Creative Cycles

When you’re doing creative work, your work broadly falls into two phases – the “invention phase” and the “implementation phase”. Both imply what they mean.

There are times when you are tinkering around and experimenting to find something fundamentally new that is cool. And then, once you have made the breakthrough in finding something cool, you need to make it useful. And this can take considerable amount of work, and its own creativity.

So if you are one person doing a “creative job”, your work will alternate in these cycles – where you create and you implement. The cycles are unlikely to be periodic. Some creative solutions are so creative that implementation is a breeze. In most cases, the inspiration is only 1% of the problem – the devil in the details for which you need to perspire.

When you are part of a creative team, this cycle thing can play out in different ways. Some teams form a caste system, where one set of people work purely on the invention phase, while the other works on the implementation phase. This is especially useful when solving highly complex problems, in which case the skills required for the invention and implementation phases are different.

The big cost of having separate teams like his is the cost of communication (AGES back, when GPUs were just becoming a thing, I was part of a committee that was exploring the use of GPUs in our work. One of the findings there was that GPUs can do the work incredibly fast, but the data transfer from GPUs to CPUs was slow, and could be a bottleneck. I assume that problem is solved now). People sometimes grossly underestimate the effort involved in communicating your solution to someone else. Even if you manage to communicate, there can be significant handholding that might be required to get the other team to take forward your invention.

And so this investment in communication cost is worth it if and only if the work is complex enough. Think of large industrial projects – such as the manufacture of the iPhone, for example – they are complex enough that you need several specialist teams to perform the entire creative process. And in the larger scheme of the complexity, the cost of communication across teams is small.

On the other hand, this usage of multiple teams to perform a creative process can be massive overkill for simpler work – there the cost of communication can far overpower the gains in efficiency through specialisation.

Anyway, I’m getting distracted here.

Coming back, the alternative is to have the same people or sub-teams perform the invention and implementation stages of the creative process. Here, I’ve seen things play out in multiple ways.

Some teams are uncorrelated – this means that different members or sub-teams are in different phases of the work. As a consequence, this kind of a team constantly provides creative output. When some of the people are deep in implementation, others are inventing. And the other way round. This means that the team is constantly both coming up with new ideas and delivering stuff.

Other teams can be more correlated – either everyone is working on the same thing, or the whole team moves in sync (invention at some points in time, implementation at others). Here the issue is that there can go long periods of time without the team really producing anything – in the common invention phase, no shit is getting done. In the common implementation phase, there are no new ideas.

This can lead to stagnation in the team, and frustration outside. And so not ideal.

The other related concept is in terms of management. Some managers of creative teams are better off at managing the invention phase. Others are better off at managing the implementation phase. Given that the creative process involves both, for the team to be effective, we need managers who can manage both as well.

And this is easier said than done in a single person, and so you need a management team. And what you find is that you have a “complementary number two” (no pun intended). If you as the team leader is better off at invention, you get a number two who is better at implementation. And the two (or more) of you together manage the process.

I’ve spoken about this before – this can sometimes lead to suboptimal succession. Let’s say the inventive head leaves. The organisation promotes the implementation number two. Now, it is contingent upon this new number one to get a (inventive) number two asap. If that doesn’t happen, invention can cease. The team will carry on for a while implementing the already invented stuff, and then grind to a halt.

Similarly if an implementation head leaves, the inventive number two gets promoted. And unless a new implementation number two is hired, you’ll see lots of proofs of concept and little actual implementation. Again suboptimal.

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