Entrepreneurial success is impossible without creativity: ‘zig when others zag’ and more tips

Think Different

When it comes to building businesses, coming up with an idea is only half the battle. It is, however, a necessary key ingredient. Creativity is essential to entrepreneurship – so much so that the two terms are almost synonymous: an entrepreneur is by definition an agent of change. And for change to exist there must be something new that’s introduced.

Knowing that creativity is a key ingredient for entrepreneurial success and being able to put it into practice are two very different things. Fortunately, thinking creatively is something that you can practice and get better at. Over the years there have been a number of strategies that have worked for me that I’ve summarised below.

The first step is to ‘think different’. Apple may have coined the phrase, but the mentality can apply to creative thinking in every domain of life and across every industry. It sounds cliched, but this simple adage can be an effective reminder that creativity requires unique thinking.

By believing in your own convictions, especially when they diverge with accepted wisdom, you might find opportunities for change that others have overlooked. Try and zig when others zag.

In contrast to this, you also need to question your own beliefs. This seemingly contradictory suggestion is my second piece of advice. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, noted the critical difference between projecting confidence externally – to customers and to staff – while doubting and questioning your own convictions. As soon as he concluded that he had got something wrong, he confidently changed course.

Creativity requires an ability to try, test, and improve. In business, you can’t shy away from making decisions. It often takes many bad ideas to come up with a good idea. Being prepared to fail quickly and training yourself to recognise bad ideas are useful skills that come with repeat practice.

Failing fast works well when you can keep risks low. In some environments this approach just doesn’t work – but if you can create the systems and processes to mitigate risk, then the benefits of faster iterations can be immense.

The third and final recommendation for creative thinking is to understand how your own experiences bias your thinking. The most creative ideas might come from areas of expertise – but equally they can come from areas where you are entirely out of your depth.

In the case of the former, deep knowledge in a particular area might help provide insight into what can be done better. But at the same time our self-presumed expertise can blind us to what’s possible.

Every day when I lived and studied at Oxford University, I walked past a plaque that celebrated Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile run in 1954. This feat was previously thought to be impossible. But after Bannister proved it was possible, dozens of people broke the 4 minute mile over the next few years.

Thinking creatively requires practice. For me, the three recommendations above are the most important pieces. The first is to hold an atypical opinion: whether it be an early insight others are yet to grasp, or something more revolutionary. The second is to question your own beliefs, and be prepared to change and adapt them as you learn more. And finally, through this whole process, we must each be careful of the subconscious biases that we each have.

While entrepreneurship requires much more than just creativity, it also can’t be done without this key ingredient.


About the author

Andrew Barnes is the co-founder and CEO of online onboarding, compliance and professional development platform GO1.com. He is a Rhodes Scholar, studied education technology at Oxford University, and holds a PhD in Business Management at the University of Queensland. Andrew’s passion for education and learning led him and his team of co-founders Vu Tran (now a medical doctor), Chris Eigeland (a lawyer) and Chris Hood (an engineer) to create GO1.com as a way to make it easier for companies to find, book, and complete corporate training. The group secured $4 million in funding from Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter, Tank Stream Ventures and Blue Sky Ventures enabling them to continue expanding their offices across the world. He previously wrote Diversity can be a double-edged sword when businesses don’t have systems to harness it.