Like any good product person, I have a lot of whiteboards for writing out ideas and brainstorming. That includes a big whiteboard in my office at work. It also includes two whiteboards in my home office — one on the wall and one I can move around as needed. Excessive? Maybe a little. But it comes with the territory.
When I’m not using the extra whiteboard at home, I set it behind the door and let my kids color on it. They enjoy that. I try to convince them to draw out lean canvases of product ideas too, but they’re not there yet. Baby steps.
Often the whiteboard will get filled up with scribbles and artwork and I’ll just leave it for a while because I think the drawing is pretty cute, either intentionally or unintentionally. Like one that my daughter drew on the left below. I’m not entirely sure what it is supposed to be, but she was really feeling her inner artist when she was drawing it and it kind of speaks to me in a cute kid way, but also in a deep, existential way.
So I kept it around for a long time without erasing it.
Likewise, my son loves to build. So Legos or marble mazes or other contraptions of different sorts will often occupy the table in my office. His most recent marble maze is pictured above on the right.
He’s pretty proud of that one, so it, too, has been up for quite some time.
The problem with leaving marble mazes fully constructed or whiteboard pictures un-erased is that there isn’t any room for new pictures to be drawn or new mazes to be constructed. Sure, the ones that are there now are great. But what about the new ideas? We don’t know what great new thing might come into existence if we give it some room! And even clearing some space just for the creativity to happen is critical.
So much to my kids’ dismay, I took down the marble maze and erased the whiteboard. Some tears were shed, it’s true. But now there is room for something new. Which is incredibly exciting.
We often get stuck in the same rut regarding our own creativity, and we rarely even realize it. This is especially true when things are going all right. It’s easy to see when you’re in a rut when things are going poorly, but it’s much more difficult to see you need a change when things are going okay.
Maybe you’ve reached a local maximum. The best you can expect given certain inputs. But is that where you want to settle? What about the global maximum. Why stand on the tallest hill that’s close by when there are much higher points not that far away?
Erasing our Own Whiteboards
I think we’ve all been a similar situation. So what can we do to get our creativity flowing again? How can we stretch beyond what we’re doing now to something much greater? How can we take ourselves, our jobs, our products to new heights?
One of the lowest cost, lowest effort options is to simply broaden your reading list. From books to articles to newsletters. I’d even include podcasts in this category.
Find material that broadens your thinking and challenges you. The key is to read both inside and outside of your field.
In one of my favorite books of the year, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein addresses this at length. The entire book is a deep dive into the importance of getting out of your field to expand your vision (and well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet), but I’ll use the example of Johannes Kepler here to illustrate the point.
Kepler had accepted the Copernican model of planets orbiting the sun, but there was little else to explain motion in the heavens. So he drew on ideas from other areas such as boats in whirlpools, magnets pushing and pulling, optics of lenses, etc. There was no field of astrophysics until Kepler invented it, so he drew on lessons from other fields to guide his thinking.
“In an age when alchemy was still a common approach to natural phenomena, Kepler filled the universe with invisible forces acting all around us, and helped usher in the Scientific Revolution. His fastidious documentation of every meandering path his brain blazed is one of the great records of a mind undergoing creative transformation. It is a truism to say that Kepler thought outside the box. But what he really did, whenever he was stuck, was to think entirely outside his domain.”
I’ve found that reading extensively is one of the best ways to think outside my domain and get exposure to areas that I may not otherwise see. It helps to erase some of barriers I put in place with my professional experience, and allows me to see things through different lenses.
Get out of the Office
Nothing curbs creativity and narrows our vision more than spending all our time in the office. You may not even notice it until you finally pull yourself away from your desk and actually get out.
If you’re a product manager or UX designer, you need to be getting out of the office to meet with customers weekly. If you’re in another role, especially creative roles, you should be getting out of the office weekly as well. Make it a habit. Make it a priority.
Meet people. One great way to get out of the office is to simply go have lunch regularly. I try to schedule lunch with former coworkers or other people I know at other companies at least a few times a month. It’s nice to catch up with old friends and it helps get perspective on things happening outside of your company.
Find mentors. It’s also a great idea to have some mentors. If you don’t already, I suggest putting in some time to find some. And then have a chat with them periodically. I’ve had a group of both formal and informal mentors for some time, and as I’ve taken on more leadership roles I’ve worked to expand this group. It helps to have people you can turn to for advice and insight outside of your company.
Go to conferences and meetups. I love conferences and try to take my teams to at least a few each year. Not only is it a great chance to get out of the office as a team, but you get to hear from industry experts, meet lots of other professionals, and turn your mind to something other than the immediate issues you’re facing in your day-to-day role. And that is such a huge key to being able to bring new thinking to your challenges. Meetups can often be a “mini-conference” where you can listen to a presentation and grab lunch, with some of the same benefits as a longer conference without the same time or financial commitment.
Do things other than work
One of the best things you can do to “clear the whiteboard” and open up your mind is to do something other than work. This includes taking time both during the workday and ensuring that outside of work you have hobbies and interests that allow you to engage your creativity.
Personally, I make it a habit every day to take a walk outside to clear my head and stretch my legs. It gives me a chance to get away from my computer, email, Slack, etc., and just think for a little while. I’m fortunate now to have a nice little pond by my office that I can walk around. For several years these walks have been around parking lots and some neighboring streets since that’s what was available, but that hasn’t deterred me.
Outside of work it’s also incredibly important to have interests and hobbies that engage you. Referring back again to the book Range:
“Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets or writers of both fiction and nonfiction.”
