In one of the many memorable scenes from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, heroes Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect find themselves on Earth, circa 2,000,000 BC, in the company of a large population of middle managers, hairdressers, management consultants, marketing people…in short, the “useless” third of their home planet who were sent to colonize Earth. In a committee meeting, they discuss the difficulty they’ve had in inventing the wheel. Ford Prefect, exasperated, exclaims that it’s the “single simplest machine in the Universe,” to which a marketing person replies, “All right Mr. Wiseguy, if you’re so clever, you tell us what color it should be.”
Happily, marketing people (and the rest) aren’t quite as useless as Adams implies in his story; in fact, it’s creative types—graphic artists, web designers, marketing folks, writers (like Adams himself!) and others like them—that are sometimes in the best position to help solve tricky business problems.
What Creative Types Bring to the Table
Techies, quite naturally, think tech first when seeking solutions to business problems. After all, given sufficient time and resources, computer software can be made to do pretty much anything—and this is becoming ever more true by advances in machine learning and related technologies. The trouble with techies, however, is they tend to see problems and solutions only from a technical perspective, in their world of ones and zeroes, properties and methods, database structures, and communication protocols. Thus, they often lack a holistic perspective.
That’s where creative team members can come in handy: They look at problems and solutions from completely different angles than their technical brethren. Here are a few things they bring to the table.
- Thinking outside the box: Whereas technical people can become locked into approaches that they’ve followed before, to the exclusion of all else, non-techies generally don’t have that baggage. They can suggest innovative new approaches because they don’t know what’s “impossible.”
- Brainstorming: Many creative roles require experience in both participating in and leading brainstorming sessions. They know how to get people of all kinds to forget their biases regarding what’s impossible, infeasible, or just plain crazy, and let the ideas flow freely in a non-judgmental setting. We all could use some more of that.
- Fresh eyes: Sometimes, what you really need to solve a problem is to bring in someone who knows nothing about it, who can look at it with naïve eyes and a fresh perspective. They can suggest approaches that aren’t at all obvious beforehand but seem inherently so afterward. (Don’t you just hate that?)
- Understanding the end user: Creative types, especially those in marketing, know how to reach the end users and understand and convey what their actual pain points are and what they really need in a solution. Too often, solutions are designed and built without actually speaking with the people who will be using them day in and day out. Such solutions often fail for that reason. But if you have team members who know how to lead focus groups and draw out their feelings and opinions, you can get a more complete picture of the system requirements.
- Eyes on the prize: Creative types have a knack for being able to visualize an end goal and help their teammates work backward from that vision to reverse-engineer a solution.
The Importance of Creative Thinking in Business
Although it’s easy for more technically minded people to dismiss creative types as “a load of useless bloody loonies” (to use Ford Prefect’s term), they do so at their peril. Business consultants (some of whom may have been on Adams’s prehistoric Earth) will tell you that finding effective solutions to business problems requires looking at the problem from multiple perspectives. Doing so avoids the groupthink and tunnel vision that so often impede progress and lead teams down wrong paths. You may not get consensus on any one approach to a problem, but at least you will have viewed it from all angles in determining the best solution.
And hey, if nothing else, they can at least tell you what color it should be.