How our brains can be nudged into thinking differently
Mick Mahoney, Creative Partner at Harbour Collective and co-author of The Creative Nudge, explains what prompted him to co-write his new book, how a 'nudge' is a simple but effective way to have a creative impact, and why it pays to be unreasonable.
What inspired you to write this book?
The belief that we are all born creative, and that most people have it knocked out of them from an early age. Creativity is something that we unlearn. Evolution, society, education, the workplace, life, all do a great job in helping us to unlearn it. They tell us how to think, how to behave, how to fit in. As a consequence, there is a mistaken belief that creativity is the preserve of a few, or exclusive to people with creative in their job title.
There is a mistaken belief that creativity is the preserve of a few, or exclusive to people with creative in their job title.
It’s a narrow view of creativity that limits many industries including our own, and promotes an unnecessary divide. We should all be in pursuit of creativity, in whatever form that takes for us to flourish individually and collectively. Promoting creativity to the broadest possible audience is in everyone’s best interests.
Above: The Creative Nudge, Simple Steps to Help You Think Differently, by Mick Mahoney and Kevin Chesters.
How did you approach writing as a duo?
My co-author Kev Chesters and I have quite an unusual working relationship in our day job at Harbour, insofar as we have blurred the divides of the strategic and creative process. So, basically, we approached the book in the same way. We had very different deliverables in writing the book, but we merged them and debated them at every stage. Overall, Kev remained responsible for the science and the facts and I was responsible for writing it all into a compelling narrative. But the planning out and organising of the key themes and sections we did on the wall, together, with lots of pieces of paper.
A nudge can be making things a little easier, a little simpler and, sometimes, a little more motivating.
The book is about 'nudges'; can you explain what you mean by a nudge and why they're helpful?
At its most basic, a nudge is a little change to our behaviour or thought patterns that can have a disproportionately large impact on an outcome. A nudge can be making things a little easier, a little simpler and, sometimes, a little more motivating. Nudges can often seem obvious but as humans we become such creatures of habit that we frequently need to be prodded, both metaphorically and physically, into waking up to the possibilities of the world around us. Nudges can be as simple as renaming or reframing things so that we think of them in a different, and more positive, way.
Above: The opening - and main - tenet of The Creative Nudge.
Creatives often have favourite places to think or where they feel comfortable working, but your book states that 'familiar territory is dangerous territory' when it comes to creativity; do you think that too many people are too comfortable?
It’s comforting to place yourself in familiar surroundings, think familiar thoughts and do familiar things. You often hear the phrase, ‘I know what I like, and I like what I know’. And in such a fast-moving and changing world, it’s understandable to feel this way; people are constantly under threat from change, and it can be tough to keep facing into it. But when it comes to creativity, avoiding change is a cardinal sin. It’s the worst of the worst. It’s Chapter 1 in the book of how not to be creative.
When it comes to creativity, avoiding change is a cardinal sin. It’s the worst of the worst.
Creativity no longer seems to be the advertising industry’s primary objective (with honourable exceptions, obviously). So, as a consequence, I would say that everything does feel a bit comfortable. It’s always a much easier day at the office if it’s not spent in the pursuit of something original.
Above: George Bernard Shaw was a champion of unreasonableness.
You also say that 'creativity lies in friction'; do you think the industry has lost some of its creative friction?
No question. Consensus is the cultural norm today. Creative friction is now mistaken for being difficult or unreasonable. Creatives need to realise that unless they are prepared to be unreasonable they won’t find anything fresh or original. Unreasonable people should be treasured. Everyone should aspire to be unreasonable. We love unreasonable people because they have a belief in something – a passion, a vision of a better something, the courage to challenge conventions. George Bernard Shaw clearly thought highly of them: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Polarisation is a good thing for brands. Better to have fewer people who love you than more people who are ambivalent.
One section of the book looks at creativity on a scale of one to 10, saying that 'six is the evil child of fear and cowardice'; does advertising too often settle for six, and why aren't people/brands aiming more for top marks?
It too often settles for six because of the number of people involved in the process who think that they need to input to validate their jobs. It ends up being something that doesn’t offend anyone. Polarisation is a good thing for brands. Better to have fewer people who love you than more people who are ambivalent. There’s also a lot of over-reaching in most agencies, driven by the need to survive. That means they are often creating work in a discipline that they aren’t experts in, which mostly leads to pretty ordinary outcomes.
Above: Mick Mahoney, Creative Partner at Harbour Collective and co-author of The Creative Nudge.
Confirmation bias is touched on a lot in the book; how guilty are we - as individuals and as an industry - of this tendency?
I don’t think that it’s an ad industry issue particularly. I think that it’s an every industry issue. Because it’s an every person issue. And the real issue is that we don’t realise we’re doing it.
I despair every year at the ridiculous pantomime of scam ads for awards. Honestly, who benefits? Certainly not the industry.
You touch on 'consensual validation' [preferring people who think like us]; how big a barrier is that to a more diverse industry?
Huge. Because, as a general rule, it’s a subconscious act. We have to make a decision to recruit people who think differently to us, have different reference points, approach issues from different stand points. And if we don’t, we will always have a collective cultural blind spot. It’s a blind spot that can be seen so clearly at the moment. The industry has been speaking to itself for too often now. The disconnect between what the industry applauds and what the public do, has been growing for some time. It’s partly why the popularity of ads has sunk below the waves. I just despair every year at the ridiculous pantomime of scam ads for awards. Honestly, who benefits? Certainly not the industry. It just compounds the truth that advertising has lost touch with its audience.
Above: Embracing the new and being uncomfortable is the essence of creativity.
Each of the nine chapters looks at a different behaviour and offers nudges to increase creativity; which nudge would you say is the most important, or most effective?
The first chapter is the most important: If you know what you’re doing, stop doing it. The very essence of creativity is to embrace the new. New ideas. New concepts. New people. New ways of approaching familiar things. Sticking with what you know is never going to lead to a new outcome or fresh thinking.
A third of all car accidents happen within a mile of home – the area that we know best. When we’re comfortable, our brains switch off.
A funny thing happens when we stick to what we know. While we might become faster and more efficient, we actually get lazy. Dangerously lazy. In fact, a third of all car accidents happen within a mile of home – the area that we know best. When we’re comfortable, our brains switch off, turning us instantly into creative wet blankets. To demonstrate, try counting the F’s in this sentence:
Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.
3? 4? NO. 6!
Well done if you got them all. But chances are you didn’t. That’s because we’re all so familiar and comfortable with reading that we often miss words like ‘of’. So, what else have you been missing?
Basically, if you don’t start with Chapter 1, then the rest of the book is academic.