Monday, March 29, 2010

For the Right Side of Your Brain: Creating Your Practice Growth

"Cover bands don't change the world," Todd Henry says, referring to those bar room rockers that simply rework popular songs originated by other musical artists. Similarly, "me too" professional services firms don't change much about the clients and markets they serve.

Todd Henry is the founder and Managing Director at Accidental Creative, a Cincinnati-based media, marketing and consulting firm which helps those who produce creative, problem- solving ideas for a living to be "more prolific, brilliant and healthy in the long term instead of burning ourselves out on the altar of productivity." That is, he helps his clients move from being accidentally creative to being intentionally so. Todd's professional bio is composed of just seven words, "An arms dealer for the creative revolution."
The most under-rated tool in a professional's client development kit may be creative problem solving. Through Creative Growth's Rainmaker Assessment program we have examined the natural skills and abilities of a multitude of professionals at all career levels, from all manner of professions and from a variety of countries. One result remains relatively consistent across the findings: professional services advisors score on average far above the general population of business executives in their problem- solving prowess. So, most professionals have a powerful, inherent weapon in their business development arsenal. But, as professionals focused first on serving existing client needs, we don't often use our innate creative skill for the purpose of helping our clients and ourselves to expand our businesses.

How can Firm leaders get professionals to apply their natural capacity for creative problem solving to the challenge of expanding client relationships and attracting new ones? We turned to Todd Henry for his views on this quagmire. Here’s a synopsis:

How did The Accidental Creative get created?

My background was actually in the music business. I studied marketing in college and, like any good marketing major would, I summarily went into the music business after school. I was a music artist in Nashville and performed and traveled with Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney, and Toby Keith. I also paid the bills by spending quite a bit of time writing copy. I ended up as creative director for a major not-for-profit organization and led a team of 30 people.

About five years ago, I found myself here in Cincinnati and really struggling with the dynamics in the marketplace around creative professionals. I saw a lot of creative people wrestling with loving what they do technically but struggling to get their heads above water. They were saying, “The overwhelming nature of the work that’s coming at me day after day requires more than I’m able to give and how do I stay ahead of that?” There’s a significant branding and design community here and as I was getting together with others, it turned out that everyone was experiencing the same thing. So, I created a forum for people to talk about this – that was the genesis. As I interviewed more people and put some of the emerging ideas into practice, the platform grew. I launched a podcast in late 2005 and put it in the business section on iTunes. I kind of forgot about it until I happened to be surfing for business podcasts a few months later on iTunes and came across one called “The Accidental Creative.” My first thought was “Oh no, I can’t believe I stole someone else’s name.” It was one of the most popular business podcasts in the business section on iTunes. Then I realized this is my podcast and there are a lot of people listening to it! That was the birth of Accidental Creative as a more formal entity.

I understand that your Accidental Creative podcast audience probably numbers in the tens of thousands and is continuing to grow. On each show, you describe the current workplace as a "create-on-demand world." What does that mean?

In the “olden” days you would make widget and you would develop a system to produce it and you could crank out a bunch of the same things over and over again because there was no difference among them. At some point, the economy moved to what Peter Drucker called “knowledge work” where we approach each problem with a unique set of skills and we no longer have a systematic checklist that we just work our way down. Today, we more often have to define the work for ourselves – that’s creative work because creativity is problem solving – each challenge requires a different approach and has a different complexity and requires creative insight and breakthrough thinking to solve. But for many professionals, how you conjure up those types of solutions seems elusive or mystical. When the demand for those types of ideas is constant – but you don’t know how it happens and it isn’t systematic and, by the way, you have to do this in ever increasing measure – there’s tremendous pressure-packed feeling of responsibility for something you have no authority or control over. It’s the world where you’re going to have to innovate, strategize, manage rising expectations, juggle limited resources and time. Faced with this, you either default to mediocrity or just disconnected acceptance or learned helplessness. That’s what we call the Create on Demand World. There’s not a lot of literature for dealing with this that tell you where ideas come and what you can do to have more mastery over the creative process. That’s where Accidental Creative comes in.

You say that you’re an “arms dealer” in the creative revolution. Is there really a war for just-in-time ideas raging?

It is absolutely a war for ideas. The competitive nature of the creative (intellectual capital) market is intense and growing more so every day. Some firms don’t understand how to structure their work environment so that great ideas are a part of their ecosystem. Sure, they may have occasional brainstorming sessions but they haven’t built a culture of continuous ideation. If you want to know what organizations really value and prioritize first, look at the calendars and check books of the people in those firms. There’s not much time or resources devoted to nurturing ideation. Firms talk about creativity but there’s very little resource going to this. But, ideas really are king. Those with the best ideas are eventually going to win provided you can take action and do something about them.

