At Mack Web, we’ve spent a good deal of time over the past month asking ourselves how to integrate creativity into our process. After all, the foundation for much of our community building work is great content. And great content takes a lot of time and a lot of creativity. So we know that we need to be creative.
But we also love processes. As a business, we need predictability. We track our time and our budgets carefully. We try to ensure we are being as efficient as possible. The more efficient we can be, the happier our clients are. And with more efficiency comes greater opportunity to take on even more clients and do more cool stuff.
So we’ve set off on a journey, a journey with a threefold destination: to learn how to inspire creativity, to work out the best ways of maximizing our creativity as a team rather than a set of individuals, and how to find a balance between creativity and process.
Thus far we’ve…made some progress on the first one. We’re still working on the other two. But rather than write a dissertation on the whole thing when we get there, I thought I’d share some of the amazing things we’ve learned along the way.
“This is quite a three pipe problem…”
Sometimes creativity comes in a flash. It’s that spark of inspiration where two ideas suddenly collide like a thunderclap. And we should never underestimate those flashes of inspiration. But many of the great ideas we’ve had as a team have been the result of just taking the time to think through a problem.
When you log your time and know exactly how many hours you’ve been spending on a project, it can seem like thinking is just a waste of time. And who really has time to sit down and think? You have e-mails to send and meetings to attend.
But that time to think is invaluable. You need to understand the client, the culture, the customers, the products, and how they all fit together. Thinking gives you time to put yourself in the shoes of the customers and experience their pains and challenges.
Once you understand the problems, you can then begin thinking of solutions. This all takes time and brain power. Although it may be difficult to justify, you will be less efficient and more wasteful if you don’t think through the problems up front.
So plan time to think. If you can’t do it during work hours, do it on your commute. Take a walk around town looking for inspiration. Wrap your head around the problem and possible solutions.
If you don’t believe us, take some advice from one of the smartest men out there. When trying to sort through a particular knotty case, Sherlock Holmes, though known as much for his frenetic bouts of activity as for his incredible mind, would set aside the necessary time for introspection. He once told Watson, “This is quite a three pipe problem and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”
Even geniuses need time to think.
Oh, and Mack Web does not endorse smoking.
Ask the Right Questions
This could be an entire blog post in itself. Often we’ve found that asking the right questions up front leads us to getting very different results in the creative process.
For example, when we develop content we always start with the keywords, personae, and market research data to really get a sense of who we’re trying to reach. Then we ask the question, “What can we create that would benefit this audience?”
This is a fundamentally different question than asking, “What can we create to help our clients sell more products?” Although the desired outcome is still the same (to sell more product), the method of getting there is very different. And we always create better content faster when we think about the customer instead of the sales goal.
Part of what makes Mack Web unique is our unwavering pursuit of community. We don’t just ask, “How can we sell more?” Instead we always ask, “How can we build a lasting community around this brand?” Ultimately they lead to the same goals (brand recognition and increased sales), but the strategies, tactics, and KPIs are fundamentally different.
Early on, we discovered that asking the right questions led to better content, more creativity, and less wasted time.
Think About What’s Possible, Not What’s Already Been Done
Too often our temptation is to simply emulate what we’ve seen others do successfully. This leads to (lame) guest blogs, half-hearted blog posts, and a plethora of top 100 lists.
Those default creative efforts can have value, and they certainly have their place in online marketing. But the real winners, the things that set your company apart from other firms, is the unique content you can create. This comes from your people and from allowing them to work within processes that draw out their creativity rather than squelch it.
So we ask “What’s the best way to reach customers?” We don’t start with budgets. We don’t start with what we’ve done before. We start with the ideal, the holy grail of content and advertising. Then work backwards from there.
Now we’re not a huge company with a million dollar budget, but many times there are cheaper, more efficient ways to do things. So we decide on a goal, and then figure out how to get there. Call it bootstrapping. Call it being creative. Call it efficiency. We really don’t care what you call it, but just get it done.
In a fast paced business environment, it is tempting to just fall back on what you know. And sometimes that’s OK. But when real creativity is required, think about what is possible, don’t just look at what others have done.
Build It, Ship It
We like to plan something until it is perfect. But the truth is that turning your initial ideas into something real and tangible is a complicated process. The initial idea comes quickly, but it requires a lot of work to take it from an idea to a full content piece. And we can never predict some of the problems we’ll run into until we’re actually building it.
By all means, take time to plan, but once you have a solid plan in place, start building! No plan is perfect. No plan can ever account for all the variables. Even if you did, by some miracle, create a flawless plan, things change quickly. Something is always going to slip or alter or require adjustment between dream and execution. Go with it.
We’re big fans of Distilled around here and we like to abide by the Distilled mentality. Once it’s done: ship it! Don’t sit on it. You can tinker with something until the end of time (and we strive for excellence here at Mack Web Solutions, so we know all about this temptation).
Along the way there are hiccups and challenges. Sometimes the ideas that we thought were the greatest don’t pan out the way we’d hoped. And other times we kill it (in the good way, that is).
But we don’t get to decide that. The customers and the users decide that. And we’ll never get their decision if we don’t ship it. You miss every shot you don’t take.
So that’s where we are. We’re not perfect, but we’re learning. We don’t just want to be a company with a great personality (which I think we have), but we also want to be a company known for creativity. And in order to do that, we need to find ways to draw out and leverage the maximum creativity of our entire team. The creative sum is greater than the individual parts. (And our individual parts are already pretty great). We’re only going to get better from here. Keep your fingers crossed on our behalf as we try to figure out the rest of this creativity business.
What have you learned? Any tips to share how you’ve formalized the creative process?