Thursday, December 15

Christmas Wrapping

Even if you only skimmed my previous posts, please try to give this one a little more time!   It’s concise, so it won’t take long to read.

In recent weeks I’ve become increasingly conscious of repeating myself.    A bit of repetition is no bad thing (“positive reinforcement”, I think they call it) but I’d far rather be arriving at radically new conclusions every week, and sharing those with you instead!

This trend is partly down to a change in role:  Whilst I can still gain from creative thinking, I no longer have the opportunity to spend large chunks of my time honing the skill.

So I’ll be “wrapping-up” the blog in time for Xmas, and focussing on other areas more directly related to the day job.

I can’t resist a recap though.   Despite numerous variations on the theme, there are only four major points which really mattered to me.  I’ve satisfied myself that each is important to personal creativity …

  1. Please be your own person.  You probably won’t fit in, but you’ll be far more valuable in tomorrow’s workplaces, which will be designed for diversity.
  2. Intellectualise.   Cultivate your love of knowledge, and take inputs from radically new sources every day.
  3. Provoke yourself.  When you next make a mental leap to an apparently obvious solution (and if it’s about anything more important than what flavour sandwich to choose) then check yourself:  consider what you could do instead, and aim to try something different.
  4. Provoke others.  Having set the example, smilingly encourage those around you to try something different too.

So make it your new year’s resolution to be more creative in everyday situations.  You already have everything you need.

Good luck, and goodbye ... at least for now.

Monday, December 12

Provocative tweeting

This week, I was prompted to consider Twitter in the context of creativity.   Well-known advertising blogger, Dave Trott, posted to his blog recently proposing (half in jest, I think) that briefs from advertising clients be limited to Twitter's 140 characters.

This struck me as quite extreme:   The ad industry already seems to have enormous creative licence (see earlier post) so the suggestion seems a little far-fetched.  But of course that's the outside perspective - I'm quite willing to believe that the creatives on the inside feel much too tightly-bound by prescriptive briefs.   So the provocation is well-made.

And talking of provocations, is the provocation itself a still-better exploitation of Twitter for the creative industries to consider?  For people like me who read the Brain Pickings RSS feed regularly, constantly seeking new inspiration, a 140-character injection of alternative thinking every morning to complement the obligatory expresso might be just the thing!

So I had a look, to see if such a thing existed
... on your behalf
... dear reader

It doesn't seem to.   What a wonderful opportunity for someone with an active intellect, in plugging that apparent gap!

Brain Pickings is published daily.  And that goes some way to providing what we need.

Wikipedia has a "random" feature - although its random entries seem uselessly arcane nine times out of ten (just try it yourself - you'll see what I mean!)

But there's still a gap.  

I really think we could all benefit from a random spark each day.  

I'd follow this Twitter feed if it existed. 

Would you? 

If you see the value, then could you be the one to set it up?

Tuesday, December 6

Blog from Barcelona

A bit like Gaudi's famous cathedral, the business of creativity is never finished ...

In Spring I was asked to speak on creativity at an innovation conference in Barcelona.    Luckily, this is one of my preferred places for conferences, so I was fairly quick to agree.

The conference took place last week - and what an interesting event!

First of all, the size of the group was excellent.   Just 30 people, so we mostly got to know each other over the two days.  Secondly, the group was also very diverse.  I was the only UK resident who made it there, with most of my peers coming from Spain, Germany or France.  

I went into this commitment already realising that my subject matter was a little niche. And that became ever more evident during the course of Day 1, with almost every speaker using at the core of his presentation some variant of the 'stage gate' model for innovation process management.    But all was not as it sounds:  Everyone speaking had their own distinct perspective, and there were sagely snippets from every conceivable angle.

At 4pm on Day 1, after the first 6 sessions, we knocked-off early for some very diverting sideshows:  First we toured the new biomedical research park (PPRB) by the beach, and then popped next door to look at some octopuses in the oceanography centre.  After that we had a tour of the incredibly grand Barcelona town by a very knowledgeable guide, who then offered us champagne.  

I'm not sure these activities were intended as 'random provocations' of the kind I evangelised about in my speaker slot the next day.  Probably they were intended more as directly relevant examples of innovative work.  But certainly they served both purposes.

