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.
Nancy Duarte has driven the vision and growth of Duarte for 20 years, building an internationally respected design firm, which has created over a quarter of a million presentations. She has helped shape the perceptions of many of the world’s leading brands and thought leaders. Nancy is the author of the best-selling and award winning book Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, where her experience was distilled into best practices for business communicators. She continues to advance new forms of presentation through partnerships with innovative forums like TED and PopTech. Nancy serves as a TED Fellows committee member, is a 2009 Woman of Influence and 2008 Communicator of the Year. Nancy’s latest award-winning book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, was published by Wiley in 2010.
Morris: Before discussing Resonate, a few general questions. First, when and why did you first become interested in design?
Duarte: I’ve always been primarily a visual communicator. When I played as a child I would trace coloring book characters and classify them. It was easier for me to express myself visually than verbally. I received average grades school on my written assignments and top honors on any assignments that were accompanied by visuals.
Morris: Did that interest precede your interest in effective communication? Please explain.
Duarte: Effective communication is fascinating to me yet bad communication is just as fascinating. There are lessons to be learned from both. I can’t say I am a natural communicator, it’s taken a lot of work to be able to develop content relevant to the audience and deliver it with credibility. My initial natural ability tended to be more around the visual display of information. For years I was more comfortable visualizing other people’s great thinking. I preferred to be hidden behind the curtain than a thinker myself. It wasn’t until I wrote Resonate that I’ve gained the confidence to call myself a communicator.
Morris: Briefly, please trace the founding and subsequent development of Duarte Design. For example, what was its original mission and to what extent (if any) has that since changed?
Duarte: My husband, Mark, started the firm and it was called “Duarte Desktop Publishing and Graphic Design.” Wow, what a mouthful. We stumbled into presentations in 1989 and landed a very sophisticated account. When that company had a significant layoff in 1992 and the price of desktop projectors dropped significantly our presentation services spread across the Silicon Valley like wildfire as our clients scattered into new jobs across the valley. The firm has grown from just Mark to almost 100 people writing and visualizing presentations.
Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when your firm was founded?
Duarte: So much of what we did in the early days was trial and error. There were many long days and nights trying to figure out how to grow, increase our quality, and keep employees motivated. I wish I’d brought in mature, smart staff earlier in the process. Having many smart people share the load has been the best thing we’ve ever done.
Morris: There has been significant increase of interest in design thinking as the publication of Resonate as well as of other books by Tim Brown (Change by Design), Roger Martin (The Design of Business), Roberto Verganti (Design-Driven Innovation), and Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking) clearly indicate. How do you explain this? Why has the subject become so “hot”?
Duarte: My hope is that design thinking becomes an innovative discipline and not just the trend of the decade. As a nation and globally, we have some of the biggest problems to solve we have ever faced. We need innovative ways to solve our problems and communicating the solutions will be paramount. Original thinking, complex problem solving, and collaboration are all important skills for our future.
Morris: I view the appointment of John Maeda (author of The Laws of Simplicity and in May 2011, Redesigning Leadership) as president of Rhode Island School of Design as well as the fact that Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto are indications that the academic community is also becoming much more actively involved with design thinking. Do you agree?
Duarte: I agree! My hope is that the academic world will be open to the innovative approach design thinkers bring. I know John Maeda personally, and I love the way he thinks. He considers perspectives and has insights that would have never entered my mind. We need innovators at the helm of our education institutions, although there may be uncomfortable culture clashes initially, it’s important to move in this direction.
Morris: Look ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you see as the single most important business opportunity for firms such as yours?
Duarte: Wow Robert, you ask great questions! Right now we’re very focused on the power of story to persuade. Story incites us or unites us. My firm has an awestruck reverence for the power of story. Our short term priority is to uncover a quantitative way to measure the impact of a presentation and innovative ways to take presentations viral. As we’ve been working through the global landscape, we’re starting to see the importance of understanding and communicating stories in the context of a global atmosphere.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Resonate. Please explain its title and subtitle.
Duarte: When someone says “that resonates with me” what they are saying is “I agree with you” or “I align with you.” Once your ideas resonate with an audience, they will change. But, the only way to have true resonance is to understand the ones with whom you are trying to resonate. You need to spend time thinking about your audience. What unites them, what incites them? What does a walk in their shoes look like? Think about your audience and what’s on their mind before you begin building your presentation. Thinking about them will help you identify beliefs and behavior in your audience that you can connect with. Resonate with.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Does design drive innovation or does innovation drive design. The answer is “Yes.” The success of each approach depends almost entirely on what Roberto Verganti characterizes as “radical research” and those who either conduct it or support those who do. In his introductory Letter to the Reader, Verganti explains that this is a book on management. More specifically, “it’s about how to manage innovation that customers do not expect but eventually love. It shows how executives can realize an innovation strategy that leads to products and services that have a radical new meaning: those that convey a completely new reason for customers to buy them. Their meanings are so distinct from those that dominate the market that they might take people by surprise, but they are so inevitable that they convert people and make them passionate.” Or what Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba describe as “customer evangelists.”
Verganti calls this strategy “design-driven innovation” because design, in its etymological sense, means “making sense of things.” Therefore, think of design-driven innovation as the R&D process for meanings. This book shows “how companies can manage this process to radically overturn dominant meanings in an industry before their competitors so and therefore rule the competitors.” Throughout his lively narrative, Verganti responds to questions such as these:
1. How to innovate by making sense of things?
2. How to integrate design-driven innovation with an organization’s strategy?
3. How to initiative and then sustain productive interplay between “technology-push” and design-driven innovation?
4. Why do some companies invest in design-driven innovation and others don’t?
Note: Verganti’s comments in response to this question will be of great value to readers now determining whether or not design-driven innovation is appropriate to their organization’s needs, objectives, and resources.
