Creative Careerist: Paul Williams

About the Creative
Paul Williams spent the past 20 years building marketing, branding, and customer-experience strategy for The Disney Company, the Aramark Corporation, and Starbucks Coffee Company.

He founded Idea Sandbox in 2005 driven by his passion to help others create remarkable ideas. He blends the skills and lessons he’s learned through the years to build a sandbox–an idea sandbox. He helps brands solve challenges, grow their brand, think-up remarkable ideas, and create innovation.

What does an average day look like for you in your creative career?
I play in the Idea Sandbox … I help people think up remarkable marketing ideas to help their businesses grow. While I call myself a creative problem-solver, I’m really a creative situation-resolver. Helping clients take advantage of opportunities, address challenges and solve problems.

I launched Idea Sandbox in 2005 after a nine-year career at Starbucks Coffee. As we all experience in organizations where there is a sales cycle, when you have to think up a new, creative approach to the holiday consumer promotion each year, and they have to be better and different than the past 30 years, you have to find ways to think different. Frustrated, I began to research and study better methods for meeting facilitation, strategy building, brainstorming, etc. I found I was good at drawing ideas out of other people. I was good at taking concepts and systems apart, examining and improving the parts, and putting them back together. I decided I wanted to do this full-time! While Starbucks didn’t have a position available for this type of job, they did have a budget for contractors. So, I quit Starbucks and immediately started full-time strategy and brainstorming work.

I even built for Starbucks—housed within the main offices in Seattle—a CreativityLab. A room dedicated to creative thinking and brainstorming. As cool as a company Starbucks was, the workstations were fairly boring. Just tan cubicles. Having a room with bright wall colors, non-fluorescent lighting, a sound system, comfy couches, wifi and whiteboards was innovative. Sadly, I recently found out the bright wall colors were re-painted tan and the comfy furniture replaced again by a long boardroom table.

Now, I spend most of my day working with clients … helping them progress on their projects. I spend time hand-crafting strategy sessions to meet a specific client need—a new name, their 2013 strategic plan, or a way to better engage their customers.

How did you get to where you are now in your career?
I’ve spent the past 20-plus years having fun working hard. I’ve always tried to keep that spirit I had when I was a kid with me. Try to make things an adventure. Kids are great asking “why not?” and wondering “if.” This deliberate immaturity has come in handy.

While some say daydreaming is a waste of time, I see it as a competitive advantage!

Well, I’ve always had the notion that I’m in business for myself—even when working with a full-time employer. This always helped me to look out for my own career. When I wasn’t growing—doing betting this year than last year—I knew I had to create change.

I call this “comping yourself.” It is a term retail stores use. They measure performance by comparing this year’s sales to last years—comparable sales. When a store does better than the prior year, you say it is “comping.”

I recommend everyone try to comp themselves using personally important measures: Learn more, more challenges, more responsibility or more salary.

What key moments, decisions or circumstances brought you here?
Since I was a little kid, I had always been labeled creative and artistic. I remember Mom putting a crayon drawing of a fire truck on the fridge when I was real little. Then in grade school I won a poster contest with the headline and appropriate sketch: “Matches don’t have safety caps, keep them away from children.” Won a $10 savings account at the local bank for that! (Smart bank.)

Then through high school and college, I drew a comic strip for my local newspaper in Illinois. There was even a two-year period where I drew strips daily—six comic strips a week. Receiving my first semester’s grades at university put a stop to the daily comic strips.

Like anyone, reinforcement in a skill area made me want to focus on it and refine my skills that much more.

Hundreds of comic strips later, I had great technique, but realized I was only okay artistically. I was more creative than I was artistic. That’s fine … it is important to know the difference between your strengths and superpowers.

As I got older, I discovered that being artistic and creative means you’re a problem-solver. Figuring out how to turn a piece of marble into a human figure, or how to properly space the letters on a “Welcome Home” sign, or how to help a pastor build her congregation.

Creativity is assessing a situation, determining the need, opportunity or challenge … and addressing it.

We are creative everyday in so many ways, but many of us don’t think of ourselves that way.

