Embrace Uncertainty with Practical Creativity.
Creativity, Motivation, Practice.
I design and build business programs for a living. This means consciously deploying a framework of design and agile methodologies to discover, define and make operational adaptive and innovative actions that scale. With the pace and breadth of change in today’s technology and business environments our perspectives by definition must be broad, aware of trans-disciplinary implications and collaborative in the nature that they are imagined and conceived.
Creatives aren’t dreamers. We seek to infuse our programs with the confidence that we can truly transform the business. Our motivation is to connect dots that spark imagination and fire inspiration while delivering results and enable multiple adjacent possibilities. Creatives are always looking to leap forward. This to me is the human essence of creativity: Sell me on a vision that keeps us moving and relevant as we build value through tactical projects! I can get pretty passionate and idealistic about what is possible. But there’s an absolute need to be practical too, which is where solid value propositions, business models and metrics are needed to strike a balance. I call this act of blending creativity and practicality, ‘Practical Creativity’.
Causes of Disruption
It’s not that long ago when people would say, “you can only move as fast as your slowest part.” Well, technology and data have changed that wisdom utterly. We now move as fast as our fastest component and every other part of the system must adapt in real time or get pushed aside. That is not just a business systems reality, it is increasingly how our culture behaves also.
We now move as fast as our fastest component and every other part of the system must adapt in real time or get pushed aside.
When we live and work in environments of accelerated invention, disruption and exponential change, we are in fact experiencing what are called ‘complex adaptive systems’. In complex adaptive systems, understanding all the parts does not equate to an understanding of how the system actually works. In other words, we won’t know what will happen until the genie gets out of the bottle and even then, it will be difficult to predict. These are the causes of disruption. Just ask yourself the following questions to see how much the world has changed in recent years:
- Is your job or company affected by the Cloud?
- Is your job or company affected by big data analysis?
- Is your job or company affected by automation and/ or artificial intelligence?
- Is there an app that can, in effect, replace your job or your company?
- Has a new entrant or technology disrupted your job or your company or industry?
I’ll bet you answer yes to most if not every question. Pose your own disruptive questions and see what’s changed. The old ways of doing things and answers are not going to be enough in this new adaptive world where the various evolving parts of a complex system are likely all moving at different paces, depending on the degree of transformation taking place within discrete components. It’s difficult! It is complex! A company seeking to transform is likely to hire or buy in talent or partners to help them think differently and then instill new culture into the company. Either way, not changing and not embracing uncertainty is not an option. (oh, and if your functional group is not actively looking at how it might either cause or be affected by disruption, loud alarm bells should be sounding).
The way to approach increasingly disruptive, uncertain and complex systems in a way that is both human and practical, is to design for them.
Frequent, accelerating levels of uncertainty are increasingly becoming the norm. ‘Uncertainty’ shouldn’t be seen as a negative term, nor should ‘vulnerability’, the human emotion that most often accompanies it. In fact – and we’ve all encountered them – the rockstar champions of ambiguity who fail to show any empathy, are in turn likely to be vulnerable about something that just hasn’t caught up with them yet. We’re all human, after all. The way to approach increasingly disruptive, uncertain and complex systems in a way that is both human and practical, is to design for them.
Multiple Value Propositions for Multiple Audiences
There is no one message that sells in a complex adaptive landscape. We have simply, too many perspectives, objectives and different expectations of value, even within a single system, market or customer. And, because of the advances in cloud and data technologies, these are all shifting, all of the time. We move as fast as our fastest part.
For people with differing thought processes, operating in different contexts, we need multiple value propositions. When we think differently, we have a design challenge or opportunity on our hands. Knowing your audiences is key and having a tailored explanation of the value proposition is essential for each conversation. It is equally essential for the audiences to know the perspectives of value that you are pitching. There should be human and emotional connections to propel ideas forward.
Where we have a fundamentally different thought process to our customers, we need to get closer to understanding each other and establish a meeting of minds. 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. This ‘mental match’ is a cornerstone of design disciplines for business also. The more experience you have, the more flexible you can be with the context of a situation. Your parameters for what is feasible or viable can then be quite broad and you’ll discover your portfolio contains multiple feasible value propositions. This approach enables you to create a work stream of engaging and dependent efforts in a sequence that is at the same time practical and inspiring and adaptive.