5. What are “interpreters” and what is their role in the design-driven innovation process?
6. How to locate and then attract key interpreters?
7. How can an organization develop its own vision?
8. How to leverage the “seductive power” of the interpreters?
9. When establishing what Verganti calls the “Design-Driven Lab,” where to begin?
10. What is the “key role” of an organization’s senior managers and their influence on the organization’s culture?
However those involved are identified (e.g. “interpreters”) and their functions are defined, whatever a given organization’s goals and resources may be, questions such as these suggest critically important issues that must be addressed by its business leaders. If I understand Verganti’s core thesis, it is that the process by which to do that must itself be design-driven. That is to say, a competitive advantage can be achieved and then sustained only by innovative thinking about innovation. Only then can those who are involved “make sense” of what to do and how to do it for their customers.
The Breakthrough Imperative: How the Best Managers Get Outstanding Results
Mark Gottfredson and Herman Saenz
Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success
Dean R. Spitzer
Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution
Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David Robertson
HR Transformation: Building Human Resources From the Outside
Dave Ulrich, Justin Allen, Wayne Brockbank, Jon Younger, and Mark Nym
Here is an article written by Roberto Verganti for the Harvard Business blog. (It looks much longer than it reads. Also, frankly, I did not know what to delete.) To check out other articles and resources and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having Ideas Versus Having a Vision
In the past decade, firms have been praised for ideas. Experts have celebrated the power of brainstorming and idea-generation techniques. Eureka light bulbs have populated the covers of many books. Businessmen have been asked to improve their creative attitudes. And 2009 was named the “Year of Creativity and Innovation” by the European Union.
One consequence of a decade focused on idea generation is ideas are now more easily accessible, which has also made idea generation less of a differentiator in competition than it has traditionally been. When more than 30% of the population belongs to the creative class, as Richard Florida suggested in his 2003 book The Rise of the Creative Class, ideas are not in short supply. And with the diffusion of open innovation processes, ideas competitions, and the like, executives are increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas.
What is in short supply, I’m afraid, are visionary thinkers who will be capable of making sense of this abundance of stimuli — visionaries who will build the arenas to unleash the power of ideas and transform them into actions.
Could the next decade be the decade of vision building? If so, we will witness a significant shift in the way we think about innovation, creativity, and leadership. Popular studies of creativity have suggested that the fast generation of numerous ideas (the more, the better); in contrast, visionary leadership requires a relentless exploration of one direction (the deeper and more robust, the better). Idea generation values a neophyte perspective; vision building is based on research and deep understanding. To generate fresh ideas we have been told to think outside of the box and then jump back in; vision building destroys the box and builds a new one. It does not play with the existing paradigms; it changes them. Studies of idea generation have lingered on variety and divergence, but vision building is based on convergence, on bringing others onboard. Ideas are culturally neutral as long as they help solve problems; visions are intrinsically ideological and biased towards a clear aspiration of how the world should be: They strongly reflect the personal culture of the thinker.
I’m certainly not questioning the essential value of ideas. They will still ignite the innovation process. Tossing around a large number of ideas will still be important, especially for incremental improvements. It is not one or the other. It is a shift in the most rare and precious asset that will drive competitive advantage: visions. It’s time for thought leaders to move beyond post-its and embrace a more advanced form of creativity. A radical form of think-action that somewhat resembles that of researchers and entrepreneurs fighting to implement their vision.
What do you think? Is it time to call for a new form of creativity? If last decade was the decade of idea generation, will the new one be the decade of vision building?
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To check out other articles and resources and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit email@example.com.
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Roberto Verganti is the author of Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean and has pioneered research on the intersection of strategy, design and technology management. A professor of the management of innovation at Politecnico di Milano, Verganti also is a member of the board of the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management. He has served as an executive advisor, coach, and educator at a variety of firms, including Ferrari, Ducati, Whirlpool, Xerox, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Barilla, Nestlè, STMicroelectronics, and Intuit.
“In my experience, true success comes for the designer and the business executive when the two can bridge the artificial lines that have too often separated their worlds. This book also talks about building that bridge – about how creative minds and business minds collaborate, and how both sides of the business-design partnership can prosper within that process. I won’t say that this collaboration is a silver bullet for every problem facing a company, but I do believe it is the best way to develop a better business today and to build a sustainable future for that business.”
How do the designer and the business executive collaborate on helping their company to become an “engine of innovation”? Esslinger suggests a three-step process:
Step 1 — Groundwork: Preparation and research requires both competence and selectivity (e.g. choosing the right goals, teams, partners, clients, projects, metrics).
Step 2 – Creative Collaboration: Successful results-driven teamwork involves rituals (e.g. brainstorming), projection (i.e. shared vision of change to be achieved), and management (e.g. consensus-building, support planning, “shepherding” innovation to implementation).
Step 3 – Marketing: Introducing a product (both internally and externally) while refining and proving its benefits, optimizing the innovation’s role in the business model, and providing the leadership tools necessary to take the innovation to market).
Other sources to consider:
The Design of Business
Five Minds for the Future
Change by Design
Design Driven Innovation
Thomas Kelley with Jonathan Littman.
The Art of Innovation
The Ten Faces of Innovation
Esslinger is the founder of frog design, inc., a global innovation firm, and one of the most respected designers and business consultants in the world. His designs are in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in NYC.