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Inside Business: Idle thoughts won't make you creative

IF THERE IS a craze threatening to take hold of the business world in this final year of the 20th century it is creativity. Executives the world over proclaim themselves determined to make themselves and the organisations that they lead more creative.

Nor does it much matter that the average corporation is ill-equipped to deliver. There will be plenty of eager consultancies and advisers. A company has even been set up to feed on executives' concerns about these issues by offering itself as an ideas consultancy.

The problem with this is that creativity is instinctively seen as something that other people, certainly not typical business executives, do. Consequently its practitioners are seen as polo-neck wearing, pony-tailed anarchists, while the material commissioned by managers in the hope that just a little zaniness - but not too much - will rub off on them is deliberately creative in look.

A case in point is Handbook for Creative Team Leaders by Tudor Rickards, a professor of creativity and organisational change at Manchester Business School, and Susan Moger, a research fellow at the same institution.

The latest in a long line of books from Gower, the publisher, it peppers the usual graphs and tables with illustrations containing "think bubbles" and, in one noteworthy example, an "electric jolt".

Anything that gets management books away from matrix diagrams and graphs that pose as many questions as they answer is to be recommended. But it is a fair bet that this sort of approach will be off-putting to the typical manager toiling away in situations that Sumantra Ghoshal, a management guru, has remarked are as energy sapping as the summer heat of his native Calcutta.

They will think that their bosses cannot possibly want them to come to work behaving and talking like focus group leaders. And they will in most cases be right. But nor have their bosses really thought about what they want out of their drive for creativity. Instead, they are merely paying lip service to the concept, just as they did to such notions as quality, customer service and learning.

If they thought about it, they would realise that creativity does not have to mean sitting around chatting about their inner beings. In the business context, just being prepared to challenge the accepted or to "think outside the box" could be enough to put a business ahead of its competitors.

Bruce Gregory and his colleagues at PricewaterhouseCoopers acknowledge this in their study of underperforming business units on this page. They point out that companies can see dramatic changes in their fortunes if managers with vision and energy have the chance to shake up the ways in which things are done. By using what might be termed "applied creativity", they can transform a business, simply through setting standards and establishing more responsive remuneration policies.

It is this sort of territory that Louis Patler explores in his book Don't Compete ... Tilt the Field! (Capstone, pounds 17.99). Subtitled 300 irreverent lessons for tomorrow's business leaders it covers such conventional topics as strategy, innovation and talent. But pervading the whole volume is attitude.

"It is no longer enough to have quality products and services," he says. "It is no longer the case that speed to market is the key to lasting, repeated success. The emerging major factor that is now shaping commerce is an irreverent attitude about the nature and substance of how to gain an advantage in an exponentially changing world."

That is what has got Richard Branson and a handful of others where they are today. Business needs plenty more people prepared to challenge the accepted ways of doing things and - unlike the majority of business folk - not just think, but do the unthinkable.