The ancient Chinese game of Go is notoriously complex. However, at its heart, it represents the essence of all games: the need to find creative solutions within a defined framework.
As companies look to introduce innovative solutions, the need to bring together efficiency and creativity often creates a latent tension between individuals and their project teams. Despite everyone’s shared desire to produce the best possible result, what all parties believe is possible doesn’t always align. Understanding this tension and bringing together skillsets is a necessity for the conceptualization and execution of innovative solutions.
Creative work means playing. You have to play with expectations, with preconceived notions, and with what is possible. However, too much play can have a negative impact on the perception of creative teams within business. If all creatives do is play, the burden of work falls on their more structured, process-driven colleagues. As a result, creative teams can sometimes find themselves positioned as a “nice to have” in the realm of strategic decision making.
But this mindset leads to questions. Is creativity just play? And is process little more than a rigid set of rules enforced by people who lack creative flair? The answer to both questions is, of course, no. But they are opinions that are consistently perpetuated. In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “To Get More Creative Become Less Productive,” this familiar mode of thought is summed up: “Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way. They make steady and measurable progress toward their goals. They make effective and efficient use of their time. Creativity… doesn’t. Creativity needs time and space to grow.” There are two central issues with this thought process: First, it positions creativity as an unproductive trait; and second, it works off the assumption that those working systematically do so because they live in a world in which creativity has been removed from their daily lives.
Yet this simply isn’t the case. Those who are in charge of the creation and implementation of processes need creativity in their working lives much the same way that designers, writers, and videographers do. The pitfall that revenue-driven organizations can often fall into is to put inflexible, uncreative processes in place to reduce costs and time in order to increase profits and operational efficiencies, with innovation being sacrificed in order to create short-term solutions. However, as more and more companies are fostering multidisciplinary teams, the line between process and creativity is blurring – something that is long overdue. Navigating this new work structure requires much more than a simple standardized plan: It requires creativity. Creativity to reimagine possible outcomes of different observations, to consider different learning styles or team dynamics, and to constantly ask “What if?
Bringing creativity and questioning into process is necessary to the maintenance of individual morale and the improvement of overall results. For the individual, a lack of diversity in daily life leads to tasks that are mundane, repetitive, and capable of being done by computers. And, from an enterprise’s perspective, the consequences are just as apparent, with monotonous routine leading to the production of forgettable deliverables and a complete halt in company innovation due to low employee engagement.
This isn’t to say that process and structure should take a backseat to creativity. Instead, creativity should be integrated into well-established and defined systems to help improve them. In reality, regardless of their role, everyone wants to think creatively in order to generate genuinely innovative solutions. This means incorporating creatives into project plans in a way that allows them to produce their best work, and allowing those in charge of process to be creative in the way they structure the plan. Alongside this is a responsibility to rally teams around a better designed, more flexible process and to challenge the bolder members of your team to push the edges of the plan’s boundaries in order to challenge where improvements can be made.
To truly unite creativity and process, organizations must move away from profit-driven motivations and toward customer-driven goals. To do this, they must ensure time for creativity is built into their processes. An organization that has the architecture to support creative thinkers by incorporating design throughout each stage of the solutioning process will house more agile, innovative, and adaptable teams.
The question is: How do we implement this?
Let’s return to the game of Go. The number of possible different game scenarios is so large that it’s often compared to the number of atoms in the universe. The nearly infinite number of moves can feel utterly overwhelming, and, as a result, it can feel impossible to pick out the right solution from this amorphous mass. This is no different from finding solutions in a business context. Without parameters or process, there is no way of making sense out of the chaos.
In Go, the rules act as the necessary parameters to make success a possibility. The near-infinite number of moves is narrowed down to a maximum of 361 possible, legal moves, some of which will be more successful than others. The act of placing a process on creativity actively channels creative thought.
This is why it’s necessary to extend our understanding of what a project plan can be. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all project plan – which limits us to just a few possible moves, potentially cutting out the winning move – it is essential to design a multidisciplinary toolkit that can be tailored to each specific situation.
Building the Toolkit
1. Understand the rules of the game.
Your toolkit has to be specific to your company and the capabilities you possess. Don’t design a toolkit for a game you aren’t playing. The first step is to truly understand the types of projects you work on, ensuring that they are aligned with your strategy, core offerings, business objectives, and organizational purpose.
2. Identify your key players.
A truly comprehensive toolkit cannot be built in isolation of the people you will have working within its framework. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of team members will allow you to design a process that meshes with the skills of every team member.
3. Push the boundaries.
Every person within a team will work differently. You will have people who need rigid process to move forward and those who fight against it. Your toolkit should be built with these extreme examples in mind. If you design for those that push the boundaries, you open up the possibilities for every team member to work efficiently while still producing innovative and meaningful work.
4. Create a cheat sheet.
Navigating a project will always have moments of tension. However, by building the possibility for tension into the design of the toolkit, you will be better able to turn tension into success. Your toolkit should incorporate the knowledge gained from previous projects so you can manipulate the framework as the project progresses, tightening or loosening the parameters based on how the project is faring.
5. Become the master tactician.
Great players of any game never stop looking for new tactics for improving. No matter how many times you’ve won, in an evolving world the best solution is always going to shift. Even if you’re in the midst of a winning streak, don’t be afraid to introduce new tactics.
Using the Toolkit
1. Pick your players.
Every project is as unique as the people who will work on it. Having designed a multi-faceted, multidisciplinary, flexible toolkit, make sure you are picking the right people for the right projects.
2. Choose a game plan.
The success of the toolkit, and ultimately the project, depends on tailoring your game plan for the occasion. This includes mitigating risk by preparing for the worst-case scenario. You can’t be taken aback or overwhelmed by problems you foresaw.
3. Evolve as you play.
A well-designed toolkit that is truly comprehensive can be altered as projects progress. If you’re coming up with innovative solutions, the toolkit will have to bend to fit a new paradigm that couldn’t have been imagined before you started.
4. Go! The most necessary, but difficult, step: Just get started.
The toolkit should be the perfect blend of these two seemingly opposing methods; it should beautify the process of creating something new. Great process allows creativity to flourish beyond the set boundaries, and it is always ready to be redesigned in response to creative breakthroughs. The next move is yours.