What excites you most about your work?
I love help other people solve problems, er … resolve situations. Having someone come to Idea Sandbox needing to figure something out—whether it be a marketing plan, customer service strategy or new product. Together, hand-crafting a remarkable solution, is very satisfying.

What is its greatest challenge for you?
Staying focused is probably one of my greatest challenges. It takes a little effort for me not to get too excited and distracted about the next idea while I’m finishing the one I’m working on. I trick myself into completion by rewarding myself with that new idea when the current one is finished.

How do you get your best ideas?
I find idea mapping (mind mapping) to be one of the best tools around. It helps us organize thoughts the same way our brain organizes. Connecting ideas, making associations.

I have a board of directors that helps me when I get stuck. I ask them, “How would you approach this?” Inevitably they’ve got some pretty interesting and diverse answers. On my board? Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Tommy Jefferson, Leo da Vinci, Steve Martin and Tina Fey.

Another trick I use is to look to other professions and industries for advice. If a company is having trouble with project flow … what other careers or industries work with flow? Hmm … plumbers deal with flow constantly … are there any practices or methods they use to create more flow in pipes that could apply to the company’s problem?

I always have something to capture ideas, whether it be a small pad or my iPhone. Don’t leave without an idea-capturing device. You’ll find by getting in the practice of jotting when you think, you free up your brain for even more, better ideas.

What do you do when you get stuck?
Whenever I get stuck on something, I try two things in tandem. I brain map. And I look for situations where someone else has already figured out a similar problem. We can get hung up thinking … if I’ve got an accounting problem, I need an accounting solution. But, you’re probably not the first person in the world to experience a problem of this type. Like the plumber example I mention, find ways to assimilate from other processes or industries. Put their knowledge to work for you.

How do you make sure you make time for creativity in your life?
I’ll go back to what I said about being childlike. As a kid, you don’t see an empty refrigerator carton … you see a rocket or a pirate ship or a clubhouse. Kids have the ability to put the imagination ahead of the literal. Instead of “what it is” they see “what if.”

I have always tried to keep doing that. It comes in really handy when you’re trying to help people be innovative.

When you view the world through “what if” lenses you can always be creative.

What advice do you have for other aspiring creatives who want to follow in your footsteps?
Assuming my footsteps are worthy!?

  • Don’t discount your creativity.
    First … and maybe this should be the most important message of all … we are all creative. We all still have that little kid inside us. In order to measure our smarts school had to compare us to other kids. Each of our answers to the questions needed to match the answer key in the back of the book. There was no room for creativity.Growing up, we learned daydreaming and “non-practical” thinking was a waste of time for serious business.I don’t mean being childish, but childlike. Wonder. Question what is and ask “what if?”
  • Find and have confidence in your own voice.
    Study and use others as examples. Even copy other styles to learn how to do them. I’m referring to styles of art, writing, managing, cooking, thinking, designing, etc.
  • Read. A lot.
    And, once in a while pick up something that you know nothing about to learn about that.
  • Comp yourself.
    I learned a really important life lesson while drawing the comic strip … you can’t please everybody. To make extra cash in high school I bagged groceries. To pick on me the checkers loved to point out, “Do you know who is bagging your groceries? This is the creator of GORGE, the comic strip.” (It was a small town with one newspaper. You couldn’t miss my comic strip.) The reaction people had was very interesting. I could have written the worst gag ever … and inevitably someone would say it was their favorite. Alternately, I’d draw what I thought was the comic strip equivalent of the Mona Lisa and people would say they HATED it.No matter how good or bad you are—no matter what—there will always be people who love or hate what you do.So you just gotta do what you do the best way you can!
  • Always add value.
    With everything you are assigned. With everything you touch, find a way to make it better. When asked to enter data onto a spreadsheet—perhaps there is a way to format it better. When asked to take over a project, looking for ways to be more efficient or more creative or more remarkable.
  • Arrive with solutions.
    I got this one from my first boss at Starbucks. Don’t deliver a problem to a boss, client or colleague a without offering up a solution. Even better, solve it too.
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One thought on “Creative Careerist: Paul Williams

  1. Pingback: Tips To Be More Creative And Better At Problem Solving | Idea Sandbox, Remarkable Marketing

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