Too Rushed To Know Where We’re Going

Job descriptions often call for individuals possessing a “strong bias for action”. Businesses almost always need more execution-focused employees.

So it is natural that we shape the way we talk and interact with co-workers according to this ideal.  One way we portray ourselves as driven by an urgency to act is to speak in simple and punchy generalizations that help summarize massive amounts of information and make it look as though the path forward, what should be done in response to the information, was almost obvious.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, but not always. At least once a year, if not once a quarter, we need to practice the discipline of self-doubt, questioning, putting it all on the table. Deconstruction is one of the most constructive things I do personally and professionally. 

Our company culture asks us to move quickly, especially during difficult times, but we also tend to make hasty generalizations and decisions simply because we’re sitting in a meeting full of puzzled looks and someone has to step forward and cast a vision for the road ahead.

And that vision usually starts with some pretty big assertions about the company, competition and the market context:

“We’re the kind of company that…and not the kind that…”
“X is what we do best, we have to stick to X…”
“Our competition is doing A, but we have to do B better and more efficiently”

But because they are so far-reaching and simple, generalizations can cover much more important and complex internal and external environmental factors that should be factored into our strategy.

It’s important we’ve thought deeply about those generalizations ahead of time and in great detail. Yes, we have to speak concisely and make blanket statements. But had better do our homework beforehand.

That’s where deconstruction comes into play.  Not everyone has the patience for it, but good leaders must thrive off of it.  The only way to refresh your strategy is to have the ability to pull it apart and see it for what it is. Without maintenance, the machine becomes obsolete, fragmented, confused and falls apart.

Action determines whether we move forward, but strategy determines where we’ll end up. So which is more urgent?


Revise, Improve or Hold?

Revise, Improve or Hold?We all have our defaults, some more cemented than others.

It seems that one of the most common defaults we all have is how we respond to challenges.  The three default responses tend to be either: revise, improve or hold.

The problem is, our preferred way of tackling a challenge is not always the best response.  As a universal rule, any one of these on its own would be disastrous. 

Constantly revising the fundamentals is a recipe for insanity. Constantly striving to improve things that are inherently finite in their capacity for improvement will drive you crazy too (while wasting a lot of your time). Clinging to the obsolete breeds mindless, mechanistic stagnation.

So what would happen if we embraced each situation on its own merits, soberly and patiently facing its unique attributes?

If we were to discipline ourselves to practice such delicate respect for nuance, we would see entire industries revolutionized. If we approached our own lives with this level of care, what then?

Iterative Genius

Genius comes through gradual, focused iterations.  It is not necessarily a static property. Genius is in motion.

Like all virtues, genius is achieved through constant practice.  It is simply the optimizing of our capacity of discovery and experimentation through a set of habits.

Scientific method looks at the bare process of genius-like behavior, yet is too cold to capture the human quality that makes this process alive.

In addition to a scientific method, perhaps we need a scientific ethos to invigorate our cold dehumanizing modern approach to genius.

Curiosity, focus, persistence, honesty, thoroughness and even a love for beauty – these are the habits that distinguish a genius from a mere technical expert or mad scientist.

Once we have recast the way of the genius in a more familiar light, we can begin to see the psychological imperative of cultivating gradual, iterative genius.

I’m just not that into me.

Where does the “silo” idea come from?  Well, as I understand it, if a manager considers the intrinsic functions of a department as the chief value and aim of that department, he or she is demonstrating “silo thinking”.  He or she has lost site of the structure and goals of the organization as whole. 

This mindset tends to lead managers to structure and run departments within an organization in a way that protects and maintains growth within that department, possibly to the detriment of the organization as a whole.

The implications are intuitive enough. Communication and collaboration tends to suffer. Sharing resources is precluded by self-interests and pet projects. Even if the silo mentality helps bottom line to some extent in the short-term, it is likely to derail success in reaching long-term organizational goals.   

All of this sounds like a round about way of describing selfishness in a business context.  Not only selfishness, but a philosophy that assumes a lot about the baseness of human nature.

Ayn Rand praised the virtue of selfishness; but I’m just not convinced – on a personal or professional level.  There’s too much evidence to suggest that selfishness is not the only thing that motivates people and makes them happy or successful. 

We actually derive enjoyment from playing a part on team that is bigger than us and working towards a bigger purpose.  This enjoyment translates into motivation, which translates into loyal, honest, smart, and hard work.  I recommend Daniel Pink’s recent release, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for more reading on this subject.

I recognize, however, that if a work environment does not protect the psychological possibility of being part of the broader success of the company, Managers will become self-interested in protecting their department and his or her employees are more likely to become focused on their own personal achievement. 

Some see this as evidence of our inevitable selfishness.  But I don’t see it that way.  I think our attitudes and behavior are strongly afftected by our environment, and if a work environment exudes apathy and self-interest, people will absorb it. 

Alternatively, a positive, collaborative company brand will affect workers for the better.  I’ve seen this on sports teams, project teams, in families, groups of friends and nearly every social structure I can imagine.

What am I saying?  Well, I suppose I’m just trying to point out an observation: humans aren’t necessarily motivated by self-interest.  I think that this feature of human psychology entails that silo-based organizations are bound to fail and miss out on a vital resource that could help their company succeed in the long term: the dedication of the human spirit. 

While a blog entry just isn’t the place to exhaustively cover, well, any single subject (except, perhaps, a blog about Lindsay Lohan or something roughly equivalent in nature), I hope to have presented some plausible claims worth exploring for yourself in your work.

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.