“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” -Erich Fromm
The field of design is undergoing a period of rapid change, with disciplines broadening and overlapping and designers taking a more active role in leadership and innovation. There are more designers serving as executive of companies than at any time in history, and the reason why is because innovation and creative thinking are keys to the success of companies. Studies by the Boston Consulting Group, amongst others, show that companies that ranked as more innovative enjoy significantly higher rates of success and higher profits than companies that are not. Innovation is key to success. Companies such as Pepsico, Sony Music Entertainment and Burberry have a Chief Creative Officer, and the company J. Crew has two presidents: Libby Wadle, president of J. Crew Brand, and Jenna Lyons, president and executive creative director.
Designers have been professionally trained in the creative process, the process through which the designer finds solutions to communicate ideas and solve the creative challenges of a particular project or endeavor. Increasingly designers are not simply serving clients, but driving new ideas, new products, new services, and new paradigms. The designer-as-leader is an innovation expert. But for a designer to be an effective leader, she must learn several key skills and concepts.
Good Leadership is Good Design
When it comes to leading people, let’s throw out the word “management”. Management is for projects, for assets, for time lines. Good leadership is about pulling (not pushing) everyone on your team towards a common goal, and trusting each of them to do what they do best. Trust is key. To convince your followers of a vision you must first convince yourself. Convince and inspire yourself, and you can convince and inspire others. Communicate to the team, collectively and individually, what the vision and goals are and how you’re going to achieve them. Listen, ask for and welcome input, and respect everyone’s contributions. Being a good leader is like being in a good relationship: trust and communication are key. And being a good leader is like being a good designer. You’re designing a creative culture.
Embrace a Balance of Chaos and Reward Failure
How many times have you had a brilliant idea sitting at your desk staring at a blank document? How about in a coffee shop? At a botanical garden? Laying on a sofa listening to music? Chaining your team members to their desks, demanding precise schedules and forcing people to work the way you work is a creativity and innovation killer. Embrace a bit of chaos and distraction in the office. Things like a foosball game, a lounge with music, a garden, etc. aren’t distractions from work, they’re potential drivers of creativity and boosters of productivity. But balance is key: too much chaos and nobody gets their work done; too little, and ideas don’t flourish and people burn out.
Having a crazy new idea that doesn’t work isn’t a failure, it’s a stepping stone to success. A recent article on BBC News outlined how the Google X Labs, the company’s experimental innovation laboratory, encourages and rewards it’s employees for trying new ideas, no matter how crazy. Google expects a 99% failure rate. This might seem steep, but without trying out all those “failed” ideas, Google never would have innovated new products such as Google Maps, Translate, and Google Glass. In a culture where people are afraid to fail because they’ll look stupid or be penalized for having a “bad idea”, few people will take risks needed for creative breakthroughs. Encourage the members of your team to pitch and try out crazy new ideas, big ideas, and applaud them when these ideas fail.
Create an Agile Culture
Agile Management and Scrum Method are big buzzwords in the field of management and leadership right now, and for good reason. The world is changing rapidly, and being too slow kills creativity and innovation. Agile management is an iterative form of project management wherein small teams deliver results in stages, building the project up rapidly in modular stages. Larger, more complex projects may be broken up into parts and distributed to smaller teams, each rapidly prototyping, testing, and delivering their modular portion of the project. Scrum Method takes Agile Management further by embracing the notion that not all problems can be fully defined from the start, allowing for project requirements to evolve and change based on empirical results during the development and testing phases of the project. I won’t get into all the details of Agile and Scrum, but some of the key things are how meetings are conducted: projects begin with a Sprint Planning Meeting that may last no longer than 8 hours to detail and plan the entire project; daily Scrum meetings update all team members on progress and are limited to 15 minutes; project cycles are typically 7-30 days, and if a project is much bigger than that, it is broken town into 7 to 30 day modules. These limitations keep things moving quickly and minimize miscommunication.
This seems a bit chaotic, and it is. That bit of chaos empowers members of your team to rapidly try out new ideas and respond to change strategically. If you have a brilliant brainstorm and nobody listens, or the idea gets bogged down in committee meetings, or it takes too long to bring it to fruition because of burdensome bureaucratic processes, it not only kills the idea but it dampens the spirit of the person who had the idea, discouraging them from having more ideas in the future.
An agile culture is a culture that embraces change, delivers projects rapidly, and continuously appraises and improves upon ideas based on new empirical information that emerges during the lifecycle of the project. Teams that can go from brainstorm to prototype in less than 30 days will not only be more creative and innovative, but inspirational.