The creativity of business
Issue 84: Why creative techniques are crucial for business innovation
The word “business” can be triggering for creative people. Can you blame them for feeling that way? We see business become an oppressor for the original creative vision. Studio interference ruined Blade Runner until we could see the director’s cut, revealing a compromised vision for business outcomes. In music, joining a larger record label after being years as an indie artist gets you labeled a sellout. These considerations ask the ultimate question...can creativity and business co-exist? I believe that business can be the greatest creative endeavor. One of the biggest inspirations in my career is Edward de Bono, one of the greatest minds of this generation. de Bono is truly a polymath: physician, psychologist, author, inventor, and consultant. Originally from Malta, de Bono is the creator of lateral thinking. His belief, one I hold, is that creativity is not a natural talent and is a skill that can be trained and nurtured.
When I transitioned from a designer to a management role, I thought my creative days were over. I was dead wrong. Even though the day-to-day is no longer building interfaces, writing code, and creating content, but the same creative methods I learned are applied to org design, operations, and business goals. When you're a creative or design leader, the superpower you bring to that proverbial table is that you are creative and can design. We can at times lose sight of that, and this is where I want to talk about the business of creativity. The value of creativity is something I believe can be quantified, justified, and invested.
What is lateral thinking?
Lateral thinking is a manner of solving problems using an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. The opposite of lateral thinking is vertical thinking, where the concept is to go deeper into a problem. To be clear, these concepts are not mutually exclusive and need to play nicely together. The belief of lateral thinking is to think, as the name alludes, more laterally...a problem can be solved in multiple ways.
Let's use the metaphor of digging for an answer or treasure. Vertical thinking would tell you to dig deeper to find the problem. Lateral thinking would tell you to dig elsewhere. Wait, isn't lateral thinking essentially the diverge phase of the double diamond? Not really. The double diamond is a guide, and when you encounter blockers or get stuck, you have to diverge to creatively solve a problem. Be careful of where you diverge as it can blow the entire project open as well. Let's discuss some scenarios of when you can apply lateral thinking that isn't the diverge phase:
When your team runs into an unexpected technical problem that wasn’t scoped in planning.
Subverting code because you don't know how to do something or constraints around it
The vendor who is going to staff your service backs out and now you need a new solution for fulfilling orders
This framing of lateral thinking is very powerful and can lead to creative solutions and innovations this world has never seen. Sometimes the right solution is the obvious one there in front of you.
Other ways to apply creativity
This issue isn’t exclusively about lateral thinking, and there are different ways creativity can be applied to the business.
Using creativity to organize
I’m a visual learner and have neurodiverse attributes, which makes it incredibly hard to fit in a certain leadership mold. In a world of large documents, spreadsheets, and backlogs, I need to make a concious effort to recall. I counter this by creating flash cards to recall information. In fact, I’ve written down Jira tickets on physical cards to remember.
Using creativity as a tool for clarity
Whether it's a diagram or visual illustration to convey an idea, there are people who've made a living in helping make ideas approachable. One example is Sunni Brown, one of my heroes. Alissa Briggs, Director of Design at Autodesk has a talk called Maps and Markers about how visual maps can help propel business outcomes.
Using creativity to build a business vision
I once reported to a CTO who had great design sensibility and a huge proponent of applying creativity to work. One project we worked on during my time at One medical was a vision book that helped show where our product experience can go. There were nearly a hundred different design concepts explored and we created physical books to share with with our board and leadership. By taking the time to curate this, people had a tangible artifact to react to and give great feedback.
Creative problem solving is business-critical
When looking back at my career, starting and running a business was one of the most creative endeavors I've ever done. I'm not a believer in binaries and feel balancing spectrums is where incredible things happen. Let's not look at business as a way to stunt creatively, instead the fuel that can propel it and present challenges where creativity can foster innovation.
If you're a designer that moves into leadership, remember the differentiator you have over other leaders is that you know how to design.
Tweet of the week
InkitLeather on Etsy: I bought a very cool leather case for my index cards. Very happy with it!
Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Edward de Bono