Creativity Hacks for the Uncreative Product Manager

Despite what many product managers think, creativity is not only for the gifted. Logical thinking plays a critical role in your ability to innovate. Here's how.

Many product managers tell me that “they simply don’t have it” when it comes to creativity, and especially regarding coming up with the next big thing. Their immediate conclusion is that they have reached their glass ceiling and they cannot get promoted, let alone take a leadership role within the company.

I thought so too about myself for many years. I have always worked best within well-defined boundaries. Coming out of the blue with a great idea that no one has thought of before seemed to me like something very few people can do – and I’m definitely not one of them.

It is a left-brain, right-brain thing, and I thought of myself as a classic left-brain. I believed I was good at cracking hard problems, not at genius creations that are about to change the world.

I thought these two were opposites of each other.

But after spending hundreds of hours learning from and about entrepreneurs – including the greatest we know of – I realized that’s not true.

The greatest ideas are almost never a result of a divine spark that reveals itself in the right moment. It is also not a random genius that you may or may not have in you.

I learned that creativity works best when it is needed in order to solve a specific problem; and that the logical, rational thinking – yes, the left side of the brain – is actually the one that boosts and even powers creativity.

Take Leonardo DaVinci for example. He was definitely a genius. One of the greatest artists ever existed. But he was also an engineer, scientist, researcher, and inventor.

Theoretically, these are very different domains, and he just happened to master both.

But if you look closely at his artistic creation, you see that there was actually a synergy between both sides. Research and science are the foundation on which DaVinci’s artistic creativity is built.

DaVinci is known for studying the anatomy of anything he wanted to draw – and particularly the human body. Only once he understood exactly how each organ works – how it is built and how it operates – he moved to the drawing part. He drew the mechanisms of the body, not just the looks.

How to Use Your Left Brain for Creativity

Step no. 1: Define your problem clearly

This is generally good advice for any product manager. Everything starts with the problem you want to solve (for your customers, for the company, for humanity or for the world).

After asking yourself (or your managers) why you want to do something, phrase the problem as clearly as possible. Use a single sentence and simple words. You can use the technique I mentioned here to get to that phrasing (for the problem at this point, not the entire story as mentioned there).

Get relevant people’s agreement on the problem before you move to the next step (because if you will bring an amazing solution to the wrong problem it won’t deliver the results you are expecting).

Step no. 2: State as many constraints as you can

You want your boundaries to be as clear as possible, and as tight as possible. By stating very specific constraints, you understand what you can and cannot do, and where the crux of the problem lies.

By specific, I mean very specific. You are not looking for a “good and cheap solution”. You are looking for “a solution that costs under X and must allow for A, B, C, where D is nice to have”.

The constraints you are outlining should refer to the problem and the qualities of the solution, but should not define a specific solution.

It’s the difference between “I want to be able to write on paper everywhere, even where there is no gravity or gravity works against me” and “I need a pen that writes upside down” – because a pen is already a specific solution. If you define your boundaries with a specific solution in mind, you are limiting yourself where you don’t have to. In the example above, if you include the pen as part of your definition, you will never use a pencil, although it is probably the best (or at least the simplest) solution.

Constraints can stem from a variety of domains, including

  • Cost
  • Speed
  • Scale
  • Quality
  • Integrations
  • User journey

and others.

You want to understand which constraints are more important than others, where you have flexibility, and of course – why.

Dwell in it for a while. Write what you have today, and come back to it tomorrow (or after a long break). Let it boil in your head for some time.

Step no. 3: Come up with absurd solutions

You want them to be deliberately absurd. That’s one way to use your left brain to boost creativity – your left brain loves fulfilling specific orders. The more absurd, the better. The more options, the better. You can use the fairy technique I mentioned here to help you think out of the box. Don’t limit yourself. Paper doesn’t blush.

Remember that in most cases, you only need one drop of magic to be truly innovative. In other words, once you understand where the crux of the problem is, innovate there and the rest will follow.

For example, let’s say that you understand that your product doesn’t become viral because of its relatively high price. Once diving deeper into it (in step no. 2 above), you understand that the high price comes from a certain component in your system (it’s true not only for hardware products – think about costs of development, maintenance, training, etc.).

Now start asking yourself – absurd solutions, remember? – what are the options? Can you give up on this component? Make it cheaper? Take a replacement that only does most of the work (which happens to be the important part in terms of value to the customer) but removes the pricing barrier?

When you do that, suddenly the scary big question of “how can I innovate in this domain” becomes the very specific question of “how can you reduce the cost of a specific component”. Our brain is much better at answering specific, tangible questions then high level, abstract ones. Think about how much effort you need to invest in order to read a philosophy book compared to a business guide. Think about which question is easier for you to answer: “where do you want to be in 10 years from now” or “what is important for you to include in the design of your future home”. It’s a matter of how we are wired.

Step no. 4: Include others in this exercise

Creativity is much harder when you are on your own. Air your thoughts with other people. Get their feedback and thoughts too. Sometimes they will say something that might look small or unrelated, but it will actually spark the brilliance in your head.

If your specific question requires innovation around engineering or research, work with R&D and let them participate in the thinking. A (mini) hackathon around the specific constraint you want to break is also a great way to both come up with new ideas and test their feasibility quickly. Sometimes you will find out the hackathon contributes in a different way: it helped you understand the problem better, and a few days later you see that maybe a combination of a few ideas is going to work best for you. It happened to me multiple times.

Whichever way you choose, believe in yourself. Stop thinking “I don’t have it in me” and start acting. Action is the only way forward, good ideas don’t simply show up one day.

Take your creativity to the next level by doing, not (just) thinking or getting inspired. And as you do so, make me happy by sharing what opened up for you. I’m really waiting to hear from you because I’m sure you’ll rock!

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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