Successful entrepreneurs balance creativity and efficiency to reap top profits
Here’s the skinny: Businesses don’t want creativity.
Companies say they do, but in reality, they want the result of creativity: ideas or solutions that would add value to their business.
Ten years ago, I started my company with a squad of creative aficionados, designers, and ambitious engineers. We spent our days and investors’ dollars developing groundbreaking tech products. Building a business and generating sales was a mere afterthought.
Yet, we couldn’t put our “creativity” on a dinner table to feed our families. A hundred dollars in our pockets ended up being more valuable than a hundred ideas in our heads.
Here are the 5 key lessons that helped us curb our creative spritz and finally start producing revenues and profits from our ideas.
Too many creative people on your team can spoil your broth.
To us, new ideas were like newspaper headlines. Whenever we had one, it consumed our attention as if it were the most important thing in the world. We jumped from one new idea to another instead of turning existing (good) ideas into cash.
Ultimately, our product development took months instead of weeks, and our sales got delayed forever.
To turn the tide, we did something unnatural for creatives.
First, we looked for people in our team who seemed most productive. Creatives call these people “boring, stiff, and uninspiring.” But they proved to be key to the survival of our business.
We picked people with a hands-on mentality: who talk less but do more. Those who focus on goals rather than on processes: people who first ask when to finish a task before discussing how to do it.
I’ve put these people in charge of tasks demanding high efficiency: project management, meeting moderation, planning, operations, supplier communication, and sales. We made sure their voices were heard by everyone on our team.
Ray Dalio recommends running personality tests to identify productivity champions on your team. If you can’t identify them, hire new people. If you cannot afford new employees, find a mentor to track your team’s efficiency.
Remember: don’t ask creative people to be less creative. Instead, ask efficient people to be more efficient and let them take the lead where they are needed.
“All companies start creative,” writes innovation speaker Dave Birss.
Especially the company founders are precociously creative people. If they didn’t believe in their ideas, they’d still be stuck in their cubicles, shuffling reports for their bosses.
But the founder’s creative blessing is also her curse. Highly creative founders are not always the best leaders.
I started my company because I love product design, tinkering, and solving technical problems. First, I cared too little about money. I just loved creating. Unfortunately, there was no one else to do my job as a CEO — so I had to learn efficiency regardless of whether I liked it.
A successful leader acts quickly, decisively, and achieves results. I learned to set deadlines and expectations and ensure my team follows through. Leaders’ job is to yield maximum results with the least available resources.
Here is the skinny: Efficiency trumps creativity in leadership.
Yet, this doesn’t imply that the founder should be a cold-hearted dictator. Sunny Balwany, the co-founder of the infamous blood-testing startup Theranos, didn’t understand this. He was notorious for spying on his employees, yelling, and firing people when they slacked off. This isn’t efficient leadership.
If you are a creative founder, you have a unique position to lead other creative people with your empathy. You understand how creatives think and what motivates them to achieve fantastic results. Use this skill to lead your team.
Remember, lead projects with your mind, but lead people with your heart.
They say great ideas are transformative.
But customers don’t want to be transformed. Transformation takes effort and makes them feel uncomfortable.
The secret to efficient creativity is making new ideas feel familiar.
New ideas need a strong connection to the common experiences of people to become valuable. The conceptual gold lies in a fertile area between novelty and familiarity.
According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, familiar things are not necessarily more pleasurable or rewarding. It’s just that our brains see unfamiliar things as alarming and potentially dangerous.
Your customers will accept a new idea easier if they see something familiar in it. It helps them trust your product. It makes your selling so much easier. And it also helps draw attention to the changes you’ve made.
Familiarity in your creative process boosts your success chances. Use it.
Dave Birss writes that ideas are like jokes.
The more often you tell the same joke, the less funny it becomes. Similarly, the longer you work with the same idea, the less innovative and brilliant it sounds to you and your team.
This happened to us so many times. As we got bored with one idea, we felt compelled to come up with something new to freshen things up. We’d end up adding new features to our prototypes every week.
But we soon realized that our customers saw our old ideas differently.
Old ideas feel like cold coffee to the designer. Yet, for customers, your old ideas will appear brand new and innovative the first time they see them.
So don’t overinnovate your products.
Get the quality right and release your product quickly. Then go on and work on your next version.
Design freezes are an excellent way to stop the creative process of product improvement and focus on getting the product to the shelves. Any idea that comes after the design freeze should automatically go to the backlog of your next version.
Nowadays, you cannot give an employee a desk with a computer and expect them to be productive.
It’s a scientific fact that creativity and efficiency depend on the right working environment and office design.
But I noticed that many startups choose creativity over efficiency. A fancy office with beanbags, hammocks, and open spaces is great for letting your team slack off and catch their creative muses. But these offices might yield too little working efficiency.
So make sure that you get the right mix between creativity and efficiency.
Getting work done requires intense focus and a lack of distractions. We have introduced so-called deep work hours for people to work undistracted for single bursts of time. With our closed-door policy, we discourage our employees from dropping by anytime. Consider any discussion longer than 5 minutes a meeting that should be prepared and scheduled.
Make sure that your workspace helps your team not only create fantastic ideas but also turn these ideas into cash.
Dave Birss ran a survey asking people to define creativity.
One respondent replied: “Creativity is the word artists use to justify their existence in a capitalist society.” This made me cringe when I read it.
When people hear the word creativity, they often think of an artist’s attic with canvases and brushes thrown around. “Creative chaos,” they call it. But creativity doesn’t mean chaos, nor do you need chaos to be creative.
I consider myself a creative person. I take great pleasure in tinkering, graphic design, and writing stories and scripts for our promotional videos. Heck, I would do these things for free just for the sake of doing them.
But I don’t want the world to identify me with a topsy-turvy artist in his attic.
I want my work to make a difference. I want to bring value to people. And luckily, this value can be measured. The more valuable your creation, the more people are ready to pay for it. Cash is the ultimate measure of your creative value. Yes, it’s that simple.
Therefore, creativity and efficiency must go hand in hand in entrepreneurship.
So use the power of efficiency to give your ideas measurable value: millions of revenues that feed you, your employees, and your families — and make you proud of being a creative entrepreneur.
Author: Andrei Neboian, Dr