Which is more important: questions or answers?
Being a good systems thinker, I used to think the answer was obvious: answers are more important than questions. You’re given a problem, you pull it apart into its subsystems, you analyze them, and you develop solutions.
But what if you’re analyzing the wrong problem?
I thought about this yesterday when I read a profile of Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect who just won the Pritzker Prize. Aravena and his colleagues – as you might imagine – develop some very creative ideas. They do so by focusing on questions rather than answers. (Aravena’s building at the Universidad Católica de Chile is pictured).
In 2010, for instance, Aravena’s firm, Elemental, was selected to help rebuild the city of Constitución after it was hit by an earthquake and tsunami. I would have thought that they would focus on the built environment – buildings, infrastructure, and so on. They’re architects, after all. Isn’t that what architects do?
But Aravena explains it differently:
“We asked the community to identify not the answer, but what was the question,” Mr. Aravena said. This, it turned out, was how to manage rainfall, so the firm designed a forest that could help prevent flooding.
Architects, then, designed a forest instead of a building. If they were thinking about answers rather than questions, they might have missed this altogether.
On a smaller scale, I had a similar experience early in my career when I worked for Solbourne Computer. We build very fast computers – in 1988, Electronics magazine named our high-end machine the computer of the year. Naturally, we positioned our messages around speed, advanced technology, and throughput.
But our early customers were actually buying something else. When we interviewed our first dozen customers, we found that they were all men, in their early thirties, and that they had recently been promoted to replace an executive who had been in place for many years. They bought our computers to mark the changeover from the old regime to the new regime. They were meeting a sociological need as much as a technical need.
When you go to a gas station to fill your car’s tank, you may imagine that you’re buying gasoline. But, as the marketing guru Ted Levitt pointed out long ago, you’re really buying the right to continue driving your car. It’s a different question and a broader perspective and may well lead you to more creative ways to continue driving.
More recently, another marketing guru, Daniel Pink, wrote that products and services “… are far more valuable when your prospect is mistaken, confused or completely clueless about their true problem.” So often our market research focuses on simple questions about obvious problems. The classic question is, “What keeps you up at night?” We identify an obvious problem and then propose a solution. Meanwhile, our competitors are identifying the same problem and proposing their solutions. We’re locked into the same problem space.
But if we step back, look around, dig a little deeper, observe more creatively, and ask non-obvious questions, we may find that the customer actually needs something completely different. Different than what they imagined – or we imagined or our competitors imagined. They may, in fact, need a forest not a building.
Suellen and I love to go to art museums. I like to look at the art. I also like to observe people looking at the art. Here’s a basic truth: nobody smiles while looking at art in art museums. Ever. It’s just not done.
Why would that be? Is art really so serious that we can’t smile at it or about it? Is it acceptable for an artist to give us a nudge and a wink and let us in on a good joke? Some very serious literature can also make us laugh out loud. Couldn’t visual art do the same?
I’ve been worried about this for some time now. Here are my best guesses as to why we behave the way we do.
Art is hierarchical – artists profess to know something – or see something – that’s worth knowing. Further, artists profess to know something that the rest of us don’t. They present their ideas to us in museums. Since they know more than we do – in at least one domain – we look up to them. We show our respect with a serious demeanor.
Art museums are the new cathedrals – in centuries past, architects designed cathedrals to project power, wealth, and ineffable spiritual connections. Today, art museums serve the same function. Great architects used to design cathedrals; today they design art museums. You wouldn’t smile in a cathedral, would you?
Social imitation – we see that other people in art museums look very serious, so we assume that we should be serious, too. They see us being serious, so they assume they should be serious, too. With this in mind, I smiled continuously for 15 minutes in a very crowded Whitney museum. I got a few nervous glances but didn’t really have much impact. Perhaps we should organize smiling flash mobs to visit art museums. That might cheer things up a bit.
Museum mind – I enter a museum with a great deal of curiosity. I want to see things and learn things. Then, within a few minutes of entering, I see something that knocks my socks off. It captures my imagination and hangs on. My mind is preoccupied with the amazing thing I just saw. My eyes are seeing but my mind is not. With no new stimulus, my face goes blank. It’s not that I’m serious. I’m stunned.
