Stop searching in all the right places — explore what’s unintuitive.
The work of adding creativity to business culture is a difficult process no matter how many geniuses you put on staff or consultants you hire. In years of problem-solving for companies, insights and data have been my companions as I search for a way through each maze presented to me.
In my experience, one consistent truth is that creativity is not so neatly compartmentalized. It is akin to jazz in that you play a note in the wrong color and then venture to explore it. This is something I heard the jazz musician Stefon Harris say. We have grown so conditioned to methodologies that promise to work that we forget that the music of discovery almost always happens half by accident — because you pursue that accident. It is the process of venturing into territory that may be useless or a diversion. But you give it a chance and see where it goes.
Creativity in design is not a pre-fab process.
In the last few years, design has been squeezed and molded into a pre-fab process for fixing problems and finding solutions in business. But design is more exploratory than that. It is a place where ideas fling around and ricochet off one another. It is an uncomfortable feeling. What worries me today is that the pre-fab approach has damaged the creative part of design.
It seems obvious to point out that when “creativity” becomes a set of movements to be repeated, it loses its ability to uncover the unexpected. Management consultants and other non-designer agents continue to press this pre-fab design process on their clients as a way to guarantee success. But creativity doesn’t come in a package and it doesn’t respond to a fixed chronology. It is easier for some people to follow the steps of a neatly laid out process to reduce their anxiety of dealing with uncertainty.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong advocate of design processes. But you need to understand them deeply and apply them correctly. You need to master them so you can break and go beyond them.
Key to any reasonable design process are two things: an interdisciplinary group and some chaos of feeling. Different kinds of people are necessary because each has a different perspective on the world. And during the process you must get lost or feel uncomfortable. If you do not, you are doing it wrong or you are on the wrong journey. Say you want to write a sonnet. Ideas bounce around the fenced-in structure and you pursue them. You hit dead-ends as make your way through the maze. Finally, you end up with something compelling. That is what creativity is. It is 25 versions that go in the trash. It’s not a clean process but a series of mistakes that will get you confused until, eventually, you find the right way.
This is the part that most organizations shy away from — because those uncertainty and experimentation are not part of their emotional pantone. Instead we impose formulas on problems that have their own sets of properties, and make design “corporate” so we don’t have to get messy. But we do have to get messy before we clean up with good ideas.
It’s about the principles, not the process.
If designers don’t bring the secret process potion, does that mean that they are no longer useful in helping multidisciplinary teams achieve their goals?
Quite the opposite. With the emergence of the Agile Methodologies, the Customer Development methods, and the Design Thinking philosophy, you can find at least three different types of roles trying to impose their “processes” to lead teams. As I like to explain to clients, no matter what approach you choose, designers will always offer, at minimum, these four qualities:
- Empathy: An ability to understand how other people feel, whether it’s a client, colleagues from another department, or users of a product or service
- Creative Exploration: A different way of looking at things and the ability to navigate through uncertainty
- Brain-to-Hand Action: Sketching, drawing, and quick execution; to understand by doing
- Complexity Visualization: A knack for creating visual explanations that help others understand what the team is talking about
It’s not so much about the specific process but about the principles that designers can put into play. Designers have an emotional catalogue that they are skilled in building and expanding, and the way they are able to apply it to the team’s work influences the outcome of the team.
You tend to get leaps of thinking when mastery comes into play. Ideally we would all be like members of a jazz band, schooled in listening and eager to riff off an idea that doesn’t appear to fit. It’s a designer’s job to find a way to make it fit. “Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz,” says Harris. I approach this through smart facilitating — by nudging my team members in a way that is bold and edgy, so we don’t end up with something commonplace. I push for what’s unintuitive. So when I facilitate creativity workshops or do client work, I run my teams like a jazz band. We are small groups of people actively listening to each other and sort of jamming together with our clients.
As in a well-oiled band, you need different roles and profiles. You are constantly searching for a balance. Creative types are often able to make connections between unlike things quickly. They may not always be the most practical people, but they can connect dots quicker because they have more ways of doing it — because part of their job is to equip themselves with those unlikely references. They do it through reading, observing, learning from art, and being curious about whatever they come across in the course of their lives. So they are musing over images and fragments of ideas from other thinkers all the time, which opens up new possibilities at work. But you must counterweight these people with others who have structured or analytical minds. Still others will excel at looking at the endgame and working backwards so the team can come up with something actionable together.
Creating environments where all these characters can thrive and create together, and in which the unexpected is celebrated and embraced, requires a radical transformation in the way people relate to one another. It demands that they listen to their colleagues. It demands that we take care of each other.