I was recently chatting with Rangika Ekanayake, Sr. Manager of Software Engineering at IFS, and loved her insights around creativity. While she’s looking at creativity primarily through the lens of how to impact and improve UX in design, the principles she shares are applicable for anyone and any industry in need of thinking about how to further nurture creativity in an effort to innovate and maintain competitive edge.
In the world of service, we see an opportunity to grow revenue by offering a unique and differentiated experience or outcome to customers. The inception of that value proposition, however, requires a level of creativity that doesn’t always come naturally to every leader and every organization. The good news, according to Rangika, is that you have every opportunity – as individuals and as companies – to cultivate more creativity to fuel innovation.
Rangika is a self-inspired UX enthusiast with a deep passion for UX Research and UX Design and an enthusiasm for inspiring and helping others. She started her career at IFS 15 years ago as a Software Engineer and today is a Senior Manager of Software Engineering where she works with the R&D Projects leadership team to support continual improvement of software delivery within Projects and alongside contributing to the UX team in UX research. She has spoken on several SLASSCOM (Sri Lanka Association for Software Services Companies) webinars on the subject of UX Design and UX Research and has created a non-profit website, Journey2UX.com, to act as a repository of resources for industry newcomers. Here, Rangika shares her thoughts on how best to foster creativity.
Sarah: I think there can be an assumption that you’re either born “a creative” or not. Do you feel someone can be “born” creative? For those that aren’t, can creativity be learned?
Rangika: To quote Pablo Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Most people believe creativity is a trait an individual is born with – either they have it or they don’t. But I consider this a myth. I’m a strong believer that creativity is an attribute everyone has within themselves when they are born. But, because of socialization and formal education, some of us lose this creative impulse on our journey to adulthood.
For example, if we give set of blocks to group of children and ask them to build something, everyone will grab few pieces and they will start creating imaginary buildings, animals, etc. While at the task, how about we stop them and start to teach them to build a certain item in a specific way? Then there will be some who start doing it the way they were taught, and some will still prefer to do it in a way they imagined. Then, what if we punish some of them for doing it differently or if we tell them what they created is wrong or useless? Of course, some of them might stop what they are doing altogether or will start to build it in the exact way that we taught them, because of the fear of either getting judged, being wrong, or looking stupid. Then, consider the situation if we continue to do this for years and years. Day by day, some of these kids will lose their courage to become creative and some will still continue to carry it. When they become adults, society will categorize the people who still have the creative impulse as creative and others as noncreative.
But, can we boost up the creativity within these people who consider themselves as noncreative? Of course, we can. Because it is still within them, and we only have to retune their creative muscle. This is what’s referred to as helping them rediscover their creative confidence.
Sarah: How would you define “creative confidence?”
Rangika: “Creative confidence is believing in your ability to create change in the world around you. This self-assurance lies at the heart of innovation.” according to brothers Tom and David Kelley in their book, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within us all.
Creative confidence is an individual’s belief that he/she is creative. When we were kids, we were often bold, inspired and acted daringly. Those days we were imaginative, curious, and endlessly creative, and we possessed endless capacity for innovation. So, in other words, creative confidence is our own self-assurance that we can regain that kid.
Sarah: As an individual, how can leaders foster their own personal creativity?
Rangika: According to Tom and David Kelley of IDEO, any individual can restore their creativity or creative confidence by overcoming their fear of failure, taking frequent doses of inspiration, and by stopping procrastination and starting “doing.”
- Instead of fearing failure, start to learn from it. In schools, we were mostly being taught to avoid making mistakes and it is the same story in most workplaces. Therefore, we often avoid it at all cost. But as it turns out, failure can be one of our greatest teachers. Thomas Edison once said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” So, we need to flip our mind to learn from failures rather been afraid of it.
- Take frequent doses of inspiration to life. As our schedules get busy and responsibilities increase, it is hard to find time for inspiration. But inspiration is the fuel for creativity. So, how do we get fueled up? Be curious. Try to look beyond the obvious. Try to schedule daily space in your calendar to think, take a walk, or daydream. Keep some form of idea notebook to capture things that cross your radar. Practice empathy. Also, one of the best ways to get inspired is to step out of the context — look at something you might never expect to be helpful or relevant to the task at hand.
