A Business Technology Place

The framework for creativity

How do your find your creative zone?

Finding a creative zone is a popular topic for writers, artists, journalists, designers, and many other professionals that create content for a living or as a hobby. Some thought leaders like Graham Wallace have tried to define the stages of creativity in academic terms as a formal process.   Others, like Todd Henry, promote a lifestyle of intentional behaviors and rhythms that lead to “accidental creativity”. I’ve read other articles that promote starting the day early, finding that special thinking place, or playing a specific type of music in the background. For me, my best creative times come on a weekend morning with film score or piano music playing. In the end, it’s a personal thing. We each have to find what works for us.

Photo Credit Jeff Cremer

Photo Credit Jeff Cremer

Many technology professionals don’t consider themselves creative people.

I’ve worked in the Information Technology for most of my professional career. I remember the day I took an internal job transfer to the Marketing department and was accused by IT colleagues of “joining the dark side”. That’s just not something that happens very often.

Something that I don’t agree with is that many IT professionals don’t consider themselves creative professionals. They see their jobs as process and rule followers. If they see problem X then they follow the steps in the Y process to get the result of Z.

Reality is that we hire technology professionals to create custom solutions and to find ways to help us work more efficiently. We want them to take costs out of the business by automating processes with technology tools.  So as an IT professional myself, I consider creativity to be part of the job description. I see a direct link between between successful with my job and having the ability to be creative.

Put people in a position to be successful.

I remind my team of this concept often. As their manager and as an organizational leader, it’s my job to put them in a position to be successful. There are a few tactical ways to do this:

  • Keep their work prioritized so they focused on a few things at a time and don’t become overwhelmed with context switching.
  • Move their work that is beyond their current output capacity to a backlog of work tasks and communicate the priorities and current state to the requestor.
  • Give them freedom to think and be creative as they design and create solutions to problems.

There is definitely a place in business for transformative big successes that produce an entirely new product or service. The printing press, steam engine, motorized car, and personal computer come to mind. But I like to define success one day at a time. I think about success in the office in terms of cultural impacts and incremental progress at a steady pace.

Giving workers the freedom to think freely to find their creative zone.

Daniel Goleman paints the picture of a “creative cocoon” in his book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Goleman says “Good days for insights had nothing to do with stunning breakthroughs or grand victories. The key turned out to be having small wins – minor innovations and troubling problems solved – on concrete steps toward a larger goal. Creative insights flowed best when people had clear goals but also freedom in how they reached hem. And, most crucial, they had protected time – enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.”

When I read Goleman’s words, I immediately identified with them because of my own preferences in work style. I don’t always get it right, but I do strive to follow that pattern. Give employees direction and purpose by telling them the ‘what’. But don’t tell them the ‘how’. That’s the fun of the job. As I said before, we are hired to be creative and make stuff. 🙂

How do you find your creative cocoon?

(Photo Credit – Jeff Cremer)

Think to plan. Plan to think.

Time to think and plan is elusive.

During the normal patterns of a work week I tend to get pulled into the daily operational tasks of keeping the business running and solving for immediate needs. That stuff is ultra-important because it involves the daily interaction of servicing customers.  But what about the long term planning and more strategic thinking? I try to plan that into a work week, but it’s difficult to keep many weeks due to the daily needs of the business. I’m not alone. Others try to solve for this by having off-site planning meetings and management retreats. The common theme is that it’s difficult to make and keep time for thinking and planning when we are in our normal weekly routine.

Vacation for thinking?

As I write this, I am towards the end of a vacation and it’s been a great week to relax, see new places, and to get away from the daily grind of work. As I was pounding out miles on a treadmill it occurred to me how much easier it is to think while on vacation.  Maybe I’m an odd ball, but I get energized about my career during times of rest and relaxation. When I see others in the travel and entertainment industry putting forth their best effort it inspires me. The architecture, design, and preparation that I see with travel and entertainment services makes me want to spend time excelling in my professional field as well. But I can’t take vacations as often as I need to think more strategically.

How can I create time to think and plan during a normal work week?

Relaxation yields clarity of thought.  Vacation re-energizes me. That’s the point of vacation right?

My thoughts on some classic options to make time for thinking:

  • Block time on the calendar for thinking. That works until I violate my own reserved time or someone schedules a “must attend “ meeting.  This is option is what I make of it or what I allow it be. I have the same principle for writing/blogging. I use a set time during the week to think and write.
  • Use time at home for planning and thinking. That’s not really an option for me with a busy kid’s schedule at night. Working long hours like that isn’t really sustainable either, unless I want to give up something like good health or my family.
  • Get up an hour earlier. Use the time to think and plan. I do try this but have not been disciplined with it. Plus I mixed it with time to exercise. Maybe I should get up two hours earlier for both exercise and thinking?
  • Go off-site and sit in a coffee shop. Do it on the way to work or take an extended lunch break. I just hope my boss doesn’t call to find me because there is a major emergency at work. Seriously though, I think there are ways to accomplish this without interrupting my normal schedule.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed with all the elements of planning. Break the strategic thinking into smaller areas or smaller bits of thought. This approach isn’t as intimidating and allows me to accomplish it in smaller pieces of time.

