by

Optimizing Creativity

Creativity is a fun word.  We all value creativity and we see it as a fundamental characteristic of humanity. We love creative people and we all want to be “more creative”.  We love The Creatives.  Sadly, the corporate world sometimes sees The Creatives a bit like fish; it’s really cool when you have them – but you don’t do anything with them but stare.  Unless you’re an expert on fish, you only know a Goldfish from a Beta; so there’s only one type of Creative you ever look for, and that can hurt you.

What is Creativity?

Let’s list some things that Creativity isn’t:

  • Intelligence
  • Artistic talent
  • Musical ability
  • Poetry – or Writing in general

Now if that seems a little surprising, good! Those are all mediums by which creativity can be expressed. They are not, in themselves, creativity.  Creativity is generally assumed to be present when you see those particular mediums, but that is not always the case.

So again, what is creativity? You could read the Wikipedia entry for it – but I promise that it’ll bore you.  Let’s start with an old cliché: Thinking outside the box.  The director of my department has a good quote regarding this metaphorical box, “Don’t think outside of the box, move the box”.  That’s closer, but let’s try again.

Creativity is thinking as if there’s no box at all.  The box represents your limits and boundaries. So the box could be business rules, industry standards, social norms, or simply, “no one has ever done that before.” The box is a lot of limitations.

Thinking, “outside the box” means that you already know your limits, and you’re trying to break them. So you’re a rebel because you’re a rule-breaker. Moving the box means that you’re ignoring the limits. So you’re ignoring the rules.  Moving the box can demonstrate a sense of entitlement.

If you approach the world as if there isn’t a box, you’re creative.  A true Creative doesn’t see limits, he sees potential.

Creativity is the ability to recognize the capabilities and potential of  resources.

That’s my simple, non-dictionary.com / non-wikipedia definition. A truly creative person sees his medium, whatever that is, and sees it for the potential it has – not the rules that need to be broken.

Quit Stereotyping The Creatives

If you can accept my definition of creativity, then you can understand that creativity is not a profession, it’s an attribute. Creativity can exist in plumbing, electrical work, law, economics, and accounting (though most creative accountants don’t get along with the IRS).  The Creatives are not just people with tattoos, piercings, an art gallery, and a Starbucks name-tag. The Creatives are the ones who understand their medium.  Some of them wear khaki pants, a belt, and a tie to work every day. Many of them are rednecks, but not all.

Similarly, don’t assume that graphic designers, web designers, and video people are creative. It is true that they are artists, but art is not creativity.  In the same breath, remember that creativity and intelligence are not synonymous. I am firmly convinced that there’s a link, but smart people aren’t creative by default. The inverse also holds true; the un-intelligent are are not uncreative.

Intelligence certainly boosts creativity. Going back to my definition of creativity as the ability to recognize the capabilities  of resources – intelligence helps you comprehend a concept – but recognizing the potential isn’t there.  This is that priest in the 1800’s who invented the fax machine 15 years before the phone. He’s smart enough to figure out how to build a fax machine, but un-creative enough to completely ignore the fact that hearing someone’s voice would be cool, too.

Start looking for The Creatives in Your World

Start looking at the people around you and find the ones who understand  a concept or a process. These are people who get the “big picture”.  I work at a Multi-Level Marketing / Direct Sales company. We have a lot of people who “know” our Compensation Plan. They know the rules and requirements for earning commissions, but they don’t know how to be creative – so instead of creating new bonuses, they change existing ones.  A Creative would understand the behaviors of the customers  and see a way to capitalize on those behaviors – not a set of rules to break or ignore.

The easiest way to find A Creative is to look for the guy who always starts off a conversation with, “what if…”. A Creative is someone who gets the core idea of some element. In web design, a perfect example of true Creativity is the guy who says, “what if  there were an infinite canvas instead of lots of webpages.” One of my heroes of creativity in the web is a guy named Román Cortés.  He looks at CSS3 in the world of “what can it do?” instead of “what has been done”.  If you don’t have anyone in your department who talks like that, you don’t have any Creatives.  Coders and developers can be insanely creative -if you let them.

You may not be A Creative, but you can definitely be creative. It’s really simple: Pick a medium, look for the potential.  Make sure it’s a medium you understand. Don’t go out and pick up an easel and paint supplies tomorrow, expecting to be Picasso, if you don’t know acrylic vs. water-based. My guitar teacher taught me this as he was teaching me music theory: “Music theory is just theory. You can break the rules, but you’ve got to know how music works.” Erik Mongrain is a guy that gets that. (you can thank me later for that video).

Using Your Creatives

Creatives are a fishy bunch. They live in the world of what if a lot. Creativity isn’t a button that you push – so they can’t help the fact that they think of something at 3 am or at the urinal.

You need a time to share ideas. That can be a brainstorm session once a week, an off-site meeting at Starbucks, or something. Plan at least an hour and a half. Block the time on your calendar and invite everyone on your time. Make it a habit. That way your Creative writes down his idea and waits for the meeting, instead of bugging you all day. My boss established this a while back and it was great. Remember that the Brainstorm is not the time for “the box”.  It’s only about sharing ideas. Take notes at your brainstorm session.

Oh, by the way, Creativity is not the Q & A time of a staff meeting.

Manage the flow of ideas. Your Creative doesn’t need to be talking to the CEO, he needs to talk it out at the brainstorm session.  The manager needs to be ready to listen and weed out the good ideas. The manager needs to be the ‘stupid-fuse’, too.  He’s looking for one or two brilliant ideas a month, not 50 decent ones.

The manager takes his little bottle of genius to his boss and demands that he drink the Kool-Aid®. He fights for that idea all the way up the ladder – and fights to protect it, too.

Once the idea is approved, the manager can go back to The Creative and start talking implementation. If The Creative isn’t keen on implementation, take it to the team that is. When A Creative isn’t in a position to make decisions, he can’t protect the integrity of his idea.  This is why it’s so important that you have a process for capturing creativity.

Optimize your creativity

Accept that anyone can be creative in any medium. Look for the people that get that, and if you are one who gets that, manage it. Make a time for collecting ideas, and look for the golden nuggets. Create a separate time just for weeding out ideas, and a third time for delivery.