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Creativity is not about being a “creative person”

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We are frequently exhorted to “break the rules,” “think outside the box” and “be creative,” but frankly these phrases were just buzzwords with little meaning. That is, until I attended the Booth Women Connect Conference: sponsored by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. I heard an explanation of the creative process that made sense to me; and it aligns perfectly with Exploratory PD™.

The session title, “The Utility of the Creative Process” sounds like a math-heavy Booth presentation taking the fun out of a topic. But, the presenter, John Michael Schert, Booth’s inaugural Visiting Artist and Social Entrepreneur is not a typical Booth faculty member. His background as a professional ballet dancer and founder/director of a successful touring dance company gives him a perspective on creativity and the creative process he shared with the audience. This post incorporates a few of the ideas he presented.

            Creativity is not about being a “creative person” but rather about making creative choices, which is enabled by a creative process.

The creative process of an artist can be a model or analogy for the creative process in business. It is a myth that only the traditional Arts (for example music composition, painting and writing) entail creativity. Any discipline, including accounting, engineering, statistics, manufacturing and customer support can benefit from creativity. Each discipline has its own language, which can get in the way of understanding concepts across disciplines. To aid translation, I will include alternate terms where possible. Let’s look to the world of The Arts as a model for creativity in business and product development.

The job of the artist can be described as challenging convention, the status quo. We hear phrases like: breaking the rules, challenging assumptions, thinking outside the box and making your own choices. The ability to do this well requires mastery of the discipline:

  • skill using the various tools and techniques of the discipline
  • understanding why certain things work or don’t work
  • knowledge of best practices (conventions, expectations, rules)

This solid grounding in the discipline allows the artist to experiment (break the rules, explore the unknown, be uncomfortable and handle uncertainty) with the confidence they can respond and adapt to whatever happens.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

The creative process is different for each artist. It starts with letting go of what prevents them from doing what they want to do, letting go of their assumptions. In business speak, this means identifying the constraints you have to work within, and determining which constraints really can be ignored.

For an artist, constraints frame the challenge. How can the artist work around the constraints and still achieve what they think the ideal solution should be?

A creative choice balances constraints and an idealized vision of the end result.

Painting of garden bridge by Monet

Painting by Monet of his garden

Cezanne flattened perspective 300x235c

Painting with flattened perspective by Cezanne

As an example, before Impressionism, conventional painting emphasized realism in portraits, and historical and religious themes. Painting techniques used small, thin brushstrokes yielding details as perfect as photographs (which appeared destined to replace traditional painting). Realism also included portraying depth or distance, using Renaissance-era rules of perspective based on three-dimensional geometry and an assumed position of the viewer.

Impressionists challenged the prevailing assumption that paintings must look realistic. Eliminating this constraint allowed artists to make creative choices about how to portray a subject. Artists like Claude Monet used techniques that ignored detail, such as short, thick brushstrokes, to portray just an impression of a subject.

The artist Paul Cézanne[i]  rejected the rules of perspective believing they just got in the way, partly because viewers would rarely be in the one perfect position. He wanted to portray what we really see, in two-dimensions. He flattened his landscapes, explaining, “It took me forty years to find out that painting is not sculpture.” Cézanne’s mastery of color, perspective and brush work enabled him to experiment with techniques for portraying landscapes in two-dimensions while simultaneously incorporating elements (such as light and shadow) that would be accurate from different positions of the viewer.

An important step in the artist’s creative process is being receptive (listening, having empathy, having humility, acting like a newbie) to what’s going on in the world around them and within themselves. This is important because the world is constantly changing, and that impacts the artist’s ability to balance constraints and vision. In business, this is analogous to studying and monitoring the environment: customers, noncustomers, competitors, trends, etc.

A particular kind of creativity, called combinatorial creativity, involves finding and synthesizing disparate pieces of information to create a new idea. An artist may learn a new skill, for example, and combine it with their existing skills to create something new. In product development we encourage a similar phenomenon in cross-functional teams who brainstorm together and combine their knowledge and ideas to create a new product.

How do you encourage creativity at work?

Companies tend to have difficulty “creating space for the unknown,” that is creating an environment that supports creative choices in the pursuit of new inventions. One aspect of making space is making time for reflection, allowing experimentation and encouraging the exploration of creative choices. It does take some extra time/effort/money to follow a creative process, listen to different sources, make creative choices and not just go with the status quo or the obvious path.

Not only does the company have to be willing to invest in the creative process, employees have to have the skills, experience and confidence to follow a creative process. It’s hard to be creative when you don’t have the knowledge to understand constraints, the confidence to publicly try something you’ve never done before and the tools to help you respond and adapt to unexpected results.

Another aspect of making space has to do with handling “failure.” We often hear that companies have to “encourage failure because that’s how people learn,” or “reward failure because people took a risk.” In the Arts, experimentation is about rapid-fire iteration, to try and fine-tune new approaches. Running up against unexpected results isn’t failure, but an opportunity for the artist to call on their master skills to respond and perhaps create a new invention.

Let’s separate failure of process and failure of the end product.

It’s human nature to look at a successful product and think the process that produced it must have been a good one. Likewise, a failed product must be the result of a flawed process. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Success or failure entails an element of luck. Factors affecting project success can be unpredictable and sometimes unknowable. We need to look at the process used to create the product and how well it supports creative choice and adaptation to the changing environment.

And that’s where Exploratory PD fits in so well: supporting creative choice and adapting to the changing environment.

One of the key tenets of ExPD is identifying and driving down risk:

  • identifying assumptions and constraints (which do we have to keep and which can be ignored/worked around)
  • where do we need more information (and how can we get it)
  • what risks can we safely bear
  • which risks can be mitigated
  • which risks can kill the project

This approach to product development is analogous to the creative process: identifying the space for creative choice. The challenge for both is finding the best solution for bridging the gap between the constraints and future vision.

Our forthcoming book will include a tool we call the Business Fit Framework (BFF), which helps a team understand their product vision and the constraints of the business model. Armed with this analysis they can follow a creative process and make creative choices.

 


[i] Please see an excellent essay on Paul Cézanne by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette on the website Art History Unstuffed:    http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/paul-cezanne/

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