Design / Design Thinking / Ideas / innovation / Insight / marketing / strategy / Transformation / Value

Thoughts on Practical Creativity

Unlock exponential volumes of motivation, engagement and value in any organization


Creativity, Motivation, & Practice

I design and build programs for a living.  I believe that if we infuse our programs with the belief that they truly transform the business, we will always connect dots that spark our imagination, enabling multiple adjacent possibilities. This, to me, is the human essence of creativity: Sell me on a vision that keeps us moving and relevant as we plough through tactical projects! I can get pretty passionate and idealistic about what is possible. But I often run into ‘practical objectors’ for whom I’ve needed to develop a smart business model or system to strike a balance. I call it ‘Practical Creativity’.

Understanding the Audience

There is no one message that will completely sell a complex idea to different audiences, to people with varying thought processes operating in different contexts. When we think differently, we have a design challenge, or opportunity, on our hands. Knowing your audience is key and having a tailored explanation of the value proposition is essential for each conversation.  It is equally essential for the audience to know the perspective of the pitch-man or woman. If I have a fundamentally different thought process to the person trying to sell me on a concept, where’s the harm in sharing that with them so that we can get closer to understanding each other?  Fiona Czerniawska’s The Intelligent Client, (2003), set out a practical series of steps for how clients and consultants could stay on the same paths of understanding, despite differing approaches and degrees of knowledge. The more experience you have, the more flexible you can be with the context of a situation and therefore your parameters for what is feasible or viable can be quite broad. I try to consider what is long-term desirable, medium-term feasible and short-term viable. It allows me to create a work stream of cool and dependent efforts in a sequence that is both practical and inspiring.

The Internal Stakeholder and the Design Process

These steps pertain just as much for internal stakeholder relationships. For the creative individual contributor, they are an important part of managing expectations up. That includes understanding what quality or success looks like for a stakeholder and how to plan and execute programs to deliver it. Over-sharing details about the design process  that leads to that success can be dangerous! I’ve worked with some stakeholders who want to define not just the results but also the means of getting them. My mindset is that if the result achieved is the result that was pre-agreed, then the means should be significantly negotiable. When that’s not an accepted option, a systematic approach is the only way to push through the barriers. Much of it has to do specifically with how we think.

What Kind of a Thinker are You?

A recent Harvard Business Review article by Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele asks, “What kind of a thinker are you?” Here’s what they found – despite all the technology, tools and processes at our disposal today, it is ultimately people who make the difference:

We normally think of roles being about what people do… but in today’s marketplace the smartest companies aren’t those that necessarily out-produce the competition. Instead, it’s the organizations that out-think them. While there are plenty of tools that help us quickly understand what our teammates do, its harder to tell how they think. Research shows that it is ultimately how teams think together that most determine their performance.

The article goes on to lay out an interesting matrix for how we think based on either Orientation – big picture or details – or Focus – ideas, process, action and relationships. Finally, when you know your thinking style, “you will know what naturally energizes you.” As a nifty added benefit, the matrix allows you to understand where there are gaps in the thought processes of your leaders to execute on strategy.

In this context, I remember a statement I first heard from my old marketing leader and mentor, Jeff Goldberg, at EMC:

“The people who know how always work for the people who know why.”

I’ve been tossing that around in my head a lot recently. Good leaders will always both know and share ‘Why’. In my career, I’ve seen and experienced more examples of where the ‘Why’ seems limited – given the existing potential – with more focus on ‘How’ and ‘Doing’. The challenge for creative people is to avoid expounding on the coolness of the vision at the expense of a practical program plan for delivery. To strike a balance, creative people need to use solid practical models that have creativity designed in at every stage.

A Practical Design Model for your Creative Vision

I have a four-step model that I use, not always in specific sequence, but in general it looks like this:

  1. Create an initial OGST* plan on a page: Objectives, Goals, Strategy & Tactics;
  2. Create a platform that defines the Purpose, Organization, Deliverables and Data structure of the program;
  3. Create a practical agile workflow and timeline for delivering the objectives and goals – design for prioritization and the interaction between teams, strategy and tactics;
  4. Agree on timeline and delivery of objectives and goals with key stakeholders.
*There are multiple models out there; I’ll choose one that best fits for a given initiative.


Various aspects of this model may require a design facilitation workshop. In my next post, I’ll walk through an example of executing this model and where we used design workshops to push various projects past obstacles or challenges along the way.

 Practical Contribution for Creatives

If you are a ‘why’ thinker, you absolutely need to feel that you can contribute both practically and creatively to the thinking and strategy of the organization. It is entirely what you are about. We want to know we are playing a part. It motivates us, it inspires our delivery and it gives an outlet for how we think, which is – I believe – the thing that is most important to each of us and where we get our energy. Sometimes we lack the tools and practical skills to move our thinking from passion to practicality. We have the thinking and broad business experience to know what is feasible, but lack a platform and workflow for proving the viability we believe is there. It is important that people feel that they are making valuable contributions to the big goals. That infectious energy will pass to customers and partners and will in itself be a point of considerable competitive differentiation.

So the three legs of the stool for practical creativity are:

  • Understanding the audience,
  • Collaborative design thinking and
  • The design of a practical business model.

Carefully cultivated, they will unlock exponential volumes of motivation, engagement and value in any organization.

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