The Necessity of Creativity
Eight years ago, Transport for London created a set of awareness tests. The most famous of these has had over 21 million views on YouTube.
If you haven’t yet watched it, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Most viewers are able to complete the task but are amazed by what they missed in the process.
The harder we focus on one thing, the more blinded we become to everything else around us. This is sometimes called Tunnel Vision, and it may or may not be a problem depending on the situation.
Sometimes, there is one thing that is far more important to do than everything else. In these situations, hyper focus is the key to productive work.
At other times, there are multiple things that we need to consider, including questioning whether we are doing the right thing in the first place. Building the thing right is very important, but building the right thing is even more important.
Getting the design just right is never easy. Great design requires a lot of creative thought.
The Necessity of Creativity
The most creative individuals are those who can see the things that everyone else misses.
But programmers in general are not known so much for their creativity. They are often thought to be more logical and analytical, which are essential skills for developing software free of bugs.
So sometimes programmers miss out on creative opportunities. Creative action is essential to mental health and happiness, because a lack of self-expression makes us feel incomplete. Turning dreaming into doing is the route to happiness. And there are major financial reasons for becoming creative.
Humans simply love creative work, and if it’s good enough, they are willing to pay a lot for it. In 2014, the global art market reached its highest ever-recorded level at €51 billion ($54 billion). This figure is dwarfed by the fashion market, with the top 10 brands alone valued at $100 billion this year.
Over the last eight years, smartphones have become so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget how ground-breaking the original iPhone was. Apple Inc. has now sold well over 700 million iPhones, and it’s perhaps the main reason why Apple has become the richest company in the world, with a share price that is almost ten times higher than it was before the iPhone was announced.
Company Survival Depends on It
Even before the computer was invented, technology companies came and went, but the rate of change continues to increase.
As well as the iPhone, in the last few years we’ve seen the rise of Android with more than a billion devices, both mobile phones and tablets. Today, we are seeing more and more everyday items connected to the Internet. The world is changing, and we need to move with it if we are going to stay competitive.
Only a few years ago, a basic static website with a fixed 980 pixel width and a “This website supports Internet Explorer” message was something considered good enough. Not anymore. Customers demand a good user experience on the browsers and devices that they want to use. We either continually change to meet the needs of our users, or we find our services are being made obsolete by our faster moving rivals. The creative companies lead the way for our industry.
With today’s cloud infrastructure, it’s easier than ever for a startup company to deploy a new product that competes with the technology giants. In many respects, they are competing at a level playing field with regards to modern technology. What gives a company a greater competitive advantage is better creative ideas.
“One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.”
– Dr. Russell Ackoff
A Case Study in Company Survival
The CEO of a multi-billion dollar international market leading company was repeatedly approached by a programmer-turned-entrepreneur in charge of a new startup. The startup had relatively few customers but claimed that the number was set to grow massively.
The startup offered the same products but had the idea of sending it by mail instead of customers needing to collect from the store. Fifty million dollars was asked for in order to buy the startup. The market leader knew that approximately 90% of startups fail and concluded that the startup was in a very small niche business and turned down the offer.
The year was 2000. The market leader was Blockbuster, and the startup was Netflix. Ten years later, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. At the time of writing, Netflix had a market capitalization of $50.82 billion.
Cases like this illustrate why it is necessary for us to have a repeatedly evolving business model. Blockbuster’s initial success was largely due to the innovative revenue sharing model with movie studios, which meant including little to no upfront costs per video for Blockbuster. Its demise was largely due to its lack of awareness of the need for change until it was too late.
Netflix evolved the video rental model with its subscription service in 1999 by appreciating how much customers hated late fees and liked the idea of not needing to go into a store to return the product. It has continued to grow by evolving its business model according to customer demand.
With the benefit of 15 years of hindsight, former Blockbuster CEO John Antioco appears to have made the most terrible of mistakes. But looking at the empirical evidence available at the time shows a different picture. Although $50 million looks cheap compared to the now $50 billion, it is certainly a lot of money for anyone to risk on a partly unproven model. If it was your money, would you risk it?
We must be careful not to use hindsight to give too much credit or blame for a single business decision. Antioco actually continued to grow the company until its market value peaked in 2004 and left when it was still worth $5 billion.
Creative vision is certainly a hugely important element of business success, but a little luck never hurt anyone either and is a factor that we can never completely avoid.
Venture capitalism is an area where there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown. The potentially huge gains of a rare event, such as a startup becoming the next market leader, mean that speculative investments tend to be a profitable strategy.
