How I Use Visualization To Drive Creativity

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This is a guest post by Mark Suster, a 2x entrepreneur turned VC.  He sold his second company to Salesforce.com, becoming VP of Product Management. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner focusing on early-stage technology companies. Read more about Suster on his blog at Bothsidesofthetable and on Twitter at @msuster.

Creativity.  I’ve always believed it’s been one of the most important attributes of business success yet something very few business leaders talk about.  So I thought I’d write a post about how I drive my personal creativity.

As a practitioner of creativity rather than as an instructor of it I’m certain that there are many ways to get the creative juices flowing and how to release more creativity.  The one that works best for me is visualization coupled with self talk.

Visualization is so important to help yourself & others conceptualize ideas.  It’s why I always work hard to find images for my blog posts & why all of my keynote presentations are visual rather than bullet points with words.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is a long post, so I put an executive summary here if you want to get the point without reading all the detail. If you plan to read the post you can skip the summary if you want.

  • Almost all business success relies on creativity. This applies equally to VCs, startups & big company executives
  • Despite the importance of creativity, there seems to be almost no focus on teaching it, encouraging it, training at it & incorporating it into our daily routines. The need for creativity extends well beyond product design.
  • Many people are visual thinkers. Therefore to drive creativity people need to do visual brainstorming
  • You need to find what works for you to put yourself in that environment and learn how to do “self talk,” learn how to create visual charts, learn how to test & iterate ideas and the learn how to effectively communicate results.
  • For me I can only do this by myself. I think team sessions are better for testing ideas than for original thought, but that’s me. Solitude & creativity go hand-in-hand.
  • I use tools to invoke my creatieve self.  One example is driving, which has an actual physiological reason it makes you creative. The key is channeling what you learn when you drive onto paper for retention purposes so you have to write it down soon afterward
  • One of the books that first made me aware of the “creative brain” was “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.  It’s a book about creating art but shows how an artist’s mind gets “into the zone,” how creativity can be invoked, and why looking at what you create in a different way than the rational mind would conceive is an important part of creativity.  She literally encourages you to draw things upside down.
  • Other ways I drive creativity are time pressure, showers & occasionally wine. All are known creativity drivers and are covered in the book mentioned above.  For others they swear by music.  I personally find music more distracting than helpful.
  • Adding structure to creativity is not an oxymoron. It’s how you codify your ideas
  • Like anything, creativity takes practice.  There’s no such thing as “not being a creative person.”  Some people are more creative than others but it’s within us all.  You just have to dedicate yourself to a wanting to tap your creative juices.
  • I apply visual thinking for nearly everything I do: preparing for important phone calls (I imagine my opening lines, I imagine the responses), writing keynote presentations, deciding whether or not to invest in a company, preparing for board meetings – you name it.  These are all creative processes.
  • Visualization is a well known technique in professional sports where the difference between winning & losing is often psychological more than physical.  If it can work for them, it can work for you.

THE DETAILS

What exactly is visualization? – It is exactly as it sounds.  The process of visualization is literally imagining or seeing things in your mind.  When I need to give a speech and I’m writing a slide for my deck, I think up the story in my mind that I’m going to tell for this slide.  I literally imagine myself on stage saying the words.  I think about how the audience might react and whether if I were in the audience I would be intrigued.

It’s why before every speech I call the organizer and drill them about who will be in the audience.  I want to know how many people, their level of tech sophistication, their age and their interests.  I look carefully at who is speaking before me.  In order to visualize how an audience will receive my presentation I have to be able to imagine the whole situation.

When I write a blog post I often see the words before I write them.  If I know I have a topic I’m interested in writing about many times I’ll literally think whole sentences in my mind as a test drive before I ever sit at the computer and type.

Strange, I know.  But for many people the most important driver of innovation is this kind of visualization & self talk.  Yet it almost sounds too strange or mystical and as a result I seldom hear leaders talk about it.  So I thought I would.

Creativity in our business lives – The average tech startup these days spends time talking with colleagues & investors about a multitude of things: customer acquisition, viral adoption, raising capital, hiring / firing employees, product features, technology trends, marketing / branding, and on and on.  I hear very little discussion ever about how to be more creative.

It’s ironic because I believe creativity is the most important success criterion for a startup.  And if we’re reflective, it’s also one of the most important success criteria for investors, senior executives, tech writers and virtually anybody involved in business leadership.  Yet most startups seem to constrain creativity to product design.  That’s a shame.

Creativity is what helps us think of our ideas in the first place.  It’s what helps us imagine what feature sets would be most appealing.  It’s how we package our company story and drive our press coverage.  As a VC it’s how I think through which markets will be attractive in the future, which ones I want to be in now and how the technology & business world will likely evolve.  Without creativity I’d simply invest in the trends I’m seeing on TechCrunch which I inherently believe means I would be investing in what has already happend rather than imagining what could be.

When I make important phone calls I literally play out the start of the call in my mind’s eye before I ever pick up the phone.  I imagine myself saying my opening line and put myself in the shoes of the receiver to think about how they’ll react.

There is not a single important business function I do that doesn’t involve creativity.  And whether I’m preparing to attend a board meeting, I’m planning to lead a strategic discussion with an executive team, or whether I’m preparing for a TV interview – I use the same process.

The creative process - Whenever I need to do any task that requires insight I have to be able to visualize – to literally SEE the decision framework.  Many people are visual thinkers.  I often start with a blank piece of paper & a pen and start doodling. I try to visually deconstruct the problem with boxes, arrows, circles & other shapes.  I add words & ideas.  I try to figure out the structure of the component parts.  I start to build in metaphors for what I’m thinking about.  I roll up metaphors into a narrative or theme that has coherence.

I know this sounds abstract so let me give you an example from this week.

I recently invested in a company in the media & entertainment sector (this will be announced in a couple of months) so I’ve been thinking a lot about how the industry works, why the structure has evolved the way it did, why the company I invested in has had so much success and what this all implies for the future.  I had to do all of this in order to get comfortable that the company had a scalable & sustainable advantage and to think through the threats I thought they would encounter.

I started to build this into a media & entertainment value chain that broke down the components of the industry into discrete parts.  I put my definitions on them because I didn’t want my thinking to be constrained by industry-defined boundaries or definitions.  From left to right I wrote in boxes: talent discovery, content development, production, post-production, distribution, & marketing.  Underpinning it all I wrote: sales, asset management, analytics & talent management.

I used these boxes to imagine what existing film, tv, radio & print media companies did in each of these areas.  Were they vertically integrated?  If so, why?  Did they dominate one or two areas?  How did they come to do so?  Why do cable & satellite companies force us to take content “bundles” that cost more than we want and have content we don’t watch.  Why?  Who else is complicit and equally bound by The Innovator’s Dilemma?  Will this hold in the future?

Where do the new entrants like YouTube, Pandora, iTunes, Huffington Post, Boxee, Netflix, Demand Media and other disruptive offerings fit into that equation and how is it changing?  How much power does Google have due to search? How does social media on Facebook & Twitter change things?

If the past required us to watch in a linear, time-based TV show that favored a grid-like TV Guide or electronic programming guides (EPGs), how will we find & discover content in the world of over-abundance? Can the market support new entrants like Clicker or will it favor the old guard like Rovi?  If this appointment television had a 22-minute structure, is there a reason to expect that time allotment in the future? Why?

I wrote my initial conclusions in a post on The Future of Television & The Digital Living Room.  If you read the post you’ll literally see the dissection of the topic in the way I saw it in my head.

But as I contemplate the future world I asked myself this new set of questions and I literally thought about each topic in my head and I scribbled notes onto my page.  I moved the boxes around, I changed where the arrows went, I drew bullet points underneath each box.  I rewrote the page 7-10 times.  Writing it & re-writing it is not a problem – it is part of the creative process for me.

By having thought through the issues I can now begin the process of talking with industry people about this topic and why it works how it works.  I can ask for feedback in a focused way rather than a vague way.  “In which situations do you start with talent and built content that matches their talents and in which situation do you write the storyline first?” My framework gives me a deeper understanding of the sector.

Creativity & structure are not mutually exclusive – We associate creativity with the right side of our brain and logic or structure with the left side of our brains.  So having structure with creativity sounds like an oxymoron.  It is not.  In every brainstorming session I have (with myself) I start by scribbling down ideas in a rapid, free form way and then I look for structure.  As I already spoke about, when I do it with paper I often draw shapes, words, lines & bullet points and then think out loud in my head with self talk to think about how they’re connected.

I have a process I use for blog posts, too.  The ideas themselves almost always come from an idea I had in discussions with others as part of my daily working life.  I then mull them over in my head when I’m jogging, when I’m driving or when I’m laying in bed.  I visualize the blog title and think about whether it will be impactful.  I often start thinking about sentences and constructing them in my head.  I think about what the key points are.

From there I add the title into WordPress. I probably have about 30 blog titles tee’d up to write for any day that I sit down.  I never really come to WordPress and think, “what should I write about today?”  Either it’s a thought I’ve had and have to get out of my head, or something I’m reacting to because I read a post that I want to respond to or – as is usually the case – I look through my titles and think, “which one am I passionate about today?”

And here’s where the formal structure comes in.  I almost always break up my post into sections before I write.  Just as in this post, I thought about the structure before letting the words flow out of my head and on to the screen. I organize the components of the topic, I write the section headings, I think about them each as individual titles, I think about whether the order flows and whether the overall narrative holds.

In a way, I’ve written the whole thing before a detailed word comes out of my head.  Then it’s just a function of writing each section, re-reading to test for flow, attempting to edit a bit and then hit publish.

I then think visually about the post.  I imagine people reading it.  I wonder whether it will make an impact.  If I think I’ve missed the mark I either delay publishing it or I rewrite sections.  Or – like today – I decide it’s too long for most readers but I still want to get all my thoughts out so I decide to add an executive summary for those with less time or interest.

But to be clear – it is structure that underpins my creative process.  Always.  Free form, then aggregation, then organization, then structure, then words, then metaphors, then narrative, then publish.  I becomes predictable and repeatable.

The importance of solitude – I don’t believe in group creativity.  I understand that some people do.  They work well with a facilitator and they learn from hearing other people’s ideas.  Not me.  I really need a quite space, a blank canvass, a pen or keyboard, an objective, and enough time for ideas to flow.  In a group if I have a creative spark I have no time for it to marinate as other people begin speaking.

To be clear – V1 of my ideas are never the best I can do.  Once I have my ideas I then like to bring them to a public setting and take them for a test drive.  Debate is one of the most important ingredients in innovation.  But I like to show up to the debate with my “strawman” ideas rather than thinking about a topic for the first time.  It all starts on my own.

Time pressure & creativity - I’ve written about “The Urgency Addiction” before.  The premise is that many people focus on stuff that’s urgent & important when we should really focus on what’s not urgent & important.  But people like me thrive on urgency.  For whatever reason it’s what gets my creative juices going.  I think that without a deadline my mind wanders too much on other tasks.  Knowing that I’m doing a speech in the morning in front of 200 people has a funny way of focusing my mind the night before if I haven’t finished my deck.  I have a high fear of failure that acts as my safety net.

In the urgency post I talked about creating artificial deadlines that get you to dig into the same creative urgency while giving yourself a buffer to refine your ideas.  I spoke at the NextGen conference last week to a large audience.  It was on a Wednesday and I was traveling to be there.  I knew I’d have 7 other meetings the day before so I told myself that I HAD to finish the deck on Sunday night to avoid pulling an all-nighter on Tuesday and getting myself sick.  And that did the trick.

I decided the topic – “All the things I effed up at my first company.”  It was a conference for mostly college undergraduate students or recent graduates.  First time wantrepreneurs.  So I thought this would be a good topic.  I then took 20 blank Powerpoint pages.  I brainstormed the things I had messed up and wrote a title for each: raised too much money, wasn’t passionate about the industry, hired too senior of people, built too many products & over spec’d them, internationalized too early, etc.

Next, I imagined a story I would tell for each topic and what image would represent that story.  I spent time on istockphoto and Google Images getting the images just right.  And in 2 hours I was done.  I woke up early the day of the presentation and I practiced the stories in my head.  I did self talk.  I visualized whether the story would be well received.  I tweaked a couple of titles and changed 2 pictures that didn’t sit right with me.  And then done.  If you’re interested the deck is here.

Things I Effed Up at my First Company

Invoking the creative brain – Have you ever noticed that you have more creative thoughts when you’re on a long drive?  For years I felt this and never understood why until I read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” a book by Betty Edwards that talks about the creative process in art.  When you drive you’re forced to deal with 3D visual stimulation coming at you in a continual stream.  Your brain has to process this information and the process of dealing with all of this visual stimulus forces you into “right brain thinking” and when you’re in that zone you’re tapping into your creative potential.

Apparently what artists do when they sit at their canvass or when they record songs is get into this right-brain creative zone.  Artists often have more right-brain thinkings skills and so it comes more naturally.  For us left-brain thinkers we need to find ways to get into the zone.  When I’m in a creative zone I literally feel like an artist at work.

When I start scribbling on paper and am able to “see” solutions to problems or outline industry structures I feel “in the zone” and what I’ve learned over the years is that I need to have the right environment and stimuli.  That’s why I talk about the importance of being alone, my need for silence, having blank paper for scribbling notes furiously, applying time pressure and forcing myself to do unconstrained writing, which can be organized into patterns when I have a chance to read it later.

In addition to driving Ms. Edwards talks about the other natural activity that invokes creativity – taking a shower.  I’m sure you’ve noticed you’ve had creative thoughts in the shower before.  Be open to it.  I also get into the zone when I’m running and occasionally after a glass of wine.

One of the most interesting more recent things I’ve noticed lately is that Guitar Hero has the same impact on me as driving.  I’m forced to look at colors dropping rapidly on my TV and I have to hit the keys on my plastic guitar in rapid sequence.  There’s no way to deal with the falling colors logically so you literally start to “feel” the notes dropping and your fingers start to respond to your visual stimulus without rational thought.  This is the best way I can describe “the zone” to anyone who doesn’t regularly experience it.

Reworking human interactions back into your creative design – I’ve talked a lot about my need to be creative on my own but as we all know it’s the power of human interactions that improves our thinking.  For me it’s just a question of when I bring other people into my process.  My first ideas never survive contact with others.  I’ll walk my model around several smart & informed people on any topic.  I’ll practice my arguments and hear how they respond.

Sometimes it is by presenting to my colleagues and debating.  Sometimes it is by speaking at a conference in the way that comedians test drive their material at small venues before taking their shows on the road.  They use audience reactions to refine their craft.  I also feed off of the energy of others.  My ideas morph the way your products do when you test them with customers and watch how they use them.

Being creative in an ADD world - Sitting at your computer can often detract from creativity, which is why I often do it with paper & pen and in a room with no computer.  The problem I have on the computer is that there are always distractions to pull me away from my brainstorming.  I look up at the tabs in Chrome and see that there are two new @ messages to me in Twitter.  Somebody IM’s me in Gmail.  I feel like looking at the headlines on NYTimes.  I hear a bell ring in Outlook telling me, “you’ve got mail!”

I handle this in three ways.  Really important innovative thinking I do with pen & paper.  If I need to innovate on my computer I try to turn off all my external stimuli (e.g. close email) so I can stay focused. Or if I’m struggling to get into the flow I take an ADD distraction break over on email or Twitter and come back to my brainstorming session 20 minutes later.

Summary / Putting it Into Action:

  • Allocate enough time in your weekly routine for “being creative”
  • Find ways to invoke your creativity (driving, shower, wine, music) and learn what your best environment is (quite vs. music, alone vs. group)
  • Develop & refine a process. It might be similar to mine: write, organize, shape, move objects, add bullet points, develop stories, etc. Or your process might be different.  But you need a process for innovation.  It doesn’t just happen.
  • Test your ideas with others, seek feedback, refine.
  • Have fun.  That’s what the creative process is supposed to be.
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