A fascinating conversation with Dr David Hall - Chief Executive of the Ideas Centre Group.  We talk about the differences between creativity and innovation (spoiler: they're not the same thing) and how to get the best ideas and solutions from your creative meetings.


My guest today is Dr. David Hall, who is the chief exec of the Ideas Center group. And David is an expert on creativity and innovation, which are not the same thing. So David, welcome. Thank you for coming on. I heard you speak on this, which is why I asked you to come onto the show. So can we talk about the difference between creativity and innovation?

David Hall (00:35):
Of course. And it's an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to get involved with the podcast. Two very simple definitions for me are at the heart of all this. Everyone talks about creativity and innovation, but very few people have an understanding of what they really mean in a very concise way. Creativity is simply the process of generating ideas that are both novel, in other words, hadn't thought of that before, and useful in that you can see how to make that novel idea work. So it's generating ideas. It's the ideation process. And it's all about that combination of novelty and usefulness. Whereas, innovation is the implementation thing. It's the doing thing, is taking that creative idea and implementing it to give you a step function change in the organisational context. So, big difference between the two. Creativity is all about idea generation and innovation is all about implementation.

Kiran Kapur (01:28):
So I thought, like probably most people coming to this thing, great, we're going to go and be creative. I need to come up with all these wonderfully creative ideas. I'm a marketer, so I can do this. So we'll all go off and have a brainstorm or a thought shower.

David Hall (01:43):
Yes, that's normally the start point for people, and brainstorming is often quoted... When I ask people, "Have you done creative problem solving techniques before?", everyone pipes up with, "Oh yeah, brainstorming. We do brainstorming on a regular basis," is often quoted as being a creative process, but is seldom, if ever, creative, for a whole bunch of very good reasons. We are naturally preconditioned by the past. So when we brainstorm, what we tend to do is rake over our past and identify what from our past we think is going to be relevant moving forward. So we very quickly generate a whole list of ideas that are entirely consistent with everything we've ever done before, which completely lacks any novelty. Novelty is a fresh connection in the brain effectively. It's relatively slow to form.

And actually one of the rules of brainstorming is that you need to eliminate all filtering. We want people to come up with their ideas very quickly thinking that that will add to the creative process. And all it does actually is condemn you to more of the same thinking. We generate long lists of ideas in brainstorms, but they're all variations on what we've done before. So there's nothing new in there whatsoever. It's perfect if what you're looking for is continuous improvement, which is kind of incremental improvement on what you've always had. But if you want novelty, we need to create space to make a new connection in the brain. And that's quite, quite different.

Kiran Kapur (03:17):
I think the interesting thing there is the idea of timing. So a brainstorm, we say, we set it up, we go to a room, we all get together, we all come up with the ideas and every idea is allowed, et cetera, et cetera. But you're saying for creativity, you actually need a longer process. So how do you do that?

David Hall (03:36):
It's not necessarily a longer process. It's just that we need more time to generate that novel thought process, that new connection in the brain. So within the space of half an hour, you can readily generate novel ideas provided you understand the mechanisms for generating that novel idea. And we need rules. Rules of the game. Playfulness is one of the key elements. Young children are absolutely fabulous when it comes to generating novel ideas because they're uncluttered in their heads by any preconceived ideas. So everything they're generating is a relatively new idea. They are brilliant when it comes to novelty. They're rubbish when it comes to useful, by the way, but that's another story entirely, because they just don't have the life experience to make it work. But when it comes to novelty, they're brilliant. Adults are rubbish at novel because our brains are cluttered with so much from our past. All our education, all our experience and what have you, builds patterns in our brains that then lock us in more of the same thinking.