For some reason, the conference organisers had asked me to act as chair for the second day.  This meant paying my full attention to everything that went on, in the hope of commentating effectively.  And I was glad of the opportunity:  how differently you look at material when you're obliged to organise it into some semblance of order!

So a successful event then, but mostly because of the range of stimulus offered, and the new thoughts it inspired.   A lot of the material was written from the perspective of the manufacturer developing new products, and a little interpretation was often required for it to make sense in the service sector.  

Some highlights ...
- If using Open Innovation, be very careful how you handle partners.   A potentially fruitful long-term partnership could easily be damaged by the first failed innovation.
- For most manufacturing organisations, having ideas is not the problem.  Filtering effectively is what demands the work.
- Spin-off separate concerns to pursue specific big ideas.  They won't be bound by the same constraints which slow down your large organisation, and they'll also be able to partner more effectively with academic institutions.
- Three factors conspire to make for successful innovations.  If you only hit two, you need to focus everything on finding a way to hit the third:  technology solution, customer need, and commercial model.

Here's the URL, in case you'd like to attend a future event:

Sunday, November 27

Lessons from the real Mad Men

Photo: Lukas Riebling

For many months I’ve been planning a visit to an advertising agency, and on Monday it finally happened.  My hypothesis was that if any industry is in the business of creating ideas, then advertising is the industry.   And I was keen to see how they do it.

I’ve no idea if agencies usually open their doors to outside observers like me, but on this occasion I was able to call in a favour.    And I’m very glad I did …

The agency in question was “Gyro”, one of the larger multi-nationals with around 600 staff around the world.   And what better agency to visit, given their mission to create “ideas which ignite emotions”?

My initial impressions just served to underline the stereotype:  The London office is in Chelsea Harbour, amidst dozens of other companies from the creative industries; and scooters and bubblegum machines littered the reception area, which was almost exactly what I expected.

After the first five minutes though, Gyro began to confound my expectations. 

I was met by Pete, the Creative Director, who nevertheless seemed extremely down-to-earth.   He doesn’t live in Bloomsbury; he doesn’t wear a monocle; he doesn’t keep two pipes in his breast pocket, and he doesn’t ride a unicycle to work.

The second surprise was the immediate offering-up of a creative process.    I’d expected that I would have to eke-out some semblance of a process by observing an amorphous mass of arty activity.  But instead, Pete talked me through Gyro’s method within the first few of minutes.   In my Sherlock Holmesy gusto to discover-that-which-is-hidden, I was almost disappointed.

Apparently Gyro’s process is not so different from that used in other agencies, and it certainly bears a striking resemblance to the sequence immortalised in James Webb-Young’s 1939 classic:  A Technique for Generating Ideas.   I’ll paraphrase the steps here, to avoid revealing too much of Gyro’s hand …

1. Define the question
2. Generate large numbers of raw ideas
3. Assess those ideas against the brief
4. Elaborate the promising ones, and reform or abandon the rest
5. Reflect

You might easily identify with steps 1 to 4.  Even to the untrained eye they seem perfectly sensible, whereas step 5 feels like a luxury.   In fact Pete was keen to point out the importance of step 5:  If we don’t sleep on an idea, we can too easily get carried away with a seductive idea which is actually unworkable.

So if Gyro follows a similar process to other agencies, how does it differentiate in a crowded market?  Pete gave me several views on this, but the most striking was the way Gyro tackles step 2.   Whereas some other agencies assign small teams to work through all the steps, Gyro uses its large size to draw more staff into the generation of ideas.   In some instances, it is even able to draw the entire company in.   When 600 creative people cluster around a client’s problem I expect the results can be pretty mind-blowing (in fact I've already seen some evidence of this!)

The next step on my tour was a meeting to discuss a new client brief.   I keenly watched the way the team discussed the details of the advertising problem, but restrained themselves from discussing specific ideas there and then.   Instead, they went away individually for two days to come up with simple pictoral representations (“Scamps” or “Tissues”) of large numbers of ideas.   I guess this behaviour is the advertising equivalent of de Bono’s Yellow Hat – a way of avoiding the kind of early criticism which can kill excellent ideas unless they’re already well-articulated.

I made my own small contributions to the Art Director after the meeting.  He wrote three of them down, but I guess the odds are against me.   The quality and quantity of his own ideas will almost certainly overwhelm mine, but I’ll keep an eye-out just in case anything of mine sees the light of day.   (I won’t share my ideas here, partly because of client confidentiality … but more importantly to save embarrassment!)

