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Encourage Creativity

May 28th, 2007

A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts. - Richard BransonThe number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential. - Steve Ballmer

Software development is often seen as a purely analytical, linear, “left brain”, exercise. Many organizations manage software development projects this way and have a culture that rejects creativity by individual developers. However, many development projects also require a lot of “right brain”, fuzzy, non-linear, thinking to be their best or, in some cases, successful at all.

One thing I’ve noted about some of the best programmers I’ve worked with is that they also have some kind of artistic outside interest. My own guitar playing would be one example. I’ve worked with several excellent programmers who were also musicians. Others were painters, some were furniture makers, one even wrote novels and short stories. I suspect you’ll find a lot of “frustrated artists” in many IT organizations.

First, let’s not mistake creativity for general hacking a program together without a cohesive plan. To use a musical perspective, when playing in a group jam session everybody needs to know what key they’re playing in and at what tempo, when to take the lead and when to play rhythm, and so forth. In programming, this compares to tools, requirements and design specs that everyone agrees to use. Creativity isn’t simple chaos but the organization of thoughts that transform random bits of information into a useful whole.

Creativity isn’t just a coding thing. It can be used during the requirements gathering and design phase too. Creative “out of the box” collaborative thinking at this phase can greatly improve a project’s outcome. Handing developers a fixed spec and schedule that nips creativity in the bud will ultimately produce a weaker end product. You’ll get a Velvet Elvis rather than a Mona Lisa.

Many managers are concerned that if they allow creativity that the process will fall by the wayside. The overall development process is important, but it also has to support creative thinking. The goal is to make sure that the people on your team see that the process that’s implemented supports their creativity and doesn’t stifle it. Excessive time tracking, ‘TPS’ reports, required staff and company meetings and other such things can be creativity killers. Managers should use their own creative skills to eliminate useless tasks and to keep processes that insure not just a good, but a great, final product.

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Entry Filed under: Development Teams


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