The next chapter is about dreaming or imagination (or creativity or innovation). This is the one I’ve been working on and struggling with. I’m great at figuring out solutions to problems but to come up with a brand new idea is something different. Sometimes I can be creative but not everybody gets what I do. Even when the results speak for itself.
For example, I came up with a totally different way of managing a multitude of projects (150 projects) but most people/managers did not like my method because it was contrary to how the company did things. My project managers loved what I did but my peers did not…until they needed it.
I think that was why I had a hard time getting hired (aside from I’m a terrible job hunter and interviewer)…the people whom I would work directly with did not appreciate my methodology because it was contrary to the way things were done, but the end users such as the project managers understood what I did. The project managers unfortunately weren’t the ones to hire me. At least I think that was the reason for the great difficulty. It was trying and maddening.
Anyway, I struggle through the creative part. Even developing the picture for this post was an exercise in abject creativity. I spent a week trying to pull together an idea but it was to no avail.
So I will explore the next few weeks on the author’s 3rd metaskill for the Robot Age.
Monday, February 2, 2015
I’m having trouble with this next section because the author says he would offer some ideas (discipline were his words);for dreaming and imagination, and I was trying to figure out a short snappy rendition of what he talks about next. But the next section is not easy to encapsulate because he brings up several interesting ideas.
One is that being an expert can hinder you in being creative. It’s hard to break out of your belief system or get out of the box. That makes a lot of sense because one occasionally reads about some outsider or youngster disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new industry.
The author also says that to really come up with creative solutions, you can’t just pick it off the rack or go with the first solution that comes to mind. You have to hang around, cogitating on the problem. And that’s hard to do in this age of instant gratification and efficiency.
Specifically, he says there are three steps to solving problems: 1) research deeply on what is, 2) then imagine on what could be, and finally 3) describe the attributes of success. Here is where I get confused: I thought he was going to tell us how to dream or imagine the new thing. I can do number 1 and I can do number 3 but it’s number 2 that I can get stuck in certain areas. I can apply number 2 to developing spreadsheets, solving math problems, dealing with data, and now programming, but in areas such as job hunting or what to do next, I’m stumped. If I could dream up a new business, I would do it.
The other thing the author talked about is constraints. In order to be creative you need constraints. If you had no constraints, you would just wallow in the possibilities and come up with something banal. As an example, as a child, whenever I had to write a story with no rules on what topics to write, I was boring. But in college, I had some writing assignments in French that had some constraints, and I found that I was much more creative. The very first writing assignment pretty much set the bar for the rest of the semester. I had to write some sentences using only the words in the assignment. There were two columns of words: the first column were words relating to time or frequency such as yesterday, once a week, daily; the second column were action verbs such as cooking, studying, cleaning. When I read the assignment, I thought, “How boring. Our TA is going to have to grade about 20 papers, all saying pretty much the same thing.” I could have just done the assignment but I wanted to make it a little more interesting for her. After looking at it for a while, a phrase jumped out at me and gave me an inkling of an idea. I spent the next week dreaming up different stories using those words. The difficulty was that some of the ideas were not very nice to certain nationalities and I wanted to stay away from being derogatory. About a couple of hours before class, I finally hit upon a solution and the story turned out to be so much better.
So yes, I do agree that constraints are necessary for creativity. Those French writing lessons illustrated that principle so well.
Monday, February 9, 2015
You’ve heard of “think outside of the box”. Well, here’s “stay in the box” only it’s not what you think.
I’m trying to learn how to be more creative but I’m having a hard time. Coming up with a decent, interesting and yet beautiful picture for this section has been hard and I’ve been failing it. That’s why I’m interested to know what Marty Neumeier has to say about creativity.
Last week’s discipline was 1) research your problem, 2) define what could be and 3) spell out your success factors. For me, that really didn’t help me be more creative. I already do enough of #1 and 3; it’s number 2 that I want to know.
The author says that when it comes to problem solving, a lot of people pick the first solution that comes to mind or “buy off the rack”. But usually the first idea is not your best idea. Instead, you have to “stay in the box” and wrestle with your problem, ambiguity, tension, and what not, for as long as possible. Unfortunately, we want immediate satisfaction; we have no patience. And in today’s world, we’ve been taught to value multitasking, speed, instant gratification. But you have to cultivate patience and the tolerance for uncertainty in order to come up with something creative.