Potential Drawbacks of Being More Creative
My last post, “Psychology for Programmers,” covered the use of psychometric testing in improving all human relationships. One of the key points was that all personality types are considered equal: each strength has a corresponding drawback.
You can usually find more creative solutions by spending more time exploring the possibilities, but this can also reduce your productivity. So the value you get out of being highly creative is dependent on the situation.
What are the benefits of producing a great idea? What are the consequences of missing an imminent deadline? These are two questions that need to be considered and weighed against each other.
The amount of creativity that is appropriate will also depend on the industry that you are in. In the most heavily regulated industries, the most important objective is to remain compliant, which can reduce the number of opportunities for creative thinking.
Although creativity is a necessity at the company level, in most organisations it’s not necessary for every employee to be highly creative. You may find it more effective to find the right mix of creative mind with people who just want to get on and see a job taken through to completion.
Bear in mind that the true value of a creative idea is only realized when the job is completed. A good creative idea driven through to completion is better than a hundred brilliant creative ideas left abandoned.
The equality of personality types does not mean all individuals are intellectually equal. We all benefit from continuously learning and challenging ourselves. With enough practice, we can become more creative while also staying down-to-earth and being practical when necessary.
How Can I Apply Creativity in My Job?
Before we explore the ways in which you can be more creative, I need you to answer the following question: Which of the following statements can you identify yourself with?
- I am interested in coding more creatively, but I am not responsible for the business requirements.
- I am interested in creative designs in general, including influencing the business requirements to reach more creative solutions.
If you identify yourself in the first category, I recommend watching Lilly Dart’s talk, “Building stronger teams for better user experience.” Your role in the design of your product may be greater than you realize.
“We’re all making decisions every day that can affect the user experience, whether we realize it, for better and for worse.”
– Lilly Dart
If watching this talk doesn’t convince you, then consider the advice of Sandro Mancuso, founder of the London Software Craftsmanship Community:
“Software craftsmen are not factory workers. We want to actively contribute to the success of the project, questioning requirements, understanding the business, proposing improvements, and productively partnering with our customers or employers. This is a different approach to the traditional employer/employee model and the advantages for the employers are enormous. A highly motivated team has a much bigger chance to make any project succeed.”
– Sandro Mancus
If you still wish to focus purely on the programming implementation, you should look at the reasons why you are dissatisfied with your current solutions.
It could be that your solutions are flawed from an architectural viewpoint, or you might just be growing bored with programming in the same language and paradigm and following the same rigid coding standards and conventions all the time.
Perhaps you have become an assembly line coder: someone who creates a new x in technology y in z days. Doing the same tasks over and over again slows down your learning and growth as a developer. If you find yourself in this situation, look for a way to fully automate the process so that your users can do this work for themselves.
If you’re considering learning a new language, read Saeed Gatson’s “Do You Need To Know More Than One Language?” here on Simple Programmer. If you decide you want to pursue a new job programming in a different language, read “Get an Interview Without Professional Experience in a Particular Language.”
I often come across people who always complain about their job, but are afraid to do anything about it. They can easily list other jobs that they would enjoy much more, but when asked about the possibility of moving on to a more interesting job, they list reasons for staying where they are.
Typically these will be the pension, the Christmas bonus, the annual leave, or the colleagues that they are friends with. None of these reasons are about enjoyment of the work, just about job security and the fear of the unknown.
Often fear is the only thing that is holding us back. If your colleagues are really good friends, then they will stay your friends throughout your career. You may need to accept a little less pension or annual leave initially, but once you are in a role you love, you’ll probably find your performance improves and you’ll become so valuable to the business you’ll either be able to negotiate, or will simply be offered a better deal for yourself.
If you identify yourself in the second category, that is not just as a programmer but as a creative professional, then there is nearly no limit to what you can achieve. You can motivate yourself and the rest of your team, and perhaps beyond just your team, to continually look for better solutions.
The extent to which you will be able to creatively influence your company will depend on the industry you are in, the size of the company, how high up the corporate ladder you are, and your own skills of persuasion.
The video game industry is an example of an area of programming where creativity is especially important. Video games are entertainment, and there is little entertainment without creativity. Most video game companies employ at least one, and usually more than one, designer. However, they are happy to receive input on the creative direction from anybody on the team. This is because a good idea can come from anybody, and these ideas need some form of validation from others so that the best ideas can be selected over the weaker ones.
Creative digital agencies are another area where creative ideas abound. If you can find a good one to hire, you’ll immediately get the benefits of a fresh influx of creative input and talent.
In the final part of this series, we will discuss a number of different ways in which you can increase your creativity.