Bruce Burton

Creativity, done well, leads to profit. But the ability to solve problems is even more useful for business.

Creativity is not all you might imagine

Last week I attended an AFR Boss event at Crown casino, brimming with enthusiasm that I was going to glean some deeper insights into how some of Australia’s well-known companies and their leaders harnessed innovation to create the successes we see today. I was intrigued by the promise of an expose on the so-called innovation equation “Creativity + Innovation = Profit” and the wisdom of sages including Mark Bouris, Ann Sherry, Harold Mitchell and host Geraldine Doogue.

But I left deeply disappointed. The speakers were entertaining, even interesting, but it became clear that there is enormous confusion around this whole topic, even for our esteemed panel.

My first concern was the amount of emphasis placed on creativity as the key driver of innovation – it is not. The key driver of innovation is having an ability to find and prioritise unmet customer needs. (And only one speaker went even close to mentioning customers or their needs.) Armed with these essential ingredients, creativity is used for a small but vital role at the time of conception – when devising the optimum solution or concept that will form the basis of a new product or service.

My second concern was again the lack of distinction between innovation and entrepreneurship. Most of what we heard were fascinating stories of perseverance, people-management and building businesses – the hallmarks of entrepreneurship; but these bore little relationship with creating products, services or business processes that increased tangible value delivered to customers.

But just before I left it dawned on me that really the whole event was about not about innovation at all. It was about solving business problems. Almost without exception the speakers shared stories of tight situations and how they used creativity to find and implement solutions. Mark Bouris from Wizard helped us understand how he achieved “cut through” on an advertising campaign that wasn’t working; while Ann Sherry told us how Westpac solved its problem recruiting graduates. And Nick Woods was inspirational in his account of how his Australian architectural firm won a huge contract in Dubai in the face of overwhelming competition.

Clearly innovation, done well, leads to profit. But for creativity, I’m not so sure. No doubt it’s important, but it plays only a small part in innovation. And if I had to choose between the impact that sound problem-solving and creativity have on profit, I’ll choose problem solving every time!

Your thoughts?


Peter J Cooper writes: Well done, Bruce! I could not agree more. As someone who has studied innovation passionately for nearly 20 years and (now searches for innovative Australian investments for a living) it is refreshing to hear someone shrug off the creativity catch-all and stress the importance of hard work and defined processes.

“An ability to find unmet customer needs and prioritise them” is indeed key, the next steps are a realistic commercial design and timely execution with appropriate quality/cost. Creativity is an essential ingredient but only one of many in the innovation (and delivery) soup!


Stephen Smith writes: Yes, but don’t you have to think creatively to problem-solve? Isn’t that the point? But I agree with you. Innovation and creativity are trendy terms that get bums on seats. Been to a problem solving conference recently?


Bruce Burton responds: Yes you do need to think creatively to solve problems but I often find people generate (creative) ideas or solutions without first properly defining what the problem is and what specific outcomes you need from the solution.


Rhonda McKerras writes: At the risk of sounding like a thunderous voice from above, creation permeats all. It starts with the spark of an idea. A single thought that is connected with a second though is a creation. The continuation of the process is creativity. Innovation and problem solving are but catagories of the process. In the words of “Brian” Always look on the bright side of life. “We come from nothing and return to nothing.”




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