The Creative Company

Creativity

I thought this Scientific American piece on the messy minds of creative people (based on research by Psychologists Guillaume Furst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart) was the best thing I’d read on how creativity works in ages. 

What was fascinating about it was that it acknowledged the many different (and sometimes contradictory) components, characteristics and personality traits that comprise creativity, and how they play a different role at different stages of the process.

What was also interesting for me though, was how much you could apply this thinking to companies as well as individuals (after all, an organisation is but a bunch of people put together). We all know just how important creativity is as an organisational differentiator, and not just to creative sector businesses  - an IBM survey a while back found that global CEOs believed it to be the most important quality in being able to navigate an increasingly complex world. So taking the key points in the piece, here’s how you might view the critical attributes of a creative organisation.

The researchers identified three “super-factors” of personality that predict creativity: Plasticity, Divergence, and Convergence.

Plasticity

Plasticity comprises personality traits including extraversion, high energy, being open to experience and inspiration. The common factor in this is a high drive for exploration, and the comparator here is with organisational willingness and propensity to be externally facing and exploratory. Too many companies become increasingly internally focused as they scale, mature or face ongoing challenges and this is about outwardly-looking organisational energy, curiosity, scrutiny and ambition. About a willingness to try new things, to experiment and learn at a fast pace.

Divergence

Divergence consists of 'non-conformity, impulsivity, low agreeableness'. For me, this is about organisational independence of thought, a willingness to be misunderstood, to try new and different things, stubbornness and uniqueness of vision.

Convergence

This relates to qualities such as precision, persistence, critical sense and conscientiousness. The equivalent organisational qualities here might be taken to be data-driven decision making and validation, a strong purpose, a focused approach, aligned and informed decision-making.

The article goes on to talk about how convergence often related to plasticity and how 'those who were open to new experiences, inspired, energetic, and exploratory tended to also have high levels of persistence and precision'. I can see this being true of companies too. But they also mention how these different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory characteristics may be used at different stages. Those who were creative were able to combine both generative (coming up with lots of original ideas) and selective (being able to critique, evaluate, and elaborate on ideas effectively) skills. And I think this is true of companies as well.

Being able to imagine lots of different possibilities, originate quality ideas but also focus on those which have the most potential value are key attributes of the creative organisation. And it is those that are able to combine these different behaviours and switch between them in flexible ways, that are best suited to world in which we now find ourselves.


Google Firestarters Comes to Australia

FirestartersNYC

I'm really excited to announce that, on the heels of our events in New York and our recent one in Austin at SXSW, Google Firestarters is coming to Australia. We'll be running two events in one week - one in Melbourne on the 21st April, and one in Sydney on the 22nd April - both on the theme of 'Adapting Strategy for the Adaptive Age'. We want to delve into how strategy and planning is changing in response to the impact of digital technologies on the practice of marketing and advertising.

It's a broad subject, that will no doubt touch on themes that have arisen at previous Firestarters - the intersection of technologically-native practices like user experience, service and product design with planning, impact on agency remuneration and the way agencies work with clients, iterative strategy, and how agencies innovate. But it's also a defined enough topic for us to have some wide-ranging but cohesive debate and it will be fascinating to gain a new and potentially different perspective.

As always with Firestarters we have some excellent speakers. Google's Head of Strategic Planning out of New York, Abigail Posner, will be in Australia and on the roster for both events. And I will be there to moderate both events. Our full line up is:

Melbourne 21stApril, 6pm, Clemenger Auditorium:

Dave King, Director of Strategy at The Royals

Eaon Pritchard, Head of Strategy, Red Jelly

Roger Box, Director of Digital, Clemenger BBDO

Abigail Posner, Google

Sydney 22nd April, 6pm, Google HQ:

Simon Small, Exec Strategy Director, Isobar Australia

Sudeep Gohil, CEO, Droga 5

Jason Lonsdale, Exec Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

Abigail Posner, Google

As always with Firestarters, I have some guest passes to give away to readers of this blog, so if you'd like one, please leave a comment below or contact me direct (stating whether you'd like the Sydney or Melbourne event). 

I'm so pleased that Firestarters is coming to Australia and expanding globally in the way that it is. It's a hugely exciting and positive thing. 


