Picture an incandescent light bulb. Place it floating over a human head and most people will immediately understand what you’re trying to communicate – the birth of an idea. Good ideas are celebrated in our culture – as well they should be – yet in business settings there is a fundamental misunderstanding of where they come from, how they are developed, and what makes them valuable.
Design for show
A growing trend over the past few years – the “uninvited redesign” of famous brands – adds to the confusion, spurred on by media outlets covering creative exercises (A Hyper Cool Rebranding for American Airlines) as if they were successfully implemented assignments.
It’s undeniably fun for designers to work without the pesky weight of a real client or creative brief, but mocking up a nice logo or a beautiful website takes only a few hours. Implementing a design strategy across a large organization requires an ability to marshal resources, coordinate people, and adapt and refine ideas over and over again. That is significantly more difficult.
Getting out of our own way
Ed Catmull, in his recent book, Creativity, Inc., wrote about Pixar’s efforts to increase the chances that good ideas make it to the finish line:
We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.
Without an ongoing effort to push creativity toward implementation, all the imagination in the world is about as useful as a bald man’s comb. Here are a few ways to make your ideas more valuable.
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla – the one thing that keeps most individuals and the organizations they work for from generating and implementing good ideas. It’s not allowed.
Now, it’s rarely spelled out so explicitly, but conditions exist – fear of failure, censorship, heirarchy, budget and time constraints – that discourage candid conversations in the workplace. And let’s not pretend that those obstacles are all imposed by someone else. We are usually our own worst critics, far more debilitated by embarassment or lack of confidence than by any organizational chart.
We can’t learn from our mistakes if every effort is made to avoid them. We need to give ourselves permission to take risks – to make mistakes. In order to do so, we must construct an environment in which our fragile ideas are nurtured and given room to grow. Johnny Appleseed would have quit a failure had he spent his days wandering across parking lots.
Some prefer to imagine creativity jolts to life like a bolt of lightning, a convenient fairy tale perpetuated by stories of Mozart composing fully formed symphonies in his head, or Jackson Pollock flinging paint into manic masterpieces overnight.
Despite the myths, creative work is never a single burst of inspiration. It is the product of a lengthy process that requires an ability to remain focused through multiple revisions – to negotiate an uncertain path around ever-present obstacles. Creative work is as much about logistics as art, as much about fixing things as creating them.
Thomas Edison, working diligently on one of his many inventions, succinctly summed up his iterative process, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Designers like to be in control. In elementary school, I played saxophone in the school band. One day, some high school students brought an assortment of instruments to our music class, offering them up as a sort of musical petting zoo – try one or try them all. The only one I attempted? The saxophone.
I never became an accomplished musician, though I would have been better had I been willing to take more chances. Coaching my son’s youth basketball team, all of the drills we use are intended to encourage our players to practice at a speed that makes them just a little uncomfortable. Breakthroughs come from bold ideas tried first as short experiments or at a small scale, getting outside one’s comfort zone and learning quickly.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to wait for things to be perfect before sharing them with others. If you personally identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged or critiqued. This instinct discourages sharing – and improving – unfinished ideas. By regularly collaborating with other smart, creative people, excellence is an attainable goal. Perfection is not.
Even the best new ideas are rarely welcomed with open arms. Inevitably, those who are threatened by them will offer fierce resistance. Developing an ability to win friends and influence people – through marketing, charm, arm-twisting, or logic – is a common strategy for getting ideas approved.
Even better is a system in which participants provide feedback that elevates the discussion (and the end result) without being prescriptive. When working with young designers, I never say, “Make that bigger” or “Change that color.” Instead, I ask questions like “Have you considered … ?” or “I’m curious about this choice …”
An environment in which candor and analysis is both sought and welcomed is incredibly valuable. Without it, creativity is stifled. Ideas are persuaded to become great when they are challenged and tested.
Running the gauntlet
It’s no wonder that so many designers and organizations have difficulty shepherding good ideas from conception to completion. And with so many opposing forces – many of our own making – it’s understandable why people are tempted to take the path of least resistance.
Coming up with ideas is easy. Implementation is hard. Because the world is teeming with urgent problems, we need to adopt better habits, design better systems, and develop better processes so that more of the flickering light bulbs over our heads turn into impactful, megawatt solutions.
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