So if we want to play and generate new ideas, adults need rules of engagement. If you take a small group of children and ask them to go play, no problem whatsoever, they will invent thought processes on the spot. If you tell a group of your colleagues to go play for a short time, they'll look at you as if you've lost the plot, quite frankly, because they have no idea how, in a work context, to go play. When what you actually mean is generate completely novel thought processes. Adults can play, but they need rules of the game. And each of the creativity techniques that we use has a detailed set of rules that the facilitator needs to follow to make sure that everyone's playing the same game, everyone understands what the rules are. Then you can release the novelty. It's not that it takes a long time. It just takes special attention to the thought processes and understanding what's happening inside people's heads. Does that make sense?

Kiran Kapur (05:35):
Yes. When I heard you speak before, I thought about this idea that, yes, if you tell a group of children to go and play, they just do. But if you told a group of adults, if you have a break time in any session with adults, everybody immediately gets their phones out and starts looking terribly important rather than doing what children do, which is go and find somebody to go and play together with. I thought that was a really, really interesting concept. The other thing I found fascinating was your view of experts. You were saying that you don't always want the experts to be doing the creativity.

David Hall (06:10):
No, I think in any organisation we develop a world of what is, which is basically the way we do things around here, based on past experience again. So it's always that backward looking perspective. And everyone in the organisation tends to conform to the way we do things around here. That world of what is. The experts are effectively the creators and the guardians of that world. So they have a vested interest in making sure that the rules of the world of what is are maintained, and you end up with more of the same thinking. Experts have a great role to play in taking a novel idea and finding a way of adapting it, to make it useful, to retain that novelty, but adapt it so that it would enhance that world that they were previously trapped in, hopefully giving you a step function change, which is exactly what you want in the innovation process.
So expose the vital in innovation, but when it comes to escaping from more of the same thinking, naivety is at an absolute premium because naive individuals have no difficulty generating fresh thought processes. And that's where the playfulness comes in. Young children are fabulously naive. So if you're solving a problem within the organisation, getting a group of experts together is fine if what you're looking for is incremental improvement of the same world, but if you want people to break the rules, then you need people who are less experienced in that world of what is, that are more liberated in generating fresh thought processes. And it's that interplay between the experts and the naive that gives you that combination of usefulness and novelty, which is core to the creative process.

Kiran Kapur (07:50):
So is one of the issues as a company or an organisation you need to actually know, are you trying to do an incremental change? And as you said, that then is the Kaizen principle. That's what you do. You incremental change.

David Hall (08:00):

Kiran Kapur (08:00):
And do you need to know that that's what you're aiming for, or we actually want to be innovative? Do you find companies that think they want to be innovative when what they actually want to be as just the incrementally improved?

David Hall (08:13):
Absolutely. And key for me is understanding the difference between the two. Kaizen, continuous improvement, Lean Six Sigma, call it what you will, is a fabulous tool for cultural revolution, getting everyone involved in the incremental improvement of the organisation. I am a huge fan of continuous improvement, but it is quite, quite different from the innovation process. And for me, senior management leadership in an organisation need to understand that differentiation between the two because then they can understand the interplay. The two sit beautifully alongside each other, but should not be confused.

Many is the time I talk to organisations and they talk about innovation strategies and they say, yes, yes, yes, we've got a system for innovation in the organisation. What they then go on to do is to describe what is effectively a continuous improvement suggestion scheme process. What they say is we've told everyone in the organisation to come up with fresh thinking, to generate innovative ideas, and we're just waiting for them to come up with that blockbuster idea that will transform the organisation. You often find that leadership actually sit, wait, and just sit waiting. They don't see themselves as being proactively involved in driving step function change. They devolve it to the culture of the organisation. And of course everyone's trapped in more of the same thinking. So what you generate is continuous improvement, which is not what will generate the innovation process. For that, you need to inject the novelty, which means you need people who understand how to break free.

Kiran Kapur (09:43):
Okay. So let's talk a little bit more about this, the novelty process. And you've been very clear that there need to be rules, and I assume that's because we've got adults involved here.

