Take the story of the American scientists and the invention of the “space pen,” for example. The scientists were given the task of designing and creating a pen to deal with the problem of ballpoint pens not being able to write in zero-gravity. They spent considerable time and money developing the idea, which resulted in using nitrogen under pressure, supplying the ink without the need for gravity.
The Russians just used a pencil. Instead of setting out to design a ballpoint pen that was gravity-free, they looked for ways of being able to write upside down.
Whether it’s true or not, this much-told tale illustrates the importance of not backing your idea into a corner early on. Creativity – and ultimately, sensible and appropriate ideas – come out of smartly identifying a problem that needs to be solved and working from there, rather than setting a narrowly defined goal that reads too much into what you want to create.
For instance, when Andrew Weinreich founded SixDegrees.com – the website that was arguably the first social network, preceding Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook – in 1997, his idea, and eventually his objective, was “What if I could share my rolodex with my friends?”*
Note what this objective does not do: It doesn’t determine how the site is structured, it doesn’t determine how it’s coded, it doesn’t even determine that the right solution is a website. What it does do is build the project objective around solving an extremely interesting problem.
Social networks may seem “obvious” now but, at that time, there were any number of ways to “solve” the problem Weinreich identified. The Internet and a “social network model” just happened to be the best solution. And if you think about it, Weinreich couldn’t have defined the objective more narrowly – like say, “Build a social network” – because social networks had not yet been invented!
In developing your own creative ideas, the best place to start is by zeroing in on an objective that finds the right balance. Here’s how to get started:
1. Seek Objectives That Guide But Don’t Define
You’ll want to develop a project objective that guides you in the right direction without defining where you should be at any point in time – and certainly not where you should end up. If your objective is too broad, the possibilities are infinite and there are no rails to bump up against to spark new ideas. If your objective is too focused (like the “space pen” example), there is no room for the exploration that leads to true innovation. An objective that strikes a balance between these two extremes will provide the most utility. It acts as a guide, but isn’t too limited or pre-determined.
2. Think Mission, Not Medium
The greatest businesses solve problems. All too often, we get stuck defining a business by the medium it operates in; you’re a “tech company,” “consultancy,” or “media company.” Instead, we should be mission-centric and medium-agnostic in our work. In the modern day of cloud-servers, open source software, and seamless connection with the masses, it is easier than ever before to pursue your mission using many mediums.
The Behance team has taken this to heart, pursuing the objective to “organize the creative world” via a massive online network, a line of paper products, an annual conference, and even this publication, The 99U. Don’t limit yourself to a particular medium as you pursue your objectives, but stay fiercely loyal to your mission.
3. Be comfortable “working in ambiguity.”
The key to true creative problem solving is the ability to work in ambiguity – to explore the full range of possibilities without jumping to conclusions. The poet John Keats praised Shakespeare for this trait, which he called “negative capability.” As Keats defines it, negative capability “is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In short, we must feel comfortable moving forward without always knowing exactly where we are headed.
What’s Your Take?
How do you set project objectives? Are you comfortable working in ambiguity?