Todd Henry: An interview by Bob Morris

Todd Henry is the founder and CEO of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas.  He regularly speaks and consults with companies, both large and small, about how to develop practices and systems that lead to everyday brilliance. Todd’s work has been featured by Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, HBR.org, US News & World Report, and many other major media outlets. His book, The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, offers strategies for how to thrive in the creative marketplace and has been called “one of the best books to date on how to structure your ideas, and manage the creative process and work that comes out of it” by Jack Covert, author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time and founder of 800-CEO-READ.  You can connect with Todd here, or learn more about how to hire him to speak at your event or train your team.

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Morris: Before discussing The Accidental Creative, a few general questions. First, Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Henry:  I have a counter-intuitive answer to this. Probably the biggest influence on my personal growth was a 20th-century mystic and monk named Thomas Merton. It seems strange that a man who lived the biggest part of the late years of his life in isolation and contemplation would have much to say to a 21st-century, tech-immersed creative, but I found his writings to be deeply reflective on the nature of humanity, and also an illumination on the mechanics of doing important work.

If I were talking only about contemporary influences, I would have to say that I’ve been incredibly blessed to be around a group of mentors who, over a period of several years, really made it a project to develop me and help me understand both my capacity and my limitations. It was in this virtual incubator for leadership that I first discovered my voice and began reflecting deeply on the creative process.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow?

Henry: I was a leader in an organization trying to scale a team while helping them handle the pressures and demands we were facing, and in my effort to do so I reached out to several other creative directors who I knew would be dealing with the same issues. My biggest question for them was, “How do you serve your team, and help them do their best work without burning them out?” They stared at me like I was from another planet. “What you mean?” they almost unanimously asked. In other words, it had never occurred to them that it might be possible to exist in any create on-demand environment and be simultaneously healthy in the way you approach your work. This began a long journey for me of exploring whether or not it was possible to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy simultaneously in life and work. This research eventually led to my company, which now shares these insights with teams around the world, and then eventually to the book, The Accidental Creative.

Morris:To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?Henry:It may be cliché but I believe that the biggest contribution formal education made to my career accomplishments is that I learned how to structure my uncertainty and questions into a format that could be pursued and digested effectively. I learned to deal with ambiguity and suffer through process. When I was in school, information wasn’t so readily available, and there was more risk involved in pursuing a specific avenue of research. It was much more difficult (and costly!) to pivot mid-course, so it forced me to stay focused while going about my work. This allowed me to develop the capacity of deep, intermittent focus that has served me in my work as a professional creative.Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between creativity and innovation?

Henry: The definition of innovation I use is “progressive and useful change” which typically involves (or at least begins with) a creative act. Creativity, at the heart of it, is problem solving. A designer might solve a problem visually, while a manager might do so by thinking up a new system. But that creative act is only innovation once it’s applied and creates useful change.

Morris: What do you say in response to someone who says, “I’m just not creative”?

Henry: I would say they are wrong. We are all creative, because we all have the ability to solve problems and create value with our mind. I think the biggest reason people say “I’m not creative” is because they confuse creativity with art. The very act of holding a conversation – which most of us can do – is a creative act, because it’s based on improvisation! Once we re-frame creativity as problem-solving, it helps people see their own creative capacity in new ways.

Morris: Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” Do you agree with him?

Henry: Yes! Steven Johnson has called this the “slow hunch” and I agree. Brilliant work is most frequently the result of focused, laborious effort punctuated by moments of insight, all of which is driven by curiosity sourced in the slow hunch. It’s only when we stay with the problem long enough to recognize those anomalies that we are positioned for breakthroughs. To do this we must develop the ability to ask incisive questions. The questions are – in my opinion – far more important than the answers. Every answer must lead to a new question.

Morris: Here is another quotation, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” By what process can one get to “the other side of complexity”?

