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3 posts from April 2011

"The Creativity Killer: Group Discussions" in TheAtlantic.com

Traditional meetings are often more about socializing decisions than making them. A case for rethinking how we generate ideas.

Perhaps this situation hasn't happened to you yet at work. But it probably will.

Your entire team has been corralled into a conference room and told by your boss to become more creative as a unit. To collaborate more efficiently. To generate breakthrough ideas that will transform your business, your industry, the world at large. To hone your group's collective creativity in ways that makes a team of three or four people more effective than dozens. No pressure—only your career is riding on it.

With the emerging dialogue in the popular press and blogosphere about fostering creativity in business, there is no lack of desire for collective creativity. Take this recent quote by Bruce Nussbaum about looking beyond fostering "design thinking" and instead encouraging "creative Intelligence":

I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned.... It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

Yes, group activity can provide the impetus for better framing of problems, which can lead to original solutions. But creativity is the "end result of many forms of intelligence coming together, and intelligence born out of collaboration and out of networks," to quote one of my co-workers, Robert Fabricant. When we collaborate with different kinds of thinkers, sometimes from different cultures and backgrounds, we individually struggle with ingrained behaviors that reduce our likelihood of manifesting creativity.

One of the joys of working in teams is the cadence and flow of dialogue between people, and seeing how ideas grow and change through discussion. We often become lost in these exchanges, and delightfully so.

They seem to be core to the notion of design and creativity, but they aren't.

Continue reading my article on TheAtlantic.com.


How Should a Design Leader Behave?

There is no subtext to anything I have said over the past four years on this blog. None whatsoever. Except for the secret access codes for an offshore bank account, hidden cleverly in blog post images.

Here's a question for you: How should a design leader behave?

My hypothesis is that any effective design leader must know how to coax, push, cajole, and conjure awesome work out of their team (and themselves).

Leaders coax stellar work out of their teams by creating space for creativity to flourish. This space is protected from harm, so incursions such as rogue client feedback or organizational politics will not derail ongoing effort.

Leaders push their teams towards a vision, no matter who suggested or informed that vision. It can come from anyone on the team, then be harnessed collectively. However, the leader must motivate the team to realize that vision. The best leaders know how suss out internal motivations and encourage them, rather than enforce a motivation from an external pressure, such as deadline, quality bar, fear of failure, and so forth. The leader can also choose to allow others to lead, trusting their direction and encouraging ownership in the process.

Leaders cajole through critique, by asking the right open-ended questions—at the correct time—to encourage the flourishing of great ideas. To quote Pelle Sjonell, Executive Creative Director of BBH LA: "If creative direction is done right, you should never have to select. You never need to resort to the role of a bouncer. Or simply giving things thumbs up or thumbs down."

Leaders must also conjure compelling design work in their own right, when pressed into service. Otherwise, they may just be serving in a managerial capacity.

Design leaders that employ these modes effectively, in concert with design teams jamming on well-considered design work for engaged clients, is what can make working at a design business transcend being mere work and become delightful.

What do you think? What would you add, remove, or change? I'd love to share your perspectives at next week's Design Business for Breakfast on Design Leadership.


Slides from "The Language of Interaction"

I was recently invited to deliver a talk at Emily Carr University of Art and Design about what interaction designers do and how interaction design factors into the worlds of design and art.

My talk "The Language of Interaction" (slides above) was my attempt to summarize the critical role that language plays in our efforts as designers and artists. In doing so, I touched upon the three challenges that all designers and artists face in trying to craft interactions:

  • Establishing a vocabulary, which allows you to articulate what discrete points of a systemic problem you may influence
  • Considering what metaphors may aid you in the modelling of an interactive product or service
  • Understanding how we weave together what we've experienced from our interaction with lateral disciplines to become better at practicing interaction design

To illustrate the last point, I created a timeline of my lifelong explorations as a designer and artist, and discussed how I couldn't have been an effective interaction designer without traveling through a range of related (and seemingly unrelated) disciplines. Over time, all of them were threaded together.

Many thanks to Haig Armen and Laura Kozak of Emily Carr, who invited me up to Vancouver, BC for this talk.