Originally published on Swiss Startup Factory

Jeremy Tai Abbett is one of the digital leaders and inspires ambitious organisations into realising the creativity required to thrive in a world of constant change. We met him as a Mentor of the Swiss Startup Factory for an interview.

You are known as one of the digital leaders who inspires and enables people and companies. How did you find your profession?

It’s about self-awareness, about what you as a person like to do and then working backwards from there. Design of course plays a role because I studied graphic design in the USA and interaction design in Italy. I also make it a point to be in situations where creativity is not just an event but a way of life.

How do you define creativity?

Ask ten different people how they define creativity and you’ll get ten different answers. That said, I define it as a series of unrelated events that, when brought together, create something new. This doesn’t mean creativity can only happen by chance but rather, creativity is making a conscious effort in bringing two different things together.

And what about innovation?

Innovation is taking the spark of creativity and then scaling it. So you need creativity for innovation, but you don’t need innovation for creativity.

Do you think that creativity is something you can be taught or you can learn?

You can definitely learn how to be creative. That being said, I think we are all inherently born creative. Think about growing up – as a child you are naturally curious as everything is approached with a beginner’s mind. This curiosity leads to action which then leads to creativity. So really, it’s a question of reconnecting with one’s own creativity.

How do you create a culture where people stay creative even if their business is based on routine?

If you think about the workplace – almost all of them are based on routine. Quite often it’s based on maximising profit for the shareholders. Anything outside the routine is not good for the company so creativity and routine are not bedfellows.

If you go to work and find that, on the whole, you are doing routine tasks with little creativity there’s a good chance that what you are doing can be done a lot better by a machine. You have to be vigilant in the choices you make today and being able to be creative within your work so you have a job tomorrow. Any job in the future that does not have a creative aspect will be automated.

How can you be creative in a big organisation? It really is a few things:

First, it’s having a feeling of trust – or better known in the workplace as psychological safety. The idea being: if we are in an organisation together and I feel that I can talk to you without being personally criticised than I’m more likely to ask questions and suggest ideas that spark new ideas. Creativity happens when people feel that they have a safe place to explore new ideas.

Secondly, it’s being able to follow your curiosity with a bias towards action. When curiosity is unlocked it’s quite natural to follow-up with a question. Companies that have empowered their people to put ideas into action are companies that understand that ideas are nothing without the ability to make them a reality.

Lastly, it’s about diversity. I think it’s a challenge to be creative if everybody looks the same, thinks the same and comes from the same background. Diversity is not only about gender, race, age, and background; diversity is also about living a life where diversity of influence is given a seat at the table.

Is routine a killer of creativity or even a business killer?

It depends on how you define routine. A monotonous routine means not thinking about a situation which can become mind-numbingly comfortable. Being creative is about approaching life with a beginner’s mind, being at times uncomfortable and asking questions. So, if you have a routine then typically you do not have to ask any questions because you know everything. But let’s say you get lost in your routine and end up outside your comfort zone by accident. This is when things become interesting and creativity is called upon. Yes, routine can kill creativity.

In one interview you said that changing perspective is how you come up with new ideas. Can you be more specific?

Of course. When we talk about creativity – it’s about following your curiosity, asking questions and following through with action. So on a very basic level you are sitting there with your back to the room and I am sitting here looking out into the room. So if we were to switch places then you would have a different perspective and that would open up your mind to experiencing a different point-of-view which would lead to different thoughts and ideas. In this case, perspective is obviously the physical but also meeting new people can change your perspective. That’s why I feel diversity is a huge factor – changing your perspective is physical but it’s also your mental and psychological perspective.

You were the Google Creative Evangelist. Why did you decide to quit Google?

I quit because I needed to get back to making things. I love inspiring people and facilitating workshops but even more so I like to make things. My strong desire to make things was one of the reasons I was offered a job at Google in the first place; I had been commissioned to create two physical objects that used some aspect of Google technology. One of these objects was a kinetic lamp that would change its vertical position and orientation based on my physical location. Afterwards, I had a follow-up with my contact at Google and was offered the job.

But it was quite a career booster for you, was it?

Google is an amazing company and even more amazing to work for. It’s been written that they get well over 2 million applicants a years which makes it harder to work at Google than to get into Harvard. I don’t know if that’s still true but, when I consider a role in a company the learning potential is more important for me than my career arc. That is really the criteria for any job – how much can I learn on the job, what is the culture to make that happen and what is my impact.

You said that we all have to be more like children to stay creative. What do you do to stay creative or where do you get your inspiration?

My number one source is my family. My partner is an artist and we have two kids, always testing the boundaries and trying things out so they keep me on my toes. But I think it’s also just being with people that are different to you – the diversity factor. Trying out new things. Really easy stuff – even just like listening to different music, going out with different friends or whatever it may be. I think getting outside my comfort zone and acting on my own curiosity with first principles thinking is how I stay creative.

So actually it is all about the everyday life and nothing special that you do for your inspiration although you are working with it every day?

I try to have a routine that is not so routine. So if I bike to work one day then I am going to take the bus or take a different route or jog or something different than to what I did before. Obviously, it’s good to have routine but I think it’s even more important to stay fresh and have a different perspective. It sounds easy, and it really is, but I think a lot of us get stuck in our own comfort zone. I think a lot of times we make plans but as you’ve probably heard, ‘life happens in between the plans that you make’ – being creative is a way of living and not necessarily an event.

Another statement of yours was that the biggest limiting factor is not technology but that it is the people in an organisation that are not used to questioning. What advice would you like to give to people who like to ask questions but are not allowed to?

Quit. I mean you pretty much have to quit. If you have a job where you spend the majority of your time, probably more time than at home, and you go there and you are unable to learn or grow at all and you feel it is just routine, you are going to become irrelevant anyway; some machine or someone that is cheaper will take your job. Also, I think if you do that you die a little bit every day. It sounds kind of kitschy but I feel that, going to work every day and doing the same thing, over and over again, is just not what life is about. But that’s just  my personal point-of-view.

This idea of work and new work is becoming more and more relevant as more of us have to consider what we’ll doing in an age of machine learning. In spite of what I’ve said about being creative at work, work also provides other benefits – one of them being a sense of community and camaraderie. Some people are okay with doing the 40 hours of routine work as along as they have a sense of being a part of a group. So, we should also think about what the future holds for the folks who find comfort in routine and don’t feel the need to be creative on the job.

Great companies understand that their people have to learn constantly. What is a great company for you?

I think a great company is one that gives autonomy to their employees to make the world a little better every day. A great company has defined values and principles which people believe in and is felt by the choices they make. A great company also understands that what they have achieved today is not a recipe for tomorrow. And lastly, a great company is people-centric, thrives because of the diversity of its workforce and is a place where people feel they are respected for their differences.

Jeremy Tai Abbett is an American designer, consultant and creative evangelist. He inspires corporations, conferences, and governments with his intimate story of creative leadership and the world’s transformation from digital to physical, private to public. His shared passion has been experienced as keynotes, workshops and collaborations throughout the world.

In 1996, Jeremy established the design agency Fork Unstable Media and was privileged to develop products and services for companies such as Nivea, Lufthansa, Daimler, and Wired Magazine. Jeremy also spent four years as Google’s Creative Evangelist, co-founded multidisciplinary studio Truth Dare Double Dare, and was a founding post-graduate student at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.

With well over half his adult life spent living in Europe, Jeremy currently resides in Hamburg, Germany with his wife, two boys and a retired pair of Persian cats.