November 2017

Volume 32 Number 11


Creativity Under Fire

By Krishnan Rangachari | November 2017

Recently, a reader e-mailed me about a simple software engineering project that had become too complex. He felt that he didn’t have the skills or resources to handle it himself anymore, and he didn’t know what to do.

In such a situation, there are really two problems: how to escape from feeling overwhelmed by a complex project, and how to be creative enough to find a solution. Let’s tackle the two problems separately.

When it comes to feeling overwhelmed, here are 10 strategies I rely on to free myself:

1. Draft It: I create a preliminary, rough version of my deliverable, based on what I know. Then I get it ready for review from a low-risk colleague, like a trusted peer. I challenge myself to get this done within 20 percent of the time it would take me to do the whole project.

2. Redefine It: I may be overwhelmed because the project’s goal is too vague, or I’m trying to do too much. So I make the goal simultaneously more concrete and simpler.

3. Leverage It: I reuse as much as I can from other people’s work. I focus only on where I can add value with my own unique additions and insights. If it’s not unique, I copy from others.

4. Credit It: I invite another person to collaborate on the project with me, and I give them most of the credit. The more credit I give to others, the less pressure I’ll feel to be the project’s lone-star savior, though I still give the project the very best I can. Interestingly, I’ve found that when I collaborate with others and share credit, we don’t divide the resulting rewards; we multiply them.

5. Atomize It: I break the project into its fundamental, most uncomfortable, smallest parts, then I pick one, high-impact part to focus on. Fulfillment in a project doesn’t come merely from “getting things done.” It comes from working on its important, uncomfortable parts non-compulsively.

6. Fake It: Sometimes, the overwhelmed feeling is just a trick of the mind. I ignore it and act as if I were an amazing engineer who knows exactly what to do. Then I go do it.

7. Game It: I change the rules, sometimes to an extreme. Instead of trying to do a project in four weeks, I ask myself how I can get the whole thing done in four hours. (Have you ever finished an overwhelming project at the very last minute? Well, you don’t have to wait until deadline to channel that laser-like focus; you can train yourself to do it anytime.)

8. Skip It: I might be subjecting myself to a futile exercise in pointlessness. If I suspect this is the case, I simply stop working on the project and move on.

9. Partition It: I may have said “yes” to work that’s not mine to do. So, I identify only the parts of the project that are mine, do those, and reassign, delegate, eliminate or disown the rest.

10. Review It: I come up with two or three solutions in my mind, then present them to my colleagues and ask for their thoughts. Through their iterative feedback, I crowdfund my solution.

Now, let’s discuss the second problem: creativity. Perhaps you’re comfortable with fixing bugs, but don’t feel as comfortable with large-scale, open-ended problems. How can you be creative enough to craft architectural designs, devise technical strategy, and make proposals that currently feel out of your reach? There are three strategies I use:

1. Transfer It: When I express my creativity outside work—whether through singing, dancing, acting, improv or writing—I find that I’m more creative at work. Over time, my mind learns to believe that I’m creative.

2. Detach It: When I feel stuck, sometimes what holds me back is wanting a particular result. Even wanting a little bit of recognition can dampen my creativity, because it introduces fear—and fear and creativity can’t co-exist. So, I redefine my goal to only my input (that is, the work I do) on the project; the output (that is, what praise I get) is no longer in the picture. It also helps to reframe the project in terms of the value I’d like to give others. Whether others indeed derive value is out of my control.

3. Sandbox It: I focus on being extra-creative in an area where I’m already deeply comfortable. This could be a side project, a private skunkworks project or even a non-work project. This gives me a safe space to push my limits and build my own sense of creative comfort. Over time, I can start to expand beyond these limits.

Krishnan Rangachari helps engineering managers have more impact. Visit for his free course.

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