A good pair of eyes on the back of your head

I hear a lot about about how creativity is primarily looking forward for purely new, innovative ways of doing things.

I don’t have a lot to say about this.

But I do have a few thoughts on this one-sided thinking:

1. Ingenuity isn’t just creating something from nothing; it’s about seeing the old through a new lens, making new connections and putting things together in powerful new ways. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about the greatest inventions being combinations of already existing technologies.

2. Having eyes in the back of your head does not mean you should put a blindfold on the eyes in front. When you just look backward, you tend to repeat what works without seeking new ways to improve it. When you only look forward, you don’t learn from past successes and failures. This is redundant and I probably am saying nothing useful. But what I think is interesting is the phenomena that takes place in the human mind when we force ourselves to look backward and forwards at the same time.

At first, there’s a sort of confusion or tension. The brain begins to scramble to put together such a complicated representation of time: analyzing the past while stepping into the future. Then the lights come on  It’s like thinking in three dimensions. You feel like Neo transcending the matrix.

Whatever you want to call it, I believe this phenomena can only happen when you are willing to have the tact and discipline to analyze the past while still having the futuristic drive to step into unfamiliar territory.

3. It is easy to mistake novelty for genius. We’ve seen a lot of useless innovations that were novel and popular for a short time, but then fell off the map becuse that’s all they were. I think when we discipline ourselves to ask hard questions like, “what have been some really troubling problems that this invention could help address? In what ways can this creation improve or reinvent something that is already very useful and valuable? Is this technology complete within itself, or do I need to supplement it with another invention?” I don’t think we come across these questions until we learn to use the eyes in the back of our heads.

4. It is possible to fly too high, move too fast and focus too hard on the future. Rhythm shows up in our universe at every turn. Sleep cycles, seasons, tides; light and dark, cool and warm, active and passive, rest and exertion, giving and receiving, etc etc. The balance of nature is a constant reminder that good things come to those who don’t gravitate to one extreme or the other.  We must to be able to move back and forth, into the past and into the future, in order to get anywhere. 

Sometimes, stepping away from the strained fixation on a nebulous problem can be exactly what you need to solve the problem.  Most familiar is the anecdotal advice to “sleep on it”.  But here is a helpful real-life example of this balance from a Time article called “The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind“:

In 1990 a team of NASA scientists was trying to fix the distorted lenses in the Hubble telescope, which was already in orbit. An expert in optics suggested that tiny inversely distorted mirrors could correct the images, but nobody could figure out how to fit them into the hard-to-reach space inside. Then engineer Jim Crocker, taking a shower in a German hotel, noticed the European-style showerhead mounted on adjustable rods. He realized the Hubble’s little mirrors could be extended into the telescope by mounting them on similar folding arms. And this flash was the key to fixing the problem.


Overcoming Barriers to Inspiration

For most designers, the question of inspiration is usually surrounded by a good deal of obscurity. Though considered an essential ingredient for creativity, few are able to articulate it or know how to achieve it.

I don’t want to attempt a definition of inspiration, but I do want to get down on paper just a few of the necessary conditions required for inspiration. I say necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions, because I don’t believe most of us really know the magic behind what actually bring about inspiration. But I do think we can get nearer to an idea of the necessary conditions – the sine qua non (without which it could not be) – required to even make inspiration possible.

Many forces in our culture adversely affect creativity. Not only are creators (in any art or science) surrounded by external barriers to their creativity, but they face many internal, psychological barriers.

I’d like to touch on some of these barriers and suggest a few ways to “protect” our creative juices and create space for inspiration in our work. Because I am a designer, I will articulate my suggestions for designers. But the principles can still have broader application outside of the realm of a design team.

The main barriers to inspiration and a few ways to overcome them:

  1. Time: Whether the product of mere perception or actual deadlines, we tend to live under the tyranny of the urgent. When urgency dominates our conscious mind, there is little room for the muse of inspiration to bring our minds up to timeless things like goodness, truth and beauty.When consumed by the urgent, our minds fixate on actualities rather than possibilities. The tyranny of the urgent triggers a mental “fight or flight” mechanism that aims at one thing: survival. Not flourishing, not beauty, not greatness.Transcending Time

    – Well, we have obvious limitations. But often our perception of time needs to change. A few things my manager has done involve mandatory times of reflection and casual conversation at the beginning of team meetings. It is still gradually taking root across the whole company, but it is really having a positive and paradoxical affect: efficiency and creativity actually go up. I have a few theories about why this happens, but will save it for a later entry. If you can’t experiment with this, try taking walks outside to clear your mind for 15 min every few hours. Soak in the sun, breathe deeply, think about your family and friends, read some poetry, recite some formal prayers, do whatever helps you mentally “reset”.

