Become a Creative Leader: Self-Infuse Foreign Inspiration

Imagine a kitchen table that can channel a heat source like a coffee pot to produce usable electricity. Or, a smart chair that makes lounging impossible if you haven’t engaged in enough exercise during the day. Or, interactive art that sheds a telling light on your family’s health habits. IKEA is solving the world’s problems one prototype at a time. And, they’re not doing it alone. The inspiration behind these ideas comes from across the globe.

IKEA’s SPACE10 lab gathers designers from the world over to come together and brainstorm prototypes. And, with these designers comes a plethora of influences from distinct cultures, histories and ways of life all thrown together in an invention exercise. The prototypes that come out of these labs have the potential to create an incremental but revolutionary difference in lands and industries far and wide.

To be a leader in innovation, IKEA is tapping nations across the globe and its cultures to foster the most creativity possible. And so are many other top brands. Apple derived inspiration for its products from German consumer-product company, Braun.

Create a Competitive Advantage: Invest in Innovation
With brand stories like IKEA’s out there, the effects of fostering creativity in organizations cannot be disputed. Adobe’s 2016 State of Create report shines some light on the growing importance of creative leaders. In a survey of 5,026 global adults, Adobe asked respondents how they believed investing in creativity can help brands. The results:

– 78 percent said that creativity increased productivity.
– 78 percent said that creativity is required to have satisfied customers and provide the all-powerful improved customer experience.
– 83 percent said that those brands that invest in creativity are more likely to foster innovation and, so, be financially successful.
– 79 percent said that creative investments make for more competitive brands.

And, while it’s doable to filter a cultural shift up the ranks, it’s much easier and practical to filter an organizational-culture shift from the top down. After all, even when it’s filtered from the bottom up, for new cultural norms to take root, leadership buy-in and involvement are essential.

IKEA has learned that, for brands to meet the creative demands consumers put on them, today’s leadership role requires that we all have an inventor’s mindset. Our organizations must invent new products, new ways of solving problems, new perspectives of looking at already-known realities – all in an attempt to differentiate our brands and our products and prove they are worth consumers’ hard earned dollars.

But, sadly, for many brands, the creative leadership necessary for brand survival simply isn’t there. In Adobe’s report, only forty-one percent of respondents described themselves as creative, and 82 percent of U.S. respondents said they feel increasing pressure to be creative within their professional roles.

So, even with rising pressure, we know creativity is lacking in many organizations but is a must-have for leading brands. Leaders can begin a culture shift in their organizations by starting with themselves. Remember, “You must be the change you want to see in the world” or, in this case, your organization.

Still, not all of us can spend millions on labs that import ideas from all over the world. But, the concept in IKEA’s methods can be applied to any brand, big or small, that’s looking for a leg up or their next breakthrough. And, the history of creativity can show you how.

Expand your Creative Repertoire: A Lesson from History
Historically, the most creative leaders and inventors rarely created items or implemented ideas that were entirely new. No, they were combined with other ideas to create something wholly new or they simply built on other’s ideas to create a more improved and marketable product. For example, in the age of Enlightenment, with the world opening up via trading and improved transportation methods, many 16th century American inventions were inspired by foreign adventures.

While living in London as an American diplomat, for example, Benjamin Franklin attended a concert by Edward Delaval in which the musicians were using drinking glasses filled with liquid to make beautiful music, much like a child may do with her finger at the dinner table. Franklin was captivated and wanted to play the beautiful music himself.

Filled with inspiration, he ventured back to his small England apartment and applied himself to creating a similar portable musical instrument with glass cylinders. With that, the precursor to today’s harmonica, the glass armonica, was born and the world never forgot its birth. Composers such as Handel, Beethoven, and Mozart evangelized the instrument with their own compositions.

Since then, other inventors have taken that foreign-inspired invention and build on it to improve its practicality and predictability in the music it produces. Still, like IKEA’s inventions, the initial product idea was born out of foreign inspiration, then built on to create a wholly new innovation that has stood the test of time. Franklin had expanded his creative repertoire by learning another culture and it payed off.

Reproduce the Benefits of Foreign Ventures: Learn a Language
Like Franklin’s dive into the musical culture of England, learning a foreign language should involve an acquired understanding of the culture in which the language is spoken. Contrary to seemingly popular belief, gaining foreign language fluency is not simply an exercise in memorization. And, those who memorize the words without incorporating an understanding of the culture speak what language learners lovingly refer to as “textbook” Spanish, Greek or Japanese.

If we think about the English language, this makes sense. For example, many English words or phrases that are used in Virginia do not hold any meaning in California. In Virginia, infused into everyday native speak, visitors may hear references to popular country songs that no one would dare utter in California for fear of social shunning. Without knowing these cultural references, however, many language learners would be at a loss in conversations that reference them, even if both parties speak American English.

In foreign languages as well, exposure to the culture is part of becoming fluent. Knowing the history of the land and how national problems were resolved, the music that is and is not popular, the fashion of the different eras, the cuisines of unique regions of the country, and everyday ways of life, for example, offers the foreign speaker a whole new repertoire to pull from when attempting to combine ideas and build on existing ones to create something revolutionary in their organizations or industries. Today’s leaders would do well to practice on the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin and IKEA alike, and look to the world for creative inspiration. When you learn another language, you necessarily self-infuse foreign inspiration.

In Sum: Start with You
You may not be able to create a multi-million-dollar innovation lab that brings in experts and designers from all over the world. Or, maybe you can. If you can, go for it. But, if you can’t, that doesn’t mean you can’t infuse your company with some foreign inspiration via your own self-improvement. Choose a language, any language. Hire a private tutor, pick up some workbooks or, if you can get away with it, visit a foreign country. Even small starting steps can help you get ahead of the creativity curve.

Alana Rudder

Alana Rudder — Founding Member of Experience Perspective, LLC —offers content strategy, marketing project management, and content writing services to Fortune 500 brands, including Adobe, as well as countless mid-size and startup brands. She writes about business technology, martech, marketing, leadership, organizational development, and the causes that are so dear to her: organ donation, living donation, and organizations that lend to the welfare of children in crisis around the globe. When she isn't working, she loves to spend time with her rescue pets and participating in living history events with her dear husband.

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