Building a Creativity Kanban

To get more creative work done, think like a car manufacturer. A system for optimising the creative process and breaking through your barriers.

Always Be Shipping

Have you made anything lately?

Have you published anything? Shipped anything? Finished something and put it into the world? Your answer will lie somewhere on the spectrum between 'Yes - today!' and, 'No. Never.'

Your answer is important.

Tell me how often you ship, publish, or show the world what you're doing and I'll tell you where you'll be in five years. In short: you'll be doing incredibly well and far, far better than the person who said, 'No. Never.'

If you are someone who is in the business of creating anything - whether it's code, books, photographs, videos, lessons, physical products - the importance of regularly shipping what you make cannot be emphasised enough.

It is vital.

This article is for the people in the middle of that spectrum. If your answer to the above question is more like 'I haven't shipped recently, but...' followed by a list of very reasonable excuses and a list of all your planning and research... this article is for you.

It's all very well and good being able to overcome your fears and misgivings to start something. But if you can't finish it - regularly, confidently, on time - then you'll only have started something for nothing.

If You Want to Be the [Verb] You Have to Do the [Noun]

We are awash in a sea of information and ideas. It's easy to spend our days doing nothing but reading articles, scanning social media, answering emails and, if we can make the time for it, flipping through a few books. We can put all our energies into taking notes and having ideas and really thinking about it all, but if we don't then do something with it - what's the point?

The world's best and most successful writers, artists, photographers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and architects all have one thing that sets them apart from the rest of us mere mortals - they produce high quality output on a regular basis.

They are committed to shipping the product - whatever that product might be. It could be chapters of a book, designs for a building or new versions of software. It doesn't really matter what it is. It matters that they get it out the door and move onto the next thing.

When we make something and show the world what we've been working on, a few things happen at the same time.

First, we get the satisfaction of being able to say 'It's done!', the very act making it so. We add it to our list of things we have made.

Second, we gain a frame of reference for the next thing we do, the experience of completing it gives us the starting point for the next endeavour and feedback about what went well and what could have gone better.

Finally, as an added bonus, people may take a look at what we've made and tell us what they think about it - for better or for worse. If they think it's really good, they'll tell their friends about it, too, and then we're off to the races.

But that final bonus is just that: a bonus. There is no guarantee what we make will be lauded and celebrated by hordes of fans. The real value to us as 'people who create stuff' is in the first two things - having something be 'done' and having a frame of reference and experience to apply to the next thing we make.

This is why we must ship. To get better at what we do. To learn. To produce something better the next time. To build habits and form muscle memory.

If we don't ship we'll later find ourselves awakening, in a stupor, surrounded by a bunch of half-finished crap that nobody cares about.

Everyone Has a Creative Process (Except You)

Many like to wrap the work of creative people - from software engineers to poets - in the mystique of genius, a black box inside which magic happens...somehow. At the same time, many of the same people also wonder, 'how do they do so much?' The 'genius' is too busy shipping their latest work to care about responding to this question. They've got work to do.

Creativity is not a process. But all humans have a process for creation. All this means is that we take something from 'idea' to 'done' via a series of steps.

All truly successful creative individuals have a process and a structure for such a high amount of creative output. They may not always recognise it as such, or talk about it that way in conversation, but a process is nothing more than a series of steps that take you towards an end result.

Plenty of creative people (writers especially) revel in their not-having-a-process-ness so much that they will scoff at the mere idea of it. 'Me? A process? Never! I am an artist!' But, somehow, they went from 'not having created something' to 'having created something' - they've taken raw material and turned it into a product - so there's a process in there, whether they like it or not.

When we think about creativity as 'having a process', two things become clear. The first is that we can identify what the steps are in that process. The second is that we can find the steps that are slowing us down - the bottlenecks - and loosen them. What happens when we loosen bottlenecks in a process? We get more done. Lots more.

So if you've ever wondered if there's a way to increase your creative output, this is it.

Enter the Creativity Kanban

'Kanban' is a concept developed by renowned mechanical engineer Taiichi Ohno in the mid 20th Century while working at Toyota. Ohno started on the shop floor and steadily rose through the ranks at the company over the following decades thanks to his creation of the Toyota Production System. Now more commonly known as 'Lean Manufacturing', it was the set of techniques and principles that helped Toyota become a dominant global car giant.

One of the most important concepts in Ohno's system was the Kanban - a way to visualise a process, manage bottlenecks, reduce errors and remove waste. The literature on the topic is dense and mostly viewed through the lens of heavy manufacturing, but the concepts hold all the same.

One of the ways to implement Kanban is by using a Kanban board. A Kanban board is a visual representation of a process. At a glance, you can see every step in the process and how much WIP (work in progress) is waiting at every stage.

As an example, let's look at writing. Writing is often seen as a monolithic task - you sit down to write and, after a time, it's done. Not so. Depending on who is writing and what is being written, there may be any number of steps along the way from the idea of what to write to the published piece itself.

For me, it looks a little like this: Ideation, Drafting, Proofing, Publishing. (Things like research and rewriting live, for me, inside the 'drafting' stage but they may be more involved for others.)

I primarily write articles to post on the internet. As of this moment, I have 38 ideas for articles I want to write, 5 that are in the drafting/production stage, 1 that is in the proofing/review stage and 2 that are ready to publish.

Put onto a Kanban board, it looks like this:

The main thing to notice is that my biggest bottleneck is at the drafting stage. We know this because the vast majority of WIP in the process is stuck in the preceding step, the idea stage. That's easy enough to see.

