SUMMER READS #4: The Runaway Species

February 21, 2019

This is the fourth and final article in our Summer Reads series. One article every Friday, summing up what we’re loving to read at the moment. If you’re yet to get started, take a read of article #1 here


By Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman

Image Source: Canongate 

Creativity is seen as the cornerstone of every successful business and challenger brand.  From developing breakthrough product innovations to fostering more dynamic, ideas-based work cultures, businesses are seeing it as critical to commercial success and differentiation. It is no surprise therefore that the market is replete with creativity consultants and books advising us on how best to unlock the elusive creative spark that resides within. 

These books are inspiring and interesting, but I’m not sure they have that much long-term utility – at least for me. Everyday life gets in the way of “being creative” and I’ve come to learn that I’m not creative because of one training session and that listicles urging me to work in cafes, write journals at 5am or meditate don’t help too much. I feel my creative sparks are more random flashes of brilliance rather than a well-honed skillset I’ve acquired over time. This also means I’m on and off – I have my good days and my bad days and sometimes my thinking is simply unremarkable. Thank goodness for my brilliant team and the occasional respondent who can pipe up with a colourful articulation on why they like bread packaging. If it wasn’t for them, my debriefs wouldn’t be half as sexy.

Image source: KQED

So, I’ve shelved the DIY manuals for the moment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and, after all, I am in the business of ideas. Enter “The Runaway Species”, by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman. Published in 2017, it was introduced to me by said creative team member before Xmas.  She was confident that I’d like it and I’m happy to report that I did. There are a few tips and tricks on how to be creative, but on the whole, Brandt and Eagleman angle the book away from being simply another handbook. Instead, they take us on a historical tour of the ways the human creative impulse has invigorated the worlds of art, business, music and literature. We are introduced to brilliant ideas, demonstrating an ingenuity that existed long before Amazon, Apple and Facebook notched up their billion-dollar valuations. Finally, we are presented with an illuminating perspective on what makes ideas stick, and it’s worthwhile summarising some of those that really stuck with me: 

1) Break, Bend, Blend 

Steve Jobs famously stated “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t actually do it”. Brandt and Eagleman echo this sentiment, claiming that ground breaking innovations don’t simply wash up on your doorstep, they are born from others’ ideas. For example, the iPhone was simply a tweaked version of a digital, portable music player invented by British inventor Kane Kramer, but with slight adjustments – the scroll wheel, sleeker materials, and better memory. 

Image source: CNBC 

2) Straddle the line between surprise and familiarity 

Humans are habit driven and loss averse, so if a new idea is in the too hard basket, we are happy to let it go. On the other hand, as a curious species, our brain is hardwired for ongoing learning, meaning we chase novelty. Brandt and Eagleman build on this, proposing that if innovations are too close to what has always worked (familiarity) they risk being left behind, but if they leap too far ahead (novelty) they may not find converts. For example, when Microsoft updated its software to Windows 8 it was criticised for going too far and its developers were fired. Meanwhile, Apple found itself under fire for playing things too safe. However, the authors do point out that ideas which may be ‘too far’ shouldn’t be relegated to the dustbin. 


3) Culture is everything 

This is where things get interesting. Seduced by the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra, businesses are churning out ideas without reflecting on whether or not people will actually follow them. Brandt and Eagleman put forward that ideas fly when they traverse the terrain of culture. Tapping into the zeitgeist and acknowledging local cultural truths brings relevance, encourages people to follow, and can generate an enduring fan base. In their words ‘novelty is insufficient, - what’s required is a resonance with society….”. If culture is indeed the ‘feeding ground’ of all ideas, as they claim, then Nikes Kaepernick campaign, for example, was simply a smart move – not a brave one. The evidence certainly speaks for itself. Through tapping into an issue with real cultural voltage, it connected deeply with its target audience and grew sales by 31% within the first week of launching.  

Image source: Unsplash 

Thankfully, this book isn’t just another consultant’s rulebook. It will intrigue the reader through introducing innovations which break convention, beyond those currently enjoying the hype show. It offers some guidance but shies away from suggesting that anyone can be the next Steve Jobs as long as they abide by the current dogmas of ‘creative practice’ (as an example: wake early, meditate, be agile and brainstorm with hula hoops). Finally, it broadens our understanding of what makes ideas really fly, pointing to the role of cultural relevance, deliberation and thoughtfulness, and harnessing the genius of those who came before us.  Brilliantly researched, this book is a must read for consultants who are fascinated by creativity but want more than the ‘how to’s’. Oh – and it also gives you great material to look culturally in touch at your next dinner party.