Cozy in his cottage, tucked away in a Finnish forest outside of Heinola, Tom Jacobsson will gladly chat over his myriad life experiences, from his beekeeping hobby to his leadership roles in past companies big and small. “You know, before going into business, I was actually a professional musician,” he said, squaring himself up for one such story. I was talking to DK&A’s CEO about the Creative Sprint, a procedure that we’ve developed over the last year to assist companies with articulating actionable and innovative product visions. We discussed how a subjective, personal, ethereal process like creativity, could be treated pragmatically when he summoned his case in point.
Tom studied classical guitar at the Helsinki Conservatorium. “I’m so grateful that that’s the case,” Tom told me, explaining that when he was younger he considered musical theory to be a “waste of time.” But he came to appreciate having an education that grounded his music in a strong understanding of theory. “I had played rock, rhythm and blues, and jazz, but I wanted a totally different path: the classical road. It was like holy shit, this is really helpful! I can actually analyze what I just did!”
The Method Man
One could hardly do better than music to epitomize animal emotion and intuition. It’s a medium which can treat words as window dressing and shine with “yeah, baby, yeah.” On a cerebral level, a chorus may boil down to “na, na, na, na, na, na, na,” yet when Paul McCartney sings it, he can bring us to tears. In the information age, music is still perceived as an ineffable product of the soul. Technical innovation is attributed with the same ineffability and occasionally DK&A has seen skepticism of our process for encouraging it, the Creative Sprint. But Tom pointed to music as an example and strongly disagreed with that view.
No, music is definitely defined by methodology. If you try to teach music without any kind of framework, it’s much more difficult. Because it’s so logical once you understand the system. The relationships between different chords and scales. It makes things so much easier, but I’m not saying that it’s the only answer. Without it, it’s really, really difficult. It speeds up the process and gives you better tools to analyze the brilliant work of others, learn from it and improve your own output.
The Business Connection
It’s only recently that science has begun poking and prodding at the creative process. One proven principle of creativity is that it demands a breadth of knowledge rather than a depth. Creative thinking tends to come from individuals who can identify connections between areas of knowledge which otherwise appear to be unrelated. That’s where Tom’s past lives come in. “Musical theory is just one tool. It’s similar to what we’re trying to do with our customers.” Tom can connect his musical experience to his business experience. “Working ten years with Nokia, truly a product company, you understand the strength of the processes and methods because you have twenty thousand people working toward the same goal and you need to communicate where we are and what’s still missing. Without strong methodology, it’s impossible.”
In the relationship between Tom’s corporate and musical lives emerges the common need for creative process. “It doesn’t matter what methods or tools we use as long as good stuff comes out. If instinct and inspiration flows, you don’t need anything else, but for example when you have the basic line of melodies and harmonies and you start building on top of that, it helps a lot if you understand what the relevant notes and changes are. When you repeat product after product, year after year, you have to have methods to run the show.”
But Then There Was Apple
Tom explained some of the shortcomings he saw during his ten years at Nokia:
Nokia was bold, innovative, and very successful, but we were driven by engineering ideas. We were totally focused on building a slightly better camera, a slightly better this or that. And even worse, in many places it was driven by standards, which is the old fashioned telecom way. But then there was Apple.
But Then There Was Apple could eventually be the title of a 22nd century high school history textbook. With Apple, Steve Jobs etched his name into the record next to John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan as one of the titans of industry who managed to steer human development in a way that many national leaders would envy. He has gone down like Edison or Einstein as an example of brilliance and social value. For many, he’s a role model. But not quite for Tom.
Tom compared Jobs to Mozart. Both invaluable, but essentially black swans and not helpful role models for companies attempting to reproduce success. “They are so exceptional in so many ways that you can misinterpret them. There are a lot of characteristics of their personalities that we should remember. They had vision and they had the guts to realize it. We’re trying to help ‘Make the Invisible Visible’ which is what they did. Steve Jobs had a lot of inspiring characteristics to learn from, but when you get into the details, he wasn’t the easiest guy to work with.”
We call the Creative Sprint a process for collaborative creativity. Tom captured that in saying, “For me, vision typically involves more than one person. You want a winning team for sustainable innovation. It’s a team effort and it will happen more than once. That’s why we pay so much attention to culture. I want to have an environment in which people will talk about ideas, get their ideas out, and have them heard.”
Collaboration from start to finish means more people own a product, take responsibility for it, and contribute to it reliably. Just like Tom’s breadth of experience contributes to his creative connections, deep expertise could play a creative role within a diverse team of specialists. The Creative Sprint is DK&A’s proposal for a reliable creative engine within a company and each team member involved is a piston in that engine. While we tend to think of inspiration as spontaneous, Tom pointed out that a company usually needs more consistent results than that, “The best ideas may come with instinct and the decision-making is happening that way, but you want to be able to repeat the good things and put your focus on things you can plan. If you don’t have your methodologies in place, it’s a very random way to run your business.”
DK&A identifies the crux of collaborative creativity to be articulation of new ideas. Every new product eventually must be explained to its audience and by focusing on ideas that can be easily articulated, the Creative Sprint aims for robust concepts worth pursuing, that will survive even narrow communication bandwidths. However, the Creative Sprint primarily uses idea articulation to tackle a larger challenge of innovation head-on. As Tom put it:
The whole innovation challenge could be as easy as getting much more clarity on your aims and direction. Once you have this clarity you can focus on the problems you need to solve. For me creativity is about reaching clarity, diminishing noise, breaking one hundred ideas down to just one or two ideas and getting them out to market. For me, it’s rather pragmatic and every company can use it.
After discussing Steve Jobs’ superhuman impact, Tom was reminded of a story he heard about Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
He was really relieved when he signed his first big contract with a German music publisher, which happened to be the same one that published Beethoven. Sibelius was able to read the original manuscript of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, his last symphony, and he could see that the triumphant last verse of the symphony that everyone knows had been rewritten several times with an enormous amount of notes. Sibelius worked very hard on his music, thinking for weeks over version after version of one part of a song. He had come to believe that he was the only composer who struggled until he saw that Beethoven was the same.
If Sibelius and Beethoven could admit to being human, I could see why Tom thought we should too. Their brand of genius has a name: work. When Tom studied guitar, he practiced for six to twelve hours a day. “The best players in the world have pretty much the same agenda, starting with technical exercises before breakfast and filling the day learning old and new songs. Like top athletes, they dedicate their full day.” Brilliance is not inherited, it is achieved.
The Flow State
Flow is a well researched psychological state in which joy and performance are maximized for a person intensely focused on an activity. Tom felt that flow was crucial to enabling our best work, but that achieving it would not happen with a quick fix:
Part of the flow state is that you’ve got to have a lot of theories, methodologies, tools, and techniques that you learn over years and years to achieve fluency. When I was practicing guitar for twelve hours a day, there was no creativity involved, but once you have done all that work , then you may have moments in the flow state. I don’t think you get into the flow state the first time or the second time, but once you are in that very skilled state, you can start trusting your instincts.
For all intents and purposes, the creative process was not fundamentally different or less practical than any other process, as Tom saw it.
We are trying to find methods and pragmatic ways to spark good ideas. We’re not trying anything romantic here. We want to help make our customers get better at what they do and learn with them, rule out the bad ideas and find the better faster.
In the Creative Sprint, we say Quantity is Quality. Our best work is often the result of trial and error and a lot of elbow grease, but even that demands an analytical routine to ensure progress. With enough commitment, a team can achieve great things without waiting to recruit a genius. The secret is in learning from the innovators who came before us. Their processes and commitment to work have served as the basis of DK&A’s Creative Sprint.