An accountant, a lawyer, and a creative walk into a boardroom…it sounds like the set up to a joke, right? But when you’re the creative walking into that executive boardroom, it’s more frightening than funny. The first thought that goes through your head is: “Oh $#!%, what am I doing here?”
Technical, financial, and legal topics seems so far removed from the creative process. You fear losing your creative roots in a haze of suffocating seriousness. You’re ready to make a break for it.
How did I get here? How did I go from drawing comics as a kid, to designing information graphics as an intern at Newsday, to crafting ads, to building and leading a team of 100 creatives inside one of the world’s largest software companies, and finally, getting a seat at the executive table?
How? Creative thinking. It’s creative thinking that facilitates the journey from a rough sketch on a whiteboard to a shipped, marketable product. I’ve realized that when high-level executives meet, the connective tissue between initial ideas and the logistics of achieving a tangible outcome is often obscured. Big ideas are expressed briefly, without pausing to make concrete considerations for how to make them real. Conversation flits randomly between projects, teams, and strategies—sometimes without any discernible direction—because the next meeting or call takes priority in the moment.
That’s where creative thinking comes in. I have a seat at the executive table because creatives are pros at executing against abstract thoughts. Ideas based on snippets of conversation immediately begin to evolve in our minds as problems to solve. Creatives are hard-wired to question everything and to mix things up. We like to re-write old methods and point out new ways of going forward. We’re passionate about the processes that build a successful product or organization. Bringing a creative to the table means applying this malleable and inquisitive passion to the executive vision. Offering several possibilities—multiple story lines—exposes the executive team to the idea that there isn’t just one path to executing an idea.
“Ideas based on snippets of conversation immediately begin to evolve in our minds as problems to solve.”
Executive teams are realizing that bringing a creative to the table is like having a speechwriter, an infographic designer, an artist, and a presentation maker—all wrapped in one person, next to them when important topics are being discussed and critical decisions are being made.
Eric Hirschberg is CEO at Activision, one of the most valuable interactive companies in the world, and a great example of how a creative background helps solidify an executive vision. He talks about “turning unforeseen problems into unforeseen opportunities.” The idea is that creative thinking means being better suited for the potentially open-ended ambiguous problems that require the flexibility of mind I was talking about—the ability to think on your feet and transform a setback into an opportunity.
Being flexible—seeing more than one way to solve a problem—also has to do with the emotional intelligence that comes with creativity. Creatives can interject high-level conversations with a more colloquial tone, easing the gravity of the decision making and humanizing the situation. Bringing the creative culture to the boardroom and coaxing executives into lightening up, is part of what creatives contribute.
Another reason executives should value creative input is that it comes from a beginner’s mind. My background is not in software. I went to school for design—not business. Many of the people I work with every day have worked in the software industry for years, which means I bring a fresh perspective to things they have been looking at the same way for decades. This can be immensely valuable. A beginner will question things that the expert has always treated as the norm. Sometimes reimagining the simplest functions has the biggest impact.
Creatives need to be adaptable and think big—but I’m not talking about the “Big Ideas” advertising folks hold dear. If you want to be a professional creative, you can’t just brainstorm on demand for “viral” YouTube video ideas. You can’t just move pixels around a screen. You can’t just write code. You can’t just design processes. Don’t get me wrong: you have to be really good at what you do. But creative thinking goes beyond being a writer or a designer or a developer or an IA. It involves embracing your whole creative capacity. It is about creating beautiful and delightful experiences, and it’s also collaboration and leadership, using your passion about a project to making friends, and convincing the naysayers—and ultimately working outside of your comfort zone. And then—when you get the chance to sit down with the executives—you realize you, as a creative, have been training for this through your entire career.