Saturday, December 18

"Highscreen" is the new "Widescreen"

I spend much of my working week tracing familiar paths around the northern part of central London.  It's repetitive, and I often find I've switched to "autopilot", arriving at my destination with little or no recollection of the journey.

But I live 100 miles from London, so I rarely see it at the weekend.  That why it was so interesting to wake up this saturday morning in Barbican, don a pair of jeans instead of a suit, and revisit some familiar haunts with a recreational (rather than functional) perspective.

And it's amazing what you see:  Upon opening my curtains on the sixth floor, three gigantic cranes confronted me.  I've walked past them hundreds of times, but never spotted them before.  What are they building, and why?

Perhaps it was the much-diminished pedestrian presence which exposed the many metal cabinets adorning our pavements.  Are these part of our electricity, gas or telecoms infrastructure?  Who uses them, and why?  And whence the welcome development of street artists attacking them with colourful patterns?

There's usually no opportunity to look up inside Baker St. underground station.  It's more important to watch the movements of others acutely, so as to avoid collisions in the morning maelstrom.  But when you do look up, the ceiling is remarkable:  It's decorated with rather formal squares and circles of red on white.  Who did that, and why?

Looking up at Marylebone train station was also revealing.  The sheer complexity of the interwoven steel frame is mind-boggling, and I loved the juxtaposition of a group of stranded helium balloons amongst the struts and arches.  Changing my viewpoint slightly I spotted a cluster of CCTV cameras, and of course that triggered sightings of several more cameras dotted around the building.  Why so many?  Who watches the footage?

All of this reminds me of an exercise a few years ago, undertaken as part of a photography class at my local college.  We were asked to spend a couple of weekends shooting 26 images, one in the form of each letter of the alphabet.  Until this task provoked me to look up, I'd never imagined that some lamp-posts look like a 'J', or that a window frame could resemble an 'A'.

Why do we so rarely look up?  I think it's a gravity thing.  For land mammals like us, the most important objects are on the ground.  For basic survival it's been much more important to look left, look right, look behind, or look into the distance.  Of course this is why widescreen TVs have replaced traditional square tubes: Most of our TV programmes are about people, so why waste all that space on the sky?  How different things must be in the genuinely three-dimensional world occupied by birds or fish!

So next time I commute, I'll look up, look around, ask "why?", then try to work out the answer.  I expect I'll learn a lot, and perhaps stimulate a few more new ideas.

Friday, December 10

Customer Experience as a Product

As you might expect, I spend much of my time working with customer-facing industries rather than product designers and manufacturers.  As such I'm often inspired to consider how I might lift the best lessons from product innovators and apply them to creative thinking and innovation in service industries.

Many of you will face this same challenge, and I encourage your comments:  When first we scour the internet for advice on creativity or innovation we find the richest material in the domain of the product developer.

So what's the "product" of a Business-to-Customer (B2C) or Government-to-Citizen (G2C) organisation?  I believe it's the customer experience.

If we accept that assertion, then our job is to supplement our current list of techniques for improving customer experience with additional insight from the product industry.  Here's my attempt to translate a few popular rules:

"Use Technology-Pull innovation, as well as Market-Push innovation"
... could be elaborated into: "Explore and experiment with the potential for emerging technology to positively affect the customer's perception of service, including impacts on sensory perception, environment, perceived value, ease, accessibility and reliability of transactions, and supplementary value-added services."

"Make time available for staff to work on their own projects"
... might usefullly become: "Pay customer-facing staff for reflecting on the service they provide, give them time to compare notes and consult customers informally, and then propose improvements.  Listen to their feedback, and act on it."

"Launch early, then continuously improve"
... could translate into: "Set aside significant budget to run a continuously evolving portfolio of concept stores, offices, websites and other centres of service.  Pay close attention to the reactions and behaviours of customers exposed to those experiments.  Roll-out each concept more widely as soon as the balance of risk swings positive, and expect further development to be necessary in the field."

"There are no bad ideas"
... applies pretty well without translation, but we might add "Review all new ideas for customer service with an open mind, and with a facilitator-led customer focus group.  Actively seek to transform 'bad' ideas into 'good' ones."

Aside from this list, so much other advice remains intact:  It's still entirely appropriate to apply lateral thinking, to share information as widely as possible, to challenge our subconscious assumptions, etc.

