and grown.

3. The slow hunch – the acceptance that creativity doesn’t guarantee an instant flash of insight but rather, germinates over time before manifesting.

4.Serendipity – the notion that while happy accidents help allow creativity to flourish, it is the nature of how our ideas are freely shared, how they connect with other ideas and how we perceive the connection at a specific moment that creates profound results.

5. Error – the realization that some of our greatest ideas didn’t come as a result of a flash of insight that followed a number of brilliant successes but rather, that some of those successes come as a result of one or more spectacular failures that produced a brilliant result.

6. Exaptation – the principle of seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use (for example, using a GPS unit to find your way to a reunion with a long-lost friend when GPS technology was originally created to help us accurately bomb another country into oblivion).

7. Platforms – adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms and such that in themselves may not be unique but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.