David Hall (09:55):
Absolutely. Absolutely. Adults can play a game beautifully provided they understand the rules. And the way I look at each of the creativity techniques is, effectively it's a different boxed game with its own set of rules for generating novel and useful ideas. But when you lift the lid off, the first thing you see is that set of rules. And someone inevitably has to read through those rules to understand the rules so the rest of the adults who are going to engage in the game can all understand those rules and conform to them. And that's the role of the creative facilitator in the process to make sure that you've got someone who's keeping check on the process. Given a set of rules and an understanding of what the ambition is, what the goal is, then adults have no difficulty playing whatsoever within that set of rules.

Kiran Kapur (10:43):
So can you give me an example of this sort of a set of rules? Because I know there are lots and lots and lots of techniques that you use.

David Hall (10:50):
Yep. Well, we talked about brainstorming earlier on. And my kind of antidote to brainstorming, often cited as creative is seldom creative, is actually the superheroes technique. So what I've got here is I've got a set of cards and on each card, there are 12 of them, there is a definition of a different superhero. So we've got Batman, we've got Wonder Woman, we've got Spider-Man, we've got the Human Torch. We have a whole range of cards. And if I'm going to run a creativity session to generate new ideas using superheroes, I'll give everyone involved one card. And on that card is the definition of their superhero with an outline of the superhero skills that they may have.

Kiran Kapur (11:28):
So we're literally in Superman, Spider-Man, Batman sort of superheros.

David Hall (11:33):
Exactly so. Exactly so. So if you're Wonder Woman, you've got magic bracelets, Lasso of Truth, then those are your kind of key attributes, you've got a range of others that are defined on the card. Batman with the psychic, the boy wonder and what have you, and his Batcave and the Batmobile and all his bat paraphernalia, you've got a completely different set of superhero skills. What we then do, the rules of the game are that you brainstorm solutions to get to the problem in the style of your superhero, which sounds bonkers, quite frankly. But if you think about it, any superhero can solve any problem. You never get a blockbuster superhero movie where the opening credits die down, Wonder Woman tips up and says, "What seems to be the problem?" She goes, "Oh, I can't solve that." Closing credits. End of film. I don't think so. Wonder Woman with her magic bracelets, Lasso of Truth can solve any problem, quite frankly, and it's a brilliant film to watch and entertaining.

Batman would solve exactly the same problem using a different set of skills. Spider-Man would be different again. The human torch will be different again. So what you do is try and generate one solution to your organisational problem from each of the superheroes. It will be novel. Well, of course it will be novel, because it's going to use superhero skills. And it will be useless. Of course it will be useless, because it's using superhero skills, which clearly don't exist. And we refer to that as an intermediate impossible. It's something that would definitely solve the problem if only it were possible. And each of the creative problem solving techniques involves that intermediate step. Generating an idea that's both novel but useless, but the key aspect is it must solve the problem, if only it were possible. And with superheroes, we generate that using the superhero skills.

Once you've got that novel and useless idea that would definitely solve the problem, all you have to do is to identify the characteristics of it that make it work, then do what we're good at. Find a useful way of delivering exactly the same set of characteristics. So if you think about it, every superhero solution is simply a metaphor for something in the real world. And what we're good at is converting that metaphor. We can take a bonkers idea, but then use it as a metaphor for something that will give us a fresh perspective on how to solve the problem in the real world. And what you do is you work through that novel and useless idea, keep the novelty, but find a useful way of delivering the same effect. Bingo. You've got an idea that's both novel and useful. Can't fail provided you follow the rules.

Kiran Kapur (14:07):
Yes, you did say when I heard you first speak this, that creativity techniques should freak you out because they have to be challenging.

