Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart: Weapons of Mass Entertainment
The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart has sold more than 100 million albums, but is also a successful businessman. He shares his views on innovation and workplace creativity
As one half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart has sold more than 100 million albums. He’s also a successful businessman and undisputed authority on creativity. The rock star turned entrepreneur talks to Growing Business about the importance of innovation in business, why workplaces often stifle creativity and why encouraging staff to ‘play’ can help set it free
When he’s not in the recording studio, Dave Stewart runs a successful media company, (or ideas factory, as he calls it, a phrase that could just as easily be attributed to the man himself) Weapons of Mass Entertainment. The man dubbed a ‘fearless innovator’ by Bob Dylan and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine also consults for companies such as Nokia on creativity and innovation.
In his new book, The Business Playground, co-written by branding expert Mark Simmons, he aims to help entrepreneurs re-invigorate their workplaces, motivate their staff and learn from innovative companies such as Google.
For Stewart, embracing and rewarding creativity is an absolute necessity for businesses looking to stand out in a crowded market. Rock bands are faced with a similar challenge, he insists, citing The Rolling Stones as an example of a group whose “unbridled” creative spirit transformed them into one of the world’s most iconic and successful artists. In Stewart’s book, Mick Jagger says the use of imagery, particularly the famous tongue and lips logo, proved just as important as the music itself in establishing the band’s identity. Inspired by Mick’s mouth, it is both a summation of the band’s anti-authoritarian approach and one of the most recognised images in music history, used on a barrage of Stones merchandise since its first appearance on the 1971 album Sticky Fingers. If the advent of downloads and the ability to purchase songs separately (threatening the role of such album artwork) has made it more challenging for young artists to create an identity in this way, it has also forced them to find new creative ways to stand out, as every business needs to. “There used to be record labels that would invest money in developing artwork and putting posters up for new artists,” says Stewart. “But it’s collapsed so much that they can’t really afford to do anything like that now unless the artist is huge.” “That’s sad because it was a huge part of it all. But if you’re smart, you can make something from not much money at all with your mum’s video camera and establish your identity through a short film. Even though it’s not a physical thing that’s stuck on your bedroom wall for weeks, it’s stuck on your Facebook wall, and if it’s strong enough you can get some attention.”
Like most entrepreneurs, Stewart is a relentless ideas man. However, he acknowledges that it’s easy to get carried away by a ‘lightbulb moment’ without thinking it through properly. Turning it into something concrete and executable before you blurt it out is an art form in itself, and, if it’s an idea you’re expecting your staff to buy into, an important entrepreneurial skill. Stewart likens honing your ideas to the creative process involved in writing a song. “The whole song doesn’t usually come at once,” he says. “It’s a riff, a chorus – then you have to be able to put it into a context that can actually stand up.” One way of road-testing and developing your ideas involves making sure you’re answering the right question in the first place. Before you unleash your energy, time, money and resources on finding creative solutions to a problem, you need to question the assumptions you’re making about whatever it is you’re trying to solve. Do they stand up to scrutiny? Are you pursuing the right avenue of growth in the first place? Seeking different perspectives is crucial. “Others will almost certainly see things differently, and can help us to re-frame a problem,” says Stewart. “Putting yourself in the shoes of other people, with different agendas, can help you see what the challenges in getting them to endorse it might be.”
As a business grows, the inevitable introduction of processes and systems can be the enemy of creativity, says Stewart. Furthermore, refining creative ideas takes time. Inventor James Dyson built 5,127 prototypes of his bagless vacuum cleaner before he perfected his design. So how can you create a culture where there is room for creativity without losing focus? The answer involves “more than just setting up a cool room with creative toys and a whiteboard”, says Stewart. “A creative culture is one in which people aren’t just rewarded for successes, but are allowed and actively encouraged to experiment and make mistakes.” Companies such as Google encourage the creation of breakthrough ideas that keep them ahead of the competition by allocating a portion of time during the working week to allow staff to ‘play’, experimenting in areas that aren’t necessarily part of the company’s core business, and by putting different types of people together. How people perceive their work environment also has a significant impact. Studies have found that people are over 50% more likely to have creative ideas when they’re in a positive mood and focused on a shared creative vision.
The perfect brainstorm
If handled incorrectly, brainstorms can actually be counter-productive, insists Stewart. Groups are pre-disposed to think convergently (focusing on one solution); members tend to avoid conflict and often come up with similar ideas. They also have a tendency to do as much, or little, as the least productive person in the room. However, given the right conditions, working in small groups to solve creative problems can be highly effective. For example, while competition can encourage the creative process, Stewart recommends rewarding a group as a whole for the best idea to ensure good ideas aren’t dismissed or withheld. “The perfect brainstorm removes the barriers to creativity by letting all ideas come out without the judgement and criticism that might otherwise kill them. It also involves having clear parameters, including a mix of people from different backgrounds and setting high expectations for performance.” Finding a space without too much formality also helps, says Stewart. “The right brain needs some ‘meditative zoning out’ so that the left brain doesn’t interfere before ideas have been properly formed.” The right rewards and motivation to encourage creativity in your organisation are also key. People are motivated to be creative by extrinsic rewards such as money and recognition and by intrinsic rewards such as the personal challenge or intellectual curiosity. “The best business playground depends on creating the right mix of these things in a collaborative environment, with a shared clear vision.”