We don’t get it – maybe we just don’t understand what we’re looking at. We keep looking for meaning when meaning is beside the point. We’re confused. And confused people don’t smile.
I enjoy going to art museums. I enjoy the art and the people watching. But I wish we wouldn’t be quite so serious about it all. It feels like going to church. I’d rather have it feel like fun. What about you?
I hate to admit it, but I may have spent my years in the software business looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I worked for sophisticated technology companies. Quite often, the fundamental question that animated us was, “What more can we do with all this great technology?”
As today’s technology companies (even IBM) are discovering, good design starts at the opposite end of the telescope: with user needs. Indeed, we may even need to discover user needs that users aren’t aware of. The trend is generally lumped under the terms, design thinking or design-oriented culture.
So how does one create a design-oriented culture? Here are some thoughts I’ve culled from recent readings.
It’s about the experience – the central question is simple: what do customers really need? Too often however, we add a limiting clause to the question: what do customers really need from us? Rather than focusing on the complete user experience, we ask a more self-centered question: How can we get customers to want more of what we have to offer?
Design thinking broadens the frame. Rather than thinking only about what we have to offer, we might think about how users acquire the product, how they learn to use it, and what ancillary products they might need to make the product useful.
McKinsey offers up two examples: 1) HP doesn’t just wait for you to order new ink cartridges. They monitor your use and send you cartridges before you even know you need them. 2) John Deere doesn’t just sell tractors anymore. They also offer,”… digital services such as crop advisories, weather alerts, planting prescriptions, and seeding-population advice.”
It’s about making sense – Jon Kolko in Harvard Business Review, argues that technologies and systems (think of our healthcare system) are so complicated today that people just can’t make sense of them. Good designs should address this. I find, for instance, that Turbo Tax addresses a complex issue and, in Kolko’s terminology, makes it “simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.” In other words, it’s well designed. Imagine if we could make buying health insurance equally simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.
It’s about prototypes – I remember introducing new products with a “big reveal”. We developed the products in secret. We couldn’t talk to customers about them – that would be selling futures. We built some buzz and, when everything was ready, we popped the new product out of the box. Sometimes the big reveal worked great. Sometimes not.
Kolko argues that design-cultures are much more interested in prototyping their ideas all along the development path. Kolko writes that, “The habit of publicly displaying rough prototypes hints at an open-minded culture, one that values exploration and experimentation over rule following.”
It’s about emotions – software seems like the ultimately rational product. Buying software should be rational as well – the product with the most features should always win.
Alas, it’s just not true. Indeed, the software industry has much more in common with the fashion industry than one might imagine. It’s not just what the software does. It’s how it makes you feel as it’s doing it. If it does the job but makes you feel stupid, it’s not well designed.
(As an aside, I think this is why the Lars Lawson cartoon character worked well for Lawson Software. Lars touched on our emotions – something quite unusual for B2B software).
It’s about thinking – as Lawton Ursrey notes in Forbes: “Design thinking combines creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained.”
At the simplest level, design thinking means doing an about-face. Rather than facing inward, we turn around and face outward. We send our employees outside and bring our customers inside. It’s about attitude more than anything else. Unfortunately, attitudes are very hard to redesign.
Is it possible to measure a country’s creativity? If so, how does creativity relate to other national characteristics like prosperity, sustainable growth, and happiness?
And, is it time to think less about creative companies and more about creative cities? Perhaps instead of giving tax breaks to attract companies, creative cities should charge a fee to companies that want to capitalize on their creative citizens. But then, how do you create a creative city?
Creativity is joining the traditional trio of land, labor, and capital as one of the key drivers of productivity and growth. In the traditional industrial world, we could use standard measures of land, labor, and capital to identify competitive advantages and disadvantages. But what about creativity? How do we measure countries (and cities) on their creative potential? And how do we develop a competitive advantage in creativity?
These are some of the basic questions the 2015 edition of the Global Creativity Index (GCI). The Martin Prosperity Institute* (MPI) created the index and first published it in 2004, with an expanded version arriving in 2011. (Click here). This year’s index, published over the summer, is the most comprehensive yet.