That makes sense. Remember that story I told last week about a French writing assignment? Well, I didn’t choose the first story idea but instead batted around a couple of ideas for a week until a few hours before the assignment was due. So this idea of staying with the problem for as long as possible makes a lot of sense.
Should I have held off a little longer on today’s picture until I come up with a better idea? How long do you hold off? I already held off maybe 3 days. Would it be better if I had held off a week?
Another technique to becoming creative is to be contrarian. That’s actually hard to do. Most of us are followers keeping up with the trends: as teenagers we all slavishly copy one another so as not to stick out. There’s the in groups and the out groups and this grouping quietly enforces the conformity. This conformity follows us into adulthood: teamwork, collaboration, best practices, “you are either with us or you are against us”. It is hard to be a Steve Jobs, one of the greatest contrarian in recent times (although he did have his flaws, one of which he was not a nice person.)
In the finance field, there are a type of investors that are called the contrarian investors. They do the opposite of everyone else. Warren Buffet had a somewhat similar philosophy when he said “to be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful.” Seth Godin is probably advocating the same, only he uses different terminology.
So how do you break out of the conformist hold? How do you know if it is the right non-conformity? Drug abusers are non-conformists but it ain’t the good kind. First starters you probably have to have courage to go against the norm. Secondly, you must have persistence and resiliency to keep pushing against the rejections.
In a corporation, it can be hard to go against the grain because it can greatly impact your ability to make a living. Corporations are a beehive of groupthink. I used to work for a company where the folks did project controls in a certain way, which was a carry over from the government side. I, being the newcomer, knew I couldn’t do project controls like the way everybody else did because I knew I did not have the skills to carry it off. I had to do it differently if I wanted to successfully manage project financials. By happenstance, I lucked upon a process that would enable me to manage 150 projects. Most of the managers allowed me to run the programs as I did because the results spoke for itself. In that company, I had no recourse but to do it differently because I knew of my limitations. Yes, I was scared but I had no choice: it was either knowingly fail or find another way to make it work.
The author provides some of his thoughts on being contrarian in his Metaskills book on pages 152 to 153. I won’t list them because you need to read the book but I’ll briefly touch on the more common ones that we all know we should be doing. One is don’t be afraid to be wrong. Today, we associate being wrong as possible route to being out of a job. If you say the wrong thing on Twitter or post the “wrong” picture in Facebook, companies could fire you or not hire you. Everything is so public nowadays and people are so judgmental that it’s like a minefield out there. But still, you need to go through a lot of wrong starts to find something innovative. Secondly, he says to break the rules. Which rules do you break though? Some rules are there for a reason but you have to dig deep to unearth the reasons. And then you have to see if breaking them can lead you to something new and better. You have to pick the right rules to break. Breaking traffic light rules are bad; breaking the rules of what a computer should be might lead to good things, say an iPad.
Lastly, he says to stand up for quality. He talks about denouncing the ugly but I take it to also mean working hard to improve the quality of your work to be one of the best or at least of a very high quality. To get there will entail effort and discipline, which not a lot of people have.
To the next topic that I really like: play. Business people are always talking about efficiency, time is money, productivity, being serious, squeezing out every drop of time to be productive. But frankly, they are just being busy rather than being productive at the right things. At least the financial and accounting types are more busy rather than really being productive. They may think they are with their multitasking but I have noticed that they tend not to finish things or get the key things done.
For example, there was a girl two companies ago who was extremely detailed and was rewarded for being meticulous. She was so detailed that she kept track of staffing changes in the help desk, person by person, position by position, day by day. My boss at the time showed me the tracking chart and I said, “Wow, that is amazing. How does she do it? She is like a superclerk.” In the back of my mind, I thought, “There is no way that I will be able to do it. And I don’t see how that level of detail helps us.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it but I was worried. The girl was so consumed with keeping up with the details that she tugged home a “cart” of invoices so she could log each person’s (there were 400 people working in the help desk) hours in a tracking sheet for accrual purposes. During close, she was always up late because she had so much details to tend to; my boss complained about that and her quality of work. But if you reward them for being detailed, expect them to keep doing it because you have just said that is what you value.
This girl had no time to step back and look at the big picture. Her work came in with a lot of errors or nonsensical results. She definitely had no play.
