Early in my career, I heard about graphic designers as “creatives”. I found that to be profoundly unfair as I thought the work I was doing involved being creative as well. I thought everyone was creative in their field because we all solve problems, and solving problems is about being creative (not only, but also).
We can define creativity as the human capability of creating something new and valuable. However, there is a lot of controversy on what creativity is and how it works. Margaret Boden, in her book The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, says that there are two different senses of “creative”:
“One sense is psychological (I call it P-Creative, for short), the other historical (H-creative). Both are initially defined with respect to ideas, either concepts or styles of thinking. […]
The psychological sense concerns ideas (whether in science, needlework, music, painting, literature…) that are surprising, or perhaps even fundamentally novel, with respect to the individual mind which had the idea. If Mary Smith combines ideas in a way she’s never done before, or if she has an idea which she could not have had before, her idea is P-creative — no matter how many people may have had the same idea already. The historical sense applies to ideas that are novel with respect to the whole of human history. Mary Smith’s surprising idea is H-creative only if no one has ever had that idea before her.”
H-Creativity is very rare and occurs in exceptional cases. What is most interesting in this case is P-Creativity. Or, as Elizabeth Sanders calls it in her book “Convivial Toolbox — Generative Research for the Front-End of Design”, Everyday Creativity. She defines four levels of creativity that everyday people seek.
“The most advanced level of creativity is creating. The motivation behind creating is to express oneself or to innovate. Truly creative efforts are fueled by passion and guided by a high level of experience. […] The path from doing to adapting to making and finally to creating develops in the individual over time and through experience. All people are capable of reaching the highest level of creativity, but they need the passion and the experience to do so.”
Are passion and experience enough for people to unleash their creative potential?
Let’s hold on to that question for a while and look at “Feedback”.
Giving feedback can be defined as sharing information to reinforce or change behaviour. Feedback is used to praise someone or to help someone improve his performance. It can be based on strengths or/and weaknesses.
Feedback is a powerful tool. It has the power to motivate or demotivate, to cause joy or sadness, to cause conflict or improve collaboration. Giving good feedback to our peers is very important to cultivate a culture where people feel safe doing their best at work and not afraid of sharing their thoughts and ideas.
When I read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, it was great seeing that in a company like Pixar, everyone was seen as creative and had the space to be creative. It was all about setting the right environment for good ideas to happen and flourish. For this to happen, one thing was crucial — candor. Candor is the quality of speaking honestly and openly about things. Here is one excerpt from the book:
“Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candour? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.”
Kim Scott took this idea of candor even further and developed a simple framework that she calls “Radical Candor”. You have “caring personally” (showing that you genuinely care about the person) on the vertical axis. On the horizontal axis, you have “challenging directly” (having no problem pissing people off). Radical Candor lies on the upper right corner as a combination of caring about the person and willingness to challenge that person directly.
As Kim Scott puts it,
“Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in-person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.”
Good feedback is crucial for unleashing creativity.
It may seem obvious that good feedback and creativity go hand in hand. Good feedback might be the make it or break for someone to unleash his creative potential, independently of his passion and experience. But, as can be seen from Ed Catmull’s excerpt, that can be hard to achieve, and even if achieved, it might not always work.
Good feedback takes a lot of work, but it can bring enormous compensations when done correctly. I’m no expert on the subject, but I will leave you here some tips that have helped me in the past:
- Prepare in advance and be clear about what to achieve.
- Don’t make personal judgments and have an open mind. Be candid.
- Make it a norm to give and receive feedback. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
Reminding this quote from Elizabeth Sanders:
“All people are capable of reaching the highest level of creativity, but they need the passion and the experience to do so.”
I would add that they also need the right context/environment that fosters creativity to happen. We can achieve that kind of context through good feedback that challenges people to go further.