All that's happening here is a shift from the focus we're used to reading about: Service industries should concentrate on the core "product" of customer experience, relying on the supply chain to drive innovation in underlying goods and services. 

Now we know what belongs in that empty cardboard box.

Thursday, December 2

My Latest Failure

It's hard to find any serious literature about creative thinking or lateral thinking which doesn't strongly recommend that we expose ourselves to exotic stimulus of various kinds.

The logic is that by forcing cognition in unusual domains, we'll form new pathways in the brain, and we'll subsequently be able to exploit those new pathways so as to arrive at new and unusual ideas.

That seems pretty reasonable in theory, but I wondered if it works in practice.  So in the spirit of experimentation I plumped for the quintessential exotic stimulus, the outside experience most heralded by the literati of creative thinking:  I visited an art gallery, and specifically the Tate Modern on London's south bank.

I predicted I'd emerge from my experiment two hours later having debunked the theory, at least to my own satisfaction.  Here's what really happened ...

I toured the open galleries on the third and fifth floors, spending most of my time at exhibits which either attempted to challenge metaphysics, or which were wholly unexpected in some other more subtle way.

I made notes as I went along:

1.  Bridget Riley creates waves within waves, and uses diagonal directions instead of just North, South, East and West in her grids.
2.  Mimmo Rotella ripped pieces from bill posters to create a collage.
3.  Richard Artschwager sculpted a desk and chair ... which aren't.
4.  Alexander Ap√≥stol photographed residential buildings, then digitially removed their doors and windows.
5.  Richard Serra created a precarious structure from heavy sheet metal, to make his audience a little nervous, the better to engage their interest.
6.  John Latham created a dynamic layout of books, then shot them in a video in different configurations to suggest that they could move unaided.
7.  Anish Kapoor has represented the creation of the universe as a vertical line in "Ishi's Egg".
8.  Dennis Oppenhiem photographed a tractor ploughing a field in a series of parallel lines which were anything but straight.

So is this collection of observations valuable to me? 

As I've probably remarked before, I've been carrying around a list of 300 random words like "plane", "coaster", "parrot", ...  I use them to provoke new ideas to address existing problems, and they're usually very helpful. 

But this new imagery from the Tate is much richer. 

Next time I'm trying to cut costs in a supply chain, I'll probably still think about goods flying between distribution centres, in response to the word "plane".   But perhaps after seeing Oppenhiem's tractor, I'll also think about the benefits of indirect routes, or about "growing" goods at the point of need.

Love them or loathe them, everyone should lose themselves in a gallery a few times a year.   My attempt to debunk the theory was an abject failure!

Monday, November 22

Innovation, version 3

Those of us with a background in technology have long been familiar with the conundrum of business-to-IT alignment.  We often find ourselves in the middle of tussles between
  • Business people who don’t (and don’t wish to) understand the complexities of IT, considering it something of an ivory tower, and
  • IT people, many of whom value technical exactitude and purity above actual return on investment
This divide will be instantly recognisable to millions of knowledge workers around the world, but after numerous prominent failures of alignment, it’s gradually being overcome via business partner models, enterprise architecture, better collaboration, and the continuous encroach of technology into all of our private lives.  The latter is particularly significant, with many businesses struggling to keep up with the rich, social experiences that their customers and employees can get for free at sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter.
So with the business/IT divide a well-established phenomena, it’s amazing just how few texts on “innovation” fail to discuss the way in which the divide manifests itself in that domain.  Here's my interpretation:
In most industries, business people will think first-and-foremost of Market-Pull innovation—unusual or creative ways to respond to established market needs.  (For example, the automotive airbag was a response to the demand for better crash safely in cars.)
However, many technologists will recognise only Technology-Push innovation—the research and development of inventions, in the hope that a problem will subsequently offer itself up.  (One example is the invention of MP3 encoding, which has subsequently largely displaced the compact disc.)
Coming to recognise these two basic flavours can help organisations surmount many of the semantic debates about the word “innovation”.  And sorting out the language can be a critical stepping-stone to identifying gaps in innovation strategy, with most organisations opting for some composite of the two types once they recognise that both exist!
I was quite pleased when I first recognised these two flavours, and felt very comfortable when I learnt to work with them.
So it was a mixed blessing when I started meeting Italians …
Marzia Aric√≤ is the designer working for the Hot Spots Movement.  She has a background in both design and innovation, and is an advocate of Design-Driven innovation—a way of adapting creative design processes to produce radical innovation which are still based on perceived market demand.  I’ll be watching with interest to see how this third way takes-off, and in the meantime you can read her description of it here.

