Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Improvisation by Design

Carefree children having fun on a playground.Recently, I attended a workshop called “Improv for Creatives.” The event was billed as a way to learn and use the techniques of improvisational comedy in professional settings. The ability to negotiate, persuade, and network effectively all benefit from an agile mind and active listening.

To begin, the workshop leader asked, “How many of you have ever done any kind of improv?” Only a few raised hands. He continued, “How many of you ever went to a playground as a kid?” Everyone raised a hand. Anyone who has ever walked up to another kid on a playground and asked “Wanna play?” has participated in a form of improvisation. What follows is not scripted, and requires two (or more) people to collaborate on the spot for a mutual goal.

Truthfully, we are improvising all the time – in conversation, at play, and at work. When was the last time everything went according to plan?

Adjust your heading
A friend of mine was telling me about a weekend trip to a resort on Lake Superior. He spent one morning in a kayak. The tour guide led the group along the shoreline and then out into the lake until the shore was barely visible. He couldn’t see cabins or lighthouses, just distant hills, trees and water.

As they returned to shore, the tour guide couldn’t point them in the direction of the resort. It wasn’t visible. So, he aimed the group between two hills in the general direction of their destination. Every ten minutes or so, the guide would point out a newly visible landmark and the kayakers would adjust their heading until they landed safely back at the resort.

Working on any large project is a similar exercise. In order to move forward, we must improvise by finding intermediate targets when we can’t see the finish line.

Halfway home
In most organizations, there are only a few large-scale, difference-making initiatives undertaken each year. Maybe less. These are the kinds of efforts that have a chance to move the needle, expand impact, and serve as a beacon of success.

A plan is hatched, resources aligned, and steps are taken. After months have passed, progress may stall or assumptions lead you astray. You’ve gone too far to abandon the effort, but it’s not evident what to do next.

Long journeys require resiliency – an ability to take stock and redirect, to focus on the little picture without losing sight of the big picture. Like the kayakers – or an improv comedian – it’s important to pay attention to one’s surroundings, seek guidance to move forward, and adjust as needed to get home.

The destination
When facing uncertainty, what do you aim at? The reason so many good ideas fail to scale is not because the end goal is too ambitious. It’s because the tricky part is often identifying the next step to take, not the final one.

Designers are well-suited to contribute to teams that are tackling tough problems. The design process is inherently iterative, giving designers an advantage in keeping a team on course or pointing them in a fruitful direction. Designers are accustomed to scanning the horizon, evaluating options, developing prototypes, and learning along the way. Successful designers are always improvising.

If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify an intermediate point that represents forward progress. Adjust and repeat. Or, if you need a guide, call a designer.

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Leap of Faith

Photo of a cliff diver doing a backflip into the ocean at sunsetA friend of mine graduated from high school when she was four years old. She wasn’t particularly precocious. In fact, she had lived a similar number of days as our classmates. It’s just that she happened to be born on February 29 – Leap Day – and her birthdays don’t happen as frequently as most. Oh, to be an anomaly!

What can we learn from a Leap Year that applies to design any time of year?

Solving a problem
In Ancient Rome, there wasn’t enough information to make calendars very accurate. Early astronomers began to suspect that the Earth does not orbit the sun in precisely 365 days. Adding one day every four years was a corrective measure that kept the calendar in balance over time.

Many design problems mirror the evolution of our modern-day calendar. At the beginning of a project, a designer may not know enough to offer a better solution. First, we must establish a set of goals and determine what we don’t know. Through acquiring insights and exploring options, we design a way to meet or exceed those goals.

Design is most valuable when it is functional. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Always improving
There are few things more bland than the company newsletter. At one time, there was a reason for it to exist. But in most cases, people have long since stopped asking why it is needed or what might be a more effective way to share bad snapshots from company picnics.

Designers never stop asking questions. Is this necessary? Is it effective? What if we try …? Why do they …? To avoid just going through the motions, it’s critical to build in time to refine and improve designs.

The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose that the earth orbits the sun. Julius Caesar popularized a calendar with 365 days and 12 months, with a leap day added every four years. 15 centuries later, Copernicus produced a mathematical model of our solar system. By 1582, Pope Gregory’s revision of the Julian calendar began to be recognized as even more accurate.

These days, deadlines are measured in days, not decades, but a successful design process is an iterative one.

Getting noticed
The most powerful use of design occurs when a company uses it to separate itself, its products, and its services from the competition. This is only possible because there is so little good design out there or conversely, so much that is bad or mediocre. Isn’t it ironic that if the general level of design were better, this powerful strategy wouldn’t work?

The previous paragraph was written almost 30 years ago by the legendary designer, Saul Bass. It remains true today.

The Leap Year is a curiosity, an outlier. It wasn’t created for strategic advantage, but it does get noticed. In addition to serving a functional purpose, good design stands out. In an undifferentiated market, that’s incredibly valuable.

Making the case
Ask a designer, and there is no doubt about the value of good design. It’s a self-evident truth. Others are less willing to take that leap of faith.

Galileo was branded a heretic by the church. For centuries, his scientific discoveries were rejected. Likewise, designers must justify their costs and efficacy to leaders who seem to take their cue from H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies that champion the power of design. And more consumers are interested in choosing products and services that solve problems, make life easier, continue to innovate, and stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design.

Related content:
Why is the extra day added in February?

From Idea to Impact

Ideas To ImpactPicture 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.

Permission
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.

Persistence
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.”

Perfection
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.

Persuasion
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.

Related Content:
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Serious Play

 

Slow - Children at PlayFew would argue we live in a time of almost unprecedented change. We watch uncomfortably as one problem after another grows in scale and urgency, our efforts to address them largely ineffective.

