1) You’ve characterized today’s business environment as the ‘Creative Economy’; what is the Creative Economy and how does it provide opportunities for today’s entrepreneurs?
The Creative Economy is the term I use to describe the dynamic, rapidly evolving, technology-driven environment in which only the creatively adept will survive. It requires progressive thinking, enlightened approaches and creative solutions, and we’re witnessing a sea-change in business values and practices, in response to this need. Creativity holds the key to sustainable growth and success, and companies that don’t actively cultivate a creative culture will no longer thrive. The Creative Economy is being driven by a whole new generation of young, hyper-connected entrepreneurs who are more concerned about added value, sustainability, ethics, collaboration and social investment than they are about the bottom line. Many of them are grasping the lucrative opportunities that a creative culture offers, and multi-million-dollar companies are developing at lightning speed, casting aside the cumbersome business models of the past. The old business models don’t work in today’s socially-connected society and the traditional thinking that generated boom-and-bust cycles, conflict and dysfunctional practices has brought us to the ‘tipping point’—the limits of our own sustainability. The Creative Economy is therefore an exciting new arena for those who see opportunity in every challenge and see creative growth as the catalyst for change.
2) What was your vision for Creative COGS, and how can it be used to deliver sustainable business results?
The ‘COGS’ in ‘Creative COGS’ is an acronym for Conscious Organic Growth System. My vision is to facilitate this type of dynamic growth in companies that I work with. In the Creative Economy, long-term planning is difficult and often irrelevant. There are too many new technologies emerging and things are moving too fast for us to be able to set the controls of our business and relax. We have moved from an era of ‘predict and control’ to one of ‘sense and respond’. Thriving in the Creative Economy means being able to process things in the moment and respond to a dynamic environment in profitable ways. To do this, we need to hone our intuition and creative abilities―things that are all too often sidelined, to our detriment, in our logical, linear, analytical world. The logical brain is limited to what it has learned, whereas our creative faculties lead us to the future―to what we don’t yet know. Therefore, it is only when a business adopts a creative culture that it can be sustainable.
3) In addition to your business interests, you’re a prolific author and artist; what lessons have you borrowed from the arts that can be applied to doing business?
Everything. If I have learned anything from my diverse experiences in life, it is that everything is connected―as it should be. I am energized by diversity and I feel it has created a balance in my life that I would not otherwise have achieved. And it is all relevant to my business. As an author, for instance, I am a project manager, engineer, innovator and marketer, as well as a storyteller. They say that artists are some of the biggest decision-makers in the world, since every mark on the canvas is a decision that builds towards a complex picture. I also find art to be the most challenging (and enjoyable) of my activities as I always strive to start with a beginner’s mind. There are no rules, no standard steps to follow, nothing to lean on―just a blank canvas, an open mind and my imagination. That’s where true creativity starts―and that’s where great breakthroughs are achieved in business.
4) How important has mentorship been in your personal development – both as a mentee and as a mentor?
We live in a constant flow of experience and evolution, and I love to remain in it. Otherwise, I stagnate and get stuck. For that reason, I have mentors, and I hope I will always have them. They challenge me to move forward and to not get complacent, fearful or lazy. I strive to bring those qualities to my mentees, and I thoroughly enjoy the process. I get as much pleasure from seeing them reach their ‘aha’ moments and move forward with their businesses as I do from working on my own projects
5) Your approach to developing a business strategy includes a holistic view of the organization. How does the end product compare to a perhaps more traditional business plan?
Every company is different, but the best ones are those that fully embrace the COGS process and are committed to delving deeply into their purpose, mission, vision and values in order to emerge with the best possible solution for all concerned. It’s not a linear process and it can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it always yields a much more successful outcome. Many companies make the mistake of trying to ‘bolt on’ partial solutions, but that never works, long term. It is only by taking a holistic approach that sustainable solutions can be found. If those solutions end up looking something like a traditional business model, then that’s fine, but it cannot be the goal at the outset.
6) How can social networks, such as EFactor, play a part in the Creative Economy?
Social networks such as EFactor are an intrinsic part of the Creative Economy. The two cannot be separated. They are the lifeblood of modern communications, enabling the Creative Economy to function and stimulating creative activity and interactivity across the globe. I am continually impressed by the quality and diversity of people I meet through such channels and have built up a huge and valuable bank of expertise, potential clients, suppliers and friends. This strengthens my business and enriches my life, while stimulating me to reciprocate with my whole palette of skills. It feels like a very healthy way to co-create a better future―a way of supplanting political agendas, cultural differences and misguided concepts with straightforward human interaction that is so much more valuable.
7) Based on your personal experiences, what tips would you give to entrepreneurs, and those starting their own business?
1. Be very clear about what you want to achieve in your life and your business, without separating the two.
2. Choose to enjoy your work—or choose work that you enjoy. You will spend most of your waking hours working in your business, so be sure that it is enjoyable, otherwise you will ultimately make yourself ill.
