Three Ways to Cultivate Creative Thinking in a Data-Driven Workplace

Businesses love to say they’re “data-driven,” and investors love to hear it. Data makes them feel safe, because “numbers don’t lie.” But let’s be honest, numbers don’t speak either. Only a human being can turn information into ideas. And that requires creative thinking. No matter what investors say, it’s creative thinking—not data alone—that drives business breakthroughs. And as leaders, it’s our job to nurture creativity every chance we get. Here are three ways I’ve found to cultivate creative thinking at work, all of which have led to big breakthroughs in my career.

Expand Your Frame 

When I was head of the Frito-Lay account at my ad agency, their Doritos brand had only one flavor: Nacho Cheese. Knowing they wanted to expand their offering, I took my team to the grocery store for inspiration. Instead of zeroing in on the chip aisle to see what other brands were doing, we expanded our frame, taking a stroll among the salad dressings. Talk about data visualization! Staring at the shelves, we quickly saw just how popular ranch dressing had become, and that sparked an idea: maybe ranch dressing would work as a chip flavor. We took the concept to Frito-Lay and our little field trip became the inspiration for Cool Ranch Doritos, one of Frito Lay’s biggest-selling and most profitable products.

When you look at what’s working for someone else and apply it to your own situation to create something new, it’s what I call “pattern thinking.” And it can only happen when you expand your frame of reference like we did by getting out of the office and into the salad dressing aisle. That’s why I also encourage leaders to be avid learners. Reading books and newspapers and magazines, visiting museums, talking to customers, and observing how people interact with your products, are all ways to expand your frame. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be open to it, giving your brain as many opportunities as possible to make valuable connections.

Take Time to Think

Here’s a fact: the more information you take in, the more time you need to process it. That’s called, well, “thinking”—and we don’t do nearly enough of it. When was the last time you spent an hour or more thinking deeply about a subject? If you can’t remember, it wasn’t recently enough. Too often we spend our days bouncing from one meeting to the next with no time in between to consider what we’re doing and whether it make sense. It feels like we’re being productive—but are we? If we never stop to think, there’s no way to know. (And maybe we’re even a little afraid to find out.) But if you want breakthrough ideas, you can’t just take the data and information you’re given at face value. You have to give yourself time to think about it. Look at what you have. Does it make sense? Which aspects are the most interesting? Is anything missing or unclear? What do you still not know? What don’t you understand? Who can you ask to clarify? What should happen next?

Make thinking time part of your workday. Block off your calendar, close your door, or get out of the office if it helps. And tell your team what you’re doing, so you’re modeling this essential behavior. Processing time is not downtime. It’s not lazy, and it’s not a luxury—it’s part of the creative process. And it’s the only way to have breakthrough ideas.

Now, I will warn you. There will be times when thinking feels like it’s leading nowhere—or like you’re banging your head against wall trying to come up with an idea. In that case, you really do need some downtime. And that’s also part of the creative process. That’s why lightbulb moments happen when we’re in the shower—or after a good night’s sleep. Our brains keep working on the problem, even after we clock out. So rest! And rest assured that thinking time makes money, too.

Think Like a Marketer 

Don’t get me wrong, data plays an important role in driving performance, too! What you choose to measure signals to your team what you care about. But how you interpret the data, and put it into context, is what inspires people to do something about it. And, once again, that takes some creative-thinking, or as I like to call it, “thinking like a marketer.” At Yum! we created the CHAMPS scorecard to measure customer satisfaction. When a store’s scores went up, even by a small percentage, the store manager would celebrate, thinking they were doing a good job. The problem was, they were celebrating the data, without considering its impact. Moving from 66 percent customer satisfaction to 68 percent was hardly the breakthrough performance we were looking for, because it wasn’t a difference customers could feel. So, Pat Murtha, the COO of Pizza Hut at the time, took some time to think and then did something creative. He put the CHAMPS scores into context, dividing the restaurants into three categories. The top 15 percent he labeled “Brand Builders”, the bottom 10 percent he labeled “Brand Destroyers”, and the majority in the middle became members of the “So-So Zone”. Yikes. Now the data meant something. No one wanted to be a Brand Destroyer. And the Brand Builders were duly motivated to protect their crowns. Those in the So-So Zone, who’d been congratulating themselves on incremental improvements, now saw their scores in a less positive light—and they felt embarrassed. By assigning emotional words to the scores, Murtha made the data meaningful.

I see why it might be tempting to assume that creative thinking can take a backseat in companies that are data-driven, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Data is only what we make of it—and “to make” is a creative act, best cultivated by leaders like us.

What ways have you found to foster creative thinking at work? Do you feel like you’re giving yourself time to think and expand your frame? How do you think like a marketer to make data more meaningful? What works for you? 

June 7, 2022