This growing rift between the size and complexity of our problems and the effectiveness of existing approaches to address them – termed “the ingenuity gap” by futurist Thomas Homer-Dixon in his 2002 book – calls out for new alternatives, new ideas. And yet one of our best weapons for generating new ideas and increasing creativity from everyone is routinely discouraged or dismissed.

No fun allowed
Research has repeatedly shown that children at play are not wasting time, they are engaging in an activity that is vital to their physical, social, and emotional development. Playing stimulates curiosity and imagination and encourages exploration of new ideas and behaviors in a relatively risk-free environment – conditions that are ripe for creativity.

As we become adults, we play less and less – and only in certain settings – undermined by our own self-consciousness. We grow embarrassed about sharing our ideas, fearing the judgment of our peers, and avoid any behavior considered outside the norm. This fear leads to more conservative thinking and behavior.

The problem-solving orthodoxies taught in school and the “best practices” of the business world routinely suppress ingenuity. We sacrifice play – and creativity – at the altar of efficiency.

Even in everyday language, play is stigmatized by society. We condemn the deceitful business owner who is “gaming the system,” or raise our eyebrows at the lothario and label him a “player.”

A powerful force
Despite discouragement at every turn, our basic human needs and desires don’t change as we age. We want to play. Based on the phenomenal growth of the gaming industry – measured by video game consoles, online games, and mobile apps – we will play.

In a good game, we play on the edge of our skill level, receive regular feedback and rewards, and live in a heightened state of energy and attentiveness. This sort of practiced improvisation mimics the mindset and neurochemistry of our most creative state. It’s exhilarating.

But it’s not as if we need any of that on the job, do we?

In his research, psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith argues that play is both misunderstood and vital to the well being of children and adults: “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

Unleashing our playful nature
It’s commonly asserted that we learn from our mistakes, and yet every societal, educational, and workplace signal discourages us from making any. Mistakes could cost you respect, influence, or your job. If you make a mistake, someone might criticize or correct you. Mistakes cause people to feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Someone once asked Thomas Edison if he was discouraged by his numerous failed attempts to invent the light bulb. He responded by saying that he hadn’t failed, he just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Most of us don’t work in an environment that supports that kind of unbridled experimentation. A perception exists that there is simply too much at stake. Time is money, as they say.

However, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, noted in a recent essay that “you increasingly hear large corporations and institutions now wish to act more like start-up companies, in order to innovate and become more agile.”

To encourage innovation, we must create environments where people feel secure in taking risks. When we can act as if there is nothing (or little) to lose, we are more willing to try new things. In making mistakes, we continue to learn, uncovering fresh approaches that expand our ability to solve problems. In other words, we are free to play.

Making play work
Trying to instill an innovative workplace culture, it’s easy to get lost in the trappings of “creativity” – installing a foosball table in the conference room and ordering everyone to wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays – but it’s more important to understand what drives our enjoyment of playing games.

Play is a rewarding activity because it fulfills a basic human need to feel productive. In the context of a game, we enjoy our ability to make something happen. In order to translate those same feelings to workplace activities, you must have:

  • An environment that eliminates (or reduces) the fear of failure.
  • A clear goal.
  • Actionable next steps.
  • A more direct correlation between actions taken and their impact.

Feedback is key. Playing a good game is engaging because we receive nearly instantaneous feedback and rewards. We know what we’re trying to accomplish, we know what to do next, and even our failures fill us with optimism that we are getting closer to winning.

If we want to make work more meaningful – even fun – it’s time to get serious about play.

Related content:
Why is Play Important?
Tales of Creativity and Play
Reality is Broken

Gathering Good Ideas

Too often people approach a problem with the mindset that there is only one correct answer. A lot of time can be spent thinking – or procrastinating – with the hope that the answer will come in a bolt of lightning.

Effective marketing requires a steady, reliable flow of fresh thinking. And, as Linus Pauling, the Nobel prize-winning chemist once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” The following suggestions should help you come up with more ideas.

Let ideas flow freely.
Turn off your internal editor. Give yourself permission to write down or say anything, even if the ideas don’t seem to fit. As this illustration shows, your mind is at its problem-solving best when it‘s free to wander. Computers can provide logical explanations for a problem, but your brain is much more flexible.

Stepping away from your computer is another good way to loosen up your thinking. Embrace pen and paper. If you’re not a designer, “sketch” with words. And don’t try to refine your ideas as you generate them.

Make connections.
OK, you’ve generated some ideas. Now consider the ones that seem least relevant to the original problem. Is there a kernel of truth in your counterintuitive thoughts? Does an unexpected concept spark a new direction? What may seem “wrong” at first, may be exactly right when viewed from a new perspective. Original ideas often come from finding connections that other have not seen before.

Ask lots of questions.
Take the time to gather thoughts, not jump to conclusions. The quality of your solution is directly related to the questions you ask.

  • How has this problem been solved before?
  • Could it be solved differently?
  • What additional information would be helpful?
  • Which project parameters are most flexible?

Sometimes, by looking outside your own field of expertise, a creative solution from a different industry can be retrofitted to your problem – or suggest even more questions!

Let your ideas incubate.
Ever been working on a problem only to have an idea suddenly hit you while mowing the lawn or doing the dishes? That’s because after you’ve provided the food, your brain keeps digesting it long after you’ve moved on to other activities. Whenever you’re trying to generate new ideas, give yourself time to let the subconscious mind go to work for you.

Generating ideas should not be a frustrating or scary process. By challenging yourself to try new techniques, you can “think big” even on small problems. And, with practice, you can become known as a reliable problem solver.

– Claire Napier