“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” – John Cleese
As a lifelong software engineer and startup junkie, I don’t think I’ve maximized the creative process in my work. In fact, I’ve worked hard to squash it. Worse, I think there is a taboo against “creatives,” or at the very least a mystique around them.
Engineers and entrepreneurs strive to be data-driven, customer-focused, problem-validators. Being data-driven is great, but how do you generate ideas and innovate reliably? How do you execute when you’re forging new ground – sailing into a “blue ocean” with little or conflicting feedback from your customers or boss? How do you measure your creative productivity?
While staying at home during the pandemic, a real lifesaver for me has been taking a music production class (if you’re into electronic music, check out the great free podcast). The class teaches the creative process as well as the technical fundamentals of making electronic music. It’s had a surprising effect on the rest of my life. Just ask my co-workers, I won’t shut up about it.
Here’s a paraphrased version of the Finish More Music creative process:
- Study tracks for the genre you’re trying to create, and collect a “sound palette” of samples and instruments.
- Analyze a reference track for its arrangement.
- Generate “themes” – musical and rhythmic variations with different instruments.
- Come back later and pick the best themes.
- Arrange your track by following the “ghost arrangement” you made in step 2.
- Limit the number of instruments playing in each octave, keep low frequencies centered, with higher frequencies panned or wide, and do a basic pink-noise mixdown.
- Finish the track to 70% of your best capability.
- Get feedback, and repeat the process with the next track.
There’s no magic lightning bolt here — except there is, it’s the overall process. For me, the 70% rule was the insight that unlocked tons of productivity. I was already a fan of the “cult of done manifesto,” and 70% adds a very useful definition of when a track is “good enough.”
“Anyone that thinks that I’m an overnight success just doesn’t know about the hard yards that I’ve already put in.” – Tones
The commonly-blogged definition of the creative process includes these steps: Inspiration, Incubation, Insight, Evaluation, and Elaboration. Let’s explore how those steps and FMM process, can be applied to engineering and startups.
Creating something new is really a synthesis of things you’ve seen before. To become a better creative, collect inspiration for your work, and identify gaps in your skills. This process of observation can be quite active – you might need to dissect other’s output to understand “why it works.”
|How do you execute when you’re forging new ground? Study similar ideas for inspiration.
As a musician, I’m constantly building playlists of music I like. Tones’ made a living busking until she built a visceral understanding of “what works.” As an engineer, I love assessing competing technologies for how they solved a relevant problem. Great product managers will collect UXs (“I like the way Slack did their signup flow”), try out competitors, try emerging new tools. Entrepreneurs will read customer service tickets and scour niche forums for pain points.
At PSL, we’re continually talking to entrepreneurs, learning what worked. Ben Gilbert’s Acquired podcast is a great example of studying business models for inspiration.
It may take some time for an idea to emerge (or an opportunity to apply your creative insight). Creatives advise attacking unrelated problems or menial activities so your subconscious can work. Einstein called this “combinatory play,” the act of “opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.”
Electronic musicians use randomness a lot. They mess with the length of a loop or add weird effects and resample sounds, with different tempos and instruments, use random sequencers to generate ideas. At the startup studio, customer interviews are great for unveiling new ideas. You may talk to someone attempting to validate one idea, and discover they have a different problem entirely.
You can synthesize ideas by combining patterns and themes (“What is the Airbnb equivalent for the warehousing industry?). Or, generate permutations of landing pages and ad copy in order to test ideas.
|How do you innovate reliably? Keep generating ideas, then pick the winners.
To the untrained eye, the “eureka” moment appears to be some magic spark – the unquantifiable superpower of a creative person. In reality, it’s the combination of raw materials, a ton of groundwork, a trained brain receptor, and luck.
Creative insight may simply be recognizing something that looks like other known good things amongst a pile of ideas. Often the moment of insight is simply your subconscious doing its pattern recognition thing while you’re consciously working on something unrelated (or in the shower).
A music producer will listen back to song sketches in different contexts (in the car, at the gym). It’s a visceral feeling when a groove or hook works. Thanks to tools like the lean canvas, evaluating startups is a bit more quantitative. A good idea is one that checks a lot of the boxes: Clear go to market, large addressable market, defensibility, etc.
Ultimately, it’s external validation that tells you you’re going in the right direction.
|How do you execute when you’re forging new ground? If you’ve collected the relevant source materials, and been through the process a few times, your sense of “what works” is probably good.
You don’t have to sing on the street corner like Tones did, but find micro ways to validate that other people like your ideas. For example, musicians post snippets of their songs to Instagram to see what people react to.
In the startup studio, we ask: “can you find customers that want this?” Are they clicking on ads or searching for phrases that demonstrate they’d buy our solution? Does the pitch resonate with potential founders and investors? Did it get a good reaction in a pitch session?
Elaboration (and Iteration)
This is where you actually do the work to carry out the idea. Within this process, there are multiple opportunities to apply mini creative loops in order to accomplish the goal. This stage can be described as “get it done without screwing it up” (preserve the simplicity and elegance that made the original idea work).
For the music producer: create variations from verse to verse so that it doesn’t become mundane. Arrange, mix, and get feedback. In the startup studio, it sometimes feels like a great idea becomes worse the more you know about it (as you discover competitors, regulation, etc.). In both cases, the goal is the same – get the core of the idea in front of customers as soon as possible to get feedback and iterate.
“Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone.” – Ed Catmul (Pixar)
|How do you measure your creative productivity? It’s a funnel.
The creative process is more of a search problem than an invention problem. The creative process entails doing things until you discover what works. You don’t wait until inspiration hits to write a song, you write songs until you discover a hit.
Another way to think of it as a funnel. Whether it’s song or startup ideas at the top, we collect a bunch at the top, and try to identify the good ones. 10 ideas lead to 5 to validate, and 1 to ship.
Bob Gross says the single biggest reason startups succeed is timing. Venture capitalists seek to have 1 in 20 of their investments outperform and pay for the others. In other words, you can’t control what becomes a hit.
To make this sustainable, you have to find intrinsic motivation. Pushing yourself to try new things is the only way to discover new frontiers for both your business, your art, and yourself – so find elements of the process you love and get into it.
A final note on taking risks and people. Failure is expected (because we’re pushing the boundaries), so is continuous growth. That’s why this is a repeatable process, not a recipe for generating one idea.
“Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.” – Ed Catmull (Pixar)
I think we’d write better code, make better startups, and be happier humans if we acknowledged that what we’re doing is a creative enterprise – a creative process. Like any process, the creative process can be optimized to improve your work and your results.
Related: Opportunities for AI in music production.