Form follows function. Necessity is the mother of invention. Think outside the box. Those truisms drown amid mistaken perceptions that creativity must mean abandoning pragmatism because the prosaic cannot exist with creativity.
For what it’s worth, I like boxes. They’re enormously useful and practical. I also think that constraints refine and temper creativity. They force thinkers to consider the ramifications and feasibility of their ideas. Anyone, after all, can be creative when the sky’s the limit.
No creative endeavor exists without limitations, whether those be limitations of media, budget, size, deadline, use, or something else. An artist is limited by the size of his canvas and the medium in which he works. A musician is limited by the range of notes that can be played and heard on an instrument. After all, who writes music only dogs can hear? An actor is limited by the script and the director’s instructions. A writer is limited by the page and language. An architect is limited by the building’s purpose, the construction site, zoning laws, and the client’s budget and preferences. A programmer is limited by the project budget, user expertise, and software.
Various methods exist for directing and honing creative processes. One such method is value analysis, which has a codified HOW-WHY progression that breaks down a process, project, or product into discrete, verb-noun combinations that reduce to abstraction whatever is being analyzed. In that manner, the analyst focuses on the solution to a certain objective without being hemmed in by preconceived notions. The process of value analysis can result in amazing, innovative breakthroughs or it can be used with ruthless focus on cost-cutting.
The emphasis on practical solutions keeps in mind that whatever results from the innovation must be used or operated by people. Innovation without regard to those who must live with the implementation foments resentment and confusion and a general dislike of change. Innovation necessarily disrupts comfort, which no one likes. If you’re going to make someone uncomfortable, it’s best to show that the advantages of such discomfort outweigh the negatives.
In their article “An Easy Way to Increase Creativity,” Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman assert that psychological distance increases creativity: “psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete.” In other words, problems that seem further away are easier to solve.
In a personal manner, that holds true. Consider advice columnists. Don’t they usually have the advantage of distance, so they can clearly see, analyze, and resolve the problems affecting those seeking their advice?
The premise of methods like value analysis and psychological distance to improve creativity lie in abstraction. By thinking in abstract terms of a problem and how it might be resolved, one releases preconceived notions to generate ideas for evaluation. Such abstraction forces one to define the problem to be solved. In his article “5 Steps to Developing an Innovative Solution to a Problem,” Ryan May states that the first step in innovation involves asking probing questions and digging for insight. That can be as simple as asking “what does that company do better than ours?” or “what’s missing from our product that would make it better?”
Once you’ve defined the problem to be solved, it must be analyzed from every angle to generate ideas on how to solve it. The next step focuses on evaluating those ideas for feasibility, expense, time, durability, and other factors usually imposed by the client. For instance, pure gold doesn’t corrode, but making fixtures in 24-carat gold for yachts and oceanfront houses isn’t practical due to gold being too soft a metal and far too expensive for such use. However, a thin coat of gold on the steel base uses the best of both metals: steel’s strength and gold’s resistance to corrosion. Electroplating gold to steel fixtures adds to the cost, but not so prohibitively that homeowners dismiss the option out of hand. It’s less expensive than having to replace all the fixtures every few years.
The crucible of requirements and limitations refines creativity to fulfill a purpose for feasible implementation. Practicality doesn’t bore, it challenges. Are you up to the challenge?
Although prototyping has manufacturing connotations associated with product development, it applies to business processes. Business analysts who subscribe to the BABOK can impress their colleagues with knowledge of 34 techniques to “identify, describe, and validate user interface needs.” Prototypes reveal business requirements, confirm business requirements, and unveil areas of conflict
Prototyping can be accomplished by the simple means of putting pencil to paper or using sophisticated, computer-based tools to calculate percentages and assign budgets. Regardless of the means of producing the prototype, the goal remains the same: deliver the prototype to stakeholders and collect their feedback. Use that feedback, which should include both criticisms and suggestions for improvement, to adjust the prototype so that it becomes the process, service, or product that best serves the purpose for which it was designed.
