Embrace experiments, evidence, constraints: 8 creativity tips for product leaders

7th Nov 2018
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This new book by an experienced product manager and entrepreneur offers hard-earned lessons for innovators and startups.


The Other Ideas: Art, Digital Products, and the Creative Mind is a slender book (135 pages), but packed with useful ideas, tips and anecdotes for digital product managers. The lessons are broad enough to be applied in other creative fields as well. The author, Yonatan Levy, is a product leader, user experience expert, and entrepreneur, who has been developing digital products for over a decade.

Yonatan was a speaker at the recent DesignUp conference in Bengaluru (see my overview article here), and widely shares his user-centric, evidence-based approach to the creative discipline. He was trained as an artist, and then joined the digital product world as founder of the startup TalkBack.

Here are my eight key clusters of takeaways from this straightforward and insightful book. See also my reviews of the related books Product Leadership, Show Your Work, and The Art of Creative Thinking.

While it is certainly possible to be creative by connecting older ideas, it is also important to create new concepts and experimental paths, which Yonatan refers to as ‘other ideas.’ Creativity is much more than miracles or Eureka moments – it is a skill, method and mindset that can be practised upon and consciously refined, Yonatan begins.

The practice of creativity has been accelerated and amplified by the global Internet, which itself is a new art, according to the author. Pressures of competition are making it imperative for product managers to churn out new products within tight deadlines, and the call for creativity is more acutely felt now.

“Everyone has the spark of creativity within, all we need to do is fan the flames,” Yonatan writes. “Creativity is an ongoing and continuously evolving state,” he adds; it’s like a muscle which will atrophy if not exercised regularly. The journey is full of twists and blocks, and may even be discouraging and frustrating at times.

1. Work is the Holy Grail, embrace the uncertainty

Creativity arises in a state of work, and is spurred by triggers that lead to tangible drafts or prototypes. This requires being able to embrace uncertainty in new kinds of work. “Experimentation with the new and unknown always encompasses the greatest potential for creativity, since it allows us to drift away from the main grid of thinking,” Yonatan explains.

“The more things we try, the better our chance of stumbling upon something great,” he adds. Innovation sometimes comes quietly, and can be realised only in retrospect. “Working from uncertainty can bring us on a whole new creative journey,” he advises.

However, the brain craves certainty and familiarity, and it is important to embrace uncertainty through self-training, eg. treat failure as learning, don’t shirk fear, have faith that order will eventually emerge from the chaos. “You’ll learn to love getting lost,” Yonatan jokes. “Discomfort is a wellspring for creativity,” he adds.

2. Learn by doing, showing and getting feedback

Even if the first prototype may seem embarrassing, it is important to share this first draft to get feedback and learn. Hold “dirty laundry” meetings; remove all hierarchies while discussing your prototype; listen to your teams, Yonatan advises.

Markets and customers are dynamic and complex, and will show you new interpretations of your original idea. Ego and pride should be kept in check here. It is important to look for patterns in successive waves of feedback, eg. feature strengths and weaknesses. To help get better feedback, Yonatan suggests pushing respondents to address specific issues, give a specific number of suggestions, or provide examples.

3. Embrace constraints and accidents

A sense of urgency by taking on a new challenge stimulates the flow of ideas (“being in the hot seat”). Iconic musician David Bowie said he had his best moments when he felt tension, and not relaxation.

Creating your constraints can also unlock new levers of creativity and unconventional uses of scarce resources. For example, painter Edward Hopper found a path to success by using only limited amounts of the colour yellow – instead, he used the colours that created yellow by their overall combination. (See my review of the related books A Beautiful Constraint, Messy and Frugal Innovation.)

Danish painter Tal R used only five standard colours in his works, which helped create a new character and vibrancy (see also YourStory's PhotoSparks series of photo essays on art and creativity). Constraints are effectively used in poetry forms like haiku, sonnets, sestinas and villanelles.

Mistakes and accidents can also unlock new creative pathways, as shown in kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer. The author deliberately “sabotages” his own art works and product designs to explore new creative sparks.

Yonatan once lost a lot of project data because he had forgotten to charge his laptop, but the half-finished work led him to follow a new and successful design path for a communication interface.

4. Base decisions on data and evidence

Yonatan advises product managers to “face the cold, objective facts” about reality, and step beyond personal opinions and speculations. “Active sight” helps unfold new creative thinking possibilities.

He cites an example of a chat support product he developed, based on sobering data about user perceptions of unnecessary clicks, lack of topic in conversations, and design mismatch between the product and client website.

5. Challenge assumptions

It is important also to keep questioning basic assumptions, which our brain takes for granted. This helps peel back biases and preconceived notions. “Never settle for common knowledge, and doubt everything,” the author advises.

It is important not to keep “coasting” on what has already been learned, though this is the brain’s preferred mode of functioning. Questioning the basic foundations leads to a “chain reaction” of related questions, and can be insightful as well as fun.

Designer Ron Arad’s unique chairs keep challenging users to ask, What is a chair? During a client assignment, Yonatan himself was forced to question the basic assumptions of a file management system, which most of us take for granted.

Even things that we assume to be boring, mundane or unappealing can be made cool, fascinating and amazing. For example, meeting a bank representative can be expanded to interactions before and after the meeting. “Anything can be made amazing,” Yonatan enthuses.

6. Prioritisation

What problems you chose not to address is as important as what you focus on. Focus first on urgent pain points that hurt the most, Yonatan advises. Product managers must keep the focus on core customer value, team collaboration, and revenue.

The choice of moment for feedback should also be not too early or too late. If it’s too early, it may lead to premature changes; if it’s too late, it may be emotionally hard to switch and overcome bias. “You must learn to structure and control your own information supply,” Yonatan urges.

7. Don’t decide too soon

It’s tempting to act fast and early, but it also helps to keep your mind open for a while longer and withhold judgement. Otherwise you may miss the “ugly duckling” that blossoms later into a swan, Yonatan cautions.

Performing arts forms such as jazz offer useful creativity lessons in improvisation and collaboration. Yonatan is inspired by the following tip given by Miles Davis to collaborating musicians: “When you play music, don’t play the idea that’s there, play the next idea. Wait.”

In other words, don’t give in to the first obvious response – have the discipline, faith and humility to search for something fresh before committing yourself. As a creative exercise, Yonatan suggests painting new sketches every 30 seconds till you have run out of all your ideas – then new elements appear. As a follow-up, go back to the sketches for 30 seconds each and add something new.

It can also help to not be the first follower, and build on the shortcomings of those who have gone before you. Yonatan points to Instagram and Apple Music as successful follower examples in this regard. “Patient, targeted, purposeful action is sometimes the key to success,” he points out.

8. Stimulate yourself

Stimulation can produce new ideas, eg. by taking a trip to another country, attending a conference in a completely new field, and even taking a nap or a short walk. This helps create serendipitous opportunities as well, and helps the brain solve problems independent of conscious effort. “Drop out to tune in,” jokes Yonatan.

Don’t just wait for a flash of inspiration to strike you – you have to immerse yourself in your craft and building blocks, and be ready to be inspired, Yonatan advises. It helps to re-examine old drafts of ideas, and toggle between details and the big picture (“zoom in and out”). Conversely, cocooning yourself (eg. on a long flight) can also help avoid interruptions and stay focused.

“Learn as many different things as possible. Experience as many things as you can,” Yonatan urges. “The richer your contextual network becomes, the more connections will spark in your mind,” he signs off.

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