Unleashing Creativity With Digital Technology

Digital technologies are reducing the cost of iteration and experimentation in creative work — and that opens up new possibilities for both people and businesses.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:

“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”

If you watch movies or television, you’ve likely seen Stefan Sonnenfeld’s work. It’s on display in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” three “Mission Impossible” movies, four “Transformer” movies, the “Cold Case” TV series, and dozens more. In a 2007 article, Entertainment Weekly listed him alongside creative luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep as one of the “50 Smartest People in Hollywood.” Unlike some others on the list, however, Sonnenfeld’s creativity is digitally enabled.

Sonnenfeld is a “digital intermediate colorist.” He uses computers to alter the colors in movies and TV shows until they look spectacular. Without the technology, his artistry would not be possible. Nor would the profits that Sonnenfeld and the company he cofounded, Company 3, have generated for its parent companies, Ascent Media (from 2000 to 2010) and Los Angeles-based Deluxe Entertainment Services Group Inc. (to whom it was sold in 2010).

Digital color artistry like Sonnenfeld’s is an example of a general principle: Technology can be deployed to augment the creative abilities of people and organizations and make new and valuable forms of innovation possible. Today’s digital technologies have reached a level of maturation that enables, across many domains, a practical capability that I have, in my research, called cheap and rapid iteration.

To iterate is to try something different from what you tried last time. Sonnenfeld iterates when he tries out many different color effects on a movie. Sometimes he tries this, then that, then another thing, until he hits on something brilliant. He can do this cheaply and rapidly only because he works at a high-powered computer console with fiber connections, huge amounts of storage, and specialized software for making subtle adjustments to specific areas of a picture and across time in a film. Yes, all that equipment is an investment, but once he’s made it, the cost of trying something new — of the next iteration — is nominal.

Iteration is the process that enables most forms of artistry. Painters often create numerous versions of a painting; Pablo Picasso, for example, created dozens of “studies” prior to his famous “Guernica” painting. Theater artists rehearse, trying a scene this way, then that. Designers iterate by building quick-and-dirty prototypes.

Processes often become more creative when rapid iteration is affordable. Unfortunately, this is not the case in a lot of business domains; often, in business, it’s costly to try something new, especially if it doesn’t work out. That was the case in the film-coloring business before digital technologies, when the process involved painting directly onto film or all-or-nothing photochemical processes. Just as digital changed the game in film coloring, so it can in many areas of business where it’s been too expensive to experiment much.

It’s most natural to think about such opportunities in product businesses, using technologies like computer-aided design (CAD) and 3-D printing to try out a design and then tweak it. But the phenomenon is also occurring in service businesses. A bank I know is using social media technologies to do quick and rapid trials of new customer offerings. To pull this off, a company must use digital technologies to lower the cost of the processes associated with the iterative cycle: setting up a new try (reconfiguration), trying it (simulation or testing), and examining and interpreting the results (visualization).

In the next five years, managers will awaken to a wide range of new possibilities. They’ll act to improve creative capabilities, by figuring out how to deploy technologies to replace expensive physical trying with cheap virtual trying. In effect, they’ll be constructing virtual rehearsal spaces, virtual laboratories, and inexpensive prototyping facilities. The aim won’t be to design machines to take over people’s jobs, but rather to augment human capabilities.

This is not a new idea. In the 1960s, Doug Engelbart proposed using computers to augment human intellect. Also in the 1960s, Internet pioneers J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor emphasized the potential of computer networks to enhance creative work. Michael Schrage, in the late 1990s, described how simulation allowed companies to engage in “serious play.” My own recent research and that of others point to a coming new age of organizational creativity — an era that may, I believe, finally be here.

National Public Radio once called Sonnenfeld the “da Vinci of the movies.” In the coming few years, managers will begin to realize that they can create such da Vincis throughout their companies. And that will be a very profitable thing to do.