    – I have tried to make a habit beginning to sketch and concept weeks or even months before a project is even in discussion. Meet with various stakeholders periodically to encourage them to forecast their needs so you can plan miles ahead of them.

    – Schedule a portion of your day or week to catch up on emails or other tasks that tend to demand immediate response but don’t actually require your immediate attention. Flag emails in Outlook, keep a list of lower priority tasks and put these aside before they side-track you. For me, a combination of Basecamp project management software and Post-It notes has worked nicely.

    – If your position allows it, try to set reasonable deadlines for yourself that give more time than you think you’ll need and either deliver early or deliver on time with a final product that goes above and beyond the original project description. (Just be aware of the precendent and expectation you set by consistently doing this :-))

    – For those of us who are employed designers, there will always be the brutal reality that businesses operate on efficiency. One thing I have done is made time for myself on weekends or after work to sketch, concept and do mock-ups just for the hell of it. I create imaginary brands and place them in various made-up communication scenarios. If you don’t discipline yourself to spend some of your own time on design, I don’t think you’ll sustain creativity at work (unless your workplace is exceptional).

  2. False Dichotomies: We tend to pigeon hole ourselves by thinking our work must either be creative or strategic (towards business objectives), either visually appealing or functional, either quality or efficient.Defeating the Dichotomy

    – Try to catch yourself in specific situations criticizes yourself or others using either/or reasoning. Instead of contradicting your peer (or yourself) identify the value in your position and theirs. Fess up, apologize (if need be), laugh about it, then approach the (I think) fun challenge of finding creative ways to make both seemingly opposed ideas work together.

    – Audit your past work and try to identify instances where you compromised and gave into either/or thinking. Point out specifics where you could have challenged yourself to embrace other seemingly opposed ideas and made your work great. Invite others you trust to help you identify these instances.

    – Meet with stakeholders and list out all the various needs (IT, marketing, VPs, CEO, CFO, etc.). It’s is a practical way to consistently challenge yourself to embrace seemingly opposed values and goals. When you succeed, you reap the added benefit of building trust with those stakeholders, which improves relationships in a post that can be very relationally difficult.

  3. Auto-pilot: We stagnate when we use the skills and processes that have become second nature as a substitute for creativity instead of as a tool in the toolbox to supplement and empower creative process. This can be closely linked to the tyranny of the urgent mentioned above.Taking Back the Stick

    – When I have made the unfortunate mistake of making my primary goal efficiency, I often slip into auto-pilot. While I do highly value efficiency, I still have to find the delicate balance between quality and efficiency. Ideally, I am constantly improving in both. For every project, I don’t just set deadlines and quantitative goals with stakeholders, I set qualitative goals for the aesthetic and artistic quality of the deliverables. This builds qualitative value into the project process and helps (many) stakeholders feel valued as much as your commitment to efficiency and ability to meet quantitative goals.

    – Sometimes, we become bored with projects that seem largely repetitive and limiting. Budget, time, brand identity, stakeholders, etc. can make you slip into robot-mode because your heart just isn’t in it anymore. I highly recommend creating imaginary sub-brands or sister brands (on your own time) to help you see your actual brand in a new light.

  4. Monologue: No one ever sustained creativity on their own for very long. Our work tends to come to life when we invite others into the creative and critical process.Stop Talking to Yourself

    – Dialogue with others challenges us to listen to and try on differing perspectives. Dialogue helps us deconstruct our small, subjective notions, and disposes us to listen for the ever-elusive but undeniable muse that shows up in the midst of true dialogue. In short, monologue encourages us to becomes pridefully self-satisfied with our “own” ideas, while dialogue humbles us by challenging us to listen,. Listening is one of the essential virtues of any artist. NOTE: To protect a dialogue from turning into an argument, it can be helpful to set rules (get creative with them). For example, you can require that every team member begin their responses with “Yes, and” (rather than “yeahhhh, but…”). There is a difference between dialogue and discussion, between discovery and critical analysis. They each have their place, but put them in their proper order and try not to mix them.

    – Immerse yourself in blogs, newsletters, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, sign up for webinars, download whitepapers, subscribe to magazines and other marketing publications, attend conferences, lectures and workshops, and make friends with like-minded designers.

