Research has found that creative thinkers are not necessarily born “different” to anyone else. What makes the difference, it seems, is whether you practise creativity and are encouraged – first by parents and teachers and then by employers.

If you think about it, you can give any child an old cardboard box and they will invariably find 50 ways to transform it into a racing car, speedboat or even a Gypsy caravan. There are few areas of human activity where we all start out so equal, says Kristina Murrin, managing partner of the What If consultancy.

The obvious question, then, is why are some people better at it than others in later life? Murrin and her team at the consultancy believe the difference can be explained by continuous practice of creative habits.

“Most people will come up with excuses,” she says. “They say, ‘If only I worked in a creative company’ or ‘If only I wasn’t oppressed by my organisation’, but it’s a self-imposed belief. In reality, creativity is largely in the hands of the individual.”

Murrin says courage is the key, as it is more comfortable to fit in than step outside the norm and be innovative. In other words, too many of us are victims of the basic pleasure/pain principle: sticking to what feels safe and not exposing ourselves to emotional risk.

But external barriers to creativity do exist, and one of them is the physical environment, says Murrin. “If your boss’s office door is permanently shut, it is giving out the message that they are closed to new ideas,” she explains.

Research by What If also found that eight out of 10 new ideas came from the physical environment – sparked by something immediately visible to the employee. And it is common for companies to have a mission statement stating that they reward innovation when their incentive structure encourages staff to play it safe, she says.

The 2002 book Sticky Wisdom, co-authored by Murrin, identified six characteristics that make creative people stand out from the rest. It labelled them: freshness, greenhousing, realness, momentum, signalling and courage.

These were arrived at by the consultancy’s research, which involved 500 middle managers from multinational companies and 500 successful inventors, all of whom have at least two patents and earn the bulk of their income from conceiving new ideas.

The research found that the inventors were far more likely to exhibit these six behaviours than their managerial counterparts.

To understand what is meant by these six characteristics – and their implications for the corporate world – read on.

In a world where business is more interested in best practice than different practice, is it any wonder that products, services and organisations are all beginning to look the same?

What If found that structured “freshness” exercises at work are no substitute for a stimulating life outside work, highlighting the need for work-life balance. You can gain freshness by doing something different and seeking new stimuli.

It gives the example of Unilever Best Foods, which introduced a freshness plan called the germination process. This involved people from every team being nominated as “stimuli hunters”. Their role was to spend time outside the office searching for things to jolt the rest of the team’s thinking in new directions.

Another Unilever programme was Feel the Pulse, in which its 1,500 managers left their offices, factories or laboratories for three days, twice a year, to visit consumers in their homes and learn more about them.

What If emphasises the importance of nurturing the creativity process, because it needs an environment different from that driven by the normal business ethos – often a daily round of to-do lists, meetings and boxes ticked. Greenhousing protects young ideas when they are at their most vulnerable.

This is important because creativity and innovation rarely come in a sudden flash of inspiration leading to the invention and perfection of a solution. It takes time to perfect ideas, and without protection they can be brushed aside or crushed by the weight of daily tasks.

Everyone in business accepts that creativity and innovation are vital, but they are rarely classified as urgent because the bottom-line benefits may not be felt for two or three years. This does not fit into the short-term nature of modern business. What If compares business to a hospital’s accident and emergency department, with its rapid analysis of a situation and immediate decisions. But this kind of environment is damaging to the growth of new ideas. Our education system backs up this ER-style approach, as we are taught to immediately identify right and wrong answers.

Brewing company Six Continents, formerly Bass, had a traditionally robust male culture. Sarcasm was the norm, stunting the greenhousing of young ideas and setting a strong resistance to the flowery language often used by HR consultants (“greenhousing” for example). To get round what many staff saw as London agency “speak”, What If adopted a football analogy for individuals who trample on ideas in meetings.

As a first warning the offender gets a yellow card, and for a second offence or a particularly negative comment they get a red card and have to leave the meeting. This system is often implemented quite playfully, but the intent is serious.

This refers to the ability to keep in touch with the real world and turn ideas into reality. In the corporate environment, it is about getting close to customers and asking how to make good ideas work, rather than simply tossing them into a vacuum.

Producing a prototype of the product or service you want to develop is a way to turn thoughts into something real. What If stresses that a prototype is something you can touch, see and put in your pocket.

Take Saatchi & Saatchi, which was once pitching for British Rail business. It kept senior rail officials waiting and waiting for a meeting to start. As they were about to walk out in exasperation, the Saatchi team stepped in to explain that this was how British Rail’s customers felt and they then delivered advertising that sought to address this frustration.

Often the generation of ideas isn’t the problem; the hitch is making them happen. You hear people say they are “starters not finishers”, while others suffer from death by diary, so can’t find time to pursue new ideas.

