Most companies voice their commitment to innovation. Many hold brainstorming sessions or have an innovation lab. Though well-intentioned, such practices effectively silo innovation and overlook the engine that drives it: creativity.
If all we are doing is setting aside new departments or space that we designate as “the place to innovate,” then it is as if we are saying there is a separate time to be creative. Creativity is a productivity play. That is why it is essential for business, not just some frilly, extraneous add-on.
You’ve heard people say things like “I’m not a creative type,” or “I’m not artsy.” Perhaps even you have made such comments. These types of declarations put the onus of creativity onto artists—who have invested quite a lot of time and discipline into developing their skills and craft. The reality is that to be human is to be hardwired to be creative. In order to be an incredible attorney, scientist, entrepreneur or plumber, you must be super creative! So, the first way the creativity gap shows up is when we create a dichotomy among people and separate ourselves into one of two groups. We draw false lines in the sand where there don’t need to be any.
I define creativity as our ability to toggle between wonder and rigor to solve problems and create novel value. Wonder is about awe, dreaming, pausing, and asking big “What if…?” questions. Rigor is deep skill development, incessant practice, and time on task. While it may sound counter-intuitive, it is important to make a creativity leap right now. I know it may feel more important to dig in your heels during times of crisis and only focus on the practical, survival mode stuff. And you’re right. Creativity is incredibly practical and is crucial to survival. It is not a luxury reserved for days of repose. Rigor is not sustainable without wonder. And wonder is found in the midst of rigor. We need both today in the midst of a health crisis, social upheaval, and economic uncertainty. We must be creative—right, now.
Creativity is vital to success in every field—including rocket science. Yes, NASA scientists get support for their creative process. An example of that support is The Studio at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The Studio’s research and development process is something from which strategists can also learn. Here are a few takeaways:
Recognize the value of cognitive diversity. The Studio at the JPL is staffed by a thoughtful and eclectic team of designers, artists, and social scientists. Daniel Goods is a visual strategist and director of The Studio. The Studio finds creative ways to support the scientists by helping them frame and explain their research in tangible, visual story form. One example is the Line of Sight installation. They even help install way-finding for JPL conferences. In many ways, The Studio is made up of a collective of gifted translators. They are able to communicate really complex ideas from physicists and astronomers into engaging and inspiring stories that spark new ideas and questions.
Leverage inquiry as a metric. At The Studio, their rigorous assessment process starts with really good questions. When I visited The Studio, I was struck by the three questions they use to determine a project’s desirability, viability, and feasibility:
Question #1: Does the project achieve and exceed clients’ goals?
Question #2: Does the project make you grow as a designer?
Question #3: Is the project innovative, fresh, and new? Do people want to imitate it or steal it?
You could substitute different words here or there. For example, you might ask how the project helps you grow as a marketing professional, or coder, or strategist. Question #1 starts first with the clients’ needs. Question #2 looks at client work as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Client work sparks inside-out growth. Question #3 gets to the heart of competitive advantage. To ask if people want to steal your idea reminds me of Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist—a high form of flattery. The Studio fundamentally wants to ensure that its work starts with clear expectations, engages people, uses story, and is timeless.
Establish boundaries. In my interview with Brent Sherwood, a space architect at NASA, he reminded me that we need to rigorously design the structure and boundaries of our work projects in order to understand the limits we can push. Boundaries, structure, rules, and limits are essential. They are modalities to help us get great at our craft, appreciate the times of wonder, and ultimately complete the creativity leap that wonder initiates.
Taking the leap to build an organization-wide creative capacity is the single best way to continually innovate.
**Originally posted at AGPR