It had better be -- the future belongs to the best ideas, not the best products
"To stay competitive, we have to lead the world in per-person creativity," said Gallup's chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton, in a 2005 Fast Company article. The article wasn't about creativity; it was about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his theories on "flow." But Clifton's quote resonated. "People still ask me about it all the time," he says.
And it's no wonder. Business is fascinated with creativity, even though it's undefinable and unquantifiable. Executives have scrutinized the idea of creativity from every angle: How much does creativity increase revenue and share price? What kinds of people are creative? What do they want from management? Will a ping pong table in the break room help? But creativity is still an attribute without edges. So why are businesses fascinated with -- some might even say fixated on -- creativity? Because even though it's amorphous, it's becoming clearer all the time that creativity is really what business sells.
Every business has competition, and globalization is upping the ante. Someone, somewhere is toiling away to make a product like yours, only better or cheaper or prettier. What can you do to keep and expand your market in the face of this new threat? You'll have to think of something -- and that will take some creativity. And then more of it, because a new competitor just popped up to take the last one's place. In the end, creativity -- one good idea after another -- will make your business better, faster, richer, and harder to trounce. And it's an idea that preoccupies Jim Clifton.
Gallup is in the business of helping other organizations -- including businesses, governments, and universities -- to be more profitable or sustainable. And like every business, Gallup is absolutely dependent on the creative smarts of its employees. But it's not only the ranks of researchers and scientists on Gallup's payroll that provide creative value. Clifton has been examining creativity throughout the company, often finding great ideas in unlikely places. It led him and his colleagues to consider the merit and origin of business creativity, and its value to every organization. In this interview, Clifton discusses why creativity is a vital necessity in business, how to get more, and how to make the most of what you've got.
GMJ: Let's talk about that quote in Fast Company. What is per-person creativity?
Clifton: Ideas. Big, new ideas, coming from as many employees in the organization as possible, and not only from the people at the top. Here's why the general concept is so important. Years ago, employees didn't have to be very good at their jobs, and no one really cared about them. And one of the big reasons for that was that the U.S. economy had convenient monopolies.
Look at the American car companies thirty years ago. There were three of them, but they all made about the same amount of money and the same kinds of cars. They were a convenient monopoly, and none of them had to be all that good. [See "Winning Business in the Emotional Economy" in the "See Also" area on this page.] But then globalization -- which many Americans didn't see coming at all -- forced us into all kinds of losses and made us tighten up. Everybody Six Sigma'd and TQM'd, and everybody had to run a tighter ship. All of a sudden, car companies -- and other U.S. companies -- cared about productivity. What we found is that if you don't use ideas, you can only sell with price, and that's a dead end. Now, companies are beginning to depend upon ideas. If you're more creative than your competitors, you have value today.
GMJ: When you talk about per-person creativity, do you mean strictly R&D?
Clifton: Not at all. For American companies to be competitive, creativity can't be the domain of just the big thinkers. In the new world, from designing multimillion dollar technology to selling a book, you must employ creative people throughout the organization. Sure, scientists, CEOs -- all of us have to get better at creativity, or we're going to get our heads handed to us in a global economy. But it's not only the domain of the CEO or the researchers anymore. If you run Barnes & Noble, you need bright, thinking people on the floor who watch when a customer walks in and who take the time to say, "Have you seen this new thing here? Maybe you could use it for that story you're working on." There's day-to-day creativity. But there's also hard science.
GMJ: Hard science?
Clifton: Let me explain. Level one creativity is just a conversation: "I've got an idea for you." Level two is cost cutting -- figuring out what this idea does for your efficiency. However, the third level of creativity demands hard science: "How do we do this? What's the task?" The task is to put a man on the moon. The task is to poll the Muslim world, which Gallup has been doing. The task is trying to get someplace nobody's ever been before.
Creative teams need to have time and space for that third level. For instance, we had to do the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World, we had to be the first to get there. But it was kind of like putting a man on the moon. The idea of the poll came from day-to-day creativity, but getting it done took hard science, another kind of creativity.
GMJ: How did you get the man on the moon, so to speak?
Clifton:Once we had the idea of doing the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World, Gallup scientists and I sat down with a list of everybody we knew. It took a lot of time, but you need to be systematic if you're going to act on big, creative ideas. Then we put a group of thinkers together, heavy-duty thinkers from academia, government, NGOs, business leaders, and others, to go help us figure out, systematically, how to do it. And that was hard science.
GMJ: How do you spark creativity? How do you make a culture that encourages it?
Clifton: It starts with leadership. First, you've got to make it OK throughout your organization to be creative, then you've got to make it part of people's jobs. Sure, you can just hire creative people, and there are questions you can ask in an interview that will determine if a job candidate is big-idea person. But that's not enough.
