Team NZ show way to big business

14 August 2017
Professor Peter O'Connor, the University of Auckland

Cup “bikes on boats” shows creativity needed in “hang up your soul” companies.

Emirates Team New Zealand's America's Cup success is a tremendous example of the power of creativity in business, says an expert in the art of creative thinking.

Professor Peter O'Connor, of the University of Auckland Business School, says Team NZ's innovation of "bikes on boats" to help win the America's Cup showed what could be done if Kiwi companies throw off the shackles of "buttoned-up" business practices and environments.

O'Connor, also head of the Creative Thinking Project at the university, is deeply worried about the increasing trend in education and companies to produce graduates, workers and office spaces who follow deeply ingrained business practices with little or no room for creativity.

"We want to amplify the conversation on creativity in business - what it means and what we need to do to be more creative; it is vital for the country," he says.


Team NZ's application of the "cyclors" as grinders on the America's Cup catamaran was a perfect example of creativity versus innovation.


"A lot of us, including [former global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and COO of Lion Nathan] Kevin Roberts, believe New Zealand is very innovative - but doesn't always have creative environments," says O'Connor.

"Team NZ were a classic example; some might argue the bikes on boats were innovation - but the innovation is only the final part of a creative process: the execution, testing and installing of the bikes is innovation. But it begins with creativity.

"First, someone had to have the crazy idea - and a workplace where it was okay to have crazy ideas. To be creative you need a workplace where you are rewarded for taking risks.

"Listening to [Team NZ CEO] Grant Dalton, it was clear the bikes were almost accidental - it wasn't something they sat around and planned. The key thing was the idea was fostered within the organisation; they made sure the idea grew and they were not afraid of the possibility of failure - that is what businesses need to be more successful."

O'Connor says a dearth of creativity is partly being caused by an education system that, at primary level, focuses on numeracy and literacy and, at secondary level, on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects instead of also encouraging the art of creative thinking from a young age.

Professor Jonothan Neelands, Director of Teaching and Learning in the Institute of Education at the UK's University of Warwick, visited New Zealand in December 2015, giving a public lecture - "Culture, Creativity and Growth: why the Arts matter" - at the university.

He also commented on his university's research at the time, saying focus on STEM subjects could harm the future economic success of the UK.

"We are concerned the educational system as a whole is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and...needs to be addressed across our schools," he said.

Neelands also told the New Zealand Herald a greater mix of arts and STEM subjects plus the facility for creative thinking was not just a cultural need but an economic one.

In 2014, the UK's creative industries grew at almost double the rate of the economy as a whole and were driving economic recovery - worth £84 billion then. The government had to increase access and participation in arts and culture to help diversify people and products and foster creative thinking.

"If something is good for business, it tends to be taken seriously," he said. "Arts and culture...enrich our emotional world but we have to change the perception of that as a luxury - the economy may provide a way to move past that."

O'Connor says New Zealand's situation is similar; creativity is also being stifled in workplaces good at products and services but not conducive to market-changing ideas like Team NZ's bikes.

There are many ways to encourage creativity in the workplace, he says, from the use of arts and drama to the "soul" of the workplace.

" Look at Spark headquarters [in Auckland's CBD] - they are chock-a-block full of art, there are lots of spaces for people to play and experiment; there is a real buzz there - it's not like many other workplaces which are buttoned-down, uptight spaces, intentionally hierarchical and which stifle creativity.

"We get so hooked into business and innovation, we forget we need not just new ideas but a culture that rewards curiosity, playfulness, experimentation and cooperation - it creates the fertile soil we need.

"If we don't have that, it de-humanises us," he says. "There are plenty of workspaces where, for many people, their world exists totally of fingers, screen and eyes.

"People want their workplace to be something that brings out the best of them as a human being, who they really are, not somewhere where they hang up their soul when they come to work