Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

What Shape Is Your Recession?

28/04/2009 1 comment
What's your shape?  



What's your shape?

Troubled times tend to produce great creativity. Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was set in the dust bowl of the Mid-West as the people moved west in search of work. The early eighties saw the rise of bands in the UK such as ‘The Specials’ whose tracks included ‘Ghost Town’ which portrayed British inner city decline as old industries collapsed and ended generations of working traditions. The Second World War saw the race to nuclear weapons to end the war sooner. Not all of that creativity was good but hard times pushed society and people to change the way it had worked in the past.

The last week has been a revelation on economics for me. I have learnt about ‘Keynes’ and his theories on economics which have come back into favour. ‘Quantitative Easing’ is nothing new except for the description. (If you want to follow a good blog on economics then I suggest following Peter Cannings’ Blog)

The tough times most of us are experiencing now don’t yet appear to have shown signs of great music or innovation which were not already happening before the recession took hold of the world with the exception of the politicians and soothsayers. 

And the politicians, journalists and soothsayers have excelled themselves in describing the recession for the last few weeks. There seems to be a new sport amongst them for describing the ‘shape of the recession.’ Some say the recession will be ‘W-shaped’. For others, it will be ‘V-Shaped’ or ‘L-shaped.’ The best I heard was that it would be ‘bath-shaped.’ 

Britain’s ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ revealed his budget last week which revealed more about the recession than any of the ‘shapes’ being conjured up by the soothsayers and politicians. There not so much a ‘shape’ but more of sound as the nation sighed a very long “Oh dear.” The journalists on the BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today’ program described the budget as “salami-slicing” which was a new but novel description. 

But whatever the politicians and soothsayers predict, or however they describe the recession, it is not them who have to get us out of the mire we are sliding towards. It is you and me that have to prevent ourselves sliding into the swamp. There is no sign of the recession in the small business in which I work with 24 other talented and professional people apart from a determination to work our way past it. We have had more quotes going out to customers and prospects in the last four months of this year than we managed in the last six months of last year. 

It is now that our imaginations are being pushed to work out new ways in which to help our customers. It is now that we see a scramble for people to gain new skills. Our customers want to try things out without expending huge amounts of cash. They are experimenting with ideas that were fads yesterday but now seem to be eminently sensible. Small businesses don’t have the cash to burn on risky projects, but most of people in them will be trying things out to understand how they can be used for their large clients. 

So, the signs of creativity are beginning to show through in the recession. People are looking for value more than five years ago and this is driving creativity. But, as far as my shape for the recession goes, I don’t have the time to ponder upon it. Although, if I was to choose a shape for the recession it would be an ‘X’. ‘X’ marks the spot. The spot where I stop predicting and start doing. That’s the only we can get out of this mess.


The Quiet Ones Make More Noise

It's not the way you say. It's how you listen.

It's not the way you say. It's how you listen.

You may know someone like this. They appear to be exceptionally confident. They dominate conversations and walk into a room or a meeting and take command of it. You might feel a little intimidated by them. They say things at you and you wonder why you had not thought of that idea yourself and it is so much better than any idea you could possibly have ever conjured up. This person might tell you to do something and so you go and do what they tell you without thinking about it too much.

That’s the way it has been since you were at school. People say things to you and you listen and act upon what you are told. That confident person might have been your teacher, your boss, or a colleague who was always louder than you. But, as you grew older and more experienced, you started to think for yourself. The people who were the loudest often were the ones who took your idea and labeled it as their own. You started to see that actually the loud people, or the exceptionally confident ones were quite often very good at saying things but not so good at thinking about things. They did not have the monopoly on ideas that you thought they had and they needed you more than they would have cared to accept. 

In the armed forces, there are lots of people who are loud and confident. You are trained to lead and to project an air of confidence. But this was quite often a veneer of confidence and you spent a lot of time telling people what to do if you were a platoon commander. But, if you stepped back from the noise, you started to notice something. More often than not, the people who were very influential were the quiet ones who observed and listened before saying anything. All their words were used carefully and minimally. Their confidence was not projected through a one way barrage of information and orders. Their confidence was projected through their quietness and their ability to inspire others and to use the strengths of the team that surrounded them. 

In the business world, advertising agencies have been great at saying things to their client’s customers for years. They have been very effective at sending messages to people and telling them to do things. Buy this washing powder, eat this food, rub this cream in or buy this car to become this sort of person. Some of the world’s most talented people went into advertising and they still do. They are brilliant at saying things. 

Over the last few years, we, as individuals, have realised that we have a voice too. We can write our views up on a blog, comment on other people blogs or views, and we can do things which were once the private domain of the corporations which controlled what we saw, read or consumed. 

This has meant that advertisers are changing their ways. We are not prepared to listen to the message of one advertiser on their product or service. We will check what everyone else thinks about their product or service before we buy it. The loud, confident broadcasts are becoming less and less impressive. Now, the quiet noise of the people tells us whether the advertiser is right about the product they are pushing or not. 

An example of this is a recent story of two developers I know who have built a simple to use tool called ‘ImageSizer.’ These two bright and self-effacing individuals have spent their spare time building ‘ImageSizer’ to help people quickly re-size batches of digital photos and made it available for people to download for free. Quite quickly, it started to appear on lists on the web recommending top tools to download. Downloads went from one hundred in a month to almost a thousand in a week. It kept appearing on lists and the number of downloads increased. Soon, a computer magazine picked it up and asked if it could include ‘ImageSizer‘ in the free CD on the front of its publication which went out to 20,000 subscribers. 

Although the product is free, it is a good lesson in the fact that today people find out about products and services by hearing about them less through the loud noise of traditional advertising and increasingly through a network of people on the web recommending things. Further to the ‘ImageSizer’ story, the developers receive suggestions and requests for improvement to the tool from their users regularly which helps them to keep ImageSizer relevant and useful to what people want from it. 

So, now think back to those people who exude confidence, start to question their substance and find out whether what they are saying is correct from the network. We are in a far more democratic society than we were ten years ago and it is a far better world for it.

How to Win – Focus and Speed

Focus your resources and create panic  

Focus your resources and create panic

When you are in the thick of your business, especially if it is a small business, finding time to step back and take stock of where your business is going is very difficult. You are working in the business, packing boxes or trying to find new customers, or doing the books in the evening that by the time you get time to look to the future and evaluate your strategy, it is midnight and you are shattered. Even the large businesses I have worked in, that had more resources at hand to help them build their sales and profits than I care think about, had trouble taking the time to understand what was going to make them successful in the future. 

In one large business I was in, I recall an internal meeting where a new Sales Director had been appointed to lead our sales strategy for the division. In one open meeting with the sales and marketing teams, he was asking for our feedback about how to grow the business. That was good, but it soon became obvious that the new sales director had no idea about his sales strategy. Phrases he made like “I can see we need broad focus to be successful” filled me with a sense of foreboding that this guy was not going to last long in his position. Surely, ‘broad focus’ means no focus or ‘wide angle’ at the very best. ‘Broad focus’ conjures up images of trench warfare, stalemate and no forwardprogress. 

The word ‘strategy’ sounds so grand that it does not seem appropriate to a small business. In a large business, people often make strategy a far more complicated activity than it needs to be, or they think strategy is just for Generals. Simply put, strategy is how you are going to meet your objectives. Tactics are about what you are going to do to make the strategy or strategies work. 

But everyone needs to be clear about their objectives, their strategy and the subsequent tactics to help them win and few know where to start in my experience. A very good place to start in learning from the past. For instance, a great wartime leader was Erwin Rommel. His brilliance enabled his smaller force to drive the ‘British Expeditionary Force’ out of France at Dunkirk which he did by being very clear about his strategy.  Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar used a very similar strategy to Rommel decades earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar. 

Both of these leaders overcame their larger enemies by focusing their resources in a small number of locations and driving hard and fast through those critical points. Rommel surged through the Ardennes with fast, mobile forces, encircling the British. Nelson split his fleet into two and charged through the French and Spanish fleets at two points, and both of them created panic and chaos within their opposition. 

