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For an advertising agency, creativity is the "price of entry" - without it, we're not in business. As companies get leaner, and markets get more competitive, creativity is more and more an essential tool for all businesses. Creativity is the magic needed to get the most out of tight resources and to give companies the edge they need to succeed.

How can you encourage and unleash creativity, drive fearless, fresh thinking and build innovation into the core DNA of your company?

Creativity is like a muscle. If you are traditionally a linear thinker, or a company wired for linear thinking, it takes some work to "get lateral." It's tough to get people out of their linear comfort zone - but without the effort, you can't create truly new thought.

As individuals, most of us have been trained in an education system that encourages single-track thinking. We learn math or philosophy, when taking them together would actually build on the base they share. Many businesses have also grown up with the notion that specialization is necessary to get depth of thought, but this approach is actually far too narrow in today's interconnected world.

Vancouver-based Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, a leading catalyst of creative thinking in Canada, recently hosted a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference that focused on moving beyond traditional scientific thinking to thinking that connects creativity and the arts with science.

The school is also using its Intersections Digital Studio to connect science, technology, arts, culture and industry to create new forms of expression and new ways of thinking. Another recent project involved a non-traditional collaboration between design students at Emily Carr and Forintek, Canada's national wood products research institute.

Building on the strengths of both organizations, students created shelters for the world's homeless (Design for Disaster), developing 400-square-foot $5,000 housing solutions sensitive to the cultural context in which they would be built.

The Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver is also opening new doors to innovation, with its masters in digital media degree. The degree program - co-sponsored by Emily Carr, the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Simon Fraser University, and the University of British Columbia - is designed to capitalize on a collaboration between academia, industry and community to create new ways of applied learning.

What are some other ways that companies can build "lateral muscle"?

First, hire for diversity. Bringing in diverse talent naturally increases the breadth of thinking and ideas. Men and women think differently; cultures think differently; age groups think differently. The hardest way to get new thought is to have like-minded people in a room together reinforcing each other through group-think.

Second, wear different hats. Often people are tracked in one discipline within a company. Job switching, or role playing, can set people free from traditional thought patterns. In strategic planning sessions with our clients we encourage role playing through a different corporate lens, i.e. "If you were Disney, Apple, Adidas, or Harley-Davidson, how would you approach this challenge?"

Third, feed passion. People with passion within an organization drive change. They bring forth new ideas with energy and enthusiasm. By creating forums for people with passion to find their voices and let their voices be heard, new ideas are liberated.

Guarding against burnout is also critical. It's tough to generate new thought when you're out of gas. Giving staff the opportunity to develop their outside hobbies, take sabbaticals or move to flexible work hours can help freshen the idea bank.

In the agency world, TBWA\Worldwide needed to think in a fresh new way about media. With media fragmentation, the growth of online communications and the blurring between content creation and media, we needed to unlock our traditional thinking. Two years ago TBWA established the Media Arts Lab (MAL) in Los Angeles and more recently in London and Tokyo. MAL was created as a broad collective of creative people from a diversity of backgrounds and media disciplines. With Apple Inc. at its core, this eclectic team develops communication ideas (e.g. the Mac/PC and iPod work) that leverage all kinds of innovations including, of course, those from Apple itself. Alongside the "traditional" work environment we now have a place specifically for experimentation, creating new ideas for how we can orchestrate behaviour between brands and people. This learning is shared across TBWA's global network so that everyone benefits.

Finally, none of this can succeed if creativity is marginalized. Creativity needs to become an organization-wide value. And it's a value that requires permission from the top and commitment from below to break new ground.

Andrea Southcott is president of ad agency TBWA\Vancouver.

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