Tim Cronin is Senior Vice President for Wholesale and Product Development for Allen Edmonds, an American men’s shoe and apparel company. Tim’s career has included leadership positions with premier sporting goods, apparel and footwear business including Levis, Wilson Sporting Goods, Frank Shorter, Rawlings, Cutter and Buck. He is known for his creative and strategic approach to product design and production, management as well as sales and marketing. Tim and I have been colleagues for more than 25 years. His thinking is always creative and inspirational so I know that his ideas and insights on creativity and business would be beneficial to share here.
1. How important is creativity in business?
It provides the structure and method for applying creativity to strategic decisions. My creative methodology is to try to get two to three solutions for any problem or opportunity. This allows you to pursue multiple options simultaneously and eventually see which one wins out across a range of criteria. One option is to pursue the same approach and never change. That’s doing the same thing which doesn’t breed creativity. The second option is looking at the problem or opportunity with a new view. The third could be an opposite view of the status quo or a completely new view. If you are using the same tool to do the same job, you will get the same results which are usually not creative solutions. To really stimulate product creativity, it is valuable knowing the pulse of your market and interpreting it positively for your brand. I have studied some competitive brands and their efforts are not directed by the market and their products and presentation looks like a chaos and literally a yard sale and they essentially stand for nothing. To be effective strategically and creatively, you also must have assure the ideas meet your brand promise and address key market trends.
2. How do you assure creativity in your business now?
We start by acknowledging that creativity is an advantage for all your products. We then evaluate all specific products, prices and categories in shoes and now in apparel. For shoes, we have evaluated all price points, products and color code them by seasons and units sold, and use this guide to understand what the market is saying to us. We feel that it is important to have broad brand portfolio, and not everything can be a certain price point or even similar designs. We emphasize being cognizant of our customers’ needs and the dynamic marketplace. Most important, we have a laser focus on the competition, what they are doing and how they might be interpreting the market effectively or ineffectively. We use trend services from around the world to tell us what is happening and trending in local markets and then try to interpret them for our business. We match our Allen Edmonds’ brand, maintaining its promise and especially assuring a product’s relevance. Some brands can rest on their laurels but quickly lose relevance, and eventually market share. Our creative and other systems are designed to stay very relevant.
3. Has the importance of creativity changed?
No. Other companies are more aware of creativity’s value as watershed companies have literally established new markets based on creativity. FedEx changed the world’s expectations. It instilled the perception that everything could and should be done faster. So instant gratification has become a problem and an opportunity. Steve Jobs’ creativity focus produced huge leaps over such stalwarts like IBM and Microsoft. There were other big guys competing in PDAs and laptops, phones (e.g. Motorola, Blackberry and Palm) whose lack of creativity compromised their business. Apple’s I-phone drove market changes and creativity was at the centerpiece of its strategy. The company changed the game for them and other businesses. Like those innovators, we are constantly monitoring and evaluating trends and creating new products that reflect them. For example, our Neumok shoe has a softer, unlined structure and was a risk for us in colors and structure. It is colorful and not a typical staid brown shoe. Knowing men are not early adopters of fashion, we looked around and saw other influences on men’s business and personal lives and assessed how we can reflect that in a new line of footwear. We saw them using softer and unstructured briefcases, iPad cases, etc. Our Neumok fit that emerging trend, and has driven its success.
4. What role does technology play in influencing creativity?
It does so in a couple ways. First, it influences how quickly product can get to market. Technology gets products off our minds and onto paper and to the factory production faster. Today, there is an advantage for becoming faster to market, and technology accelerates that strength. Consider that 30 years ago we would fax a design or sample to internal groups and to our customers to solicit their input. That process could take weeks and months. Now we can use Skype to problem solve and share designs in collaboration using photos and then quickly factor innovations into our sales and production in a matter of a few days. Technology builds awareness and excitement greater or better than sketchbooks. Without this speed to market, it is challenging to stay creative. Second, technology allows us to be more precise in product development. With shared drive and email access, you can send a new design to key customers almost instantly. Typically, we have two product launches in February and August. Products are being presented in either of those months and then being shipped in the following month. But now, if we create something in the interim, we can get feedback instantly and literally send and get information on a new product in minutes. It’s kind of like a Blair Witch Project meets business. This technology accelerated capacity can be especially beneficial when building our relationships with smaller customers, who we can assess so much more effectively and efficiently with technology.
5. What is your secret to being creative?
Despite what people think, you can train yourself to be more creative. I came from a creative family and we were encouraged to take a different look at the world and not accept “what it is” but “what it can be.” As such, I learned that you can be creative, taking risks in the simplest ways. For instance, you can be more creative in laying out your desk. I am a fan of Edward de Bono. I read early his book Lateral Thinking – Creativity Step by Step. He makes creativity a game and encourages thinking differently. For example, what if you played checkers differently and had to try to lose as many pieces as possible first. Or you can use your left hand to do something differently one day and stimulate new parts of your brain. De Bono also wrote Six Thinking Hats in which he suggests that those in a company assume a different role and approach a problem wearing six different hats. For example, an accountant would have to wear a salesman, a marketer, an engineer or production manager’s hat when approaching a problem or opportunity. As the saying goes, if the only tool you use is a hammer, you see the world as full of nails. The six hats approach opens possibilities for screwdrivers, drills and even wrenches.
6. How important is creativity to embracing change and the future?
As Heraclitus said, “the only that is constant is change.” So you must make a commitment to never getting stuck. If you are in your mid to late 50s and are “leaving technology to those young people,” you deserve to be humiliated. You might as well surrender because you will become irrelevant and at severe risk at compromising your role and responsibilities. Change isn’t a four-letter word. Your interest and willingness to change can be your greatest asset no matter your experience or age. It is important, even critical, to continue to grow and not be afraid to grow. Think about your brain as a muscle. It’s like what Tony Horton and PX 90 do with physical muscles, your brain will benefit from muscle confusion and become stronger mentally when your use different creativity methods. Eventually, you will gain by making creativity part of your every day professional and personal lives.
7. What do you say to those who feel they will fail at being creative?
Failing means being alive and means taking calculated not reckless risks. As Thomas Edison said about creating the light bulb after 10,000 attempts, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As they say, you have to try something new. After all, 100% of the putts that come up short don’t go in. You have to be willing to fail to come up with something creative.
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