Henry: The trouble is that we get to the other side of complexity for a moment, only to find that there’s far more complexity to be conquered. The creative process is the perpetual assault on the beachhead of apathy, which means that we must fight a daily battle against our natural desire to stay in our comfort zone. Steven Pressfield calls this battling “Resistance” and I’m in 100% agreement. To get to those flashes of clarity – simplicity – requires persistent daily, and sometimes seemingly fruitless effort. At the same time, I don’t know that the illusion of simplicity lasts for long. Most creatives I know experience a brief, shining moment of satisfaction before they begin to see holes in their work. That’s what propels us to keep striving – the promise of greater clarity and simplicity.

Morris: Many major breakthroughs in creativity and innovation are the result of counter-intuitive thinking. For example, combining a wine press with separable type (Gutenberg and the printing press), removal of burrs from a pet’s hair with an attachment (George de Mestral and VELCRO), and leather softener with skin care (Mark Kay Cosmetics).

Here is my two-part question: What are the major differences between intuition and counter-intuition? What (if anything) do intuition and counter-intuition share in common?

Henry: I think intuition and counter-intuition are all about framing. A problem framed in a certain way leads to an intuitive solution. When framed in a different way, the same solution appears counter-intuitive. I believe that so much of this is determined by the focus of the individual solving the problem, and the stimuli that prompt their search for a solution. That’s why I believe it’s critical to maintain a proper level of focus on the true problems you’re trying to solve. If you don’t regularly define your work, you’re likely to drift and you’re less likely to notice those moments of intuitive or counter-intuitive serendipity.

Morris: Of all the books you have read, from which one have you learned the most about creativity and innovation? Please explain.

Henry: From an innovation standpoint, it’s really hard to top The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. He thoroughly nailed the dynamics of living and working in a marketplace that requires perpetual reinvention, and I believe also unintentionally defined the single biggest factors that cause creative professionals to feel frustrated, under-utilized, and disengaged in their daily work. Purely from a “mechanics of creativity” standpoint, I’d say that I learned the most from Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono. I also greatly enjoyed Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a synthesis of his research into creativity across multiple domains.

Morris: Within the last few years, there have been several excellent books published in which thought leaders such as Roger Martin, Chris Brown, and Roberto Verganti discuss the design of business. In your opinion, why has this subject attracted so much attention?

Henry: Over the past many years it’s become obvious that design can’t be an after-thought, because it’s actually good business as well. We are in an age where ideas flow freely and with less friction, and many of the traditional means of creating and distributing goods were based on creating friction rather than eliminating it. Great design is about eliminating friction so that consumers can identify, connect with, and consume what they want when they want it. Good design, from operations all the way through the final point-of-sale communication, is critical in eliminating that friction, especially now that consumers have so many choices.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which creativity and innovation are most stimulated, nourished, and when necessary, protected?

Henry: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, though many still try to find it. In my experience, the most innovative and productive workplace environments have less to do with physical space than psychological space. Is there clarity of purpose? Are we rewarded for the things that move the needle, such as taking measured risks, asking good questions, and spending ourselves on behalf of the work? Do we foster an environment of conversation, or of secrecy? No one goes to work in the morning hoping to crank out a mediocre pile of misery, yet over time our work environments either reward continual growth, or encourage systemic mediocrity. You’re either growing or dying, there is no stagnancy. But growth is difficult and messy, and requires persistent effort. Many give up when it’s “good enough.” (One of the best examinations I’ve read of teams who accomplished great, innovative things is Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.)

Morris: In terms of creativity and innovation, what unique challenges are posed by collaborative initiatives?Henry: The key issues are alignment and clarity. We need alignment of goals throughout the organization, which isn’t as easy as it sounds because it can’t be dictated, alignment of methodology, meaning that the timing of our outputs for certain parts of our team matches the timing of the inputs for others, clarity of communication between collaborators, and clarity of expectations even in the face of uncertainty. The most challenging thing is ensuring that decisions are made at the right time and communicated in such a way that they can become input for others. When this doesn’t happen, it creates a kind of organizational dissonance that begins to eat away at the clarity and drive of the team.

