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The Method to Creative Madness

Where do creative and innovative ideas come from?  Is it a process or does a flash of inspiration strike some unsuspecting brainstormer in a moment of utter clarity?

One day my wife, Katharine (Kat), brought home an interesting drawing from one of her colleagues, Lucy Flanagan, that explored her own creative process. As Kat unpacked the drawing from her bag, she held it out and said: “Look at what Lucy did! Isn’t this amazing?!?!”  I stared at it and couldn’t help but agree. It was a simple and clear doodle of Lucy’s creative process. I loved it…

Lucy Flanagan's Creative Process…and had to find out more.

So, I reached out to Lucy and asked her a few questions in an attempt to understand where she derives her inspiration for new ideas. Lucy’s role as a strategist on a team devoted to innovation affords her a unique perspective that just begs to be explored. I asked if I could interview her; below are a few insights gleaned from our conversation as Lucy and I descended down the rabbit hole of her creative process. Enjoy!

First, I love your drawing. Can you explain where that came from and your inspiration behind it?

Thanks! I attended the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) Strategy Festival in Chicago this past October, and I participated in a workshop around more effective group facilitation (a workshop about workshops — how meta, right?). The “ice-breaker” was an assignment to draw your personal creative process and then to share it as a way to introduce yourself to the group. It was a simple exercise that took probably five minutes, but as the consummate professional, I cannot pass up any opportunity to doodle.

Staring at a blank canvas or blank sheet of paper can be intimidating. How do you come up with creative ideas? Can you describe your process?

Disclaimer: I don’t think my creative process is particularly unique or groundbreaking but here goes….    

When posed with a creative challenge, if I have the luxury of time, I like to quietly hang out with it for a bit, let it simmer on the periphery of my mind — maybe to size it up before a fight, or more often than not, let it open up to me so we can be friends (*awww…*).

Whether or not I have time to ruminate on that sucker, I always start with narrowing (if then/so what) questions. My goal is to focus the lens and set up some parameters so I can play most efficiently and effectively in a relevant solution space. I am a loyal subscriber to the notion of creativity loves constraints.

Photo courtesy of: http://www.luckypanner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/gold-panning-technique.jpgOnce I’ve defined the “true” problem that stands in the way of the objective, I widen the aperture again and collect as much information as I can stomach. My good friend Mr. Google (or “Googs,” if you please) and I spend some quality time together; I also love to talk to real live people too, who can provide some subject-matter expertise or a different point-of-view. Next, it’s time to distill key learnings and locate those “Huh!” or “Wow!” nuggets that have the potential to light the way to the goal.

Here’s where I absolutely need to get out of my own head and chew through the challenge with others. Picture an old world market — we bring our nuggets to the table and turn them over, look at them with a critical eye, poke and hawk and barter until we’ve determined and shined-up the most gilded of golden nuggets: our driving insight (cue the clouds parting and a choir of angels singing in high, operatic unison!).

Rubber hitting road…it’s time to think and ideate around the key insight and pressure test it as much as possible. How does it hold up when the problem punches it in the face — does it fight back? Does it inspire real, cool, differentiating solutions? Does it provoke action and progress? And…what questions does it pose back?

What do you do when you get stumped? How do you clear your mental roadblocks?

If you’re stuck, I think the key is to recognize the difference between productive and unproductive churn.  Is the engine going to suddenly turn over and roar to life, or are you going to run out of gas? Think: am I getting fired up here, or am I getting tired and sad? If I am getting tired and sad, I’ll take a break; get a cup of coffee, read the news, or even do something menial that makes me feel productive, like cleaning up my inbox. Sometimes, if you push yourself to the edge, you can break through — but be patient if you just need a break.

Is it better to brainstorm alone and then bring ideas to a group or do you start your brainstorming in a group setting and then break out to individuals? What do you think?

I am personally an introvert, but I believe working solo can be incredibly limiting. Effective brainstorms (effective being the operative word) are powerful opportunities to channel multiple perspectives and generate some serious velocity. But, effective brainstorms don’t happen by accident…preparation and focus is key.

What tools and techniques have you found to be effective in brainstorming?  Do you constrain yourself to the “possible” or try to think big and then rein in the ideas later?

Photo courtesy of: http://isotranslations.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/narrow-wooden-bridge.jpgIn general, I am a think big, think positive, “Yes, and…” type of brainstormer. But I also believe in setting up a few helpful guardrails and constraints. It’s a work in progress, but here’s my list of effective tools and techniques:

  • Establish a clear, articulated problem and objective, to which all participants are aligned.
  • Ideally, appoint a leader who owns the strategic task at hand and a different facilitator who can keep the brainstorm on-target and record thinking.
  • Bring together a thoughtful, diverse composition of people. Not everyone needs to be there, and each person should bring a different value to the team.
  • Complete pre-work so that participants come to the brainstorm prepped and primed on the problem to be solved.
  • Agree to rules of the road to enforce mutual respect, open-mindedness and diligent pursuit toward the goal
  • Snacks!
  • Summarize the key decisions, actions and confirm the next steps.
  • At the end, encourage deliberate reflection and relentless follow-through.
  • Follow up — don’t leave participants hanging, show them how the brainstorm moved the needle.

At its core, behind every great idea is a problem we are trying to solve. How do you hone in on the right problem to solve?

There’s never only one definition of any big, hairy problem; however, some articulations are probably more likely to help get to your goal than others. The benefit of looking for alternative ways into a problem — before you try to solve it — is that you can determine what you really need to solve for (i.e. the root cause). Never take a problem at face value: get smart. Ground yourself in the entire context of the challenge and then start poking and prodding (e.g. “Why?”, “What Else?”, “What would be the benefit if…?”, etc.) to narrow in on a definition of the problem that points you to “true north,” your end-objective.

Your graphic suggests that you seek input from others in your creative process. Who do you go to?

In my current professional life, every day is a group effort. While I am responsible for my own-‘ish work, progress and accomplishments are the result of the team working together. Like everyone, I’ve worked in both ineffective and effective groups, and when you’re part of a calibrated, finely-tuned team, problem solving becomes a lot less intimidating.

What pitfalls have you seen in the creative process?  What advice would you give people to avoid those pitfalls?

Pitfalls I have seen in the past include:

  • Not listening. Bulldozers do not make successful creatives. Listen-up and then speak-up.
  • Being ruthlessly possessive and/or defensively protective of an idea. Kill your darlings! Embrace iterativality (**made-up word**)!
  • Starting from scratch. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from your past. Look back and all around for inspiration.
  • Arrogance around role or process. Don’t be snooty. Anyone and everyone is capable of a great idea, so be inclusive.

Photo Credits: Header Photo, Gold Nugget, Bridge

About Lucy Flanagan

Lucy FlanaganLucy Flanagan works on the Innovation Team at Bluedog Design, located in Chicago’s West Loop, helping primarily Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) clients develop and catalyze front-end innovation solutions. As a cross-client project manager with a strategic itch to scratch, she compares her role to that of an elevator (probably a nice one… with a marble floor and gleaming brass hardware, and a plush velvet bench) — she gets her team and clients smoothly from one level to the next. Outside of the office, she logs long hours rubbing her dog Moo’s belly, brunchtiquing (brunch + antiquing), and yearning for warm sunlight. Connect with Lucy here.

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