Unleashing Creativity to Boost Performance and Engagement

This is a story about finding creativity in something that normally does not come across as imaginative nor inventive: templates.

The story starts almost 20 years ago, when a trio of Israeli researchers working at The Jerusalem School of Business Administration set out to see if good advertisements—the ones that seem the most creative, the most inspired, and that have the most impact—could be generated by a process that was teachable. These researchers were suspicious of brainstorming, the then en vogue method for generating new ideas; but they wondered if good, appealing ads could be generated by anything other than a sudden act of creative inspiration.

After studying hundreds of ads, they noticed that many of the ones viewers deemed “successful” followed certain patterns. They wondered: “Can these patterns be labelled and taught to others? Can they form ‘templates’ for creating new, creative ads?”

In an under-appreciated series of studies, these authors had groups of advertising outsiders generate a series of ads for common everyday products. Some were given little direction, other than to generate creative ads. Some were taught methods of brainstorming. And some were simply given the templates and told to use them. Afterwards, the researchers showed the ads to random strangers, asking them how good the ad was, how annoying they found it, and how likely they were to buy the product featured.

The results were stunning: The ads based on templates were considered better, more creative, and less annoying than ads generated by the other methods. Those generated by brainstorming did no better than those made with no method—except that they were rated as more annoying.

This work has some serious implications for creativity. It suggest that creative work is not just a bolt of inspiration that comes out of the blue. There is a rhyme and reason to the best creative work. Creative experts, by emerging themselves in their work, begin to notice certain patterns and capitalize on them.

The authors go so far as to say “The findings of the reported studies and several real-life applications conducted in leading ad agencies, indicate that the template taxonomy is a trainable, resource-saving, and effective tool. It simplifies and improves the decision-making process involved...”

Even more importantly, it appears such “templates” might not be limited to creating advertisements. Templates exist for almost any creative endeavor. Thus, organizations looking to become more innovative and productive would do well to identify, teach, and promote the use of such templates. As an exercise, take the six templates identified in the original study. How could these be extended beyond advertising to inform daily tasks? Or management policies? Imagine how employees could use these templates to enhance their productivity:

  1. The Pictorial Analogy. A pictorial analogy is an attention grabbing image created by taking a familiar image or symbol and combining it with a completely different one so as to associate the underlying ideas. Think: How could two separate, familiar ideas be successfully combined into one?
  2. The Extreme Situation. The extreme situation template represents situations that are unrealistic in order to enhance certain features. Think: What would happen if your company increased orders by a factor of 10? What would need to be done differently? Likewise, what if your product or service were 1/10th the price? What if you solved all your customers’ current pain points in a day?
  3. Consequences. The consequences template presents the consequences that would happen if people did not follow the recommendations or call to action in the ad. Think: What would the consequences be if you didn’t follow certain policies or processes? What would happen if you ignored a complaint? Or ditched a best practice and did something else instead?
  4. Competition. The competition template shows a product in competition with something symbolic; for example, a new car might race a bullet or a fighter jet. Think: With what or whom could employees imagine themselves in competition? What could their roles or performance be compared to?
  5. The Interactive Experiment. Interactive experiments get a message across by having people actually do something, or imagine doing it. The result is, in essence, the message. Think: How could you use demonstrations or experiments to facilitate and encourage change? How can your employees make your message or your brand more “visceral”?
  6. Altering the Dimensions. Sometimes, simply altering the dimensions of a product, or the space or time in which it is used, can bring its features to light. Think: How can an employee's tasks be expanded or contracted? How would they work in a bigger space-- physical space, market space, or the space of ideas? What if they had more time for a project? Less?

These are simply some ideas for using creative templates to change the ways employees work. If you want more engaging content on creativity in the workplace, check out our video series on creativity with a free trial of Thinkzoom.

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