Why Small Teams Work

Small-teams-big-impact

(N.B. This post is part of an occasional series I'm doing, drawing from some of the thinking that's going into the book I'm writing - any feedback is appreciated)

'From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better.' Peter Thiel

There is a story (seemingly from a former executive) that whilst at an offsite retreat where Amazon’s senior staff had gathered, some of those staff suggested that employees of the company needed to start communicating more with each other. Jeff Bezos apparently stood up and declared to all in the room: "No, communication is terrible!". Bezos was referring to the potential for over-burdensome communication to slow everything down. Yet many managers at many large organisations still loudly advocate the need for more communication. It’s the kind of rallying cry that very few others will disagree with. The kind that feels like it is just what is needed to solve a broad range of internal issues that need attention. 

I've written before about the power of small teams, and am fascinated by their potential for bringing greater agility and speed of delivery to organisations, and also for generating significant change. But this is not just conjecture. There is plenty of research into how small teams can do this, some of which is summarised by Janet Choi in this excellent blog post on the subject. Janet draws on the work of J. Richard Hackman who was Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University to make the point that the issue with larger teams isn’t necessarily the size of the team itself, but the number of links between people.

As group size increases, the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially. So whilst a small team of 6 creates 15 links between everyone, a larger team of 12 will generate 66 links, and a team of 50 has no less than 1225 links to manage. This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity. Hackman, writing in The Psychology of Leadership, explains that:

“The larger a group, the more process problems members encounter in carrying out their collective work …. Worse, the vulnerability of a group to such difficulties increases sharply as size increases.”

Leaders, says Hackman, may often create oversized teams in the faulty assumption that ‘more is better’ for team effectiveness, or due to emotional considerations such as sharing responsibility and spreading accountability across larger numbers of people, or for political reasons such as ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are represented:

“For these reasons, individuals from various constituencies may be appointed to a team one by one, or even two by two, creating a large politically correct team - but a team that can find itself incapable of generating an outcome that meets even minimum standards of acceptability, let alone one that shows signs of originality."

Janet also mentions research conducted by Bradley Staats, Katherine Milkman, and Craig Fox (The Team Scaling Fallacy: Underestimating The Declining Efficiency of Larger Teams) showing that larger team sizes can lead to overconfidence and an under-estimation of time needed to complete tasks. One experiment conducted by the researchers set different groups the task of building the same Lego figure. In spite of the fact that the larger teams were almost twice as optimistic about how long they’d take to complete the task, four person teams took 52 minutes whilst two-person teams took only 36 minutes.

It’s tempting in digital transformation to think that since the outcome is so important and speed (in delivery of transformation or digital development) is often such a factor, more people will lead to a greater chance of success. But we underestimate the increasing burden of communication at our own cost. Small, nimble teams can achieve amazing things. So rather than throw numbers at a problem, ask yourself this - what's the smallest number of people you can put together to achieve a result? It's likely to be less than you think.

Image courtesy


Google Firestarters Austin - Engineering Strategy - The Event

Google-Firestarters-SXSW

Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).

Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:

Oonie-Google-Firestarters

User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.

Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:

"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."

UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time. 

Chloe-gottlieb-Firestarters

So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.

Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.

Ianspalter

And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.

Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.

Google_Firestarters-SXSW-image

The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here

My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.

Thanks to DDB Worldwide and ImageThink for images used in this post.


The Connector That Disconnects

I saw a charming talk here yesterday at SXSW by Dutch designer Daniel Disselkoen who themed his session around the idea that familiarity with a subject, our environment, surroundings or routine can limit discovery. This provides the basis for Daniel's work in exploring ways to encourage people to notice and observe more, and to be more self-aware of where our attention is focused.

For four years, he made the same journey on the same tram route to the art academy, and realised that he had stopped looking out of the window and being curious about what he might see. So he developed a simple little real-world hack called Man-eater:

Man-eater from Daniel Disselkoen on Vimeo.

Daniel also talked about how our focus is so often looking down at a screen (a behaviour there is no shortage of here at SXSW). He described the smartphone as 'the connector that disconnects'. So another project is an app called Cucalu, which is a game that encourages you to look at the ordinary with a new perspective by spotting, photographing and sharing geometrical shapes in your immediate environment.

Cucalu from Daniel Disselkoen on Vimeo.

There were some delightful stories of how creative people had been with the challenges, a few of which you can see here. Rather lovely.