I am a planner. I like things neatly organized. (You should see the color coding taking place in my Outlook calendar; it’s a thing of beauty.) In fact, I find the process of organizing so therapeutic that when I feel anxious, I will sort files, declutter the pantry, clean through my closet—do just about anything to set things in order. Someone once told me that the people who keep the world ticking are planners. That same someone also told me that planners, by nature, are not creative thinkers. That visionaries come up with ideas, and planners then execute. Meanwhile, a good friend of mine, who happens to be a senior consultant with McKinsey & Co., has told me several times: “That is an absolute myth. No, you can’t force creativity, but I promise you that you don’t need chaos to innovate, and creativity can happen with good planning.”
Now, I consider myself a creative person—you have to be in my line of work. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this dichotomy between chaos and order, creativity and planning. My gut tells me that good ideas can come from both camps, and that we may actually need some level of structure to be creative. Consider music. Every modern song is built on the foundation of a single 12-tone scale. Just because an artist composes a melody using this scale doesn’t make him or her any less creative. Similarly, writers are not limited by having only 26 letters to work with. Granted, sometimes creative types try to break these rules, but for the most part, some measure of constraint seems necessary, even helpful, on the road to great ideas.
I would take this a step further and add that creativity also needs collaboration. I find it so difficult to innovate alone, in a room, with no inspiration and no interaction with others. I look at companies such as Google and Apple, TOMS Shoes and Pixar, and all of them have a very team-driven culture. No idea is dumb; people are given time to find the potential in noncore projects; and orderly brainstorming is encouraged.
Last month, my team assembled in Washington, D.C., with the goal of doing a little orderly brainstorming of our own. This annual planning meeting helps us conceptualize thought-provoking, distinctive content for next year’s lineup. Interestingly, one of the concepts we want to pursue in 2012 is a “Big Ideas” issue, where we identify and profile a dozen or so of the industry’s truly game-changing ideas, whether the idea was born in multifamily or outside of it.
I wish we could have spent a week in that room simply spitballing ideas and reinventing our content. Being able to devote our attention to the bigger picture, rather than focusing on the day-to-day grind, was refreshing—and productive. I would like to think that the team came out of those two days mentally drained but excited about the opportunities ahead.
Some people don’t like the sit-together-in-a-room-and-think-aloud approach. They think personal agendas will affect the true purpose of the exercise. But I believe it’s a useful practice and one that most companies could benefit from.
I suspect many of you already use some form of idea generation and prioritization. So let me ask you this: How exactly do you innovate? What helps keep your company and operations fresh? What “big ideas” are you working on for 2012? And how did you develop them? Shoot me an e-mail. Or, better yet, let’s schedule a time to chat. I’m curious to understand the thought processes behind your most creative endeavors. I’ll even add a new color code to my calendar dedicated solely to these “Big Ideas” meetings. Orange, anyone?