On Cultivating Creativity and Divergent Thinking

”To think in a divergent mode requires more attention than thinking in the usual convergent style”, says the philosopher and psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

I fully agree with this notion. In the book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, Csíkszentmihályi deals with various aspects of creativity. According to Csíkszentmihályi, creativity is often misunderstood, as it is a term being used for many other activities besides being inherently creative.

What is this human trait that we call creativity anyway – besides the individual’s ability to cultivate truly divergent means of thinking and to translate these into activities? And how to maintain a creative, divergent mindset – especially in the middle of the current Western culture of ours, largely building upon certain hegemonic and homogenous values of the agenda of capitalism and thus imposing upon us many written and unwritten laws, norms, regulations and rules?

According to Csíkszentmihályi, creative people are “able to integrate being open and receptive on the other hand, and focused and hard-driving on the other”. Both extrovert and introvert activities appeal to them.

An element of serendipitious discovery is always somewhat involved, it seems. “Creative people are constantly surprised”, Csíkszentmihályi says, and continues, “They don’t assume that they understand what is happening around them, and they don’t assume that anybody else does either. — It is commonplace for creative people to spot the shortcomings of accepted explanations before the rest of us do”, says Csíkszentmihályi. What makes us creative many times equals to just being non-conformist indeed.

Csíkszentmihályi also points out that creative people are typically not motivated by money or fame to but are driven by a feeling of responsibility for the common good.

There is another important social aspect to being creative.

If to think in a divergent way requires a certain personal mindset, communicating any creative divergent ideas to other people also requires attention.

What Csíkszentmihályi implies to here is that if your creative input in a certain domain fails to impress others with expertise on the same domain, it is hardly an innovation at all. To be “kind-of creative” in a certain domain is not enough – you must also be able to surprise others of the same domain and convince these people of the novelty, innovativeness and the implementation of your original idea.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, creativity involves expertise in a certain domain, acceptance of the field or individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain, as well as the inherent personal effort and motivation.

As people that lead a life filled with creativity might know, this trait needs to be fuelled constantly – and to fuel it needs to fit in your daily routine. It requires motivation maintain this mindset in the middle of day-to-day repetitive activities that are also a fundamental part of everyday life in the Western society.

As I work in a somewhat creative field, I obviously need to be curios towards new things and trends also for professional reasons – but I attempt to organize my life around the principle of divergent activities just for the sake of fun and change as well.

I will share a few tips here of what works out for me as for cultivating creativity. This list is by no means complete and comprehensive! But I find sharing these tips might be helpful for some of you. Here’s what you should do:

 

  • Attempt to create a structure of un-structured time. Be it on my free weekends, or the regular day at the office, I attempt to organise my days so that I will have enough un-structured time on my calendar to do the activities that most appeal to me in life or to immerse in something challenging or new. This is the most important rule by far, and applying this rule to your life to at least some extent has immediate and significant effects on your creativity. In case you find this task of applying this to your own calendar an issue at first, I suggest giving serious thought to your life’s priorities.

 

  • Most creative individuals follow their own personal rhythm for sleeping, eating and working. Find out what personally works for you best.

 

  • Wear comfortable clothes. Yes, you got me right – your taste in clothing is not otherwise important. Make sure you wear what makes you comfortable.

 

  • Pay attention to your surroundings and where you spend most of your valuable time. Creating a harmonious, meaningful environment with a positive energy at home as well as at the office or at least about your own desk, certainly helps in cultivating your personal creativity and wellbeing.

 

  • Listen to the music that allows for you to concentrate on in-depth tasks and get to a flow state of mind. My personal favourite for this is electronic music.

 

  • In case you work in management, make a conscious effort to attempt to encourage creative and divergent thinking and activities in your organization and team and to apply these to any ongoing projects. Applying anthropocentric principles and co-design-methodologies might be of use.

 

  • Last – but not least – attempt to spend a part of your time each day with friends, a part of your day outside, preferably in nature, and at least a part of your day immersing in any offline activities.

 

Last week, I attended the Nordic Business Forum 2017 here in Helsinki with many impressive talks on the themes of responsibility, leadership and purpose.

What struck me most was the direct and honest anti-capitalism of Severn Cullis-Suzuki as well as hearing in more detail about Boyan Slat’s impressive plan to clear the world’s oceans of plastic waste. With all the repetitive talks included in the programme about the state of economy as well as climate change, as well as business superstars like Sir Richard Branson as well as motivational speakers such as Will Smith on stage, I feel like the event currently suffers of a lack of creativity, novelty and proper curation.

I would have liked to have spent much more time on networking on location and meeting old colleagues and friends besides listening to most of the talks in the event, as I feel this was of more value to me.