  5. Failure to separate the creative and editorial process: When we hastily jump into scrutinize or polishing up our work when we have only just begin to sketch crude concepts, we don’t give the space our minds need to experiment with how to bring a vision to reality. Imagine a teacher giving an art student a paint brush to paint with. But the teacher gave no room to be silly and absurd, to experiment, to struggle, to be stuck, or to fail. The student would probably give up art altogether, or perhaps study up on the rigid “rules” of art and learn to mimic them well (though the result would be uninspired work).We tend to subject ourselves to the same hasty mentorship. Sometimes the cause is fear and self-doubt, sometimes it is angst over meeting a deadline. Introspection is always good for anyone experiencing the dreaded writer’s block, which affects us all from time to time.Sometimes Compartmentalizing is Good

    – For yourself, create and envision before editing and censoring your ideas. It’s as simple as that. You may have to go back and forth multiple times, but keep the two stages separate.

    – Implementing clear and distinct creative and editorial processes for your design team may present more complicated challenges. Stakeholders and company culture may resist such attempts and perceive them as being unflexible.

    – Invite stakeholders into the creative process at distinct phases of the project process and editorial process.

    – Set specific points for which you desire stakeholders’ input and emphasize the value these points have for you providing them with high-quality deliverables. From my limited experience, this helps bring mutual trust and understanding when attempting to implement formal changes to the project process.

My list and suggestions are by no means comprehensive. They are just a start. I have not mentioned some barriers simply because they are rather obvious. For example, sometimes lack of skills, resources and proper environment can inhibit creative inspiration.

My hope is that this list helps identify some ways to overcome internal and external challenges to creativity encourage anyone in any kind of work to thaw their cynicism about enjoying work and to discover renewed inspiration in their day-to-day work.

OK. But who are you?

Have you ever met someone with no sense of identity? You ask the person about their interests, beliefs, hobbies, etc. and get no closer to knowing them…  Maybe you even tried to put words in their mouth.

Try as they may,  desperate and painfully self-aware, their efforts to frantically distract from the question only make things more awkward.  Maybe you have been on the other side, feeling you just weren’t being yourself.  It’s a terrible feeling.  You almost feel dishonest. 

And that makes a lot of sense.

Similarly, we have all stumbled upon brands who had no idea who they were or how to articulate their identity. If you stuck around long enough to see if the company could tell you who they were, the response you probably got was less of an answer and more of a distraction – pushing a sale of a product or service. 

I know it is important to be able to sell your product by talking about it’s inherent qualities.  But branding goes farther than this.

A brand involves a story that involves the passion of individuals for something  greater than profit.  A good brand implants a coherent and compelling concept in the mind.  If a brand is great, that concept takes shape into something almost robust as an actual person.

But few companies have the confidence in their vision to discover, articulate and execute their brand across all communication scenarios.  This doesn’t just bore the customer, it will also affect employees.  A company that fails to consistently articulate it’s brand story, vision, core values and demonstrate them in their norms and structures will fail to develop and retain talent. 

People and brands lose friends and customers and many opportunities for loyal friends and loyal customers just because they were unwilling to face their fears and ask the question, “Who am I?  Why do I exists?  Why do I matter?  Why do others want to be a part of my story?”

Excellence Requires Imagination

Imagination has little place in many workplaces here in the US.  In fact, you don’t see much imagination around you in day to day life.  You do see lots of concrete, copy+pasted tract homes, and “parks” that consist of large lawns, a few trees and maybe a swing.  Do we really have to live so uninspired?  More specifically to this post, do we have to work with so little inspiration?

I don’t think so.

More than that, I believe that a company will eventually fail if it does not deeply value employees, get the right people on board and implement norms and structures within the company to help protect and articulate that sense of value. 

I have to just say, as young and idealistic as I am, that a company cannot survive if their stated and practiced core values have nothing to do with creating a better world or improving the lives of particular individuals.  If profit is the only motive, a company will eventually only attract those who care about profit.  And people who only care about profit tend to have a negative impact on the world and lack imagination.

Do I think we should throw out the bottom line from our reports?  Not at all.  I just think we have to throw out the false dichotomy of “either/or” thinking.  We have to get rid of what Jim Collins (in “Built to Last“) calls the “Tyranny of the Or”.   You can have a commitment to healthy thriving company culture AND have an agressive profit motive.  And even if you can’t have both actually, you should still aim that high. 

That said, I would like to touch on one commonly overlooked but essential ingredient for creating an inspired and enduring workplace: imagination.

What is imagination? Well, as I understand it, imagination is our ability to create mental images, concepts, sensations and experiences that tell us something interesting and meaningful about ourselves and our world. Imagination sometimes calls up creativity from our supressed sub-consciousIt taps into the deep roots of human existence and invites others to go there.  It injects new life into a world that has become cold and stale through our culture of distractions and other defense mechanisms.

Not only that, imagination can help us solve complex problems by thinking strategically or theoretically about how to approach a problem from different angles.  Imagination sees new connections and makes sense of those connections in a powerful way. A scientist, a mathemetician and a programmer ought to use their imagination as much as an artist, philosopher or writer.

