Creativity: The Willing to Fail Competency
Creativity is one of the 8 Pillar Competencies celebrated in my book, "The Daily Undoing - Being Better at Being Human". Like so many of the subjects I teach, I feel a compulsion (perhaps an annoying one to some) to clarify the context of this noun as it is meant to be understood in the context of competency based learning. If you've been reading along you know that when I talk about competencies (yet another misunderstood term) I am talking about innate behaviours we're all capable of developing through a repeated system of setting attitude, seeking knowledge, and practicing a skill. Thus, the competency of creativity is not merely some God-given talent that magically allows a gifted few to paint, sing, dance or write. In fact, in the world of competencies, "creativity" has nothing to do with art. The root word, create, in this context, is in reference to once resourcefulness. More specifically, it is the willingness, knowledge and ability to improve the way we experience the world around us, and possibly do so for others as well. When you see someone improvising or innovating on the way things are done, and in the process, making those things better, your first words might be, "Wow, that's so smart!", or "Amazing! How'd you come up with that?" Deserved language to be sure, but what you are really celebrating is that person's creativity, at least in the spirit that the word is used in the realm of competency based learning. You might even find yourself using the noun, "creative", in just that very context. If you do this, you've nailed the association with the word as a competency. Like "marketing", or "brand", or "positioning", or so many other terms I attempt to clarify as a business educator, "creativity" has an identity crisis. It is widely thought of in the narrowest of terms - an artistic outcome or act. Don't get me wrong, I am a passionate fan and advocate for the arts, and yes, those who perform them do demonstrate "creativity", but it is a different kind of creativity. That kind of creativity has to do with the ability to transform imagination into something accomplished through any combination of motor skills. Deserving of our praise, awe and wonder, but not the same kind of creativity we celebrate in competency based learning. Design thinking is the educational term for what I attempt to humanize a little more with the word, creativity. Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school, is the most widely celebrated educational manifestation of the concept, but it had been put out into the world decades earlier. Writing in his 1959 book, "Creative Engineering", John Arnold is thought to be the first to use the term "design thinking" formally. He asserted that design thinking either aims to solve a newly discovered problem, or discover a better way of solving an old problem. Through the 2010's we became drunk on calling this "disruption". But that's not what Arnold had in mind. Sure, Facebook, Apple, Google, Netflix, Uber and Tesla were all disruptive, but more importantly, they, and in particular, the visionaries behind them, were creative. They weren't obsessed over disrupting. They were obsessed with doing things differently, more efficiently. But while those brands and leaders will forever be enshrined in the creativity hall of fame, we need to bring this concept of creativity back down to earth and celebrate it for its utility among all of us, and access to it, by all of us. Being creative is not something to be shrugged off as the super-power of a chosen few. If you are human, you possess creativity. And the notion I attempt to rouse in my book, but more importantly to my own children, is that being creative isn't a hobby. It is a responsibility. You owe it to yourself and those with whom you interact to be creative. The slow, or annoying, or faulty, or frustrating products and processes we use every day needn't be accepted as "just the way things are". On the contrary, those very experiences should trigger something within us that seeks an improved way. Surely you get that feeling multiple times a day, where you wish "someone" would come up with a better "something". From time to time, it becomes clear that there is a better way, and it is within you to create it right then and there. You innovate. Taking a route to a destination against Google's recommendation, is perhaps an ironic, but applicable example of this - given how we revere the eerie genius of Google - but that is your creativity "muscle" being engaged, and it is a satisfying feeling, to say the least, when your way works better. Last year I had my "Innovation and Design" students solve an every day problem in their household. Using only random items in their home, they were to cobble together a solution to a routine problem, then take a picture of their innovations and post them on to our learning management system. For some this exercise was as simple as taking a picture, because they had already created the innovation. They were just programmed to behave creatively. For others, they struggled just getting out of the gate. Why? They wanted to know their innovation would "work" The real purpose of this exercise wasn't to launch a new product or disrupt the way we do things. It was to get them to follow through on creative thinking without being concerned with failure. Nowhere in the rubric was there any grade value attached to performance, functionality, attractiveness, usefulness or even practicality. All marks were associated with building a new way. To that end, failure not only didn't matter, it was in fact a necessary step in creativity. Design thinking is "taught" much like so many other educational concepts, like a flow chart. It's ironic, because it is often described as "thinking outside the box" and yet it is taught using a series of boxes and arrows. But, overlooking that rather trivial contradiction for the moment, let us examine those "steps" to design thinking, or as I like to call it - creativity. 