Managing Internal Expectations
These steps pertain just as much for internal stakeholder relationships. For the creative individual contributor, they are an important part of managing expectations upwards while dealing with multiple constituencies. That includes understanding what quality or success looks like for different stakeholders and how to plan and execute programs to deliver to diverse audiences. Over-sharing details about the design process can be dangerous! I’ve worked with some stakeholders who want to define not just the results but also the means of getting them.
stakeholders should consider how much control they wish to exert and equally, how willing they are to embrace change
If the results achieved are the results that were pre-agreed, then the means should be significantly negotiable. When that’s not acceptable, stakeholders should consider how much control they wish to exert and therefore, how willing they are to embrace change. Even when change gets the go ahead, a systematic approach that can 1) explore future scenarios, 2) measure the potential impact of change and 3) overcome serial objections along the way will likely be the only way to push through the barriers. Be creative by all means! But be practical too. Much of our success has to do specifically with how we think and our ability to process opposing viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to tell stakeholders that their expectations – in current form – cannot be met.
What Kind of Thinker Are You?
A 2015 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 many leaders focus on ‘How’ and ‘Doing’. Jeff Goldberg would have immediately asked ‘Why?’ and more than often his response would have been, “So what?”
Innovation is the practice of combining ideas to regenerate or make new. Creative people need to use solid practical models that combine with their creativity at every stage
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 that eases stakeholder uncertainty.
Innovation is the practice of combining ideas to regenerate or make new.
Innovation is the practice of combining ideas to regenerate or make new. To strike a balance, creative people need to use solid practical models that combine with their creativity at every stage. Stakeholders and customers are people with uncertainties and vulnerabilities too.
Three Tool-sets for Practical Creativity
- First, use design techniques that fit the context of your work. There are some really great resources out there, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to reference Luma Institute and the Luma Workplace toolset.
- Second, infuse your design with lean techniques – such as Lean Start-up or Lean Enterprise – and use the value proposition and business model canvases to hone your relevance to specific audiences. Find an external agency that excels at these if you don’t have these resources in-house. They should be able to showcase an inspiring creative yet practical business design portfolio.
- Third, have a full awareness of the relevant data and technology tools that impact your business eco-system. It is imperative to bring technology partners on board the design team.
Practical Contribution and Feeling Valued
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 the most important thing for us and our source of energy. Creative workers do not lack the tools and practical skills to move our thinking from passion to practicality. We have the context and broad business experience to know what is feasible and techniques to prove 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 innovation and competitive differentiation. What’s more, practical creativity will prepare us to embrace uncertainty and feel at home in our complex, adaptive present and future.
I wrote a first version of this post about 18 months ago and a number of events have occurred which have made me want to revisit it. First, I have learned so much more about design and business and myself since deciding to consult. It’s been a hairy ride at times, but everything truly worth doing should contain some risk. Second, 18 months ago, artificial intelligence and machine learning were largely relegated to movies and coffee conversations. Today they are wholly mainstream. Living in Silicon Valley, the change in the landscape for tech, businesses and workers has accelerated enormously also in this short time span: this acceleration is in the culture and spreading globally. I think it’s a large part of the reason we talk about ‘millennials’ so much – it’s not about this generation of people, it’s about the speed and breadth of technical and cultural change that is taking place at the same time as they come to dominate the workplace. Increasingly I’m convinced that there is a growing and great need for creativity to inform how we design and consider emerging technologies and complex systems.
Through all of this I’m indebted as always to those that I learn from everyday including Sergio Correa de J. Medina, Hoda Mehr, Fauzia Khan, Bob Basiliere, Sella Masselink, Barry O’Reilly, Adrian Jones, Noelle O’Connell, Chris Roche, Aodan Enright, Leon Zhou, Tina Xu, Chris Pacione, Bill Schmarzo, Matt Dathan, Len Devanna, Kenneth Mikkelsen, James Stroka, Aarti Kumar, Jason Monden, Cat Williams-Treloar, Sarbjeet Johal, Andy Lewis and Vanessa Di Mauro. There’s a little wisdom from each of you in here somewhere!