Recently, I interviewed with a company looking for someone creative: their current leaders are highly analytical and they want to add more visionary, innovative thinking to the mix. I wrote that down as a risk.
A few years back, a CEO told me he was thrilled with how well I fit into his company’s rigorous culture — but surprised I hadn’t brought more blue-sky thinking to the table. I, on the other hand, was not surprised.
In tech we elevate rationality, data, and conviction. We value “strong opinions, weakly held” and ideas that are “antifragile,” standing up to harsh criticism and emerging stronger for it. Speculation and flights of fancy are fine for happy hour but don’t belong in our day-to-day.
And yet: we seek to be disruptive, to think outside the box. When that doesn’t happen we hire “creatives” to jump-start innovation…and are confused when it doesn’t work.
That’s because creativity and innovation don’t require wild-haired prophets spouting visions of the future. They need specific structures and processes that aren’t in a lot of teams’ repertoire. By implementing those, we can make any team more creative; without them, it doesn’t matter how many creatives we hire.
Life of an Idea
At a high level, a tech company (along with other types of organization) is a machine for creating ideas and transforming them into business value.
And ideas have a life cycle. Mature ideas—like company goals and big bets—deserve scrutiny, analysis, and all the harsh criticism we can throw at them to ensure they’re worthwhile.
But ideas aren’t that strong initially: they’re hunches, gut feelings, weird notions that awaken us in the middle of the night. These newborn ideas emerge out of our data, analysis, and context — but they’re not ready to be honed by those things.
And it’s in this realm that creativity and innovation lie.
Strong Opinions, Weak Opinions
“Strong opinions, weakly held” is a common refrain in tech, and captures a popular value: we want our ideas to be robust and our convictions to be strong, but also to be open to change in the face of evidence.
I’ve never seen this value do its job. Mostly it seems to give opinionated, overbearing individuals permission to be opinionated and overbearing. And it offers air cover for not listening: “Of course I’m ready to change my mind! You just haven’t given me a strong enough counterargument!”
Even at its theoretical best, “strong opinions, weakly held” isn’t universally applicable. It can be toxic to creativity because it takes newborn ideas and subjects them to scrutiny for which they’re not ready. Is my Wednesday-morning hunch worth betting the company on? Of course not. But it might be worth exploring a little before we discard it.
How to Care for an Idea
You’ve probably seen designers do that thing they do with the post-it notes. Maybe they called it a brainstorm, an ideation, or a design sprint. Maybe you thought it was a waste of time. (Maybe you were right.)
But these are the techniques we need if we want to generate and nurture the ideas that lead to innovation. And they’re not just freeform, feel-good parties with snacks and stickies: they’re deliberately-structured exercises tailored to particular outcomes. (To be fair, early brainstorming was a lot more of everyone shouting out ideas, which has all sorts of issues. But things have evolved.)
Creativity demands structure because it requires we set aside our norms for how we interact—and because a completely blank slate is terrifying, even for the most creative among us.
Try This at Home
There are a lot of techniques available; an experienced facilitator will choose and adapt them based on the situation, the problem at hand, the available time, and the personalities of the people involved. But a basic “brainwriting” exercise can be done in an hour and is fairly easy to facilitate.
- Start with a concrete problem to solve. “Let’s come up with some new ideas,” is too broad to yield results, and unlikely to provide an outcome that feeds back into the roadmap.
- Get 5–7 people together — in a physical room if possible, and otherwise via a tool like Miro or FigJam. Choose a group that encompasses multiple roles and includes the people who’ll actually be working on the results.
- Set the stage. This isn’t your usual meeting. Remind everyone they’re creating ideas that need not be bulletproof. We care about quantity and variety. It’s OK to be impractical. “Yes, and” is the order of the day: if an idea doesn’t make sense, don’t say, “No, that won’t work;” say, “Yes, and here’s a way we could alter it to make it better.”
- Do a quick warm-up to get folks into the right frame of mind and set this session apart. Use something silly and disarming. (Give everyone one minute to draw an animal. Pass to the left. Give everyone 30 seconds to give their neighbor’s drawing a name.)
