In his autobiography, the late Chuck Jones, creative father of cartoon characters Pepe le Pew, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner—and stepfather of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig—made this observation about market research: "I make cartoons for me. This wasn't always true. In my more intellectual youth I tried studying audiences—making notes and timing their laughs. But the more I learned about audiences, the worse my cartoons grew." Jones went on to write that once he gave up trying to please everyone but himself, his cartoons began to evoke laughter.
It is tempting to point to successes like Jones' and declare the "self-set" course the best. And in truth, it is a workable strategy—80 percent of the time. After all, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Mary Kay Ash became living business legends by setting their own visions, keeping their own counsels, and listening to the beat of their own unique, idiosyncratic drums. Right?
Well, yes and no. No, none of these self-made billionaires went out and ran focus groups to help develop visions of what might be barn-burning business ideas. But neither did they ignore the response and reaction of the world around them to their ideas. And today, as they go about the never-ending business of refining and reinventing the products and services that have made them rich and famous, they all lean heavily on their audiences, associates and sundry experts for input to that continual improvement. They are all notorious idea bouncers—testing their thoughts and notions with other people.
The difference between inspired creation and pandering lies not in how successfully the creative few ignore all but their own personal muse, but in how they use the reactions of their audiences to the multitude of trial balloons they float, to the failures and successes of their prototypes, and to the sharpening of their visions of what might be possible.
They also tend to be flexible in the use of input they glean—and grateful for its occurrence. They understand customer feedback that says, "The widgets I own now are just fine. I have no use for your next-generation version of them." This presents a whole different challenge than input that says, "It would be better if your widgets were red or if they were easier to use."
That flexibility is called judgment—using what helps, ignoring what doesn't and having a clear feeling for which is which.
Judgment is as important in training as it is in managing software products, cosmetics or creating animated cartoons. The client who pronounces, "What we need around here is some communications training," may or may not know what he is talking about. But you can't afford to ignore his clinical instinct or blindly adhere to his dictates. Only your patient listening, careful questioning and professional judgment can turn an expressed training need into a problem solved.
Creativity comes not from unlimited license and a blank page, but from understanding clearly the narrow bounds of opportunity that exist within every problem—and finding an eloquent solution that fits those conditions.
So what about the contrary Mr. Jones, our aforementioned cartoon creator? Later in his book he described a four-step process that was at the core of his cartoon story creations. In the second of these steps, three directors, three writers, a producer and the production chief sat together and held what Jones described as a "yes session."
"This was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense—it was a 'yes' session, not an 'anything goes' session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive and affirmative to the premise of 'no negatives allowed,'" Jones explained
The outcome of these two-hour sessions, Jones wrote, was an idea that either immediately excited the assembled and lived, or was met with stony silence and died. Only those proposals that passed professional muster with this most knowledgeable audience of Jones' peers survived the trip from mind's eye to the mighty silver screen.
The message? In the end, even the creative genius of Chuck Jones benefited from the warming rays and cold shoulders of that most precious of informational products: the opinions of others. It should be as true of our humble creations as it is of his timeless images and stories.
Ron Zemke is a senior editor of Training. email@example.com