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How to harvest your creativity – a product management dilemma

Allow creativity to pour from you

I am an enthusiast. I read and discuss a lot about product management, not only because it’s what I do, but, before that, because the idea of creating things is so exciting for me. In order to create things, you must achieve the proper balance between absorbing external information — such as customers’ needs, market tendencies and technological possibilities — and internal vision — that insight that comes from within, a spark of creativity that takes you for a spin and makes the puzzle pieces come together.

Despite the fact there is a lot of information on how to fill in a lean canvas, build business models, craft a minimal viable product, collect and analyze data, pivot and find the market fit, I have a feeling the how-tos on the creative part of product management keep being left behind. I fully understand the subjectiveness of the matter makes a pedagogic, 12-step approach much more difficult. But the idea that creativity is based solely on raw talent is very strange to me, so I challenged myself to give a try in explaining how creativity can be achieved and perfected.

Creativity is the constant exposure of your inner self, and that takes guts!

Having studied painting (for 7 years), theater (for 10 years), music (for 6 years) and other art forms (I have a degree on film and have been writing fiction and poetry since I could write), I know first-hand that talent helps. I, for one, had innate talent in painting and drawing, but started out as a pretty lousy singer. At some point, I was reasonably good at both, and the same goes for the other art forms I practice. And that’s the key word: practice.

Talent is awesome, and something truly beautiful, but it only gets you so far. However, the common assumption is that creativity is innate, and not harvested, when in reality nothing could be further than the truth. That 5 year old violinist that sounds like Vanessa Mae? She busts her ass off by practicing. The painter who creates otherworldly images that make you understand what Kant meant by sublime? That person punched, burned, cut and tore countless canvas until she understood what brought her creativity to surface, and how to translate those feelings and sensations to brush strokes.

I am a PM and also a receiver of messages from beyond (no, not really)

Creativity is hard work! It’s experimenting, and making mistakes. For every brilliant interpretation, there were hours on end of singing off key. Yet, somehow, when we talk about brilliant ideas, we expect they just fall on our laps, as some infatuated muse with Pokémon Master aspirations whispers “I choose you”. It’s as if you had psychic powers, and you had suddenly channeled an entity that knows just what to do. In reality, there is no such thing, although there will be some moments in which a great idea will find its way to your conscience, giving you the feeling of an epiphany.

This was my first experience with the kantian sublime. I stood there, staring at the painting in pure delight for hours… A deep connection to the metaphysical overcoming my senses.

But can we dissect what a great idea, an epiphany, is? Throughout your life, you receive, store and process information. With product management, we focus a lot in how to gather information and understand it: analytics, interviews, dealing with stakeholders, measuring value, creating personae… And that’s extremely important, because creativity without input is just unattended hubris. Every artist creates for someone other than themselves, aiming to incite catharsis. Art moves, teaches, inspires and provides self-understanding to its spectator, and the artist must be in deep connection with herself and her spectator in order to achieve that. In a parallel analysis, the product manager should be able to deeply empathize with the customer and, at the same time, passionately create, again and again, products that channel that empathy. It’s hard work and empiricism much more than a single moment of epiphany.

My product is beautiful, you don’t see it ’cause you’re stoo-pid

I’ve talked to project managers that fall in love with that one idea, and grow attached to it no matter how much feedback they get pointing a need for pivoting. This is akin to a ballerina that feels a certain movement should be right, but as she lands, her pirouette falls off-balance, breaking the delicate suspension of disbelief and hypnosis her spectators hold. She will adjust the angle of her limbs, and eventually land in perfect grace, or repeat that movement and fall.

Inspect and adapt, aiming to improve spectator experience

As creators, we must also sharpen our creativity, by practicing creation all the time. We must look at the world considering everything that can be, and producing new ideas as we breathe. Everything can be improved. Every little habit, every little need, every action we take or see others take is the spark to ignite our dormant curiosity and produce the flame of a great idea. I get the feeling that, in this over-informed world, we tend to repeat what we hear instead of feeding from the informational excess and transforming all this data into creation. That should be seen as a daily exercise for product managers, but instead we misuse data, mistaking fuel for energy: we expect a survey will render us a list of requirements, when we should be searching for a list of needs we will create solutions for. When you collect solutions instead of problems, you abdicate your role as creator and become a mere requirement clerk, archiving and pushing features around.

Creating is neither pure inspiration, nor request collection. It is the art of walking on the thin line between data and emotion, perfected by exhaustive daily practice. It feeds on passion and failure, bitten nails and observation, until you get that one moment when you nail it! Just to start it all over again with the next adventure.

So what will you create today?

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