- Stop overplanning and just start. Even though we have a creative idea, acting on it can be daunting. Therefore, to minimize the risk impact, adults spend lot of time on strategy and planning. But there are times where the best you can do is just get out there and take action — stop focusing on the huge, overall task and find a small piece you can tackle right away. Because creativity and creative problem solving is rooted in action. Studies show that teams who test five or more ideas at the same time are 50% more likely to launch successful solutions than those who explore a single solution.
Sarah: What’s your best advice for making time for creative thinking when facing many day-to-day pressures?
Rangika: As said earlier, try to schedule daily space in your calendar to think, take a walk, or daydream. It does not have to be a long duration – 15 minutes would do. No matter how packed your schedule might be, if you are willing to find some time, there will be a way. You can utilize the time you travel, shower, etc. But, the most important thing is to practice it consistently. Because creativity is also like a muscle; the more you practice, the more it is strengthened.
Also, it is important you keep some form of idea notebook to capture things that come to mind. Do not just let them drain away. In addition, when you try to generate ideas, focus on the quantity – shoot for 100 instead of 10. Aim for as many new ideas as possible. The greater the number of ideas you generate, the bigger your chances of producing a radical and effective one. On the other hand, it allows us to let our minds wonder without restriction and that’s how most of the best ideas are generated.
Sarah: From a company perspective, what’s key to creating a creative culture?
Rangika: If a certain company wishes to create a creative culture in their workplace, it is of utmost importance that they make sure to build a fail-safe environment for their employees. Because no matter how hard we request employees to be creative, if they don’t have an environment in the workplace where they can try out their ideas without the fear of being judged, evaluated or punished based on the result, employees will not bring forward their original ideas freely.
At “X – the moonshot factory,” they live a simple mantra: “Fail fast, fail often.” Terrible ideas and failure are not only embraced, but celebrated. In his TED Talk on “The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure”, Astro Teller, director of X, says, “We spend most of the time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it. That’s the secret.”
In addition to creating a fail-safe environment, another aspect that companies need to focus on is encouraging inspiration and innovation. Because if we expect the employees to be creative, then we need to provide the space and time to be inspired and innovate. If their work schedules are tightly packed with other work items, even though they want to be creative and innovative, they won’t have the breathing space to do that. So, if a company desires its employees to become inspired and innovate, then they must empower their teams to be inspired; let them find ways to understand the users of their product, system, or service; and allocate some time to be creative.
Sarah: What are some tactical ways leaders can encourage their teams to build their own creative confidence?
Rangika: Most importantly leaders need to start, by believing everybody can be creative and by accepting failure as a natural part of the creative process. Just as the leaders encourage teams to be creative, they need to encourage the teams when ideas fail. Also, acknowledging a team’s hard work while reminding failure happens to everyone and motivating them to learn from failure rather than shying away from it will create a great impact on building creative confidence within the team.
In addition, consider introducing initiatives that encourage inspiration and innovation within team members – e.g. Innovation day, encouraging frequent field visits to get to know users better. Also, “Worst idea brainstorm” is a great method to help teams to overcome their fear of failure and to open up the imagination and help them get in touch with creativity. Additionally, an “Idea Diamond” is another method which encourages the teams to generate innovative ideas. Another tactic is starting off the discussions from the newest member in the forum. This not only opens up a fresh perspective, but also will make sure that these ideas won’t get shadowed by the perspectives of experienced members. Similarly, from time to time, disrupting the routine, such as changing the environment or team setup, can help teams to think and act differently. Finally, encouraging the teams to simply start rather than overplanning is a key factor.
Sarah: What final thoughts can you share?
Rangika: Creativity is not only for artists, designers, and musicians. It is not a fixed trait gifted only to specific people, and it is not only for kids. Creativity is essential for every individual, not only in their career, but also in their personal lives. Bill Moggridge, IDEO cofounder, strongly believed that most people are vastly more creative and capable than they know, and I believe the same. So, it is all about boosting up the creativity confidence within these people. But creative confidence cannot achieve only by reading, thinking, or talking about it. Rather, confidence in your creativity gets strengthen through action and practicing it often. So, try harder, give frequent space for your mind to roam free, start learning from your failures, get inspired, and simply just take action. The rewards and the individuality you will gain are well worth the effort.
If you’re interested in taking a deeper look, here are some references that Rangika suggests: