Is it Creativity or is it Jargon?

by Thomson Dawson

Creativity or Jargon?Business leaders lean on terminology like “design thinking” to define and quantify the process for innovation. It doesn’t matter what you call the process, what we all desire is more creativity in the process. Creativity is elusive.

Most of us don’t understand creativity, but all of us appreciate it. Marketers spend all their energy seeking creative solutions to the challenge of building enduring and successful brands.  Creating innovative products and brands people can’t get enough of is an elusive reality for many businesses–yet innovation happens everyday all over the world.

Knowing that innovation is happening everywhere, and not wanting to be left behind, most enterprises want to be really good at innovation if they are to create competitive advantage in the marketplace. This is where the organizational discipline of “design thinking” comes in play. It’s a trendy term that implies a higher value method for delivering creativity and innovation.  It’s jargon.

Innovation is radical not incremental.

Radical innovation is what happens when something unexpected shows up, and it just happens to be something people where waiting for– just not asking for– like Facebook, the Swiffer, and an iPad. Every one of these innovations was not based on user needs. Radical innovation is not about function and form, but about meaning– never driven by users.

So what then is the basis for creativity within the innovation process? The answer is simple– a creative mind with the passionate desire to pursue an un-proven and perhaps un-needed idea at just the right time.

Most enterprises aren’t set up for investing and pursuing un-proven and un-needed ideas. They’re organized around risk-averse quantifiable disciplines to make profit and return value to the owners of capital invested. Managing process requires linear thinking creativity does not.

Creativity requires the right dirt.

Like life, creativity within organizations requires the presence of specific elements and in precise quantities. We all want more creativity. For creativity (and innovation) to thrive in organizations, the dirt has to be right.  If it’s not right, then innovations coming out of the enterprise will most likely be incremental – one feature or benefit better than what the other guys are doing at a cheaper price.  Flat-screen TVs come quickly to mind.

In our me-too cluttered marketplace, incremental innovation is not enough to drive much change in behavior or demand.  Nor will it propose new meanings and context that’s highly valued by the marketplace. Building the ecosystems within organizations that spawn greater creativity and innovation is not something every organization will be good at. That’s why so many business leaders and consultancies embraced the idea of design thinking.  It’s a way of making creativity within organizations a linear process.  Business leaders love linear process and efficiency.

Jargon may make designers sound smarter, but it doesn’t enhance their creativity. Nor will it provide market leading innovation.

More creativity within organizations requires the dirt be comprised of:

  • an engaged and passionate leadership with a big vision of change
  • the vision and purpose is shared amongst all stakeholders
  • a healthy shared acceptance of risk playing out on the edges of what’s possible
  • talented and highly skilled people who share the vision and pursuit as their own
  • money
  • time

Take any of these essential elements away, or have them not be in the proper quantities and you can call the innovation process anything you like, but it doesn’t make creativity a force alive within your organization.

All people are creative.

Creativity is the unique expression of our most basic human nature. Everything that ever was, is now, or will ever be, is at first, a formless idea swirling in the goo of creativity inside someone’s head. There is no special club one has to be a member of to express their innate creativity. Both right and left brains are welcome and necessary.

What’s awesome about creativity is it’s such an inclusive thing. Everyone likes creativity because everyone believes they’re creative. And the good news is they’re right!

The behaviors necessary for people to be creative don’t require special knowledge – just empathy and awareness of human needs and being sensitive to the people and culture you’re immersed in.

From that experience, people will creatively develop the specific knowledge and wisdom to frame up the problem and develop the organic ability to create and enact the right solutions. I suppose you could call that design thinking if it makes you feel better. Call it whatever you want. At the end of the day, the desired element is creativity.

Not all organizations are creative.

There are plenty of creative people designing away inside business organizations that are not driven by creativity or innovative. Every organization can’t be Apple even though they possess all the components that make Apple-type companies possible. This is what makes organizational creativity so elusive. Consequently academia (those that teach but cannot do) tries to provide the doers with fancy terms and quantifiable thinking models to make creativity and problem solving something more predictable and dependable. Seemingly, the more organizations try to mandate creativity as a core competency, the less creative and innovative they are. It’s a bit like dancing with your shoe laces tied together.

Creativity is a phenomenon not a process. Design is process, engineering is a process, and marketing is a process. CEOs who value a culture of strict process usually lead enterprises devoid of the creativity that drives radical innovations that change the world for all us.

Creativity doesn’t require terminology to help people be more creative or organizations more innovative.

image credit: pullbrandinnovation

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Thomson DawsonThomson Dawson is the Managing Partner of PULL Brand Innovation. PULL helps leaders and teams gain more insight, clarity and confidence to pursue their most promising opportunities to create new value.

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  1. Thank you! Your article is an excellent way of pointing out the biggest problem with the adoption of Design Thinking or any true innovation – people want to adopt jargon and call it innovation.

    You can understand why, the principles of Design Thinking sound easy and the concepts are not difficult to digest intellectually. So, people assume it’s easy to do. But, innovation is more than vapid platitudes – you have to do the work. It’s like reading a book on waterskiing – easy to understand, but until you get wet and fall (fail) several times you really can’t really learn to water ski.