Morris: Cynthia Barton Rabe discusses several “innovation killers” in her eponymous book. You call them “assassins.” In your opinion, which is the single greatest threat to creative and innovative thinking? Why? How best to avoid or overcome it?

Henry: I believe the single greatest threat is fear. “Fear of failure” is when the perceived consequences of failure outweigh the perceived benefits of success, and it can prevent us from fully engaging in the process and short-circuit our best work. (The critical part of that this is “perceived”. We often escalate the perceived consequences well beyond truth. This causes us to partially engage, which sometimes confirms our fears, and perpetuates the cycle.) The more insidious form of fear is “fear of success”. This is often a collaborative endeavor. We are either (1) afraid of what potential success could mean for our future expectations individually or as a team, or (2) doubtful that we are truly capable of sustaining the success, so we’d rather shoot for slightly above average. It sounds odd, but I see this dynamic playing out all the time in organizations. The “bunting for singles” ethic is a very viable long-term strategy, but it often means sacrificing the best work of the team.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Accidental Creative. Please explain the reference to “accidental” in its title.

Henry: The title has two meanings. The first is that many of us who work with our mind on a daily basis, such as managers, consultants, and entrepreneurs didn’t sign up to be a “creative”, yet we are forced daily to generate ideas, solve problems, and otherwise create value with our minds. We are – in many ways – “accidental creatives.”

The second meaning is that the best creative ideas are often at the “accidental” intersection of two independent ideas. We call these “creative accidents”, and by being purposeful in how you structure your life you can better position yourself to experience them more frequently.

Morris: Do you really think it is possible to be brilliant “at a moment’s notice”?

Henry: Well, the punch line I deliver in the book is that if you want to be brilliant at a moment’s notice you must begin far upstream from the moment you need a brilliant idea. This begins with building practices that allow you a greater depth of focus, effective time management, and sufficient energy for the work you’re doing. So the answer is “yes” but it takes quite a bit of work.

Morris: What you characterize as “purposeful” training and preparation is precisely what K. Anders Ericsson has in mind when stressing the importance of “deliberate” practice to achieving peak performance. In fact, he insists that with rare exception, peak performance in the performing arts and athletic competition, for example, requires at least 10,000 hours of deliberate, iterative practice under strict, expert supervision.

Here’s my question for you: Does this suggest that peak performance in innovation and creativity is on “the other side of complexity”?

Henry: Perhaps. I think the key is to fall in love with process, rather than product. If you spend your whole life and career pursuing the perfect product, you are setting yourself up for potential disappointment. As Thomas Merton says, “The “latest’ is always stillborn. It never even manages to arrive.” However, if you fall in love with the process of innovation and the perpetual pursuit of simplicity, then I believe you will be far better served and probably do better work as a result.

Morris: You observe, “Creative work comes with a unique set of pressures.” To what extent (if any) can they be beneficial to the creative process? Please explain.

Henry: There is an intricate dance between possibilities and pragmatics within organizations. We need the pursuit of the possible, but the pragmatics allow us to stay within the rails. Pragmatics can drive us, but only to a certain extent. When organizations set up their expectations and incentives systems around pragmatics, rather than around the pursuit of possibility, it disincentivizes creatives from trying new things. They will nearly always default to (1) what meets the expectations of the organization/client, and (2) what allows me to feel like I did a reasonably good job? If we emphasize pragmatics, people will seek permission before taking chances. However, if we encourage ownership within the organization at every level, the pressure is inverted and the impetus is placed on the creative to challenge the boundaries of the project.

Morris: You cite the Orson Welles observation, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” What is its relevance to accidental creativity?

Henry: We need an established “playground” in which to do our work. If we understand the limits of the project, we know the scope of what we can try. Without an understanding of those limits, creatives tend to hover closer to the center of what’s expected. That’s why one of the key roles of the creative leader is to establish expectations, set boundaries, and provide clear (even if uncertain) direction.

