“Therapy pig” theory: How to get more creative with your business

Every month at San Francisco Airport, a tutu-wearing pig called Lilou wanders about, amusing and entertaining passengers. Sometimes she wears a tutu, other times a pilot’s cap. She plays a toy piano, does twirls and even bows to appreciative onlookers.

However, this is not a story about the now famous “therapy pig” of SF airport, as cute as she is. It’s about the thinking that led to a little trotter like her delighting anxious and weary passengers.

Let’s start with a moment of honesty: not many of us would have conjured up the idea of disrupting airport drudgery and stress with a small pig bedecked in tutu or miniature pilot’s cap. It’s a creative solution to a common problem we’ve all felt (i.e. it’s not simply adding another duty-free store on top of the existing 20).

While it’s undeniably valuable, creativity isn’t always associated with hard-nosed, street-smart business folk and entrepreneurs. But maybe it’s time it should.

Forget original thought

Let’s take a decidedly uncreative approach and look up the dictionary definition for “creativity”:

the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.

Though dry, it seems like a good definition. Lilou is a great example of transcending the traditional ways we might help harried, hurried masses at an airport.

But there’s a simpler way to describe what creativity is.

In short, it’s all about connections.

Maria Popova, respected writer and blogger, labels it perfectly: combinatorial creativity (or as I like to call it, “therapy pig” theory).

Creativity isn’t about summoning completely original ideas from the ether. It’s about making new connections between existing concepts.

Popova’s metaphor for this? Think of this like Lego: the more building blocks we have (and in different shapes, sizes and colours), the greater our scope to connect and create.

More (and less) than just “Eureka!”

DISCLAIMER: As a copywriter, creativity isn’t an optional extra. Joining dots to form an intriguing, attention-grabbing idea is a big part of what we do. However, this creativity doesn’t necessarily translate into everyday business. Outside of writing, I’m an organised, structured type and creativity struggles to get a look in.

My mini “contra deals” when I first ventured into copywriting (exchanging business advice for website copy) was a simple, not-particularly-imaginative solution. A tutu-wearing pig in an airport is certainly novel, but it’s certainly not a world-changing idea.

And that’s the point. When you play with Lego, you can spend an entire day building the epic Medieval Castle (or Pirate Fortress, as I preferred) or the 15-piece car you put together in 5 minutes. Grand problems solved by “Eureka!”-shrieking moments are fantastic. But the more common, “garden variety” problems we solve in new and novel ways make just as big a difference to ourselves, our business and how we creatively tackle future challenges. As neuropsychologist Roger Sperry put it, “ideas cause ideas”.

Bring forth your business creativity

All that theory is well and good. The big question is: how do we use it to help address our “find more customers”, “the main PC just blew up” or “that won’t fit in our budget” problems?

Beyond Brainstorming

Now, before you go… “oh, please – not more of this ‘brainstorm it out’ guff”, hear me out!

Divergent thinking is a process you use to find ideas by exploring dozens of different possibilities. It just so happens that brainstorming is one of those activities that helps promote divergent thinking.

As one guide puts it, you want to “generate lots and lots of options before you evaluate them”. Here’s a couple of ways to get going with it:

  • Go crazy: start with ideas like “what if we gave customers a free badge if they spend $10”, but don’t stop there. Fire up your imagination. Get weird. Really weird, if you have to.
  • Combine & conquer: take two ideas (that may or may not be associated) and mix them in different ways. For example, can you think of a way a baby might be able to help out around the house?
  • Map it out: a personal preference of mine, mind mapping is hugely popular and for many people, a much more effective way of stimulating their thinking caps in a different direction.

But remember: don’t judge your ideas as they arrive (which we often do). Need a raccoon, five chocolate sponge cakes and a fire hose for a particular brainwave? Doesn’t matter, jot it down. Then, walk away and evaluate your ideas later with a more critical mindset.

Stress yourself (in the right way)

You’re probably unsurprised to hear that stress will stifle your creativity.

What might surprise you is that not all stress is bad for your creativity glands.

In fact, there’s a type of beneficial stress (otherwise known as “challenge stressors”) which can help you generate new, novel ideas to solve problems. These stressors can include things like a “just right” workload (not too much or too little), different tasks or responsibilities, and reasonable deadlines.

The bad stress — called “hindrance stressors” — do exactly that: reduce and crimp your ability to get creative in your job or business.

Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in…

As much as we’d love to sit and wait for the lightning strike of inspiration, problems don’t tend to sit there patiently for us. Nor do customers, employees or most other parts of a business.

And sometimes, getting busy and immersing ourselves in problems can be the perfect place to unearth new ideas. As Pablo Picasso put it: “inspiration exists, but it has to find us working”.

… but take some time out too

Having just said that work is the antidote to a bare creativity cupboard, we’re going to kind of contradict ourselves.

Giving yourself time to ponder a problem can be an equally effective idea generator.

Starting the day with a short meditation, taking a break to journal or free write, or just spending 5 to 10 minutes at the end of a long one quietly reflecting can all help your thinking. That means your brain becomes more receptive and able to form those valuable, problem-solving, “how did I not see that before” connections.

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What problems are you facing in your business right now? How can you apply “therapy pig” theory to them and find fresh ideas you’d never have considered?


About the author: Dean Mackenzie

Dean is a freelance copywriter trained in direct response methods that help businesses sell more. Most of his work centres on landing pages, emails, websites and sales pages.

He also enjoys a jolly good cup of tea and speaking about himself in the third person. You can find him (or rather his site) over at Dean Mackenzie Copywriting or take a gander at his LinkedIn profile.

This article is a guest post originally published for Copywriter Collective.