Monday, 26 May 2014

Momentum versus direction - why some organisations don't innovate

When we’re moving forward with a project, it provides us with reassurance. It feels like we’re heading somewhere, and from this we tend to infer that we’re heading in the right direction.

But this confuses momentum with direction.

In his book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, argues that it’s essential for their movie directors to have a direction, even if it’s not necessarily the right one. A director must maintain the confidence of his crew, and in this sense, going somewhere is better than going nowhere. It’s a matter of leadership.

But what if that confidence is misplaced? What if your project is moving rapidly in the wrong direction? All the team moral in the world is not going to save a project if you’re building the wrong thing.

The risks are compounded in a business context, where a team left idle is a waste of money. As their manager, the business demands that you give them something to occupy them. Fast. So should you begin a project before you know exactly where you’re going, or should you wait for inspiration and risk wasting time and money?

At Pixar, Catmull explains that they solve this dilemma by encouraging their directors to "fail early". The argument is that you can always adjust your direction once you have set off, as you learn.

And of course this is true, to a point. To be creative, you need the freedom to experiment and evolve your ideas as a project progresses. But innovation is about more than creativity. These kinds of course corrections are great for incremental refinement of existing concepts. But they rarely lead to anything entirely new… to something innovative.

In a software project I once worked on, I was asked to design a button, where I didn’t believe that one was required. When I questioned it, I was told that this type of software always had a button there, and that it was not within the scope of this “sprint” (a two week project cycle) to challenge things at that level. The trouble was that there never had been such an opportunity. We had started building things before we’d had a chance to consider the big picture or challenge any conventions, because we were following the “Scrum” project management methodology, which favours iterative, incremental development over a traditional sequential approach.

Innovation is about taking a totally new direction. Not making minor course corrections to a familiar route. Organisations that insist on maintaining momentum rarely innovate, because they never give themselves an opportunity to stop and plan an entirely new journey.

In other words, when you confuse momentum and direction, you also risk mistaking incremental refinement for genuine innovation.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

How our words shape our experience, and why diets don’t work

Have you ever noticed how the words you use to describe an experience eventually replace your actual memories of that experience? For example, I ran the New York Marathon last year. When I got back home, people asked me how it was, so I described it to them. After I told the story a few times, it became fine-tuned, and I settled on the most interesting bits to tell people, and the best words to use to describe those bits.  Eventually, this description became so well rehearsed that whenever I think of the New York Marathon, I think of my edited description, rather than the actual experience.

In other words, the words I used to describe the experience became a shorthand for that experience. Rather than digging out loads of memories, my brain is somehow taking a shortcut and playing the edited highlights instead.

The trouble is that these edited highlights are not just a shortened version of events - they are skewed in the particular way that I had chosen to relate the experience to my friends. For example, I left out the boring bits. I downplayed some of the agony. I focussed more on the fun and excitement.

So the words we use to describe our experience not only become a shorthand for that experience, but they can start to define and shape the experience as well. This happens not only to our memories of the past, but to our experience of the present as well.

And that is why the language we use when talking about our experience, behaviour and goals is so important. Take these phrases commonly repeated by people watching their weight:

  • “I’ve been good, I deserve a treat”
  • “I’m not allowed to eat that”
  • “I can’t eat that, I’ve been too naughty this week already"

What do these statements have in common? They’re all childish language, implying the existence of a parental figure who allows and forbids certain foods, rewarding good behaviour with treats and punishing bad behaviour. The funny thing is, in most cases, this parental figure does not actually exist. It’s just a metaphor.

But how does this metaphor operate and what impact does it have upon people who use it? A parent is, of course, responsible for what their child eats. So an adult using parent-child language when talking about their diet is metaphorically relinquishing responsibility for their own eating choices. And this in turn can have serious consequences for their attempts to reach their target body weight.

Metaphors aside, unless you really are a child, then you and you alone are responsible for the choices you make about what you eat. No one else forces you to eat anything. It’s not McDonald’s fault if you eat junk food. And it’s not the fault of an international conspiracy if you consume sugary snacks and drinks full of high fructose corn syrup. You make all those choices yourself.

And it’s not naughty for you to eat calorie dense food, anymore than you’re being good when you eat healthily. Because ultimately you’re in charge, and you experience the consequences of your actions. No one else. Something is only “naughty” if there is a parent figure to tell you off. And something is only a “treat” if there is someone to reward you for “good” behaviour. And there is no such person.

I was discussing this with a friend recently who wants to lose weight. I explained how I choose to eat chocolate on one day a week, because that balances my love for chocolate with my desire to maintain low body fat. She said that was my treat day, and when I explained it was not a treat, she just laughed and said I was “playing with words”. To her it did not matter what I called it.

And of course, I am playing with words, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. In my New York Marathon example, I showed how the words I used to tell my story not only became a shorthand for that experience, but they came to define and shape my recollections of the experience itself.

