The gentleman who attended one of my talks on creativity and innovation—the theme of The Boiling Frog Dilemma book—could perhaps be excused for making these remarks. After all, he was a small business owner in southern Ontario with a modest metal fabricating shop. He needs clients and revenue to keep his shop open. All of this talk of colouring with crayons and thinking creatively was, well, almost insulting.
I never had the chance to speak with him directly (his comments were passed on to me by the conference moderator). But if I could have, here’s what I would have said.
But if he did it enough times, maybe his situation would improve. Maybe he’d come up with a creative way to save on input costs at his shop. Perhaps he’d think of a new line of products and services he could start to offer. Or maybe he’d realize that he could sell his shop, retrain, and start something new altogether. Maybe.
Or maybe, if other Canadians around him exercised creativity, the economy in his neck of the woods would pick up. Maybe new industries in southern Ontario—ones that don’t even exist yet—would be the result of some creative thinking going on. And maybe those new businesses would form a new and growing client base for him. Maybe.
What’s the value of creativity? Is it enough to be creative just for creativity’s sake? Or is there a larger economic issue at play? I’d suggest it is the latter.
Creative ideas are what help build new industries from scratch. Think of the creative energy that went into the development of the Internet. Someone had to think up the original idea; now, to think about the world of commerce in 2012 without the Internet almost boggles the mind.
Closer to home, think about the creativity that was involved in developing Alberta’s steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) systems in the oilsands. After a while it is tempting to take this idea and the technology for granted, but it was an enormously creative innovation that is transforming the way we extract bitumen.
Creativity is much like physical exercise. Someone who complains about being lethargic and out of shape may be told by a doctor to go for a walk once in a while. The out-of-shape patient may walk around the block, return to the TV and bag of chips on the couch, and, still feeling sick and lazy, complain that the walk didn’t do a lick of good.
The point is, of course, that the patient needs to make some lifestyle change that may involve not only one walk around the block, but more challenging and consistent exercises. In the same way, creativity is a lifestyle choice: the more you practise it, the more creative you’ll become. And the ideas you’ll get may surprise you! It may not be the next Internet breakthough, but it just might be some idea that makes your job or every day tasks that much easier and better.
It may be easy and fun to play with playdough, do role-playing exercises, or bang on a drum to stimulate our creative juices. But, for the business owner who is facing closure, it isn’t so much fun. It requires a much larger leap of faith for that person to find value in creativity.
But the value is real. By consistently exercising creative thinking, encouraging others in their creativity, and applying creative ideas and solutions to economic problems we will build the kind of Canadian economy we need.
It may seem trite to argue that creativity is a critical ingredient for that growing economy. It may be easy to argue that only corporate giants have the resources to invest in creativity. But the truth about creativity is a little more mundane: ideas, often the best ideas, come from ordinary individuals who make a business out of thinking just a little bit differently.
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