In 1994, Disney's The Lion King came out and, as with many millenials, it became an instant favorite for me. Twenty seven years later, the emotional storyline, soundtrack, and memorable characters have all made it a pleasurable movie to rewatch. It’s almost too easy to forget that this blockbuster had two sequels: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and The Lion King 1½.

In the book Creativity, Inc. author Ed Catmull writes about his time working with Disney Animation in the late 80s and early 90s, as the company was growing from the success of movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. As the company grew, its need for more product in the pipeline expanded. With that grew a culture that was overly focused on releasing movies, ultimately leading to a slew of unoriginal, unmemorable movies like The Lion King sequels.

Creativity, Inc. is one of the best books about fostering creativity in organizations. The book dives into how Catmull and his colleagues founded and fostered the creative culture at Pixar and eventually brought it over to Disney Animation to end the studio's long hiatus from producing smash hits.

Granted, not every company lives or dies by its creative output to the extent of an animation studio such as Pixar or Disney Animation. But every company struggles with balancing production and ideation—what Ed Catmull calls the "hungry beast" and the "ugly babies."

BenchSci is no different in having to balance babies and the beast. Below are some things that can tip the balance too far towards production, and some ways to rebalance towards ideation.

The beast has an insatiable appetite

As the Head of User Experience at BenchSci, I work on the Product team, which does user research and design to create products and features for our scientist users.

For our Product team, one of the hungry beasts we need to feed is the capacity of engineering teams that build our designs. The need to keep engineering sprints full of work is a constant pressure on product managers and designers. While this can help us stay focused on practical deliverables, it can also lead us to settle for readily available solutions, rather than taking time to explore and test novel solutions that solve underlying problems and drive the behavior or goals we want.

As engineering capacity increases in comparison to the Product team's, we risk shifting away from doing discovery, finding new problems to solve, evolving divergent ideas, and fostering “ugly babies.” We can end up prioritizing delivery.

Overly focusing on output exists for other teams too. As Dariem Pérez, a Data Engineer on BenchSci’s Science Tools team notes, even for the engineers themselves who are working in sprints using Agile software development, there is a pressure to deliver fast and focus on completing execution tasks. This can leave less time to look at the big picture and creatively think of more efficient and scalable solutions. 

Spending too much time on delivery or execution is a common problem for many companies and has, without a doubt, been an issue for us at times.

How to make more ugly babies (and nurture them)

There are a number of ways that a company can avoid focusing too much on feeding the beast to the detriment of their creativity. Below are some ways that we have either learned or aspire to apply to cultivate a creative culture, divided into leadership, process, and people opportunities.

Leadership opportunities

  1. Train people in management and leadership positions to look for areas where you're overemphasizing output, vanity metrics, and busy work over driving the real end goals—also, where you're overemphasizing working on ideas without any tangible outputs. 
  2. Encourage and celebrate failure. People need to feel safe and supported to generate new, bold ideas. And they can only do so when thinking differently and taking risks are openly valued. This can happen by sharing failures and learnings within the company. 
  3. Increase individual and team capacity to allow people to work on more discovery and exploratory work, so that their time isn’t solely focused on delivery. This is probably a more dire need in teams where creativity is necessary to push the business forward. With extra capacity, teams should be encouraged to work on the new. At BenchSci, for example, we're trying to build the capacity up on our product team by hiring for more product designers, product managers, and our first user researcher. Another good practice is providing people the opportunity to learn and experiment on the job by creating days where output isn’t the goal. For example, see Atlassian's ShipIt Days
  4. Include and empower people that are not part of the company’s leadership to help steer the direction of features. Features or solutions to problems can sometimes feel partially designed by the time they get to a product team. Leadership must ensure that sufficient brainstorming, divergent thinking, and exploration of ideas has gone into the solutions. Include people who are closest to the problem to help brainstorm early on to yield more creative solutions.

Process opportunities

  1. Don’t lose sight of the real goal. Every team within a company has its own goals. As teams go about working on their goals, it can seem as if different teams' goals are competing against each other. Teams must remember that at the end of the day, the goal is to create a great product.
  2. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Use human-centered design to focus on exploring the problem to be solved over efficiency or output. We constantly need to remind ourselves and each other of the need to achieve meaningful goals, and get rid of metrics that aren’t great indicators of the change we want to make in the world. 
  3. Get the right type of feedback. When asking for feedback about a solution, focus on trying to evolve good ideas rather than look for things to critique. Feedback, such as in design reviews, should focus on being additive. A great way to do this is to utilize techniques from improv to help build ideas, rather than shut them down. This is where language can play a big role. Zach Lieberman, Director of Marketing at BenchSci, is a big fan of the “yes, and…” technique. This encourages his team to expand on an idea, and try to make it better, as opposed killing it in its infancy. The subtle changes in language like “yes, and” or the usage of “I” vs “we” as BenchSci CEO Liran Belenzon shares in this blog post, are vital to creating the nurturing space for idea growth.

People opportunities

  1. Bring in new people, including interns. They bring with them fresh ideas and perspectives. By training new people, you also get to look over your current processes and ways of doing things, and question and change them.
  2. Diversity: To maximize creativity, organizations need a diversity of skills and experiences. This can mean, for example, hiring people with different educational backgrounds or no relevant educational background, if they have the right skills. Hiring people who have worked in sectors outside of life sciences has helped our Product team to look at problems within our space in a new light and come up with wider ranges of solutions to them.

Finally, remember that new ideas need protection to blossom. As Ed Catmull writes in Creativity, Inc., quoting the end of the movie Ratatouille:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

(See the full scene here).

Thank you to Simon Smith, Dariem Pérez, Zach Lieberman, and BenchSci alumnus Ryan Breakey for their contributions to this post.

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Written By:
Matan Berson