Process and Creativity

One of my favorite paralogisms (and, sadly, I have several) is the fallacy of false opposites, more popularly known by such variants as the straw man argument or the fallacy of false alternatives. I like it because it’s a quick way of getting a conversation to us-versus-them, at which point any need for supporting argument goes swiftly out the window. What’s a Republican? Someone who doesn’t believe in unions, graduated tax or socialized healthcare. What’s a Democrat? One who doesn’t keep a loaded Glock beneath the pillow to defend home and hearth against early parolees and illegal immigrants. See how it works? It’s so easy, it ought to be illegal. (Republican again.)

Oppositional thinking spares us having to deal with nuanced or complex viewpoints, which is why the workplace is rife with it. If you’ve labored in a production environment of any size, one of the more depressing debates you’ve heard played out ad nauseum is process versus creativity. Planning versus design. Yang versus yin. Nessman versus Fever. (Full disclosure: I’m old.)

It’s rarely a fair fight. In large companies, particularly those with conflicted or top-heavy management structures, process has the advantage of incumbency… but in smaller production environments, you can put your money on the soul patch, because while creativity might get bloodied, process just doesn’t stand a chance in a close-quarters bare-knuckles brawl. Of course, production environments which are pathologically hostile to process rarely weather the marketplace for long, succumbing over time to the crushing entropy of too many late-night brainstorming sessions and too few paychecks. But while they’re solvent, they’re a hell of a fun place to work. (I do miss you, dot com snack room: your chilled Snapple, your mason jars of caramel corn, your startlingly wasteful sachet coffeemaker.)

Why would a company succumb to a lobotomized perspective which does little more than polarize the marketplace to the detriment of everyone? For many young companies, it’s an irresistible marketing ploy. Want to compete with an entrenched industry leader? Demonize them as a slow-moving bureaucratic behemoth, a morass of turgid thinking and pencil-pushing. Then position yourself as the opposite: a creative upstart, unafraid to break the rules, unencumbered by stale workflow and boilerplate documentation, a place where creativity outshines process. Hell, you’d hire you.

Of course, as every parent knows, sooner or later, the awkward child must become an adult, and then before you know it there’s another fresh-faced terror on the block, and the sad, slow dance begins again.

Companies which survive learn to tolerate process like any other unpleasant but necessary evil: street parking, life insurance, Nicholas Cage. And a few even learn to leverage process to their advantage, realizing on some level that it isn’t process which jeopardizes creativity; it’s formalism and laziness and fear.

Process and creativity can comfortably coexist, like sloats and weasels, as long as neither succeeds in eating the other’s lunch. Project managers need to know when to hold to the schedule, and when to suspend a fixed-cost project and allow for creative iteration (ideally on someone else’s dime). Designers need to be allowed to start at the mood board, or blue sky, stage, but also need to be sensitive to design patterns and not reinvent the wheel for the sake of visual innovation. Functional architects need to distinguish between usability design and visual design. Cross-functional collaboration, off-project practice groups, training plans, conferences and lunch-and-learns can all facilitate creative iteration within a hyper-proceduralized workplace.

When appropriate demarcation isn’t maintained between process and creativity, one of the two must invariably succumb. In evolutionary biology, this is known as the competitive exclusion principle. (In my house, this is also known as “Thunderdome.”) Competitive exclusion mandates that one predator must either die out, move on or evolve to target different resources (niche differentiation, a term which lives at the uncomfortable intersection of natural science and consumer marketing), resulting in the sort of environment unlikely to win accolades from departing employees. Yet rather than invest in a procedurally diverse, sustainable workforce, many companies choose to ignore this precarious homeostasis between process and creativity, believing perhaps that in the workplace, as in the playground, a natural order will emerge from the dusty scrabbling of small children.

Which would account, I suppose, for the weasels.

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