Pictionary is not just a game

Tom Kelley says the key to helping one's creative juices flow is to gain what he calls "creative confidence".
Tom Kelley says the key to helping one's creative juices flow is to gain what he calls "creative confidence". ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

It can help people gain creative confidence, says American marketing maven Tom Kelley

For many years, American marketing maven Tom Kelley ran a book club for interns of Ideo, the global design firm his older brother David founded in 1991 and whose headquarters are in San Francisco.

Ideo designed the world's first laptop and digital lifestyle giant Apple's first mouse.

More recently, among others, the Ministry of Health here engaged Ideo to communicate its Medi- Shield Life policy to all those on it and rethink financial counselling to give patients here and their families better control and peace of mind over their healthcare costs. Ideo also helped the Ministry of Manpower streamline and simplify the way it related to others.

The younger Mr Kelley, 60, would assign two among Ideo's 20 or so interns the same book to read, making it a total of 10 assigned books. After a month, all the interns had to report to him on how they had found the assigned book. The snag? Each would have to do so by drawing what he thought were the book's main ideas on a whiteboard - in front of Mr Kelley and the other interns.

People say, 'I can't do beautiful oil paintings. Who cares? Your job doesn't require you to create beautiful paintings. If you can bring new ideas to an old problem, then you are creative.


Among the interns was a Japanese from Harvard University, who was poor at sketching, and a Taiwanese from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, who drew beautifully.

Mr Kelley recalls: "The Japanese said what I've heard many times, that he's a business guy, but his drawing skills are child-like and so he is afraid people will think less of him although he knows he is smart."

The Taiwanese intern told Mr Kelley that he did not fancy going up to the whiteboard either.

When Mr Kelley asked him why, he replied: "When I go to the board, I have only about 10 seconds to draw something because every- one's impatient. That doesn't show them my ability so I'm nervous they will think I'm not as good an artist as I am."

To such a reaction, Mr Kelley quips: "Think of it as Pictionary!"

The main block to creativity, he stresses, is the fear of being judged by others, not the fear of failure per se. The key then to helping one's creative juices flow, he argues, is to gain what he calls "creative confidence".

It is the subject of his 2013 New York Times bestseller, Creative Confidence, which he co-authored with his brother David. Such confidence is about believing in the creative process, not egos.

"People say, 'I can't do beautiful oil paintings.' Who cares? Your job doesn't require you to create beautiful paintings," he points out. "If you can bring new ideas to an old problem, then you are creative."

For too long, he rues, those whose main job it was to be creative like, say, the Mad Men-like folk who created advertisements, considered themselves an elite.

But Mr Kelley believes everyone is creative and should not rein in his flair just because others might think less of him.

Take his colleague Jill Levinsohn, who has just completed a nine- month posting at Ideo's Singapore office. She used to work in an advertising agency and, like most people, thought that only certain people could create beauty.

But recently, in her spare time, Ms Levinsohn perfected the very hard to make "pinata" cookie, one that was donkey-shaped, multi- coloured and embedded with M&M chocolate candies.

She put photographs of these on Pinterest and went from an initial five followers to 1.8 million fans to date.

Mr Kelley says: "She now tells me her followers say she has a creative eye. And, suddenly, she had a different self-image and she is willing to take on tougher challenges."

That, he says, is the big win from having creative confidence and cites the groundbreaking research of Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, 90, who proved that once people change what they believe they are capable of, they are able to fulfil their full potential.

An alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley, Mr Kelley has a Japanese wife, Yumiko, and two children, son Sean and daughter Maya. Both his children are engineers.

Before he joined Ideo as its head of marketing, general manager and now partner focusing on Asia, he was a management consultant at Towers Perrin in the mid-1980s. His clients included Singapore Airlines.

Here are three ways in which he has found most useful in building creative confidence:

• Make big changes through little experiments: His good friend Jim Hackett was the president of the world's largest office furniture- maker Steelcase from 1994 to 2004. During much of that time, Mr Hackett and his colleagues did not use the open-concept cubicles they made, but enjoyed wood-panelled offices with nice views. To stave off a revolt among his senior managers, who loved their "acoustic privacy", Mr Hackett asked them to join him in sitting in Steelcase cubicles for six months, after which he would fix any grouses they had with that. He also retained their offices. "Now," Mr Kelley notes, "it would be very hard in that situation to say, 'Oh, boss, I'm not someone who could try that.'"

Today, he adds, everyone at Steelcase works out of Steelcase cubicles.

• Practise reverse mentoring: Get a younger colleague to meet you for lunch every second Friday for six weeks. At each lunch, he is to tell you all the new things he has observed in life and you can ask him anything. One of Mr Kelley's two reverse mentors, Mr Chris Flink, has been with him for 12 years.

"Having lunch three times over six weeks makes it easy for your mentor to say yes, and makes it easy for you to break it off if you've the wrong mentor," says Mr Kelley.

• Communicate by sketching out ideas: This, he says, is a cornerstone at Ideo because while most ideas are easy to grasp intellectually, they are not so easy to translate into action. Drawing it out for everyone eases the transition from something abstract to something tangible.

As to why he and his brother David wrote Creative Confidence, he says: "We are playing in the fourth quarter of our careers and besides making our clients more money, you start thinking about, as Steve Jobs called it, 'making a dent in the universe'."

• Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley and David Kelley is available in paperback for $23.54 with GST at MPH Raffles City and other major bookstores

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'Pictionary is not just a game'. Print Edition | Subscribe