The Global Marketing Manager’s Guide to Thinking Creatively

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Today’s global companies are looking for managers who can move between countries, make decisions in unaccustomed contexts, lead diverse teams, and deal with uncertainty—the only problem is finding that kind of creative talent.

Creativity is a concept that makes perfect sense in everyday speech, but its inner workings have always puzzled scientists. Ever since Paul Torrance’s pioneer studies in the 1940s, creativity has been associated with divergent thinking—the process or method used to create many unique ideas in order to solve a problem or open ended task. Where convergent thinking is systematic and logical, divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing.

But divergent thinking can’t be the sole component of creativity. If it were, creativity would always result from absolute freedom and boundless opportunities. And, according to new research from OC Tanner, workplace constraints serve as inspiration for 1.7 million corporate award-winners.

Abstract Graffiti.

For something that’s so crucial for a global marketing strategy, creative thinking is incredibly hard to understand. To get a better understanding of the elements of this mental state, I asked several managers to define it from their personal experience as innovators in demanding jobs.

Pío Cabanillas is the CMO of Acciona and former Spanish cabinet minister and government spokesman. His idea of creativity clearly frames the duality of its two key components: constraints and freedom. “Creativity,” said Cabanillas, “is the capacity to transform your imagination in solutions that are real and not conventional.” The solutions are nonconventional, divergent, and imaginative, but they have to circumvent real constraints.

By Cabanillas’ definition, constraints and freedom aren’t contradictory elements of creativity; rather, they’re yin and yang—there’s no one without the other.

How exactly does that work?

Constraints Are Calls to Action

The study conducted by OC Tanner used the data of corporate workers, but some artists seem to feel as inspired by constraints as they do. In a guest post for Forbes David Sturt, OC Tanner’s executive vice president, pointed out that “it was, in fact, the strict standards for acoustics at Disney Hall that led to Frank Gehry’s award-winning and unique design of the building’s interior space. And, it was that internal design (constructed to create impeccable acoustics), which inspired the soaring, graceful steel exterior that has now become iconic.”

Jason Miller, group manager of global content and social media marketing at LinkedIn, opened his definition of creativity he gave me with a quote from David Bowie: “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”

“I couldn’t agree more with Bowie,” Miller said. “Creativity is about looking for inspiration from the landscape of ideas, both past and present, that can be reimagined into something new and interesting. The question then becomes how can I take the best ideas, add a unique point of view, and inject a bit of personality? That’s where the real magic happens. But I think it’s equally as important to call out the nonsense that you see along the way that adds noise and clutter without delivering value. That too can spark some moments of creative genius.”

What Miller’s definition tells us is that constraints create questions: How can I work with that inspirational model, or even improve it? How can I comply with the strict standards for acoustics at Disney Hall? How can I cut out the noise and add value?

But, as Frank Gehry himself puts it, they’re questions that can be turned into action.

Divergent Thinking Generates Answers

Julia Kim Murphy, content marketing manager at Salesforce, knows how to respond to those calls to action.

“I have to agree with an already established idea that creativity is like breathing,” she told me when I asked her a definition. “When you create things, you’re breathing out—you’re producing art and it’s great!”

Her insight allows us to understand that there is an answer to the question posed by the constraints. In fact there may be many answers; we just have to be open to them.

As Harvard professor Anne Manning explains in this video, we are culturally trained to analyze problems, but not to come up with ideas. To be creative we need to “reach for the sky,” she tells her students—while actually asking them to stand up, stretch their arms to the ceiling, and learn to explore possibilities. It’s very important, Manning repeats to the class, not to repress the moment before they start analyzing.

Julia Kim Murphy also referred to this open attitude as part of the path to thinking creatively. “Sometimes you need to also take a breath, or otherwise you won’t be able to carry on. Artists need not only to absorb other creative sources like literature, art, and travel, but to exercise and keep their creative brains and bodies healthy as well.”

And though scientists may have not figured out how the creative brain works, a study conducted with musicians has started to characterize creative individuals by an enhanced level of divergent thinking, apparent in the increase of activity in the frontal cortex.

People Playing Violin

How Constraints and Divergent Thinking Can Work in the Same Direction

In talking about thinking creatively, I don’t believe that the words of yet one more artist are out of place here. Picasso’s advice was to “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” That notion synthesizes to perfection the idea that constraints and divergent thinking are just two parts of the same process. First we find a problem where we can apply the rules we know, then we open up to all the possible solutions to get past both the problem and the rules.

The creative manager all global companies want has learned the rules like a pro, knows the great solutions of the past and the circumstances of the present, and has a big, restless cerebral cortex (that the human resources people can detect without a near-infrared spectroscopy). They’re someone with the open attitude and inclination toward divergent thinking that you’ll pick up on the second you start chatting in your interview.

When it comes to being effective in unfamiliar environments, a candidate like that will probably have the right questions—and the best answers.

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