Killing Your Babies

A review of my wife’s new novel Underground (June Hutton, Cormorant Books) called it “taut”, “lean” and “elegant”.

It was, but having been involved in its creation, I can assure you it wasn’t always so. Like many ideas, it was originally confused, a little bloated, and unfocused. It took many rewrites and a lot of “killing her babies” before it became taut and lean.

And it’s a good lesson on how ideas can result in creative and successful business strategies.

First, let’s identify a few things. Ideas are bits of information that, when put together, form insights. In Underground‘s case, it was the juxtaposition of a symbol (the raised, closed fist of defiance) in very disparate areas.

Creativity is putting those insights into concrete models. And that can be a long process that involves much reshaping to make an idea useable. With Underground, it meant years of rewriting, in which she had to kill some beloved babies  — favorite scenes, beautiful writing, and characters she loved — because they didn’t fit the overall theme or purpose.

Probably the most difficult period came after she thought she had finished it. Then, after reviewing it, she had to strip it down to its absolute basic story and literally rebuild it, carefully adding layer after layer that eventually made it not only taut and lean, but also elegant.

Ideation is the fun part of creativity. There’s nothing as exciting as generating ideas, which is why so many of us like to do it. But we can’t fall in love with those ideas because shaping and refining them is hard, and sometimes brutal, work — the “99 per cent perspiration” that Edison referred to.

Killing your babies in the creative sense is ridding a concept of its superfluous and wrongheaded aspects, no matter how much you may like them. Unlike the ideation process, this requires a much more ruthless mindset.

Like in writing, innovation strategists have to apply extreme focus and evaluative strength if development and commercialization is to be successful. They may have to take an idea and — after careful evaluation for purpose, likelihood of success, and development capability – toss much of it in the trash.

Then, once the idea is pure and unencumbered, they must carefully add layer after layer to it so that it will work.

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