written by cyle gage
version 0.2, last updated 12/04/14

How to Work Creatively

What is creativity?

Let's start with a baseline definition of creativity, one that I feel like I can stand behind and regard as a desirable trait. Creativity is the ability to make new things! This capacity is usually expressed by the generation and application of ideas or by having the agility to adapt to changing circumstances.

Measuring creativity and its success is usually quite difficult. Traditional examples of creativity include being able to paint a portrait, or write music, or architect a building. Success usually looks like fame, money, and prestige.

However, I believe you can be creative about anything that has room for change and improvement.

The technology market is a good case study in how world-renowned institutions have to be creative at not just coming up with and fostering neat ideas, but actually applying those ideas into practical physical objects and abstractly into business practice and culture. It's not just that a successful computer or phone is a creative product, it's the fact that tech companies currently push along the cutting edge and have to employ creative solutions to solve problems like increasing revenue sources despite its own changing market. Many companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google have been able to try things, fail, adapt, move on, come up with new ideas, and repeat.

What follows are my ideas of how anyone and any institution/company can be more creative. They're not hard-and-fast rules, and there's no "do this and you'll suddenly be creative", but I believe that there are common, observable, cultural characteristics of creative individuals and environments. The main problem of creativity is that it's really hard, so most efforts to "be creative" fail quickly.

Besides having a definition, any person or insitution that seeks to be creative should publicly explain why creativity is valuable to them in the first place. It's not something universally valuable in every situation.

It's also important to set up concrete goals that'll demonstrate the creativity you're looking for. To "be creative" in itself is not a goal. Is your goal to encourage and afford more diverse ways of working and learning? Is your goal to successfully and rapidly adapt to a changing market? Is your goal to create a killer app once per year? Creativity can help you reach those goals; creativity is a means, not an end.

Be honest and transparent — when you fail, be willing to say so publicly. When someone else does it better (even if it's a competing institution), give them credit and learn from them! You should have definite, practical goals that can be articulated easily. And don't assign people to the goals, let people self-organize to get it done. If it doesn't get done, maybe it wasn't a good goal.

Courage and Curiosity

Above all else, the ability to be successfully creative is tied to courage and curiosity. It takes courage to do something new and/or different; the courage to be wrong, to fail, to be flexible. It takes courage to stick it out, despite your failures, and despite the disruption some ideas will cause to your business practices.

If you're curious about things, you'll be more open to afford yourself room for creativity. Curiosity about how things work, how other people do things, how things could be done better. Curiosity can sometimes be a form of blind courage, allowing you the ability to roll with the punches. People who are curious aren't concerned with success or failure, they just want to experiment and see what happens. That's a powerful agent for creativity.

Imagination, Focus, and Productivity

Everyone needs time to sit around and just think. Unstructured time that doesn't have an agenda, doesn't have an end goal, doesn't need to have anything shown for it. Put your phone down, quit out of your email client, and let yourself imagine. What's been bugging you lately? What could be improved? What's neat that you want to try? What project is someone working on that you're interested in? Why were you working on what you were just working on?

An often-cited productivity tip is to stop trying to multitask. It's actually hurting your productivity, it's not helping it. Learn to focus on one thing at a time. That includes being able to isolate yourself from nagging emails, text messages, even other people.

After you've spent some time thinking, focus your attention and be productive! What needs fixing? Go fix it! How could it be fixed faster? Make some changes to the process! What's standing in the way of just doing it? Overcome them! Focus your productivity on something that feels right.

This focus should also allow you to say "no" to things that don't feel right at the time. Saying "no" to something new may mean you get to give more attention to something else you already said "yes" to and need more time with. The extra effort may add a layer of polish that sets your work apart.

It's almost impossible to judge or assess the value of reflection time with a metric, though the evidence of it should be found in the resulting work. The quality of the work isn't its only important feature; its creator should be able to articulate what went into it and why it exists at all. It's not just that a business practice made it through committee, but can it actually be objectively justified and measured? Can you see that the time you spent on reflecting on a problem allowed the breathing room for its resolution?

Flat Hierarchy and Self-Organization

Hierarchy is great for the military, but it's bad for innovation. Having a boss tell you what to do doesn't foster creativity. Allowing people to self-organize across an institution, or across the internet, or in your local meetups, gets things done better. Assume that people are at work to do good work and to make things work better. Putting everyone on the same level can create a sense of individual freedom and increased responsibility for the group. It stops being about a definite "us" versus "them" within an institution or project. Making the structure flat decreases the distance between a person and the problem they're trying to solve, making the solution more personal and achievable.

College students already do self-organization very well with co-curricular clubs; they form organically based on shared interest and goals, never needing the approval of the parent institution to exist. Companies like Valve let their employees literally move their desks around and form whatever teams they think will work best, setting no rigid company-wide goals and having no managers to dictate projects. Institutions commonly restrict themselves by having to get things "approved" and put through committees, but bureaucracy destroys innovation.

Flat hierarchy is easy for small companies, but it's a huge hurdle for large institutions. That doesn't mean you can't flatten sprawling departments into flat teams, or curb the impulse to form endless committees when an individual or self-organizing team can accomplish the work quickly. Polling a group of people for "what stands in your way to getting work done?" will reveal a lot of processes that can be cut. There are lots of ways to move towards being flat without doing it overnight.

