The No-process Process

Designers have been touting process for decades. Why? Because clients need reassurance that their investment is safe. By turning creativity into a rational business process, designers have persuaded companies to trust them with mission-critical projects and substantial budgets. Process equals predictability. But what does the rational process really predict? Unfortunately, only sameness. If you want real innovation, you’ll need a much different process.

The rational design process looks something like this:

1) Discovery (find out more about the challenge using interviews and research)
2) Definition (determine the scope and goals for the project)
3) Design (prototype and assess a range of ideas)
4) Development (select and refine the most promising idea)
5) Deployment (launch the project)

All very logical. All very safe. And, in an era of innovation, all very wrong. This linear, phase-by-phase structure guarantees that anything you learn while working on one phase cannot be applied to a previous phase. The arrow moves in one direction only. For example, if you discover something exciting in the design phase, you can’t go back and redefine the challenge to accommodate it. That door is closed.

A better process for innovation is something I call the “no-process process.” It assumes that team members will uncover new ideas as they work. Discovery, definition, and design are run on parallel tracks instead of a single sequential track, so they can “talk” to each other and create surprising new combinations. The arrow moves forward, backward, and in between, keeping ideas in a “liquid” state as long as possible.

This process was pioneered by the military, where it was called swarming. The goal was to attack a problem from many angles at once, thereby shrinking the time to action. At Liquid we use it to integrate brand programs without compromising their integrity.

One caveat: The no-process process is not for sissies. It’s chaotic and sometimes irrational. It’s a style of advanced creativity. But if your goal is innovation, it’s the only style that works.

Download this set of slides to start a discussion with your team. Order the book, Metaskills, to find out more about the no-process process and the five talents you’ll need to thrive in it.

12 Comments

  1. Greg Hansen

    Marty,

    Once again, you’ve added clarity and simplicity to a topic that can be fuzzy and/or complicated.

    Process (e.g., how things get done, how decisions are made) typically is as important, or more critical, than the actual deliverable or output. It’s especially true in the democratic process, whether at the local, state, federal, or global level.

    In today’s fast-paced, crazy world with individuals and organizations (i.e., private, public, and/or nonprofit) becoming more creative, collaborative, and assertive in what they do, plus have a plethora of ‘tools’ to enable them to do the work, to beat the competition, especially in business, you’ve got to outsmart and outwork them. By tackling projects with the “swarming” approach may appear fragmented and disconnected. Yet, identifying and using every possible resource, method, idea, question, and possibility will unleash greater creativity, which will produce a higher quality outcome coupled with greater buy-in from all participants and stakeholders because they put in their two cents.

    Enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    Best wishes,

    Greg

    November 28, 2013
  2. Marty Neumeier

    Greg, I think it would difficult to apply this process to democratic government. It only works for organizations or project teams that have agreed to innovate. Most democracies have people on both sides of the argument—some want to move forward, and others want to hang back. To the extent that this is true of creative teams, swarming doesn’t work. It takes a strong desire to do something new, or do something old in a new way. Now, if we could all agree to change the way government works, that’s a project I would sign up for!

    November 28, 2013
    • Greg Hansen

      Thanks, Marty.

      My point was that “process” is important everywhere, especially in doing “the people’s work”. Given the divergent opinions, and sometimes polarization, it’s critical that all voices are invited, heard, and thoughtfully considered before elected officials make decisions for the good of the people. Unfortunately, a simple majority (i.e., 50 percent + 1 vote) typically is considered a “mandate” by some elected and/or appointed officials. It would be wiser, better, and produce higher quality decisions, if the interests, needs, and objectives were embraced and solutions creatively and collaboratively crafted that incorporated them.

      “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” is time consuming and messy. However, it beats most of the alternative forms of government.

      Realize your interest is process from the vantage point unleashing creativity, especially design and projects. Was just adding my two cents about the significance of process in all aspects of life.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      November 28, 2013
  3. Marie McNeely

    Marty,

    Thanks for unpacking another truth of how innovative thinking truly comes about. It’s messy and non-linear, to be sure.

    Just want to underscore one requisite in your No-process process that we may all take for granted. As you point out, it takes a TEAM. This is much more than a designated group, but a mindset of regard for the people you are working with,
    and the belief that you will not get to a surprising result without them. So, while the process maybe uncertain, it’s a heck of a lot easier for everyone if the organization of the team IS certain. That goes for a common intention and clear roles for each player on your team.

    November 29, 2013
  4. Amy Perry

    Hi Marty,

    I have been a fan for a long time. I think you are brilliant. I refer to your books (especially Zag) in my talks and keep them close at hand. But I think you may have gone off the deep end here. This no-process process sounds as though you are trying too hard to come up with something new for newness sake. Are you trying to say take a more holistic and/or organic approach to innovation? If so, okay, good. But, I think the fundamental flaw (aside from that the no-process process is illustrated in the same linear or circular flow as the normal process) is the critical need for good information going into an assignment. I get that people coming at a problem from all directions (as in swarming) is the best kind of collaboration. Messy is okay. And, we often have to regroup, reconsider, double back, start again during a creative process. But, chaos? Really? I’m not convinced. And, as Marie writes, TEAM is essential. Still a huge fan.