Avoid the transactional disruptions.

A key for me is to avoid the short transactional oriented messages for a time so that I can think. This means not checking emails as they come in. It means avoiding social media traps. Ultimately these become distractions that get in the way of thinking.

Innovation process?

Earlier this week I had lunch with @Cjack_HC, @ElliotLeson, @Westdene64, and a few others. I joined the lunch late as the group was in the middle of a brainstorming session on creating names for business card designs.  Sounds easy, but I found the task pretty challenging.  It made me think of the age old question “Is creative accidental or thoughtful?

Innovation Process

I'll be happy to give you innovative thinking. What are the guidelines?

Today, during drive time commute with the carpool gang, a similar question was asked. “Can you have a process around innovation?” At first thought the two words seem to contradict each other.

Merriam-Webster defines process as ” a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; especially : a continuous operation” while innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new.”

So an innovation process would be a series a actions conducing to an end that introduces something new.  The rub is that process implies a repeatable action. Process provides for a constraining framework that limits non-standard results. Yet innovation is the ability to create something new and implies a change in thought. Innovation isn’t constrained by boundaries. Innovation encourages failure so that future ideas are stronger, while process requires following a series of pre-defined actions and penalizes failure to do so.

After thinking on this a bit more, I believe an innovation process is more of a system that combines a structured framework to help achieve ideas conceived in an unconstrained environment. But there’s a catch.  The innovation in the system applies not only to the ability to think of new ideas in an unconstrained manner, but the ability to implement those ideas through incremental improvements or adjustments to existing processes. By definition, an innovative idea is something new. So it’s possible that implementing the new idea won’t fit in the boundaries of an existing process. That said, process has a definite place in business and adds value because of its repeatability. The process provides for a system of performance excellence. A company will need to use elements of its predefined processes for optimal achievement of innovative ideas.

I believe an innovation process is something that can be used as a value proposition for client relationships. A company can prove it has an innovation process in place by showing a regular pipeline of  both ideas and implemented ideas. This is valuable to clients and prospects because it shows a well rounded company that contains a base of stability with an edge of creativity. It’s the sign of a company that keeps a fresh set of products and services entering the product life-cycle.

So back to those business cards. What do you think? Is creative accidental or thoughtful?

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross/63787005/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Resist Learned Mediocrity

During a team meeting last week, one of my colleagues used the term “learned mediocrity”. I thought about what this expression means within the context of an organization and for individuals.  Businesses and people don’t set out with an objective to be mediocre. In fact, I’ve read studies that show people will rate their own performance higher than outside observers Here’s one example reported from the Wall Street Journal. People and organizations don’t see themselves as mediocre. Have you noticed how in press releases companies refer to themselves as “a leading provider of ….”. Can everyone be a leading provider? Have you read articles about how people artificially create content on their resumes? By definition, most people or organizations must be “average”.

So, what is learned mediocrity? It’s the process of becoming mediocre (or average) through the course of following rules, guidelines, or structured work flows. As the process is repeated it becomes learned. Joseph Heller had slightly different take. He wrote “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them”. Perhaps men are born mediocre, but there opportunities in everyone’s life to become above average in some activity or event.

Here are some ways that people learn mediocre behaviors:

  • Approval processes and procedures that require conformity of behavior. When processes and procedures force everyone to think in the same way then they lose creativity or the ability to act dynamically.
  • Repeating behavior patterns. It’s the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” syndrome.  In our lives, we develop habits from what works for us. Since we are creatures of habit, we want to avoid making changes. This stifles innovative thinking which in turn contributes to learned mediocrity.
  • Lack of empowerment to complete work. Have you ever talked to a customer service agent or supervisor that told you they were not authorized to make your situation right to complete a sale? The customer service workers want to help the customer and make things right. But after repeating scenarios of denying customers and not having the ability to correct a bad situation due to policy, they agent becomes worn down and stops caring. This makes them average or mediocre.
  • Not being allowed to challenge ideas. Top heavy organizations that force policy, strategy, projects down without discussion create a work force that stops thinking about incremental improvements and new ideas. They are not encouraged to think or improve. They become mediocre.
  • Teaching to the lowest common denominator. Much of our education system is built-on the principal of teaching to the lowest level student. Students are rewarded for conforming to same set of rules and not by being creative.

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Jim Collins discusses the concept of having entrepreneurial leaders that are given the freedom to create the best path to achieving their objectives. But these leaders must commit to the organizational system and be held accountable to their objectives. Jim’s point is that leaders who are allowed to create and get away from the conformity to process and procedures are the one’s that succeed in becoming great (instead of just good).

Is the answer to learned mediocrity that everyone should have an entrepreneurial drive? No, that’s not realistic. However, a component of entrepreneurial thinking is creativity and creativity is a trait more commonly held among people. Thinking and acting creatively helps people to get out of routines, it helps to break patterns, it helps to create opportunities to be great. Creative thinking is what allows a person to move beyond their base learning and towards incremental improvements or innovative creations. I think the challenge for organizations and individuals is to find ways to encourage creative thinking in their cultures and daily routines. It means stepping away from processes, policies, or individual routines that have become commonplace and accepted.