Frictionless Creativity

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Company lifespans are getting shorter. Since the 1960s, the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 Index went from 61 years to 18. The shift can be attributed to frictionless idea sharing. Every time we share an idea, we give people an opportunity to change their behaviors.

Never in human history have ideas been shared as fast and vast as today. An interconnected network of 2.5 billion people around the world are connecting to share ideas, and every time an idea is shared we generate opportunity for change. We’ve barely begun to understand how this impacts our lives, but it’s obvious that the rate of change in the world has accelerated. And we’re not satisfied yet. Google Glass is just one vision on how we can bring idea sharing more central to our lives. It used to be normal for business to make five-year projections. Today it is increasingly meaningless. But if there is less need for long-term projections then there is more need for creativity.

Companies that are succeeding rely on creative thinking to consistently produce new ideas. Take the example of Kodak and Instagram. Kodak went bankrupt at roughly the same time that Instagram, a two-year-old company, was bought for one billion dollars. Kodak was in the image business for over a century, but they failed to see the opportunity that a 13-person team was able to seize.

Creative thinking has always been appealing, but now its impact cannot be dismissed. Creativity is becoming the single most defining characteristic of an organization’s ability to survive. We’ve moved into an idea economy where success can be very profitable and short at the same time. To be a contender, companies have to be built around idea production and guided by an actual purpose for existing.

Purpose is the cornerstone of a creative company culture. Companies like Google churn out innovative products quickly because their teams have creative freedom within a clearly defined purpose: “[T]o organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They hire brilliant people, tell them what direction to go and let them fly.

I remember reading this article about how Google’s purpose helps the company be creative:

Google’s singular worldview sees information as a natural resource — one that should be mined and refined and sorted and universally distributed. That idea stands at the center of all Google does, unifying what can appear to be wildly disparate projects. In the end, the resources and liberty Google entrusts to its workers infuse them with a rare sense of possibility — and obligation: “Are we taking advantage of what we’ve got here?” they ask. “Are we doing enough?”

The same approach spans company size and resources — you can be a two-man team or have hundreds of people in your company. A strong sense of purpose is the tool for aligning company creativity.

The e-retailer Zappos is an example of how autonomy leads to success. The About section on Zappos.com states its purpose: “We’ve aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible.” To enable this, Zappos gives call-center employees full autonomy to deliver a “wow” experience to every customer — like one customer service rep’s decision to overnight free dress shoes to the best man in a wedding. Consequently, shoppers consistently rank Zappos number one in customer service.

Purpose is also the most efficient way to decide which ideas should stay and which should go. I remember just a few months ago, Prezi had two big ideas on the table that would take the bulk of engineering time: Mobile platform development or a new feature for high-stakes presentations (like TED talks). Both were aligned with our purpose of helping people share ideas. Ultimately, we decided to develop the iPhone and iPad apps first because the ability to use Prezi on all devices would have a greater idea-sharing impact than a new feature for high-stakes presentations.

Through having a purpose and unleashing creativity, savvy companies will stay relevant longer and make themselves an attractive tribe to join. Honing in on a real purpose, born from a real need, is the best building block for a company built to last. Once that purpose is clear, creative thinking will be the key to succeeding at the current rate of change.

Peter Arvai co-founded Prezi in 2008 with Adam Somlai-Fischer and Péter Halácsy. Before co-founding Prezi, in Sweden, he founded omvard.se, a company that aggregates data on treatment outcomes for hospital patients. He also developed the world’s first mobile newsreader so people could follow TED Talks from their mobile devices.


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