The Problem with Creative Insecurity

Brothers Tom and David Kelley, are no strangers to creativity - they are the minds behind the design firm IDEO known for designing the first Apple mouse and an early laptop computer. David also founded the d.school Institute of Design at Stanford while Tom Kelley wrote the popular book “The Art of Innovation,” in 2001.

Recently, the two have published a new book called “Creative Confidence” about how early failures and setbacks can lead creative people to shut down their best ideas. The book illustrates examples of how people gained the creative confidence you might see on a kindergarten playground, using the “design thinking” methodologies the brothers’ firm popularized. Their book also discusses the idea that in our personal lives, or in business, there is a problem of creative insecurity. According to David, most of our cultures in corporate America are not set up to reward failure in the same way we reward success.

“We’ve been so excited to find both at IDEO and the d. school at Stanford that it turns out people are all kind of wildly creative. I know it sounds like Pollyanna, but we’ve really found that to be true,” he recently told The New York Times in an interview. “The real issue is: what’s blocking them?”

He thinks that fear of failure is what’s really going on. People don’t have the confidence to push their ideas because they’re fearful someone will shut them down and they’ll be known as “the person who came up with that bad idea.”

“There’s this kind of misguided view that if you’re creative this stuff is effortless,” explained Tom. “ It’s just not true! Even Mozart didn’t sit down at the piano on the first day. People do need a little help. They sometimes need tools or methodologies.”

In the technology world that pressure is even more persistent. “The pace of the industry is truly innovate or die. If you have a vintage wine business, there’s still innovation there, in the way you market and tell your stories, but it’s not a survival skill. If you can’t be creative in the tech world, you better take your bat and ball and go home,” said David.

So, you want to get more creative right now on a certain project? The brothers say jump right in, get involved, go meet all the stakeholders, and go talk to users.

Planning is good, but not in the beginning, according to Tom and David. Planning is good after you know what you’re doing, after you’ve had insights. And if you’re at a big company and it’s hard to get started because there’s just so much resistance to what you’re doing, we really believe in telling everyone, “it’s an experiment,” so it’s not so precious and you can do it in kind of a quick and dirty way.

The best way to inject a more creative vibe into the room, said Tom, is get out of the room. As long as you are in the room, all you have available to you are a subset of ideas already in the brains of the people who are there.

“What we find is consistent with creatively confident people is they start with the idea that they don’t have all the answers. They go out and observe human behavior around them, on whatever problem they’re working on, and use that. People out there are misbehaving. People out there are acting differently than you imagine. In the difference between your worldview and the actual ground truth there is sometimes an idea or opportunity.”

Both Tom and David commented on the fact that they are wearing large hats in the author photo of their book.  David says that will find people that are confident, for any reason, and they’re liable to dress in way that is more expressive, and not worry so much about what other people are going to think.

Tom added, “Creative confidence is really two things combined. It’s the natural ability to come up with breakthrough ideas, combined with the courage to act on them."


About the Author: Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist of the Marketing Division at IIR USA, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR’s blogs including Next Big DesignCustomers 1st, and ProjectWorld and World Congress for Business Analysts, and a regular contributor to Front End of Innovation and The Market Research Event,. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She can be reached at aciccatelli@iirusa.com. Follow her at @AmandaCicc. 

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