Meet the quintessential fast person in a fast company: Zean Nielsen, director of marketing for Bang & Olufsen America Inc. He's on this month's cover because he's a prolific idea champion who's helping his organization grow rapidly. And he works for a company whose smart design and technology have produced a stream of blow-me-away televisions, music systems, and speakers.
When we began contemplating this special issue on creativity, Nielsen was exactly the sort of person we had in mind. Creativity drives growth, and creative people drive every great enterprise. It's not too trite to say that. These days, we're all too easily caught up in the tactics of competition. We can forget that sustainable advantage is ultimately a function of a company's ability to consistently generate, develop, and sell valuable new ideas.
Which is to say, creativity is at the heart of work and business. And as long as there are new ideas, we all have plenty to learn about where they come from and how they're brought to life. That's why this issue of Fast Company is so important.
Zean (pronounced Shawn) landed his big job three years ago at the age of 23, becoming the youngest marketing director in Bang & Olufsen's history. Just to win an interview with the Danish company, he had to endure eight hours of exams that tested his IQ and his personality, as well as his English and math skills. Two years later, he was sent to Chicago, where he eventually helped plot strategy to crack the North American market. Nielsen has since helped plan and open 43 of Bang & Olufsen's 60 stores in the United States and Canada.
Think about that. Nielsen is just 26. The fact that he's been given such responsibility so young says a lot about Bang & Olufsen. It is an organization that encourages and supports creativity, a flat and lean company where young, talented people are empowered to make a difference. There's little hierarchy and no top-down management.
"What blows me away when I talk to my peers is that their companies have directors of advertising, public relations, merchandising, of this and that," Nielsen says. "But if you simplify the process and work in a flat organization, it's amazing what you can get out of a small team. We don't have a bunch of chiefs who sit around and talk."
Bang & Olufsen's culture helps Nielsen realize his creative promise. That's why he works 70 hours a week, and loves it. "I find myself leaning forward on the wheel in the morning to get to work quicker," he says. "I don't see it as work. It's a passion."
Almost everyone is capable of creative work. The problem is that so few of us are in organizations where creativity is supported, valued, and recognized. More often than not, we are surrounded and supervised by bureaucrats whose traditions, rules, and standards discourage human ingenuity. "Many companies," says Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile, "still have a long way to go to remove the barriers to creativity."
Imagine how dynamic our economy would become if more companies were open to new ideas, if more of them truly understood how to get the best from everyone. That's why I hope you'll devour this month's issue. Sylvia Nasar, who as author of A Beautiful Mind brings a profound understanding of the nature of genius, has written the keynote essay. Senior writer Alan Deutschman takes readers inside the most innovative company in America, W.L. Gore & Associates, and explains what we can learn from it. Harvard's Amabile gives us a provocative look at the six myths of creativity.
One thing's for sure: Our economy needs more organizations that value and encourage the creative spirit. And we need more people like Zean Nielsen who bring passion, energy, and an abundance of ideas to their work every day.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.