Remember how in Mad Men Don Draper went from being a child of the Dust Bowl to (purportedly) dreaming up the iconic “Hilltop” ad for Coca-Cola? Or how Peggy Olson rose from the ranks of secretary to copy chief? If you ask IDEO’s cofounders Tom Kelley and David Kelley, that level of creativity isn’t reserved for Madison Avenue Cinderella stories. Nor is creativity relegated to what we’ve come to term “creative” professions. We all possess a creative capacity that, if we learn to foster it in our professional lives, can be used to make our own version of the “Hilltop” ad (iconic strut through the halls of McCann not included) and drive real impact.
Channeling their learnings in innovation, design, and creativity from their work at IDEO (which in turn has worked with some of the world’s top companies) as well as the Stanford d.school, the Kelley brothers break down the principles of creativity and offer ways that we can infuse our own lives with more of our own creative potential. Read on for Whole Whale’s 5 takeaways from Creative Confidence, and how this book can be leveraged towards your own social impact goals.
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1. For greater impact, keep throwing pots
The Kelley brothers cite the book Art & Fear for this case example, and it’s an anecdote that we at Whole Whale use frequently with clients: A ceramics instructor divides his pottery class into two groups for the semester. One group is graded on the quality of one piece that they will work on for the duration of the class. The other half was graded on the quantity of their work — 50 pounds of finished work, for example, was an A. For the duration of the class, the members of the quality group each worked meticulously on creating the one perfect piece, while members of team quantity threw pot after pot on their wheels. Were they all good? No, but the best pots at the end of the course came from those who spent the most time honing their skills, pot by pot.
“If you want to make something great,” write the Kelley brothers, “you need to start making.” In other words, don’t let perfection be the enemy of done. Your digital strategy will not be made by one single piece of content, social media post, or email. Do your best, don’t stress being “just right,” and learn with each campaign, post, or resource what works and what doesn’t so you can keep learning through doing.
2. Empathy is a renewable resource
While the Kelley brothers note that “the notion of empathy and human-centeredness is still not widely practiced in many corporations,” we can hear nonprofit and social-impact managers argue that this sector is all about empathy. That may be the case, but remember that empathy is not a fixed resource. IDEO prides itself on design and innovation solutions rooted in field work and seeing the world through the eyes of their clients’ users. If you aren’t working directly with the beneficiaries of your services, take some time to go into the field and see how they’re interacting with your service or product first-hand.
But what about data? Empathy-driven qualitative research can coexist with the quantitative data that drive your mission forward. Design researchers have even coined a term for this: “hybrid insights.” Remember that numbers are people, because your vision is not about increasing the number of registered organ donors year-over-year, it’s about saving human lives.
3. Think like Sherlock Holmes
If the idea of going into the field and observing the way users are interacting with your organization through fresh eyes seems daunting, take this tip from Tom and David Kelley: Think like Sherlock Holmes.
That doesn’t mean you have to mentally narrate your every move with a fake British accent (looking at you, Robert Downey, Jr.). Rather, look at the world with the curiosity and the love of observation that a detective brings to any crime scene. You can also think of this as pretending you’re in a foreign country: “On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us. We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new. Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings.”
What’s great about this Sherlock Holmes state of mind is that it can be applied to your internal operations as well. The Kelley brothers follow up the above quote with the conclusion, “To notice friction points — and therefore opportunities to do things better — it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.”
What opportunities are lying in plain sight? The answer is elementary…
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4. Develop an “abundance mentality” with ideas
Creative Confidence points to keeping yourself open to new sources of innovation as a key means of keeping your thinking fresh. TED Talks, newsletters, podcasts, and any number of resource blogs (like this one!) are designed to spark new ways of considering the world around you. If you’re the head of the pediatric intensive care unit at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, you may get a spark of inspiration from watching a Formula One pit crew. You’re not going to service a race car in your hospital, but mapping the techniques of a Ferrari service team (which boil down to efficiency, precision, and sequence) onto a hospital crew that’s challenged by the transition of patients from surgery to the ICU is surprisingly easy. In this case study, it was also effective: Technical errors were reduced by 42% and information errors by 49%.
“When ideas are in short supply, it’s tempting to become possessive or territorial and limit your options,” write the Kelley brothers. “If you have only a few ideas in your idea bank, you’re more likely to settle on one of the few you have and defend it fiercely, even if it’s not optimal. But when ideas are plentiful and easy—if you (or your team) have a dozen a day—then there’s no need to become territorial about them. And if an idea you had gets blended with others, it’s not a problem. The whole group shares the credit. After all, there are more ideas where that one came from.”
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5. “Creativity seldom follows the path of least resistance”
Dovetailing with the previous passage, the Kelley brothers stress throughout Creative Confidence that simply deciding to be creative does not guarantee creativity. Like any relationship, your relationship with your own creativity (and the creativity of others in your organization) is one that requires a bit of work.
“Creativity seldom follows the path of least resistance. You need to deliberately choose creativity,” write the Kelleys.
But, like a muscle, creativity can also be maintained with even some light but regular stretches. Spend some time on Pinterest, read one new blog a week, or get a group of colleagues together with some Post-it notes for a rapid brainstorming session where the one rule is that there are no “bad” ideas. Creativity is a muscle, but it’s one that’s also developed best through team sports. “Being creative doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch or being the sole originator—it’s about adding what you can, about making a creative contribution.”