What do we need to do to develop creative thinking skills in IT?

I will be open and honest here, and let you all in on a bit of a secret of mine.  As someone who tends to live mostly on the left-hand side of my brain, I sometimes feel like a fish out of water when working with IT organisations. From a cultural perspective as well as the training and knowledge perspective, it seems that IT sits squarely on the right-hand side, dominated by critical and convergent thinking.  In IT, deep within our value system, we hold above all else: analytical approaches, sound logic, mathematical skills, operational excellence, a scientific mind and systems thinking.  Creative thinking doesn’t feature!

For much of what we do, in terms of the solutions we build and the technical designs we create, a logical and critical approach is great.  I want clarity of design when looking at complex and intricate integration issues!  I want clarity when looking at data architecture!  I want evidence for root cause analysis, trying to understand why things went wrong.  I want fairness of approach.  All these attributes are part of a critical thinking mindset.  So, we’re good there.

But only using that side is limiting, and especially on the softer side of IT, when it comes to aligning to and converging with the business, we need to flex some new muscles.  When we think about flipping IT on its head and having a customer-first strategy, one that is fit for a digital age, the lack of creative thinking, divergent skill sets and the lack of cultural support for these approaches is a cause for concern.

When building business cases, brainstorming new solutions, writing customer scenarios, exploring possibilities, performing strategic analysis or putting yourself in a customer’s shoes – all these require a different set of mental attributes.  This is where creative thinking comes in!  We need open, expensive and generative thinking.  “Out-of-the-box” thinking!

Most IT presentations, business cases, policies, the communications we present to the business on a day-to-day basis that should be influential and at least interesting, usually fall flat.  When I ask business people how they feel about sitting through any presentation from the IT department, the responses are always in the vein of “death by IT Powerpoint”.  I want to see more stories and more human-centered approaches to explaining the value and the quality of the IT we provide.  (N.B. I think agile gets part of the way there and its iterative approach and its desire to create more visible artefacts in the journey, from a customer use and value perspective get two thumbs up for me.)

In talking with a really great service delivery manager last week, we were discussing the challenge that she had in articulating some of the value that her organisation provided.  As she sat in an infrastructure and support/enablement type function, she felt ‘disconnected’ from the business.  Her team, and even at the management layer, had a hard time proving their work was affecting customer satisfaction – pulling through the golden thread is a value into the different things that she and her team were building from her organisation.  Most of the things they worked on were behind-the-scenes – it would be hard to even test or ask for customer feedback to see if the things we did were an improvement.  

How do you show in terms of usability and customer satisfaction a 1% or 2% increase in throughput on the wan or a decrease in browser pop-ups over the course of six months?  It’s not something that the user would ‘notice’, so we were brainstorming about how we could creatively tell that story back to IT management and the wider user base.  One of the ideas we came up with was to create a cartoon character that was a ninja who would be the mascot for all the things they did that were so stealthy and silent, no one even noticed.  The report back to management would be half of the things they could gather feedback on and show progressing well, the other half of the report would be a series of animated ninja characters showing the improvements and the value they provided.

What can you do?  A few things to start

  1. Be Brave – Creative thinking is hard and needs to be fostered.  Pick one area where a creative approach could help show the value, tell a story, sell a business case or the need for an upgrade.  Try to brainstorm approaches and remember the ground rules of divergent thinking – there are no wrong answers and no one gets to say ‘no’ to any idea in the first round!
  2. Raise the Visual Game – A bit of extra time spent to develop great visual skills for you and your teams will lift up the design quality of the materials IT department to provide to the business so that we look professional in their eyes.
  3. Coach Autocratic Analytics – I know we all know a brilliant technical expert who knows the way everything ‘can’t be done’ and all the reasons why it ‘won’t work’.  Jumping too quickly into convergent and analytical thinking kills creativity and brainstorming dead (fun fact: the human brain can only sit in one state at a time, so you can’t think in convergent and divergent ways quickly, we’re just not wired that way!).  They might not even know they are doing it – but a friendly word aside about exploring all possibilities even if they seem far-fetched and crazy during the brainstorming phase and asking for their support might help tame the cultural habit to analyse, critique and criticise too early.
  4. Support a Creative Culture – Remember: Creative thinking is a collaborative and co-creative state of being which needs to be embraced around the entire IT ecosystem if we’re going to be able to move forward.


Creativity is intelligence having fun – Albert Einstein