"CREATIVITY AND PERFORMANCE:
HOW THE BEST COMPANIES SUCCEED IN MAKING THEM WORK TOGETHER"
by Swana Leitner
‘Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource. The ability to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things is ultimately what raises productivity and thus living standards.’
Is there any such thing as long-term performance without creativity? In competitive markets such as today's, it is very unlikely. Creativity is at the heart of success. It is meant to lead to growth, as no company could be sustainable without regularly offering new, better, improved, or upgraded products or services to its customers. According to a research led by McKinsey2 in 2017, customers are mostly not loyal to their usual brands, and almost 60% of them will switch for another brand without a second thought when making a purchase.
What is creativity anyway? The notion of creativity is constantly evolving over time, together with the trends and the markets. It is very correlated to the specifics of the time and era. What was creative yesterday is common today. And there lies the challenge! Creativity always goes hand in hand with innovation, which means having new ideas, and pursuing them even without knowing how they will be received by the public. In other words, creativity involves taking risks.
Is creativity always rewarding, though? Is it enough for a company to be creative to succeed? How do the biggest companies meet continuous success over the years and decades? What are their secrets?
How the best companies prioritize and express creativity
The last century offered the highest number of new products that were ever created in human history. New technologies by themselves produced thousands of innovations our great grandparents, and even our grandparents, would never have only imagined in their wildest dreams. But the tech sector is not the only one that completely mutated: the food sector and the pharmacy also did, only to name a few. Think smartphones, virtual assistant speakers, heart stents, fat-free dairy-free stevia-sweetened yogurts...
Offering customers a new product that will help them improve or simplify their lives has always been the Grail of all industrials. Creation is at the heart of almost all professional activities, all focusing on the one same goal: keeping existing clients and gaining new ones.
The need for new products is obvious. The once big players that refused to follow the new trends had to pay the price for it: Nokia, once internationally successful, did not participate in the smartphone industry and simply collapsed until it was acquired by Microsoft in 2014. Kodak had a bankruptcy because of a poor budget strategy regarding the development of digital photography. Nespresso still is the leader in its field, but with the growing concern for the ecological impact of the single-use capsules and a range of ferocious competitors, the company is having trouble keeping its top position.
The market gives no mercy. It is an adapt-or-die world. That is why the product quality and uniqueness is not and will never be sufficient.
2. The magic of a creative marketing
According to a 2014 study conducted by Forrester Consulting named "The Creative Dividend"3, companies that put their efforts into being creative are 3.5 times more likely to grow their revenue more than their competitors.
And a big part of being creative lies in a well-tailored marketing. Nowadays, when a company launches a new product, there is not long to wait before its competitors launch their own version of the item, most of the time of equal quality, or even better. So what makes the difference, when the market offers the customer such a large choice of products? This is where a well-thought marketing strategy can work wonders. The McKinsey survey quoted above shows that one quarter of the most successful companies allocate to marketing a larger budget than their peers (sometimes it goes up to 2.5 times more).
We all have in mind legendary advertisement campaigns, that we will most likely remember all life long. They were short and punchy, with a seductive underlying message that hit us in full heart, once and for all. And that changed the course of the brand forever, too, for the best.
10 years after their "Just Do It" campain, Nike had multiplied its sales by 11 (went from $800 million to more than $9 billion between 1988 and 1998)! McDonald's revenue grew 27% between 2004 and 2007, at the time its catchline was "I'm lovin' it". Short and sweet.
Anyone in France remembers promotional slogans such as: "Et la marmotte, elle met le chocolat dans le papier d'alu" (by Milka), "Pas assez chère, mon fils" (to advertise for Renault's Clio), "Raider, deux doigts coupe-faim" (for Twix chocolate bars, previously named Raider), "Tout le monde se lève pour Danette", etc. They just stick in your mind.
Such timeless and creative marketing campaigns undoubtedly participate in building the brands' legend and results, and even more: they create brand loyalty. Once customers have heard fun or striking commercials a few times, they will remember the brand once in the store alley and more likely pick up the product they have already heard of rather than the unknown one.
But creativity is not only to be found on the visible side of a company, but also in the internal organization and work environment.
3. New workplace habits and policies: how the best companies make the office a better place to work... and live
The champions of creative benefits for employees are usually startups, but the most established companies are very inventive too.
Google has been rethinking the whole work environment and decided the employees would be more productive (and stay longer in the office in the morning and at night) if they felt at home. The open spaces 2.0 are now much more silent: phone calls are not allowed in the shared space, but any employee is free to leave his desk and go to the soundproof cabins that are spread everywhere on the platform. Privacy is guaranteed for professional as well as personal phone conversations. On a more domestic note, fridges are filled with all kinds of breakfast choices, snacks, beverages and treats you could ever dream of: from goat milk to nut bars, to fresh fruit to protein bites, there are less and less reasons to leave the office during the day. According to Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice-president of people operations, the free food has yet another purpose: "We want people to have a reason to bump into each other, because it's from those small, chance conversations that you get really interesting products and ideas."