After lunch I interviewed James, the Art Director working on the brief.   I was keen to find out what he’d be doing in the next two days. 

Some of the observations from James (and Pete) reaffirmed my views on creativity:

- Working away from the office in a quiet environment is important.
- Everyone at Gyro is encouraged to broaden the collective knowledge of the company by doing something extracurricular – perhaps pursuing outside hobbies, or forging links to other companies.
- Brainstorming should be focused, facilitated and short!   Nothing is “a bad idea” and - participants should be encouraged to build on each other’s thoughts.
- The only tools needed are pen and paper, but the internet is also useful for research.
- The team will have ideas kicking around in their minds almost continuously over the next two days.

So what would I most like to apply, back in the day-job?

Two things:

1. Mental Preparation:  Advertising agencies have learn that they need to prepare clients to receive ideas.  There’s even an industry publication from the “IPA” on this subject (more of which in a future posting).   If I’m going encourage creative thinking in a non-creative industry, I think I need to work harder on readying the audience at the receiving end.
2. Time:  Creatives at Gyro often get the luxury of spending hours or days working on nothing but ideas.   This is one of the reasons why it looks easy.  Other industries would baulk at this, considering it a waste of time, but actually this kind of commitment is necessary to hit on the best ideas, and it can be incredibly fruitful, more than repaying the investment.

A fantastic visit then, and well-worth my investment.   Thanks to Pete and James at Gyro for making me feel like one of the team from the moment I walked in.

Friday, November 11

Creativity in the Creative Industries

Now this week's post is a bit of a departure for me.  I was meant to be sticking to the NON-creative industries wasn't I?

Anyway, through a complex web of intricate accidents I have more occasion than normal to consider industries like broadcasting and publishing at the moment, and I'll be considering the advertising industry in a great deal of depth in the weeks to come.

And one of the first things that should strike even the casual observer of the creative industries is that ... actually ... they're not all that creative either.  In the same way that only a small proportion of staff at a construction company actually design bridges, very few people in a large corporate “creative” company actually create.  The residue of the staff mostly concern themselves with project management, team leading, having (non-creative) meetings, service management, client management, supplier management, contracts management etc.

In a way, this reminds me why I write this blog, and it inspires me to think that my potential audience might be bigger than I'd considered.  A bit of rebranding is in order ...
From:  Creative thinking for the non-creative INDUSTRIES
To:  Creative thinking for the non-creative PROFESSIONS

So it's natural to ask whether non-creative professionals in creative industries can actually access creativity more easily than their peers in the analytical industries.

I strongly doubt it.  I suspect that the APPARENT barriers will be a slightly different shape, but just as large and impenetrable.  It won't be that they don't KNOW any creative people on their organisations, just that they make their living by NOT being creative, and they will likely wish to preserve the distinction for fear of being compared to the (unstructured? unmanageable? unscientific?) “talent”.

What a wasted opportunity!

It's at times like this when I start banging on about "shadowing". What if a media designer swapped jobs for the day with a systems analyst?  Or if they shadowed each other for a day?

With their minds and eyes fully open there must be masses they could each learn, enabling them to get new angles on the same old challenges.

Every few months my company sends senior executives "back to the floor" to do entry-level jobs.  Or rather to SHADOW people doing entry-level jobs (that's really all they're qualified for!)

The execs say that they come away with fresh insight and a renewed appreciation for the quality of work at lower levels of the organisation.  I guess they would say that wouldn't they? ... but actually, knowing a couple of them as I do, I happen to believe them.

What do we think about everyone doing one day of job shadowing per year, alongside someone whose job is a million miles removed from their own?  Good idea?

What about randomising the allocations?

What about doing this between organisations, rather than just within organisations?

Wednesday, November 2

Unconscious Creativity

I shared an interesting chat with an old friend in the pub recently.  This is something I do far too little of these days, and that's my fault more than anyone else's.

Anyway, it turns out he's discovered this blog, started keeping tabs on my innermost reflections, and even started asking my wife about my schedule if posts don't appear routinely on a Friday!

Aside from this all being quite unsettling, it prompted an interesting beer-fuelled discussion.  And one which I may need you, the reader, to arbitrate upon ...

