The Creativity of Entrepreneurs: An Interview with Author Bryan Mattimore

Bryan Mattimore, author of the new book, IDEA STORMERS: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs, combines the philosophical musings of a Buddhist monk with the reverse engineering of a scientist to convey a unique business perspective. His family background allowed him to start generating ideas from an early age and perhaps contributed to his ability to approach challenges from both the inside and out. During one moment he’s offering innovative, practical techniques to apply during daily business situations, and during the next he’s musing on the creative methods of Paul McCartney and transcendentalism. Perhaps his unifying theme is based on facilitating creativity and productivity by getting your brain working in several different ways.  Mattimore’s answers from our recent interview reveal a thoughtful entrepreneur who really seems to enjoy the creative process.

(AT) Most adults don’t think of themselves as creative. What happened that enabled you to escape this pattern and jump feet-first into creativity?

(BM) I grew up in a creative/entrepreneurial household. My father was an intrapreneur at Time, Inc. and started a firm called SAMI which became the second largest research firm in the country behind A.C. Nielsen. (He also named the company after our dog, an English Setter!) Because of him, I became fascinated with the process of how to generate creative and practical new ideas.

(AT) If a company just wants to start taking more creative approaches to problem-solving in general, where do you recommend they start, other than buying and reading your book?

(BM) Companies (and teams) can start small. You don’t have to do an all-day brainstorming or ideation session to generate new ideas. Spend 45 minutes brainstorming ideas over lunch, providing free pizza for your coworkers.

I’d also suggest using a technique we invented for a client that we call, “The Whiteboard Technique.” It’s easy to do, and doesn’t really take time away from everyone’s day job. You get a whiteboard, stick it in a public place, write down a business challenge in the center of the whiteboard you’d like some new ideas for, and encourage your co-workers – over a defined time period: usually seven to fourteen days – to start adding ideas. When the deadline arrives, you’ll have a bunch of ideas that you can then either brainstorm further – or just go implement!

(AT) What’s the difference between the classic Brainstorming and Brainwalking?

(BM) Brainstorming is a specific technique, invented in the late 1930’s by Alex Osborne, the “O” in the advertising agency BBDO. Osborne’s insight into the creative process was that you should withhold judgment/not criticize others ideas since this can psychologically shut down the creative process. The other tenet of brainstorming is that quantity leads to quality. You need to generate a lot of ideas to get a few great ones.

Brainwalking is a technique I invented to improve on brainstorming. Flip-chart paper “ideation stations” are set around the room, and teams of two go to a station and write several ideas down. Then, in a kind of idea volleyball, they rotate to their neighbors’ stations, and have to build on, or use as inspiration for a new idea, what the other team wrote. Teams rotate again and again, and in a very short time there are literally scores of ideas on the walls. There are many advantages to Brainwalking over classic brainstorming. Besides generating a great many ideas much more quickly, there tends to be more energy in the room because people are physically moving around. Second, the rotating allows/forces everyone in the room to build on others’ ideas. And maybe most important, it also allows the introverts in the room to be heard in a way that’s not threatening to them: by writing their ideas down instead of having to say them in front of a group.

(AT) Would you give us a few examples of tactics individuals could use regularly to move out of left-brain thinking to that unexpected transcendental moment?

(BM) This is a fascinating question. Transcendent moments, almost by definition, can’t be dictated. But I also know that you can create the conditions where these moments can occur much more often, even regularly. It’s like the expression, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

The trick that can work – both for individuals and teams – is to continually change up the techniques and thinking styles used to create new ideas. There are techniques that leverage the analytical side of the brain (i.e. questioning assumptions and problem redefinition); the metaphorical (idea hooks and headliner); the fantastical (wishing or worst idea); and the visual (picture prompts and collaging). By varying the kinds of techniques used, it will ping the brain in different ways, and increase the likelihood that a eureka or transcendental moment will occur.

For an individual, if you can keep the creative challenge gently on the mind, much like a radio sending out a signal, sometimes the world will send you a message back – and something you see, hear, or feel during your day can provide the inspiration for a breakthrough idea. Many great inventions including the stethoscope, the AC motor, the air conditioner, and the cotton gin were inspired this way!

(AT) What is the Paul McCartney Method? What made you decide to call it that?

(BM) Paul McCartney has an interesting creative strategy when he is confronted with a difficult creative challenge. He gives up!

By “giving up,” the creative challenge can then morph, evolve, and/or re-define itself in such a way as to make the previously “difficult or impossible challenge” solvable.

You might think of this as taking the creative path of least resistance. It’s the opposite of trying to mentally analyze or force your way to a creative solution. By relaxing with the creative challenge, and letting the challenge itself change or morph, the creative subconscious can begin sending you little notes of inspiration that will often hold an unexpected creative solution.

I called this the Paul McCartney Method because he was the first person I ever heard to put this counter-intuitive and quite humble way of being creative so honestly and so succinctly.

(AT) With your consulting work, what is your favorite success story? And no fair saying the next one.

(BM) It is the work we did with Thomas’ English muffins a few years back. At the time, people were eating fewer English muffins. Thomas’ was also not attracting new, younger consumers. To help reinvigorate the business, we had a number of new English muffins innovations we were considering: organic, natural, whole grain white, and what we called “hearty grain” muffins. These hearty grain English muffins (i.e. unprocessed whole wheat) meant that unlike the organic, natural and whole grain white English muffins, they would have to be brown in color. A brown English muffin, after 100 years of making white English muffins? Some in senior management thought we were nuts. A “hearty grain” English muffin also presented some difficult manufacturing challenges. Turns out the less-processed, whole grains made it very difficult to maintain the “nooks and crannies” that Thomas was famous for.

But our focus groups research told us that consumers, especially younger consumers, loved these new, healthier English muffins. The general manager, to his credit, saw this passion and convinced senior management we should proceed. Today, Hearty Grains English muffins represent over 30% of all Thomas’ English muffin sales, and with better margins than the Original white. They’ve also brought new, younger, more health-conscious consumers into the franchise!

(AT) What are you doing these days to keep yourself fresh and creative?

(BM) I have a great job where I’m asked to be creative every day for our clients. This might mean inventing new ideation and innovation processes to help client teams be more creative; or creating the actual ideas myself or with the Growth Engine team. So my job keeps me fresh and creative!

I also “theme” read. I’ll get interested in a subject and read three or four books on the topic simultaneously. The different perspectives of several books force me to ask questions and come to insights that I wouldn’t get by reading just one book on a subject. Right now I’m interested in how to create a more creative society, so I’m reading 1984, Brave New World, Walden Two, and Utopia to inspire my thinking about different kinds of social/societal models.

Finally, I try to create something new that’s not directly related to work. For instance, I’ve written a young adult novel on the creative process, which I am now revising. So this keeps me fresh, too!

(AT) Where are you going from here?

(BM) My company, Growth Engine, has recently launched a new service we call the 100-Day Plan for Innovation. After successfully testing the idea on two client assignments, we have found that having a 100-day timeline helps ignite innovation efforts by providing focus, clarity, and urgency. It also helps teams get past a “perfection mindset” that can slow innovation efforts. We’ve discovered as well that having a 100-Day Innovation Plan will prevent the deprioritization of innovation (in favor of either day-do-day operations or the inevitable daily “putting out of fires”). The results-focused mindset that a 100-Day Innovation Plan helps engender can transform innovation from something that’s seen as overwhelming into something concrete and achievable. And of course, getting innovations to market faster can create a true competitive advantage!

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