From elBulli to the catwalk Lessons in unlocking creativity

In the pursuit of breakthrough innovation to stimulate growth, many organizations bang the drum on the need to get more creative. But therein lies the rub. Just how do you do creativity?

In the pursuit of breakthrough innovation to stimulate growth, many organizations bang the drum on the need to get more creative. But therein lies the rub. Just how do you do creativity? What is the process of creativity? Pondering this the other day, I began to think of examples where an individual’s creative genius has led to tremendous success in business. Sure, we could talk about the late Steve Jobs and his eminence grise, tech designer Sir Jony Ive, all day long, but looking beyond the oft-told tale of Apple, the names Ferran Adria and Tom Ford sprung to mind.

Admittedly, these are names not usually banded together in business discussions; both work in distinctly separate and volatile industries. Adria makes his living as a (highly decorated) chef, restaurateur, and consultant in the world of haute gastronomie. Meanwhile, Ford, the influential fashion designer and latterly film director, earns his crust on and around the catwalks of New York, Milan, and Paris. However, on closer inspection, they do seem to share certain similarities and traits that have allowed each of them to dominate in their particular professions. To begin with, both have an unquenchable drive for hard work, perfection, and high quality in everything they do that has seen them rise to the top of their creative game. But perhaps more strikingly, each is committed to pursuing the highest levels of design and creativity in a never-ending pursuit for innovation that sets them apart from the rest of their competitors.

The results have been impressive. Take Ferran Adria, widely recognized for many years as the world’s finest chef. A recent Wired magazine article profiled the Spanish master of molecular gastronomy, whose restaurant elBulli, nestled in the Catalan hills just north of Barcelona, was routinely voted the world’s best by Restaurant magazine (first in 2002, then four years running from 2006–2009 when Adria was arguably at his creative zenith). Renowned for being a true innovator, Adria’s unique vision produced a cuisine not wholly reliant on just the quality of ingredients, but rather ingredients complemented by science, mechanics, and new techniques that would not be out of place in a chemistry lab. The fruits of his creative labor were consistently judged impressive; the obligatory three Michelin stars were instantly followed by huge public demand to taste his food. The restaurant, which seated no more than 8,000 diners in a year, received two million requests for a table in 2011. This, coupled with 6,000 applications for the yearly internship to study in the master’s kitchen, led to accolades from the culinary world’s most famous names, including French legend Joel Robuchon who pronounced Adria as “undoubtedly the most brilliant creator in the world.” To the surprise of many, Adria closed elBulli in 2011 at the height of its popularity stating he felt the limit of innovation had been reached in that particular paradigm. Thus began the next phase of breakthrough: to turn elBulli into a center for innovation, the elBulli Foundation, a place of gastronomic knowledge and learning drawing on all he had learned during his remarkable tenure at the vanguard of creativity. Scheduled to open in 2014, the foundation will emphasize the use of cutting edge digital technology in idea generation and provide a venue for those in the world of gastronomy and beyond to learn how to stimulate and exploit creativity. At its core, the foundation will represent Adria’s own journey, exploring how creativity is cultivated and fostered to achieve significant breakthroughs.

A glance at the work of Tom Ford reveals a similar story. Ford is perhaps best known as the then upstart, nearly unknown fashion designer brought in to reinvent (at the time) faltering luxury goods leviathan Gucci (and later Gucci acquisition Yves Saint Laurent) in the mid 1990s. With Ford as creative director, the company pulled back from the abyss of bankruptcy, sales rose by 90 percent, and by 2004, it was valued in excess of $10 billion—a staggering turnaround for a firm valued at $4 billion just five years before. All of this is credited to Ford’s mercurial creative muse. Following his success at Gucci, Ford then launched his own brand that has since achieved stellar growth, spawning diverse product lines that showcase the designer’s passion for innovation. Not stopping at fashion, he then went on to successfully direct his first movie, the Oscar award-winning A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

During this period, Ford was the subject of a revealing documentary1 that probed his ability to be constantly creative in a very turbulent and demanding industry. Throughout the filming, Ford noted that in the pursuit of innovation, his “creative drive is obsessive…my perfectionism is almost an illness.” He describes how studying architecture at an earlier age enabled him to contextualize a “language and logic and reason” to everything, whether it is buildings or the human body or whatever medium the designer is working with. He attributes his success to using this analytical approach and harnessing his passion to be able to deal with the grueling pressure to produce sometimes as much as 16 collections in a single year. But to Ford, work is not work. Instead, it’s “fun.” Inspiration to fuel the fun comes from constantly talking, listening, and watching friends in his close-knit circles discuss ideas for fashion, allowing him to “absorb everything and be able to react and respond to where culture is today.” Assembling a tight team in a single design studio where ideas can feed off each other into multiple different directions allows the designer to enhance efficiency in an otherwise uncertain process. But perhaps the biggest revelation from Ford is his search for those moments when he has absolute clarity, where “everything is frozen and the silence drowns out the noise…and I can feel rather than think.”

Reflecting on the brilliance of both Adria and Ford’s quest for innovation nirvana, I wondered what could be gleaned from their distinct approaches to leveraging creativity and perhaps used as some sort of blueprint in an organization. Referring back to some of the groundbreaking academic research of the 1990s onward, when the study of creativity in corporate innovation began to flourish, it is clear that some common themes have emerged over the years to guide executives on their quest, and some of those resonate with Adria and Ford’s perspectives. A name that jumps to mind from academia is Dorothy Leonard from Harvard Business School who along with co-author Walter Swap, wrote the enduring book on stimulating group creativity, When Sparks Fly, back in 1999. Leonard’s ideas on “creative abrasion,” a term used to describe bringing together people with disparate backgrounds, cultures, thinking styles, and experiences (oftentimes conflicting), into the same group to literally spark the creative innovation juices and get new knowledge flowing still resonates today. Leonard’s views on stimulating creativity encompass both the psychological environment and the physical environment, stressing the need to design the right space conducive to aiding creative thinking and idea incubation while paying close attention to intrinsic motivation within individuals by connecting the right people to the creative task at hand, focusing on a person’s inner drive or passion for a particular subject.

Leonard’s colleague at Harvard, Teresa Amabile, has also published widely over the last decade on the need to focus on the more psychological aspects of managing the process. Amabile’s research on assessing the work climate for creativity by examining the psychological context of innovation provided important findings on impact the social environment can have on the frequency of creative behavior. Once more, the notion that intrinsic motivation, or the strong internal desire to do something based on interests and passions, is found to be a key factor in enhancing creativity.

Looking back at the examples of Adria and Ford, it seems to me that several of these core themes in creativity research have been instrumental in their success. Adria has notably embraced the notion of designing the appropriate psychological and physical environment in the new elBulli foundation. The chef is working with Charles Spence, an Oxford professor of psychology, with the result that exploring the world of neuroscience is included in the diverse approach to inter-disciplinary collaboration that sees “mash-ups” of science, art, technology, and philosophy come together to enhance knowledge flows. All of which drive the pursuit of ever more innovative cuisine. Equally deliberate is the foundation’s focus on designing appropriate spaces for brainstorming, known as “ideariums” in rooms that are “theatrical in design,” and allow groups of participants to convene and work together in areas that are conducive to divergent and convergent thinking, thereby testing another of Leonard’s theories on the process of maximizing “serendipity” in creativity. Ford, on the other hand, is perhaps the epitome of Amabile’s ideas on the role intrinsic motivation, internal drive, passion, and the ability to constantly absorb new knowledge have in spiking the creative thought process. Perhaps if organizations begin to systematically harness the lessons learned in both the psychological and physical aspects of creativity, their innovation strategies would flourish.