Meetic's Paris office offers its employees a choice of open spaces with various themes and atmospheres, and each person can choose where to plug their laptop in the morning. They also have access to a rooftop when the weather is sunny, or they can decide to work from home any day.
Other companies have found it to be very rewarding and effective to give their employees more schedule-related or material benefits: from extended parental leaves to remote work, from flexible working schedules to free yoga classes at lunch time. Facebook is even known to give free egg freezing options to its female employees – there is no limit to what we can expect!
The freedom and care given to employees certainly allow them to feel more responsible for their own workload, and keep them motivated and loyal to their company, which is one of the keys to success.
4. Creativity in the recruitment game: a win/win
When it comes to recruitment, given the costs associated with hiring a new employee, choosing well is crucial. When adding the time spent selecting candidates and interviewing them as many times as necessary, the headhunter or recruitment agency fees, the time and cost of training the newbie, then the period of time before he is fully operative and autonomous, the amount of money and time spent on each employee is substantial. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management states that, in average, the cost to hire an employee is over $4,0004.
Finding the right match for a job, especially in high-level niche sectors, is not an easy task. The not-anymore-so-new technologies and all the features that let us get in touch from afar, anytime and anywhere in the world, have shown to be so much more effective than the classic resume/onsite interview/call back process than they almost are not to be mentioned anymore. However, some big players have come up with some new and creative methods helping them screen out the less relevant candidates and go straight to the right ones. And showed the world recruitment can be fun, too!
In 2011, Ikea opened a new store in Australia and needed to run a large recruitment campaign. To do so and be sure to reach people who already loved and bought the brand products, Ikea printed some "career-assembling instructions" sheets in the very same way they display their product-assembling instructions, and placed them inside the product boxes. By doing so, they very smartly reached Ikea-lovers living in the right area!
Apple met its reputation of being one of the most creative companies of all times when in August 2017, a job offer was hidden in Apple's website, and could only be digged out by a curious and tech-oriented mind. The line said: "Hey there! You found us. We are looking for a talented engineer to develop a critical infrastructure component that is to be a key part of the Apple ecosystem." (Sadly, the one that found it – Zack Whittaker, a cyber-security reporter – was not interested. Read the whole story here: https://www.businessinsider.fr/us/hidden-apple-plain-text-job-listing-2017-8).
Some companies even gamify the process.
In 2016, Dyson published a very short YouTube video presenting their new "Rethinkers" program, aiming at finding the most suited professionals to be hired by the company. In the video, an off-camera voice explains in a very mysterious and soft tone that the company was looking for "people who think like us", and was launching challenges to find them. The prize for the winners was an invitation to "Dyson's Top Secret Technology Campus" and ultimately an interview with the CEO. The voice then asked: "Do you have what it takes?" and announced that the key to the challenge was hidden inside the video (the video is still online, so if you are curious to try and find the key, you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3TRaKG6MzI). No doubt that any play-oriented, challenge-lover tech candidate watching the video was hooked.
Google Software Engineer Max Rosett wrote an article about how he unexpectedly got tested then hired by Google while he was in the middle of a career change but did not feel confident enough yet to apply for any job of that kind. While he was searching for some very specific programming terms on Google, a box appeared on Max's screen, saying: "You're speaking our language. Up for a challenge?". He was definitely up, and thanks to his newly acquired programming skills, after several weeks of completing one online challenge after another, he got contacted by Google, and ultimately hired! (Read the whole article here: https://thehustle.co/the-secret-google-interview-that-landed-me-a-job). "One of the most important skills as an engineer, and especially a cyber-security specialist, is a mindset that can solve problems," said Professor Alan Woodward from Surrey University. In that happy-ending story, Google had been looking for those specific skills and both employer's and engineer's needs were met.
On an even more playful note, Unilever offers a 20-minute game at the start of any recruitment process to evaluate the candidate's skills. With a good amount of humor, the dedicated webpage states: "Good news for new grads – that time you spent on Minecraft and World of Warcraft may have actually been time well spent." Chief HR Officer Leena Nair states: "We know that people increasingly live their lives online and our recruitment process must reflect that". Smart enough.
A creative recruitment process can be beneficial both for the employer (who gains a considerable amount of time and money by targeting the right matches from the start) and for the candidate, who is able to find a perfect fitting job while being entertained and challenged on his way to it!
But does creativity always pay off? The keys to make creativity and performance work together
If creativity was enough, every artist, inventor and genious would be a successful and wealthy person (or company). But this is far from reality.