As you know from leading your own professional firm, successful client development requires a healthy dose of creative problem solving and improvisational action. Most professionals are superb problem solvers (though perhaps more analytical than intuitive) when they are helping a client. The question is, though, how can they apply that creative skill to the challenge of how to attract clients in the first place?

It begins with asking the right questions of yourself first. Ask yourself about where your core energy is spent day to day. Many of us just focus on day to day client work and neglect key focus areas like positioning ourselves and growing our client base. We’re just not spending a lot of strategic time building these. You can spend as much time as you like delivering work for a client but if you’re not regularly thinking about how you’re seen in market or how you’re reaching out to people who need your services you’re missing the boat. You need to start asking important questions around your client development efforts and purposely generating ideas about those matters on a regular basis. One discipline I have in my life is maintaining a two hour block in my week which I have basically blank slated. I use that time to ask myself questions about Accidental Creative strategy, where we’re going and what’s on the horizon. Are we moving in that direction or are we compromising what we say we’re about in order to earn a couple of quick dollars? Clarity is far more important than certainty. Just having that time dedicated on the calendar to gain clarity is significant.

How have you applied your own creative problem solving prowess to attract clients and build your own firm?

We’ve taken less of a mass market approach. Our approach is to use a hook to catch the best fish one at a time rather than a net to catch a bunch of fish all at once. We hone in on a selective few people that we really want to work with or a select audience and we try to serve them as well as we can. You just can’t be all things to all people. We tried to mass market and it was a mistake. Accepting an engagement for the sake of money actually does a lot of damage and the money you make isn’t commensurate to the damage caused to the organization and team psychology.

The niche we’ve selected where we can be the best is especially working with organizations to figure out why there’s so much tension around the creative process and bridging the understanding gap between management and creative talent. Our approach is to ask for personal introductions to the right kind of people at the top level and talk to them individually. We work on building healthy client relationships and gain new work based on those good prior experiences by asking, “Have you ever experienced this? Are you getting wind of unhealthy whispers in the hallway? Do your experienced people seem like their holding back?” Almost unanimously people respond, “Yeah!” I say, “Well let me share some ideas on why that may be the case.” I believe in freely sharing concepts as a way to build relationships. Personally, I’ve found that hoarding intellectual property is not a useful tactic. Sharing insight and information works in your favor.

What are some simple tools or frameworks which professional services providers can experiment with to help them better leverage their creative capabilities?

First of all, there are plenty of professionals who work with their minds and solve problems but who don’t think of themselves as creative. I want to spread the gospel that if you work with your mind, you are a creative. You feel all of the same pressures as an agency creative director but you don’t identify that way because you haven’t tagged yourself as a creative.

To better leverage your creative capabilities, you want to build disciplines and practices in your life so you are more likely to have great ideas when you need them most. You want to establish a rhythmic ideation process rather than just trying to generate ideas when you are required but rather create them on a regular basis as a discipline. Put time on your calendar to generate ideas even when you don’t have to so that you can ideate when needed because you’ve practiced enough. Block off 1 hour each week for generating ideas and treat it like an appointment with yourself. List the big three priorities you have to tackle this week – what are they and what are the challenges associated with them? Spend during part of your hour writing out challenge statements for each one. Spend twenty minutes generating ideas around those key priorities. At the end of the hour, record both the actionable ideas and record the next action steps needed to it to move the situation forward. Take the time to think, what is the next thing I need to do about this? What matters most is not what you know but what you do.

Also, think about how you are managing five key disciplines: your time, energy, stimulus, focus & relationships. Consider them both from personal and professional angles because personal commitments effect your energy level as much as professional ones. How are you going to deal with these elements over the coming week, month, and quarter? The creative process is rhythmic in nature. These five areas compose and establish your creative rhythm.

Time: How you allocate your time determines your effectiveness as much as it does your efficiency. Add unnecessary creating and strategy time. Doing this will change your life and your work trajectory and will be the most important thing you’ll build into your life.
Energy: To realize the power of full engagement, how you manage your energy is key to success.
Stimulus: Just like “you are what you eat,” what you take in is what you create. Be very mindful and careful about what you take in. For example, read the metanarratives – those classics of literature which were the earliest to express certain universal truths.
Focus: What is it you are really trying to do? Do you know?
Relationships: Hang out with people who stimulate your creativity.

Last words of wisdom?

You “own” your creative engagement. It is solely your responsibility. You need to choose to creatively engage your life and to set yourself up for creative success.

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