My friend's contention was that software developers (a job we've both done in past lives) are actually quite creative in their problem-solving, despite their reputation as analytical thinkers.  The example he gave was one where it was necessary to overcome a network security limitation, and the ultimate solution involved introducing layers of abstraction which weren't themselves constrained in the same as the elementary components.

(Stick with me.  It's layman’s language for the rest of this post.)

I was forced to concede that, yes, this was an example of lateral thinking.  And that created a dilemma for me:  this was precisely the kind of thing I was very good at back in my coding days, but I've been arguing all this time that I had no skill in creative thinking back then.

So what's going on here?  After a bit of head-scratching, I think I have it ...

The software developer who arrived at this solution hit upon a good alternative, which circumnavigated the immediate obstacles.  But he did so using established pathways in the brain.  He was doubtless well-trained, and used intra-domain knowledge to solve the problem.

That's a good thing when the problem is well-defined, and we know what “good” looks like. 

In this example the problem could be considered closed once two computers successfully exchanged messages.  Without devaluing his skills for a moment, a great many similarly-qualified people could have hit upon the same solution.

But what if the ideal solution is not clear, and we’re seeking many and varied alternatives? 
What if there's no clearly articulated problem at all, and our challenge is instead to carve-out new opportunities?  Or what if we’re looking for a rather unique way forward: one which couldn’t be duplicated by competing organisations?

This is where I’d draw a useful distinction between 'lateral thinking' (in the popular usage of the term) and ’creative thinking’.  When faced with a brick wall, the analyst tries to break through it; the lateral thinker tries to go around it; but the creative thinker can also countenance flying over it, spiriting it away with sorcery, playing musical chairs with it, crawling underneath it, or shrinking down to microscopic size and squeezing through cracks in the mortar.  These alternative ideas emerge from employing external knowledge from foreign domains.

If only I'd thought of all that in the pub.   Maybe next time!

What do you think?  Do I draw a valid distinction here?

Tuesday, October 25

The Phenomena of Idea Fear

Author:  Crosa

There have been a couple of public articles recently about our fear of ideas.   I'm not sure this is quite right ...

We're creatures of habit, yes.  Experienced project and programme managers will wax lyrical about the human factor being the most difficult part of transformational change.  

So most of us instinctively resist change, but actually the rejection of ideas is a lot more complicated ...
  • Routine change doesn't represent the same "threat" as transformational change, so doesn't attract the same level of opprobrium.
  • At the other extreme, really wacky ideas sometimes just seem too ridiculous to feel like a threat.
  • Unhealthy resistance can be avoided with simple techniques like the de Bono "six thinking hats".
  • Smart leaders establish the need to change in the minds of those affected before launching into ideas.
  • New ideas can be created in a well-faciliated, fun workshop environment, which gets all stakeholders enjoying the creation of new ideas. Human nature makes it very hard for those same stakeholders to reject all the resulting ideas (but beware the wrath of anyone who wasn't in the room!)

I think most of what people fear is the implication of the idea, not the idea itself.  Because the implications are unknown at the inception of the idea, the 'glass-half-empty' people think first-and-foremost about the worst-case scenarios for them personally.  Many people project in their mind's eye much worse scenarios than would ever occur.

Perhaps the best response is to be inclusive.  Invite the fearful and pessimistic to get involved in reviewing the idea early on.  Draw on their critical skills to make sure they feel part of the process.  Invert their behaviour (using "hats" or equivalent) by inverting the idea, to make sure they analyse the positive aspects of a potential change too - they'll be just as keen to do that, because it utilises familiar critical-thinking.  If possiblegive, also some simple assurances to assuage the 'worst-case' thinkers. 

We can't expect to change human nature, so let's harness it intelligently to support the development of ideas.

Friday, October 14

Release your Inner Child

It's a cliche in the business of creative thinking that children are more creative than adults.   And it's right too, for one very simple reason: Kids are still exploring the world, they're far further provoked by what we'd see as simple stimuli, and most importantly they're not yet channelled down the paths of received wisdom and popular taxonomy.

My daughter wouldn't think twice before painting curtains around a car window, or drawing a car parked on top of a tree.  And these are precisely the kinds of juxtapositions we need to encourage if we're ever to launch our own thinking in more interesting directions.