Can you really measure a country’s or a city’s creativity? MPI argues that there are three elements of creativity and that we already have multiple indexes for each of them. Conveniently, each element begins with a T.
Technology – countries that produce innovative technologies are probably more creative than those that don’t. The GCI uses existing indexes of R&D investment and patent activity to measure the Technology component of creativity.
Talent — the war for talent is certainly raging in creative circles. Old school companies – like Accenture – are buying up design firms – like Fjord – to focus their creative talents on business issues. But how do you measure the creative talent in a country? The GCI uses educational and occupational indexes to identify the creative class.
Tolerance – we know that diversity counts in innovation. Getting different people with different ideas to “collide” is a fundamental innovation strategy. Diversity requires tolerance of other people and of ideas that were not invented here. How to measure tolerance? The GCI uses two proxies: “openness to ethnic and religious minorities and openness to gay and lesbian people”.
MPI researchers create an index for each of the three Ts and then roll them altogether to create one Global Creativity Index. In this year’s ranking, Australia comes in first – it’s the most creative country in the world. Following Australia (in order) are the USA, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Singapore, the Netherlands.
Does this list sound familiar? It’s quite similar to the list of the happiest countries in the world. (Click here and here). The Nordic countries dominate the happiness rankings. Similarly, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Netherlands are always near the top of happiness indexes.
So, does happiness cause creativity or vice-versa? Are we just measuring the same thing in different ways? Let’s talk about it more in upcoming articles. In the meantime, I hope that you’re both happy and creative.
*MPI is headed by Roger Martin and located at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Long-time readers of this website will remember that I’ve written about both Martin and Rotman several times. Martin encouraged Rotman to adopt design thinking as a core element of the curriculum. I’ve also referenced Martin’s efforts to bring critical thinking to business schools. He also advised A.G. Lafley of P&G on strategy. Interesting thinker; interesting school.
Long-time readers of this column know that I’m an advocate of mashup thinking. You take an idea from Column A and an idea from Column B and mash them together. So, for instance, X-rays (Column A) when mashed up with computerized image processing (Column B), yield an important new product called CT scanners.
A good way to brainstorm is simply to mash up ideas from different categories. You’re not thinking out of the box. Rather you’re thinking out of multiple boxes. What would you get if you mashed up, say paper with pasta? Would it be edible paper? Or maybe pasta that you could print messages on? Would it be useful? Maybe. Maybe not. What’s useful is the process of getting there.
So, I was delighted to see that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Denver has started a program called Mixed Taste. MCA describes the program as Tag Team Lectures On Unrelated Topics. The idea is simple – they choose two topics (seemingly out of thin air) that are completely unrelated. Then they get speakers to speak on each topic. They rent an auditorium, get a band, invite the public, and have at it.
Last night, the topics were rabies and burglary. I thought of these as two completely unrelated topics but, when you mash them up, you get some surprises. And that’s the point.
At the event, Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik spoke first. They’re good Brooklynites and also the authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Here are some things you might not know about rabies.
Geoff Manaugh, an architect who created the popular BLDG|BLOG, spoke next. Manaugh also has a book that will launch next spring called, A Burglar’s Guide To The City. Manaugh pointed out that architects are enablers of burglars. Burglars couldn’t operate without built environments. Architects may think they’re building useful or inspiring structures but they’re also creating a playground for burglars. A good burglar can identify patterns in buildings and use them to locate vulnerabilities. Burglars are often avid students of architectural codes.
So what’s the similarity here? The one I took away is this: Burglars are to buildings as rabies is to humans. Here are some similarities:
I never would have thought of these similarities if MCA hadn’t mashed them up for me. I found it fascinating. But is any of it practical or useful? I’m not sure … but perhaps we can adapt the techniques we use to control viruses to also control burglars (or vice-versa). But even if that’s not the outcome, we’re practicing the art of mashups — an intriguing thinking process that can produce surprising insights and innovations. For that, I thank the MCA.
(By the way, Monica Murphy, Bill Wasik, and Geoff Manaugh are all very good speakers and I recommend them highly to you).