Product Management 101: What is Product Management?

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    what is product management

    Is product management a job? A career? A discipline? It depends on whom you ask. The landscape is forever changing, yet forever staying the same.

    My Story

    When I started out in product management (quite a few years ago) it was pretty much uncharted territory. Except in consumer packaged goods.

    While being a female with an MBA wasn’t exactly rare, it also wasn’t common. I had successfully run a marketing research department. I had customer knowledge. And several direct reports. Presumably that would be a good foundation for product management. But that was true only to a point. As a product manager with no direct reports, I had to attain my goals through influence. I had to work with all levels and types of people. The entire life-cycle was my responsibility. And I learned not all views of the job were the same.

    Conflicting viewpoints

    Different companies and industries (and people) see things differently. That’s why the number of consultants and books has exploded. And various membership societies coexist. Like the Product Development & Management Association (PDMA). And the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM). Indeed, a search for product management in the LinkedIn Groups yields over 1,000 results. While most groups are quite small, some have thousands of members.

    But product management titles vary

    Not surprisingly, titles and their meaning vary. Some product managers handle strategy and innovation related to upfront activities. Relevant titles include:

    • new-products manager
    • strategic product manager
    • upstream product manager
    • product development manager

    Others are more focused on marketing and sales. They manage positioning and price changes as the product matures and evolves. Titles include:

    • tactical product manager
    • downstream product manager
    • assistant product manager or product coordinator  (although these titles are commonly associated with experience)

    Still others deal with all or some of these activities. They are likely to be held accountable for the business and commercial success of their products.These product managers—with the full gamut of responsibilities—are common in most mid-sized and small companies. (I refer to them as full-stream product managers.)

    The PDMA argues that the main focus should be on new product development. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the focus should be on sustaining customers and profitability. This requires a mix of new products, enhancements, and ongoing management. That’s the essence of full-stream product management.

    Experience counts

    Product management is generally not an entry-level position (except for some technology jobs). Therefore, when there is a need to bring a less-experienced individual into the role, firms may precede the title with assistant. (Assistant and associate seem to be preferred in the United States. Junior is a familiar prefix in Europe.) To get a general gauge of experience for different prefixes, I analyzed LinkedIn data. As a rough guideline:

    • junior product managers typically had 1-5 years of experience
    • assistant and associate product managers had an average of 3-10 years of experience
    • senior product managers generally had more than 10 years of experience

    Product specialists, product coordinators, brand managers and product developers ran the gamut of experience. I found no position where the majority—or even a significant percentage—of the people had less than a year of experience.

    With that in mind, I have therefore used the following definition in my writing and training.

    Product management is the entrepreneurial leadership and management of a piece of business (product, service, product line, brand, segment, etc.) as a “virtual” company. Product managers are generally accountable for the success of this “company” without having direct authority over the functional specialists who “make it happen.”  

    In other words, the product manager’s job is:                                   

    Job of product management

    A ShortRead book on what is product management

    … to oversee innovation, development, marketing, product support and product rejuvenation.Their goal is to provide concrete value to both customer and company.

    Templates, Templates Everywhere … But Not a Stop to Think (Using product management templates)

    I see this happening over and over again. Product managers (and others) shift into firefighting mode, working harder and putting in more hours. In an attempt to simplify their lives they seek out preconfigured templates to make their jobs easier. They fill in the blanks of the templates (sometimes almost mindlessly) and then move on to more ‘urgent’ matters. But did they make better decisions or plans because of the product management templates?

    Do product management templates cause better decisions?

    Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.

    Let’s take a step back to think about what templates are. Historically, templates were patterns or molds used in technical or mechanical work. They guided the effective duplication or reproduction of something. The term was later extended to guide the effective duplication or reproduction of processes, plans, and approaches.

    But if you duplicate the processes of others (including your competitors), are you really creating new successes? True, someone at some time put a great deal of thought into the content and “look” of the template. But does it contain the right set of questions? Does it have the right tenor at the right time for your particular situation? Does it provide you with novel insights? Can you really offload your decision-making responsibilities to a tool?

    Templates may reduce errors of omission

    Templates that help you ensure no critical factors are overlooked can be useful. They can highlight relevant topics and ideas to examine.They can provide a framework to organize your thinking. I admit I often use templates, and I have included many in my books and articles for others to use. But I always caution users to adapt and modify any template to their unique needs. Discard templates that no longer work.

    Templates are just one tool in the toolbox

    Let’s look at the FACTS. There are several tools you might consider in developing and implementing decisions, plans, processes and procedures. Templates are one tool, but there are others. Here are my tool facts:

    product management templatesFlowcharts provide graphic representations (generally using symbols connected with lines) of sequential procedures. They provide visual cues and clues to better understand and follow standard approaches in a process or system. Project management is filled with flowcharts of select paths and overall modus operandi. Stage-gate processes, activity networks (such as critical path and PERT), and other step-by-step operations are examples. Some types of flowcharts, e.g., affinity diagrams, capture information useful as an input into planning.