Wednesday, November 17

Artistic Licence

In the last few days I've spoken to people from several organisations who suffer from an interesting obstacle to creative thinking:  They don't think they're allowed!  It's not the corporate way.

This obstacle is caused by more than just the doctrine that analytical thinking is all-important; rather it's part of a corporate upbringing which places no value on creativity, but values time highly.  In this kind of environment, any avant garde modes of thought will be seen as unproductive wastes of time, and are unlikely to get a fair trial.

People in this kind of situation (and lots of us have been there!) need to unlearn patterns of behaviour that have formerly served us well.  In many industries, and especially in technical or mechanical work, we earn our spurs early on via a dogged commitment to logic and analysis, at the expense of other more open-minded approaches.

But this kind of constraint really isn't good for anyone.  It bores and weakens individuals, and it commoditises the output of the corporation.

So we must learn to engage our powers of thought again, and I find a growing movement of important thinkers throwing themselves at this kind of agenda.  For example:

1.  Lynda Gratton's book "Hot Spots" (see bibliography) points out that ambiguous questions are much more likely to ignite hot spots of energised, innovative behaviour.  We won't stimultate creativity with closed, narrow or prescriptive challenges, which tend instead to result in "dehydrated conversations".

2.  Chris Guillebeau’s latest article (see links) is a powerful tract on being yourself, and resisting the corporate forces of homogenisation. 

3.  Bob Anderson's document on leadership tells us that "most of us would be genuinely shocked if we learnt how much of our behaviour with others comes from a place of fear in us" and "we speak up at meetings or remain quiet in front of our colleagues and bosses, hoping to look brilliant or avoid looking foolish".

Mindless adherence to best practice doesn't just harm creativityit can also harm our analytical thought!  We all know that three-year olds ask "why?" ad infinitum.   But do any of us do that at work?  Not often, I'd guess.  Instead people tend to worry about looking stupid, or decide their curiousity has had sufficient free-rein when they think they spot a familiar pattern.

So I suggest we each develop our own principles for work, and always try to be true to them.  If you believe in creative thinking then I hope you'll develop a principle to support that commitment.

Thursday, November 11

Opportunity for all

I've been reading a very interesting book in the last few days.  The author is very familiar to me, but this is not in his usual style.

Edward de Bono's "Opportunities" presents a formula for embedding the search for new and better products and operations into the normal day jobs of senior managers, in such a way that this doesn't just become a "nice-to-have" aspect of their roles.

What a good idea?  Typical of him, really.

Far from being hypothethical, we feel that we're reading a thorough and carefully-considered account of methods which de Bono has actually seen in practice.  (I'm looking for empirical evidence now, and would appreciate any feedback.)

There's an unexpectedly large amount of detail in the book, so I'll provide only a taster here:

  • Traditional roles don't often reward the pursuit of new opportunities, especially in the public sector.
  • There's often no-one who "owns" that pursuit either.  Everyone expects someone else to do it.
  • Despite this, the search for new opportunities should be taken-up at all levels to allow organisations to remain competitive.
  • So we need to encourage this important activity, even though there's usually something more urgent to keep us busy.
  • It can figure in everyone's job description.
  • There should be an "Opportunity Audit" process, whereby an "Opportunity Manager" supports managers in producing annual "Opportunity Reports".
  • These reports oblige managers to seek opportunities in their areas, and in others' area--but more importantly to secure sponsorship to take them up.

All of this seems eminently sensible, and I struggle to find fault with the fundamentals.    So why don't we hear more about it?

I can only speculate that:
  1. At board-level, the search for opportunities seems so unavoidable that it's assumed everyone already does it, ... or 
  2. A fairly rigid framework like de Bono's seems antithetical to the kind of spontaneous, creative thinking we usually associate with market exploration, ... or
  3. No-one has yet shown the foresight to set-aside sufficient budget for such a scheme, despite the significant likelyhood of sharp and swift returns.
Perhaps I'm wrong.  Perhaps this has already been tried unsuccessfully by a number of companies.  If you know the answer, please get in touch.

