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Igniting creativity in companies

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Entrepreneurial Storytelling & Creative Problem-Solving

For the second year running, KILN principals have contributed to the postgraduate diploma course on Entrepreneurship at Judge Business School. Why do the Cambridge University Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) invite us? The short answer is: we can teach business people structured creative processes. And CfEL recognised that creativity is key to entrepreneurial success.

Writing for CfeL last year, KILN co-founder Gregg Fraley made the point plainly:

"budding entrepreneurs are entering the market with one arm tied behind their back if they don’t find a way to access their creative thinking power"

In CfEL's curriculum, structured creativity is taught before popular tools like Business Model Canvas.  We think this is spot-on. The answers a tool like Business Model Canvas elicits from entrepreneurs and innovators are only as good as the questions you ask. Structured creativity gets people asking better, bolder, more unusual questions.

If you're looking for executive or postgraduate education in business, we encourage you to choose a programme that offers you access to tools and frameworks for structured creativity.  

In the post that follows, I'll share highlights from the sessions I ran - and link the material to the challenge of entrepreneurs. (It's worth saying: these approaches are equally useful in established business and organisation setting.)

The Essence of Entrepreneurial Storytelling

One of the entrepreneur's core challenges is to make people believe in the power or value of a new offering, whether it's a product, a service or a platform. Making believe is neither an act of will nor an act of coercion. It's a process of influence.

Leaders and visionaries from all walks of life have long used stories to influence belief. In this session, my aim was to make the use of stories practical and relevant to entrepreneurs. 

As every entrepreneur knows, it’s dire when your new venture’s sales efforts confront a market impervious to a good solution. Often the problem lies in how the offer is constructed in relation to the pains and gains prospective purchasers or partners recognize and are willing to embrace. Part of the essence of entrepreneurial storytelling resides in noticing how the construction of an offer influences not simply what you say in conversation, but who you enrol on your team or in your supply chain. Choose thoughtlessly, and you may find that you simply cannot get adoption experiments underway.

Using a lens on customer-centred needs identification & solutions explanation offers an effective remedy to habitual thinking. For such a lens – plus a healthy dose of “future-tense stories” – I shared StoryFORMs. It's a tool I formulated in 2012 to help teams

re-imagine what you know & do, and the difference it makes

Designed to help people organize conversations and thoughts in cogent stories, this tool galvanizes you to create, tell, and use new stories.  

The StoryFORMs framework applies to startups, established businesses, large-scale enterprises, voluntary and third sector organisations, and projects of all scales.  

StoryFORMs is a paper-and-Sharpie tool made up of a set of shapes. Each shape asks a question. It’s deceptively simple. The canvas helps you capture, explore, question, propose, instil purpose, ignite. In working with StoryFORMs (which this initial session did not allow us time to do), entrepreneurs find they move between two cognitive orientations:

make believe (imagination) and making belief (influence)

Yet even the condensed introduction was productive.  Delegates on the course who came with a clear idea for a new venture told me in the networking session that followed: StoryFORMs will help me develop my idea. That's its purpose. Completing the canvas makes plain the assumptions, commitments and blind spots a founding team brings to their business. Such visibility can be enormously useful: it allows business concepts to be refined on paper before money or relationship bridges are burned. 

The session closed with a provocative statement:

the limits of your entrepreneurialism are the limits of your imagination

In my experience this is true. And it explains why to be effective quickly, entrepreneurs benefit from frameworks, tools and techniques that structure imagination. Again, Gregg Fraley nails it when he wrote:

Turning on the faucet of imagination more frequently enables the creative flow that helps entrepreneurs create successful businesses.

As a general basis for creative flow, there's no better approach than Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving. And this was the topic of my second session at Judge.

Creative Problem Solving (CPS): A crash course for entrepreneurs

CPS is “an open source framework” that elegantly and efficiently powers entrepreneurs. Formulated by Alex Osborn (formerly of BBDO) and Sid Parnes (a university professor at what is now SUNY Buffalo), CPS is a structured method of creativity. 

CPS is a great way to ask better questions, unpick problems effectively and generate solutions efficiently. 

The session I led offered a whistle-stop tour of the model’s three phases:

 

 (c) 2013 Creative Education Foundation Inc. All rights reserved. Please donate here.

 

The session included lightening-quick exposure to three key attitudes/behaviours that apply across the work of an entrepreneur:

  1. deferral of judgment
  2. separating and managing divergence and convergence
  3. embracing ambiguity

Delegates received a day's training worth of material in 90 minutes, with only momentary intervals to test the process in action.  But at least we've made a start.

For an idea how a longer session in CPS involving more practice would unfold, see Gregg's account of last year's sessions at Judge

With all credit to the Dog's Trust for the image, I closed the CPS session with this image: 

Images copyright of Dogs Trust UK (left) and Creative Education Foundation Inc. (right).

Summary

Because the process of CPS has evolved for 60 or so years, there is a wealth of material available to help entrepreneurs and their teams learn the process. The results come when you embed CPS in your culture. This means you create a place where people can ask questions, diverge in their thinking, formulate criteria for decisions, take decisions and act on them.

We at KILN can help you with this. But the commitment to structured creativity starts with the individual. And the root of that commitment isn't: are you artistic or free-wheeling or radical enough? It's simply: 

Are you smart enough to choose a powerful tool?

As for StoryFORMs, it won't be to everyone's taste. And until I write the book and we develop some software, it's not hugely accessible. But at the very least, the fact that StoryFORMs exists and is growing should exemplify:

Structuring imagination makes business success

Postscript

A research fellow on the CfEL team observed after the session:

"you changed lives today"

I was humbled and honoured.

But I don't think that's about me, or KILN particularly. I think that's StoryFORMs and CPS. 

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