Ignite your creativity by allowing freedom to fail

Columnist Harvey Mackay says creativity takes the right mindset.

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A shopkeeper was dismayed when a brand-new small business, much like his own, opened next door on his left and erected a huge sign that read "Best Deals."

He was horrified when another business competitor opened on his right, and announced its arrival with an even larger sign, reading "Lowest Prices."

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The shopkeeper panicked, until he got an idea. He put the biggest sign of all over his own shop. It read "Main Entrance."

There is no substitute for creativity. That shopkeeper could have spent a year's profits on an ad campaign, mailings, giveaways, you name it, and probably wouldn't have made as large an impact. A stroke of brilliance kept his business humming.

There is no correlation between IQ and creativity. Every single person has the potential to become more creative than they think they are. The key is developing a mindset that enables them to look at things from new perspectives.


Creativity and innovation are important to business success. If your organization needs to devote the resources necessary to support a creative atmosphere, take these factors into account:

Money. Creativity and innovation can't breathe in an atmosphere of budget cuts and downsizing. You may produce creative ideas to get around lack of funds, but in the long run, you won't get many practical ideas unless you're willing to spend cash on developing and testing them.

Elbow room. Cramming people into tight little cubicles is no way to get their imaginations working. Give them room to move around: conference rooms to spread out in, windows to stare out of and the freedom to work in different environments that spark innovative ideas and insights. In this age of working from home, be open to allowing people to escape the distractions of the office to do some brainstorming outside the confines of the workplace.

Freedom. Part of this is related to the space issue — freedom to work in nontraditional surroundings. More important is freedom to suggest changes and question assumptions. Don't challenge people to think creatively only to squash their ideas with "But that's not how we do things around here." Keep your eye on the prize and consider innovative ways of reaching that goal.

Risk. Remember how many times Thomas Edison tested his first lightbulb? You can't generate creative thinking if people don't feel comfortable taking chances and failing. You should tolerate intelligent risk — and even celebrate failure — if people are acting in good faith while trying to help the organization grow. Failure is not fatal; it's just proof that there's another solution out there.

Advertising genius Alex Osborn, considered the "father of brainstorming," devoted his life to promoting and teaching creative thinking. He believed the fiercest enemy of creativity was criticism: "Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Any of us will put out more and better ideas if our efforts are appreciated."

Make creativity a core value. There is no business that cannot benefit from creative thinking. Talk about the power of ideas and the benefits of innovation. Provide training that hones people's thinking. Reward creative efforts, even when they fail, to reinforce the value you place on imagination and creative thought. Sometimes a minor tweak can make a major difference.

As a manager, it's critical that you model creative thinking. If your staff hears you express not-so-traditional ideas, they will be more inclined to share their thoughts.


Here's another story to illustrate my point. A real estate tycoon from New York City visited a Miami bank and said his wife wanted to fly over to the Bahamas, so he needed a fast $3,000. The banker said, "I don't know who you are."

He said, "I have a very successful real estate office in New York City."

The banker said, "That doesn't matter. I'd have to have some collateral."

"Well, I've got a brand-new Cadillac outside."

The banker took the Cadillac. A week went by, and the New Yorker returned, paid off the $3,000 note and $25 interest for the week.

The banker said, "I don't understand, sir. I looked at your application and called New York City. You're a very successful real estate operator. Why did you have to come into my bank and borrow a paltry $3,000?"

"Can you think of a better place to keep my car for seven days for $25?"

Mackay's Moral: A spark of creativity can ignite a blazing business success.


Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached at , by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

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