Monday, November 8

Favourite ways to provoke people

Creativity in an artistic environment is one thing; creative thinking in the context of business activity is quite another. 

Central to the act of creative thinking in business is the act of provocation.  I'm convinced by the argument that the educational institutions of the western world have eroded our creativity, replacing it with patterns for analytic problem solving which in time become our only instincts.

I'm sure you'll readily recollect an education in which you were taught that "Peking" was the capital of China.  But do you ever recall being offered any alternative perspectives?
1.  If you're chinese, the capital is "Beijing"
2.  If you're a grammar buff, the capital is "C"
3.  If you're in finance, the capital will be "yuan", or "renminbi", or "kuai", or "jiao" (various names for China's currency)

Once you've arrived at these alternatives, it's pretty easy to back-track to the original question.  And the trick of provocation helps you reach those paths-less-trodden. 

We started to discuss this subject in a previous post, but now I'd like to offer-up a few basic methods to help you provoke the mind away from it's normal path.  You'll be able to get a long way with just a simple expression of four common methods, derived from one of the many books on the bibliography page:

First of all work out precisely what you want to think about, and write it down as your "focus".  It could be a problem, an opportunity, or just a subject area which you feel warrants further exploration.

Then apply one or more of the following provocations, in any order ...

Re-focus and re-state
Examine the top three causes and top three effects of your focus, and consider re-focusing on one of those if it might yield broader results.  Experiment with putting your focus into different words, use synonyms and similar phrases to re-express the focus so as to open-up other lines of thinking.

Use analogies
Consider if your focus has any "parallel worlds" (the best example I've spotted is roll-on deodorant, apparently invented by considering the roller-ball pen!)  Also try putting yourself in the shoes of a personal hero, and try to imagine how he or she would proceed.

Try to find an attribute of your situation which is fixed (e.g. ice forms water when it melts) ... then consider what would happen otherwise, and how that could in fact be prevented.  Consider the use of a "magic agent" which can overcome your most immediate obstacles ... then work out if such an agent could be introduced.  Consider the positive applications of apparently negative features of your situation, perhaps from the perspectives of others.

Pick a random word or phrase, inject it mercilessly into your focus, and see what emerges.  (I carry 300 random words around with me for just these purposes, and they've never failed me yet.  I only wish I had more.)

Various authors have written extensively on how these techniques can be elaborated into more sophisticated workshop exercises, to be used for collective creative brainstorming.  But very little attention is given to the power of using them alone in a quiet room on a rainy Thursday afternoon.  It actually works very well, if and only if you believe it will work well.  So when you're next feeling upbeat about creative thinking, please give it a try.  I'd love to hear how you get on.

Thursday, October 28

Innovation = Leadership? Not quite …

File:Desert Leader.jpg

Readers of earlier posts to this blog will recall that I almost always avoid using the word "innovation".  But for the purposes of this week's article let's borrow that word, along with the following definitions:

1.  "Innovation is ... balancing creativity with the discipline of making something happen"

2.  Innovation has three sequential stages:
  • Creating, elaborating and cultivating ideas
  • Sorting and filtering those ideas
  • Implementation

By these definitions, the most successful end-to-end innovators tend to exhibit a need to achieve, enormous energy, and a belief in the efficacy of their own action.

They thrive in cultures where openness and challenge are encouraged, where there’s freedom to think, act, and take risks.

To run the gauntlet of processes like the new product lifecycle there also needs to be management commitment, a clear and stable vision, and a team which collaborates and shares knowledge.

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?  And it’s even interesting if you’ve recently been reviewing documents on the subject of leadership.  The parallels are striking.

The following qualities are amongst those identified by Bob Anderson in his excellent document “Mastering Leadership”:

  • A sense of personal purpose [need to achieve?]
  • Translation of that purpose into a future vision [clear and stable vision?]
  • The leader's full commitment to that vision [management commitment?]
  • Setting stretching goals, to create energy [energy?]
  • Developing intuition to balance rational analysis [freedom to think, act, and take risks?]
  • Open (or “authentic”) dialogue [openness?  challenge?]
  • Co-operation with others [collaborates and shares knowledge?]