And this happens with my experiences in the present as well. The language I use to describe what I choose to eat has a profound impact on my diet. By avoiding framing my choices in parent-child metaphors, and instead focusing on how I proactively balance my different priorities to work out what is the right thing for me to eat, I’m shaping my experience in real time, and equipping myself with the self efficacy that I need to stick to my goals.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Using “Save As…” to navigate the creative maze

Developing creative ideas is not a steady linear progression of refining ideas to make something gradually better and better. Quite the opposite, in fact. The creative process is something more akin to a navigating a maze. If you mentally prepare yourself for a few wrong turns at the start, you’re more likely to reach the end.

The creative process is an emotional journey, because you’re looking for what “feels” right. There are no absolute rights and wrongs - you’re ultimately drawing on your own personal aesthetic judgement to determine the right approach.

And this is why being creative can be so emotionally draining. In his recent book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios, explains how important it is to remember that you are not your ideas. Creatives should not take criticism of their work personally. But this is easier said than done, because in a sense, your ideas are you, or at least, an extension of you.

Parents often take criticism of their children very personally because they know they share the same DNA. It is much the same with our creative ideas. We pour our personality, our humour, our sense of identity into our ideas. Their quirks are our quirks. Their shortcoming are our shortcomings. But of course, Ed Catmull is right. As personal as our ideas may be, If we identify too closely with them, we may become blind to their shortcomings, and they can lead us down a blind alley as a result.

And that brings us back to our maze. As you navigate a maze, you have a sense of where the exit is. But while many paths appear to be heading in the right direction, most will lead you round in circles, or to a dead end. That dead end may be so tantalisingly close to the exit, that you can even see it. But as close as the exit may be, you’re going to need to do a lot of backtracking to return to the correct path.

Whatever you’re working on creatively, it’s never just a single idea. Any creative endeavour is comprised of many different synergistic ideas. And even if most of these ideas are great, it takes just one bad one to let the whole thing down. That’s because each idea builds upon the last. In the same way, navigating a maze involves many choices of which path to take, and an early wrong turn can undermine every subsequent decision you make. That’s why, even as you get close to the exit, you may never actually reach it.

Ideally, when we make such a wrong turn, we quickly recognise what we’ve done and turn back before we invest too much time pursuing the wrong path. But of course, it’s not that easy, not only because the path initially looks like a promising one, but also because two traps its easy to get caught in: emotional investment and confirmation bias.

The longer you spend pursuing one particular path, the more emotionally invested you become in that path. When I was a designer, I’d often spend an entire day trying to make a layout work, and getting nowhere. The next morning, I’d go into work and pick up where I left off. Rather than trying a new approach, I’d continue trying to make the old approach work, because otherwise I’d have to acknowledge that I’d wasted the whole previous day in a blind alley.

The most famous example of this is what has become known as Concorde fallacy. The French and British governments invested in fortune in developing the worlds first and only supersonic passenger aircraft - even after it become clear that it would go massively over budget and never be commercially viable. The problem was that they had invested so much in it that it became politically impossible to write off these sunk costs.

Similarly, when we’re building our creative work on top of conceptually flawed foundations, we’ll sometimes do anything we can to avoid acknowledging this to ourselves because it means we’ve wasted a lot of time. And this is where confirmation bias kicks in. This is our naturally tendency to notice all the evidence that supports our point of view, and ignore all other evidence to the contrary. 

This is like reaching a dead end in the maze, but refusing to turn back because you can see the exit over the wall, even though on some level you know the path you’re on will never actually take you there.

So what is the solution?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that creativity is a process of exploration, and as such it is not only inevitable that you’ll take a few wrong turns. It is also absolutely necessary. If you don’t allow yourself to take wrong turns, you’ll end up with writers block or blank canvas syndrome, where you become immobilised and incapable of embarking on a creative undertaking.

So wrong turns are in fact a part of the journey. Something to be anticipated, and even enjoyed. After all, a little detour can be scenic and fun. The trick is not to waste too much time on them, and to be able to quickly retrace your steps and get back onto the right path.

There are many was to solve this problem, but one I’ve found to be consistently effective is “Save As…” Most software offers a save as command, enabling you to create a new version of a document based upon the current version. When you Save As, you preserve the current version, and have a new version to work with.

Keeping a previous version of your work, makes it feel less risking to start experimenting again, freeing yourself from the constrains of emotional investment. It’s like leaving a breadcrumb trail in the maze, so you can retrace your steps. By saving as, and then working on a copy, you feel free to delete and amend substantially, knowing you can always retrace your steps and get back to where you were if it doesn’t work out.

When I “save as” on a creative project, I always believe at the time that I’m going to need to return to the earlier version, and yet in practice I rarely do. Over the years, I’ve learned to manage myself in this way - effectively playing a little mind game on myself.

Save as… may seem like a fairly unimportant feature in most software packages, hidden away under the file menu.  But used in the right way, it’s one of the most powerful tools in the creative toolbox. One that is sure to lead you out of the most challenging creatives mazes.