11 Creative-Thinking and Problem-Solving Tips for Financial Marketers

Retail banking needs innovation and creative thinking as much as any industry, if not more. Here's a guide with 11 tips to help bank and credit union marketers sharpen their creativity skills.

Banking is not known for being the most creative of industries. And one of the perils of working in a single vertical (retail financial services) is stale, repetitious thinking. After you’ve developed 43 different auto loan promotions in your career, it can be a little tough to come up with number 44 …and 45 …and 46.

Indeed you’d be hard pressed to find an industry with a worse reputation for stifling creativity than banking. But the marketing of financial services requires just as much innovation and creativity as in any another industry, if not more. But how can innovative problem-solving this possible in such the stuffy, stodgy, button-down world of banking?

When folks think about “creative people,” they often have visions of a pierced 20-something ad designer staring out a window after blazing a fat joint on their lunch break. ”They just sit there, doing nothing.” From the outside, the creative process can certainly feel mysterious, like some dark art limited to only a chosen few. But being creative is innately human. We are all wired to be inventive; it’s an instinct we all possess to one degree or another. And the good news is that creativity is a skill we can all master.

The first step is to understand the process. Whether you’re trying to craft a slogan, come up with a new deposit product, write a jingle or develop a theme for next month’s ad campaign, almost all creative problems are tackled with the same four discrete phases:

  1. Information – Saturate your mind with everything you can find on the subject. It’s nearly impossible to solve any problem in an information vacuum. Information is brain food, the raw material that fuels creative output.
  2. Incubation – Creative solutions almost never come instantly. You need to digest and distill all the information you’ve consumed, and this takes time. It’s best to not rush the creative process, because the more time you allow ideas to percolate, the better and more plentiful your ideas will be. At the very least, you should sleep on it overnight.
  3. Inspiration – This is the ah-ha moment you’ve been waiting for. After filling your brain with information and letting it roll around a while, something you think of, or remember, or see, or hear sparks an idea.
  4. Illustration – An idea has no value if you can’t convey it. Many times, the success or failure of a creative solution hinges on how well its creator can articulate it. There can be many ways to express a single concept (visually, mathematically, metaphorically, etc.). You need to work on finding the best way to communicate each idea you have.

1. Einstein’s Paper Clip

Here’s a simple creativity test. Name as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip. The average person may come up with ten, perhaps even 20 or 30 different answers. But geniuses like Einstein can come up with literally thousands. Why? Because they shed arbitrary rules and dismiss all assumptions. People like Einstein ask questions like, “What if the paperclip was the size of a jumbo jet? Or only two microns small? Or made of glass? Or made of light? They don’t assume the paperclip has to be an inch long and made of steel.

When faced with a problem, Michael Michalko, a best-selling creativity expert, says we will typically think about it in terms of similar problems we’ve encountered in the past. We try to identify something in our past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education or work that I could use to solve this problem?” Most people will develop solutions based on past experiences. But Michalko says this kind of thinking is limiting.

In contrast, Michalko says when geniuses are confronted with a problem, they ask, “How many different ways can I look at it?” “How many different ways can I solve it?”

Key Insight: If you only rely on what you’ve been taught — what you think you know — you’ll always struggle developing innovative solutions.

2. Half of 13

Okay, now that your mind is all lubed up with Einstein’s paperclip, let’s try it out: What is half of 13? How many creative answers can you come up with? Most people get stuck on 6.5. Mathematically, 13 is a prime number, half of which is 6.5 (or expressed fractionally as 6-1/2). But what else?

What’s half of 13? When you approach the problem creatively instead of mathematically, there is almost an infinite number of possible answers.

It can be tempting to dismiss a problem by convincing yourself that all the good ideas are taken — that all the ideas worth doing have already been done by someone else. Just remember “half of thirteen,” then think about all those auto brands who keep finding one new way after another to advertise their cars — even though the industry has plowed through tens of thousands of ideas.

Key Insight: Remember there are always a new, creative solutions, even to old and familiar problems.

3. Innovation is a Volume Business

Truly creative people will admit that most of their ideas aren’t very good. You aren’t going to hit a home run every time. Indeed Thomas Edison confessed to 10,000 failures before finding success. And it took a team of four copywriters to come up with the famous ad slogan “Got Milk?” Four people for two words?? Think about how many other ideas do you think they discarded before finding gold? Hundreds? Thousands perhaps?

Key Insight: The only way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

4. Explain the Problem to an Outsider

With any problem, one of the first things you should do is find its most simple expression. How can you boil the problem down to its most basic level? It’s easier to come up with a solution to a simple problem than a complex one.

One of the best ways to distill a problem is to explain it to an outsider, someone unfamiliar with it — a layperson, or co-worker, or friend. If you have a loving, supportive and patient spouse, try explaining your problem to them. They may ask a bunch of silly questions, and they may offer a lot of inappropriate solutions, but through this process you’ll find a deeper level of clarity about what you are trying to accomplish.

How would you describe your problem to a six-year old? Keep working until you’ve reduced your problem down to a sentence or two. Ideally, you’re shooting for 5-10 words.

Key Insight: Talk through your problems with others. Always take the opportunity to explain your creative challenges to anyone who will listen. It isn’t their response you’re necessarily interested in. It’s the simple articulation of your problem that you’re really after. Forcing yourself to explain your problem many times to many different people will crystallize your focus.

5. Geniuses Make Their Thoughts Visible

According to Michalko, the creativity expert, one of the main reasons people like DaVinci and Galileo are regarded as geniuses hinges largely on how they expressed their ideas: visually. Galileo, for instance, revolutionized science by making his thoughts visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings while his contemporaries used conventional mathematical and verbal approaches. Indeed the entire Renaissance period was marked by an explosion of creativity tied intimately to the recording and conveying of new knowledge.