So, their strategies were clear. Speed, mobility and concentration of resources into a small number of highly critical locations. No broad focus. Always narrow focus with as many resources as you can spare behind them. This is the same in business.  A small business does not have the resources to ‘create awareness’ in a potential market. A large business equally needs to make sure it specialises in what it does best and uses it resources wisely to support its strategies. 

But strategy is all very well without having a thoroughly good knowledge about your market, otherwise known as ‘intelligence.’ Although we live in a more competitive world than our ancestors in business, we have far better intelligence available to us to understand our markets than they ever did. It never ceases to amaze me just how much you can find out about your competitors, customers and prospects to help you plan your strategy. 

But the point is that the key to winning is focus. Focus your strategy on a small number of key areas and ensure you dominate them before looking to win in other areas. If you try to do a bit of everything in your market, then you will be easily beaten. And if you still don’t feel confident about developing your strategy, then read sometime wartime biographies and learn from the masters.

Think Inside Someone Else’s Box

Think inside the box first

Think inside the box first


How many times have you been asked to think “outside the box” at work or on a training course?  Countless times, no doubt. It is a cliché now although it remains a good practice for problem solving. But when you are finding new clients the one thing you need to do is to find out about your prospects or customers and their challenges or opportunities. You have to get to know them, to ‘think inside their box’, so that you get to know what it feels like from their position. 

An example of this from my military experience was learning about an Army officer serving in Northern Ireland who had become the most successful platoon commander to that point in finding caches of terrorist weapons. He and his platoon became experts in finding where the IRA hid their weapons. The officer thought like the enemy and began to understand their methods and soon cracked their modus operandi and forced them to rethink how they hid their weapons.

And today, in a regular business breakfast networking I attend, I heard one business who was thinking inside their customer’s boxes. His business supplied telecom services to small businesses which is a fiercely competitive market. Many of his competitors had far greater resources to market themselves, with slick sales teams and slick marketing. But his competitors failed to live up to their promises of what they would provide and constantly called their customers and prospects to sell them more products even though they had failed them. 

He understood this and some of his competitor’s customers were at the networking meeting and told us how they had been treated. His business revolved around being straight and honest with his customers. He simplified and lowered their telecoms bills and regularly checked whether their solution was working. He found new customers by networking, relating to his customers and by doing what he said he would do. 

And this is where larger business are going to face major problems from now on. Because marketing is no longer about slick brochures and coiffured salesmen. It’s about being useful to your customers and prospects and providing them with an experience that will make them believe you and come back for more. Giving away some of your expertise for free through your blog, web site, through Twitter or at a networking event are just a few simple ways to win against fierce competitors with deeper pockets but less ability to understand the customers. 

So, before you start thinking outside the box, do some thinking inside the box. It will give you a competitive edge without costing you an arm and a leg.

You Can Learn a Lot from Terrorists

Setting patterns is dangerous

Setting patterns is dangerous

Within twelve hours of being on Londonderry, I was in one of the British Military bases in the city with my platoon. It was early 1991 and I had flown out to take over from a fellow officer who was needed for preparations the Army was making to commence the first Gulf War. I had been through training for an earlier tour to South Armagh but this tour was on the streets and not in the fields.

We sprinted through the gates of the base onto the streets and within a minute a bomb went off some 500 metres away. Our drills kicked in and we made our way towards the area to cordon it off. It turned out that it was a small bomb but we still had to do the drills and provide a safety zone to keep people out so the bomb disposal team could come in and make the location safe and clear any other potential bombs.

The next stage is the part of the ninety-nine percent of boredom that all troops experienced in Northern Ireland when you are out on the streets for twelve hours or more while the bomb disposal team do their jobs. Trying to keep alert is tough, so you move your teams around in the area to keep them sharp. You make sure that they are supplied with hot food and tea to keep them happy. And all the time you are there, you are not somewhere else. And that’s what the terrorists know.

