If you lead a creative team, you'll sometimes feel as if your team is not making progress. Everything seems stagnant until, all of a sudden, a proposed solution pops up, seemingly by magic. Where does it really come from? It comes from doing the creative work—framing describes the problem, exploration brings up constraints that further define the problem, and constraints inspire the making of artifacts and set the stage for magic to happen.
If you were a fly on the wall in a creative studio, you would probably observe something like this:
Came in at 11; checked email; looked at Google News. Sketched on the whiteboard; talked through an idea. Scratched out an architectural diagram on the whiteboard. Went to lunch. Tossed a football around the office, while talking some more. Drew some new concepts in Photoshop. Wrote some code. Had a critique. Got pissed off. Went for a walk. Sat on the couch and talked. Printed some ideas out. Whiteboard. Redid an idea. Again. And Again. Headphones on. Headphones off. Went home.
And at some point, it probably looked like this: Got hit with a sprint of enthusiasm; 13 hours of sketching. Forgot to eat. Worked until 3am.
And it almost always includes something like this: Cat videos. No motivation. Cat videos. Work from home. Sleep. Cat videos. Drink.
Some of these are caricatures of creative people or environments: tossing the football around, coming in at 11 in the morning. But ignore those for a second. Think about Had a critique. Got pissed off. Went for a walk.
Traditionally, feelings have had no place in business, which has been seen as a serious, rationale endeavor. But when you introduce creativity into the workplace, it stops being just business. The work becomes personal, tied to identity. We take things personally, and we see ourselves reflected in the thing we've made. Critique—which often focuses on the negative—is fundamental to creativity.
Redid an idea. Again. And Again.
Of course you would save time if you could just get the idea right the first time, but that's not how creativity works. The process of iteration is the only way an idea improves, yet it's time-inefficient, labor-intensive, and often steeped in unintended busywork.
Hit with a sprint of enthusiasm; 13 hours of sketching. Forgot to eat. Worked until 3am.
Creativity doesn't happen from 9 to 5. It often happens only when the drive is there, and that drive often manifests as a manic source of production. It's often followed by a depressive rut:
Cat videos. No motivation. Cat videos. Work from home. Sleep. Cat videos. Drink.
The creative process is frustrating to watch. Often the outcome looks so simple that it's hard to justify the weeks and weeks it took to get there. When you look at it and use it, your reaction is often something like, “Of course you would build that; it would be silly not to.” But these solutions are only obvious in retrospect—after the team has gone through its strategic, conceptual, and tactical work.
Innovation is like shooting at a moving target. The reason it takes so long to crystalize a new creative idea might not be poor processes or dysfunction. The reason might actually live in the essential process of ideation, which is about making something to gain clarity, not to ship a product. Making something changes the problem space. It deepens our knowledge, which we use to make more things, and that makes the idea better and more refined.
This ideation process includes two main forms of movement:
iteration—doing another version of what you just did. Contrary to the adage “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results,” iteration calls for forcing different results from the same actions. Iteration is about improving quality.
variation—trying many, many different solutions to a single problem. Variation is about quantity, rather than quality.
Both iteration and variation require a unique form of creative management. To understand that form in context, let's return to the concept—and the point—of framing: The requirements for creativity emerge from the problem itself, which starts with poorly defined edges. Often, it's not even clear that a problem exists until the ideation process defines it. The team builds tacit knowledge of the problem space by making something. As the team gains clarity, the individual steps towards a solution become more and more accurately defined. The first making something may be a sketch on a whiteboard or a napkin. But once it exists, it can go through the iteration process.
Iteration also means bringing improvement, both to the idea and to the fidelity of the idea, with every step. By iterating the thing you made, you take the idea from ambiguity to clarity, which makes it easier and easier to have an opinion about it.
But when people have varying opinions, things start to get muddled. Which is the best direction to head? How do we know which idea to pick? Putting the idea through the variation process helps to navigate the muddle. This is the process of exploring a solution space by moving sideways beyond the obvious solution to something unexpected and new. It produces a quantity of ideas at each variation and at the same level of fidelity.
The iteration process we've described underscores a simple idea: “One and done” just doesn't work. The iterative style of the creative process has implications on time to market, budget, and the patience necessary to watch bad ideas slowly transform into good ones. Iteration and variation can derail an anticipated budget, the established timeline, a sense of alignment, and even team morale.
Takeaway: Postpone "picking a design" as long as possible, to allow for rich exploration.