This post is probably gonna be beneficial to all sorts of people and not only to product managers. This is because today I’m gonna talk about…. Creativity and thinking out of the box!
Many of us, as part of working on their tasks, may face challenges where it seems like the various known playbooks don’t apply or the challenges we’re facing are quite unique in the sense that there are no best practices or references as for how to address them.
It could be that as an entrepreneur the market is not reacting the way you hoped to the release of your product and you need to make some fundamental changes, but all obvious modifications were either tried already (with no luck) or are irrelevant to your case.
It could be that as a HR person you’re trying to apply a certain culture, but the adoption of this is underwhelming. Still, you have a cultural vision you strongly believe in, but you have no idea what’s the best way to apply it.
It could be that as an engineer you’re trying to solve an algorithmical problem, but all the academic solutions and blog posts you’ve found are irrelevant to your special case or simply provide inferior results.
It could be that as a gardener you were tasked with planting a specific type of plants in a very challenging terrain in terms of lightning and weather conditions but the customer is promising you a big amount of money if you solve it and your intuition tells you it can be done.
And so forth…
No matter what you’re doing in life – for most of us – it’s just a matter of time until we’ll be facing such challenges. For some of us – such challenges are coming up on a quarterly basis, and for some of us – on a weekly basis. It’s very much dependent on your job and what you want to make out of this job.
People who are not facing such challenges are (IMHO) either doing a very routine job or forcing a routine into a role that could be much ‘bigger’ if the person doing it was more ambitious.
So how do you approach such challenges?
Just keep reading.
The first step when coming across such a challenge is to run an honest reality check.
Some challenges are simply too formidable to be tackled given your environment and the resources allocated to you.
For example: Let’s say your company is working in a hybrid manner and the employees are requested to come to the office only 2 days per week. You are the CEO, and in your vision – people should be in the office 5 days a week. The current policy was just an intermediate decision during the Covid period. You’d like to revert back to the original policy of having the employees in the office 5 days per week.
[Personally I think it’s a suicide move, but as of this time of writing – the richest man in the world, Elon Musk, who just has taken over Twitter – thinks otherwise. I’m very curious to see the results of this decision.
But back to our CEO example:]
You could proceed and update the policy based on your vision, but I predict that it will come with a severe cost in terms of employee retention. Are you willing to pay this cost?
As the CEO – it’s easy to modify the policy. No creativity is required here. But merely updating the policy almost certainly won’t give you the desired outcome (again, in my opinion at least). You’ll probably need to be creative here if you’d like to retain most of your workforce. But it’s also very likely that no matter how creative you are and how many incentives you’d present to sweeten the deal – you’ll end up with a real retention problem and you’ll have to revert.
At this stage – the cost will be too high – because you’ve lost a great portion of your employees and you won’t be able to re-hire them.
Therefore – is this a challenge worth tackling?
Another example – going back to our gardener:
It could be that although the customer really wants a certain type of flowers in this garden, because they live in the desert – there is nothing you can do to make it work. Even with proper irrigation – the desired flowers would die, because the heat is too high, or the sunlight is too strong.
You might be successful with other types of flowers, but not with the specific one requested. You can try to explain it to the customer and make them change their mind, but if you fail – no creativity will help you in this case.
Hence, before taking on a challenge which requires your creativity and thinking out of the box you need to run a reality check and see if this challenge is even remotely possible and what would be the price for making it happen.
But… how do you know that? Isn’t it the chicken and the egg problem?
After all, one might argue that many challenges seem non-feasible at first glance, and this is exactly why you need to be creative and find a feasible way to solve those.
That’s true & fair.
My answer to this is smart usage of experience & intuition and if both fail – then mentoring.
And in further detail:
If you are an experienced gardener – you have already provided dozens of gardening solutions to all sorts of customers. Some of them were probably out of the ordinary. Such experience will be useful in knowing that the requested flower can’t strive in the desert, so you can tell it to the customer right away.
With a lack of experience, intuition is a strong asset as well, if you know how to listen to it. If you know how to leverage your intuition well enough, it can tell whether ‘there must be a way to tackle this’ or ‘this is just going to be a waste of time’.
The trick here is to know the difference between intuition to laziness & fear. And because of that you need to train yourself to listen to yourself (and you need to believe in intuition to begin with…).
[I recommend reading my post which discusses intuition here, although it doesn’t relate directly to the subject at hand.]
If you still don’t trust your intuition enough, and you don’t feel you have enough experience at the matter at hand – then I’d recommend finding a good experienced mentor.
An experienced mentor can help you assess the challenges you want to take, and also help you with creative ways to tackle them.
Applying creative and out-of-the-box thinking
If you have come to the conclusion that this is a challenge worth tackling, then here is a list of do’s and don’ts for helping you thinking about the problem in a creative, out-of-the-box way:
Ignore the constraints
If the challenge is constraints-bound, ignore them for a second in your imagination. Sometimes, when we ignore the constraints it frees our creativity to see things that otherwise would have been missed.
Next time you’re facing a tightly constrained problem – if applicable – try to ignore the constraints for a second, and think about how you’d solve it then.
For example – If your boss wants you to solve a problem, but the budget is very tight – try to think first about how you’d solve the problem if there were no budget constraints. Think big. Then try to think whether the budget is really the problem here, or maybe there is a way to apply the same solution by acquiring the needed resources in a different way (for example – proper prioritization, shuffling resources with other teams, etc…).
This is the exact opposite recommendation of what’s written above. Of course it applies to a different set of problems.
