The Paradox of Process

People mistake process as the holy grail in many difficult and challenging situations. Lots of stuff to sell? Process! Lots of people to organize? Process! Lots of work to get done? Process!

No amount of process can substitute or facilitate the thing I love best about the work I do — that’s the magical part, the “creative” part.

Creativity is a combination of gut instinct, experience and perseverance mixed up with the bravery to “let go”, the self-awareness to know when to push and where to pull, and the trust to believe that something amazing will emerge from that house of undefinable cards you’re trying to stack up.

Creativity happens when you search for, recognize, and embrace a challenge. We don’t create ideas or things because a process dictates it, we create ideas and things because we are always in search of something better than what currently exists.

Creativity doesn’t occur in the margins of process, surface-level conversations or consensus by committees. To foster a holistic approach to creativity, you must rely on yourself or your partners to search out the right challenges, and tackle them with the combination of expertise and openness. Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of us, or so obvious to us that they seem fleeting — but ring true when held up to the scrutiny of the audience.

Explorers aren’t called navigators, and while they may know how to sail the ship or direct the caravan from point A to point B, they have no idea what will await them at the destination. They are called “Explorers” because they have the skills to conduct the physical parts of the process, and the mental strength and expertise to go in search (and recognize the opportunities) of that which is unknown.

Process is often nothing more than the necessity of scale, and capitalistic scale at that. Process is meant to ensure the system can expand to suit those who structure it. It isn’t designed to allow for disruption, challenge or innovation, and it generally locks things into a structure that can stifle any hope for creative work. Isn’t it ironic that so many creative agencies and marketing firms proudly tout their R&D departments and their “internal labs” where they might have a chance to scratch that creative itch that isn’t able to happen in the client work?

Yes, some process is important, and every successful team, group or company will need it to get the basics right. Even the luckiest of opportunities can be squandered by mismanagement of the fundamentals. But relying solely on process alone to get you to that magical place? Well I’m sorry, it won’t get you close.

The whole thing that is generally missing from a process-first approach, is that it is set up to avoid friction, sidestep unexpected discoveries, and strive for smooth sailing to a known destination. However, processes that include humans, and time, mean that around every corner there might be something new, something interesting, something revealed. The longer we operate in the process and with the client, the more we (should) learn. What if we invited those “wait, what about?” conversations into the room at every stage of the process — willing to weather the disruption if it might offer a more successful path forward? We will never know if we insist on focusing on efficiencies, speed and overly rigid process to lead the charge.

“Agile” as a process for creative services agencies has opened the door to some of this necessary change in approach and perspective — but it still struggles against the traditional structuring of deliverables and timelines required in SOWs, and requires a lot of change management and education — with your internal teams and your clients. From my experience, there are benefits in “agile” as a process that can result in more opportunities to pivot, but there can also be negative effects. If the process compresses goals down into such small bursts of focus that the team looses sight of the overarching business goals (the important challenges) then we’re missing out on opportunities for more innovative and creative thinking that serves the more critical objectives.

The obstacle is the way. Some of the most impactful and successful projects, paintings and life experiences I’ve had were superseded by an unexpected obstacle or challenge. In recognizing those obstacles, communicating about them, and determining a new course of action where the outcome was less certain, something amazing would eventually emerge — not easily, not even efficiently — but emerge it did. And guess what, everyone was better off than if they’d tried to avoid that obstacle from the outset. What made the difference in these past experiences is that we didn’t view the obstacle as a blocker or impediment, but rather something to be curious about. And sometimes, we even went looking for these obstacles during our journey.

You are much more likely to think “what if?” if you are presented with a challenge to overcome.

Keeping curiosity at the top of your list of important things is a good first step. I am not interested in working with people who always think they know the answer, and rush to solve at every opportunity. The way to great work is to dig into these things early and then often — questioning the assumptions, looking around alternative corners, bringing our outside expertise into play and inviting diverse opinions and perspectives into the conversation. Avoiding the discomfort of challenge robs you of the joys of creativity, and if you’re anything like me — that’s a recipe for misery.

We generally can agree that we live in a universe of constant change. And process and routine can offer a welcome sense of balance when life can be experienced as a never ending rollercoaster ride. But if the process or routine is too dogmatic, if the culture is set up to avoid looking to the unseeable horizon, if the knee-jerk response is to solve quickly with prescribed solutions, you and your teams and companies can fall into a slippery problem. Some call this complacency, others acknowledge the fear and vulnerability required are simply too much and others will turn their focus exclusively towards the efficiency of the work, instead of the outcomes. The bravest of all will tell you it’s never going to get any easier, so strap yourself in and let the engines ignite.

Iused to say “good things grow” and I believed it. Now I suspect that “growing is good” — meaning you need to nurture, feed and care for the “thing” — be that a business, a brand or a person. Please note, when I say “grow” I do not mean “get bigger” in the sense of expansion purely for output and profit. I mean “grow” as in — get better as humans who spend a very large chunk of their time working at helping other humans.

It takes a different kind of process to allow the magical things to happen. The best way to get there is to have a deep understanding of how you embrace creativity in your life — where, when and why do you look to those creative muscles during the course of your work? So many of us shrug this all off, proudly proclaiming — I’m not a creative, that’s the work for someone else. Hate to break it to you, but we all rely on our creativity at certain points in our lives — and we do it instinctively. After all, we didn’t get to where we are today by being fine with status quo.

Humans are the only species to continuously strive for improvement, whether that is through ideas, action, or technology. We simply can’t help ourselves but to leverage creativity in many aspects of our work and lives, so the sooner you recognize this and figure out how to tap into it, the more likely you’ll foster better outcomes. I might even propose that you are going against your human nature to try to remove creativity from the equation.

Unfortunately, we often seem to be looking for this “magical creativity” in products we can buy, routines we can follow, or processes we can employ. Why are we looking outwardly rather than inwardly. I don’t think that is wise. It’s not to be found in the mushroom tea or the Whoop readouts. You will feel better after a night on your EightSleep mattress, but you won’t be guaranteed anything amazing, you’ll just feel well rested (which is wonderful, but not the panacea.)

The creative process is complex, nuanced, and somewhat risky, and there are no guaranteed home runs. But if everything was a home run, I doubt we’d keep caring about playing or watching the game.

Growth of the kind I speak of requires an abundant amount of confidence, a tolerance for risk, the ability to communicate really well, which will inevitably necessitate vulnerability and self-awareness. That is challenging for many people if we’re being honest. This doesn’t mean you’re messed up, it just means it’s not easy for most of us.

This state of being can’t be acquired and owned, like one might buy a home and settle into the comfort of knowing the couch will always be in the same place, in the same room. The comforts we need from the routines of our lives are real, but we should be suspect of these routines if the comfort leads to complacency, because without the challenges at play, creativity has nothing to build on.

It’s hard work to generate momentum specifically oriented towards the creative process, in part because of the paradox of needing a process, and also needing places to take leaps of faith. Just like stretching the canvases, cleaning the brushes and laying out the paints is required before you start the painting — there is a “work” portion that exists in most things. And it’s often that work that sets the stage where you can lose yourself into the act of creating. If you’re lucky, that “something” takes on a life of its own because you’ve breathed into it with the best version of yourself available at that moment.

Within the process of the work, we must seek opportunities for challenges — and embrace them wherever they are found. You don’t want to wait for the inevitable challenges that will show up to surprise you or knock you off course.

Why not instead assume challenging opportunities will exist at certain times throughout the course of the work, and try to create an environment conducive to capitalizing on them rather than avoiding them? These challenges will remain unknown until you invite them into your process, so what does that look like?

The best place to source these “opportunities” is ensuring the entire team is actively engaged in ongoing strategic conversations about the big picture goals for the project. Inevitably, you will be learning more about the client, the industry, the challenges, the opportunities — the longer you are involved. Don’t spend 12 months chasing after the assumptions you made on day 10 of the project when you knew the least about everything. Targets shift, technology advances, markets expand and people’s skill levels grow — even the brand or mission of the organization may be shifting. All of that needs to be considered during the work, and within the process.

Set yourself to becoming the best-informed person in the agency on the account to which you are assigned. If, for example, it is a gasoline account, read books on oil geology and the production of petroleum products. Read the trade journals in the field. Spend Saturday mornings in service stations, talking to motorists. Visit your client’s refineries and research laboratories. At the end of your first year, you will know more about the oil business than your boss, and be ready to succeed him. — David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

Rigorous discovery and research, collaborative brainstorming with your client or your team, a relentless pursuit of the ambitious solution vs. a generalized regurgitation of “good enough” and lots of mutual trust. If things are too rigid… there’s no room for exploring or letting magic come in the door. Too little of any process and there will be no scaffolding to build upon, and progress will be stymied.

There must be a team in place who is chewing on these things in any of the ways they know how to chew on them. Sometimes inspiration will strike in the middle of a long boring stretch of work. Sometimes it will strike in the shower (come on you’ve had it happen!) Often it will come upon you when you’re least likely to be looking for it. However, it won’t show up at all if you already know there is no room in your process for this inspiration.

Another important aspect is how you are growing yourself, in order to be better. Are you dedicated to advancing your professional development independently? Are you spending time with people who are different from yourself? Are you traveling and experiencing different cultures? Are you immersing yourself in subjects that simply interest you and have no relationship to work? Are you always looking at ways to advance your own work-related approaches and thinking?

A culture of welcoming questions, encouraging the team to be leveling-up their skills, partnering with clients who will make time for the hard conversations, and an appreciation and expertise for the specific business problems the client must solve are crucial ingredients.

Attribution for creativity and magic isn’t as easy as CTRs on a digital ad, so how you identify and then qualify great work is equally important, as it helps build velocity for the entire team to continue doing the best work, and the client getting the best outcomes.

I wish I could give you the routine, newsletter, online course, agenda, scorecard, or morning walk to the cold plunge pool that would result in magic. I suppose it’s comforting to know that so many of those things exist because we’re all still looking for it — we’re always looking to grow to get better. I’m pretty sure I won’t ever figure out the perfect formula, but I know I have to keep looking if I want to catch glimpses of it at all.

If you’d like to learn more about working with me, and the team of amazing people I’m fortunate to call my colleagues (and yes we have a little bit of process, but not too much), get in touch.

Meanwhile, keep growing, because it’s good.

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