Jessica Buttimer doesn’t buy in to the theory that lightning-flash epiphanies provide solutions to types of problems that plague us even when we try to sleep. “I don’t believe in the shampooing-the-hair or ride-in-to-work or wherever those most quote-unquote creative moments occur,” the marketing leader at Sonos tells Fast Company.
Despite the copious amount of ink that’s been spilled on how to fast track those eureka moments that can boost a career (not to mention self-esteem), Buttimer’s thinking is more in line with recent research that suggests it takes a series of small steps to arrive at a creative solution.
She’s got plenty of experience, starting with her time at Clorox, where she saw an opportunity the launch a line of nontoxic cleaners—the company’s first new brand in 20 years. Dubbed Green Works, it was an instant hit and quickly gobbled a big portion of the natural home cleaning products market as sales topped $100 million and garnered Buttimer a spot on our Most Creative People in Business list in 2009. She then moved on to Deckers Outdoor Company, working to boost the profiles of Teva and Uggs.
Now at Sonos, Buttimer’s using her best practices for creative thinking to lead the company’s marketing efforts at the outset of a sea change. Best known for its wireless, high-fidelity speakers, Sonos doubled its revenue in 2013 to $535 million from the previous year. Looking for continued growth and new channels, the company recently gave its audio controller app a makeover, as well as teamed up with Google Play Music to let users stream music directly from the Android integration to their Sonos speakers.
As she sees it, creative thinking is driven by three things: positivity, stepping back, and getting up close and personal. Here’s how she breaks them down:
“Being creative for me is less about the setting, the time of day, or the process, and more about the frame of mind of the team and the ability to focus,” she says. Buttimer confesses she has a hard time feeling creative unless she can get into an “art of possible” mindset.
“I know if we are cluttered with lots of to-dos or if we are feeling time constraints there is no way we can be creative,” she explains. That’s exacerbated by so much data and analysis, not to mention email and phone calls, that Buttimer says it causes a chronic case of distraction. To combat this, she’s observed that most people go into lean in mode “wanting closure and to tick things off a list.”
Instead of brainstorming, which in her opinion can lead to groupthink and driving down to the closure of a check mark, Buttimer encourages her team to breathe, step back and get into positive, expansive frame of mind by asking “why not?” The blue-sky question opens up possibilities instead of enabling constraint. Buttimer says she’s always pushing the team to not get hung up on very specific details and refocus on larger and larger questions.
“Creativity really starts by taking a step back and understanding the context your brand lives in,” she explains. At Sonos, even though the company’s mission is to transform how people listen to music, Buttimer says, “we are more than speaker and software company, but we don’t always show up that way in store.”
The conundrum of how to translated such a transformation on a store shelf isn’t unique to Sonos, Buttimer admits. “But you don’t start by standing at the shelf thinking, ‘Gosh, how can we stand out?” she laughs. “That is the last place you want to be asking that question.”
Buttimer encourages discussions and urges her team to stop checking email in between talks so they are more able to get beyond quick merchandising fixes of flashy displays and sparkly signage. She’s led them to take a giant step back by considering how powerful the intersection of music, technology, and design has become and to think about that in the context of a consumer’s home. “That’s opening up new partnership ideas that are too early for me to talk about yet,” she asserts, but will be critical to “closing the gap between the store shelf and your couch.”
This process does take a lot of time and plenty of repeating that solutions aren’t epiphanies. “It is more you-know-it when-you-see-it when people converge and come to concrete solution.”
Buttimer says this, too, is obvious. However, thanks to big data’s “speeds and feeds, we are not speaking a consumer language anymore,” she contends. To get back to basics, Buttimer refers to step 2. “We can’t talk about us, or talk about [the consumer], we gotta talk about the music industry,” she posits.
It happened this way with Green Works when she led the team to forget how to make a less expensive, more natural cleaner and focused on how to help moms who were concerned about the health of their children. “It’s not just about ‘the environment,’ but their environment,” she says. “Those are much bigger, more important questions that are more fun to solve.”
There is a fourth item, not formally on Buttimer’s creativity map, and that is a Sonos motto that life is better with music. The company pipes in streamed music from Spotify or Pandora in the open office space at its Santa Barbara headquarters. Buttimer says that new staff are often thrown by the constant presence of tunes, but they soon become used to it. “It wakes up the right side of the brain,” she says. “It’s part of how we define what we do.” There are controls at each desk so you can switch a song if you’re not a fan. Buttimer says it makes for unexpected mischief when certain coworkers prank each other by playing songs they know someone really can’t stand. Occasionally, someone will announce that they’re playing something new and interesting and Buttimer sees how everyone actively listens. “It’s a nice little break from the day, but more often just discovering,” she says. “It lets us dig in, live, and breathe [music].”