    Action maps are visual or textual representations of future direction. Longer-term maps, such as technology roadmaps, scenario plans, and portfolio strategies emphasize visionary thinking. Shorter-term maps, such as verbal descriptions of activities, tactics and financials provide more complex details for current-day implementation.

    Checklists are very basic listings of tasks, but can be quite powerful due to their simplicity. Checklists of important standard tasks to be completed prior to a product launch or gate review meeting can reduce the probability of a critical piece of a plan falling short.

    Templates (as already discussed) are generally simple fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Similar to checklists they help minimize the chance of a product manager overlooking an important element of a plan. However, also as mentioned above, it’s important they aren’t used as a substitute for adequate examination of data during the planning process.

    Schedules, the last item in the FACTS toolbox, are essentially annotated calendars with specific individuals assigned specific dates to complete required activities. As such they are necessary for assigning responsibility and deadlines for implementation of plans.

    Different tools serve different purposes

    While any of these could be used at any point in the planning process, flowcharts and

    product management templates and tools

    action maps are most useful for analysis and process. Checklists, templates and schedules are important tools for compliance (with internal requirements) and implementation.

    All of these tools serve a purpose. However, they are worthless without the discipline to act on them. Regardless of the template or tool(s) used, always take the time to stop and THINK.


    Organizational Creativity: Building skills and processes

    organizational creativity

    As indicated in my prior posts, individual creativity comes in many shapes and sizes. The same is true for organizational creativity. There are numerous approaches and structural designs. However, I found one model quite practical: Teresa Amabile’s Componential Model of Creativity. According to this model, creativity depends on a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic refers to drivers inside each of us. Extrinsic refers to external motivators such as company policies, recognition, and the environment. Organizational creativity needs to consider both.

    Intrinsic Drivers of Creativity

    Amabile identified three intrinsic motivators. Imagine a Venn diagram with three circles in the shape of a triangle. (See figure.) The top circle contains domain-relevant skills. Simply put, these are skills related to your area of expertise.The left circle contains task motivation. These are the duties you actually enjoy doing. And the right circle contains the right ambiance and setting to inspire you. Creativity is strongest at the intersection of the three.

    Become an expert

    The domain-relevant skills (top circle) include expertise or knowledge in a specific field. The expertise may be in engineering, medical technology, computer coding, industry awareness, art, music, or a host of other disciplines. These areas of expertise provide the raw materials an individual can draw on in the creative process.

    • Do you have the right knowledge to understand how the pieces fit together?

    Jump into tasks you enjoy

    Task motivation (left circle) encompasses the willingness to undertake a task because it is involving, interesting, or personally challenging or satisfying. This is similar to the intrinsic motivators I described in the post: What motivates the creative YOU?

    • Do you have the desire to work toward a creative solution?

    Define your own sources of creativity

    Creativity-relevant processes (final circle) include a host of tangible and intangible factors conducive to imagination, inspiration and inventiveness. The bulk of the items I describe in my Nine-Part Creativity Series would fit here.

    • Do you know what music, ambiance, time-frame or mental attitude helps you be creative?

    Organizational Creativity Processes

    Even though I described the three above circles as intrinsic items, companies play a role in either fostering or sabotaging them. In other words, you can use them to enhance organizational creativity. Here are a few tips for managers.

    Build skills in areas of expertise

    Provide training, role clarity and resources to cultivate domain-relevant skills. Sponsor internal training or offer  reimbursement for education outside the company. The training should help employees attain mastery in specific areas of expertise or knowledge. Devise concrete job definitions that establish role clarity and reduce ambiguity. The resulting focus increases the likelihood of employees applying their expertise to generate new ideas. Supply adequate resources such as money and tools to support creative efforts. Of course, defining what “adequate” means is subjective and will vary by the type of innovation. But it must be done.

    Boost the motivation to do the tasks

    Enhance task motivation by ensuring individuals feel a job or creative endeavor “fits” them. Hire the right people for the job. Recognize them for their efforts. The recognition doesn’t (and shouldn’t) be limited to monetary incentives. Dan Pink, in his TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, provides good information on using different incentives for creativity.

    Reinforce processes linked to creativity

    Finally, encourage creativity-relevant processes. Grant as much autonomy for creative efforts as possible. Enable tinkering to stimulate creativity and whole-brain thinking. Sanction breaks, time flexibility and/or tools to help employees manage their energy better. Companies such as Google and 3M allow employees an allotted percentage of on-the-job time and freedom to explore pet projects.These pet projects – especially when shared with other employees through, for example, brown bag lunches – often yield new product and service ideas benefiting the company. Assess your company’s risk tolerance. How well does your culture encourage employees to develop novel concepts that may lead to new product development and innovation? Creativity and innovation are subtly different, and companies are advised to nurture both.

