Today we begin a new series of occasional posts that explore where and how great creative ideas are born. We start with the most basic building block of idea-making: vision, which can be more broadly interpreted to refer to two specific abilities:
1) The ability to observe (see, hear, sense, etc.) the fine details or “little things” that others overlook.
2) The ability to take the broad view and understand the underlying context of a scenario crying out for a better solution.
Tom Kelley from the design consultancy IDEO, in his book “The Art of Innovation,” says, “innovation starts with an eye,” implying that creating a product or service improvement breakthrough rarely happens without close observation of the situation in which the service or product functions. Design firms such as IDEO often send teams into the field to watch users in action. These observations sessions often cut through assumptions about how users “should” (or do) interact with the item/process.
Of special interest to such teams are users who are “rule breakers,” people who use the item “improperly” yet get results anyway. These users often point out design limits, common pain points for users, and can lead the way to new pathways for the product to achieve its goal.
The big picture
Observation is a huge component in successful idea-making; however, based on observation of the status quo alone, it’s unlikely Henry Ford would have perfected the assembly-line production process for the automobile or Steve Jobs would have ever envisioned the Macintosh personal computer. To craft an idea that smashes the existing paradigm and replaces it with something better, it’s necessary to move out of problem-solving mode.
Composer and author Robert Fritz shifts the emphasis in his instructions for successful creative endeavors from finding a solution to a problem to envisioning the results you want. The change methodology known as Appreciative Inquiry advocates much the same strategy in the “Dream” phase of their process.
What separates this sort of creative dreaming/vision work from idle daydreaming or fantasies is a grounding in reality – the acknowledgement that things are NOT at this ideal state, yet. Fritz encourages his audience to use the tension that creeps in as creatives compare their vision with current reality as a “creative tension” that encourages them to take action in service of their vision.
An example of this concept at work can be found in the birth of the process that guides my work with Creative Liberty – Creative Momentum.
Several years ago, I was pulling together the tools and ideas that I share on this site, and I realized that one of the core issues many creatives struggle with is the feeling they “can’t” create – in a word, that they are blocked. Most contemporary approaches to this issue stress getting un-blocked, smashing the block, etc. The focus is still on resolving the block. I asked myself what I wanted as an artist/creative person, and realized I didn’t want to be “unblocked,” I wanted to have so much momentum that I could sail past blocks with little or no loss of speed. I began to research the elements of what could build and maintain that momentum, and the Creative Momentum model was born.
Fritz also asserts that momentum is a crucial part of the creative process, writing this in his book “The Path of Least Resistance”:
“In the orientation of the creative, you are naturally and easily able to build momentum. Every action you take, whether it is directly successful or not, adds additional energy to your path. Because of this, everything you do works towards creating eventual success, including those things that are not immediately successful. Over a period of time, creating the results you want will get easier and easier.”
I can see clearly now – vision-building habits to adopt
If you’re interested in applying the principles of vision to your creative process, here are several habits you can form to enhance the powers of observation and imagination and harness them to boost your idea-generation capacity.
1) Start what IDEO’s Tom Kelley calls a “bug list,” which details failures you notice in products, service delivery or other components of your everyday life. From the coffee mug with the handle that’s too hot when you fill it with your morning brew to the insane maze the DMV makes you run through when renewing your car tags in person, every design/function mistake can lead to creative solutions to that problem or show the way to an entirely new method of achieving the same goal (delicious coffee delivered at a drinkable temperature, car tags kept current and legal).
2) Watch someone at a lower skill level than you perform a task you think you’ve mastered. Kids are great “user testing” subjects if properly supervised. Notice how they interact with the product or materials involved, what assumptions they make about what they’re doing, and how they resolve difficulties they encounter – especially if they come up with a brilliantly wrong jury-rigged fix.
3) Take at least one problem you’re facing in your creative or personal life and reframe it, Appreciative Inquiry style, into a positive goal. For example, if I say that I’m torn between writing a print blog entry and videotaping something to post and it’s keeping me from producing anything, I could reframe that as an opportunity to (great words to replace “the problem is”) learn better transmedia storytelling and integration skills – as well as an opportunity to reflect the place of each type of content in my overall business plan.
After you have reframed problems into opportunities for a while, a funny thing happens – you start seeing opportunities faster and thinking in terms of the vision, instead of having to “flip over” a problem first!