Creativity & Product Teams: Better Together Than Apart

Paul Sobocinski

Paul Sobocinski

Director of Engineering, Practice

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

When you think of product development, words that may come to mind are prototypes, market research, and user testing. Other words that probably surfaced are agile development, UX design, and innovation. But one that may not have made the short-list is likely: creativity. Product teams may not realize it, but they engage in creativity every single day from the approaches they take for building prototypes to figuring out ways to collect feedback accurately from users. Paul Sobocinski, our Director of Engineering, Practice shares how software product teams and creativity are better together than apart, and how to leverage the power of imagination (an aspect of creativity) during a retrospective.


You’re either creative or you’re not.  

That pretty much sums up popular and public opinion on the matter for much of the last 200 years. Education, longstanding, has done little but prop-up the idea that creativity was inherently something you’re born with. The selection of available “creatively-driven” classes all but proves it. This idea was further reinforced in the golden age of advertising, essentially segregating the people who did the creative work (design and copy) and the rest of the account services and business operations. 

And that popular and prevailing opinion about creativity is wrong. 

There are many misconceptions about creativity. Some people associate creative teaching with a lack of discipline in education. Others see creative ability as the preserve of a gifted few, rather than of the many; others associate it only with the arts. In our view, creativity is possible in all areas of human activity and all young people and adults have creative capacities. Developing these capacities involves a balance between teaching skills and understanding and promoting the freedom to innovate, and take risks. – Sir Ken Robinson

Inspired by the man quoted above and fueled by just how misunderstood and yet, truly applicable creativity is, I decided to closely examine the role it plays on software development and product teams. 

But before I do that, and in honour of the late, great Sir Ken Robinson, we’ll start with a bit of education, defining what creativity is, before we get into the value it has for product teams.

What is Creativity?

In his influential report titled, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.

While this definition was conceived in the context of education reform, it can be used as a means to improve the effectiveness of software product teams. Because fundamentally, these are teams that create and learn continuously. Software is created and shipped to the customer while the team evaluates the delivered product and the applied process in feedback cycles.

Creativity’s Five Elements

Elaborating on this definition, the report states any creative activity must satisfy five elements. These are summarized below:

  1. It pursues purpose: there is some intention behind the activity, whether it is to build a skill, create something of value in itself, or even simply play.
  2. It uses imagination: whether it is imaginal, imaginative, or imaginary, the mental experiences involved in using our imagination are a necessary co-requisite to creativity.
  3. It is original: whether the originality is individual, relative to one’s peers, or historic, it is inevitably present in any creative activity.
  4. It judges value: this happens when one reflects on and evaluates the output of their creative activity — were any mistakes made? How does it match with its original purpose?
  5. It is a process: for sustained creativity, there is an interplay between two modes of thought: generative and evaluative. The creative process is essentially bouncing back and forth between generating ideas and evaluating them.

Creativity on Software Product Teams

Two scenarios come to mind where software product teams engage creatively when delivering software:

Product – the team imagines an original product feature, builds and ships it to the customer, and finally evaluates its efficacy. Based on this evaluation, a new purpose is set by the team to either optimize the feature or pivot to a new one.

Process – the team imagines the best way of working together (guided, yet unfettered by existing guidelines). They agree on their own original approach on how to work together. A few weeks later, the team evaluates this way of working during a retrospective; during this activity, they reflect on what worked and what didn’t. They also revise their purposeful way of working by deciding on what old approaches to discard and what new approaches to experiment with.

Robinson’s definition of creativity maps naturally to software product teams — both the work that these teams do and how they do it. Consequently, a product team’s effectiveness can be interrogated through the lens of this definition.

Leveraging Imagination in Retrospectives

Imagination is multifaceted. In his book Imagine if…Creating A Future For Us All, Sir Ken Robinson describes three distinct mental experiences that are involved with imagination:

  1. Imaginal: bringing to mind images drawn from real experiences, for example, your favourite toy as a child or what you ate for lunch yesterday.
  2. Imaginative: bringing to mind images of things you have never experienced, such as a green dog on roller skates or a vision of how you might spend your next vacation.
  3. Imaginary: blending imaginative experiences with real ones, like a vivid dream, a hallucination, or the use of a metaphor.

Depending on the activity, any of the above can come into play during a retrospective. Here are some of my favourites (descriptions are courtesy of retromat.org):

  1. Mad Sad Glad (imaginal): Put up three posters labelled “mad,” “sad,” and “glad.” Team members write down one event per colour-coded card when they’ve felt that way. When the time is up, have everyone post their cards to the appropriate posters. Cluster the cards on each poster. Ask the group for cluster names. Debrief by asking:
    1. What’s standing out? What’s unexpected?
    2. What was difficult about this task? What was fun?
    3. What patterns do you see? What do they mean for you as a team?
    4. Suggestions on how to continue?
  1. Remember The Future (imaginative): Imagine you could time-travel to the end of the next iteration (or release). You learn that it was the best, most productive iteration yet! How do your future selves describe it? What do you see and hear?
    1. Give the team a little time to imagine this state and jot down some keywords to aid their memory.
    2. Let everyone describe their vision of a perfect iteration.
    3. Follow up with ‘What changes did we implement that resulted in such a productive and satisfying future?
    4. Write down the answers on index cards to use in the next activity.
  1. Sailboat (imaginary): Draw a sailboat onto a flip chart paper. Give it a strong sail as well as a heavy anchor. Add an iceberg to the back of the image. The iceberg represents obstacles the team foresees.
    1. Team members silently write on sticky notes what propelled the team forward, what kept it in place, and what obstacles they see coming. One idea per note.
    2. Post the stickies near the sail, anchor, and iceberg, respectively. Read each one out loud and discuss how you can increase “sails,” cut “anchors,” and avoid “icebergs.”

Final Thoughts

As product development practitioners, do we think of our work as creative?

In the past, I’ve thought of writing code as an act of creativity. A team optimizing its process? That, I’ll admit, never seemed like a creative activity to me. However, when I reflect on the brilliant insights and work done by Sir Ken Robinson around creativity, education, and the impact it has on our lives, it becomes clear that everything a software product team does can be thought of as inherently creative.

I think we will see leading software product teams optimizing entirely for creativity over productivity. These teams will not see creativity as a tradeoff or as an accommodation — they will see it as the core reason for their existence. Concurrently, business leaders will see their teams succeeding because of creativity, not in spite of it.

It’s an interesting thought and one that warrants greater consideration the more you dive into the power of creativity. But one thing I do believe is that we’re on a path to greater focus on creativity as a KPI, especially if we challenge our fundamental understanding of what it means to be creative. 

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