Why Is Creativity So Unreliable?

Tim Brown

Tim Brown

7 minutes

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At a time like the present, when business and society faces unprecedented disruption and change, creativity should be an essential tool for competitiveness. New products, services, experiences, brands and communications have been powerful contributors to business growth in the past but, unfortunately, not always reliably so. 

Innovation can be perceived to be unnecessarily risky in the short term because individual projects often fail even though not innovating is even riskier in the long term, leading to stagnation, disruption or commoditization. 

Unsurprisingly, leaders hesitate in the face of this paradox, resulting in less creativity and innovation in business than there should be, and fewer companies realizing the long term competitive benefits.  

I think there is an answer to this problem and that the short term risks of creativity are unnecessarily amplified because of a lack of understanding of what determines the success of any creative process. If we can reduce those risks then more businesses will invest in creativity, reaping their just rewards.

Asking better questions

There are three critical phases to any creative endeavor; asking the question, having ideas, and bringing the chosen idea to life. Each has an equally important bearing on the ultimate result and yet almost all of our attention is focused on the second phase; having ideas. This is the sexy bit. Conjuring something from nothing. Pushing the limits of what can be imagined. Redefining what might be possible. 

As I have reflected on my own forty-year career in design, I have come to the conclusion that my most impactful work was not the result of having a better idea. Instead, it came from asking a better question. Whether it was me asking that question, or more often, a brilliant client asking that question, the effect was to set the creative process off on a more productive path. Conversely, I have lost count of the number of occasions where I have seen designers do a brilliantly creative job of answering the wrong question. 

My most impactful work was not the result of having a better idea. Instead it came from asking a better question.

In science, many of the greatest breakthroughs have come from asking the right, and often very creative, question. For instance, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was born out of a simple non-obvious question: “What would the universe look like if I rode on a beam of light?” This question led to a profound shift in our understanding of space and time. From gravity to the structure of DNA, countless discoveries have been made as a result of a better question. 

Why do we sometimes overlook the importance of questioning, assuming we can bypass it or presuming we've already identified the right questions? All too often the crucial question that traditionally marks the beginning of the creative process is ill considered, rushed or under-explored. If you want to know more about the general topic of asking better questions in service of creativity then I would recommend reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. He explores the topic of how to ask better questions in the search for breakthrough ideas.

Diversity

An effective strategy for getting to a better question is to seek out diverse experiences when looking to frame a creative brief. What range of voices and frameworks might help you challenge conventional thinking, incorporate wisdom outside of your own experience, and anticipate  roadblocks? 

At Neol we believe that one of the great advantages of having a community of senior creative leaders is that collectively, it can bring broad and deep experience in service of helping define better questions, in order to better invest creative resources. This might happen through a jam session in which a diverse group of senior leaders consider a wider range of questions, bringing deep experience to the trade-offs between different directions. Sometimes it helps to dig deeper into the original question, focusing on the foundations. Other times it is better to step back and consider a wider context, perhaps setting the creative enquiry on a completely new path.

Recently, in such a session, a group of Neol creative leaders helped the executive team of Alight–an international non-for profit providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief–understand where to focus their marketing for fundraising. By recognizing that ‘how the work gets done’ is not as interesting to long term funders as ‘the specific value that the organization brings through their work’ the team could provide a much more specific brief to designers and marketers and therefore be more likely to reach an impactful outcome. Reframing the question helped get to a better brief. 

Why do we sometimes overlook the importance of questioning, assuming we can bypass it or presuming we've already identified the right questions?

Similarly, in a jam session with Rania Rostom, Head of Global Marketing & Communications, GE, a team of creative leaders helped tackle the question of building local brand relevance. Through the session, the group made a pivot in viewing this less as a brand challenge but instead an opportunity to engage customer experience and organizational design to create a campaign that will take root in different geographies. They took the question deeper.

You will likely have figured out that the advantage of having this kind of dialogue with creative leaders who are neither embedded in your own organization, nor in an agency structure, is that there is more flexibility in what happens next. Corporate leaders rarely have the bandwidth to jump onto a new initiative, while agency-based leaders are strongly biased toward larger scale projects. 

Who is to say what the best next step might be? It could be a project, but it could just as easily be a sprint, a workshop or a series of conversations to build momentum. As a business leader, you need to be able to follow the path that is most likely to lead to impact in the long run.

It's not just about finding an answer, but about unlocking new ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Creativity and diverse experience invested at the earliest moment of defining the brief can reap massive benefits later. As business leaders, I encourage you to embrace the power of asking better questions. It's not just about finding an answer, but about unlocking new ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Getting to the finish line

Completing the creative journey is a topic that deserves more attention than I can give here and I will return to it in the future. Suffice to say that, just as failing to ask a really high caliber question often sends the creative process off in a fruitless direction, so too, does failing to pay deep attention to how an idea comes to life, how an innovation gets realized, or how a design reaches the market; often leading to disappointing results. 

Many businesses do not have the creative leadership experience in-house to shepherd ideas through to implementation without losing the original design intent. Similarly, agencies struggle to break the project-based model in order to provide the fractional support that would be valuable over the months it takes for an idea to go through the development, engineering or production phases to reach the market.

Once a solution is identified, it must be executed with utmost precision, often demanding organizational effectiveness above all else. Successfully executing on a truly creative idea is about getting down to the hard work of sweating the details and it’s about using experienced know-how to get over or around the inevitable obstacles. Typically organizations have not had access to the kind of fractional but committed support of senior, experienced leaders that would help them reduce the risks and increase the success rate of this third and final phase of the creative process. Fractional creative leaders, just like their financial or marketing counterparts, can bring just the right amount of expertise for the time you need it making more efficient use of valuable resources without putting the outcome of your creative endeavors at undue risk.

The challenges of today and tomorrow require a next wave of creativity that isn't about being risk-averse or overly cautious. Nor will throwing all of our resources at having more ideas be the answer.  Instead, it's about being more discerning, focusing on both ends of the creative journey, asking better questions and applying deep experience toward getting more creative solutions to the finish line. This approach, though a fresh take, might just be the key to unlocking a more fruitful era of creativity in business.

Neol has recently introduced a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art AI matchmaker. It works by taking any challenge you’re facing and pairing you with the most compatible Creative Leaders at Neol, empowering your projects with unprecedented creativity and expertise. Check it out at ai.neol.co.

Neol has opened the door to a world of endless possibilities–we'd love for you to join: platform.neol.co/client/join

Image credits in order of appearance:

  • Milad Fakurian
  • Sebastian Svenson
  • Shubham Dhage
  • Milad Fakurian

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