Enabling workplace creativity using design thinking


Being creative isn’t a magic skill that we’re born with. It’s not an inherent way of being. As I’ve been in a design and art education from the ages of 16-21, I know that all good designs come from what is essentially a five step process:

  • Inspiration/exposure
  • Brainstorming. Initial ideas.
  • Editing. Developing ideas.
  • Prototyping. Testing ideas.
  • Final creation. Analysis

I’m also particularly aware of how different corporate environments are from design studios.

See if this scenario fits in with your experiences of brainstorming sessions:

The company needs to generate ideas for a PR campaign. What shall we talk about in the press next?

Mark from sales has lots of ‘funny’ ideas he’s prepared and takes up most of the conversation, interrupting anyone who tries offering something up.

Ben from IT is less confident. He puts forward an idea but it immediately gets criticised by Mark. Dan, the boss, laughs approvingly at Marks quip to Ben. Ben will never put forward any ideas again.

Jan, the admin, does have ideas but will never say them publicly because she is afraid they wont be good enough.

The room goes silent, in the end Dan (the boss) says: ‘how about this [INSERT AVERAGE IDEA]?’

Fed up and wanting to get the exercise over and done with, everyone says ‘that’s a great idea!!!’

The final idea is never developed, and even if it doesn’t uptake well in the press, no one will critique this point or work to improve it for fear of upsetting the boss. Instead they say ‘Wow, who knows why it didn’t do very well, it was such a great idea, must have been the PR agency!’

Most people I work for would be mortified at the idea of staff sucking up to them, or going along with something just to keep on their good side. But how do you know this isn’t happening if you don’t have a process in place?

Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with ideas for social coming from the boss, or a new director who wants to impress, with little to no opportunity to develop the idea and work on it further.

Good ideas don’t thrive in business environments like this. To be creative, we need to be able to be vulnerable. The work place isn’t a place where most people are prepared to be creatively vulnerable. Anyone with a design or creative background will be resilient to their ideas getting mocked or pulled apart, we’re used to having 3 months of work thrown in the bin by our lecturers and being told to start over. But many of your staff members wont.

You may think, why should you get Jan from admin involved in brainstorming or creative sessions? She’s not a creative person and she isn’t involved in the high level stuff, so why do we need to be sensitive to her?

To this I reply: senior people can sometimes be the most out of touch with the actual everyday workings of the business. Your admin may be the one who is having friendly chats with your clients about invoices and contracts. Your customer service staff in retail may not have marketing degrees and are unfamiliar with board rooms, but they’re the people who see first hand how your customers respond to different marketing campaigns.

Luckily the design process takes away much of these problems and allows people to engage with improving the business in a way that feels safe to them. You may need a neutral facilitator to ensure that different members of the business who are not as confident as others, or who come from backgrounds that haven’t equipped them to feel entitled to sharing ideas, feel supported and encouraged. People may think business is ‘dog eat dog’ and if quiet people can’t speak up then they aren’t very good business people. But remember: the best ideas sometimes come from the unlikeliest of people and if you’re struggling to come up with ground-breaking ideas as a business, and you feel old fashioned and like you can’t keep up – consider whether this may be because the loudest voice within your business has had too much control.

Inspiration. Exposure.

We don’t feel inspired at work much of the time. I remember Christopher Bailey, the creative director of Burberry telling me at a lecture that in order to be creative, you need to expose yourself to many different things and feel very sensitive towards them. When you are viewing artwork, or feeling a breeze, or people watching, you need to really let that experience sink in and affect you. Creative people are notoriously sensitive, they aren’t hard coated.

  • When you come across problems within your business, or a customer is complaining to you. Allow yourself to be receptive to that and let it sink in to your mind. You don’t need to do anything about it or analyse it at this stage, let your subconscious absorb it (remember that your subconscious is a lot smarter than you are). See a staff member who looks unhappy? Notice it. Feel it. Stinky microwave from people reheating their lunches in the work kitchen? Sniff it!
  • Allow yourself and your staff time and space to not be executing. We don’t come up with ideas when we are in a conscious, searching state but in a dreamy subconscious state. Maybe we’re in the shower, or laying in bed and letting our minds wander. Give them that bit of extra time to look around at what other people are doing, read an industry journal, have a chat or daydream.

