Todd Henry: An interview by Bob Morris
Todd Henry is the founder and CEO of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He regularly speaks and consults with companies, both large and small, about how to develop practices and systems that lead to everyday brilliance. Todd’s work has been featured by Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, HBR.org, US News & World Report, and many other major media outlets. His book, The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, offers strategies for how to thrive in the creative marketplace and has been called “one of the best books to date on how to structure your ideas, and manage the creative process and work that comes out of it” by Jack Covert, author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and founder of 800-CEO-READ. You can connect with Todd here, or learn more about how to hire him to speak at your event or train your team.
Here is my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing The Accidental Creative, a few general questions. First, Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?
Henry: I have a counter-intuitive answer to this. Probably the biggest influence on my personal growth was a 20th-century mystic and monk named Thomas Merton. It seems strange that a man who lived the biggest part of the late years of his life in isolation and contemplation would have much to say to a 21st-century, tech-immersed creative, but I found his writings to be deeply reflective on the nature of humanity, and also an illumination on the mechanics of doing important work.
If I were talking only about contemporary influences, I would have to say that I’ve been incredibly blessed to be around a group of mentors who, over a period of several years, really made it a project to develop me and help me understand both my capacity and my limitations. It was in this virtual incubator for leadership that I first discovered my voice and began reflecting deeply on the creative process.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow?
Henry: I was a leader in an organization trying to scale a team while helping them handle the pressures and demands we were facing, and in my effort to do so I reached out to several other creative directors who I knew would be dealing with the same issues. My biggest question for them was, “How do you serve your team, and help them do their best work without burning them out?” They stared at me like I was from another planet. “What you mean?” they almost unanimously asked. In other words, it had never occurred to them that it might be possible to exist in any create on-demand environment and be simultaneously healthy in the way you approach your work. This began a long journey for me of exploring whether or not it was possible to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy simultaneously in life and work. This research eventually led to my company, which now shares these insights with teams around the world, and then eventually to the book, The Accidental Creative.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?
Henry: It may be cliché but I believe that the biggest contribution formal education made to my career accomplishments is that I learned how to structure my uncertainty and questions into a format that could be pursued and digested effectively. I learned to deal with ambiguity and suffer through process. When I was in school, information wasn’t so readily available, and there was more risk involved in pursuing a specific avenue of research. It was much more difficult (and costly!) to pivot mid-course, so it forced me to stay focused while going about my work. This allowed me to develop the capacity of deep, intermittent focus that has served me in my work as a professional creative.
Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between creativity and innovation?
Henry: The definition of innovation I use is “progressive and useful change” which typically involves (or at least begins with) a creative act. Creativity, at the heart of it, is problem solving. A designer might solve a problem visually, while a manager might do so by thinking up a new system. But that creative act is only innovation once it’s applied and creates useful change.
Morris: What do you say in response to someone who says, “I’m just not creative”?
Henry: I would say they are wrong. We are all creative, because we all have the ability to solve problems and create value with our mind. I think the biggest reason people say “I’m not creative” is because they confuse creativity with art. The very act of holding a conversation – which most of us can do – is a creative act, because it’s based on improvisation! Once we re-frame creativity as problem-solving, it helps people see their own creative capacity in new ways.
Morris: Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” Do you agree with him?
Henry: Yes! Steven Johnson has called this the “slow hunch” and I agree. Brilliant work is most frequently the result of focused, laborious effort punctuated by moments of insight, all of which is driven by curiosity sourced in the slow hunch. It’s only when we stay with the problem long enough to recognize those anomalies that we are positioned for breakthroughs. To do this we must develop the ability to ask incisive questions. The questions are – in my opinion – far more important than the answers. Every answer must lead to a new question.
Morris: Here is another quotation, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” By what process can one get to “the other side of complexity”?
Henry: The trouble is that we get to the other side of complexity for a moment, only to find that there’s far more complexity to be conquered. The creative process is the perpetual assault on the beachhead of apathy, which means that we must fight a daily battle against our natural desire to stay in our comfort zone. Steven Pressfield calls this battling “Resistance” and I’m in 100% agreement. To get to those flashes of clarity – simplicity – requires persistent daily, and sometimes seemingly fruitless effort. At the same time, I don’t know that the illusion of simplicity lasts for long. Most creatives I know experience a brief, shining moment of satisfaction before they begin to see holes in their work. That’s what propels us to keep striving – the promise of greater clarity and simplicity.
Morris: Many major breakthroughs in creativity and innovation are the result of counter-intuitive thinking. For example, combining a wine press with separable type (Gutenberg and the printing press), removal of burrs from a pet’s hair with an attachment (George de Mestral and VELCRO), and leather softener with skin care (Mark Kay Cosmetics).
Here is my two-part question: What are the major differences between intuition and counter-intuition? What (if anything) do intuition and counter-intuition share in common?
Henry: I think intuition and counter-intuition are all about framing. A problem framed in a certain way leads to an intuitive solution. When framed in a different way, the same solution appears counter-intuitive. I believe that so much of this is determined by the focus of the individual solving the problem, and the stimuli that prompt their search for a solution. That’s why I believe it’s critical to maintain a proper level of focus on the true problems you’re trying to solve. If you don’t regularly define your work, you’re likely to drift and you’re less likely to notice those moments of intuitive or counter-intuitive serendipity.
Morris: Of all the books you have read, from which one have you learned the most about creativity and innovation? Please explain.
Henry: From an innovation standpoint, it’s really hard to top The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. He thoroughly nailed the dynamics of living and working in a marketplace that requires perpetual reinvention, and I believe also unintentionally defined the single biggest factors that cause creative professionals to feel frustrated, under-utilized, and disengaged in their daily work. Purely from a “mechanics of creativity” standpoint, I’d say that I learned the most from Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono. I also greatly enjoyed Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a synthesis of his research into creativity across multiple domains.
Morris: Within the last few years, there have been several excellent books published in which thought leaders such as Roger Martin, Chris Brown, and Roberto Verganti discuss the design of business. In your opinion, why has this subject attracted so much attention?
Henry: Over the past many years it’s become obvious that design can’t be an after-thought, because it’s actually good business as well. We are in an age where ideas flow freely and with less friction, and many of the traditional means of creating and distributing goods were based on creating friction rather than eliminating it. Great design is about eliminating friction so that consumers can identify, connect with, and consume what they want when they want it. Good design, from operations all the way through the final point-of-sale communication, is critical in eliminating that friction, especially now that consumers have so many choices.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which creativity and innovation are most stimulated, nourished, and when necessary, protected?
Henry: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, though many still try to find it. In my experience, the most innovative and productive workplace environments have less to do with physical space than psychological space. Is there clarity of purpose? Are we rewarded for the things that move the needle, such as taking measured risks, asking good questions, and spending ourselves on behalf of the work? Do we foster an environment of conversation, or of secrecy? No one goes to work in the morning hoping to crank out a mediocre pile of misery, yet over time our work environments either reward continual growth, or encourage systemic mediocrity. You’re either growing or dying, there is no stagnancy. But growth is difficult and messy, and requires persistent effort. Many give up when it’s “good enough.” (One of the best examinations I’ve read of teams who accomplished great, innovative things is Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.)
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Todd cordially invites you to check out the resources at The Accidental Creative website by clicking here.
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