    Cheers,

    Amy

    November 29, 2013
  5. Marty Neumeier

    Amy, of course you’re right. I should have given the “chaos” slide a bit more context, as I did in my book Metaskills (the source of the diagrams).

    With the chaos version I meant to show the disconnect between the real process and the rational process, as shown in hundreds of “proprietary” diagrams across the industry. The real process isn’t linear at all (or circular, for that matter). If it were, it would have to be labeled more as I’ve done in the (absurd) chaos diagram. I usually get a round of applause for this in my talks. My fault for not pulling it off in print!

    The real process—the one that produces surprising solutions—is much harder to pin down. My own preference is to run research, strategy, and design tracks simultaneously vs. step by step, with teams comparing notes and correcting assumptions along the way. And, as you and Marie point out, team member roles, including the role of the leader, need to be crystal clear.

    Chaos may seem undesirable, but it’s necessary if creative teamwork is to explode into exciting options. It allows incompatible or paradoxical ideas to crash into one another, often driving innovative results. Here chaos is not a flaw, but a feature. The real process can’t be corralled into a nice, neat circle.

    November 29, 2013
  6. Susan

    Really great to see this so clearly described–I am a huge fan of your work also, and I would echo and add to what others have said:
    it takes a TEAM, and strong leadership from someone or someones who understand brand and can help others trust the ‘no-process’–and strong desire to move forward fearlessly. It can feel like a dark tunnel with no light when you’re in the middle of it. It can also be very hard to explain to the rest of the organization, who want to see the step by step results that will reassure them progress is being made. [this article will be a great way to help with that, thanks.] With the right leadership, right team, strong vision and trust in the process, I agree that you’ll end up in a place that the safer route will never never take you. I’ve taken both roads, and the journey through chaos is way more fun, too.

    December 5, 2013
  7. Nick Hall

    Hi Marty,

    Thanks for sharing this gem. We’ve been working on a new way of collaborating with clients that works to include them in the process of discovery. It is – by it’s very nature – chaotic, but I do find that the clients enjoy the sense of discovery, and come away knowing they were active participants in the process which in turn leads to increased stewardship as things come to life. Sort of like being there when your kid is born, I guess.

    Certainly there is something to be said about pulling back the curtain and turning what we do into more of a contact sport. It’s a lot more fun too!

    Hope all is well.

    Nick

    December 5, 2013
  8. Mary Gilbert

    I love this post because it proves a point I’ve been trying to make to myself for years. Inspiration comes from everywhere and hardly ever on a pre-destined linear path. That said, I whole-heartedly agree with Maria. Having managed very large, very senior strategic innovators, helping people understand the vision, the goals, and their unique strengths in the non-process process helps bring confidence to the proverbial cat-herding exercise. I’ve also come across some wonderful tools that help capture ideas and provide frameworks for exploring them throughout the process. Leaders who get the best out of teams recognize this reality and act as enlightened shepherds. I’m glad that this conversation is out in the open:)

    December 5, 2013
    • Marty Neumeier

      Can we finally say that creativity is coming out of the closet? My feeling is that business is ready to embrace the messy process of innovation, thanks in part to the courageous folks who have stood up for it.

      December 5, 2013
  9. Josh Berger

    An interesting article today on the Fast Co website about the science behind allowing new ideas to move forward in a corporate environment. I’d be interested on your take on how this science relates to your No-process Process concept. The context and mindset for allowing good ideas to happen seems to be a critical component. http://www.fastcodesign.com/3023203/evidence/why-companies-are-terrible-at-spotting-creative-ideas

    December 12, 2013
  10. Marty Neumeier

    The article introduces the terms “high-level construal” vs. a “low-level construal,” meaning a “why” mindset vs. a “how” mindset. (“Why” is better for getting buy-in.) It’s the first time I’ve heard these terms, but of course mindsets matter when judging new ideas. Anyone who has proposed a creative solution in a corporate setting (even at a company like Apple) knows that safety often trumps risk-taking.

    How this relates to the no-process process is that anyone who participates in a swarming-style creative session will automatically adopt a “why” mindset. Buy-in is much easier if you’re bought in from the beginning.

    What can you do for non-participants? Be patient. Understand that to support a new idea, decision-makers have to take the same journey as the creators—only without specialized skills or any actual experience working on the project. Tell a story, make a model, test it with audiences, gather support wherever you can. Appreciate the miracle you’re trying to make happen. That’s the job.

    December 12, 2013

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