Interview for Austria’s Leadersnet magazine

Thinking beats doing

Dave Birss, writer, speaker, advisor

5 January 2019

When I launched ‘How To Get To Great Ideas’ I got an email from my buddy Dominik at Leadersnet asking if he could interview me. Who am I to say no?

LN: Dave, first of all congrats on you new book. What was your major aim for “How to get to great ideas”?

The myths and misunderstandings that surround the topics of creativity and innovation are stopping people from thinking as effectively as they could. And that’s really bad news for business and humanity in general. Ideas shape the world. If it wasn’t for ideas, we’d still be a bunch of grunting beasts, scraping our knuckles on the ground. The purpose of the book is to demystify creativity and innovation and help people and business get to better ideas. Because having better ideas means that we’ll end up living in a better world.

LN: Is it more about management or more about creativity these days? And how difficult is it for companies to compare creativity, ideas and management?

Companies are increasingly asking for ideas from their employees. But they’re failing to use the right processes, offer the right training, provide enough time and manage in an appropriate way. The business world’s increasing focus on productivity keeps people too busy to feed their minds and come up with ideas. The way companies behave indicates to employees that their value is measured by how much they do rather than how well they think.

We tend to create organisations that are resistant to difference. They become toxic environments for creative ideas. And the corporate antibodies get to work destroying anything that’s unfamiliar and anything that carries a level of risk.

If we operate within these conservative constraints, we can’t expect to benefit from innovative ideas.

LN: Do you need to be a talented guy to succeed in this way? How much is it about talent?

Talent is terribly misunderstood. Most people believe it’s something you’re born with. I don’t.

I believe that some people may have brains that are slightly better wired for creative thinking but the more important element is the effort you put in. Usain Bolt has a body that’s more suited to sprinting than mine. But the real reason I’m not hot on his heels on a running track is because I’m more likely to be found sitting down at my laptop than working up a sweat at an athletics club. His success came from the fact that he got up early every single day to put in the practice. And he kept doing it even when he didn’t feel like it. It’s the same with creative thinking. The more you do it, the better you get. Talent is something you earn, not a gift you’re given.

LN: Let’s stay business-related: It is not a secret that you are of the firm opinion that curiosity is the foundation of any creative thought. How can companies and agencies encourage curiosity in the workplace and their employees?

I don’t believe you can teach curiosity. But I think you can encourage it.

People tend to do what those around them do. So it’s a good idea to create a regular activity that encourages people to share what they’ve spotted. When people see other people sharing interesting things, a bit of competition will set in and others will start looking for even more interesting things.

You can accelerate this further by giving recognition to those who come up with interesting and inspiring things. Maybe create a leaderboard.

And as a final step, encourage people to look at what they can learn from these things. And consider how they can apply these learnings to the business.

Curiosity is at the centre of creative thinking. So it’s definitely worth developing.

LN: Yet, the modern workplace tends to keep people so busy and “highly utilised” that they don’t have time to think, especially top leaders. Do you have a few tips how people can fit it into their role?

I think the current obsession with productivity and utilisation is a real problem. It focuses people on ‘doing’ to the detriment of ‘thinking’. A lot of companies ask people to come up with ideas in their own time; on top of everything they have to do in their day job. That’s a big mistake. It shows that the company has no respect for new ideas. And if they’re not willing to make any commitment to generating ideas, why should anyone else? If you want to get good ideas from your employees you need to give them the time and resources to do it. And if you want the very best ideas from them, you need to give them the time to feed their mind with interesting things as well as the time to come up with ideas. It requires an ongoing commitment from the company.

If you’re really passionate about improving things and have the energy to drive your ideas through a resistant organisation, that’s great. But the responsibility for making the time to think lies with the organisation itself.

LN: Stress is another big inhibitor of creativity and, in the majority of businesses, an inevitable factor that will pop up unbidden at least once in a while. As it can occur in varying degrees, we have to cope with it and stay productive and creative no matter what. How can we master that feat and keep the balance?

Stress is at epidemic levels in the business world. And – as you say – it’s really bad news for creative thinking. Just as if we were living in the wild running from a pack of wolves, it causes us to run towards the safest solution as quickly as possible. Stress discourages us from exploring other options and taking valuable risks. It locks employees and the companies they work for into ruts.

There’s been an interest in mindfulness in recent years. And some companies have introduced sleep pods, yoga, massages and other perks. These things are all great. But they’re failing to address the real issue: the work environment itself. It’s management, workload and politics that cause stress in the workplace. Maybe rather than try to patch up the problem, we should be looking at how to prevent it in the first place.

LN: Talking about companies, we would like to wheedle yet another set of tips from you. Teamwork and social skills are vital to a healthy workforce in any business. Yet a study by Gallup stated that “87 percent of the global workforce feels like they’re stuck and lack a creative outlet.” How can businesses get more creativity from their teams?

I think companies need to understand that brainstorms are not the answer. You need to use a better process that harnesses thinking and leads to more effective ideas.

The process I talk about in my book is called RIGHT thinking. The word ‘RIGHT’ stands for Research, Insight, Generate ideas, Hone ideas, Test ideas. It’s a system that encourages and enables thinking. And I’ve used it on lots of projects across a variety of industries. I talk about it in my book.

But in short, if companies want more ideas, they need to put more focus on thinking rather than doing. Because thinking is the only known way to get to valuable ideas.