South by – So What? Episode 1: Creativity (or, the blog with lots of questions)

I was lucky enough to attend the SXSW 2019 Conference in Austin, Texas. The exposure to different thinking, new technology, challenging ethical, political and business environments, and a crazy span of inspirational people was nothing short of stimulating.

The whole week went by incredibly fast, my head swimming with things that immediately resonated and reinforced what I thought I wanted to change or influence in my own world, and exploding with ideas I’m still not sure my mind can encompass. “Jailbreaking the Simulation” with George Hotz just about melted my operating system (George Hotz, 2019).

The South by – So What?  series is my download on what grabbed me most, shook me and said, “This is the stuff that matters”. Anyone else writing this would have a different view, and some people will absolutely disagree.  Should be fun, so come along for the ride.

A note on Innovation

I have a real love/hate relationship with some words. Sometimes these are words I just feel awkward pronouncing – ‘rural’, for example, has not enough vowels for my mouth to feel comfortable. Mostly though, these are words that when used properly have importance and weight, but when overused or misappropriated they become just another bit of buzz in the white noise. At the moment, one that really polarises me is innovation.

We hear it everywhere, we know it’s important, we’re trying to chase it down – but it’s often unclear, or daunting, or as excruciating as staring at a blank page when you should be halfway through your proposal.

Innovation. There are plenty of definitions, sure – new ideas that create value is a good one. Taking something that exists and enhancing it, making it better, repurposing it – all great examples of what innovation should deliver.

When I sit down in a room and I try to innovate, I find it hard to tango with. We have amazing tools and techniques to pinpoint a problem and work that need, through to a solution – and it does get me revved up. But if you said to me, “block out a couple of hours every week to be an innovator,” I’d probably just end up drinking more coffee and trying to snaffle some brains to work with me on that.

The crux of my discomfort is that I think of innovation as a process, and creativity as an inherent trait. I am creative by nature; I like to un-imagine the limitations. I think of innovation as working with the rules we know; I’d prefer to be the one asking people to park the current limitations, skip over that and just think about what’s possible. What if we ignored the rules and boundaries we have right now…what’s over that horizon?

Who is making the rules?

One of my favourite things about scooting around Austin was the Uber drivers. I met some really interesting people – and one of my favourites was a fella who had heard of our ferocious Aussie Drop Bears from a D&D dungeon master many moons ago. 

What now? A dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons is the creator of the world you play in – they design the scenarios and limits, shape the potential outcomes of decisions and actions you take, and ultimately set the rules around the game. Nerd fact aside (and delight at the drop bear mythology traversing hemispheres and decades), this became relevant to me as the week wore on.

As I got to thinking about problem solving, transformation, innovation, and creativity, I got to wondering – who is making the rules about how far we go? There are controls and parameters around business decisions in every organisation – sign off points, business case requirements, and steering committees – and they make good sense when it comes to determining which path to go down. But BEFORE you get to the point of the solution, who is setting the rules about how wildly we can think? 

The Stellar team spent time debating all manner of concepts and challenges, and we would sometimes stall at a point where a known business obstacle or limit would cause us to deviate our thinking. But what if we didn’t deviate? What if we rolled 15 or higher and managed to climb over the wall? 

If you’re in the world of science, and transforming science fiction into reality, there seems to be only one rule that matters – physics. If your idea breaks the laws of physics, you might want to park it – but otherwise, anything could (literally) fly. (Mark Cherry, 2019)

For the rest of us, when it comes to thinking, dreaming, and inventing – who is making the rules?

A drop pin for creativity

I attended quite a lot of sessions that talked about collaboration and problem solving approaches, and one of the most interesting and – surprisingly – entertaining ones was from the CIA. They have some pretty large problems to work on, so I wanted to know how they do that. There were some really great, helpful tips and tools, but I won’t restate any of it – you can listen to it here. (Jacob Eastham and Nyssa Straatveit, 2019)

Anyone who is trying to work in a transformation or evolution space knows that not everything works.  We “fail fast”, we’re happy killing initiatives off, and in the innovation space, this is all really important.  This all creates an urgency, a criticality around the successful arrival at your destination, and it inspires and permits swapping modes of transport to get there. 

When you’re focussing on creativity, I don’t think failure comes into it. Innovation has a goal; creativity is a process, or a space. If there’s no destination, how can you fail to reach it? If you don’t have a destination – why would we prioritise it? (John Cohn, 2019)

Maybe it’s more of a drop pin than an address. Phantom Works is the arm of Boeing that exists on the border of science and science fiction. They structure their program of activities with a healthy dose of current capability to be optimised or enhanced (innovation), some pivots, and just a dash of game changing creativity. Drawing on sci-fi, they get to try and create something that someone dreamed up without the rules of practicality or financial constraint. They’re still trying to make lasers happen, because chasing down a lightsaber is inspirational – it fires the imagination, and the view of the future state gives teams a destination.  You aim for the pin, and see how close you can get. (Mark Cherry, 2019)

If you don’t have the benefit of a genre to draw on, where do you get your drop pin? Projection is an incredibly powerful tool.  Project out to a future you want to create – or avoid – and imagine yourself looking back at how you got there.  Write a press release, write a story, draw a picture, build it out of Lego (#dreamjob)…create a future beyond the rules that your dungeon master has currently decreed.  Then remember how you go over the wall. (Christian Crowley, 2019)

Fuelling the fire

Creativity looks different for everyone – and we’re often trained out of being creative. We train vocationally on how to do something – the rules, the processes, the systems that have been proven to work. Playing outside those rules seems inefficient or pointless, or risky.

Where I’ve landed is the exceptional value in giving problems to people with passion, curiosity and creativity – not just the experts. They don’t know the rules, so they don’t care if they break them in their thinking. They haven’t been shown how, so they can create different paths and possibilities. (John Cohn, 2019)

Ultimately, I think creativity is about play. Playing in teams breaks down barriers, refuels our creative tanks, resets our boundaries and rules – and generates ideas. Solutions.  Concepts.  Dreams. Letting fun, frivolity, and goalless activities be part of our thinking helps us to be comfortable finding ways around problems – and over the walls.

Maya Angelou: “You can’t use up creativity.  The more you use, the more you have.”

If creativity is our only infinite resource, how do we embrace it, exalt it, and amplify it?

Erica Johnson, General Manager

Source References

  • Mark Cherry, 2019 “Science fiction, or future science?” presented at SXSW, Austin, 8 March 2019
  • Jacob Eastham, 2019 “CIA – Wombats and Wood Ducks: CIAs secrets to creative problem solving presented at SXSW, Austin, 8 March 2019
  • John Cohn, 2019 “Prioritising Play in an automated age” presented at SXSW, Austin, 9 March 2019
  • Martin Wezowski, 2019 “What is Human, What is work in a superhuman future?” presented at SXSW, Austin, 10 March 2019
  • Frank Oz, 2019 Featured Session presented at SXSW, Austin, 11 March 2019
  • Brian Solis, 2019 Featured Session presented at SXSW, Austin, 12 March 2019
  • Christian Crowley, “Blockchain House – State of Ethereum meetup” presented at SXSW, Austin

About The Author

Rik Johnson
Rik heads up Stellar’s Intelligent Automation business, where she and her team of digital optimists are building and nurturing bots that bring out the best in people.

Rik has previously worked in product management, solution development, project management and commercial relationship management, and has over 16 years’ operational experience. She’s inherently curious, optimistic and enthusiastic, and brings this energy to each new product or problem she encounters.

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