The tree-car thing could work especially well.   How about someone inventing ...
  • A car park with a ramp alongside a prestigious African treetop hotel?
  • Vehicle-themed Xmas tree decorations?
  • Trees and root-systems on wheels, providing mobile shade in parks?
  • A network of sensors and alarms ("horns") around a forest, recording and alerting on forest fires from tree-top vantage points?
  • A window-box planter for your car's parcel-shelf, for tree-huggers like me or perhaps for extreme oxygen addicts?

I've written extensively in the past about how we can generate our own provocations.   But it does take effort, whereas kids seem to come up with stuff like this without trying.

So the exam question today is: How can we liberate ourselves to be more childlike at work?

Funnily enough, I think it comes more easily with age!  I'm not talking about senile regression here, just that it's easier to act like a kid if people know you're not.  You'll more likely be tolerated and listened to if you've established your value in conventional ways in the past.  

A 21-year old graduate acting like a kid might just be seen as ... a kid, so runs the risk of being largely-ignored. (Some years ago I worked with a 30-year old who'd spent the last decade driving a pretend motorbike around the office.  It lent nothing to his gravitas.)

The other obvious way to tackle this is have special days or hours where childish behaviour is encouraged.  Of course many organisations do fundraising days, or dress-down Fridays, both of which go some way to licensing unconventional behaviour.  But it's not quite enough.

Creative thinking events, well-facilitated, can certainly help.  Participants can be firmly instructed to be silly.  They have no choice.  It works.

If all else fails, why not just be childlike on the inside, perhaps even in your own time.  Give yourself half an hour each day to let go, let your mind wander, and fall into your own provocations.  If you have children, match their behaviour.   Leave the provocations lying around in your subconscious and see what happens.

Friday, September 30

The Creative Value in Extreme Brevity

Meaningful messages in just six words?
Hemingway could do it; why can't we?
His most frequently cited example follows:
"For sale: Baby shoes.  Never worn."

High-intensity meaning.  Just six words.
What else could we thus condense?
Perhaps those creative provocations could shrink ... 
  • What if that was upside-down?
  • Could the cart proceed the horse?
  • Why sell that?  We could buy!
  • Would that widget suit some stripes?
  • What would Francis of Assisi do?
  • Could B2C or G2C become B2B?

Or try a creating thinking motto--
A laconic used to drive behaviour
Michael Michalko came up with one:
"All cats look grey at night"
Prompted thus, I'll submit my own:
"Helicopter pilots spot the best paths"

Is this exercise in consicion serious?
Yes!  There's value in extreme brevity
Ask tweeters, ad men and authors
A crisp headline holds everyone's attention
And therein common understandings are established
Collaboration is kindled; the fire starts
And rages, unconstrained by excess meaning

(Inspired by Michael's excellent new book.)

Thursday, September 22

In the Company of One

Now here's a thing ...

I've recently experienced a very graphic demonstration of just how slow a large enterprise can be to adopt a simple, low-cost innovation.   (I'll mention no names, but you know who you are, insurance company X!)

So a provocation (a "po") seems in order ...

'What if you were you own company in your own right: A company of one?  Would you tolerate excess delay to implementation?

No.  I'll tell you exactly what would happen ...

- There's no way in the world you'd suffer ten or more naysayers to every good idea -- they wouldn't be there to naysay!
- You wouldn't need ten or more "specialists" to vet every idea, half of whom are unavailable to talk at any given time
- The facade of the business case would be present, but not dominant
- Gut instinct would have a place
- Change wouldn't strike fear into the workforce in quite so compelling a way
- Attack (improvement) would matter more than defence (preservation)

Is any of this instructive?   I like to think so.

Sometimes we have to act like we work in a company of one, to get things done.  If we want our creativity-inspired ideas to go anywhere, then we'll need to think small.

I've coached the sole ideas evangelist in the offending company to assume responsibility for what is, after all, a small, powerful, self-contained idea.  He plans to push it through, end-to-end, to see it realised.   This means constant effervescence, and the adaptability to do lots of different types of leg-work for himself.

But what's his reward?

Money?   ... Unlikely.

Recognition?  ... Maybe.

Self-satisfaction?   Yes.  It has to be that.

And perhaps something even better:  There's something wearyingly comparable about large enterprises and their take on "new stuff".  If he can push this through, with a smidgen of moral support from me, then maybe we have a model for evangelistic innovation, which would yield results in a hundred other UK  plcs.?

Fingers crossed.   I'll let you know.