A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.

My creative side led me to marketing; I figured it would be the best way to use my talents in business. I was intimidated when I saw how much technical work was involved in the marketing field. I don’t consider myself a particularly technical person, and I worried at this lack when confronting things like stats and marketing research. Not only did I not have the aptitude, but I lacked interest in the qualitative data, finding it dry and absent what drew me in; culture, personality, connection.

Where Technical Meets Creative.

When I started handling some more technical marketing tasks in freelance work while in grad school, I found that there’s something there that fuels me still.

Granted, I wasn’t performing statistical analysis or digging through reams of quantitative data, but I was looking at faceless, nameless user data, and I found a great deal of satisfaction finding patterns and identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. This, as recent research has shown, is the root of the creative mind; solving problems. But in popular thought, creativity and analytical thought are often regarded as opposites, and this is what I had been told about myself for my entire life. When my SAT score came back less than perfect (at a still-respectable at the time 1360), my parents excused it by dismissing me as a “creative type.”

I believed my entire life that because I could draw and paint and write, that I wasn’t suited for technical applications.

This isn’t entirely incorrect. I’m not skilled at math, it was my lowest score in both the SAT and the GRE. The only way I got As in my math classes, from calculus to stats, was through tremendous effort and strategic coaching by my brother. I stayed up sometimes until four in the morning, my mind long since exhausted, weeping and doggedly pursuing my homework. The courses that frightened me the most were the ones I put the most desperate effort into, and that was the only reason I ever got reasonable grades out of them. It was a trial by fire, over and over and over again. I had to re-learn basic algebra in order to do any of it.

These experiences, born of being slotted back into my old path through mathematics twenty years after I originally left school instead of taking a placement test, cemented this idea that I would persistently struggle and fail with the analytical.

The Technical Experience.

But I found myself being tricked into doing the technical work. It wasn’t math, I’ll grant you that. It wasn’t processing reams of data. But it was technical nonetheless. Maybe that was what allowed me to believe I could do it; the fact that the data I was working with was qualitative. But the analysis was there, despite the lack of numbers, and I got to this surprising place where I not only felt capable of what I was doing, but loved it.

I was examining user behavior for a client website (the name of the client and the website are omitted, of course), and I was presented with a bunch of anonymized, qualitative data and when I first gulped down my trepidation and dove in, I found that I could imagine the customer journey from prospect to lead to customer, I could imagine various funnels and desired conversion points along that journey. And once I was examining the data, I could imagine each user’s goals and desires while navigating the website and search for ways to meet those goals and desires, points at which I thought I could reduce friction and increase conversion. I could finally use all the theory I’d learned, and it felt really good.

With the data stripped of identity, I could take the wide view and not get caught up in any one user’s story or journey. I came to view the website itself as a story, with a host of characters finding their goal, or getting lost along the way, and I could find ways to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. It was liberating in a way.

What I Learned.

I don’t know whether or not this experience will be a gateway that leads me to both a love of and competence with quantitative data, but if it does, I’m more open to it now. And that’s a really good thing, because exercises like this are going to be routine in a marketing career. Even content writers need to know what to write, and you need data to determine that. Whether you gather and analyze the data yourself or it’s handed to you by another department, you still need to interpret and use it.

Honestly? It was exhilarating to do the work. To see how my passion intersects with it. To find the meeting point of my passion and my fear and navigate it. It was a point of growth, both professionally and personally.

And the main lesson here is not to let fear dissuade you from trying. To not assume you’ll dislike something before you’ve done it. To try, even where you believe you might fail. Failure is a point of growth as well, and a life (and career) endured without risk isn’t worth pursuing at all.

This experience allowed me to fall in love with marketing all over again, and I’m a better person (and marketer) for it.