    Spark up your creativity: Traits of creative people

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      (This is the 1st of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

      Most people say they want to be more creative. They want to build more traits of creativity. But what does that mean? That they want to be the next Steve Jobs? Or that they want to relax into an imaginative hobby?

      Does it mean they want to spend more time alone, thinking prolific thoughts?  Or that they want to charge into stimulating conversations with diverse thinkers?

      Hmm … (Pause to think prolific thoughts).

      What is creativity?

      So what is creativity? Here are a few definitions.

      • Originality, progressiveness or imagination
      • The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns
      • A mental characteristic that allows a person to think outside of the box

      From these definitions it’s clear that creativity links to individuality. But there are other perspectives. Creativity can be more than what meets the eye.

      Is creativity a solo or team activity?

      The answer to this question is simply YES. There are times when being around other people can be distracting. On the other hand new insights emerge from the collision of diverse viewpoints.

      Are introverts or extroverts more creative?

      Just as creativity can emerge from either solo or group activities, creative people can be either introverts or extroverts. Earlier I said that creativity can emerge from a collision of perspectives. Introverts may need to step out of their comfort zones and embrace the ideas of others. Extroverts may need to stop and do a bit of internal soul-searching.

      What is the difference between creativity and innovation?

      Some people consider creativity to be a starting point for innovation. In that sense, innovation comes from the creativity of one or more individuals.The outcome can be a new product, an enhanced set of work procedures or novel services.

      Think in terms of people AND culture

      I taught a creativity and innovation course at the Center for Professional and Executive Development at University of Wisconsin-Madison. In it I focused on the importance of both individual-think and group-think in establishing a forward-looking organizational culture. It’s a myth that only certain people are creative. People are creative in different ways, and to different degrees. So instead of contemplating whether you are creative, focus on how you are creative — and strive to enhance your own creativity.

      Traits of creative people

      Sometimes people are inspired by creative quotes. If you are one of them, download 100 Inspirational Quotes about Creativity and Innovation from SlideShare.

      Creativity traits – your creativity quotient

      Here are the traits, characteristics, skills and viewpoints that creative people (and companies) can work to strengthen. No single person will excel at all of them. Yet collectively they will ground you in your pursuit of creativity.

      A word of caution, though. If these characteristics are carried to extremes they can actually compete against each other. For example, being autonomous (independent) can sometimes make it hard to be tuned in to others. And some characteristics can have both a positive and negative side. Evaluating creative ideas is a positive activity that can turn negative if you focus exclusively on fault-finding.

      So, what is your creativity quotient? Ask yourself: are you …

      Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
      Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
      Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
      Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
      Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
      Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
      Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
      Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

      I will discuss each of these eight characteristics in future posts.


      Amplify your creative curiosity

      (This is the 2nd of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

      Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
      Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
      Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
      Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
      Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
      Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
      Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
      Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy Creative curiosity

      Be forever curious

      We are surrounded by new ideas. In various stages of formation. All the time.

      But we might not be curious enough to even notice them. Don’t lose your sense of curiosity. Amplify it.

      Becoming interested in something kindles your curiosity to learn more. And ironically, by learning more you realize how much you don’t know. That can generate more curiosity. Interest encourages learning, which in turn, increases interest to learn more. That’s curiosity.

      Curiosity is not a general instinct

      Curiosity is a critical component of creativity. But while all humans have some degree of curiosity, it is not an instinct. In other words, it’s not a fixed response to some stimulus. Nor is it a routine or predictable action pattern. Rather, curiosity is an individual interest in trying to understand something you don’t know.

      So, how important is curiosity? A Psychology Today blog post stated that curiosity and conscientiousness were found to be more important than intelligence in predicting success.

      Do adults lose curiosity?

      Many people believe that kids are naturally more curious than adults. On the surface this seems reasonable since there is so much more they need to discover. However, it’s not black-and-white. We are all aware of some kids who are more curious than others. And even some adults who are more curious than kids. So it’s not just a gap in knowledge, but rather in an interest or desire to learn more.

      Raise your creative curiosity

      To amplify your curiosity, expand your thinking. Be curious about more and more things. Learn a new hobby. Complete a household project you’ve never attempted before. Develop an unexplored professional skill. Delve into an online course. Make learning a life-long goal rather than a burden to be endured. As you build your bank of knowledge, focus not only on what you’re learning, but also on the process itself. As a first step toward creativity, enjoyment of the process of curiosity (i.e., learning) can be an intrinsic reward – a motivation – for many people.

      Ask questions

      Asking questions – and finding answers to the questions – is somewhat of a template for the process of curiosity. As Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” When faced with new information or unknowns, ask challenging questions, such as: Why? How? What if? Why not? Look for the answers that everyone else is ignoring (or too busy to consider). Political consultant, Bernard Baruch, was quoted as saying: “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked ‘Why?’.”

      So start asking questions. Lots of them. Here are some examples.

      Can ordinary things be used in extraordinary ways? Spider silk and silkworm silk, which are biocompatible with human tissue, have been used to treat nerve damage. Efforts are under way to increase usage for regenerative medicine, and to find better ways to commercialize the process.

      What caused that to happen? The story of Percy Spencer’s curiosity has been well-publicized. In 1945, while working near microwave magnetrons, he discovered a candy bar had melted in his pocket. He tried to figure out how it happened. The result was the microwave oven.

      And asking “what else could this be used for?” can sometimes trigger accidental inventions. Play-Doh was originally a wallpaper cleaner. Velcro was discovered by George de Mestral when he noticed burrs sticking to his hunting dog’s fur. Saccharin was originally discovered by a chemist looking for alternative uses for coal tar derivatives.

      Capture your ideas

      Even when curious people are good idea generators, they don’t always keep track of these ideas. Do you have the discipline to capture your ideas? Do you jot down notes and review them periodically?

      Apply curiosity to your domain expertise carefully

      As people grow older, their curiosity may become more focused in specific domains. Occupational fields, defined recreational activities, or individual (personal and spiritual) pursuits are the center of their attention. That means the questions they are asking and the answers they are seeking have a more limited scope. But curiosity can still be fostered – as long as the domains don’t become so few or so narrow as to restrict open-mindedness and objectivity.

      Where to from here?

      A challenge that occurs as people gain expertise in specific domains is that they can become more risk-averse and less tolerant of failure. So in addition to curiosity, building resilience in the face of failure is necessary for creativity. That will be covered in the 3rd post.



      The War of Art Review

      The War of Art book review

      I recently came across a book that challenged me a bit as a writer. It’s not new (the first copyright – the version I read – is 2002).  But I found it relevant in my current efforts to spark my own creativity in fiction writing. After all, I spent most of my career in more analytical, “business-friendly” pursuits. The book is “The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle” by Steven Pressfield.

      I don’t recall how I heard about this book. And it took me a while to get around to reading it. I skimmed through the book quickly. The main theme I picked up was that creative people use a host of excuses to forestall progress (a process he refers to as Resistance.) Ho, hum. But on the many occasions I was about to quit reading, Pressfield made a point, or offered a quote, or shared an anecdote that really made me stop and think.

      My A-Ha Moments

      I’d like to share a few of those “a-ha’ moments” with you. (As a side note, I got the most benefit from the middle section, a bit from the first, and the third section did not fit me quite as well. But I nevertheless recommend the book. To aspiring writers, designers and artists – particularly those who work freelance. To entrepreneurs. And to product managers for whom creativity is challenged by down-to-earth business demands.)

      Characteristics of Creative Resistance

      In the first section (Book One), he describes characteristics of Resistance, starting with procrastination. “Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony: I’m going to start tomorrow.’”

      We have all made similar decisions to defer progress to some better time in the future. And we have also become very efficient at justifying these decisions. I’m not ready. I don’t have what it takes. I’m too busy with urgent things. I haven’t found my inspiration. The kids are sick. I’m too tired. And the list goes on to infinity!

      Combat Resistance in the War of Art

      But in the second section (Book Two) Pressfield takes a stab at offering suggestions to combat Resistance. He starts by differentiating between the mindsets of amateurs and professionals. He relates being a pro to the basic principles of any job. His principles are:

      1. Show up every day.
      2. Show up no matter what.
      3. Stay on the job all day.
      4. Committed to the long haul.
      5. Accept that stakes are high and real.
      6. Accept remuneration for our labor.
      7. Don’t over-identify with your job.
      8. Master the technique of your job.
      9. Have a sense of humor about your job.
      10. Receive praise or blame in the real world.

      Perfectionism can be a dilemma

      I might word these ten principles a bit differently. But they forced me to think about whether I was approaching my own creativity from the mindset of a professional or an amateur (weekend warrior). I definitely leaned away from pro. I realized I was more apt to look at my writing (and creativity in general) as a sideline. That made it easier to rationalize scrapping time devoted to it and falling into a trap of perfectionism. And I kept waiting for the “right” time to come along. That’s why I appreciated Pressfield’s quote on this point:

      “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”

      Stop procrastinating

      Yes, that quote really hit me. I realized have to stop waiting – and waiting, and waiting — for inspiration to strike. Many other authors, in addition to Pressfield, have stressed the importance of writing every day to prime the pump for inspiration to happen. Yet for some reason this perspective was the boost I needed to stop procrastinating and rationalizing my procrastination. Creativity doesn’t happen on command per se. Yet you increase the likelihood of inspiration to happen if you practice creativity on an ongoing basis. (I won’t go so far as to make this my New Year’s resolution, but if that works for you, go for it!)

      Even if your day job is to be creative – you are employed as a copywriter, graphic designer, artist – it might not command 100% of your time. As a result, the urgent demands of your job may take precedence over putting effort into originality.

      Where does inspiration come from?

      The final section (Book Three) of the War of Art provides a more metaphysical perspective on creativity. Where does inspiration come from? While this point can be debated ad nauseam (as it was in the Amazon reviews of the book), Pressfield cited several possible sources of the creative spark .Other people. Compiled data. Dreams. Intuition. Trends. Existing and anticipated products. And combinations of all of those. The main point to me is that creatives must be open to the new, open to the different, and open to the possibilities that exist all around us.

      Grit: Build a reservoir of creative resilience to overcome failures

      (This is the 3rd of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

      Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
      Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
      Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
      Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
      Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
      Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
      Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
      Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

      Creative grit

      Do you have what it takes to withstand creative flops?

      Creativity cannot exist without failures. Period. Unfortunately, failures can occur without creativity. The challenge is how easily you give up.

      The picture at the top is one of the few photographs of my mother’s family. My grandmother had 10 children. Two were still-born, one died at an early age, and two were unable to make the trip to the United States with her. She faced continual hardship, but was resilient enough to be creative in her own way. That’s true grit.

      Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, wrote an article about grit for the New York Times Magazine. In it he discussed the role of resilience and persistence in attaining success. He emphasized that people insulated from botched outcomes don’t develop the fortitude necessary to succeed. Taking risks is part of life — and part of creativity.

      That’s where grit (creative resilience) comes in. Sustained creativity requires not just failures, but also an ability to bounce back from them. It requires an ability to manage adversity. And it’s a character skill most people have not been taught.

      So, do all educators agree there is a link between grit and creativity? No. Nevertheless most concur that it may play a role in long-term projects. In other words, in pushing creativity toward innovation. An initial creative spark is not enough. You need to continue through to a result. That means you have to keep bouncing back.

      What is your creativity safety net?

      To bounce back from adversity, you need a virtual trampoline, a safety net. You have to strengthen your ability to cope with outcomes you don’t want. The Mayo Clinic provides these tips on improving resilience:

      1. Get connected
      2. Make every day meaningful
      3. Learn from experience
      4. Remain hopeful
      5. Take care of yourself

      I want to augment these tips and relate them to creativity.

      Get connected to build creative resilience

      Develop a strong social network of family, friends, colleagues and/or mentors. Find people you can confide in. Share your frustrations. Use their support as a “sounding board” to help reduce the frustrations you are feeling when faced with creative dead-ends.

      Make every day meaningful

      Look for opportunities to be grateful every day. Oprah Winfrey keeps a gratitude journal to help her appreciate what she has rather than bemoan what she doesn’t have. According to Inc. Magazine, gratitude can compensate for stress, thereby opening creativity ability.

      Turn mistakes into lessons

      Rethink failure. Learning from mistakes and setbacks is an achievement. It’s an element of success. Not learning from errors is a failure.

      In fact, failure often creates new opportunities. Ian Robertson observed in Psychology Today:Paradoxically then, failure can help us to encounter new possibilities because it forces us to abandon the blinkered focus on reward that repeated success causes.” In other words, success can cause complacency and risk reduction, sometimes referred to as the incumbent’s curse.

      Challenge yourself to engage in experiences where success is not virtually guaranteed. If you need to wade into this by making mistakes that nobody sees, start there. Teach yourself that that you are resilient enough to rebound from occasional defeats.

      Keep track of what you have learned from missteps. Apply that to new situations. Contemplate setbacks without dwelling on them. Accept them as part of the normal process of creativity and innovation.

      Remain hopeful

      Being hopeful is not Pollyanaish optimism. It’s not wishful thinking.  Rather, it’s about embracing possibilities, even while knowing some outcomes will fail. It’s about accepting the present while being motivated to change the future. This perspective on hope is believed to be related to creativity.

      So, encourage yourself to explore multiple solutions to problems. Believe you have the capacity to impact change. Take the long view.

      Take care of yourself

      Physical, mental and emotional health are all connected to resilience. The stronger you are in all these areas, the better equipped you are to bounce back from setbacks. Get proper sleep. Eat a balanced diet. Learn to relax. Manage stress through meditation, yoga or deep breathing. Focus on maintaining healthy self-esteem.

      And exercise. Studies prove the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise. And aerobic activity also stimulates prefrontal cortex areas of the brain generally associated with aspects of creativity. That’s why taking a walk, riding a bike, or engaging in a sport can trigger new ideas after you have been in a creative rut. It also gives a boost to resilience.

      Relearn life’s lessons

      Think about mistakes you made growing up. What were the responses of your family? What about peers? Or teachers? Or ministers? Were you criticized or encouraged? Were the mistakes viewed as learning opportunities or dead-ends? These experiences “taught” you how to deal with failure. Now you must decide if the teachings were appropriate, or if you need to “unlearn” the lessons. That requires creative grit.

      If you were taught that failure is bad – that only perfection is acceptable – you will likely look for ways to avoid taking risks. Or you learn to blame others. While risk reduction is important, too much will squelch creativity. It can cause you to limit your focus to only areas where you are strong. It may prevent you from seeing answers that aren’t directly in front of you. And even some that are right in front of you.

      Is all perfection necessary?

      Force yourself to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary perfection. Necessary perfectionism saves lives. Unnecessary perfectionism causes procrastination. It creates delays. And it obstructs the realization of ideas. There’s a lot of room for creativity in-between.

      When I published the first edition of my product manager book in 1995, it was far from perfect. However, it was “good enough” to generate an increased awareness of product management. It’s now in its fourth edition. Had I waited for it to be perfect, it would still be sitting unpublished in some long-forgotten location.

      Just to be clear – I am not suggesting that with creativity anything goes. Details can make the difference between a good and a great idea. But not all details are equally important. Strive for perfection. Just don’t let it become an excuse for lack of forward momentum.

      When you run into a dead-end, decide to move forward. Don’t allow yourself to be stuck in perpetual limbo. Scrap what you’re doing until you uncover an untried solution. Reframe the problem. U-turns can be okay. Decide if the problem you are trying to solve is the wrong problem. (Sometimes the best resilience is “quitting” and starting over anew.) Just continue moving forward.

      Failure is rarely fatal

      Failure is not enjoyable and can be a blow to one’s ego (and possibly one’s budget or profit), but it is rarely fatal. Coach yourself to tolerate missteps, learn from them, and recognize that they are instrumental in your pursuit of creativity and innovation.

      Be flexible. Practice improvisation. Try new approaches when the first way does not work. Be persistent. But do so with vigilance and intelligence, and be willing to change course when necessary. Strengthen your mental ability to be aware of and cope with potentially contradictory data. Acknowledge there may be multiple viewpoints for issues, and that other perspectives might add to your creativity.

      Where to from here?

      Resilience paves the way to follow-through. You need to bounce back from ideas that don’t work until you find ones that do. But you’re not done yet. Be ready to test, evaluate and evolve your creative ideas. That’s the topic of the next post.





      Creative tinkering: Ideas evolve as you evaluate them

      (Creative tinkering is the 4th of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

      Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
      Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
      Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
      Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
      Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
      Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
      Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
      Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

      Creative tinkering

      Sand sculpture tinkerers at New Smyrna Beach, FL

      Some people believe that creativity is all about a single Eureka moment when a fully-formed idea simply jumps out. Sometimes that might happen. But not usually.

      It’s more likely that creative types are tinkerers – testing, modeling and experimenting with their ideas, often in a trial-and-error mode. They continually evaluate what does and does not work. They evolve their ideas beyond their embryonic beginnings.


      What is a tinkerer?

      I came across Rachelle Doorley’s definition of tinkerer on TinkerLab. While the site is intended for childhood education, several concepts are appropriate here as well. (In fact, you might want to take a look at TinkerLab for inspiration!) So, here is her definition of a tinkerer:

      “one who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems.”

      Note that her definition mentions the importance of continually iterating on learning. In other words, a tinkerer is a dabbler. An experimenter. A hands-on adapter. A maker. Tinkerers “play around” with ideas. They don’t necessarily accept their first idea as is.

      The tinkering process helps redefine problems and solutions. And the more idea variations you have, the higher the probably of having a good one in the pile. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling said: “I am constantly asked by students how I get good ideas. My answer is simple: First, have a lot of ideas. Then, throw away the bad ones.”

      Ideas evolve through creative tinkering

      Think about all of the different types of people who tinker. And think about the variety of disciplines they represent.

      • Fiction writers try out various plots and characters before finalizing a story line.
      • Product designers experiment with various materials, components and approaches to prototyping.
      • Artists test new combinations of colors, shapes and textures.
      • Photographers shoot from different angles, with different lenses, under different lighting conditions to see what happens.

      Evaluation is integral to improving and/or prioritizing ideas. Look at your brainchild from multiple perspectives. What are the relevant facts? Are there better or different alternatives? What are the benefits and advantages of each? What are your gut reactions – how do you feel about it? Why is the idea good, and what can be done to make it successful? What are the risks and negatives, and why might it NOT be successful?

      I started writing fiction a couple of years ago, thinking that because I wrote successful business books I could easily make the shift to mysteries. Wrong. I had to learn about characterization. Plotting. Scene development. And the planting of clues and red herrings. I am finally making progress but it took a lot of tinkering. And evaluating. And really listening to members of my critique groups. Believe me, I learned I could not leave my ideas in their original conditions. (Some were dead on arrival!)

      Yes, tinkering is necessary for creativity to blossom. And it’s not necessarily a solo activity.

      Makers help evolve creative ideas

      The Maker Movement is a social movement of people who want to create. Anything. Some makers are do-it-yourselfers. Others are professional inventors.  But at heart they are tinkerers. And they share learning in many ways. One is through Maker Faires, defined on the namesake website as follows:

      Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new, Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned.

      The Maker Movement has been enabled by technology (such as crowdsourcing and 3-D printing), and plays a role in some corporate product development. GE, for example, has used the concept of makers as a new paradigm in manufacturing. A few years ago, they invited makers from across the globe to submit ideas as part of an innovation challenge. They received many novel concepts for their aviation products. Some may have eventually emerged from internal R&D. But the use of crowdsourcing helped evolve the ideas faster.

      Become a dreamer and a doer

      Tinkering allows you to focus on something without succumbing to analysis paralysis. Permit yourself to spend some unstructured time “fiddling around with” your ideas. Resolve to be persistent, determined, and even tenacious in pushing them to the next level. Shape yourself into a die-hard tinkerer.

      Author Sarah Ban Breachnach stated: “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.

      So, flesh out your dreams. Convert ideas into something more concrete. The sooner you can craft models and prototypes, the sooner you can judge the strength of your concept. (As a side note, I want to mention that it’s okay when the result of a creative idea has value only to its originator. Creativity need not always result in commercialization. But many creative ideas are developed into products, services, processes or business models. In either case, creativity must move beyond an abstraction.)

      Where to from here?

      Above all, you have to take responsibility for evolving your ideas and for your own creativity. That’s where autonomy comes in, as I’ll discuss in the next post.





      The Creative Process: It’s More than Games

      The creative process is not a singular flash of insight. It doesn’t come simply from throwing Nerf balls around the room. Or playing with Duplo blocks and pipe cleaners. There’s more to it than that. While there is no single “best-practice” approach to creativity, there are some typical components. And that’s true even for diverse disciplines.

      When creativity is discussed from the perspective of the arts, it usually has a relatively individualistic, free-flowing aura. When it is applied to business, it is more commonly associated with innovation and the development of tangible (and profitable) value. Yet both stem from several similarities in general approach.

      Here are the steps of creativity. Although I listed them sequentially, the actual process is more iterative than step-by-step. In fact, there is iteration and incubation as a sub-step of most of the steps. And actually, this is the basis of the non-linear iterative process of design thinking.

      Creative Process

      The creative process has 5 main steps

      Creative Process Step 1: Frame the creative challenge

      More and more research on creativity indicates that establishing boundaries actually heightens (rather than diminishes) creativity by ensuring focus. The curiosity I mentioned in a prior post may provide several sparks in the “fuzzy front end” of creativity. But going beyond these sparks and concentrating on selected “arenas” is generally necessary for creativity to flourish. Speculate on the product or service you want to develop or improve on. Contemplate the book you want to write or sculpture you want to shape. Picture the fund-raising campaign or advertising push you want to accomplish. Visualize what you want the output of your creativity to be, and what the potential constraints are as you move forward.

      Creative Process Step 2: Gather data

      Yes, data. Creativity happens when ideas spring from other ideas. What do you know, and what new information do you still need? Determine whether other people have already explored this arena, providing partial (or even total) solutions. Are there new technologies or attitudes or marketplace shifts you can benefit from? Don’t try to collect all information before proceeding to the next step because data collection is never truly complete. But if you try to start “creating” without knowing what is already out there, you may waste a lot of energy in reinventing the wheel (and perhaps not even as good a wheel as already exists!).

      Step 2.5: Allow the data to incubate

      So far I have alluded to the activities of the conscious mind; now I want to make a shift. Your subconscious mind is always processing data and looking for new solutions to a host of puzzles and questions. If you have been vigilant in framing the challenge and absorbing appropriate stimuli, ideas will begin to grow and take form, often without your conscious awareness. Give yourself the time and freedom for that to happen.

      Creative Process Step 3: Build ideas

      Nurturing data into ideas can be an individual or collaborative effort, depending on the creative arena. This step includes a sequence of divergent and convergent thinking. Start with divergent thinking, generating as many possible solutions as possible – allow your imagination to flow freely. How many ways can you magnify or minimize, lengthen or shorten, combine or separate, or otherwise establish a reasonable approach to the creative challenge? After generating numerous ideas, work to reduce the number into a manageable few; this is the process of convergent thinking. Moving from divergent to convergent thinking may happen once or several times, as you deliberate the ideas and concepts being formed.

      Step 3.5: Allow the ideas to incubateincubate ideas

      The more complex the creative endeavor, the more time will likely be required for incubation. Remember that your subconscious mind can incubate several ideas simultaneously, even though your conscious mind can handle only one at a time.

      Creative Process Step 4: Tinker, evaluate & refine

      Creativity benefits greatly from a test-and-learn approach, when experimenting and “tinkering” with ideas, concepts and prototypes is part of the overall process. Tinkering may begin as early as the data collection step, or may occur after incubation – and may even cause you to redefine the initial problem. This step can cause a lot of frustration, so you need enough resilience to bounce back from the failures you experience while tinkering. This is also the step that forces you to confront the potential downsides of your ideas.

      Step 4.5: Allow experiments to incubate

      Whenever the tinkering and experimentation highlight significant flaws or drawbacks, it may be necessary to allow further subconscious meditation to either overcome the flaws or make a decision to either redefine the problem or table the entire creative effort.

      Creative Process Step 5: Execute

      Assuming the ideas pass the final evaluation and incubation stages, the final step of the creative process is to do something. While this may seem obvious, many ideas die before becoming tangible creative outputs. Keep motivating yourself to the end.

      There are various tools and techniques that can be used within these steps that I will cover in future posts.

      Creative autonomy: another cornerstone of creativity

      (Creative autonomy is the 5th of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

      Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
      Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
      Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
      Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
      Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
      Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
      Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
      Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

      Creative freedomThe essence of autonomy

      Which of the following in each pair is likely to be more creative?

      • Entrepreneur or salaried employee?
      • Retiree or overworked jobholder?
      • Citizen of a market economy or citizen of a totalitarian regime?

      Let’s think. The first person in each dyad has more “freedoms.” Entrepreneurs have more control over their work status. Retirees have more time flexibility. Democratic citizens have more rights. In theory that should increase their propensity toward creativity. Why? Because autonomy (or freedom) has been shown in many studies to have a positive impact on individual creativity.

      But of course, it’s not that simple. Autonomy does not cause creative output. It’s a contributing variable. Nevertheless, it’s an important factor to include in this series on creativity traits. Let’s dive into creative autonomy.

      Personal creative autonomy

      Think about the last time you experienced truly uninhibited creativity. It doesn’t matter if it was a musical or artistic effort. Or product development. Or landscaping. Just think about the emotion of being saturated with creativity. Chances are you felt in control. You didn’tCreative autonomy within organizations feel a need to ask permission. You had a vision and no one else was pulling your strings. That’s creative autonomy.

      In political parlance, autonomy means self-governance. It refers to independent countries that are free from external control or influence. Note the word external. Controls, resources and skills are still necessary to function; but they are primarily internal. Autonomy (i.e., self-governance) requires knowledge and skills to be self-sustaining. Otherwise everything falls apart.

      So it is with individuals. Autonomous individuals get things done in their own ways. But they DO get things done. They self-govern because they have several virtues. A vision to move beyond ideas. Unshakeable confidence (sometimes) and a belief in self. A broad understanding of what’s required for implementation and why.

      Balance autonomy and team creativity

      Highly autonomous individuals want to be “cut loose” from the constraints of corporate bureaucracy. They are rule-shakers rather than rule-takers. They are comfortable questioning norms and assumptions to “see what shakes out.”

      That can be a challenge for business. Companies strive to reduce risk by using templates and protocols and procedures. Yet these standard operating methods are often the constraints autonomous individuals abhor. A balance between laissez-faire and authoritarian approaches is necessary.

      Task autonomy – the degree to which individuals control how to perform creative tasks – can exist within the context of established goals and outcomes. And communication and coordination among team members must co-exist with the autonomy. Otherwise team creativity suffers.

      Increase your personal creative autonomy

      Here are  a few tips.

      1. Control your own plans and tasks. Don’t wait for others to “assign” everything to you. Identify barriers at work or home that restrict your independence. Determine what you can and can’t change. Follow through on reasonable changes.
      2. Boost your self-esteem. Stop worrying about what other people think. Don’t compare yourself to others. Avoid always surrounding yourself with people who agree with you. (While this may challenge your ego in the short term, it can boost your autonomy in the long term.)
      3. Be more positive. Compliment other people (including dissenters). Learn to graciously accept compliments, as well. This establishes a cycle of positive thinking (and/or breaks a cycle of negative thinking) that can raise your self-confidence.
      4. Do more things alone. Go to the museum, a movie, a restaurant or some other place by yourself. Observe and absorb things you might miss if you were part of a group.
      5. Be independently, spontaneously creative. Pursue something a bit outside of your comfort zone. Take responsibility for your own success. Invest in yourself through books, presentations, and tools to spark your creativity.
      6. As a rule-shaker, be aware of rules that govern your behavior. Challenge assumptions that everyone takes for granted. But also challenge yourself to be objective rather than stubborn.
      7. Maintain a do-what-it-takes work ethic. Relish achieving what others deem impossible or impractical. Even if it means creating a new path to get there. And be comfortable as an autonomous, independent thinker.
      8. Finally, once you are comfortable with autonomy, strive for a balance between individuality and conformity. Learn to communicate effectively. Listen to others. Share credit for their contributions to your creative ideas. Beware the dangers of unhealthy pride. Take care to avoid being a one-person relay race. Value the perspectives of others.

      Where to from here?

      As you observe and listen to others, you increase your perceptiveness to the world around you. I refer to that as being “tuned in,” as I’ll describe in the next post.