The Risk of Creative Misalignment

The creative process involves some highly delicate group dynamics.

The objectives of each stage of the process are very different, and because this requires different approaches at each different stage, misalignment in how people perceive the process and in how they behave can cause disruption.

Usually, this disruption occurs as a result of a misalignment or asymmetry in roles, behaviors or contributions during the process. However, these are mainly triggers but not necessarily causes.

This misalignment is actually a very common problem in nearly all creative work – a misalignment between intents and attitudes, which can often cause conflicts. Some people are in ideation mode whereas other people are in resolution or critique mode, etc.

Since this is a very common part of my day job, and since I have also actually lectured at various design schools on creativity, as well as written a book on the creative process, I wanted to share my perspective on these possible creative misalignments.

First, let me dig into the parameters of the creative process:

Basically, the creative process is one of repeat contractions and expansions through different stages. The process is convergent and divergent at different times, and trying to be divergent while others are trying to be convergent (and vice versa) is what causes most creative disagreements. At times, there is a need for decisiveness and clarity, then sometimes there’s a need to allow for ambiguity and an open mind, and finally, there is sometimes a need for constructive refinement, which is where special considerations for tact and tone need to be made, since efforts and emotional investments are at stake.

I tend to consistently split the creative process into three stages: Strategy, Tactics and Execution.

The Strategy phase is where the work is convergent and participants try to define the “Why“, meaning, what is the actual purpose of the work. This often requires an emphasis on analysis and clarity in terms of objectives. You can’t really have multiple purposes for creative work (or at least you shouldn’t), and the required clarity here CAN turn argumentative, since the “Why” is often a loaded, weighty question. If there is argumentation here, it probably needs to happen in order to sort through all the parameters of the work, and determine which ones are important. Applying a divergent mindset at this stage can be challenging for many people, since it lacks the requisite focus, and most people tend to find that frustrating.

EXAMPLE: In putting together or evaluating a creative brief, you often need to probe quite deeply into the purpose for the project, and the intended outcomes. We can’t really expect everyone to have the exact same thoughts on this, so it is important to iron out all the kinks and let this debate play out. The benefit of a more thorough vetting of the “why” is that you will hopefully have a lot more alignment on the objectives going forward.

Then there is the Tactics phase, where focus is on discovery and finding options ā€“ the “What” stage of the creative work, meaning, What it is that actually solves for the “Why“. This is where ideation happens, and that always benefits from suspended judgment, since ideation is by nature ambiguous and divergent. Applying a convergent mindset at this stage means people may feel that their ideas are being overlooked or dismissed, so it is important to catalogue all ideas and reserve judgment for later. At the same time, this is a process that has its distinct, specific purpose, and applying this divergent mindset can be destructive at other parts of the process.

EXAMPLE: When considering different possibilities for creative solutions, these may take many different forms, and may initially not be very relevant, as ideas tend to deepen and get progressively more useful the further into the process one gets. For that reason, it is vital to get all ideas on the table, in order to build relevance and probe more deeply into the subject matter. Usually, it is easier to gauge the usefulness of individual ideas only when one has exhausted most of the possible avenues. The best mindset at this stage, in my experience, is to strive to catalogue all ideas, and sort them into categories. A single early idea may not be perfect in its initial form, but it may well trigger other, better ideas within the same category at a later stage.

Finally, there is the Execution part of the process. The objective here is to choose and refine ONE chosen solution, threading it through the needle of the “Why” (i.e. the purpose), arriving at mechanics that help define the “How” – i.e., how to execute and finalize the idea. At this point, effort has likely already been invested in order to build the chosen solution, and while that needs to be reviewed and evaluated (constructively, positively and encouragingly), it is also highly likely to cause tension if participants revisit any of the previous stages, as this will cause rework, and also means that the solution was not based on the right parameters from the beginning (hence, causing wasted effort). Quite often, this causes exasperation, especially with the person managing the execution, as there can be a feeling of added, previously unknown (and often subjective) parameters being applied after the fact.

EXAMPLE: When presented with a proposed solution, consider that you are now not at the initial stages of the process – the solution that is being reviewed is a product of decisions and conclusions made at earlier stages, and a selection of one specific option among many. For that reason, it is best to focus on refining what you see, and present these suggested refinements as improvements, as opposed to rework.

Now, as I mentioned above, I believe we can trace most of potential creative disagreements to situations where we team members have been at misaligned stages of the process mentally, and the comments are therefore difficult to reconcile with everyone’s individual mindset. This may cause frustration or, at worst, a feeling of work being dismissed, or a role being under threat.

For this reason, the creative process needs to be shepherded carefully through the stages, and efforts should be made to frame discussions appropriately, in order to establish greater clarity around what the objective is at each stage.

In summary:

Strategy – Means argumentation is allowed and may in fact be necessary, as important considerations should not be left unaddressed.

Tactics – Means argumentation can be destructive, and an open mind is necessary, in order to consider all possibilities and encourage all team members to bring out their ideas, without fear of being judged.

Execution – Means argumentation may be inevitable, in determining what works and what doesn’t, but it’s important to respect the effort that has already been made, and ideally try to build on it as opposed to want to throw it out. (I am personally fundamentally against throwing out creative work – even if it didn’t fit the current objective perfectly, there may always be another purpose for that work).

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