3. Follow your passion with purpose and your purpose with passion. Everything else will cause you pain.
4. Be outcome-driven, not process-driven. This will keep you creative and alive to opportunity.
5. Always listen and learn, and be aware of what is happening in your environment.
6. I have a maxim that helps me stay on track: If it’s not simple, there must be something wrong with it. Avoid unnecessary complexity, and find the beauty in simplicity.
7. Focus on creating something new rather than competing for what has already been created.
8. Question everything. New answers are the prize for making the effort.
9. Be concerned only with what you can contribute to your customers to make their lives better. Win-win results are the true measure of success.
10. Be sure to maintain your creative core and exercise it at all times. This is your route to sustainability, fulfillment and a happy life.
There was a point late in Barack Obama’s book Dreams from my Father where he lost my admiration and raised doubts in my mind about his authenticity. Suddenly, the impressive, logical, impassioned, dedicated, truthful, heart-felt, intelligent and undoubtedly courageous journey of his life took a turn that seemed completely out of character, and didn’t appear to fit with the man that I thought I had come to know a little. He found Christianity. Suddenly, all the qualities of clarity of observation, forensic reasoning and a deep understanding of human nature that he had exhibited throughout the previous pages evaporated as he went all gooey and emotional in the face of an undefined and vaguely recognized ‘greater power’. It was only partly the religious epiphany that disturbed me; it was the change in him that set me adrift, and caused me to doubt him. Was this a calculated move? Was he going for the ‘god vote’ that is such a big factor in American politics? A man who spent his formative years in Indonesia would surely have been more likely to become a Muslim. But that wouldn’t have worked, especially in a country where, just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 21% of Americans believed that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were one and the same, and the name ‘Obama’ is disturbingly close to ‘Osama’. So that point in the book, as far as I was concerned, began his inexorable decline into party politics, power-plays and the presidency.
Tony Blair did something similar – but after the event. When he left office, he remarkably declared that he had become a Catholic. Why he had to make his personal ‘faith’ public in the first place is a mystery, although it did help galvanize a friendship with the incoming American President, among other things. His authenticity had, of course, been called into question while he was in office, and his lack of it had eventually led to his downfall. Even so, he kept his bigger ‘faith’ – political spin – intact right through the recent parliamentary investigation into the Iraq debacle, insisting that he had done the right thing. I can only imagine that the pressures of political life had eventually got to him, and while he felt he needed to maintain a righteous public face, it was only in the privacy of the confessional that he could unburden himself of his errors without risking a roasting in the press, or worse.
Why am I mentioning all this, and how does it relate to normal business life? Well, the behaviour of those who are elected to serve us as leaders often trickles down into how we behave in business. Look at the Thatcher years, for example, and how money became god and survival of the fittest became the ruthless mantra of that era. However, political spin to achieve short-term gains through influencing public behaviour and manipulating beliefs is never sustainable. While the Bush/Rumsfeld team was laying waste to the American economy as well as Iraq and Afghanistan – with the majority support of its people – Ireland was having a boom time and everyone was happy to be on board, spurred on by a government seemingly on speed. What a shock, when it all came crashing down.
The point is that we cannot keep deferring to the apparent authenticity of others to guide our own lives. We have to build our own. Personal empowerment is the only way forward in an ever-more transparent and interconnected world. A good reputation is only won through authenticity. It can take a long time to achieve it and it can be lost in an instant if we choose to compromise. It is clear that our ‘leaders’ don’t have autonomy. To gain a following and the votes to put them in power, they choose to allow their authenticity to be chipped away; and, to hold on to power, they do deals that may fly in the face of the values that they preach and the very reasons that caused them to seek to serve.
In business, the environment is changing. Much of the change is due to a growing awareness of these issues, and that a higher level of personal autonomy is increasingly within reach for more and more people. Many choose not to embrace it as it comes with responsibility and risk of exposure should authenticity be breached. Some will choose to embrace it for exactly the same reasons.
It is crucial to the success of a business that the nature of the emerging environment be understood. Directors and managers can no longer wield power just to serve their egos or the interests of their backers. The ‘boardroom boys club’ is becoming less and less relevant. Employees have diminishing value if they simply follow orders and routines. The innovators of the business are now as likely to come from rank-and-file on the shop floor as from experts, directors and financiers.
Ultimately, this appears to be a call to all of us to ‘get real’. If we don’t know what that means in terms of who we are and what we do, then maybe it’s a call to do that first, and to re-align ourselves with where we are meant to be and where we want to go – based on our true identities, values and abilities. The sooner we do this the better because, as we go through life, we embed more and more useless stuff in our psyche simply because we have no real direction and we mistakenly think it may be useful some day. The need for clarity takes us on a search that inevitably increases our confusion, and we are increasingly likely to be swayed and influenced in ways that don’t serve us. So even if we have declared our intentions, we are undermining our ability to stick with them.
You may not agree with my take on Obama (and, for the record, I still feel he is the best president that America has had in years) or Blair but, in your life, do you struggle with compromised authenticity and a lack of personal autonomy? Is any sort of atonement a real option for the odd slip or intentional wrong-doing? Do you see a way forward other than by going inside to find real answers that will reveal the real (and best!) you?
I can’t remember the exact words, but this was the gist of it:
“Corporate identity and image aren’t a priority for them.”
This was January 2010 in Dublin. I was having a meeting with a very nice man who was to be my coordinator at the Mentor Network that works with Enterprise Ireland to assist companies in their development. I should hasten to add that he thought they were a priority, but ‘they’ didn’t and he was just passing it on for my information. Enterprise Ireland represents part of the Irish government’s efforts to re-boot the economy. Of course, all political parties, when they are trying to get elected, are acutely aware of the importance of image and identity in their campaign, yet it doesn’t seem to be a priority for fledgling companies.
Since when has making a good first impression not been important? And when has it not been important to develop a strong relationship based on good impressions supported by positive values? The truth is that we have always been hugely influenced by images and messages. They form the bulk of our guidance system through life, but they are often subliminal. If we look back at old advertising, we may find some of it funny, distasteful and even ridiculous – but we may not have questioned it at the time. The factors involved in our acceptance of images and messages are far too extensive to discuss in a short blog like this, but they are very real, and companies ignore them at their peril. As they say, change is the only thing that we can be certain of, so we would benefit from seeing all our business communications as a constantly evolving process and paying close attention to them.
Take a look at the images here, and imagine where these companies would be now, if they hadn’t changed their imagery and messaging!
I wonder if the copywriter who came up with ‘Blow in her face, and she’ll follow you anywhere’ still has a job! It amazes and saddens me that, even today, governments all over the world still support the deadly tobacco industry by using it as a tax collector – but drive without a seatbelt and you’re nicked! However, the anti-smoking lobby, once it gained some traction in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, started coming up with some arresting images of their own, that needed few words to communicate their message with the appropriate impact:
I also found a wonderful ‘have your cake and eat it’ ad, suggesting that you could eat as much as you like and not get fat by taking sanitized tape worms as part of your diet. ‘FAT – the ENEMY that is shortening Your Life – BANISHED!’ Don’t worry, apparently they are ‘easy to swallow’ and have ‘no ill effects’.
It seems laughable now that such an advertisement could even exist. I wonder if we will feel the same about tobacco advertising in our lifetime.
The right corporate identity and image are key to success. Gaffes are frequently made, but those who take them seriously can get them right and they help them to prosper. Apart from many other valuable considerations, they clear the pathway to meaningful relationships by accurately and authentically letting people know who they are. One of the challenges is to make the identity future-proof. If a company relies too heavily on focus groups and existing research to define the message they want to put over, they run the risk of being absolutely right for now, but quickly becoming obsolete. If they go too far into the future and unknown territory with advanced thinking, they can alienate current customers and find it very difficult to get board approval.
BP had to manage a lot of criticism when, in 2000, they changed from their familiar shield logo to the sunflower. The criticism that erupted covered a vast gamut of snipes. Marcello Minale, a top corporate identity man in London at the time, famously described it as an infantile spirograph drawing (I guess his pitch was one that failed). It was likened to the Flora margarine logo, it was panned as a disingenuous attempt to make the business of burning oil appear to be green and clean; but the logo stood and became accepted. Many companies would be just too scared to go there, but good planning and clear thinking paid dividends in their case.
Back to my meeting. Along with the comment about corporate identity and image came a folder. The first thing I noticed when I opened it was the picture (below).
An idealized start-up situation. It looks very much like a stock shot to me, and the symbolism is really laid on thick. The mentor is suitably older but not doddery with a touch of grey to show experience and an informal posture to suggest connection and involvement. He’s wearing a blue shirt – the colour of safety and security. The young, clean-shaven bright-eyed businessman-to-be is leaning earnestly in to eagerly catch every last drop of wisdom as they both sit in an unfinished yet pristine office. Nothing wrong with any of that, but you can’t deny it’s there, and it’s meant to impress the reader and give them confidence in the organization. In other words, the very organization that was side-lining the issue of image and message was trying to use it for themselves. Of course they are.
The rest of the design and text was clean, neat and uneventful. It was depressing in that it was exactly as I expected it would be. I didn’t really want to read it, and felt it would be a chore to search through it for any relevant, important or exciting information. When I did read it, the parts that impressed me were the impassioned testimonials of people who had benefitted from the mentoring process.
I greatly enjoyed my meeting with a charming, professional and very likeable person, but in summing it up, I had a realization. Ironically, the stumbling block in the whole process was the printed material that was supposed to be designed to give me a good impression of the organization. I guess the reasons that it didn’t are clear from the comment I opened with, but this is something that happens a lot. So often our interactions with people are confused by clumsy or uninspired material that adds nothing to the experience, and can even get in the way. Having said that, the fact they are produced at all reveals some truths about the organization or business that creates them. The messages may be as subliminal to the producer as they are to the recipient, but they are not without effect.
Do you know what your business is telling the world?