Creativity is Not Enough: 3 Reasons Why

“Innovation is fashionable these days, but the reality is that innovation is really hard. Failure rates are absurdly high, and we think it’s because the processes in place are just completely broken.”

Mark Payne, Co-Founder, Fahrenheit 212 in the Feb 2012 issue of Fast Company

3 Reasons why creativity is not enough:
Over the last several years I have seen the increased trend in the business press of calls for “Creativity and Innovation” in corporate America. From all corners, including my favorite business publication of all time, Harvard Business Review, my favorite magazines, Fast Company and INC, and even from stalwarts of business like The Wall Street Journal.

At the same time in my speaking and consulting engagements across America I meet those bearing the brunt of this trend. Creative, marketing and business stakeholders (people) in manufacturing, retail, academia, startups and nonprofit organizations all trying to answer the question, “How can we be more creative, innovate and thrive in this new digital century?” The downturn in the economy and expanding competition from the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple only amplify the pressures. To add insult to injury, the newly minted power given to consumers by social media to demand more, criticize loudly and publicly, and all around “get up in your business grill” is enough to drive CEOs crazy.

Being that I am a creative, and creative folk are my kin, I have mainly heard from them. What I hear loud and clear is that they know that there is a bigger role for them in their companies. They know it in their bones. They see me being loud and obnoxious on my YouTube show and they say, “Hey, here is a creative person like me, who seems to know this digital thing, what does he know that I don’t?” Well, what I know, what I have learned over 16 years as a “digital native” from a professional point of view (since I have worked in the digital space since graduating from college 16 years ago) is this: Creativity is not enough.

Reason 1: Digital
In an economy increasingly driven by digital technologies, business, creative, technology and marketing all have to align their interests and work closely together.

In 1996 I was hired by Razorfish inc., one of the first digital agencies. In the subsequent 5 years I saw the birth of a new world. One that required business (our clients), creative (me), tech and marketing to sit at the same table. Before then you could exclude design and marketing from business and tech more frequently because we had no clear role in implementing technology driven business solutions such as an ERP or CRM platform (e.g. Software that helped a company track the supply of parts in the manufacturing process or software that kept customer data readily available for sales or customer support). But for the first time, thanks to the invention of the web browser and its ability to display a graphical interface, you needed me at the table. You wanted me at the table. But the question was still, “Could I work in synergy with business and technology interest?” Which brings me to reason number two: Language.

Reason 2: Language
Business, creative, technology and marketing all speak different languages which stand in the way of successful collaboration.

Before aligning business, creative, tech and marketing interests we needed to understand each other. What our interests were and why they were what they were. Luckily Razorfish was like a cultural Switzerland. Under one roof we had business, tech and creative interests learning to speak a new, common language. Actually inventing the new language of the 21st Century. One centered around the customer, the user. This new language eventually came to be known as User Experience.

It helped that the founding “band of misfits” consisted of a CEO who studied ballet as well as business, a co-founder who was an MIT educated technologist who fashioned himself a designer and wore pink suits and pink socks, a German, Art Center College of Design trained creative director who was rigorous, disciplined and systematic, and a library sciences graduate obsessed with content (Jeff Dachis, Craign Kanarick, Thomas Mueller and Karen McGrane, respectively). It was PERFECT! Because the founding group already was sympathetic to the language of the others disciplines  and what they needed to build a thriving business in the 21st Century. The CEO was sympathetic to business and creatives, the lead technologist spoke both dorky and flakey, the lead creative spoke business and tech, and the new comer to the table, the “information architect”, spoke the language of systems. The question now was could they work together?

Reason 3: Collaboration
21st Century corporate cultures are not designed for high friction interdisciplinary collaboration. They were designed to remove variability and failure. Collaboration increases the possibilities of both exponentially.

So at Razorfish, we spoke each other’s languages and this allowed us to work together. But this still produces high friction. How did we deal with the high friction of high speed collaboration in the Digital Century? The answer to that is: Culture.

Unlike in 21st Century corporate culture, Razorfish combined the idealism of 60′s hippie culture with an open merit-based, hacker culture and an ideas-driven creative culture that was open to different ways of doing things. It was able to sustain idealism, meritocracy and creativity in one petri dish. Students of organizational dynamics might ask, “How did it hold all three together?” The answer is that the friction caused by high speed interdisciplinary collaboration of this sort was lubricated by an ample dose of naiveté, idealism (a goal greater than ourselves), the desire to find solutions to the challenges our clients gave us from a user experience point of view first (since we had to make up the technology solution as none existed out of the box at that point in time), and, finally, a flair for showmanship and panache (the last being an understatement).

In short, our ability to thrive in this new digital century came from being driven by a higher purpose, a laser sharp focus on the customer/user in a fun environment all while understanding that we were a business, not a circus (though it might have looked like one at times).

Fast forward to 2001, as Rome crumbles (.COM boom ending) and I leave Razorfish full of energy and naive optimism I set out to take the lessons learned at Razorfish into my next endeavor: The Groop. A digital agency whose core tenants where facilitating collaboration for a group of diverse experts in a fun and merit-based environment. The Groop was my opportunity to try out all of the things I believed helped drive creativity and innovation. And doggonit, we succeeded. I am proud of what we managed to do at The Groop. We managed to create a thriving multi-disciplinary culture, driven by user experience, collaboration and the latest in project management for digital projects. But not for long. The second crumbling of Rome in the form of the great recession put a kabosh on the love in. Or Groop in. But not unlike an Atom Smasher, the results of our experiments where nothing short of Higgs Boson.

The most important of my learnings from this experiment are what I call the Three Commandments of Collaboration in the Digital Century (you have to say it like “Duck Dogders of the 21st Centuryyyy…):

The 3 Commandments of Collaboration in The Digital Century.

1. You will have a purpose bigger than yourself. (Corporations included.)
2. You will have no other focus but your users. (No, seriously.)
3. Your goals shall be aligned to your user’s goals and needs. (And confirm it.)