Morris: What is “creative rhythm” and how best to [begin italics] sustain [end italics] it?

Henry: “Creative rhythm” is my term for the set of practices that undergird your creative process and support it even when things get chaotic and arrhythmic. By establishing these practices you are creating space for your mind to identify patterns and develop a greater sense of focus. There are five key areas in which I’ve found creatives who are prolific, brilliant, and healthy seem to intuitively build these practices: Focus (how they define their work), Relationships (who and how often they spend time with), Energy (how they manage and protect it), Stimuli (what they put into their head and why), and Hours (how they use time effectively, rather than just efficiently).

Morris: Why is the “Time-Versus-Value Tension” significant?

Henry: We are no longer paid for our time. Few of us punch a clock. We are compensated for the value we produce. Our company is making a bet that we will add more value to the bottom line than what we are paid to do our job. However, this introduces a unique set of questions for the creative: How much value is enough? When is a project finished? When am I officially “on” and “off” the clock? The result is that we are working longer hours and more constantly, and it creates a state of perpetual tension.

Morris: And the “Product-Versus-Process Tension”?

Henry: This means that we spend 99% of what we do as creatives in iteration mode, revising, and making the product better. In the end, however, we will be judged by someone based on the finished product without any understanding or consideration of the process by which it was created. In many organizations, where products are developed in silos, this can create severe misalignments and wasted energy, and generally make creatives feel misunderstood and underappreciated. With a little conversation and better mechanisms for staying aligned on expectations, much of this can be countermanded, but it takes intentional effort.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of each of the three “modes” you discuss in Chapter 4? Let’s begin with the “Drifter.”

Henry: The Drifter bounces from project to project and task to task, but doesn’t have a cohesive understanding of the flow of their work or the greater context for it. They are perpetual starters, but often don’t finish. This mode is useful for generating ideas, but is often ineffective at getting things done.

Morris: Next, the ”Driver‚”

Henry: The Driver will walk over you and any other obstacle to complete a project, and meanwhile will ignore any signs in the environment about how to improve the work or develop a better system for its completion. They are “nose down” and often ignore potentially useful environmental data. This causes them to miss a lot of opportunities.

Morris: Finally, the ”Developer‚”

Henry: The Developer alternates between hard and soft focus. They are able to see the scope of a project, then quickly lock in on a specific aspect and get it done. They are, in many ways, a combination of the Drifter and Driver because they can bounce between lots of disconnected data points, then lock in on patterns and get the work done.

Morris: As you know, Susan Cain has much of value to say about introversion in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. What are your own thoughts about introversion and its relevance to the creative process?

Henry: I agree with Susan that we need to value the role of introverts in the workplace. We have created an expectation that to be successful means to be boisterous and aggressive, or that ideas only come from highly interactive sessions, and this is simply not the case. In my experience, brilliant ideas come from a combination of interactivity and isolation. Interactive sessions are great for getting lots of potential ideas out on the table, but they are often only refined and made “market-ready” by people working in isolation and delving deeply into the implications of the idea.

Morris: Please explain the title of Chapter 6, “Energy: Your Invisible Ally.”

Henry: Energy is often overlooked in our quest to conquer our day. We stack meeting after meeting, and commitment after commitment, but we neglect to realize that if we have nothing to offer at that 5pm meeting we’re useless. We need to be better about managing our energy in order to be effective. One of the best stand-alone resources I’ve read on this is Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz. He offers a ton of practical advice for energy management.

Morris: What are “red zone” activities and why are they significant?

Henry: In American Football there is a part of the field called the Red Zone. It’s inside the twenty-yard-line on either end, and overall success or failure for a team is often determined within this very small sliver of the field. In the same way, we each have certain activities in our life that could be considered Red Zone Activities. These are the activities that we must perform flawlessly time and again in order to succeed, and they aren’t always tied directly to our job. For example, I’ve known for a long time that daily study is critical to my ability to stay sharp and on top of my game. That’s not going to show up on any list of client work I’m doing, but in order to stay fresh I know it’s a critical activity.

