For any of you who know me or have read enough of my blog posts to get a sense for who I am, I am guessing that the word ‘creative’ wouldn’t be a word you’d pick to describe me.  Now, now, don’t be nice.  I can take it.  I was a math major in college who was a research analyst, a Quality Control Analyst, and a lecturer of Applied Quantitative methods and market research before I put on my entrepreneur hat.  Those jobs typically did not include “must be creative” as part of the job description.  And anytime you can explain key concepts to me through formulas, I’m on board.

But I’m here to tell you that the most important skill you can nurture as an entrepreneur or small business owner that wants to have a sustainable business is exactly that – creativity.

Why creativity?

I learned this when I took five courses in Futures Thinking from Coursera a couple years ago.  Here I was thinking that as a market researcher, I was perfectly suited to be a futurist.  I do my research; I know what’s going on in the world around me.  I’ve spent years helping small businesses with forecasting sales – making assumptions and building on them to grow sales revenue.

But it turns out that baseline assumptions with a little math doesn’t really qualify.  If you really want to be innovative, you must also be creative.  Futurists are able to imagine new possibilities from small signals of change happening around us every day.  Forecasting involves scenario planning.  No one can predict the future – but you can try to plan for a successful future for your business by trying out different paths to see which one is the path you desire to follow.  And then you can make changes now that head you and your business down that path.

If your business planning process consists of looking at what you’ve done in the past and trying to grow it incrementally, then maybe it’s time for an injection of creativity.

What does creativity mean?

Of course, we can all define the term creativity.  But in the context of long-range planning, the creativity needed by you the business owner isn’t necessarily the same type of creativity needed by an artist, graphic designer, or advertiser.

We’re not talking about matching colors, branding designs, trending patterns or coordinated fabrics.  Believe me, I am no artist, and I could never do the amazing job graphic designers can do putting content, art, and color together in a way that pleases the eye and promotes your product.

In the context of planning for a future that doesn’t yet exist, the definition of creativity we should consider is more like this one from Psychology Today: “Creativity encompasses the ability to discover new and original ideas, connections and solutions to problems.”

Business-focused creativity often takes the form of identifying a problem and finding a solution that hasn’t been found for that problem before.  See the car, the iPod, and Linked In as examples.  The focus is on invention and innovation – seeing something differently than others and producing an original solution to the problem.

Examples of Creativity in Business

For many B2B companies, creativity is found in the very business you create.  Sometimes you are solving a problem with technical skills that most people don’t possess.  For example, my failed start-up experience was a sensor in a mailbox that sends you a text message when you have mail in your rental mailbox.  Super creative and very technical solution to a common problem.  (Why didn’t it take off?  See more in this past blog post)

Or my Mastermind friend Emily, a former Business School professor, and her new business Vibrant Virtual.  Her genius idea was to hire and train college interns to be able to work virtually and part-time for small businesses that don’t have the time for hiring or training.  The interns can piece together a full-time job with a few different projects and the small businesses get the part-time help they need, already trained and ready to go.  Brilliant!  And creative.

The key is to be open to new opportunities and look for solutions to problems that are a bit different than what’s been done before.

Channeling Your Inner Creative

For those of you who are more analytical than creative, how do you find a way to force yourself to be more creative?  Well, just like I schedule spontaneity into my calendar, I methodically address ways to increase my creativity.

Here are some ways that can help you commit time and brain energy toward creative solutions that can help grow your business:

  1. Active Listening

Pay attention – and take notes – when having conversations with employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and peers.  Actively listen to what they’re saying about the issues, problems, concerns, or ideas that might connect to your business.

  1. Down Time

Every day, take time to let your brain detach from the daily grind.  Take a walk, sit in the park, read a (fiction) book.

  1. Reading

Speaking of reading, be sure to stay informed about what’s going on in the world around you.  Look for those signals of change in the obscure news stories that might indicate opportunity for your business.

  1. Brainstorming

Set aside time for more intentional creative thinking with your employees or fellow small business owners in a peer group.  Start throwing ideas out there, no matter how crazy, and see what evolves.

Back to the Future

Getting back to my original point – in order to plan for the future of your business, you need to channel your creativity into the future version of your business.  Use some of the suggestions above to help you find the time and brain power to be creative.  The key here is melding Current Co. with Future Co. in some really unusual ways.

Consider looking ten years into the future.  What does your life look like in 2032?  How old are you?  Are you still running your small business?  How do you think technology will alter the way you are currently running your business?  What is automated?  What is not?  Are you meeting customers in the metaverse?  Accepting cryptocurrency from customers?  Traveling to work in an air taxi?  Are you delivering your products or services in a different way?  Or offering different products or services?

The goal with a Ten-Year look, rather than two or three years, is that it is sufficiently far enough into the future that you are forced to be creative, and you know that you are making these scenarios up.  There’s no risk of making a bad forecast of estimated sales revenues like if you are looking just a couple years ahead.

My message for today – set aside some time to channel your creativity and invent your future business.  Then start working toward that vision.

So much change is underway, it can be a challenge to keep up with it all.  How will automation, blockchain, climate change, demographic shifts and other external forces impact your business and your customers?  Join me to keep an eye on these topics and more, to prepare your business for a successful future.  Start by subscribing to my free biweekly blog posts by email so you don’t miss anything!