Does an analytical mind block your innovation and creativity?

Data science, analytics, and engineering are in-demand skills, however, when building customer-facing applications and data-driven products, organizations rely on innovation to unlock the power of this data. How can analytical minds practice creativity that leads to innovative solutions?

Through my many podcasts, reading, and my own work, I think there are a lot of practical things that teams can go out and do to “practice” creativity. Now, for a lot of data and technical people working on new data products and decision support applications, I think “creativity” is tingly and feels gross. It seems unquantifiable and antithetical to the mindset of a sound analytical thinker. “A job for the creatives.”

My take?

Well, for one, I pity when I hear “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” from analytics/DS/tech leaders. “The first sale is to yourself,” and the question is, how much have you “practiced” being creative, such that it is fair for you to judge your ability? Chances are, you simply haven’t practiced very much to know.

Another framing: We as humans haven’t been dealing with the giant amounts of data and analytics that the world generates now for very long. Not even 100 years. In short, we survived and thrived a lot on trial and error, our gut, and experimentation—because we didn’t have lots of structured data to drive decision making. We had to use other techniques to thrive.

Sometimes the data and analytical mind gets in the way.

A great example I remember was when I was doing some design consulting at [well-known-online-travel-company]. This company relentlessly used A/B website testing and ran experiments all over the place, but none more than their primary “hotel search” screen. They were also gun-shy when I arrived there, and had seen a lot of attrition in their UX/product team. This was a long time ago, but at the time, the vibe I got from the people working there was that all the joy in the work was gone. As I recall, a prior redesign had completely failed, and the company lost all appetite to experiment—especially when they now had shareholders. Everything in the “new way” of doing product+UX design largely came down to large teams sitting around discussing which experiments (tiny UI changes like button colors, layouts UI elements, etc) would be permitted on the site as new A/B tests. If a tested idea failed once, it was banned for good. So, for example, if you try “green-background w/ white text” buttons once and it didn’t outperform the “test” color, then forget every presenting a “green” option again. Green was now forbidden; even if you couldn’t isolate the effect of green within the context of everything else going on in the UX/UI.

Any sort of thinking beyond tiny incremental experiments was not present anywhere that I could tell.

It was all about reaching the local maximum.

People were checked out, and I could feel how people were “coasting.”

Check in, check out.

Anyhow, why I am telling you this is that an analytical approach won’t show you the next peak to climb, let alone how to get to the top. 

The thinking and mindset of your and your team have to change to discover a fresh problem, or to imagine a new solution to an old problem.

Now, I am NOT saying A/B testing doesn’t have its place; it very much does, if you’re trying to optimize and tune—but it’s only going to take you so far—and it’s not going to foster a creative culture who can think bigger and beyond.

The alternative?

Well, there are lots of ways to practice creativity and innovation in your org. Mostly, it comes down to people (duh). In fact, a recent study shows that explaining innovation output at companies is 5-10x more correlated to the ability of individual inventors at the company as compared to all the characteristics of the company they are working at—combined. (HT: @emollick)

How to get started? Here are several ideas:

  • Create dedicated time to work on things that are not deadline-driven and fire-drill. 
    You’ll never catch up with the daily stuff anyways, and if you’re never looking up from your current plate, you’ll rarely given the big problems the time and attention they may need.
  • When problem solving, bring together diverse teams; invite outsiders, customers, SMEs, and focus on QUANTITY of ideas first.
    This divergent thinking practice is something we do in the design field as well, the point being to separate ideas from the person who came up with them, and to generate a VOLUME of ideas before narrowing and choosing a direction to go in. It’s easier to generate volume if you have more voices at the table coming at problems from different perspectives. While frankly, a lot of teams on this list could likely realize better results simply by adding more women, and more non-white-males to their teams, I’m also talking about job titles and roles.
  • Open innovation
    Looking outside your company for solutions – generating multiple approaches to a problem from many viewpoints who may not be in your industry or domain. Sometimes, another like-mind is exactly what you don’t need. Check out the episode with Steve Rader from NASA we recorded on Experiencing Data earlier this year.
  • Improvisation and empowering the group over the individual
    I think jazz music can teach a lot here about how to work in teams, how not to “judge,” and how to trust the ensemble (team) – but you don’t have to learn jazz to begin improvising with ideas. Jazz is very much about operating in loose structures, experimenting, and relying on your bandmates to support your expressions/trials/attempts—and then turning your missteps into something positive. There’s a great story about how pianist Herbie Hancock played a “wrong chord” on stage with Miles Davis (famous trumpeter) who, instead of judging the chord as right/wrong, interpreted Hancock’s chord choice as just that: a choice and event for which Miles and the band needed to react. So, Miles changed the notes he played, to make the chord “work” sonically. Riffing on the mistake created something that overall “worked” for the ensemble.
  • Foster, create, or find a company culture that allows for experimentation AND failure.
    You cannot win with innovation if the assumption is that ALL EFFORT SHOULD ALWAYS RETURN AN ROI. If you want people to keep taking swings at the plate, you first have to get them to be willing to step up to the plate and take a pitch. So, you have to reward “at-bats” and “swings,” not just points scored on the field. I realize your company culture and leaders have to be part of this practice, but as Peter Drucker says, “marketing and innovation produce results. All the rest are costs. By the way, if you’re solidly a fan of the power of “data storytelling,” then guess what? You’re also doing marketing (hah! go ahead, try to shower it off!)
  • Practice Human-Centered Design / Design Thinking / UX design with a product mindset
    As you know from being on my list, design provides a wealth of tools almost anyone with an open mind can learn to apply to their daily work to produce better user experiences that delight customers—and unlike business value. This is precisely what I teach in my Self-Guided Video Course and bi-annual Instructor-Led Seminar called Designing Human-Centered Data Products.

Whatever you do, beware of those local maximums, and don’t try to be the individual hero.


Photo courtesy of Maddi Bazzocco.

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