    Once you have a deep understanding of the principles you learn that the “jargon” is really a shared language that gives organizations and groups an efficient way to communicate and thrive in creativity. Design Thinking is a fantastic methodology that is supported by the right mindsets for unlocking creativity and getting to true innovation. You can change any of the terms (jargon) as long as everyone understands what is underneath them and the process still holds.

    There are also plenty of people that move from reading about Design Thinking to “expert” without doing that work – they spread the doctrine, the language, and fall into “teaching without knowing”. Unless you really understand this is happening you are left with the ignorant position that “those who can’t do – teach” and never know that you just picked the wrong people to listen to.

    Even worse, there are some “creative” people who hold up their mystical prowess as somehow superhuman – that mere mortals can’t do what they do. But after looking at how they achieve their results you can clearly see the principles shared by most creativity and innovation methods are derived from what they do without knowing it.

    It even sounds to a beginner like Design + Thinking = Design Thinking. You can’t blame people for not knowing things. All you can do is try to help them understand that the easy path is really just standing still and calling it walking.

  2. Richard– thank you for reading and leaving your awesome comment! There are several lines in the comment that I wish I had written in the article. Love the waterskiing analogy! You are spot on when you say “But after looking at how they achieve their results you can clearly see the principles shared by most creativity and innovation methods are derived from what they do without knowing it.”

  3. Design Thinking is not simply “design” plus “thinking.” Saying this is like saying a butterfly is “butter” plus “fly.” Design thinking stands on its own and is more than a just a process for innovation. Design thinking is a group of mindsets and the power of these mindsets used by a group of people together is truly invaluable.

    Innovation is most both radical and incremental. This article claims that radical innovation is when “something unexpected shows up,” yet unexpected things show up all of the time, every day. It takes skill, vision and a Design Thinking mindset to identify and value the unexpected.

    I agree that people never ask for specific innovative things. True innovation is giving people what they don’t yet know they need. Design Thinkers would never ask a user “what do you need?” or “how could this problem be solved?” Design Thinkers are able to identify deep insights about their users and then come up with innovative solutions.

    The article states that Facebook, the Swiffer and the iPad were not based on user needs. What do you believe they were based on? Do you think that a business sat around one day and said, “there is too much money in our budget this year so, I guess we will spend it on building this iPad” or “we are bored and want to build something that nobody wants or needs, lets design a Swiffer.” All successful products and services are built with some user(s) in mind. If they weren’t needed, nobody would buy them.

    Innovation is not creating a newer, flatter, cheaper model of anything. Innovation is capturing deep insights about a user, or group of users, and then coming up with something new, novel, that doesn’t yet exist or taking something that is commonly used for something else and using it in a different way.

    Design Thinking is a group of mindsets, which if shared, create a culture of innovation. SOME mindsets of Design Thinking include:

    – An ethnographic approach to observation –an alternative to surveys and market research focus groups
    – Deep empathy for your users
    – “Yes, and!”
    – Go past the first idea, or the first 100 ideas
    – Low resolution prototyping…ALL of the time
    – The ability to see your idea as just that, an idea, not an extension of yourself
    – Fail fast, fail often
    – Iterate!!!

    Every company can be Apple. Please don’t limit my countrymen and women.

    Lastly, the comment that “those that teach, cannot do” is clearly said by someone who can’t teach OR do. I am a teacher. I have been teaching in inner city public schools for the past ten years. I teach and do every day and as a result, 100% of my students have been accepted into four-year schools for the past six years, which is EVERY year we have been open.

    The fact that “creativity is elusive” makes it even more essential to have skilled teachers who are truly knowledgeable about their craft and their content able to help people develop what I, and other design thinkers, believe are very important and learnable mindsets.

  4. Melissa– Thank you for your detailed and well informed comment. I appreciate you reading the post and taking time to share your thoughts on this fascinating subject. Of course, you make many valid points in your critque of my post.

    I’m not advocating “design thinking” is not useful to innovation, nor is it one+the other. My focus is on greater creativity– the heart and soul of innovation.

    I simply don’t believe jargon and “schools of thought” originating from business schools will insure greater levels of creativity within organizations. Further, it’s my view the reliance by “process focused” management to embrace terminology like “design thinking” tends to be an over-simplification of the creative process and the value a group of creative mindsets (left and right brain) bring to business organizations.

    Regarding my stated product examples: These products were not created because there was a “user need” for them. Nobody needed a Facebook. These marvelous innovations were not created because the creative minds behind them (with time and money on their hands) gathered alot of qualitative or quantitative data on user need. Yet once realized by consumers, these products were just what people were waiting for, just not asking for. “Find a need an fill it” is a by-gone concept. All game-changing innovation is radical.

    There are compelling examples (other than Apple) of companies whose creativity brings radical innovation to market…

    Back in the early 80’s, Seiko and Casio were driving technological innovation in quartz watches, believing in their data that people wanted technical precision. However, a Swiss watchmaker realized people cared more about self-expression than technical precision. Swatch was born and proved to be a radical innovation that created radical market success. While Seiko and Casio were closely observing user needs and existing meanings, Swatch created new ones.

    I’m not so sure I believe user-driven innovation is anything more than incremental.

    I wish it were true “Every company can be Apple.” Tell that to Microsoft and HP. But I do agree with you– the marketplace surely could use more of that level of game-changing creativity. At the end of the day we all seek more creativity in the process of innovation.

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