If you want new ideas, you are going to have to leave room for play. You need to allow slack in the workday rather than demanding people to squeeze out work out of every nanosecond. We no longer have slack in our workday, with the result that companies are complaining they can’t get new ideas out of their people. Executives then think their people lack the skills and initiative when maybe, just maybe, it is the executives’ hard nosed idea that every minute needs to be devoted to work.
Creative ideas arrive when you least expect it. They certainly don’t arrive at work, at least not when you need it. My ideas come when I’m driving to and from work. Sometimes I get ideas when reading or when I’m in the bathroom. They come when my brain is basically zoning out and creating stories. A germ of an idea will start forming in my head and will need to be fleshed out further when I get to work. I usually play with my idea the first thing in the morning so that I don’t forget it. Once I have tackled it to see if it will lead to new things, the rest of the day is spent doing “serious work”. In other words, I’m not playing anymore.
The author provides some suggestion for increasing your creativity on pages 154 to 163 in Metaskills. He suggests thinking in metaphors or pictures, starting from a different place or poaching from another domain. Be alert for accidents.
So every weekend I go into the creative arena of art. This weekend I tried a new set of art tools to explore how they work. The result was I ended up with something more lively than before. I’m hoping that is not a fluke and that I can do it again. Does doing artwork give me new ideas on how to go about my 9 to 6 work? Not directly, but it does pull my mind away to rest. To engage in something else and let the problems percolate in the background. That is all I can do if I want to come up with new ideas. And companies should do the same.
The next tool in our toolbox is collaboration. Now, I have to say there is one thing that is a pet peeve about collaboration. Collaboration is the new “in” thing in the corporate world: corporations want you to collaborate, be a team player, and come up with new solutions or ideas. The problem is, it’s a take and no give. Corporations have been racking up ever increasing profits and productivity supposedly has been increasing, but the moolah is not being distributed to the people who are actually doing the work to bring in that wealth. Corporations and shareholder are not “collaborating” or “being a team player” when it comes to distributing the returns. Eventually, people will start collaborating elsewhere if companies don’t get smart.
Now, on to the subject at hand. There’s been quite a few articles lately saying that a lot of the new companies and innovations are the result of collaboration. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak comes to mind as the most famous collaboration. From what I’ve read, it’s a bringing together diverse skills that generally do not reside in one body. For example, one person will do the design and creation and the other person will do the proselytizing. Also, in a lot of industries the easy problems have been done and we now have big problems which requires a melding of skills and knowledge from various industries.
The collaboration is also the impetus for the diversity trends in HR (well, there is also some legal aspects to it). Diverse people with different perspectives can come together in a room and cook up some new ideas that a single person alone would not have thought of.
So if you want to be more creative, you have to team up with another person. The only caveat is you have to bring to the table a mastery of your subject (or at least be better than anyone else in the room). The author of Metaskills wrote something that really resounds in my mind:
“But let’s be clear about collaboration. A team is only as good as the skills of the individuals in it. While you can learn a lot from working with great people, your value to the team comes from the quality of your own effort. Whether a T or an X, you still have to develop your own metaskills, create your own thought processes, and do battle by yourself in the dragon zone. A master’s degree won’t help you. Only mastery itself.” Metaskills, p. 168, hardcover version.
This is the last entry on Dreaming or being creative. The author gave a couple of tidbits on how to jumpstart your creativity. First, you have to have patience and can’t just jump on the first idea you have because usually the first ideas are not the best – they tend to be mediocre. Embrace constraints because they will force you to work harder for the solution. Hold off on solving the problems; instead, research it thoroughly to understand the constraints and the possibilities. Embrace uncertainty and tension because you need to stay in the sandbox or the dragon pit to wrestle with the problems. It is only by doing the hard work in the dragon pit do ideas come to the surface. Be a contrarian but be nice about it. The author lists ways of being and thinking differently. Play! Find time to play and explore. It is during play that you enter the flow zone. The author suggests that instead of setting deadlines, you should set goals. Deadlines won’t help speed up creativity. Finally collaborate. Basically two heads are better than one.
So how do you know you have a winner, a really original idea? A grand idea will like “kill ten birds” and create multiple possibilities. It may even be disorienting and likely to have skeptics. On pages 171 to 173, the book lists six tests of originality.
I will close this section with a great end quote from the author:
“But now, in the 21st century, we’re being nudged nervously forward – by our customers, by our employers, by the economy and by the robots nipping at our heels – to be original. To innovate. To make things.” Metaskills, page 174, hardcover version.