David Hall (14:13):
Yeah. One thing I know for certain is that if someone comes to me with a problem that they can't solve and they want to use a creativity technique, whatever's happening inside their head, it cannot solve the problem. So whatever the arrangement of the furniture inside their head may be, I have to find a way of moving that furniture around the place because that same arrangement will just lead to the same solutions. So you have to climb inside the head of the problem owner and mess with what's happening in there. By definition, you cannot use conventional and traditional techniques to escape from convention and tradition. You have to use unconventional untraditional techniques, i.e. weird. And the bottom line for me is, if the techniques don't feel weird then you're not doing it right, hence the need to play. Children don't worry about this stuff, adults do, but given a set of rules, they can play the game and play along very nicely.

Kiran Kapur (15:08):
So you gave a wonderful example, and I have specifically asked if we can cover this, which was Bob the communications fish, which I should point out was a long before Douglas Adams' Babel fish.

David Hall (15:21):
Absolutely. This is a nice way of kind of giving a fresh perspective on that novel and useless idea, actually. We said before that we define creativity as generating ideas that are both novel and useful. Adults are absolutely brilliant at useful because it's based on our past experience, whatever's happened in our past, our education, stuff in our past. So useful is an established connection in the brain. Novelty is a new connection, and adults are rubbish at novel because it involves making a new connection. We have too many established connections with useful ideas in there. Young children are the other way around. They are absolutely brilliant at novel because their brains are uncluttered, but the consequence of that is they're absolutely useless when it comes to useful. They're rubbish at it. So children are a great source of novel and useless ideas. And my strongest recommendation for any organisation that's serious about creativity is forge a relationship with a local primary school. If you want a problem that you cannot solve, take it into a local primary school.

I was working many years ago with an organisation, an electronics organisation that manufactured disc drives up in the Manchester area, and it was a long-standing relationship with them. And we were having a chat with the chief exec about a range of the innovation projects, and he said, "We've got a particular problem that we're battling with just now, which is all based around poor in-house communication." He said, "We've been struggling for quite a while and we do in-house surveys and the staff keep giving us very low scores when it comes to in-house communication." And he said, "We've been battling with it for years and we can't solve it." And as we were talking, I was looking out of the window of the meeting room and he more or less looked directly into a local primary school, so I said, "I'll tell you what, why don't we take that challenge into the local primary school?" And the perfect age group for this is kind of seven or eight year olds.

So what we did was we found a very simple way of explaining what the problem was all about. And top tip of all, before you wander into a classroom of seven or eight year old is always get permission from their headmaster or head mistress. They look at you. They look very dimly at people just wandering in, so. We took the problem... Schools love this by the way, because what you're about to do is to go into a classroom of seven year, eight year olds and say, "Look, we've got a problem in our organisation that we solve. We need some creativity. We as adults are rubbish at creativity. You children are brilliant at creativity. So we need your help please." And it's scores really well on self-esteem. So they love it. And it's also a business role models, adult role models coming in for the young children. Schools love it. The head mistress when I spoke to her said, "Yeah, no problem at all." In fact, she said, "Do you mind if I sit in and just watch and see how it happens?" I said, "No problem at all. Come in."

So what I did was I stood up in front of the classroom, and the trick is to explain the problem to the children in terms that they can understand and relate to. So take all the technical speak out. I didn't mention there were 45,000 square feet of built high-tech manufacturing space or 450 staff. I didn't talk about any of that. I didn't talk about disc drives, quite frankly. All I said was, "Imagine you have an enormous factory with loads of people in it. How would you make sure everyone knows what's happening all the time?" So a very simplistic definition of the problem. Take out all the corporate speak. What you then do is break the children into pairs, give each of the pairs a piece of paper, some pens and papers and ask them to draw solutions to your problem.

So you explain the problem in very simplistic terms that they could relate to, break them into pairs, give them pens and paper, ask them to draw solutions to your problem. I have done this umpteen times with primary schools all the way around the country. I have never been stopped at this point with one of the children putting their hand up and saying, "Excuse me, Dr. Hall, can you tell me, is it possible to get ahold of the last three years worth of report and accounts, please, so I can see what the financial trajectory of this organise... How can we solve this problem unless we understand the financial status? What is the competitive environment like? Has anyone done a SWAT analysis?" They don't give a about that. They kind of go, ooh, big factory, loads of people, communication. We can do this. Bang. Straight into it, no questions whatsoever. The room just takes off.

