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Creative Process: Costas Papaikonomou

Creativity & Innovation

costasCostas Papaikonomou is one of the founders of innovation consultancy Happen. Costas has recently published Thoughts From a Grumpy Innovator, which distils his thoughts and experience from spending 15+ years in innovation. We were drawn to Costas after admiring his acerbic wit on Twitter, so we’ve decorated this Q&A with some of his grumpiest tweets.

Do you follow a creative process?

Yes – at Happen we have developed a number of creative frameworks, which we select from depending on the client’s business challenge we are working on. The two we most use are FIRE for innovation led by consumer insight or foresight, and SWEAT for innovation led by business capabilities and manufacturing assets.


Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?

All the time – in particular to push our clients’ thinking beyond the obvious answers that pop out first. Two tricks that work every time: –       Scrub in time and look for ideas before and after the intended usage context; there’s always some surprising value to add. –       Translate the problem into conflicts and barriers; nothing beats dissecting a problem into different conflicting attributes. Obvious as it may sound, the most important step to get to good ideas is in my view that you agree up front in crystal clear terms what the business challenge is that you’re trying to resolve. Without that, you’ll never recognize a great idea nor distinguish it from a mediocre one.


What’s the best idea you’ve had recently? Tell us where you were, what you were doing, where you found inspiration.

I have ideas all the time! In particular when travelling and standing in cues, which I do a depressing amount of. A simple personal insight I had recently, was that not only do you only live once, so do the people who voluntarily choose to be with you. Which means you better be nice to them, not to waste their precious time.

But you’re looking for a ‘professional’ idea! A somewhat older idea I can share with pride from our own history of building the Happen Group, led to setting up the second business within our business, Winkle. Born out of pure frustration, the idea was to create a research tool that would allow you to do iterations of research, to develop ideas rather than screen them.


How did you develop your idea?

We built prototype systems as soon as possible, honing the methodology and improving the software. Always looking for a simpler way to deliver the core benefit, taking away clutter and useless features as we went along. Try, try, try, fail, fail, fail. I’m sorry if this doesn’t sound very magical, but it wasn’t.


Did you get any feedback or test your idea on anyone? Who did you ask?

We went through the first versions of the new tools with client friends. So not just any client team, but those that wanted us to succeed at creating new approaches they knew would help them too. They had the patience to work with us to get it right. These teams are still real friends of the business.


What was the hardest part of developing your idea?

Gaining traction beyond the protagonist first few client teams and gaining real volume. When new ideas need to be made robust enough to scale, you need to shift from an audience who grew with you and knows exactly why & where it came from to an audience which is less inherently enthusiast and may need some convincing to come on board. And they won’t work with a rattling prototype, they want the shiny finished article.


Tell us about an idea of yours that didn’t work. What happened?

Most ideas don’t work at first. A popular wisdom I live by: “In the end it will be OK. If it’s not OK it’s not the end”. But sometimes things do indeed fail to fail soon and fail too late, which is doubly frustrating. In a previous career in engineering, I worked with my team on an amazing, totally break-through concept for dispensing hair colourants in hair salons. But there were two big problems that eventually killed the initiative:

–       Internally, the business treated this project as regular operations, expecting returns and profits like the primary business stream was generating. Realistically that would have taken at least five years. As a consequence it was incredibly difficult to keep senior stakeholders on board.

–       Externally, we had been incredibly naive and unprepared for the competitive response from some very big players who were not going to sit by and watch us take a bite out of a very profitable business. The product was a game changer, what we hadn’t realised was that we were even more radically changing the business model of the category.


Where / when do you feel most creative?

Any time and any place, as long as I’m not exceptionally tired, or distracted by television. The only thing I do force myself to do is record my thoughts and ideas – otherwise they slip away into the ether. I use Twitter a lot for exactly that: record sudden thoughts before they dissipate.


Does technology help or hinder creativity?

In principle, every creative act is limited by the tools used in the process. Try creating an oil painting with a trumpet. What is often overlooked is the importance of skill – for any tool. Practice, practice, practice. When people know their technology inside out, magic happens. An experienced illustrator will create wonders with a pencil while an amateur creates horrors with Photoshop. The technology is never leading, the person using it is. It’s an age old debate – whether it’s about 3D CAD, ideation software, idea platforms or scraping social media for consumer data. Never look at technology to bring creativity – it can do no more than help record and facilitate the creativity of the people using it.


Do you use group brainstorms? If so, how do you run them?

All our innovation work with clients is highly collaborative, but the degree at which varies, depending on the corporate culture we plug into and the task in hand. Realistically, every insight, idea, solution, concept – anything we help create – will have been born from a group ideation at some point during the journey from business challenge to new product on shelf. But that little node in the process where everything comes together is really only that, a node. We prepare the inputs meticulously, as do we take ideation outputs and develop them further offline. You can actually force luck to happen!


What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?

Happen’s universe is a commercial one, where creativity must lead to some kind of economic value. So for creative people in this arena, it’s about going up the stratosphere AND coming back down to earth, pinning themselves down onto something that is useful. And doing so, realising that an innovation journey is not about an endless search for one perfect idea. It’s about starting with a pretty good idea and developing it into something great over time.


Can creativity be taught?

I believe almost everyone is born creative. But sadly most people go through education and then a career that requires them to unlearn it in order to progress in the system. So it’s not about teaching creativity, but about ensuring it stays alive; nurturing it and reminding people how to unlock it from within. Awaken the dormant genius! This principle sits at the heart of all our work at Happen.


Who is the most creative person you know?

Too many to list. But one thing I can wholeheartedly confirm is they are so different from the cliché you see in the movies. They exist in every possible discipline. I’ve had the pleasure to work with incredibly resourceful sheet metal engineers, food technologists, illustrators and programmers. They’re absolutely everywhere!

To all those of you who’ve read this far – a reward! Download an excerpt of Costas’ book here.


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