Imagination is dangerous because it disrupts apathy and narrow-minded dogmatism in our thinking and way of life.  Imagination brings commonly held assumptions to light and questions.  Imagination conceives of alternate possibilities, embraces paradox and believes in big hairy audacious goals.  (There I did it again.  A needless Jim Collins reference)

When you create space for creativity in the workplace, get the right people on board who have the drive and ability to articulate their creativity and translate it into a finished product, I think one piece of the company culture puzzle is in place.  Imagination helps bring unified vision, freshness and innovation, without which a company is sure to become divided, distracted and stagnant. 

As far as how you can specifically instill and protect imagination within a company, maybe I will take a stab at that in another post.

The Careful Craft of Building a Brand

The most pivotal lesson I have learned in my short experience discovering and building an online brand is patience.  In fact, the valuable things I learn as a marketer can usually be reduced to some elemental virtue.

In my first months as a web marketer I encountered industry “experts” who tended to view websites as mere transaction machines.  They did not see it as a way to drive engagement, provide rich and relevant content and cultivate relationships with customers.  Most of all, the concept of a larger, far-off goal of brand loyalty was not on their radar at all.

Now, I can understand, at first glance, where they were coming from.  They’re probably thinking of transactional conversions as the most valuable metrics for evaluating the health and success of a website.  These marketers were, after all, not aware of the robust variety of measurements possible online. From their point of view, you slap up some nice stock photos, put a left-hand nav, some bold “buy now” buttons, and you’re done.  Pretty simplistic.

I tried to see the web as a transaction machine. But this short-sighted view seemed only to obscure the customer-brand relationship. Not only that, but even our short-term goal – more transactions – was failing!  That was a red flag.

I became quickly convinced there was a better way and that it was possible to approach the customer relationship as something more than a transaction; as something, well, relational.

My rationale was this: If you want to build a brand, you can’t just stop at getting people to prefer your brand.  You have to drive them up to the point where they actually identify with your brand, where they view themselves differently (even if in some small way) as a result of associating with your brand.  This high-level of brand loyalty will guarantee retention of a company’s market share through the years, empower customer evangelists and even, if you are lucky, bring your target audiences close enough to learn from them desires and needs you couldn’t have possibly uncovered in a rigged focus group or broad market research project.

After conducting some research, my first small step (working with almost no budget) was to run A/B tests holding the performance of emotive/conversational copy I wrote up against the traditional direct-response up-in-your-grill copy we had usually been provided by consultants.   Through these tests I obtained vital insights into the motivation of my audience.  First, I found that they were twice as likely to respond when I spoke to them as individuals in a tone that was emotive and conversational.  Additionally, response rates would go through the roof when I addressed the customer’s connection to the brand and recognized it in a meaningful and authentic way.

What was pivotal for my discovery process was patience.  It took time and the willingness to reflect deeply on the core identity of my organization and gain insight into the feelings and motivations of our target audience.

I recognize that I spoke to my audience in a very specific way, given the caused-based nature of the organization I work for and the very particular profiles making up the bulk of the organization’s constituency.  The conclusion I drew from my tests was not that speaking emotively disproves the value of direct marketing.  It only provides support for the idea that everyone has a unique audience that needs to be spoken to in a way that builds a relationship extending beyond a mere monetary exchange.  There has to a be a mind exchange, an emotional exchange, a personal conversation.  Particularly when communicating through web media, I am convinced it is essential to view customers in this light.

It didn’t stop their.  We began to survey our constituents and ask for their advice on improving specific products.  On social media channels, we began to ask pointed questions to gauge the health of our brand awareness online.

But all of this takes patience.  Under the pressures of revenue goals, threats of budget cuts or even the fear of losing your job, how does one take up such a fight?  It is easy to change email copy, but how is one supposed to go about investing the time and resources in building such a cohesive, intentional and relational brand online?  Well, it isn’t easy and it is a never-ending dynamic process, at least as far as I can tell.

I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have an encouragement: marketing is so much more fulfilling when you allow yourself to see customers as humans. I can’t vouche for measuring my theory across offline channels.  But I can present the little experience I have in web marketing and emphatically state that there are plenty of industry reports to support my case.

When you acknowledge the potential of converting customers into valued members and people who just buy your product into people who buy into who you are (social media is already forcing some to wake up to this fact), it can revolutionize your product or service and even influence the company culture around you.

To be a healthy person requires acute self-awareness and an ability to understand the unique needs, wants, feelings and thoughts of those around you.   The same is true of a healthy brand.   Both take patience.

Get behind your product or service, discover your core identity, build your brand around it, listen to the voice of your customers and learn to open a valuable two-way conversation online.  You will see results.