What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘creative’? Think about it! We usually think of painting, music and design. Whereas ‘science’ and ‘technology’ fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, that of analytical and formulaic thinking. We see ourselves as either one or the other: you’re either a creative type, or you’re not. Authors Tom and David Kelly argue in their book Creative Confidence that not only is creativity a skill that we can all foster, but also it can make a profound difference regardless of your field.
The two authors are brothers who share a passion for entrepreneurship and innovation. David’s design firm, IDEO, has helped companies make breakthrough innovations ranging from Apple’s first computer mouse to next generation surgical tools for Medtronic. They’ve continually done this for decades: taking creative ‘design-thinking’ approaches to a wide variety of fields and pushing the industry forward. With all this experience in mind, you end up with a book that guides you through the creative process while being full of inspiring stories and case studies.
It’s easy to see how creativity can play a role in something like marketing or in coming up with ideas for new products, but it gets really interesting when we look at jobs we don’t normally associate with creativity. Let’s talk about medical systems.
Doug Dietz is the head of design and development at General Electric. He designs magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) systems to peer painlessly into the bodies of patients. He had just wrapped up a project he was working on for over two years. His design had won international awards for technical excellence, and he was quite proud of his work. He wanted to go see patients using his machine, as a way to see the impact he’s made. Instead, he saw that most children were so terrified of the machine that they had to be sedated to use it!
This was a big shock because, to him, the MRI machine was functioning perfectly and efficiently. It was very well designed, but it had failed in his eyes because it was putting patients through such a terrible experience. He went back and started prototyping ideas for making this a better experience. Technical solutions such as making it less noisy or changing the shape and structure weren’t feasible. Instead, he reframed the machine as a space ship, with the noise being “the sound of the ship taking off”, adding colors and decals and everything. The amount of patients that needed to be sedated dropped significantly, not only giving them a better experience but saving everyone a lot of money.
This is just one example of the kind of “human-centered design thinking” that Tom and David talk about in their book. They talk about other tools and techniques, such as the cross-pollination of ideas. Creativity is all about making connections, often between seemingly unrelated things. You might not think that Formula One racing has much to do with pediatric intensive care, but the head of that unit at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital saw an opportunity for improvement. Watching a race on television, he was amazed by how quickly and efficiently the team was able to service the car in a matter of seconds. This was very different from how clunky and error-prone the process of handing off patients from surgery to the intensive care unit was.
He ended up getting a Ferrari pit crew coach to teach the nurses and staff how to better coordinate and collaborate. They started doing things like mapping out tasks and timing for every role to minimize the need for conversation in such time critical situations. These changes ended up reducing technical errors by more than 40%!
Being exposed to new ideas as often as possible can have a huge impact on your own creative process, especially ideas from other fields. If you’ve made it a habit to continually peruse journals and trends in your field, try taking a glance something completely unrelated, you might be surprised by the kinds of connections you make!
Another powerful technique they mention is talking to and understanding the customer’s point of view to improve products or come up with new ones. This might sound incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get this right. Rarely does asking the customer actually tell you what they want. They often have latent needs that they can’t fully describe or might not be entirely aware of. Investing time in watching how customers use and interact with daily products can uncover a world of insight.
Imagine you were thinking of a way to improve the design of ice cream scoops. You might be sure that you know how people use ice cream scoops, based off how you use them, and go about analyzing and improving this experience. David and Tom, however, went out and spent time with people in the kitchen to see what they might have missed. They noticed that many people, after using the scoop, would absent-mindedly lick the cream off the scoop before putting it in the sink. They realized that a great scoop would not only be nice to handle, but has to be “mouth-friendly” as well. This realization could never have been stumbled upon just by talking to the customer. It’s these subtle needs that can make for a great product.
Bret Victor is an engineer with big ideas. While not mentioned in the book, he holds a similar philosophy with regards to design and innovation. Bret often talks about coming up with solutions to problems that ‘don’t yet exist’. These are problems that customers aren’t aware of, because we don’t think of them as problems, but instead as just the way the world works. His most famous example is the early days of text input on computers. We had a technology boom but computers were still trying to emulate typewriters. You could go into “type mode”, and start typing. If you made a mistake, you had to switch to “delete mode”, and delete everything back to where you want to edit. There was no way to move a cursor around. There was no “cut, copy and paste”, and no one thought there was anything wrong with that.
Whether you’re looking for a creative edge to your business, or inspiration to get the next big idea, Creative Confidence is a very useful and engaging read!
EDITORS: Sarah Shalaby & Nada Adel Sobhi