- Reiterate the problem we’re trying to solve.
- Give everyone 10–15 minutes to generate as many solutions as they can. One per post-it. Maybe play some music. If somebody stalls, encourage them to get weirder.
- Have everyone read their ideas. Start with the least powerful person in the room. Encourage everyone to jot down new ideas as they occur.
- Optional: As a group, move the post-its into thematic clusters and give those clusters names.
- Give everyone five votes and five minutes to vote on their favorite ideas. This isn’t binding — you’re just taking the temperature of the room.
- Read out the winners and allow for further discussion.
- Lastly, the part everyone forgets — and is, in part, why so many of these exercises don’t yield anything useful: Agree on next steps! Maybe one or two ideas deserve fleshing out and vetting. Maybe something easy came out of it and an engineer will just go and implement it. If you can’t find next steps, reflect on why.
As facilitator, your biggest challenge will be the argumentative types who really want to bring their strong-opinions-weakly-held attitude into the room with them. That’s especially challenging if they’re in leadership. Talk to them ahead of time if you can. Exclude them if you must (and are able to). Use the structure of the exercise to your advantage: the silent solo work in steps 6 and 9 and the around-the-room order in step 7 serve as natural equalizers and opportunities to elevate quieter participants.
Exercises like this can be helpful, and are often positive and eye-opening for the team. But they’re not sufficient on their own. New ideas don’t follow a schedule; we need the ability to flip into “constructive mode” when appropriate.
And it’s important we recognize the existence of that modality. In our typical evaluative mode we seek the flaws in an idea; we ensure we’re treading the right path by trying to break it. In constructive mode, we’re curious about nebulous alternate paths, ready to give them a chance and fill in their gaps. These are very different ways of thinking, and when we mix them, chaos and conflict arise. Some people are building, some are destroying. Some asking questions, some demanding explanations. Everyone is upset.
As always, ensure you have a shared goal — an intended outcome — for any discussion. Then, let the structure (agenda) flow from that. Don’t bring a bludgeon to a brainstorm, and keep your post-its away from the quarterly planning offsite.
Don’t Put Creativity in a Corner
This is a whole-team thing: it’s not enough to have a designated “innovation lab” or expect your design team to handle the creative part. Keeping innovation in a corner leads to disgruntled innovators who are increasingly out of touch with the organization as a whole. Ideas fail as they come into contact with the rest of the team, cross-functional peers become irate about time wasted, and the latent creativity in your broader organization remains untapped and frustrated.
I see this sometimes with design teams. They do “vision stuff” in isolation, and then it’s largely ignored by the rest of the team. Over time, their goals and incentives diverge from those of the broader product organization, and they find themselves excluded from decision-making because their perspective—the one that’s expected of them as the “creatives”—isn’t pragmatic or grounded enough.
Hiring for Innovation
I began by saying you can’t hire for innovation, and that’s true: if you’re not adept at creativity as an organization, hiring “creative people” isn’t going to fix it.
But who you hire can make it easier to establish a culture of creativity, and some of those traits will strengthen your team in other ways, too.
Look for a handful of people who enjoy speculating, spitballing, throwing ideas around — people who light up when something new comes along. (Then, ensure they’re able to rein in that tendency when the situation demands it. That’s something I’ve had to learn myself.)
Beyond that, hire people who embody the value of “seek first to understand, then to be understood” — or more simply, who prioritize understanding others. Often, when a new idea fails in the face of an established one, all that’s missing is the time and patience to understand before judging.
And yes, hire a leader or two who can establish the rituals, structures, and processes that foster innovative thinking. You’re not looking for a “creative thinker”, but rather a creative facilitator. Finding that person can make a tremendous difference, assuming your organization as a whole — and your most senior leaders in particular — are not only open to the necessary change, but willing to participate in it.
Does your team need to unlock its creativity? Do you need to find a way to let new ideas coexist with established ones? I’m available for consulting and fractional executive engagements, as well as full-time positions in Europe or the UK. Drop me a line.