The next thing we saw, some eight hours after the bomb, were the phosphorescent tracers of rounds streaming through the air towards one of the watchtowers in another base in the city. The IRA were using an M60 machine gun and they had been very clever. They sucked us into setting up a cordon around the bomb while they set up their real target.

And that’s why they say respect your enemy because they are not stupid. This is why you are trained not to set patterns in the Army so that you minimise the chance of walking into their traps. And this is a lesson for anyone in business too.

Last week I was with two people who run their own business making weights for balloons. Their manufacturing business is an industry where there is little marketing carried out by their competitors. Most web sites are dull and most of their business is carried out through orders sent by fax and there are no distinct brands. 

But the business owners I met want to grow their business and they wanted to start doing it by developing their brand and using the Internet to reach new customers and sell more to their existing customers. Their competitors are setting patterns and doing business in the way that they have always done business. My clients have recognised that they need to use their competitors complacency to their advantage and out-market them. 

So, respect your enemy or your competitors. Get to know the patterns they are setting and disrupt them. And be prepared to set off on a path of continuous change and innovation to stay ahead and keep them on their toes.

Being Creative Takes Practice


Being creative takes practice

Being creative takes practice

“WE’RE GOING LEFT FLANKING!!” The enemy had opened up on my lead section and I had rushed up next the section commander to see what was going on. We were on a rise looking down into a wooded area where the enemy had opened up on my platoon. The lead section was returing fire rapidly to keep their heads down. The adrenaline was coursing through my body as I rapidly thought about how we were going to take out enemy.There was a lot of noise and smoke, people shouting at me for orders.

The ‘book’ says leave leave one section of your platoon and take the other two sections to flank the enemy. But I decided that I had the advantage over them in a big way, both physically and mentally. I was going to smash them. To the enemy’s rear and to our right I could see they had left their transport exposed. It was likely that they were going to withdraw to it and try to escape when I launched the main attack. But I was not going to let that happen.


And that was it. That was the first time that someone told me that they thought I was in any way creative after that action. I felt nervous because I had not carried out the platoon attack ‘by the book.’ Fortunately, this was not a real enemy and we were just using blank ammunition. I was twenty-two and I was in Wales on an exercise during the British Army’s ‘Platoon Commander’s Battle Course.’ My instructor wrote in his report that he thought that I had “tactical flair.” My commanding officer was impressed.

But I hear the phrase “I’m not very creative” all the time from friends and colleagues, and it is an unfortunate belief which inhibits people from doing fabulous work. I admit that I used to say that about myself. The word ‘creative’ is often misinterpreted. I used to think it meant that I had to be a designer or an architect. But, of course, it does not mean that at all.

Being creative is something which has many levels of meaning. There are artists and musicians, designers, fashion designers and chefs who are creative, as well as sportsmen and women. But that does not mean that creativity is an exclusive club to them. It just means that they have practiced harder than most people and that they have found something they love doing and they become obsessive about it.

These days, I am often told that I have a lot of ideas, energy and enthusiasm for what I do. But there is no secret behind being creative. For me being creative begins with listening to a lot of radio, watching good TV programs on a variety of subjects, reading newspapers and blogs, learning about new trends and working out how they work, as well as trying out ideas, many of which have failed, and talking with lots of people to understand what they do.

Most people are not prepared to put in the time that it needs to do this kind of study and practice. Take blogging, for instance. Many people say they don’t have anything interesting to say. That’s simply not true. Most people have lots of interesting things to say and ideas to share. But they simply don’t practice by trying.

Of course, you can feel a little exposed to criticsm when you first start writing a blog or articles. But, the more you write, the more you understand how to improve your articles and entries by listening to people’s feedback and comments. “Where do you get your ideas?” I get them from everywhere.

For instance, I was standing at a pelican crossing in my local town at the weekend when I saw a sign outside one of the dwindling number of estate agencies which said “We have twelve computer linked offices in the county!” OK, I thought, that’s a feature of your business. Who cares if your offices are computer linked. What does that mean? I felt an article about how local businesses could improve their marketing coming along!

So don’t think that creativity is not for you. It is not an exclusive club. You are creative. If you don’t think you are, then you have not practised enough.