The state of creativity in the 21st century
It feels like we’re in the midst of some interesting times for humankind. It’s a time of change. A time of transition towards systems that perform better, easier, and more efficiently.
It’s exciting because as much as this change is affecting our everyday lives, we’re also the ones steering it. With the continuous rise in expectations from our smart devices, peers, and even ourselves, we’re creating this urge for more innovation, more impact, which are now more necessary than ever. To top it all, the vast world we live in has never been so reachable, which gives any individual or company with a few bucks to spare the perfect opportunity to persuade and influence it.
Therefore, our skills and knowledge requirements are constantly evolving. From soft skills, even to personal traits and attributes... Even more, it’s continuously encouraged in creators and innovators to stay on top of their game, in an ecosystem that places impact in the lead.
Creativity is climbing up the ladder as a necessary requirement needed for anyone, who’s tackling anything. And if you’re not certain, I urge you to look at the latest LinkedIn job listings.
Now, even though the requirement remains the same, the practice has drastically changed. Being creative is no longer an inside-out hunch, rather an outside-in continuous process that relies on flexibility, collective confidence, and empathy.
Now, before elaborating, remember not to fall into the misconception between creativity and artistry. It’s easy to think they are the same thing, but they’re not. In a nutshell, being creative is about finding unique solutions to complex problems, within a good set of restrictions. While being an artist is about more liberal expression, stripped of any guidelines. Creativity can be intellectual. Artistry is found in the physical world – or digital. Even though both traits have quite some overlap… the gap is widening… but that’s a whole other topic.
I dare to think it’s impossible for a single individual to drive creative solutions in today’s world. That doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy creative traits, on the contrary. It’s a skill that should be in everyone’s interest… To harness it and nurture it is critical. But one shouldn’t think that by harnessing their creativity, they can formulate solid ideas and solve problems... Far from it, that’s just a start. There is a set of individual and group traits we should harness in order to develop a creative process that works for us, our work dynamic, and the needs of the people we are serving. I gathered below a set of 3 traits that I think are the most critical. But I am sure that, throughout your creative discovery process, you will uncover many more.
1. Harnessing flexibility is a prerequisite
To begin with, flexible mindsets and environments in which we concede to change are necessary. Change is hard, even scary sometimes. Yet, we need to accept that it’s now part of every day and not just the creative process. Our lives today would have been hard to process a couple of years ago. Yet here we are, actively practicing in social distancing, normalizing the wear of face masks, and preaching to work from home instead of office hours to stay human.
I remember one of the early clients I worked with, a food blog called No Garlic No Onions, who came to us with the task of revamping their website, the main source of traffic. We had tons of ideas to create a state-of-the-art web experience with horizontal scrolling, color codes, popups, and a new restaurant rating system. After 3 months of work, the website went up, and numbers started going down. People hated that experience and wanted something fast and more efficient to view the reviews quickly and continue with their day. I remember being scared to my bones, knowing it’s one of the first clients I work with, and the outcome was a failure. But Anthony, the founder of the blog, had a different perspective on it. He positively invited us to gather feedback, summarize our learnings, and jump into the continuous revamp project, which later turned out to be a great success. The insights shared with Anthony, me, and the company I worked with turned out to be invaluable. We learned more than any interview or test we could have done, and it was all thanks to a great sense of flexibility and readiness to change, incorporated into the brand’s DNA.
Hence, it’s important to cultivate an open-minded environment with your team. Taking risks and failing is somewhat inevitable. This is why, continuous experimentation and iterations, on solutions that we thought would work flawlessly, are necessary to keep up with the constantly changing world around us. If we’re committed to creative problem-solving, let’s start by welcoming change starting from ourselves, workplaces, and communities.
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2. Seeking collective confidence and collaboration
Now we know that individualism in problem-solving no longer works. The working alternative is bringing different perspectives, more opinions, and various paradigms into the table. Hence, a creative fix now requires more collective effort, which starts by supporting one another and empowering our impact by empowering our peers.
With the broad spectrum of people and communities our solutions can reach, one way of seeing things no longer works. A single opinion can no longer be effective in solving complex issues for complex humans.
But the task of applying collective confidence can prove to be a challenge. Tom & David Kelly put this constraint well into perspective in their book Creative Confidence.
It’s like karaoke confidence which depends on absence of fear of failure and judgement, but also does not necessarily require native singing ability or success.