Here is an exercise:
I’m challenging you now with coming up with a short story that you can tell your (future) kids before they go to sleep. There are no constraints. You can come up with any (kids-friendly) story that you’d like.
Give it 15 seconds now to come up with a general plot before you keep reading.
Did you come up with such a plot?
For some of us, whose brain is tuned to this kind of stuff, it may be an easy task. But for others – the amount of possibilities is just blocking creativity.
If you belong to the second group – let’s repeat the exercise, but with the following constraints:
The story now must include a dwarf, a Ferrari, the sea and a basket full of sandwiches.
Take another 15 seconds.
Was it easier for you to come up with a general plot (that probably doesn’t make any sense to an adult, but kids would adore…)?
You may have discovered that the constraints were actually helpful in unleashing your creativity.
Where is this advice applicable?
Usually when you need to start completely fresh and with no or very little constraints. I admit that those cases are probably uncommon in your workplace, because most of the time you always work under some constraints.
However, you may find it very helpful if you want to do something more ‘artistic’ in nature (such as writing, drawing, sculpturing, etc..) or even when considering an idea for a startup (where you may freely choose to constraint the domains, for example).
This is easier said than done, but it’s one of the most powerful pieces of advice I can give you.
Look – if you check how most of the great inventions were discovered, it’s usually a result of some mistake or accident. Soap, gunpowder and antibiotics are just a few inventions that are coming to my mind as I’m writing this post.
It applies to all sorts of creative activities. For example, when cooking you accidentally put salt instead of sugar. You discovered your mistake right after and added sugar as well (probably more than you planned, in a desperate attempt to counter the salt). The result – something which is sweet but also salty. Turns out everyone loves it!
Life is full of such examples.
What does it teach us?
It all connects to our brain eventually.
Our brain loves to follow existing patterns.
This is why we usually have the same thoughts going in circles, why we exhibit the same behavioral patterns and why it’s so hard for us to change habits.
Trying to force the brain to change its thoughts patterns is very tough. Instead, I recommend doing it indirectly, by changing your environment and your routine for a limited period of time.
For example – Instead of going to the office or work from home – take a hike. If you love to be left on your own, force yourself into a bar and start talking to people. If you love to be surrounded by people, try to isolate yourself for a day or two and see what kinds of thoughts come up.
Do things differently for a period of time and try to break as many patterns as you can.
You’d be amazed with how many ‘new thoughts’ will fill your brain.
This tip directly correlates to the advice above. Since it’s so hard to change your thoughts pattern – you can call for ‘external assistance’ by leveraging other people’s thoughts.
Brainstorm with people you trust (one by one, or together as a group). Share your challenges and ask for their input.
Most of the time new ideas will come up, and you’d be puzzled as for how you didn’t think about it yourself.
If the challenge is not too hard to grasp intellectually – talk about it with your kids (or any kids… as long as it doesn’t look weird). Kids, and especially young ones, have yet to develop stiff thoughts patterns like grown ups. As a result – their imagination is much less bound and highly creative by nature.
Share your challenge and see how they respond. It might shock you.
Go back to the ‘why’
Take one or more steps back. Try to remember why you wanted to tackle this challenge in the first place. Why is this a problem worth tackling? What was the original pain you were trying to solve?
Sometimes, when we go back to the origins and start fresh, a new set of solutions come up.
A couple of questions that will help you when trying this – and I recommend asking them up loud – are:
“Why does this challenge need to be solved?”
“Is there a better approach for tackling the original pain?”
Going back to the origins and starting ‘clean’ as much as you can, may assist you in seeing things from a different angle or at least consider a new set of approaches that you might have dismissed too early.
Take nothing for granted
This is actually one of the main pitfalls I see many talented people fall into. They assume that things should keep working the way they did until the end of time.
For example – ‘this is how you do Scrum’, ‘this is how you bake a cake’, ‘this is how you do shopping’, ‘this is how you rent a car’.
Some people really love procedures, methodologies and processes. It provides them with some level of confidence and helps them feel the world is not as chaotic as it seems.
Sometimes they forget that methodologies need to serve us and not the other way around.
Well… if you want to think ‘out of the box’ – you need to kill all sacred cows that stay in your way. Question every process or procedure that intersects with the challenge you want to tackle. You don’t have to do it out loud, because you may scare some people, but you should definitely not assume that the way things were executed until now is the best way to execute them looking forward.
(Don’t) Think hard
Drop the false assumption that if you focus enough about the challenge with your thoughts you’ll find a creative way to tackle it. Creativity doesn’t work this way.
If, after one focused day you came up empty handed – don’t bother to allocate additional ‘focus time’ to ponder about the challenge. It won’t help you and just keep you frustrated.
Creativity flows in when you let go and when you enrich yourself with new inputs like discussed before. Go take a hike, take a day off, meet with friends, etc…
Just don’t bother with ‘focus time’ because you’ll run the same thoughts over and over again.
(Don’t) Fall in love with the solution
You have a solution in mind. Great.
If it really solves the challenge you were trying to tackle then awesome. You’re done.
However, if it’s only a partial solution – don’t feel obligated to hang on to it ‘until the bitter end’. Try to improve it as much as you can, but if you find yourself circling around endlessly – it’s time to let go and rethink the whole approach.
I often see people ‘locking’ themselves on the first solution that comes to mind and dismissing other alternatives. Later, they forget about them, and hence they find it hard to revert to those if things go wrong. So don’t do that.
So… that’s it for today!
I hope I provided you with some handful of tips on how to unleash your creativity and not take anything for granted.
If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.
Thank you, and until next time 🙂