Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by creative coach Tim Leonard of the Richmond-based creativity consultancy firm, Play. Leonard described the models and approaches employed by Play to help clients reach their creative potential. His words were inspiring. He reaffirmed my belief that any employee or organization can capitalize on its innate ability to be creative. In addition, he offered concrete approaches to harnessing creativity – techniques that librarians can also learn and apply to create better user experiences. Here are the highlights of the talkÂ and my commentary:
Play operates from a central tenet: LAMSTAIH (pronounced Lam-Stye), which stands for Look at More Stuff. Think about It Harder. These seemingly obvious statements are deceptively simple. Look at More Stuff, according to Play, “is the process of designing and experiencing an inspiration inventory to make observations and gain insights.” The mere act of looking, however, is more difficult than it may sound. Most of us, Leonard asserted, are trapped in what he calls a “to-do list mentality” that derails creative thinking. In this mindset, we’re focused on outcomes and on checking projects off of our lists. What’s more conducive to creativity is to focus on process and to actively observe the world around us for inspiration. (Leonard, not surprisingly, argued that a desk is a horrible place for doing this observational work). For better creative thinking, Leonard recommended stepping out from what’s familiar into new and strange environments to observe. These observations, in conjunction with particular methodologies that will be discussed later, can lead to insights that drive innovations. In essence, Leonard suggested pointing that “to-do list mentality” toward focused observation. In one example, Leonard pointed to Loggerhead Tools’ award-winning Bionic Wrench design, which was inspired by the shutterÂ of aÂ camera’s lens.
The Think About it Harder piece of LAMSTAIH “is the process in which specific tools and methodologies are applied to transform observations and insights into concrete ideas & concepts.” Though I don’t pretend to grasp the process fully at this point in time, it involves ditching preconceived notions of your objective, breaking the objective down into its core elements, and then focusing your observations on those core pieces. Play recommends first making “safe” observations on things closely related to those core pieces, and then widening the search to things that are only tangentially related so as to side-step your brain’s preconceived notions in order to make truly innovative discoveries.
The 5 M’s
Leonard discussed another model called the 5 M Model of Systemic Innovation. This model is used to understand innovation at the organizational level. The M’s in question are Mood, Mindset, Mechanisms, Measurement, and Momentum. Leonard discussed the first 3 M’s in detail.
Mood is fairly self-explanatory. It’s the climate for innovation and the mindspace where people work.
Leonard referred to Mindset as the intellectual foundation of creativity. It’s the personal traits and behaviors exhibited by members of the organization. There are 4 aspects of Mindset that people can control to foster creativity:
1. Change Perspective: Examine a problem from every angle and point of view. Leonard noted that most companies are very bad at this because the dominant point-of-view is established by the organizational leaders.
2. Confusion Tolerance: Confusion tolerance demands that organizations suspend the need to solve a problem in favor of generating a breadth of possible solutions.
3. Skinned Knees: A.K.A Taking Risks. Leonard mentioned that oftentimes that, for the sake of starting a conversation, people need to offer up ideas that may not be well-received. However, by taking a risk and throwing out an idea, people have something to react to to move beyond stagnant thinking.
4. Passion: Leonard emphasized the importance of bringing your personal passion to work with you. He said that there is often a discrepency between the “work self” and “real self” and that by bringing the two closer together, innovations are more likely to occur.
Mechanisms are the tools and processes of innovation, or “the how.” One mechanism Leonard mentioned was something called “worst idea.” If no one can think of a good idea, Leonard recommends that everyone offer up their worst idea. This technique gets people thinking and often leads to the best ideas. To demonstrate this, Leonard mentioned a project he worked on in which is team was charged with the monumental task of promoting wool clothing with a fresh take. The worse idea offered involved letting a herd of sheep loose in Manhattan. The idea that was actually executed was one in which models walked sheep around Manhattan.
At the end of his talk, I was not only inspired but I had generated countless questions about Play’s approaches and their potential application to libraries. Specifically, I began to more fully understand that creativity is the end result of a lot of hard work. One must consciously seek out unique experiences and insights while restraining one’s natural inclination to jump to conclusions. I then began thinking about current marketplace trends toward consumer empowerment and businesses’ desire to capitalize on innovations generated by customers. Is this deference toward customers as a source of innovation warranted? I asked Leonard his thoughts on this and mentioned how Apple purposefully doesn’t use focus groups as a source of ideas. He responded that Apple needs to be a few steps ahead of its customers to be competitive and that customers likely wouldn’t be able to articulate a vision like what Apple designers devise. I believe the same holds true in the library world. We can’t wait for great ideas to spontaneously sprout up from patrons or competitors. It’s a professional imperative that we librarians learn how to seek out and strategically develop innovative ideas. Creativity requires focused effort, not good luck. If we are to appeal to patrons’ imaginations and create real value for them, we must adopt an inquisitive and experimental attitude in which the world outside of our library walls is our laboratory. In fact, if Play’s philosophy holds true, our institutions are destined to stagnate or worse, become completely anachronistic, if we don’t lookÂ broadly for insights. We can and should invite our patrons in on this journey, but they too need the tools, guidance, opportunity, and incentives to discover new ideas. It’s our job to lead the way and we can’t delegate that responsibility, as doingÂ so would be a disservice to our patrons and our communities. We should, however,Â be encouraged to know that creativity is something each and every one of us can learn to practice and apply.
To learn more about creativity from Play’s point-of-view, read their Red Papers, many of which I’ve linked to throughout this piece.