So we find significant overlap.  Successful innovators ought to be competent transformational leaders.  Equally, successful leaders who can harness creative resources towards their purposes should be able to innovate very effectively.

Let’s take care to detach from the word “Innovation” before closing, because this discourse has further disinclined me to adopt the word!  More useful to focus on the creativity required to generate ideas, and the leadership necessary for implementing them.

Friday, October 22

The Power of the Prototype

File:V2 Wireframe.png

Stimulating and gathering ideas is one thing, but making them real is quite another.   It can be extremely hard to make an idea come to life in the minds of your stakeholders, and more often than not there's only one chance to get that right.  If your vision of the future doesn't stick in people's minds, or if it takes entirely the wrong shape there, then a very valuable idea might be discarded for good.

So it's your responsibility to communicate ideas effectively.  If you fail to do so, you'll disadvantage not just yourself, but also anyone else who tries to resurrect the same idea ... ever!  If I fail to convince my boss first-time that there's a mass market for elasticated carrots, then elasticated carrots will always have a bad name, however good an idea they might become.

Words alone might not do the trick.   Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) tells us that different people have different sensory preferencesthat is they each prefer to absorb information and ideas using different senses.  So even if you're highly clear and articulate, you're really only appealling to people with an auditory preference.

Most people's preference is visual, so most of the time a visual articulation of the idea will be much more powerful.  I've recently experimented with 2D mock-ups using simple office tools, and have found that I get much more traction in trying to explain my ideas.

Of course the nirvana is a 3D prototype with moving parts, which can be touched and manipulated by hand.  This appeals to people with either a visual or kinesthetic (i.e. "touchy-feely") preference.  Your investment in a 3D model will tend to be higher, but you only get one chance to get this right, so take care to ensure a compelling demonstration whatever format you choose.   The less well you know your stakeholders, the more investment you should prepare to swallow in order to win them over.

Friday, October 15

The Oxygen of Executive Attention?

So you've accumulated 27 new ideas this week, and one or two of the better ones are really starting to take shape after discussions with specialists.  Does that mean it's time to open a dialogue with senior management?

Unfortunately, it probably doesn't--unless you happen to have an especially enlightened team of CxOs.  Most of the top team will tend to be rather preoccupied with today's pressing issues, and will tend to be impatient with half-baked ideas.  The best you can really hope for at this early stage is a word or two of general-purpose encouragement.

Far better then to spend a little more time elaborating the idea into something which resembles an early business case.  It will be more readily recognised and interpretted that way, and is likely to be taken more seriously as a result.  I suggest thinking carefully about what your senior managers like to see as part of a proposal, and creating a simple template to ensure the main areas always get some consideration.  (For example, one of my templates has slides for each of the following: Need, Costs and Benefits, Solution, and Alignment.)

This is the reinforcing process we often call "Greenhousing", and the analogy with plants is quite a useful one:  Your sapling idea can grow in the oxygen of a breeze, but a hurricane will tear it away.  Protect the early ideas until they've developed.

There's one notable exception to all this:  If you've managed (or stumbled) your way into a situation where there's direct executive sponsorship for creative thinking then exposing your ideas early can help you maintain and strengthen that sponsorship.  You're in the lucky position of having a CxO in the greenhouse with you, and you should make the most of that opportunity.

Friday, October 8

Running a Workshop

File:.45 R.P.M. (rounds pre-millennialist) art chair (221416076).jpg

Let me make one thing perfectly clear up-front:  We must avoid calling our creative meetings "Workshops" or "Away-Days" if we're to make any headway†.

Events like these are intended to drive new behaviours, and set some new rules for our thinking.  So the name of the event needs to reflect that intent.  How about names like "Creativity Studio", "Ideas Forum", "Thinking Party" or "Play Day" which may better serve to deflect presumptions.

Title aside, let's look at some of the features of an event which successfully generates new ideas, and some of the reasons why those features are necessary:

Meetings should be far away from attendees' desks, so your contributors aren't lured away by the pressures of the day job.

Take care who you invite:  Attendees should arrive at the venue open-minded, positive and respectful of their peers.  This is not an event for griping, bickering, or seeking to demonstrate our critical superiority.

Select a diverse group, with a wide range of views and experiences to bring to bear.  The size of the group should be between 6 and 10, excluding the facilitator.

