Drill Bits and Butterflies

Posted on January 22, 2013
Translucent Glasswinged Butterfly

Image credit Reg Saddler

I had yesterday off. I’m not sure why some companies consider Martin Luther King Jr. day a national holiday and others don’t, but ours did, and I made good use of it.

I woke up around 8 o’clock to a panic stricken doorbell slamming followed by obsessive pounding on the front door. Our over-zealous maintenance lady wanted to check our apartment’s heating system. I left our super a voicemail last week about the heat not turning on consistently, and I specifically said, “DO NOT COME BEFORE 11 O’CLOCK!”. Whatever.

Regardless of rude awakening, I was up, so I decided to get an early start on some web development work for my startup, Triberr. Dino Dogan and I have been building Triberr for almost two years now, and the time has come for a massive redesign.

We completed the graphic design portion last week, and now we’re move on to connecting the interface to our database so things actually function. My goal for the day was to get the new Tribal Stream working, and I did, but it took me 12 straight hours of coding. For those not on Triberr, the Tribal Stream is similar to Facebook’s news feed. It’s the core of the site that has to be great, or people won’t use the site.

At about 10 o’clock at night, Dino hits me up on Skype. He’s very excited about a new idea – a completely reimagined Tribal Stream. Now you could probably imagine how I felt about blowing up the Tribal Stream I just spent my day creating. Needless to say it didn’t bring a huge smile to my face, but I heard him out, and we ended the call with his usual, “Just sleep on it” closing argument. “Fine” I thought, now back to the task at hand – finishing the Tribal Stream.

An hour later Dino pings me on Skype again. He’s got a few more reasons why we should implement his new re-imagined Tribal Stream. At this point I was like, “Look, your excitement level for this is a 9 right now. Mine is a 2. We need to get within 2 or 3 points of each other for us to continue the conversation”. It’s true, I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to objectively evaluate a new, crazy idea. To me it was solving a problem that didn’t exist, and I had real trouble trying to visualize what this might look like on the site. I was the drill bit, Dino the butterfly.

Critical vs Creative

People are usually typically critical or creative thinkers.
Critical thinking is a very deep, focused way to think about problem. It involves precise, persistent analysis of the issue at hand. For example, artists who need to either write a lot of music, or perhaps finish their novel, tend to take a writing retreat where they leave behind the distractions of their current environment to a cabin or something where they can emerse themselves in their writing. Often publishers or music labels will give deadlines to their artist to raise their stress which helps produce critical thinking.

Creative thinking on the other hand is more shallow and broad. When you’re thinking creatively you start with a problem, then you move outward to look at the problem from a variety of perspectives. It’s the typical, “Brainstorming” process where no idea is a bad idea, and the goal is to get people to throw out as many ideas as possible. This usually works best with a larger group of people with diverse backgrounds, because each will have slightly different perspective.

Drill Bits and Butterflies

Critial thinking is like a drill bit, and creative thinking is like a butterfly. A good company has both drill bits and butterflies. The creative thinkers who dream up innovative new ways of doing things, but left alone they’ll have a drawer full of great ideas that never see the light of day. Critical thinkers who are great at execution and incremental improvements, but lack really ground breaking innovation.

Steve Jobs Was a Butterfly

Take Apple for example. Steve Jobs was clearly a creative thinker, and Woz was the quintessential critical thinker. Together they built an amazing company. When Jobs left Apple, they failed to innovate, and the company almost closed. After his return Apple came out with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes and other amazing products that disrupted entire industries. Now Steve is gone again, and the company is back in the hands of a critical thinker.

Butterbits and Drillfies?

It is possible for one person to be both a critical and creative thinker? Yes… just not at the same time.

I can see this in my own life. During the day I’m a Director of SEO Innovation butterfly. I’m responsible for coming up with new, innovative ideas for our agency.

Outside of work, I’m a tech founder and lead programmer for a startup. There are bugs to fix, customers to support, and a redesign to implement. Site’s don’t improve themselves, and there is a lot of pressure to make Triberr better.

After I finish my work day as a butterfly I have an hour train ride home. I try to read a book or watch a movie in an effort to clear my mind and switch thought modes. When I get home I eat some dinner and start coding. It’s a daily metamorphosis.

Creative Thinking Environments

If you need your team to get creative, first remove them from their current task-based environment. Make sure they are well fed, stress free and in a good mood. Focus on creating fun, encouraging laugher and building trust. This type of environment is a petri dish for great ideas.

Critical Thinking Environments

If you need your team to get things done, create a critical thinking environment. Remove distractions like TV, meetings, email and IM. Outline goals, set objectives, prioritize tasks and give short, firm deadlines.

Make sure they have the proper resources to get the job done. This means things like food should be abundant and accessible. No need to leave the office for lunch, bring it in. Make sure their tools are top of the line so they don’t run into any blue screens of death. Be available to answer questions and give guidance. Nothing is worse then waiting on someone to get back to you with an answer.

Most importantly…

If you want creative and critical thinkers to work together, don’t put them in a room until they are within 2 or 3 points of each other. Switching between being a butterfly and drillbit is exhausting, and can’t be done well on the fly.

If you need people to switch gears, first evaluate the situation. Try to identify which type of thinking is best for the problem. Once you know if critical or creative thinking is required, adjust the environment to facilitate it. Introduce your team to the adjusted environment, and slowly bring the room to a boil, so to speak, so that everyone is on the same page with what they need to accomplish, and how you’d like them to think about the problem at hand.

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