I saw a rerun of the Working Girl episode of Everybody Loves Raymond last week. In this episode, Debra gets a job at an advertising agency. Her first project is an advertising campaign for a pizza account, so she comes up with a character called “Professor Pete Za.” She was fired on the first day because her boss didn’t like the idea but Debra kept fighting for it. The episode concluded with Debra and Ray talking about how silly her ideas were and how she should have realized that and backed down.
Apparently I didn’t have the intended reaction. I thought the Pete Za idea was pretty good and Debra shouldn’t have been fired for fighting for it. Creative ideas often look silly at first and they require some fighting. These challenges show what the creative process is supposed to look like!
If you want to foster a creative environment, but want to limit your team to only the creative ideas that everybody immediately gets and don’t have any problems, you might as well pack it up because it isn’t going to happen. People don’t always appreciate creative, innovative ideas right away. And there are always problems—lots of them.
While it’s challenging to come up with creative ideas, often the bigger challenge is selling them and working through the problems. It’s a mistake to abandon them too early just because there are issues. And it’s a mistake to expect everyone to immediately get your creative ideas without you standing behind them and selling them.
The episode was about advertising, so let’s look at a real advertising example. My favorite ad campaign is for Geico. I think their ads are extremely creative, fun, and memorable; and do a great job of selling their product.
Imagine being at the meeting where the Martin Agency first pitched their ideas to the Geico execs. It might have been something like this:
Martin: People have trouble pronouncing “Geico”, so we were thinking of having a talking gecko with a cockney accent. And we’ve got a great idea for a series with sensitive cavemen who are constantly being insulted.
Geico: Interesting…what else do you have?
Martin: We were thinking of a series with a pile of money called Kash to represent customer savings. Then there’s a series featuring old sayings being taken literally. Oh, yeah…there’s the one about talking pothole with a teenage southern accent.
Geico: Um…OK! Thank you for your time. We’ll get back to you.
Is this really a good way to sell auto insurance?
What would you have thought had you been there? Would you think these ideas would be successful?
I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have. All these ideas have the same, obvious problems: what in the world do they have to do with selling car insurance? They all seem a bit crazy. And with so many different ideas, won’t the campaign lack focus? Won’t people get confused?
While I think that the people who came up with these ideas are brilliant, the people who persuaded the Geico execs to go with them are just as brilliant. Perhaps the Geico execs who gave it all a green light were the most brilliant. I’m sure most executives would have turned these campaign ideas down.
One thing we will never know is how much effort went in to making these ideas work. We’ll also never know now many bad ideas the Martin agency went through to find the few winners.
That’s why the creative process requires brainstorming. Many creative ideas aren’t winners—especially the risky ones, so the process is to come up with as many ideas as you can, identify their strengths and weaknesses, work through the problems, and see what holds up. Then sell them! I think the only mistake Debra Barone made was working with a single idea.
Developers can have a tough time with the creative process because they tend to view all ideas through the lens of how difficult they would be to implement. Developers are trained to take an idea, pick it apart, and identify all the problems. We love doing that! But it’s harmful to the creative process.
While feasibility and development challenges are important, they aren’t important during brainstorming and the creative phase of the design process. That analysis is for later. It is important for developers to understand this.
Given the challenges with creativity that I’ve just outlined, it’s important to get everyone on your team on board so that their contribution is as constructive and impactful as it can be. Make sure that everyone on your team:
If you do only one thing: The creative process requires skills that most people haven’t fully developed. This is especially true if your team is highly technical. To make the creative process effective, get everybody on board first by reviewing how the creative process is supposed to work.
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