The Speakers Speak: Sam Harrison Talks Creatively About Creativity & The Art Of The Sell

The Speakers Speak is a series of insightful interviews with the 2011 InHOWse Conference presenters. This week Sam Harrison, speaker, writer and thought leader, addresses an in-house team’s greatest challenge and greatest opportunity – creativity. His grasp of the challenges that creatives face when working in the corporate environment coupled with his ability to distill strategies and tactics that are an antidote to this existential issue are invaluable any designer trying to make a difference where they work.

I know you’ve worked with a number of in-house creatives as a mentor and advisor. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges faced by designers working in corporations today?

Most in-house creatives participating in my workshop have some of the same problems I had back when directing a large in-house group. Value recognition, project workflow and internal bureaucracy are timeless and universal challenges for in-house designers.

Two other major in-house challenges I’m often asked to help with are creative stagnation and pitching skills.

Why do you think these two areas are particularly challenging for in-house designers?

In-house creatives are often dealing with the same brand, the same people and the same products. So they tend to have a greater likelihood of stagnation than agency people who might be interfacing with a variety of brands, clients and products. In-house designers need to constantly seek out and draw in fresh inspiration.

As for presentation skills, the selling of ideas within a company is frequently hampered by what I call the Tyranny of Low Expectations.

These low expectations exist on both sides of the table. In-house clients often have low expectations of their creative services group, wrongly assuming that in-house people are incapable of having fresh perspectives. And in-house creatives often have low expectations of internal clients – assuming Joe down the hall and Susan in the c-suite will forever have the same negative reactions they’ve previously had to new ideas.

How about the biggest opportunities they may not be taking advantage of?

In-house groups have the opportunity to turn a potential liability – constantly working with the same company, brand, products and clients – into a powerful asset.

After all, when competing with agencies, in-house groups have the home-team advantage. No agency will ever know the brand, culture, products and people as well as in-house designers. But to capitalize on this insider advantage, in-house designers must embrace a beginner’s attitude.

Keep learning. Arrive every day wearing a new pair of glasses. Find out all there is to know about end-users. Plunge into the marketplace. Talk and travel with product managers and sales people. Understand the company’s financials. Know the industry inside and out.

When in-house designers blend deep-and-wide knowledge with creative inspiration, no agency can touch them. These knowledgeable, involved in-house team members are seen as partners and advisers, not order takers and firefighters. They provide strategic, creative and focused solutions, making them invaluable to internal clients.

Whenever creative people quit expanding, they become expendable. But when in-house designers keep expanding knowledge and solutions, they become indispensible to the organization.

If there is one piece of advice you’d give to an in-house designer, what would it be?

Don’t always wait around for approvals to go into creative action. Instead, be willing to take risks and surge ahead. As Seth Godin says: don’t wait for authority, assume responsibility.

Because of rigid corporate structures, in-house designers often wait to be given authority to move in new directions or take on out-of-ordinary projects. While waiting, these designers can become stagnant and frustrated.

Instead, assume responsibility. Take calculated risks. Here’s a quick example. I presented a series of creativity workshops at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 firm. The facilities were beautiful but sterile. After my sessions, the design director invited me to his group’s workspace. What a refreshing difference! It was colorful and exciting – an inviting departure from the rest of the building.

The company had strict rules against veering from decorating standards at the headquarters. But a couple of years ago, this design director decided to take risks and responsibility rather than wait around for approvals and authority. He began making small, incremental changes in his area – painting a wall over here, adding artwork over there. Before long, the space was transformed into an energetic, inspiring environment. And wouldn’t you know it — his area is now the first place the CEO and other executives head when touring visitors through the building.

What books, conferences, blogs and periodicals would you recommend to the innie community?

I speak at lots of conferences, and the HOW and inHOWse conferences are without doubt my favorites. You can reach out and touch the creative energy – and the real-world content is smart and abundant.

I’m also an enthusiastic advocate of resources like the inHOWse blog, InSource website, “The Corporate Creative,” “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” and the other usual suspects for in-house people – all wonderful and worthy.

But it’s important for designers to reach beyond these in-house resources – and beyond design resources – to earn legitimacy as a partner and adviser to internal clients.

Read Business Week, Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal to understand business and talk its language. Read trade magazines and industry blogs to obtain in-depth knowledge of the marketplace. Read publications read by end users and watch the TV shows they watch to better understand their interests and lifestyles.

Could you give us a hint about what you’ll be presenting at the InHOWse Conference?

My content is summed up in the title: “Selling Ideas to Internal Clients and Bosses.” Designers and other creative folks often believe good ideas sell themselves, but that rarely happens. In fact, the fresher and bolder the idea, the more it needs selling, because we’re asking people to let go of the status quo and assume risks.

In a recent inHOWse blog post, you referenced the IBM survey showing that 1500 CEOs ranked creativity as the number one leadership attribute. That’s great news. But unless designers are able to communicate and sell their creative concepts, management will never recognize the power of the ideas.

Because in-house creatives are usually pitching to familiar faces in familiar environments, they sometimes get a bit lax with presentation skills. My session will focus on ways in-house managers and their teams can polish idea-pitching skills and improve idea-selling ratios for themselves and their teams.

Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader and writer on creativity-related topics. His latest book, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers, was recently released by HOW Books. He is also the author of IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command.