1. Empathize - that's right, like the "attitude" required in competency based learning, we must have a design thinking attitude-set before we get our hands dirty. We must first become aware and appreciative of a feeling someone is feeling, or what we ourselves are feeling. Design thinking can be used simply to solve our own pet peeves. This is where the notion of customer "pain points" comes up in creative exercises within organizations in their attempt to improve their customers' experience. But again, let's think of creativity in less corporate terms. In fact, let's think of it in pure selfish terms. "What is the pain point 'I' am experiencing?" 2. Define - look, this step is inserted into just about any process because it is one so often overlooked. But it should remind us that this IS a process, and remove random or arbitrary thoughts from creativity. This is the "focus" step, where we should be asking things like "what is the problem I am trying to solve?" And the first place we should go to define it is step one - "what was that feeling experienced, and where did it come from?" 3. Ideate - ok, now, you can go ahead and brainstorm those new ways. The verb is perfect in describing the activity and the step in creativity. This should be like making popcorn, allowing all ideas to burst chaotically. Whether you're thinking of a new way to perform a household task, or working with a team of engineers to revolutionize an industry, you are popping ideas out madly and writing them down. 4. Prototype - assumes, perhaps mistakenly, that you have chosen from among the many ideas produced in the previous step, the "best" idea with which to proceed. I've always felt this is a rather convenient and somewhat perilous oversight in the process. To jump from an ink-splattered page of ideas, ranging from the ridiculous to the brilliant, straight to making one of them into a physical entity seems to leave out some degree of rigour. But then who am I to argue. FYI, I'm also the know-it-all who gave a talk at an entrepreneurial conference, calling out the design thinking process for having overlooked curiosity as a necessary gateway to empathy. But I digress. Suffice to say, step four is taking an idea from the mental to the physical. 5. Test - which more often than not will inevitably result in failure. But this is a crucial mind-setting precipice for creativity. Rather than "fearing" failure as if it is an indictment of our intellect or character, we must prepare for failure with notepad in hand ready to watch what happens. The word "test" I feel is also a liability to the design thinking model. It is so negatively associated with traditional education and societal thinking. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, the origin of the word "test" comes from French, meaning "trial or examination to determine the correctness of something" namely metals in its original context, recorded in the late 16th century. It evolved from the basis upon which metal quality was measured, to include how people were measured...and it still is. It's an antiquated term, but again, who am I to take down d. School? However you spin it, step five pushes you to try flying your paper airplane. There you have it, the 5 step process of design thinking, which while flawed, at least gives us a framework from which we can all begin practicing creativity in a more structured way. Feel, then think, then act, then be willing to fail, to learn. Competency based learning, the underpinning concept of my book about being better at being human, absolutely relies upon us being in a constant state of creativity. Creativity allows us not merely to learn, but to learn better. To set an attitude where feelings matter, failure is required and yes process must be followed. And this is why I call it the "wiling to fail competency". As I write this post, I am working with my 11 year old daughter, Gabby, on a school science project called "Instant Ice". What's supposed to happen is, the pouring of near-ice water onto a small dish of ice should cause the water to freeze on impact, in effect "stacking" itself upon itself creating a mini ice sculpture, literally freezing up the flowpath of the water to the mouth of the bottle. The YouTube videos of course show this working seamlessly - like something from "Frozen". With three failed attempts this weekend, under our belt, we attempted this feat one more time before school today and...we failed for a fourth time. I'm loving a book now by Adam Grant called "Think Again". In chapter two he quotes one of my heroes, Daniel Kahneman, who, upon realizing that his there was potentially an error in his research chirped, "Isn't that wonderful - I was wrong!" He goes on to explain that whenever he realizes he was wrong, that makes him less wrong than he was before. What a calming perspective in the face of a world exhausting itself in pursuit of perfection. I know Gabby by now is more bored than frustrated. And probably indifferent to being wrong, right, successful or unsuccessful in this experiment. These emotions can be creativity killers. But they don't have to be. As her parent, a choice is now parked in my hands. I think I'll revisit step one of design thinking for some wisdom and guidance.