Successful “ideas people” have cracked the art of maintaining momentum. They say no to pointless activities, question who needs to be at meetings and ask what the worst outcome of their decisions could be. They focus on keeping things moving. Creating a crisis is a short-term strategy for producing momentum, but the long-term solution is aligning personal and company goals.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple as chief executive, he was shocked to find so many diverse projects under way. He decided to rationalise by saying no to some projects. Apple narrowed its focus to only two types of computer user – the professional and the home user – and focused its firepower on two types of hardware: desktop and mobile. It was a risk, but fewer projects meant that senior management could get much more involved in the details of ideas, and decisions could be turned around in hours rather than weeks.

This is about communicating changes of direction to colleagues instead of expecting them to be mind-readers. It helps individuals to navigate between a judgment-free world where ideas are allowed to grow and the harsher ER-style business world. Signalling helps colleagues to decide how best to respond to creative ideas – whether you want them to judge your idea, or help you build it into something bigger and better.

A commonly shared characteristic of creative companies is their ability to signal using their office environment. What If cites the example of supermarket chain Asda when Archie Norman took over in the early 1990s. One of his first changes was to have a kitchen built in the middle of the marketing department. The signal was clear; never forget we are a food marketing business. Another example is Microsoft calling its offices in Seattle a “campus” rather than a headquarters. The aim was to show how the company valued the nurturing of ideas.

This final aspect of the creative personality or organisation is about having the courage to stand up and be counted. Unique ideas are often lost because people are too inhibited to express them. Always stretch your comfort zone and face your own fears and you will find it does wonders for your personal development. As a manager, you need the courage to push for the best performance in others. Too many managers accept work that barely passes muster because changing it would be difficult for the person involved and would make the manager personally unpopular. If you do this, you will always regret it later. It is when work is merely average that real courage is needed.

Creativity at work“The most creative teams are drawn from diverse backgrounds. It means that they have a wide spread of knowledge and skills. If they’re managed well, such teams will come up with creative solutions to problems because the members will all come at problems from different perspectives.

This generates far more ideas than if you have a group of people from similar backgrounds.

“The downside is that, if not managed well, team members can end up in conflict and more concerned with who wins the argument. Conflict needs to be constructive, with a high level of commitment to clear, shared objectives.

Teams have to share information, trust each other, meet regularly and be committed to serving the customer.”

Michael West, professor of organisational psychology at Aston Business School

“The key thing for us is our company culture. It fosters creativity and innovation. We don’t have a traditional company hierarchy. We have no job titles - everyone is an associate - no specific job descriptions or pre-defined career ladders. We form small multidisciplinary teams whose task is to develop innovative technology and open up new markets. Our culture is based on fostering creativity and risk-taking.

Our goals are to make money and have fun and we don’t focus on one at the expense of the other. I may have a core set of HR commitments, but I also work on a purchasing project as part of a multi-functional team. We don’t put people in boxes because companies that do that are saying ‘you are a level six operative, and that is the limit of your capabilities’.”

Ann Gillies, associate, WL Gore

“The main problem with teaching people to be creative is that they work in highly structured environments. We have to make employers realise that people are too busy hitting deadlines and getting jobs done. What’s getting squeezed out is creativity and learning. We have to encourage intellectual space and allow people to respond naturally, not through this false way we call management. 

“It is 50 years since Galbraith talked about it, but we still have a command and control way of managing. Industry wants to see numbers, measures and production. The only way to move things in the opposite direction is to point out good examples of creativity from the likes of 3M, parts of BT or the pharmaceutical industry, because people don’t realise that their products and processes will become outdated. 

“The next step is to get people talking to each other - collegiate groups in open discussions. It is about using the vested intelligence in a company - a step on from knowledge management. Gathering knowledge is one thing, but to be successful you have to apply it - that’s what I call wisdom management.”

Malcolm Armstrong, lead tutor, creativity and innovation, Henley Management College

“Birmingham is about to undertake a three-year project to transform it from a city of industry into a city of creativity. We’re taking our lead from the likes of Barcelona, Bilbao, Frankfurt and Rotterdam. In Barcelona, there have been some very successful examples of working with local communities to share ownership of projects - like improvements to local squares where businesses have had a say in how they are developed. Here, we are getting creative companies - in film, design and jewellery - to work with traditional industries to see how they can adapt, modernise and generally be more creative to ensure sustainable success. 

“Another example of what we are doing is the project on the east side of the city where there is massive physical redevelopment - it was a dingy area of heavy manufacturing. Now organisations like the film company Screen West Midlands have moved in, and Selfridges is coming, too. We’re working with the Learning and Skills Council and Business Link, and we’ve secured funding of around £9 million.”

Paul Cantrill, manager of creative development for Birmingham

Further information
Kristina Murrin
, managing partner of the What If consultancy, is the speaker at the training essentials seminar on creativity at HRD 2003, the CIPD’s annual learning, training and development conference and exhibition (8-10 April, Olympia, London). For more details, call 020 8263 3434 or visit

What If, The Glassworks,
3-4 Ashland Place, London
W1U 4AH o20 7535 7500