For a number of years, I reported on the advertising industry, covering some ad agencies known for their creativity and some known for making more predictable, unexciting ads. I noticed that at the less creative agencies, people tended to more closely guard their ideas, keeping them in locked drawers as long as possible, fearing that someone in the next cubicle might copy an idea and take credit.
But at the more creative agencies, such as the renowned TBWA\Chiat\Day, ideas were posted on the wall soon after they were first scribbled on paper. The longtime creative director of the agency, Lee Clow, felt that a good idea should be able to withstand scrutiny — and that the creator of the idea would likely benefit from having others comment on it and offer suggestions. As for people stealing each other’s ideas? Clow explained that it was actually harder to steal an idea once it had been posted on the wall, because everybody knew who put it up there. Besides, at TBWA\Chiat\Day, nobody wanted to steal ideas, he said— they were having too much fun coming up with their own.
For most creative people in any field or discipline, I think the TBWA\Chiat\Day model is the better one to follow with regard to creative work that’s finished, or even partially finished. Get it out of the drawer and on the wall, in full view of others. Take standard precautionary measures—if it’s appropriate and relatively easy to copyright it, why not?—but don’t hold back work out of fear that someone will steal the idea or criticize it.
Author and marketing guru Seth Godin has a word he uses often and persuasively: ship. As Godin sees it, too many people are unwilling or unable to share their projects, dreams, and creations. They are leery of putting their ideas out into the world to see what will happen. They are afraid to ship.
People working on a creative project often are overly focused on finishing it — and they may worry that critical feedback will force them back to the drawing board.
And that fear is understandable. “Shipping is fraught with risk and danger,” Godin has written on his long-running blog, Seth’s Blog. “Every time you raise your hand, send an email, launch a product, or make a suggestion, you’re exposing yourself to criticism.” If you ship, Godin adds, “you might fail. If you ship, we might laugh at you.” But it’s the chance you must take as a creative person, because, as Godin puts it, “Real artists ship.”
And the most successful ones tend to ship often. In today’s intensely competitive marketplace, the more ideas and creations you put out there, the better your chances of breaking through. Creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton, who has conducted studies on successful creative people, says, “Creativity is a consequence of sheer productivity. If a creator wants to increase the production of hits, he or she must do so by risking a parallel increase in the production of misses… The most successful creators tend to be those with the most failures.”
To be able to ship often, you must be willing to ship early. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says, “We have the words ‘done is better than perfect’ painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.” Zuckerberg refers to the “hacker way” of creating things, which involves “quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once.”
For tech companies, this is not a new philosophy. Guy Kawasaki, who was responsible for marketing the Apple Macintosh when it was introduced in 1984, says the company could have held back and kept trying to make the product perfect, “But if you wait for ideal circumstances… the market will pass you by.” So Apple didn’t wait: “Revolutionary means you ship and then test,” Kawasaki says. “Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap — but it was a revolutionary piece of crap.”
Just as important as being willing to accept failure is the willingness to accept feedback. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, who work with the Harvard Negotiation Project and are co-authors of the book Thanks for the Feedback, point out that most of us have a built-in resistance to feedback. We have a strong need “to feel accepted, respected, and safe — just the way we are now,” according to the authors. So of course we can handle positive feedback, telling us our work is fine as is — but critical feedback is another matter.
However, as Adam Grant points out, “The only way to improve is to get negative feedback — so if you decide not to seek out criticism, you’re resigning yourself to stay at your current level of skill. Which to me is depressing.”
Grant points out that people working on a creative project are often overly focused on finishing it — and they may worry that critical feedback will force them back to the drawing board. But this means they’re focused on the wrong question, Grant says: “The key question is not ‘how can I get this project done?’ but rather, ‘how do I make it better?’” And in terms of the latter, feedback is essential.
In trying to convince his students to be more open to feedback, Grant sometimes asks them: Is your goal to stay at your current level of skill or to improve? When the question is framed that way, he says, almost everyone opts for improvement — and feedback.