Challenge Assumptions and Processes
It’s easy to put processes in place and then allow them to stay in place for a long time, if not indefinitely. That’s why it’s critical to constantly be challenging our assumptions and processes, both personally and professionally.
I’ve been woodworking for years now. One thing I make and sell is shaving sets, which I’ve linked if you’re interested in seeing more. I finish each item with multiple coats of super glue, which I polish to a nice glossy finish. I created a process early on where I put on a coat, sanded it, polished it, and then repeated the process about 10 times. I did that for a while. Until one day I questioned my process. Could I do it better? Did I need to sand and polish between coats? I experimented and found that I was wasting time and material and should just be putting on 10 coats and then doing my polishing. It sped up my process significantly. But I never would have made that change if I hadn’t challenged my process, which had been working just fine for me for a long time.
How many processes are like this in our organizations? How many times do you hear things like “that is how we’ve always done it” or “this works for us, that other thing wouldn’t work here.”
We should, as a habit, periodically reimagine all of our processes and assumptions from the ground up. If we were to start over, how would we do it now? Over the past several years as I’ve come into several new roles, this is where I’ve always started and it has yielded tremendous, if difficult, results. We won’t always have the luxury to start over, or implement every change, as I know firsthand, but this is the mindset that will help you continually drive innovation for yourself, your team, and your organization.
We build good product development on experimentation. To understand what will work and what isn’t, like scientists, we have to constantly be running experiments. When I was a product manager responsible for specific products, this was a huge part of my role.
In one of my products, we theorized that we could improve the user experience by simplifying the flow and the design of one of our products. So I created some working prototypes and we set out to test that assumption. Unfortunately they didn’t work the way we expected. But we learned some valuable lessons on what might work, which informed the next set of experiments and decisions, just as you’d expect. And eventually we got to a better design and user experience.
We should take the same attitude toward experimentation in our companies and individually. Eric Ries, in his book The Startup Way, talks about taking many of the startup principles he discussed in The Lean Startup and making them part of general business culture.
“Continuous transformation — an organization’s ability to test and learn from experiences related to its own structure and processes, promoting the best proven techniques across the enterprise, limiting or discarding the rest — is what will give this organization the ability to thrive in the modern age.”
It’s this kind of ability to adapt and evolve that allows modern companies to keep pace with competition, especially startups that are doing the same. But it is not an easy thing to do, especially at a company or organizational level. Erasing the whiteboard — reimagining the very things that got us to where we are — can be difficult, if not impossible. But that’s often the difference between companies that thrive (or survive) and those that don’t.
Individually, we can adopt the same mindset. Continuous transformation is the goal, and ongoing experimentation is the key. We have to disrupt ourselves, our routines, our comfort to find what will work and what will bring success.
This is often an easier mindset to have early in life, when we feel like we may have the freedom to explore a bit more and experiment with our talents and things we like. But eventually we lose that mindset and feel that we have to have everything figured out and determined. Which is why continually experimenting individually is critical.
For example, when it comes to fitness, experimenting with different workouts and routines is critical to progress. If you’ve trained or exercised, you’re likely familiar with “the plateau” — the time when you no longer see progress. It’s easy to hit a plateau by sticking with a familiar routine because you’re constantly working out the same muscles. Your body adapts and you no longer need to get stronger to do that particular exercise. That’s why you need variation. Often it may take some experimenting to find what will work best, but breaking out of the routine is key.
This is the same idea for cognitive and professional pursuits. We’ve got to break out of the routine, experiment with the new, and break past the plateau.
Make a Big Switch
Ultimately, erasing the whiteboard is the goal so we can unleash our creativity. And that may mean we need to make a big switch.
In one of my favorite books about creativity, Creativity Inc., there are numerous stories about creativity (obviously) and unleashing creative potential. One story about Finding Nemo is particularly relevant.
In the creation of Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton pitched the entire story which everyone loved initially. The movie would have a series of flashbacks from Nemo’s father, weaving the story of Nemo and his father. But when the storyboards were put together, it was confusing. The braintrust at Pixar lobbied for the story to be more linear, and when Andrew did that, making a big switch to the movie, it became not only much clearer, but Marlin (Nemo’s father) became a much more sympathetic and likable character.
Sometimes we have to make a big switch, tossing out a big portion of our ideas to get to something much better, like the case with Finding Nemo and almost every other Pixar movie.
Years ago I witnessed the benefits of a big switch in my family. My dad had been working the same job for a long time. He was very good at it, and it had become comfortable and familiar. He liked the fact that it was comfortable and familiar, so it took some prodding for him to make a change, but I remember as he moved into a new role there was a massive shift. He was much happier at work, and it made him happier everywhere. It brought a renewed engagement that comes with a new role, and a new excitement. It cleared the whiteboard of everything he had been doing and started things anew.
Sometimes it takes a big shift to get things started again. I’d argue that it’s even necessary to plan on big shifts periodically. In your career, you’ll be best served by reimagining your role periodically, whether that means moving to a new job or simply changing positions or taking on massive new projects or responsibilities. But even within our roles, we can make these big shifts as we challenge the processes we have in place, experiment with what works and learn about new and better ways of doing things.
One of the best ways to foster creativity is to start with a blank slate — erase the whiteboard and start fresh.
This can be a hard thing to do. At our companies, we often face a myriad of entrenched processes that have often served us well. Individually, we may be in a similar situation. What we’ve done so far has worked well. Why should we abandon it now?
But often the best thing for a system, whether an office or ourselves, is to inject a little randomness, cut things down to their core, and start to reimagine. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.