At all costs, resist pressure from managers to monitor or regulate the proceedings.  This can only constrain the team's thinking.

Prepare a focus for the meeting:  Most people won't readily generate ideas unless there's some direction, so make sure you take one or more broad strengths, opportunities or challenges into the meeting.  Be prepared to massage them if the group would rather refocus slightly, but don't allow the focus to become too wide to be meaningful, or too narrow to permit fresh thinking.

The facilitator should open the event by making sure everyone feels a right and obligation to contribute.  An opening "round robin" exercise grants everyone that licence up-front.

Similarly, the facilitator should make sure no-one feels any right whatsoever to interrupt, belittle or rubbish anything the others say.  I find it useful to tackle this with a few examples from history where apparently silly ideas have founded highly successful ventures.

With a nod to Edward de Bono, I suggest that the "Green Hat" and "Yellow Hat" will be most useful, and if a meeting is intended purely to arrive at new ideas then the "Black Hat" should be banned.  The facilitator must be straight-faced about this, because if it's seen as a rather surreal and laughable rule then it will be too easily disregarded.

Hang back:  As facilitator your role is not to contribute ideas, but rather to liberate the attendees, track to the agenda, maintain momentum, keep discipline, and provoke lateral thinking when needed (especially in the early parts of the meeting).

Good luck!

† I'm allowed to use the word in the title of this article, because search engines won't appreciate this nuance.

Friday, October 1

Finding our Ideas Manager

I've mentioned in a previous article that I believe anyone with some understanding of the environment can prove an excellent source of ideas. 

I won't be making that same claim about the role of "Ideas Farmer".  The person responsible for stimulating, harvesting, filtering and launching your organisation's ideas must have a range of behavioural qualities which are a little scarce in combination.

For my money, these are the most important qualities in rough priority order.  You'll probably find you can't get them all, but aim for an 80% match ...

1.  Infectious enthusiasm — All-important is the ability to imbue colleagues with the desire to think creatively.  That's the most fundamental gap in many organisations.

2.  Business-savvy — It's best not to pick a functional expert with a narrow field of view, or someone incapable of recognising commercial realities.

3.  Drive, and thick-skin — You need someone who won't get stuck when the organisation can't find a way to accommodate new ideas, or when it is dismissive of creative approaches.

4.  Emotional intelligence — Building on the earlier quality of enthusiasm, your "Ideas Farmer" needs to work closely with a wide range of people, and be able to keep differing stakeholders in harmony using whatever techniques are necessary.

5.  Adapatability — Whilst this person doesn't major on originating ideas themselves, he or she should be skilled at adapting them to fit the circumstances.  Often the originator of an idea will remain narrowly-wedded to the original concept, so others must transform it into the most acceptable shape.

6.  Ideation — This is the popular name for the quality of originating and being fascinated by ideas.  Although by no means critical, it doesn't hurt for the farmer of the ideas to sow a few of his or her own.

Good luck in your search.  The picture above is a little extreme – it’s not really as bad as looking for a needle in a haystack, but don’t underestimate the time it might take to find the right individual or group to fit the bill.   People with these profiles are usually in demand for other important work.

Sunday, September 26

Tooled-Up, or Not Tooled-Up?

There's a mass of information out there about the kinds of tools we "need" to gather and order our thoughts, and those of others.

Clearly this is an appeal to the person with a penchant for the popular displacement activity of acquiring the best possible tools for any job before starting.  But approaching things that way can be quite time-consuming in the DIY superstore of software applications that is the internet, so it's best to avoid this trap if you ever want to start actually doing anything!

So start with pen and paper, and use whatever notation you're most comfortable with for building-up a story or set of thoughts.  A "mindmap" format tends to work well for most people, so it's often best to begin with a central focus object, then radiate related ideas around it.  Each radial item can then see the same treatment.  Pen and paper are incredibly quick and flexible, and if you suddenly need a new type of shape, object or connection you can create it there and then.

The obvious downside of pen and paper is that correcting an error can be laborious at best, and impossible at worst.  But can you really make "errors" when simply transcribing a stream of consciousness onto paper?   This is a rather philosophical question, which I'll resist exploring here.

It's a balance then:  If you're sure you can maintain the speed and flexibility with your favourite office automation tool in place of pen and paper, and you're sure you can avoid getting caught-up in adjusting the style of your diagram when you should be concentrating on content, then by all means use a tool.