What most business events like this lack most is indeed a truly creative and generative atmosphere. I am looking more and more forward into attending SLUSH17 technology event this year in my hometown!

It might give you a certain advantage and an edge when it comes to business – but what is most important according to Csíkszentmihályi is that learning to be at least a little bit creative when it comes to everyday life will eventually change the way you experience life itself.

Applying some creativity to your everyday life is what – in essence – makes us live a happy and fulfilling life and gives us yet another reason to smile.

 

Get “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, 1997, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Flow-Psychology-Discovery-Invention/dp/0062283251

The Value of Design Sprints Explained

Many companies are now becoming software driven and they need to deliver genuine value, build useable, intuitive and desirable interfaces so that people can operate them quickly and effectively with their mobile and other devices. This is harder than it seems and takes a great deal of time, skill and talent to achieve.

Design sprints bring people of various backgrounds together to collaboratively find solutions within a highly complex system of business, technical, and human context to ultimately result in products and services that people need and desire and are happy to make part of their lives.

How to succeed in delivering a design sprint and wherein lies the value of design sprints to begin with?

I recently had the chance to skim through a few excellent books on this topic. In “Sprint – How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz from Google Ventures explain and outline the Google 5-day Sprint method.

It all begins by setting the stage – outlining the big issue you wish to solve in a week, getting your sprint team together and scheduling a sprint room for the five days.

As for the sprint team or the group of people participating, no more than seven people, with the facilitator not included, is recommended for the sprint. Based on my own experience, this is the ideal group size.

Who then, is needed to participate in the sprint? Knapp and others recommend, that the group includes these people, in addition to the Facilitator:

  • Decision Maker – such as the CEO, Product Manager or Chief Design Officer
  • Finance Expert – such as the CFO, or a Business Development Manager
  • Marketing Expert – such as the CMO, or other qualified person in Marketing
  • Customer Expert – one who regularly meets or chats with customers
  • Technology Expert – such as the CTO or any other person with expertise on technology
  • Design Expert – such as the Design Strategist, the Designer or the Product Owner of the software

Sometimes, some of these roles can be combined. But Knapp and others emphasize, that a Facilitator must be the one that keeps things running, keeps track of time and tasks, and leads the sprint on. It makes sense to hire one or two professionals for this task. Also, some extra experts can be invited to participate and give their views and insights on the issue on the very first day.

It is highly recommended by Knapp and his colleagues that each day, 7 hours with a 1-hour lunch break is spent on the sprint. This will allow for 6 working hours for the group each day, divided between various scheduled tasks.

Knapp recommends starting the sprint each day no earlier than by 10 a.m., so that everyone is present having already checked their emails for the day, as well as being very persistent that no laptops, phones or tablets are allowed in the room. If anybody needs to take a call, they can take it outside the sprint room.

Sometimes, the group may have to reframe the original issue to be solved with human perspective and empathy. For the very first day of any sprint, Knapp and others suggest setting and agreeing to a long-term goal is needed. Challenge mapping is recommended, but picking a target for the sprint is equally important.

Before setting out to pick the target for the sprint, it is paramount to ask the group of people participating, where the company wishes to be in six months, a year, or even five years from now. Sometimes, there may be a long-term strategy involved, but it is recommended to allow for some time for discussion on this topic.

In “The Design Studio Method”, Brian Sullivan emphasizes that preparation largely determines success when it comes to sprints, and suggests scheduling a Problem-Definition Meeting, before the sprint. I find, based on my own experience in facilitation, that this method might work better besides or alternatively combined with the Google 5-day sprint.

Arranging a Problem-Definition Meeting before the design sprint incorporates several benefits:

  • Defining and outlining the original issue, problem or opportunity you wish to solve during the sprint, before the sprint team gets together for the first time
  • Understanding any prior existing requirements or commitments
  • Explaining the methodology of the sprint to the key stakeholders
  • Identifying any such pieces of information you may need to do some research on beforehand
  • Securing alignment between the key stakeholders of the company
  • Committing key people to participate in the sprint beforehand
  • Determining the schedule and scope of the sprint

Sullivan also lists the various advantages of a cross-functional team:

  • Diversity – With a variety of people from different departments, you will have unique perspectives based upon each person’s expertise.
  • Cohesion – Participants complete assignments together using their individual talents to further the bigger goals of the team.
  • Synergy – With a variety of perspectives, the interactions of the group should lead to a greater creativity, as people build upon the ideas of others.
  • Consensus – Your project will have a final plan for execution, or at least a product vision set in place.

