Saturday, November 6, 2010

Don’t fight it. Feel it.

When Don Draper places the full page ad in the New York Times at the end of Mad Men Season 4, he refuses to explain himself, saying only “If you don’t understand why, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Don didn’t really know what he was doing. He just knew that, as he says himself, “Someone had to do something.”

So much is written on the secrets of 'design thinking' and whether or not it can be taught in business schools, but one of the important distinctions of someone with a creative bent is the ability to comfortably be led by their gut. This requires bravery and a sensibility that not everyone is capable of. But it’s so vital to innovation that those who are, have a duty to use it responsibly.

Silicon Valley, the presumed spiritual home of innovation, is currently obsessed with what it calls 'The Lean Startup’. This concept is born out of the web’s suitability to ‘rapid deployment.’ Ideas can be continually tested and improved incrementally, therefore reducing the cost of mistakes and misjudgments. The Lean Startup could be seen as a great use of ‘ready, fire, aim’ decision-making but it also commits heavily to the idea that everything is testable therefore everything is provable.

This is dangerous territory for creative thinkers because most of what we do is not testable and is often greatly damaged in the attempt to do so. I can see why The Lean Startup is such an appealing model for investors but I wonder how many truly important innovations arise out of businesses that believe all change should come in the form of provable increments.

While we should keep fighting for design and creative thinking to be taken more seriously in business, it shouldn’t mean having to forsake our non-rational side or jeopardizing our freedom to operate by ‘feel’.

This doesn’t get us off the hook, however, for having to understand analytic rigor and knowing when it is useful to us.

Kevin McCullagh in his excellent article on design thinking ‘Stepping Up’, says that ‘Designers have traditionally excused their lack of analytical rigor by nonchalantly counterpoising it to their intuition, but this is a false and lazy dichotomy. Just as there are many creative mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, why can’t there be analytically cogent designers?’

Well there should be and there are.

Where we get into a muddle is if we try to decipher which decisions should be analytically defensible (or provable) and which are made by some combination from the myriad of factors that can influence a designer’s gut feeling for rightness. I’ve seen some horrible stuff come out of designers falling over themselves with on-the-spot post-rationalization in order to try and stop clients from picking good work apart.

We know clients can be infuriating with their habit of questioning seemingly random details. But this often stems from an insecurity about the idea as a whole that perhaps they don’t have the vocabulary to describe any more than we do. If they are emotionally committed to the core idea, they are often less likely to sweat the details.

A wonderful business man I once knew used to talk of ‘The Arc of Rightness’, meaning that  the results of any decision taken by a reasonably smart and qualified person will land, not on an absolute target but somewhere within an area of helpful possibility from which adjustments can be easily made to achieve a good outcome. I found this idea liberating when I first heard it and I rely on it in pretty much all situations. It’s so much more positive than talking about ‘margins of error’.

The Arc of Rightness is born of both analytical and intuitive thinking. Sometimes it is a rational concept that decides the direction of the arrow but intuition that defines the span of the arc, other times it’s the other way around.

So it’s wrong to assume that qualitative and intuitive thinking are the preserve of creative practitioners alone.

Most great business people, particularly at the higher levels of an organization, have to make so many decisions in the course of their work that they can’t possibly rationalize all of them. To have the confidence to keep moving ahead and trust that you will land somewhere within The Arc of Rightness is one of the most important qualities an intelligent business leader can have.

Design decision-making differs mostly by the The Arc being quite a bit wider. So many decisions are made on the way to a good creative solution that we’re usually not even aware of where the all pivots were. This is why it is so difficult for designers to defend their work when they are asked to break it down into explainable elements.

I’ve read so many ‘About Us’ blurbs on agency websites which claim that every creative decision is underpinned with solid ‘rationale’, their pure talent counterbalanced with strategic rigor. While this is no doubt important and often true, it reads a bit like: ‘We’ve made the effort to understand your rational business world because we know it’s too much to expect you to understand our fuzzy creative one.’ And I just don’t think things are that black and white.

My father worked for many years for a large, international corporation who’s owner once said after several days of strategy talks, ‘Well you can tie yourselves down with a strategy if you like but are you telling me that you will never have a good idea again?” It was one thing to drive the company in a quantitative direction but he knew that surprising sparks of inspiration were just as vital to the future of the business.

As practitioners of creativity and innovation we have to remind ourselves that other people (the smart ones) do get this stuff. And most often we are better off selling our wares by tapping into our clients right-brain tendencies than by trying to manufacture left-brain defenses of our ideas.

After all they’re employing us for our qualitative judgement. They just may need to be reminded of that every now and then.