There are many examples of worldwide-known products whose creator never received the deserved money nor attention. For instance, no one knows that the e-book reader was first invented by Michael Dahan and Laurent Picard, both from Cytale: people actually think Amazon had the idea first! Let us also pay a tribute to Daisuke Inoue, the Japanese barman who created the karaoke but forgot to file a patent for it; Hiroshi Ueda, a Minolta employee, who created the selfie stick, and whose patent expired just soon enough to be overtaken by the now millionnaire Wayne Fromm; graphist Harvey Ball who created the first yellow smiley back in 1963 but did not think about registering copyrights for it; couple of Canadian doctors Jean and Alastair Carruthers, who first had the idea of Botox for cosmetic use but did not file a patent for it...
So, no. Creativity is definitely not enough to meet success.
When studying the brightest success stories in the business world, three keys seem to pop up.
Key #1: Have a vision AND a strong management and organizational system
Amazon created the biggest book database that ever existed, but it all had a tough start. The company had to persist despite the huge money losses they recorded in the first few years. The business model showed to be perene, but at that time, it really took one stubborn mind to believe it would work. The company then expanded into the giant we all know, because the structure was solid and the ecosystem was brilliantly conceived, evolving around a winning strategy: offer the largest choice of products ever seen in one online shop, and provide a high-level customer service.
When not supported by a stable organization, a vision, even the most brilliant one, is nothing but an idle dream. The creative process must be structured and framed within an organization built around it, but not be squelched by it.
Philippe Silberzahn, a French researcher at Ecole Polytechnique and teacher at the major French business schools, studied a theory stating that the decline of an organization is caused by the loss of its head's creative capability5. According to him, from that moment appears a breach in the growth of the company (even if it does not reflect immediately on the results), that will ultimately cause its bankruptcy. He created the very interesting chart below in 2010, showing the link between creativity and performance, and the appearance of the breach in the "non-creativity" zone. The companies in the top-left quarter all had economic issues sooner or later.
The critical key here is for managers to keep an entrepreneurial (ie. including a large part of creativity) spirit rather than a solely management-oriented one.
Key #2: Knowing how to fall and stand up again
The first name that comes to mind when thinking "creativity" and "performance" together is obviously Apple. The multinational tech company has always been ahead of the curve, and despite a certain amount of epic fails – the first computers were not all reliable and the company had to recall every single Apple III sold because it had hardware issues; the Macintosh TV, in 1993, designed to be both a computer and a TV, was too expansive and could only be connected to the U.S. network; in 2009, Apple launched the iPod Shuffle 3rd generation that had no button at all and people never got used to it; social network for music "Ping", in 2010, was a complete dud; the Smart Battery Case in 2015 was just too ugly to sell –, they always knew how to rise again. Why? Because they learned their lesson after each fail.
While creativity seems all fun and recreational, the best companies are capable of measuring and interpreting the customer's response at its early stage, and immediately adjust and adapt as necessary to meet the customer's needs as closely as possible. This requires the help of data analysts and smart and fast decisional processes. Once launched, the product must be scrutinized with attention when reaching the market, and the company must make room for the feedback dynamics, search for them, analyze them, and then be able to take quick decisions and have all the means to do the necessary adjustments... or simply let it go and do better next time.
Key #3: The necessity of an ongoing renewal
Dassault Systèmes is one good example of a perfect success story. This constantly growing and visionary company knows perfectly how to offer a very specialized sector the products it needs. Not only are the products always ahead of time (Dassault Systèmes was the conceptor of the Product Lifecycle Management back in the early 2000s and then made 3D publicly available), but they also constantly work on their internal organization and study the quality of the transmission of information between team members. To stay on top of the game, they do not hesitate to have hundreds of employees change positions every year. CATIA R&D Development Engineer Florent Coïc says: "Creativity is at the heart of Dassault Systèmes' strategy. Thanks to its deeply creative way of reinventing itself every 10 years, the company continues to grow, flourish and have the biggest impact on industrials all over the world by offering them new tools to do their jobs, always more adapted to the ever-evolving world." As a reminder, Dassault Systèmes started with 25 employees in 1981 and is now a 16.000-employee company known worldwide.
Another company who knew how to evolve to stay on track is Lego. At the end of the 1990s, the firm had financial trouble due to growing competitors and supply chain issues, not to mention the fact that children spent more and more time on screens rather than playing with proper toys. With a new CEO and a change in strategy – the company decided to acquire licences (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and hit the jackpot in 2014 with The Lego Movie, that produced $470 million – the company ranked as #1 in the toy industry and its revenue increased by 15% per year in average for 13 more years.
This obsession for evolution and growth is unseparable from creativity, and if well conducted, leads to high performance.
Creativity, even if admirable and sometimes even breath-taking, is unfortunately not enough to ensure a company's success. Creative minds build tomorrow's world, but not if left alone. And even the most brilliant ideas are not guaranteed to meet the success they deserve. It is a constant and ever-renewed challenge to have new ideas and make them become concrete and viable, as well as keeping the company's structure flexible enough to question its methods on a regular basis, adapt and change whenever necessary.
One thing is sure, though: as long as the human mind will be free to imagine, wander, dream and create, the world will never stop evolving.