The core mission of design is to seamlessly translate business efforts and technology into products and services that deliver human value. At the end of the day, products are simply tools and services that are part of a human ecosystem of tasks and much deeper — almost spiritual — human drivers. Products and services empower humans and enhance human abilities.

There still remain organizations that see design thinking as unnecessary rather than essential to driving organizational change and innovation. Without doing proper research on the customer’s lifestyles and needs and then generating and evaluating various design ideas in a group of people with diverse expertise, in design sprints, however, your product or service might fail in delivering value to the target customers.

This, to me, sums up the value of professionally prepared and facilitated design sprints.

Read more in an article “How Using Design Thinking Will Fix Design Thinking” by Bert Brautigam:

https://thenextweb.com/contributors/2017/04/27/design-thinking-will-fix-design-thinking/

Get “Sprint – How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”, 2016, by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz”, or “The Design Studio Method”, 2016, by Brian Sullivan on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Sprint-Solve-Problems-Test-Ideas/dp/1442397683

https://www.amazon.com/Design-Studio-Method-Creative-Sketching/dp/113802256X/

Contact Iiris via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/iiriskonttinen/

Visit the Steps Helsinki website (only in Finnish): https://stepshelsinki.fi/

On the Complex Relationship between Meditation and Productivity

With the great Black Friday deals at Amazon and other bookstores around it is now time to order the most inspiring books on your bucket list by the holidays. I am very much looking forward to having the time to catch up on reading.

My most recent purchases for this upcoming holiday season include books on the several aspects of meditation, mindfulness and creativity.

With meditation and mindfulness having become popular and widely researched practices, there is an abundance of great literature as well as excellent, in-depth online content available on these topics. Reflecting on the main purpose behind meditation and mindfulness practice, however, should perhaps be highlighted more in these sources – and reflected on in-depth by anyone who has an interest in these topics.

Charlie Amberlan, the founder of @dailyzen Twitter account, has written a great article on this issue called “The Real Benefit of Meditation”.

Amberlan describes the relationship between meditation and late capitalism as follows: “At some point during the strange confluence of “self-improvement” ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries, Zen became tied in with the cult of productivity. Meditation is often sold as a cure to the modern worker’s ailments— lack of focus, lack of creativity, lack of organization.” Much of this is obvious by the related literature and online content.

The clarity and calmness that one achieves during meditation has many benefits, of course, like Amberlan also states in his article. But what is meditation, then, in its essence, besides experiencing the crystal clear state of mind ultimately achieved by the means of it?

In Amberlan’s view we are in danger of bypassing the original purpose of meditation. “Meditation is an easy sell to companies and workers because it makes you a better person”, Amberlan states, and continues: “But it improves you through detaching you from desires, attachments, and the need to improve.” It is exactly the detachment of these structures of our minds that makes us transcend our prior capabilities. In Amberlan’s words: “In detaching from notions of superiority, you become superior.”

The bottom line is that “basic professional or creative benefits are merely surface-level symptoms of the deeper changes that occur in the mind of the person who meditates every day”, says Amberlan.

Accordingly, Amberlan encourages to “stop practicing spirituality as a way towards productivity or as a means to an end”. Amberlan continues: “The whole point is that it is a means to itself. In doing it for its own sake, you learn to live for its own sake.”

The surface-level secondary goals seem to dominate the thoughts of many of those practitioners who are above all focused on improving their performance at work via the means of meditation or mindfulness.

I firmly believe that ultimately the goal and purpose of meditation and mindfulness practice should be to eventually transcend these more mundane goals. And I believe, like Amberlan, that achieving a superiorly clear and calm state of mind means that the practitioner is focused on applying spirituality in most, if not every aspect of their lives.

Read the full article by Charlie Amberlan, “The Real Benefit of Meditation”:

https://medium.com/@dailyzen/the-real-benefit-of-meditation-dfa983c2e557

or

Read and join in to follow Daily Zen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dailyzen

On Generating and Maintaining an Innovative Organizational Culture

How do successful organizations cultivate creativity? And what is it that makes generating and maintaining an outstanding organizational culture so challenging?

The organization’s capacity to innovate, as well as its creativity and connectivity are increasingly highlighted as essential for success. The concepts of “innovation environment” or “innovation ecosystem” are referred to very often in this context.

When describing a creative organizational culture in more detail, case-examples of start-ups and influential Silicon Valley enterprises pop up in various publications, and it seems Richard Florida’s theory of the “creative class” is still dominating many discussions.

I believe that given a chance, any individual or a group of people can adopt a creative mindset and participate in generating original innovations.

And I think the best innovations are created by breaking the silos and getting a multi-disciplinary team of experts from different departments collaborating on a shared project, and by introducing and applying service design methodology at the workplace.