So I explained all this stuff and was kind of getting the pens and paper out and asked them to generate solutions, just draw solutions to the problem in pairs, and the room explodes with energy. You have to walk around because you have to listen to the conversations that give rise to the drawings because you need to interpret the drawings later on. So you wander around just listening into the conversations, chipping in where you need to. Very early on I looked up and over on the far left hand side, there was a boy and a girl, about two minutes in this was, neither of them were talking to each other. They kind of sat there, arms crossed, just watching everyone else in silence. Everyone else was jattering away and doing loads of drawing and were having a crack at their problem over here. So I wandered over and I said, "Are you two okay?" They said, "Yeah, we're finished. We finished."

Now, this was two minutes into the exercise. The organisation had been battling with this for over two years and couldn't solve the problem. So these two children apparently solved it in two minutes. This is bonkers. So I said to them, "Do you mind if I just have a quick look at your drawing?" And they show me their drawing. Their drawing was fascinating. It tells you a lot about education in the Western world. It was a rectangle. And this is how we teach our young children about factories. It was a rectangle with a chimney on it and smoke coming out of the chimney. Since when did we build factories with smoke coming out of chimneys? Anyway, they'd drawn this building, this rectangle factory, and in it, they'd drawn lots of stick men. We're at Manchester, it was laterally inspired, I guess, but there were loads and loads of stick men and women all over the factory.

And I said to them, I said, "Well, I can see the factory and I can see all the people, but how are you going to solve the problem? The communication problem?" They said, "No, no, it's in there. It's in there. Yeah, we've drawn it there." I said, "You're going to have to explain it to me." And they drew my attention to what I thought was a badly drawn stick man or woman with no arms and no legs. I thought it was just because they were drawing them quickly. They said, "No, no, no, no, no," they said, "That's the communication fish. He's called Bob." This was Bob the communication fish. At this point my brain just gently started to melt, quite frankly, because it was just kind of bonkers stuff here.

And I said, "I'm sorry, you're going to have to explain that to me. How does this work?" And they said, "Well, if anyone's got a communication problem in this organisation, all they have to do is call for Bob. Bob swims over to them, says, 'Hello, what's your problem? Could you explain it to me?' You explain your problem to Bob and Bob goes, 'Oh, well, fine. I'll go and fix that problem for you.' He swims off to solve the problem." This is bonkers. I'd like to think my face didn't betray what was happening inside my head, which was just explosion with nonsense, quite frankly. I think I said to them, I'd like to think I said, "That's absolutely brilliant." But, however, just as I was battling with this whole concept of the language, and these children were seven years old, there's no way they'd read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with a Babel fish and mythical Babel fish, stick it in your ear and it translates for you, there was this... The whole language thing and the fish was collapsing my brain inwards at that moment in time.

Then I thought, no, it's got to swim through 45,000 square feet of high-tech manufacturing space. This is just doubly ludicrous, quite frankly. So thinketh the adult. If you step back and suspend judgment, think like a child, if Bob the communication fish existed, would it solve the problem? Well, of course it would solve the problem. It's been designed to solve the problem. They've invented this from scratch. This is all of their own making. So it definitely would solve the problem, if only it were possible. This is the perfect intermediate impossible.

So anyway, 10 minutes later, it only takes a short period of time for the entire class to do all their drawings. So I collected all the drawings in. Said, thanks very much indeed, I'd come back and feed back to them later as to what happened, but said what they'd done was brilliant. I went across, and me and a colleague at the organisation just over lunch, over cheese and pickle sandwich, sat and worked our way through a sheaf of drawings. And each drawing was effectively a metaphor for something in the real world that would solve the problem, all we had to do was translate it. Top of the pile was Bob the communication of fish. And we said, well, this definitely would work, but why would it work, and what can we learn from it?

