It's all about the proactive strategic momentum, stupid

November 24, 2006

Business consultant John Rainford hauls Gary Day out of his comfort zone in a passionate effort to get him thinking outside the box

John Rainford likes strawberries. He has them on his yellow tie and his business card is in the shape of a half-eaten one.

Why? Because he comes from Liverpool, the same place as The Beatles, among whose many hits was Strawberry Fields Forever . The song broke new ground when it was released in 1967 and that's what John hopes to do by making companies think more creatively. I meet him outside Birmingham New Street station. Concrete, dark and packed with cars coughing out carbon monoxide, it looks like the entrance to the underworld. John is wearing the sort of pinstripe suit that would get him a part in the next Martin Scorsese film.

He bundles me into the front seat of his Espace and drives to Birmingham University's Business School, where he is running a two-week course for MBA students, Managing Creativity to Gain Competitive Advantage. It's the kind of course that is ever more in demand as universities and business converge. Over coffee, John explains what the course title means. Too many businesses are reactive. They need "to create a mindset of opportunistic awareness and use creative diagnostic tools to form a proactive strategic momentum for success". I nod. Can he give me an example? Yes. His wife found some ants in their kitchen and decided to drown them. But the ants were having none of it. They instantly organised themselves into a floating ball, rotating it so that each one got the chance to breathe. I want to ask if the ants weren't really being more reactive than proactive, but the suit still worries me.

John is a business and innovation consultant and has run workshops not just for big companies such as Unilever, Boots and Lloyds Bank, but also for the world's leading scientists in America and Holland. The white coats are "hard work", he complains. "They want an intellectual justification for what I am doing." Which is, again? For the second time John tries to make me see the light. "It's all about releasing creativity." And how do you do that? He shows me some pictures. A dolphin leaping in the clouds. A man walking on water. An astronaut buying a McDonald's on Mars. Of each one he asks me, "is it possible?" I look at the dolphin and feel like one of my own students when asked for a response. Time passes. John puts me out of my misery. "One person said that if you threw a dolphin out of a plane then the first picture is indeed possible."

John admires the teaching style of the charismatic Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989). So he too makes his students stand on their desks. "Desks are an impediment to learning," he says, "a manifestation of the rules and regulations that keep the institution intact." Lecturers stop him in the corridor to shake his hand when they hear what he has done. Health and Safety want him for questioning. Another of John's techniques derives from early Freud, though he is astonished to learn that. Freud called it the "talking cure". Basically, patients free associate round their problem, and by discerning the pattern in their apparently random phrases, Freud was able to get them to confront the source of their troubles and so make them disappear. John gives an instance of how it works in business. Employees of a Welsh firm that makes solar panels gathered at the foot of Snowdonia to explore their inner marketing person. He asked them to choose words from a dictionary and they all picked ones relating to food. Not because it was coming up to lunchtime but because they all disliked having to cook for each other on a regular basis. The reaction was one of amazement. Each person thought they alone were fed up with the arrangement but, no, everyone was. The technique was a success. Freud shouldn't have abandoned it. John says it's an example of how creativity can lead to "collective consciousness". And he speaks of this experience in almost religious terms.

"Something miraculous is born." Hamdi Arabi Derkawi, a convert who did the course last year, nods in agreement. "It means you have more ideas for everything." John continues. "We're ahead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is only now beginning to study the phenomenon. They come to me."

I get a chance to see how all this works in action by attending a class. John begins by asking students, mostly from China and the Far East, if they remember what the comfort zone is. They do. It's something they have to leave. We are invited to walk up to the flip chart and draw a picture of competition. Someone draws a castle, someone else a chessboard. John asks us to clap each effort. Then he gives us a real life problem. How can we boost the sales of an innovative water valve that can be switched off instantly if there is a leak? We are divided into two groups and despatched to different rooms. Our task is to list all the issues, put each one on a Post-it and then stick them on the outer rings of what John calls an "innovation matrix" but which actually looks like the molecular structure of Buckminsterfullerene. The students are tired, and conversation drifts to life in China. But everyone is enlivened in the second part when John throws seemingly arbitrary words - competition, peace, war, aquarium - into the room to stimulate them to a new awareness of the problem.

Next day, John receives appreciative e-mails. He created "a great atmosphere". The students felt "energised". John is good. Very good. Book him. Like The Beatles, he reminds us that "living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see". His passion and enthusiasm fire up students who have been in seminars and lectures for six hours. That's no mean feat.

John is keen to emphasise that his work depoliticises organisations, that it collapses hierarchies so everyone can see differently. "Think outside the box." I forgot to ask if that meant outside the box of the market. But maybe that's "nothing to get hungabout".

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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