The Business of New Ideas: A Conversation With Corporate Creativity Expert Luc de Brabandere

Technology and InnovationDigital TransformationBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
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October 18, 2019
7 min read
Technology and InnovationDigital TransformationBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
Explore what it takes to inspire and nurture corporate creativity—and why passion is so essential.   


When it comes to accomplishing major career objectives, corporate creativity expert Luc de Brabandere has checked many boxes. Once CEO of the Brussels Stock Exchange, he left the world of finance to study philosophy for nine years, then joined strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to help companies reimagine their futures. During his decade as a BCG partner, he co-authored two well-known books, The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity Through Changes in Perception (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity (Random House, 2013). 

Now a BCG Fellow as well as president of creative agency Cartoonbase and a lecturer at several universities including the Louvain School of Management and the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, CentraleSupélec and ETH Zurich, the 71-year-old de Brabandere recently spoke with Russell Reynolds Associates Journal writer Alix Stuart about what it takes to inspire and nurture corporate creativity—and why passion is so essential. 

Q: How did you get interested in the study of creative thinking? 

Luc de Brabandere: My background is engineering; I studied applied mathematics. At its core, it is the art of the model: In fluid dynamics, for example, how can you translate a river into equations? That’s my passion. I had another passion—cartoons. One day I realized the two passions were the same. Consider a caricature, when you do a cartoon with four or five lines—nearly nothing—and you recognize someone. When you take gravity and you produce Newton’s equation, it’s nothing that gives you a lot. The art is the same for a caricature and a mathematical model: It is about how to give the most using the least. 

When I was 40, I had the privilege of turning my passion into a profession. I left my finance job to focus on mental models, studying philosophy for nine years. Managers sometimes have difficulties in coping with topics like creativity, ethics or corporate image since there are no numbers available. Philosophy is a toolbox that helps one to become rigorous even if you don’t have measures. I wrote some books on creative thinking, but did not want to work alone, so I approached BCG with a proposal to help their partners and their clients develop and stimulate their creative thinking. I was a partner there for more than 10 years doing exactly that. 

Q: What is the most common misconception about your work? 

Luc de Brabandere:  The most frequent confusion is between creativity and innovation. Innovation is about changing the world; creativity is about changing the perception you have of the world. Newton didn’t change the solar system, he changed the way we looked at it. Of course, businesses need both, but people always focus on “How are we going to change the world?” and you have to focus on how we look at it, too. 

Creativity and innovation should be completely separate. I’m very clear with clients—I’m not talking about innovation, you have hundreds of people to do that, but together we will work on the perception you have of your company. 

Q: You are famous for your concept of thinking in new boxes. Can you elaborate on what that means and how we go about building new boxes

Luc de Brabandere:  We always talk about thinking outside of the box. A box is a set of simplifications we have about something. If you work in a bank, you are not asked to think outside of the bank, it’s outside the simplifications you have of banking. In fact, all ideas come out of a given box. The problem is not the box, but how old is this box and how you select a new box. 

One question I like to use is “How do you think about someone you don’t know?” When you are a CEO of a company with 10 million clients, you are constantly thinking about people you don’t know. You might know 500 or even 1,000 clients, but you can’t know 10 million. This question forces you to recognize you are using boxes, or categories to classify people and think more about them. 

Another question I ask: How many colors in the rainbow? Seven is the number I hear 99 percent of the time. But the rainbow is an infinite number of colors, seven is within you. The seven colors are a simplification of the rainbow, and it’s very useful, because it allows you to draw a rainbow. 

The good news is you can do a lot of things with a box, but it has a cost. We simplify the world in order to change it, but there is a lot more outside the box. There are many possible boxes, and there is no science to selecting them. Even if you want to build statistics, you have to select the boxes. For example if you track how many people come to a store at night, it means a priori, you’ve selected the concept “at night.” 

No single model, no single box is either true or false. The only way to assess them is the criteria of usefulness. And, since a strategy has to be frozen in order to bring growth, but the world is not frozen at all, one day or another, you will need a new strategy, which means a new box. 

Q: What are the best techniques a manager or leader can use to stimulate creativity within a team? How do you know if you’re succeeding? 

Luc de Brabandere:  When you teach mathematics, you try to transfer knowledge to a student, and you’re happy at the end of the day if the knowledge you had in the morning is in someone else’s head in the evening. In creativity, absolutely not. You can’t teach creativity; you have to share a passion. So my first tip is: Build what you do from your own passion. Whether you like soccer, fishing, music, whatever—you are ten times better if you use examples of creative thinking from your own passion. 

The second is to replace “yes, but” with “yes, and.” Not a single idea on this planet is born good, so it makes no sense to tell someone their new idea is bad. 

The success criteria in my job is energy. A good brainstorm brings some new ideas, but it also keeps the energy in the room very high. 

Q: What are some of the top inhibitors to creativity? Does the size of the group or organization play a big role? 

Luc de Brabandere:  I searched many years for the rules of creativity, but I finally gave up. When you ask people where they got a great idea, it’s sometimes in the shower, it’s sometimes in a meeting. Great ideas can come from large groups. The message is diversity—sometimes be alone, sometimes be with people. 

The same is true for knowledge. If you ask people, “Do you think knowledge is a must for creativity?” they say, “Yes, absolutely.” But you have examples of people finding good things who don’t know anything about a topic. Either/or is not a good way; it should always be and. There is no science to creativity; you can’t organize creativity the way you organize marketing. 

Q: Let’s talk about Cartoonbase, the creative agency you founded. What was the impetus behind it and how does it connect to your past work? 

Luc de Brabandere:  I started Cartoonbase when I started at BCG in 2001. For the first 10 years, it was an evening job, my passion. Imagination works with images, and I was convinced that artists and consultants should work together, side by side. 

To develop and spread creativity throughout BCG, I would use cartoons everywhere rather than PowerPoint. I cannot draw, but Belgium is the home of cartoons; cartoons are part of our culture. The problem is not to find artists, it’s to select the right ones. However, artists cannot talk to CEOs; they need a consultant to translate. 

During our last BCG partners meeting, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella was the keynote speaker on the question “What is the number one responsibility of a CEO?” His answer: “To clarify!” I would add “To make things visible.” Cartoonbase videos are known to reach both objectives. That’s where our success comes from. 

At Cartoonbase, we have 20 people—half are artists, half are consultants. With video taking off, cartoons are now a side business and the heart of the business is videos. This year, we’ll have 2 million euros in sales, and growth is unlimited.