And after about five minutes worth of the conversation we generated an idea that I'd never seen before in any organisation I'd ever worked for, but which in retrospect just kind of seemed blindingly obvious. This was going to work. And it's what this organisation ultimately called communication ambassadors. And the idea was they got 450 staff in the organisation. Once every month they would pick three people at random and tell them that they were going to be the communication ambassadors for that month. This was like being a milk monitor. This wasn't instead of your day job, this was on top of your day job. Said we'd just come out of a private school, we're inspired with all sorts of primary school thinking. So that milk monitor, on top of that you were a communication ambassador. We'd communicate it so that everyone in the organisation understood who the communication ambassadors were in that month.

If anyone had a communication problem, all they had to do was call over their local communication ambassador. They'd wander over and say, look, over a cup of tea, cup of coffee, explain what your problem is. You explain your problem to the ambassador. Their job is to say, "Brilliant. Let me take this away and see if I can fix it for you." At the end of the month, they step down, three more people step up. They have 450 staff. Once every 150 months, you have to spare time as a communication ambassador to improve in-house communication. How cool is this? The impact on any individual is vanishingly small. All the organisation said they were going to do is to filter in their senior managers through the communication ambassador role in the early months to give it credibility and clout.

And they went a stage further and said that anyone who is a communication ambassador in that month or communicated across everyone, and everyone must call them by the name Bob. They become Bob the communication ambassador for the month, just as a nod in the direction of the primary school. How cool is this? Out of the mouths of babes.

Kiran Kapur (25:39):
It's a fabulous story. It's a lovely illustration of how an innovative technique can work. So if I was listening to this and I'm thinking, whoa, this is great, I'd like to have a go at this, how many people do you need in your novel group? I mean, you were talking about you had a classroom of children, but actually only two children then came up with this solution. So do I have to have a big group? Do I have to get everyone involved? What do I need to do?

David Hall (26:02):
No, absolutely not. Again, what people typically do, if you're going to have a brainstorming session, let's get more people involved, because the more people we have involved, the more ideas we're going to generate. It doesn't work that way. If you want people to use their brains in very different ways, the facilitator needs to make sure that everyone is a hundred percent engaged in the process. I would never get more than six people involved in any creativity session. And that involves the problem owner and the facilitator. So it's problem owner, facilitator, and a maximum of four other people. Those four other people ideally will be made up by a couple of people who understand the problem. Let's call them experts. And critically, you want a couple of people who very little about the problem. Let's call them naive. Because, it's that mix of expertise and naivety which will ultimately generate your creativity for you. The role of the facilitator is to make sure that everyone's following the rules of the creative game to make sure that everyone collectively then services the problem owner.

It works perfectly well with five people, but drop off an expert before you lose a naive. Four people is fine. You've now got one naive and one expert alongside. It was okay with three, but make sure that your third person is a naive. The more people you have involved, the more creative diversity, but it's not a mass game, you can't do it that way. You need a small number of people playing a very detailed game. It's like getting a hundred people playing at one game of monopoly. It just won't work. You have a great game with three, four or five people. And that's where you need to focus it.

And the trick is to make sure that everyone involved is prepared to play. I spend my life telling organisations to only play with people who want to play. If you've got a miserable so-and-so and think, well, we're going to convert them to a creative type by bringing them, involve and exposing this weird game. What they will do with just a throw away comment or look on the face, they will destroy the creativity at a stroke. You must only get people involved who are prepared to play.

Kiran Kapur (28:01):
Dr. David Hall, that was an absolutely brilliant description of the difference between creativity and innovation. And Bob the communications fish has become one of my heroes. So thank you very much indeed for your time.

David Hall (28:12):
Fabulous. Absolute pleasure. Absolute pleasure.