When we peel back the planning, strategy design, project management, and technical implementation layers of any creation, we see something more intuitive. More human. And that’s the desire to “create.”

Terms such as “innovation,” “research and development,” and “discovery” capture the adventure of the creative process. But garnering that same intensity in a workplace, let alone one’s personal life is not always the most accessible trail. In this post, I dive into some tools we employ as a team to foster creative innovation while also making reflections from another part of my life as a musician.

As a musician, I’ve gone through many periods of creative productivity. “Writer’s block,” as some may relate to, is the most frustrating. A quick online search generates tons of books on how to overcome creative dry spells. Meditation, exercise, and just taking a good ol’ break are some of the well-known remedies. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from songwriting and performing, it’s that the creative process requires gentle nurturing. And just like music production, technology product development is no stranger to creative dry spells.

So, what are some of the tools we employ as a team to foster creative technology product development?

Make Innovation a Goal

Life is filled with metrics—whether they are self-imposed or societally expected. And when it comes to research and development, goal setting is one of the simplest innovation methods.

This year, we set out to develop three new products for our internal projects. While this is an open-ended target and “product” is open for interpretation, having marks gives our team a common understanding of the collective goal. Goals help us focus on something other than the daily deluge of emails, the requirements to maintain existing systems and processes, messages from coworkers, and ever-growing to-do lists. Sometimes our goals are simply planning downtime to independently think or collaboratively brainstorm to successfully develop innovative products.

Promote Life-Long Learning

Continuous learning is the new normal. When I have “creative block,” I find that taking classes or learning a new song helps me break free. A few years ago, when I was tired with my playing, I signed up for a course that not only changed my perspective on my instrument but opened a new period of growth. As a work team, we encourage everyone to take practices that strengthen their current skillset and/or complement their role. We also encourage everyone to take said courses during the workday and take advantage of the professional development funds to support their learning.

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[Photo credit: Flickr - Photosteve101]

Look for Ideas Everywhere

As careers progress, it can be easy to fall into habits and assumptions of what works and what doesn’t. At DAI, and the Center for Digital Acceleration more specifically, we try not to focus on our own ideas. Instead, we look for ideas around us in our own environments and workspaces to yield dynamic products. Our best applications have come from collaborating across the company to identify common pain points to develop need-based solutions.

Not All Work Will be Immediately Useful

When creating products, it’s essential to accept that not everything built will be immediately valuable. It’s like writing a verse that sits on a shelf only to be pulled out later. Or creating version 1 and only liking parts of it. Technology products can often be the same way. Maybe we set out to build something just to find that the component we took for granted was the product everyone wanted. Or perhaps the whole concept needs to be thrown out to focus on something new. Accepting this helps ensure that you don’t hit a wall.

Promote Boredom

As a musician and product professional, some of my best work has happened during times of boredom. Since I’ve had kids, I now find boredom hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t experience it. In those moments, I embrace the boredom and find moments to create. At work, on any given day, our team could be engaged in up to 50 projects at DAI—making boredom practically nonexistent. But in those moments of continuous productivity, I try to encourage people to not overcommit. When you’re bored, try something new. And when you’re busy, take a moment to experience some downtime and experiment with some new ideas.

Staying Creative Through Adversity

David Byrne, the musician most well-known for his work with the Talking Heads band, spoke about the role of “context” in fostering creativity. In an interview with National Public Radio a year ago, he said the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected his creative process. He mentioned that without an audience, something was “missing” for him. I can’t help but think that technology product development is the same way. The pandemic has made developing innovative solutions uniquely challenging. Over the past year and a half, we’ve had to adapt to the challenges of working remotely.

Whether you are an individual contributor on a technical project or a project manager coordinating complex sets of interrelated components—I’m sure you have your own methods for staying creative, motivated, and excited about your work. We would love to hear from you about what tools you use to foster innovation.