A Look Inside the Proximity Paradox

From a practical standpoint, it’s logical for the same creative (be it a designer, a photographer or a writer) to work on the same project over and over. They know the brand, they know the concept, and they know all the ins and outs, all of which leads to a more efficient use of their time. But in reality, efficiency and creativity are two opposing forces. Efficiency stifles creativity and focusing on it is what keeps businesses from trying new ideas and concepts.

That push-and-pull between efficiency and creativity is the subject of our Alex Varricchio and Kiirsten May’s book, the Proximity Paradox™, which centres on the concept that intense proximity limits creativity rather than inspires it. What many businesses need, they write, is not stability and predictability, but distance from challenges in order to see the best way forward.

“I saw it a lot (as the head of an agency creative department). A client would come to the agency and would want the same designer to work on a project over and over,” says Alex. “There’s definitely positives that come along with that, but there’s quite a lot of negatives too and we often forget to look at the negatives.

“The most important takeaway is to really look at your own systems and look for opportunities where efficiency is stifling creativity,” says Alex.

“Try swapping projects every now and then. And brainstorm different ways to shake things up. Sure, some of the ideas may get rejected, but at least it pushes you to think differently about your brand.”

Here's a short excerpt from The Proximity Paradox™ on just that subject.


Monotony kills creativity, so invest the time to shake things up. “I don’t want to take our designer off that project, because she knows it better than anyone else. Who cares that she is bored to tears working on it? When the team operates efficiently, we’ll see greater returns.” — Some Stooge Somewhere Very few people can tolerate monotony in their personal lives. We quickly abandon monotonous gym routines, diets, hobbies, and relationships in favor of something more exciting and fulfilling. Yet we regularly tolerate monotony at work. Many organizational roles are designed to get people performing the same set of tasks over and over, year after year, because the company’s bottom line loves an efficient team.

What few realize is that the highly productive, highly efficient team is only a short-term solution for your company’s long-term need to continue delivering a quality product.

Repeating the same task has diminishing returns. You’ve probably had the following experience: You’re assigned a new task. At first, you’re frustrated because it feels slow and awkward. Once you start to get the hang of things, you feel more confident and start to enjoy the challenge. Each time you repeat the task, you get faster and faster. You feel a sense of satisfaction when you master it, and you enjoy that feeling for a short while. Then, the monotony sets in. You dread the task and want to get it over with as quickly as possible. You start taking shortcuts and the quality of the outcome slowly starts to deteriorate. Many managers will tolerate this situation because they believe it is better to have an efficient employee who takes a few shortcuts than an inefficient employee who slows down the entire team. That’s why we see so many creative teams set up like manufacturing lines.

What worked for Henry Ford does not work for the development of creative ideas.

Giving “workers” or “doers” opportunities to innovate and create is necessary for maintaining the engagement and motivation they require to do quality work. New challenges motivate creative people An agriculture company hired a junior graphic designer for its marketing team. The designer had grown up on a farm and understood that audience. She also had a great college portfolio, a farm-girl work ethic, and a keen desire to contribute to a team. Impressed by her zest, the director of marketing gave the designer one of the department’s most tired projects — the annual report. This project hadn’t seen a stitch of creativity for ten years. “What can you do to refresh this project?” the director asked the designer. The designer accepted the challenge and set to work. She developed a fresh concept, updated the design, and applied a more vibrant voice to the content. The director was impressed and assigned all of the company report projects to the junior graphic designer. The director’s hope was that the designer would maintain her high level of creativity while getting faster and faster at churning out reports. What actually happened was very different: the quality and creativity of the reports deteriorated as the designer lost motivation and engagement in the repetitive work. Some staff in the agriculture company valued a stable, predictable work day. The graphic designer was not one of those people. It was the opportunity to continually tackle new challenges in innovative ways that refilled her creative tank. When the tank ran dry, she lost motivation, her work quality suffered, and her boss’s plan backfired. Focusing on efficiency is a Proximity Paradox To be efficient is to able to accomplish a task in a way that uses the lowest amount of time and effort possible.

It’s when you focus only on the essential tasks that you reach an objective quickly and with low effort. Good, right? Not if you care about the quality of your creative output.

Efficiency increases your proximity to the issue. It will cause you to lose sight of the larger objective and other, more creative ways to achieve it. An efficiency focus also doesn’t leave room for the mistakes that can lead to something novel. Scott Adams, the creator of the famous Dilbert comic and a man who describes himself as a hapless office worker and serial failure, writes extensively about this process in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it. Failure always brings something valuable with it. I don’t let it leave until I extract that value. I have a long history of profiting from failure. My cartooning career, for example, is a direct result of failing to succeed in the corporate environment.

Artists know the value of failure. The lowest times reveal the most authentic and universal human experiences, the kind of experiences that inspire their work and make it relatable.

Artists also know the danger of efficiency. They cannot continually produce the same caliber of piece and expect their audience to continue receiving it with the same enthusiasm. Audiences want to see evolution—they want more heart, more poignancy, more truth, more craftsmanship, or more artistry. No one hails their favorite playwright for being efficient.

The Proximity Paradox: How To Create Distance from Business as Usual and Do Something Truly Innovative is available now.

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