This view is based on my own experiences with co-design so far.

But I think many professionals that have experience of working in similar teams might agree.

Service design processes and methods can be of assistance in generating new, innovative concepts and in streamlining existing services — as well as generating and maintaining a culture of co-creation.

I think organizing co-design workshops based on recent analytics and research can help an organization to boost and foster a creative culture at the workplace and to refine the personnel’s capability to innovate.

Obviously, there are costs involved in gathering analytics, conducting initial research and organizing any co-design process, in terms of human resources, time and money.

However, co-creation and co-design may yield significant benefits, both internally and externally.

As I’m a planner, I have only so much to do with strategy implementation in my current organization. But I think reflecting on and aligning one’s own tasks with shared strategic objectives is important.

And similar thought should be given to the team’s role in the organization, and to one’s role in a team.

An important notion here is that each team as well as each individual is equally responsible of committing to the organization’s common goals and values as well as mutual respect.

One of the core values of my current organization is “together”.

I find that my co-workers in the FNG are an enthusiastic and inspiring group of professionals.

A creative environment is often described as “dynamic” and “open” — it supports fresh ideas, it is emotionally safe and compassionate, and its atmosphere promotes the freedom to brainstorm. In such an environment, debates are considered positive, conflicts constructive, and moderate risk taking is allowed.

As a result of this kind of atmosphere in the organization, new ideas emerge and flourish, and they have enough time and space to take shape. And even more importantly, the people enjoy working together.

Service design methods and intrapreneurship combined can yield the very best of results, when they are applied in a way unique to the organization’s culture.

Soren Kaplan, the author of the best-seller “Leapfrogging”, says that when we are “cultivating innovation”, we are, essentially, “cultivating a unique system”.

Kaplan’s notion is echoed in the recent book “Strategy That Works: How Winning Companies Close the Strategy-to-Execution Gap” by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi. According to the authors, what makes the distinctive internal practices and capabilities of successful organizations so special is the fact that they cannot be easily replicated by others in the same field. In that sense, creating a unique organizational culture and supporting an innovative ecosystem pays off.

In the aforementioned book, Leinwand and Mainardi emphasize, that the most successful organizations:

  • Commit to what they do best instead of chasing multiple opportunities
  • Build their own unique winning capabilities instead of copying others
  • Put their culture to work instead of struggling to change it
  • Invest where it matters instead of going lean across the board
  • Shape the future instead of reacting to it

According to the authors, these are the five essential practices for connecting strategy and its execution.

Having given various issues quite a lot of thought last year in the middle of facilitating a series of workshops on our digital strategy implementation and other tasks, I eventually decided to document some of my thoughts on different topics related to my work and some of my other interests in this blog, now also found via the domain name http://lifeofaplanner.fi.

I have been surprised by the amount of unique visitors and visits here, as well as the amount of positive feedback from colleagues and other friends.

Thank you for reading and all the comments!

On the Digital Dimension and Creativity

This week, I stumbled upon a somewhat uncommon article in the Harvard Business Review – an article on creativity, and more specifically, creativity in digitally or technologically driven organizations.

The author of this article quite straightforwardly states that in order to succeed, tech-savvy companies should really hire more creatives – instead of merely hiring more people who excel in business analytics, or even instead of hiring people who have hard core skills in creating new software.

(You can read the full article, by Tom Perrault, bluntly entitled “Digital Companies Need More Liberal Arts Majors”, at the HBR website: https://hbr.org/2016/01/digital-companies-need-more-liberal-arts-majors.)

Coming from a design background, and moreover, a background in philosophy, I think that we could certainly do with more of us in technologically oriented companies. However, I also think there’s much more to success than simply hiring a designer, or a philosopher, or several, for that matter.

Much like the author here, I find what the management of any successful digital or otherwise technology-oriented company really needs to do is to “create the type of culture in which creatives thrive”.

Having done some reading on this issue, I previously wrote about it in a post entitled “A Structure of Unstructured Time” in this blog last year (https://iiriskblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/a-structure-of-unstructured-time/).

To briefly recap that post, the point I wished to make was that in relation to creating an innovation-oriented culture was that employees should perhaps be given some “unstructured” time to act as “intrapreneurs” in their respective organizations. This is the kind of culture that many prominent companies like Apple and Google seem to make it a point of supporting and sustaining.

Most digital and technological innovations – or at least the very best ones – tend to require the early input of a creative person, or a group of creative people.

I firmly believe that many people, given a chance to, can act as creatives, regardless of their vocational background. Only hiring a creative marketing posse for the product or service hardly makes any sense.

What really makes or breaks success, then, is having and maintaining a creative organizational culture.