By Megan Bortner, SBDC Lead Consultant
Managing Partner, Labyrinth Digital
Where do good ideas originate? Do they randomly strike entrepreneurs with the gravity of Newton’s apple or can they be generated as reliably as the fall harvest?
The mystery of creativity in business, the X Factor in entrepreneurship, constantly breeds new theories. A good business idea must be creative, but how can creativity be itself created? This is a comparative review of three such theories from across the spectrum on the care and keeping of good ideas as recommended by the Reddit hivemind. In comparison, I conclude that creativity expression is the result of inherent desire to be creative.
Creativity is a Good System
The entrepreneur is not a special genius. This is the central thesis of Michael Gerber’s 2004 bestseller The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.
The genius mythos is good branding. The allure of an eccentric creative genius is good marketing, as it makes the product feel special and unreproducible. What’s more, Gerber suggests that this genius myth is baked into America’s own marketing of itself: the bootstrap myth that anyone with a good idea and the willingness to work can create a successful company. He labels this myth the Entrepreneurial Seizure.
The Entrepreneurial Seizure runs on a Fatal Assumption: “if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does technical work.” In other words, a good barber will run a good barbershop. This assumption conflates knowledge of a skill with knowledge of business.
As a replacement for this myth, Gerber uses the McDonalds franchise model to suggest that any idea with the whiff of originality can be turned into a successful business if the Business Development Process (BDP) is followed. Like a science experiment, an idea can be inserted into the BDP machine and a business will emerge. The BDP machine essentially envisions all business as a potential franchise. The entrepreneur is not a creative genius but a competent systems manager who understands each step in the production process before the launch of the first franchise.
In short: Gerber believes that a good entrepreneur can sell any idea, so long as he or she can envision it in franchise form. Creativity is production, not artistry.
Creativity Flows from Character
Creative ideas come from good characters, Jim Collins argues in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other’s Don’t, his 2001 follow-up to his 90s bestseller Built to Last.
“Truly great companies,” Collins observes, “for the most part, have always been great.” The reason? Great leadership. The exception to this rule dividing good companies from great ones occurs when good leaders have transformed their themselves first. The effects of good character trickle down, likewise transforming their company.
Although creative greatness is seen as a personality trait, fortunately for the not-yet-great entrepreneur, Collins ascribes to the nurture theory of personality and argues that great character can be consciously cultivated.
The trick to developing great character is to irreversibly tie the entrepreneur’s ambitious personal ego to the success of the company. Great leaders are humble not because they lack ego, but because they are capable of displacing it. They “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company…. their ambition is first and foremost the institution.”
In an organization where the entrepreneur or CEO’s ambitious ego has become the ego of the institution, creativity will flourish. Either the ideas will be forced out of such an entrepreneur personally, or that entrepreneur will naturally gravitate towards those ideas which can bring about greatness. Creativity is an emanation.
Creativity is Political Taste
In his 2018 business creativity guide entitled The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time, Allen Gannett takes issue with the definition of abstract creativity itself and argues that a creative outcome is simply a matter of acting competently on good cultural taste. Good cultural taste isn’t abstract either, but rather the confluence of several identifiable and reproduceable factors.
First, the subject matter should be tasteful, with tasteful meaning that it is a fresh spin on ideas which are already popular. To develop this taste, Gannett suggests spending regular time with other creatives in the target field to swap ideas. Cultivating acceptable knowledge in the target field is important antecedent to experimentation.
Second, a new idea needs access to grow. Having taste is meaningless unless the gatekeepers are wowed. To do this, Gannett recommends developing a professional network. This network should consist of a mix of four types: masterful mentors, peers who can critique and refine ideas, a muse who inspires the ideas, and a successful creative who will promote it and propel it upwards.
Third and finally, having developed acceptable taste and political access, the would-be creative entrepreneur needs to try and fail until they succeed. To use an archery metaphor, the prior two steps have erected a target; the archer must rely on skill to hit the bullseye. Hitting the target boils down to practice, using the guidance from others to constantly refocus and remember the target.
In Gannett’s world, anyone who first defines their target and then practices a skill should succeed. Their idea will be labelled as creative after the fact, but really the entrepreneur has simply competently mirrored elite cultural preferences.
Each of these theories attempts to authoritatively define creativity and provide a guide for reproducing it. For Gerber, creativity is a fine-running machine, for Collins, it is the offspring of ego-divorce, and for Gannet, it is a political outcome.
The large variety of these theories in regards to method can liberate rather than confuse. Instead of one approach to success, there are many. Creativity arrives via different routes, sometimes like a well-organized grid and sometimes a matter of cultivated chance. This should be comforting to the entrepreneur, who should use this to set aside preconception and prescriptions on the creative method.
The one commonality of the creative entrepreneur shared by each of these three theories is that the entrepreneur always possesses great focus. They all desire greatness, and this desire is applied to the author’s preferred method: cultivating systems, character, or connections. As a synthesis theory, creativity may begin with a great internal wanting. The goal is the same, but the path to reach that goal is itself creative.
About the Author:
Megan Bortner, North Metro SBDC Lead Consultant
Managing partner, Labyrinth Digital
Megan has over 10 years of experience in marketing strategy consulting, digital marketing, and analytics. She started her career consulting for Fortune 500 businesses which taught her best-in-class methodologies that she now applies to small businesses. Megan understands the challenges of starting and running a business, as she herself co-founded a small consultancy. Megan is classically trained in business and holds her MBA from Purdue University.