Morris: I agree with you about the importance of stimuli to creative and innovative thinking. However, frankly, I have become very concerned about excessive stimulation and what I guess could be characterized as “creative/innovative burn-out.” What are your own thoughts about all this?

Henry: I agree completely. We must be cautious to avoid the kind of over-stimuation that leads to a perpetual sense of randomness. This is where many of us spend our lives if we aren’t careful to curate the stimuli we allow into our brain. Also, it’s important to spend a significant amount of time processing the stimuli we absorb so that it’s applied to our work and doesn’t end up in the “stimulus landfill”. I encourage people I work with to spend a significant amount of time each day simply processing what they’re reading, their notes, and other stimuli that they’ve experienced in the previous twenty-four hours. If this doesn’t happen, key and valuable insights are often lost.

Morris: What are the essential components of an action plan to cultivate what you characterize as “higher quality stimuli”?

Henry: Higher quality stimuli are those that challenge you to think, that shift your perspective or beliefs in some way, or that expose you to ideas or opportunities you were previously unaware of. I like USC President Steven B. Sample’s challenge that we need to spend time “communing with great minds”. This, in my opinion, is what it means to incorporate higher quality stimuli.

Morris: In Chapter 9, you discuss various “checkpoints.” What are they and what are their specific benefits?

Henry: It is so easy, in the midst of the create-on-demand world, for our days and weeks to turn into one long run-on sentence. The Checkpoints (daily, weekly, monthly) are designed to punctuate this monotony and ensure that we are still on course with what we’re truly trying to accomplish. It allows us to ask key questions about our work and commit to certain practices that will help us stay fresh and engaged over the upcoming season. Just like road signs allow us to know when we’re still on course, the Checkpoints keep us aligned with what we’re trying to do in the long-arc of our life and work.

Morris: What are the primary purpose and greatest value of a Weekly Checkpoint?

Henry: The Weekly Checkpoint is a final sign-off and commitment to where you will be spending your time, energy, and focus in a given week. It’s the opportunity to re-commit to the practices you’ll be engaging in, and to ensure that there aren’t any potentially useful bits of data or information that need to be incorporated into your work. In other words, it’s a micro-alignment that’s designed to keep you from getting too far off course.

Morris: Of a Quarterly Checkpoint?

Henry: Many people do yearly reviews. I tend to believe that this is too long of an interval. We rarely have enough foresight to know what will truly be happening a year from now. Therefore, I’ve long encouraged a Quarterly Checkpoint as a way to ask the bigger questions about the direction of the work, and to ensure that none of the critical practices are being neglected. This is where I encourage creatives to ask and answer some of the deeper questions about the work they are doing, and to commit to specific practices over the coming season.

Morris: You offer an odd comparison in the final chapter: Steve Jobs and beavers. What do they share in common? What valuable lessons can we learn from them?

Henry: A beaver has more of an impact on the environment than nearly any other creature except man. Over time, it can turn a river into farmland or farmland into a lake. Yet a beaver doesn’t think about this strategically. It’s simply doing what it does – building dams. Similarly, I think that as creatives we need to be willing to commit ourselves to process – doing what we do – and sometimes let go of the big picture for a while. By simply doing what we’re wired to do day after day we will begin to see larger changes happening over time.

Morris: I agree with you about the value of “play,” especially within a workplace environment. In your opinion, why is play so important there?

Henry: Play allows us to suspend our concern about pragmatics for a while and simply dwell in possibility. When my children are playing, they’re not worried about deadlines or systems. They are simply making it up as they go. I believe the capacity to play is like a muscle and it must be developed, but once it is we can delve into “play mode” more easily an effectively in the midst of our work.

Morris: With regard to the “Word Bio,” what is yours?

Henry: “An arms dealer for the creative revolution.

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Todd cordially invites you to check out the resources at The Accidental Creative website by clicking here.

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