The decision of when prototyping best serves your purpose depends upon the complexity of the problem to be solved. Some very complex problems and most very simple problems do not lend themselves well to prototyping. Simple prototypes work best to stimulate discussion, more complicated ones map out the solution to the problem you’re working to solve and can be adapted to accommodate changes in scope or direction.
Sudden changes in scope or misalignment of stakeholder expectations can doom a prototype. Management of stakeholder expectations becomes crucial, or the prototype cannot address the original problem. Avoid getting bogged down in the little details. Like a map doesn’t show every hill and ditch, an effective prototype shows the main path on how to get from point A to point B. Include only what is required to achieve the desired results.
Creative Bloq describes three different approaches to prototyping: magic design, limited fantasy, reality-based design.
“Magic design” ignores reality. It presents the “pie in the sky” goal that disappoints because either the technology doesn’t exist, the skills aren’t available, or the budget is too small to attain that lofty goal promised by salesmen. The refusal to allow reality to limit creativity translates into poor design that doesn’t fulfill expectations. When one creates a product or process that must work in the real world, then reality must, perforce, limit ambitions.
“Reality-based design” works firmly within the constraints of current technology, current ability, current understanding. It often creates useful, pragmatic solutions, but aspires to nothing more. It meekly accepts the limits imposed. Creativity does not flourish here.
“Limited fantasy” works well within the constraints of the medium. It pushes the envelope, but doesn’t expand so far beyond it that achievement always hovers out of reach. This harnesses the power and ambition of creativity to the workhorse of practicality to result in innovative thinking and new solutions. This type of prototype can simulate novel and difficult-to-implement technologies
The importance of a prototype lies within its ability to guide development. It cannot guide development without a thorough understanding of the available resources and demands for performance. That understanding arises from analysis of the tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, and products to be manufactured.
Any company with employees and customers must serve two customers: the internal audience of staff who provide the services and produce the products sold by the business and the external customers who purchase the products and/or services from the business. All too often, executive leadership focuses on external customers to the exclusion of internal customers, which then results in low employee morale and high employee turnover. A tightening labor market will not sustain the traditional attitude of “be grateful you have a job.” With jobs already going unfilled, younger generations preferring to work for themselves, and a declining population reducing an already shallow labor pool, executive leadership must include employees within the customer service mantra.Interdependence within the Business
Tim Tupper writes, “When each department is only concerned about their piece of the success, failure will appear somewhere in overall customer satisfaction.” The various departments within a business depend upon one another to make the organization function as a whole. Integrated functionality requires alignment among the departments so that they not only serve themselves, they also serve each other and, ultimately, the customer.
Tupper states, “When your internal functions are out of alignment there will be external consequences. Until each department in your company is in alignment with each other you cannot operate at your best. Performance will always suffer somewhere.” Matt Sharrers agrees, adding, internal and external alignment “functional strategies are in alignment with the corporate strategy. And equally important, they are aligned with the external marketplace.”
Alignment of internal and external customers to grow and sustain business arises from the concept of social responsibility. In the InfoTrak report, “Customer Focus Starts with Internal Communication,” Comac, Inc. states, “In the battle to win the hearts, minds, and wallets of their markets, companies should remember that employees are their front line.” Put more bluntly, how you treat the front line directly affects the bottom line.
One tactic to align the efforts of staff spread among multiple departments within the organization to work toward the same objectives is communication. According to Comac, Inc., “companies with effective internal communications were 4.5 times more likely to report high levels of employee engagement than other companies.”
The subjective definition of effective communication causes confusion. Experts agree that effective communication embodies many of the same characteristics regardless of company culture. Of those traits, the most important is soliciting employee feedback. Once you solicit employee feedback, it cannot be summarily dismissed or ignored. Your employees aren’t stupid: they know the difference between lip service and meaningful action. A broken promise damages employee morale more than a promise never made.
Alignment of internal customers to serve the company’s external customers really all boils down to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. While individuals hold different standards of courtesy and polite manners, policies and processes can define and put into place those standards that you wish to establish and sustain. Clear, direct, and candid communication followed by thoughtful consideration and response–if not always action–goes a long way toward ensuring employees understand corporate expectations, feel valued for their contributions to the business, and are positioned to fulfill those expectations to grow the business through improved customer service.