Creative practitioners usually develop a skill in visual and spatial abilities affording them the flexibility to communicate new ideas and information in different ways. Even though Einstein is often thought of as a physicist and mathematician, he always found it necessary to express his ideas in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically.

Perhaps you’ve tried explaining something to someone before and they just couldn’t quite grasp what you were saying. ”Do you need me to draw you a picture?” Yes! That’s exactly what people need.

Key Insight: Humans are deeply visual. We digest and respond to information best when it is presented in a visual context.

6. Write Down All Your Ideas

This isn’t for posterity. The reason you need to write down all your ideas is so you can flush them out of your system. If you don’t transfer all your ideas from brain to paper, you risk getting creative constipation. You wind up feeling stuck because your mind keeps returning to the same ideas over and over.

Key Insight: Write down everything, even the bad ideas — especially the bad ideas. Purge that stuff out of your system so you can move on.

7. Keep a Pen and Paper With You

This may sound stupid or obvious, but it is neither. Disciplined problem-solvers are always sure to have a pen and paper handy. Why? Because you never know when or where a solution to your problem may come to you. It could be in the elevator, or in the bathroom, or in bed in the middle of the night. Just because you’ve blocked out 1p-3p on Tuesday to work on your problem doesn’t mean that’s when you’ll generate all your answers. The human mind is a funny thing, and it doesn’t like to let go of sticky riddles. You’ll often find yourself pondering your problem in the most unlikely of places. Make notes before you lose your train of thought, because you never know when you could be interrpute… “Hey Bob, you got those TPS reports finished yet?”

Key Insight: It’s tough to write down all your ideas when you don’t have anything to write with, or on.

8. Maintain a Creative Warehouse

It’s not like the loan promotion you did last quarter is going to be the last one you will ever do. With marketing financial services, there is a lot of repetition. On the downside, this repetitiveness gets old and boring. But on the upside, that means you can anticipate the creative challenges you’ll be facing in the future. If you’re keeping pen and paper handy, and diligently recording all your ideas for each creative project you face, you can begin building a warehouse of reference material for future projects. Create files for creative ideas: “Auto Loans,” “CD Promos,” “Community Events,” “Strategic Workshop Sessions,” “Annual Reports,” etc.

Key Insight: The next time you have to solve a recurring problem, think about how valuable it would be to have a folder you’d been stuffing ideas into for the last five years. Get started, now.

9. Combination is the Key to Innovation

If you’re holding out for that big lightning bolt or major eureka moment, you could be waiting a long time. Most innovations aren’t wholly original ideas. Unique innovations that transform the financial industry — like ATMs in the 80s and the internet in the 90s — are few and far between. Innovation is most often a process of fusion or evolution. Someone looks at someone else’s idea and says, “Hey, I like that. How can I make it better?” Or someone looks at a new technology, or what someone else is doing, and says, “I wonder how I can make that work for me.” This is how 99% of percent of innovation works in any industry.

Key Insight: “Innovation-through-combination” is easiest when you respect the steps in the creative process — (1) Fuel your brain with as much relevant information as possible. (2) Write all your ideas down. (3) Maintain a library for past ideas.

10. Get Away From the Office

There are two primary reasons you need to do this. First you want to eliminate distractions and interruptions. More importantly, you need to get out of your comfort zone. Take a walk, go for a drive, stroll the beach, visit a bookstore or café. There’s a side benefit to this as well: it’s feels good to steal away from the office for a while, and having a positive mental attitude will help you solve your problem more easily.

Many people feel more creative when travelling, whether for either business or pleasure. Why? When you’re in strange and unfamiliar settings, your senses are heightened. You notice and pay attention to new things, any of which might serve as inspiration for the problem at hand.

Getting out of the office can be particularly helpful when you’re stuck on a problem. It can be pretty frustrating spending hours, days, even weeks on a problem with no success. That’s when it’s time to hit the gym, chop some wood or engage in some other physical activity that helps you blow off steam.

Key Insight: Familiar settings lead to familiar solutions, while fresh environments foster fresh thinking.

11. Brainstorming Sessions

Some people really love brainstorming sessions. Others don’t, and prefer working independently to avoid “group think.” If you’re going to have a brainstorming session, you should follow some basic guidelines.

  • Group Size – Experts recommend keeping groups between two and ten, with four to seven being ideal.
  • Appropriateness – Some problems lend themselves to brainstorming sessions better than others. Highly technical and complex problems aren’t suited well for larger groups. The simpler the problem, the more people you can invite to participate.
  • Suspend Judgment – When ideas are brought forth, no critical comments should be allowed. Criticism is like pouring weed killer on the creative process, so qualitative evaluation should be reserved for later. There are no “bad ideas.” In fact, there should be several ideas in every session that are so off-the-wall that they make the group laugh.
  • Quantity – The whole point of a brainstorming session is to generate a lot of ideas. Don’t dwell on any single idea with a bunch of discussion. Stay focused on idea creation. Some experienced brainstormers fix a quota, committing to 50 or 100 ideas before agreeing to quit the session.
  • Write It All Down – Everyone’s ideas should be written on a board or butcher paper so the group can see them. Ideally, your scribe should be a non-participant in the brainstorming session, since it’s hard to be thoughtful and creative and write down everything all at the same time.

Key Insight: There are pros and cons to brainstorming sessions, just don’t use them as a crutch to avoid doing your own creative dirty work.

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