The harder thing to understand is why there is so much WIP at that stage. I might just say that 'oh, I just have so many ideas!' and leave it at that, but I don't think that's quite right. Do most of the ideas in there suck, meaning I don't write about them? Am I a slow writer? Do I not publish on a regular enough basis, meaning I don't feel enough urgency?

My board used to look very different: I used to have far more in 'production' than anywhere else, but then I started publishing articles on a weekly basis. I found that the act of regularly publishing actually made me generate more ideas, rather than running out of them.

Bottlenecks never truly go away, they just give us new challenges.

Every bottleneck is unique in how it got there. Finding it, though, is the first step in fixing it.

What's Your Bottleneck?

Finding and understanding bottlenecks is the first step towards loosening them and getting more creative work moving through your process. They're odd beasts, though. Here are some guiding principles:

  • Every process always has at least one bottleneck
  • Bottlenecks can always be loosened
  • When you loosen one bottleneck, another will eventually appear
  • If you always improve your bottlenecks, your process will always improve as well

To explore this, let's consider the Kanban boards of some other, theoretical creative types.

This is the board of a person who starts a lot of work... but doesn't really finish any of it. They may feel productive and be working hard all day long, but they have nothing to show for it. They quickly devour any new ideas that come in or appear, getting to work on them immediately. But they never get their work into a position where it's good enough to review. It's all half-baked.

The biggest bottleneck is in review, and they just need to get articles into that step of the process one way or another. Either way, this person needs to balance their time towards actually finishing what they start and then shipping it.

This is the board of a perfectionist. They have produced a great deal of work and are consistently working on something at all times, but can't quite conjure up the energy to actually show it to people.

This could be for any number of reasons: fear of what people might think, a lack of belief that anyone will be interested, not having anywhere to put it, waiting for the approval of another, the list goes on. (It may even be maladaptive perfectionism, a very real psychological problem and something I've had to deal with in the past.)

Whatever the case, this person needs to find a way to get themselves to hit the metaphorical 'big red button' and put their work out into the world.

This is a great board that anyone would want to have. There are plenty of ideas, there's a good amount in production and there's a good amount ready to review. Best of all, loads of work is ready to put out into the world. In this scenario, it's likely that this person is producing at a faster rate than they ship.

The simple answer? Find a way to ship more often. Posting once a week? Post twice. Publishing one novel a year? Publish two. Writing code faster than ever before? Ship more features to more applications.

In lean manufacturing, the idea of a 'pull' process is where the end of the process - shipping - draws materials up the chain from the beginning, rather than the old way of 'pushing' materials through towards the end. If there's enough slack in the system, having a higher cadence for shipping makes the process meet the demand.

Build Your Board, Loosen Your Bottlenecks

If you want to build your own Creativity Kanban, there are three things you need to do:

1. Sketch the outline of your process

Depending on what you do, your process could have any number of steps. For me, in writing articles, I have about four. An architect or software developer will likely have more. A painter or sculptor may have even more still. Whatever it is you do, sketch out what you think your process roughly equates to. Keep it high level to begin with.

2. Figure out where everything is

When you have your process laid down, list out where your various pieces of work or projects are along the way on that process. I use headings on a Roam Research note, but you could just as easily do this in a Google doc or even with post-its on a whiteboard.

If you work with a team that would benefit from seeing your board - particularly if they might give you a hand or help you spot problems - then it is probably in your best interest to put the board somewhere they can see it, digitally or physically.

3. Find your biggest bottleneck

Your bottleneck is usually the step in the process that has the biggest backlog behind it. So if you've got stuff piling up at step 3, step 3 itself could be the problem but step 4 is normally to blame. Let's look at one of those examples again.

Here, the problem is not the review stage in itself, it's more likely that very little is ever considered 'ready'. When that changes, the bottleneck will ease.

If I had to put money on it, the next bottleneck that will arise for the above person is not having enough ideas - they'll churn through all their WIP very quickly and they'll suddenly not have enough to work on.

4. Loosen the bottleneck

What is it about your bottleneck that actually causes the backlog? Another lean manufacturing mental model you can use is the '5 Why' method. That is, ask 'why' five times about any problem and you will eventually arrive at the root cause underneath it. What's curious about this is that it could go in a bunch of different directions.

Let's take the example of someone who makes videos for YouTube:

  1. Why am I not producing videos fast enough? Because I don't film enough.
  2. Why don't I film enough? Because I don't film regularly.
  3. Why don't I film regularly? Because I don't always have enough time in my day for filming.
  4. Why don't I always have enough time in my day for filming? Because I haven't made the time in my schedule for regular filming.
  5. Why haven't I made the time in my schedule for regular filming? Because I haven't thought much about my priorities or how to schedule my time.

Solution: set priorities and put together a schedule that allows for regular filming.

Or it may go like this:

  1. Why am I not producing videos fast enough? Because I stop half way through every video I film.
  2. Why do I stop half way through every video I film? Because I lose steam when I'm filming them and get discouraged.
  3. Why do I lose steam when I'm filming them and get discouraged? Because the ideas I'm working on never seem to be good enough to bother with.
  4. Why do the ideas I'm working on never seem to be good enough to bother with? Because I don't always write my best ideas down.
  5. Why don't I always write my best ideas down? Because I don't have a note-taking system.

Solution: develop a solid note-taking system.

5. Repeat steps 2-4

With your first bottleneck loosened, continue with your work and keep track of how everything is moving through the process. The next bottleneck may not appear immediately and it may be easier or harder to fix than the last one. Just keep an eye on things because it will, eventually, appear. You've been warned.

The good news, though, is that every time you improve a bottleneck the whole process improves with it. If your improvement can be made permanent - through a system or the formation of a habit - then the improvement to the overall process is permanent too.

Onwards and upwards.

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