Fear of failure and fear of judgment might be the two biggest enemies standing in the way of group creativity.
It’s crystallized in a negative and defeating attitude towards experimentation, dictation, and tight control. Successful creative groups replace those with a solid foundation of trust and humor, shared energy that’s inspired by the individuals, common purpose, and lack of hierarchy in operations in order to maintain creative momentum.
3. Having empathy is the key
I kept the best point for the last. And this is a topic that I spoke about over and over with my students, clients, and peers. It’s impossible to solve problems creatively and have a solid impact without the virtue of empathy.
Empathy, in definition, is the action of recognizing and understanding the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person, without these feelings, thoughts, and experiences being communicated very explicitly. It might seem abstract... But applying it in your day-to-day is a practice and a skill that flourishes and can have a direct impact sooner than you think. It all starts with the simple practice of effective listening, observation, and thoughtful questioning.
One cannot stress enough the importance of asking mindful, and reflective questions which allow us to share things we can act on. Those questions should always be asked with the intention of understanding the other point of view and caring about the emotional background that formulated it. Remember, experiences have an influence on the decision-making of today.
Asking close-ended or destructive questions should be avoided at all costs. Instead, focus on open-ended questions that invite people to compare, analyze, brainstorm, or identify something.
For example don’t ask: Did we solve the pricing issue on our platform?
Do ask: How might we provide more accurate pricing for our customers?
Don’t: Our onboarding experience is terrible, how should we improve it?
Do: What do you think about our onboarding experience? What can we do to improve it?
To know more about asking good reflective questions, Vicki Kintner-Duffy’s article is a great reference
Lastly, attentive observation is also necessary, to help us differentiate between forms and behaviors, recognize patterns, and develop models of how things work. It’s a powerful tool to gain inspiration to fuel the creative process. Yet it cannot be achieved without you being a careful listener, who is present and concentrated on studying the characteristics of the individual, object, scene, or situation.
Back in 2018, while leading the Experience Design efforts at Ogilvy in the Middle East, we were working with a governmental entity in the gulf, on a huge multi-billion dollar initiative to digitize the economy and create a smart future. One of our tasks at the early stages was to research what the country’s local residents expect from this initiative, and the mental models they have formulated from the early advertisement for this 15 years plan. Everyone was expecting to hear about flying drones, electric cars, high-speed internet… the leaders on this initiative even drafted some immersive experience prototypes intended to promote the initiative. During the first few interviews, we were focused on uncovering user needs and expectations. We asked questions about the future, use of digital channels, daily life, and motivations. However, while observing the people we were interviewing, we noticed a repeating pattern of lack of interest in what the government was doing. Soon enough we started steering our questions to uncover the reason behind that lack of interest, mainly for locals of that country, and eventually ended up with a conversation focused solely on that topic.
We discovered that the locals, who played a critical role in the success of that project, had no interest in the new government’s initiative because the government launches initiatives every month. This finding which could have been easily neglected in a well-packed interview, lead us to change the whole concept of the platform into a collaborative voting space, where people voted for the initiatives they wanted to see come into action. If it wasn’t for that careful observation of people’s behavior, and a strong sense of empathy from the team, the initiative would have ended in failure.
There has always been a misconception about creativity as if it’s a talent that some people are born with. But this statement has been refuted many times over the last decades. Some people are born with more creative capacity, but as mentioned, it is a capacity that can be self-taught and empowered for anyone. It has been demonstrated that creativity is a trait that you can grow and nurture. This Beijing Normal University study on Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience measured creative individuals and their characteristics, confirming an increase in creativity is possible for anyone. Creativity is always referred to as a trait. It’s something that can be taught, but you should start as early as possible, so maybe now is a good time to start or continue your growth path. :)
Whether you’re a fresh grad or large company executive, have put in years or no hours at all, know that your creativity is a potential that can be improved upon, and there are quite a handful of things you can change in you and your workspace to be more creative.
In the 21st century, its result is more critical than ever. But reaching it requires more effort, focus, and a different paradigm of work, which we will further discuss in the future. And if I learned one thing from my educative experience as an instructor, it is that this skill needs to be taught, and practiced continuously, in the early stages of a career, where it's almost always expected to be present.
I will leave you with a final clip by the one and only Sir Ken Robinson, who dedicated his life tosharing creative techniques and unleashing creative potential:
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