Committees and task forces can look great on paper, but if they need to exist for some reason, they shouldn't be manager-only or "authority"-only affairs. Every functional level can contribute something interesting to the discussion. It can still be productive to set broad, overarching goals, but it's never useful to micro-manage. Let the group decide what the major goals should be, and how they're translated into action. A diversity of knowledge will organically grow from a group of people who are able to self-organize and have the ambition to do great work.

Agility: Fault and Disruption Tolerance

Creativity and innovation involves failure and disruption. Failure can be a wonderful thing, because then you definitely know something doesn't work! Failure can clear the way for better ideas, so don't be afraid to fail. Doing something and failing is better than stalling and never doing anything. Disruption changes a familiar landscape and forces people to question the security of their position in an institution. Part of being creative means having a tolerance and acceptance of these factors so they don't prevent you from trying harder.

Being agile calls back to being courageous: if something is failing or not working as well as it could, and everyone is too scared to talk about it, then you're not allowing yourself to be creative. Talk about it!

However, it is true that failure can waste time and money, so don't fail all the time. Know your threshold of failure, but don't let it panic you prematurely! Feelings like regret and worry can be instructive. Regret can be the motivation to do a better job, and worrying can open you up to different ways of approaching a problem as you toss it back and forth in your head from every angle. Worrying can help you analyze why a problem is important to you, and maybe make you realize that it isn't.

When something is actually working well already, you don't need to change it just for the sake of innovation. Innovation shouldn't have a quota attached to it. Be critical of yourself and your institution and be honest about what's working and what isn't. If you have a goal you're trying to reach but are failing, be ready to throw out your old ways of thinking. If you've reached your goal and have been reaching it for awhile, think of a new goal. It's often easy to jump from 50% to 80% efficiency, but difficult to squeeze another 5% or 10% without changing the game entirely, because at that point you're redefining efficiency itself. That's where innovation is.

Freedom of Methodology

Being told to sit at a desk and do your homework deters creativity. Innovative people need flexibility of work methodology, whether that means flexible hours, different desk configurations, delivering the product in an alternate way, or working from home or a cafe or the library. Some people work best at a desk in a cubicle — that's fine too! Sometimes the solution to a problem or assignment doesn't look at all like what was expected, but it also doesn't need to be wild or radical to be successful. As long as the work gets done.

Some jobs require people be at a certain place to do a certain task. It's harder to achieve creative ways of working when you're tied to a phone or a routine. Try to find new ways of making it work better, easier, more efficiently! How could you redefine the terms of how you work? The limitations may lend themselves to an interesting, innovative solution.

The economy of specialized/creative jobs has moved our work force away from accepting the "I pay you, so do what I say" mentality. Workers aren't happy with that anymore. They want to feel empowered to contribute in larger capacities.

Freedom of work doesn't mean shifting the spectrum away from what's traditional, it just means expanding the spectrum to allow the non-traditional. Above all, don't be afraid of making small, incremental steps towards a goal. Any way to work is valid as long as you're able to get results eventually.

Open Communication

Everyone should be able to talk to anyone else and see what's being worked on at multiple levels. It should be simple to answer questions like "what is everyone working on?" whether you're asking about a whole department, the whole institution, an individual person, or their team. This public information helps people figure out what they could or should be working on, and where the weak spots are in the current environment. When you have a big map of what's being worked on, it's easy to see what you can help out with or where there's an opening for improvement.

Furthermore, everyone should be able to voice their opinion/great idea/problem/whatever publicly without repercussions. It doesn't mean the problem will get solved immediately — and the response may be to go try and fix it yourself! There are hundreds of ways to accomplish this in a public, transparent manner. Allowing everyone to see these things will encourage new projects, decrease duplicate efforts, and entice people to help each other out.

Open communication can seem easy, but it's actually quite difficult. You have to add work to your day to make sure things are transparent. Also, being open is hard for social reasons. Most people don't want to hear or say the truth. You have to build trust to get there.

Discussion is the best way to test an idea, whether it's with the woman who sits across from you, someone from a different functional level, or someone else in an entirely different section of the institution. Open communication doesn't just mean being able to see everything publicly, but being able to talk openly with anyone about anything.

Measuring the Subjective

Creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum: you need to actually apply it. Have a lot of great ideas, but never complete anything? That's a problem. Pick metrics to measure your success — don't be satisfied with just having ideas. Nobody is successfully creative if they can't apply it to something practical. Come up with some kind of measurement for your success, whether it's physically holding an end product, or seeing a smile on your customer's face, or making money, or retaining a certain percentage of students.

You don't need to use the same metric for everything. In fact, metrics should be different per project or per team. Raising student retention rates? Easily measurable. Accepting "more creative" students? Find the right way to measure that. Selling the most product in the marketplace? Easy to measure. Something you can track and reproduce.

Picking your metrics will also inform your goals. If you can't measure it, maybe it's not something you should work on, or maybe it's something you need to break down into more manageable parts.

Be Courageous

Try it. Break it. Fix it. Build something new. Creative people often have an itch they need to scratch, but this is not always the case. There's creative ways to work in the most mundane of jobs. You just have to be willing to find it and see if it makes work better for you.


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