Brainstorming. Initial ideas.

The thing about initial ideas, is that it’s best to have lots. I love coming up with ideas and I’m quite happy to shove them here, there and everywhere and have them shot down. But I was trained to stand in front of a group of peers and present my ideas aged 17 and have them all say one reason they don’t like my idea! (Group critiques!)

Generally, people don’t feel comfortable to do this. So gather your party together and try these brainstorming tips:

  • Get everyone to write as many ideas as they can on post it notes, these don’t have to be ‘at’ the brainstorming session. They can be prepared as they come, throughout the week. Just put them all up on a wall, all the ideas. And continue to see if you can pull out more from people. Make it clear that you’re looking for lots of ideas, not good ones. This rewards people for saying ideas even if they think (and they probably do) their ideas aren’t very good.
  • Do not criticise ideas when they’re coming out. Don’t criticise, don’t laugh, don’t say ‘no’. Allow people to be vulnerable and open. If they see their ‘safe’ ideas aren’t getting pulled apart, they may present some juicy ones that they’ve been sitting on for a while.
  • Have a facilitator, if someone is being quiet get them to speak up by paying them a compliment ‘Well Zara, you’re always hearing from our customers and I’m sure nobody knows them better than you, what do you think about this?’
  • Don’t let the brainstorming session trail off. Set an end point and keep it snappy. Maybe 30 minutes.
  • I enjoy brainstorming with food involved, because I’m always at my mental best around grub.

Editing. Developing ideas.

The best thing about writing all the ideas on post it notes, is that the ‘ego’ has now been thwarted. The directors ideas sit alongside their PA’s, on a meagre post it note. Do the editing process next week, when everyone has forgotten who came up with which idea. You can then get everyone to look at the ideas again, and pull out the best ones.

  • When you’ve selected the best ideas, now you can criticise. Why might this not work?
  • Remember never to make a point of criticising the worst, or unpicked ideas. Just say ‘lot’s of great ideas here, which are the ones we should consider implementing?’
  • The good thing about post it notes is that you can arrange them into columns and organise them by priority. Organise them by which department they belong to, how much money/effort/time they might take, or something else.
  • Another good thing about post its – got an idea that you aren’t sure if – or how to develop? Stick it on your desktop screen and let it sink in. Let that good old subconscious see that little idea daily and it might give you a brainwave someday.
  • Develop your ideas with further brainstorms and lots of research. Say you’re working on a new website feature, what do your customers think about this potential new change, do they have anything further to ad?

Testing. Prototyping.

No good business ever let’s a large business roll out full scale without testing how it works first. Sometimes I think of some really juicy corking ideas which get approved by clients (who also get excited) only to have it completely flop when we show it to our audience. And sometimes the WORST content that I’m half ashamed to post is massively popular.

  • Try out your new email campaign to 10% of your list and see if the open rate is a lot different to normal.
  • Try your PPC campaign with a £30 budget and see what the reception is.
  • Ask current customers or your instagram fanatics what they think about some new content before it goes live. Send them a freebie to say thanks and encourage them to be brutally honest.

Final creation. Analysis.

There is no product that is created that is not analysed if the designers who created it are any good.

So you’ve made a new product line. Did the customers like it? Did the press like it? Did your investors like it? What do the numbers look like? Sales and traffic? Maybe you got traffic but now it’s not converting. Perhaps the influencers gave you a lot of coverage but it didn’t convert into followers.

Analysts are built differently. As an analyst I can look at a number and understand what that number means in real terms. I can look at a trend line and make a visual picture in my mind about what it means for the customer. To me, numbers aren’t just numbers but pictures and visions.

There may not be an analyst in your company, or it may be the person whom you least expect. (Trust me, my parents never expected me to be able to do marketing analysis one day – I could not do secondary school maths to save my life.) If you don’t have one find one.

Most of all, don’t expect your analyst to be polite. If there is a problem they will highlight it with a brusque matter of factness. The analysis stage of design is about looking for problems, even if no one else can see them, and finding further solutions. We can also see what’s going right and what you should be doing more of!

Have fun creating, creators.