This article was first published in June 2016.
I recently co-facilitated a workshop at the CXPS (Client Experience in Professional Services) Conference in Durham, North Carolina. Coincidentally, the conference was held at the same time as Moogfest, an event that bills itself as a gathering of “artists, futurist thinkers, inventors, entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, scientists, and musicians.” And, because I love nothing more than a big idea, I promptly enrolled myself in a session on ‘Exploring Creativity’, facilitated by Peter Hyer of IDEO.
What I found interesting was that almost everything these creatives talked about applied just as much to lawyers, business consultants, and other professionals. So, here are 7 ways professionals can be more creative, inspired by my Moogfest session.
1. Creative confidence comes from understanding how people think
One speaker, a musician, argued that connecting with your audience through creativity comes from knowing as much as you can about how they think. After all, you never know what particular bit of information or insight will spark the idea that could eventually give birth to the next big thing. What’s important is that it relates to the world that they live in.
For them, that meant listening to every radio station in every city they visited to get a feel for what people were listening to and talking about and what ideas they were exposed to. But for professionals, I think this same idea applies equally well.
Do you read the same media as your clients, keep up with the same news, speak to them regularly and do everything you can to understand how they think?
2. Ideas begin at the edge of our comfort zone
We don’t come up with our best ideas by doing the same old, same old. We do it by taking ourselves out of comfort zone and seeing the world through other people’s eyes.
For instance, we’re often told that the key to happy clients is communication. But how many firms really put that into practice?
One of the speakers, a consultant, said that to show exactly how it can feel to be kept in the dark he took a group of professionals on a trampolining session. He just neglected to tell them what they would be doing beforehand. That way they didn’t have any idea what to wear, how to prepare or even how long they’d be away from their desks. Unsurprisingly, the group became quite angry and frustrated. But at least they understood first-hand how their clients felt when they weren’t communicated to. Better still, this inspired them to come up with some great new ideas for communicating better.
3. It pays to be vulnerable
As professionals we often think we need be the dominant player, setting the course and steering the ship. But the best ideas usually arise when we’re surrounded by ambiguity.
That can mean not going into a problem being attached to a specific outcome but instead exploring alternatives and ideas as they arise.
Ask yourself, what is it that you’re trying to solve? Once you understand the real question you can use techniques like empathy mapping to better understand the situation from others’ viewpoints.
4. No one gets it perfect first time
As one speaker at Moogfest put it, the first ‘note’ can often be the hardest to find and you have to have the right conditions to strike it.
In my experience, professionals often learn a particular way of doing things and then become blinded to the fact that that same thing can be done any number of ways. And, actually, the most creative way to approach a problem may be to try something different.
That said, there was no consensus on the best way to create something new. Some people thought it was important to just get started on a project or prototype and then to keep refining or improving it as you go. Others argued the benefit of putting time and effort into getting the groundwork done.
But all agreed on the benefits of ‘tinker time’ – a time for working on what could be improved and looking for new ideas or observations. Tinker time limits the depth of analysis so that you can keep momentum on projects while accepting that every idea evolves.
Many innovative businesses are now prototyping the experiences their clients will have – focusing on the physical and emotional, rather than the simple process. If your firm wants to do the same, the Moogfest speakers suggested that the best way forward was to use short, sharp experiments, where you share what you’ve learned, analyse what works, and then build again.
5. One honest person is worth an army of sycophants
How many creatives start off well and then find their quality deteriorates after they become successful because there’s no one to tell them that they stink? I think sometimes professionals are the same.
To do our best work, we all need a tribe of honest people around us who’ll tell us exactly what they think and help us refine and improve what we do.
6. Failure is as important as success
We’re brought up in a culture that worships success. However, the speakers pointed out that all successful businesses, artists, writers and other creatives have also learned how to deal with failure. This isn’t about being lazy or accepting mediocrity. But one thing creative people and creative businesses do is to learn, adapt and improve.
To help with this, businesses can change the language they use. Instead of saying something doesn’t work, talk about what we learned from the process and what insights you took. Better still, do this early because a failing prototype doesn’t usually take too much time or effort to improve or abandon.
Popular project management approaches such as Google Venture’s Sprint or Agile ‘Scrums’, both of which acknowledge this through their ‘build and test’ methodology.
7. Embrace the contrarians
A lot of professional services firms are great at getting people to think a particular way and having a particular culture. But sometimes this can lead to ‘groupthink’. The best ideas aren’t born out of orthodoxy. They come from the outliers, the contrarians, the ones who see the world differently to the majority.
The speakers talked about the need to get extreme points of view. Or, as they put it, you want to make sure that the people who are solving the problem aren’t the same ones creating it.
One speaker gave an example, suggesting that if you’re designing a light switch, ask for input from a blind person. They’ll have a completely different insight into what’s needed, and indeed, whether anything is needed at all.
Consider how this same concept could apply to professional services. Who gets listened to in your firm? Is it always the HiPPO? Or do you listen to the voices of the people on the fringes?
Moogfest was a wonderful opportunity to see some of the world’s most creative minds talk about the ideas, techniques and processes that made them creative in the first place. And there was so much professional services firms could take from it.
If, in the meantime, you’re interested in how your firm can come up with more creative ways to solve problems, get in touch.
Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping professional services practices sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients and become more profitable.
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