Bell Labs once conducted an experiment where they studied what separated their star performers from the rest. It wasn't IQ or work ethic -- the scientists were all geniuses, and they all worked on science twenty hours a day, seven days a week. The researchers looked at every attribute they could possibly imagine, and they found there were nine work strategies that correlated to high output. The top two attributes that correlated to productivity were initiative and networks. The best scientists were much better at taking initiative in ways that paid off for the company. They also had big networks of smart friends that they could tap when they needed expert help. People who are big producers take more initiative and have unbelievable networks.
GMJ: How can senior executives find great ideas within their organizations?
Clifton: Sam Walton used to say that when you're confused, get to the stores, because that's where the answers are. The answers aren't in executive committee meetings; all the answers are in the stores. Right now, we're researching questions for our employee engagement surveys that explore how often employees have good ideas, if they share them, and if they feel their company is open to their ideas and will implement them.
You can get great ideas almost anytime or anywhere. For instance, while walking around the building one day in Omaha [headquarters of Gallup University], I stopped at the print shop. I saw a box full of folders and asked what they were. The employees said, "They're marketing pieces. We send them out to be printed." "Why didn't you guys print them here?" I asked. "Well, because the machine that makes that fold is really expensive. We don't print that many of that kind of thing, so we send it out." But then it was suggested that if we bound them another way, we could keep the print job in-house, and the company could save a lot of money and time. It was a great idea. And it produced a measurable result. We need to encourage that kind of level-two creativity, good ideas that save money.
Now, on a level-one, business-to-business basis, the most respectful thing you can do is bring a customer an idea.
GMJ: What do you mean by respectful?
Clifton: If someone brings you a great idea, it changes your relationship with that person. Then you know that person really cares about what you're doing. The CEO of a major retailer once asked me, "What's the most important thing I need to do to be competitive?" I replied, "Understand what happens at the intersection between customers and employees." Having happy employees gives you something; having happy customers is something else you really want. But all the money and all the juice is in the intersection between the two. So I said, "Don't get too focused on products, because everybody can buy everything anywhere. The employee-customer intersection is your only hope for the future."
This retailer already has high per-person productivity, but it's important that they move to per-person creativity, which would mean doing whatever they must do -- training, performance reviews, all that -- so that when customers come in, every employee is ready to contribute. So if you were the customer, and you said you wanted a printer, an employee of this retailer could ask, "Why do you need another printer? What do you do with it?" "I print huge volumes and lots of photos." Then that employee would have some ideas for you. She could help you on a person-to-person basis, not just as a salesperson to a customer. That conversation is the intersection; that's the new high bar for creativity. And it's also a form of respect.
GMJ: Is per-person creativity an American thing? Or do you see other companies in other countries catching on to this concept?
Clifton: Many other countries don't need it yet. They're still at the stage where they have convenient monopolies. In Latin America, there isn't much interest in customer sciences -- companies don't need them right now. But that won't last forever. The Chinese are racing as fast as they can to reach U.S. manufacturing and productivity levels, and they'll get there faster than we did.
GMJ: What do you do to jumpstart your own creativity?
Clifton: I figure out my most creative moments -- the time of day, the environment -- and try to be creative then. For instance, I get adrenaline rushes in the morning.
Another thing that works for me is talking to smart people. I'll ask our senior scientists, these world-famous brains, a question, then watch for agreement among the group on an issue or a problem. When there is high agreement, they are almost always right. So I have my own network of people who are the smartest in the world on a few Gallup-related subjects, like workplace management, customers, or the World Poll, that sort of thing. It's like when Sam Walton said if you're confused, go to the stores. When I'm confused, I go to our senior scientists. I go to our network of smart people.
GMJ: How do you encourage teams or workgroups to be creative?
Clifton: Just like everything else, it's a leadership issue. You've got to make creativity part of the culture. When walking around the company, to our computer labs or the print room or anywhere else, I'll discover and point out a good idea. However, it's important to make generating ideas part of everybody's job.
GMJ: How would you explain creativity to Wall Street?
Clifton: Wall Street is just starting to understand the intersection between employees and customers. See, having a company with highly engaged employees solves a lot of problems. But that just sends you up one level. What you want is for your employees to intersect with customers, and that's where per-person creativity comes in. Wall Street will learn to value creativity in companies where quality goes beyond what the customer expects. For example, Gallup buys telephone service, and we don't know if the telephone calls go on lines under the ocean or bounce off of satellites. We can't tell the difference between them, and we don't need to. What we value is the technology company with the best idea. That company will win our business. And that's why in the near future, Wall Street will notice that ideas will win, not products.-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison