How messy do you like it?
Mess is inevitable. It is an essential part of any creative process and an unavoidable by-product of making anything new. You cannot innovate without it, and often it’s a case of the more mess the better. However we appear to have been seduced by the whole concept of production-line processes, efficiency drives and seductively linear Gantt Charts into thinking that mess is something that is undesirable, unnecessary, and able to be eliminated. Mess seems to be synonymous with waste, and both with failure.
But think about it. When have you ever been able to achieve a completely new outcome or change without mess? How could you have learned how to walk without falling over? How many lightbulbs did Edison throw away before he hit gold? How much chaff is disposed of in finding the valuable grains? How much mess do you make preparing a stir fry?
Mess is not an if, it’s a when. So when would you like yours?
Most business processes save theirs ‘til the end. Not by choice but by default. The choice they think they are making is not to have any at all, so there’s nowhere for it to go but last. Which is why 70% of all change programs fail, why 80% of innovations don’t make it to market and 90% of those that do fail, why 80% of workers are actively or passively disengaged with what they do (the most disengaged 20% costing their companies $10,000 each in profit a year), why only 10% of qualified sales leads are converted when experts say it could easily be 70%… and the list goes on.
The problem with this is that having the mess at the end is expensive. Much more expensive than building it in up front, when the stakes are much lower and the options of how to proceed are many. Just ask any successful entrepreneur.
Production Process vs Creative Process
Most businesses are modelled on production-line processes, but production-line processes are designed to reproduce existing outcomes, not to create or even predict new ones. Not to innovate. For that you need a creative process.
The creative process is structured around mess, which is what makes it both unpredictable and yet reliably successful. It is based on the premise that to create something new from existing resources requires new connections. Which means dismantling or breaking the old ones and playing 52 PickUp with the elements.
Artists know that for every brilliant photograph or sketch there were hundreds of ordinary – even awful – ones. That for every great ad or play that is produced, there are a graveyard of ideas that end up in the bottom drawer. That the better the novel, the more drafts and rewrites it was likely to have. That if a new idea has any merit it will make people uncomfortable.
I now know that when I paint, the piece will look like an incompetent mess for the first 80% of the process as I build up the layers of pigment, material and line and in so doing develop not just visual depth but a depth of understanding about the object I’m painting. And I’ve had to learn to just trust the process and live with the mess, knowing that out of that will eventually emerge the result I’m looking for. When I haven’t trusted it, when I’ve tried to draw the object too definitively too soon, the result is flat and ordinary and tight, and I then have to go back into the painting and ‘break it’; randomly throwing paint at it, gluing collage over it or even literally tearing the thing apart and sticking it back together.
Yet I see this ‘premature closure’ in businesses all the time. In the rush to get to the finish line following a predictable path, they are happy to replace messy upfront exploration with assumption and make it tidy, shutting down options and depth and relevance en route. To assume, as Henry Ford would allegedly have it, that what was needed was a faster horse rather than a motorcar.
David Kelley from IDEO observed that in his experience, clients want to skip the first two steps in the design thinking process (understanding and observation) and get straight into the brainstorming and prototyping steps – the outcome producing bits – without understanding that the value of those steps are totally determined by the first two. That without the exploration, the ideas are unlikely to be either truly innovative or relevant or successful. That the mess needs to go up front. That this is the absolute heart and soul and essence of the creative process. And that to rip this heart out is – as the roughly 80-90% failure rates attest – to deliver an expensive corpse at the end.
So if about 80% of any truly successful creative process is messy – when would you like yours?