I've wrestled with this conundrum myself, only to find that a tool once recommended to me by a colleague seems to embody the best of both worlds.  If you feel you need a suggestion from me then try downloading South Beach Modeller.  It's incredibly quick to use ... and it's free.

Friday, September 17

How large is the creative team?

Sounds like a simple question, doesn't it?   How many people should specialise in creativity at work, either full-time or part-time?

My first instinct was that this is something for everyone - so the team size is the same as the size of the organisation.  But in fact that's neither very helpful nor terribly accurate.   More useful to suggest the following answer:

Anyone in the environment can be creative in their thinking, if suitably stimulated and supported.

So assuming for a moment that this really is a pearl of wisdom, let's decompose it to see what emerges:
  • Anyone ...
I happen to believe that we're all capable of original thought.  But sadly our industries have specialised and standardised to such a great degree that thousands of organisations only encourage creativity in certain small pockets.  We've forgotten what it was like to be six years old, and think something out for ourselves.
  • ... in the environment ...
This one's carefully worded.  It's not just your team who can think on your behalf.  If you're in Sales (UK), why not enlist Marketing (UK), R&D (Global), and Marketing (Asia-Pacific) in helping you to arrive at new ideas?  Further, why not consult your customers and suppliers, or even the general public?
  • ... if suitably stimulated ...
Critically, 99% of people will need to be woken from the corporate slumber - a malaise which has already encroached pretty significantly into our personal lives too.  There are at least 100 ways to do this (more on which later) and you won't get half the resistance you might expect.  We all have dim-and-distant memories of free-thinking, and most of us remember rather enjoying it!
  • ... and supported.
It really doesn't help to be told we're not paid to be creative - but it still happens.  If we're not paid to be creative then what on earth are we paid for?  Doing things by rote, just like a computer perhaps?  Or maybe we're paid to do things just like our competitors, but somehow magically for a lower price?  So the first step is for everyone to rise-up, and actively resist this pre-industrial revolution viewpoint sometimes espoused by managers wherever managers are still repressing originality instead of rewarding it.

That just leaves one nagging worry: If "innovation" becomes a free-for-all then unhelpful competitive and political behaviours can emerge.  To ensure collaboration, best always to have an impassioned-but-unassuming champion of creativity, or a network of localised champions.

Friday, September 10

Sleight of Mind

Last week I spotted the word "innovation" in a rather useful context (see previous rant). The setting was the book Sticky Wisdom written by the ?WhatIf! company, and the context was as follows:
"if creativity sees the commercial light of day ... that's innovation ..." and
"creativity only becomes innovation when ideas become useful. In the business world that means ... starts to make money."
Perhaps that's enough incentive for you "innovators" out there to take more of an interest in workplace creativity? If so, then please read on.

My first axiom is that our brains are predisposed to categorise information in very traditional ways, and in ways which would be immediately recognisable to others. For example, we'll tend to store "grapefruit" right next to "pineapple" in a corner of our brains called "fruit".

This is a highly efficient filing system for recalling information, and for predicting the commonplace, but it means forming a few well-trodden paths around our brains. To stray off those paths is harder than we think: Connections are often made subconsciously in nanoseconds, which means we can't interfere with the process even if we want to!

This is where the fun and games kick-in. The challenge is to distract the brain, so it’s looking the other way when you come up with a new idea. If it’s watching you too carefully, then it might put the kibosh on your fledgling idea before it even reaches your conscious mind.

Here's Scene 1, suggesting how this trickery can work:
ANALYTICAL MIND: “We need a way to make our cars safer than the other manufacturers do.”
CREATIVE MIND: “Oh. Can't we have a party instead?”
ANALYTICAL: “Let's talk to the engineers about their roll-bars.”
CREATIVE: "Can we have party balloons?”
ANALYTICAL: “I think you might be missing the point really.”
CREATIVE: “Balloons in the car!”
ANALYTICAL: “So I'm visiting the engineers on my own, am I?”
CREATIVE: “We could bounce up and down on them!”
ANALYTICAL: “Hang on ... say that again please.”
CREATIVE: “Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy!”
ANALYTICAL: “Hmmm. How about balloons in the dashboard which inflate on impact?”
CREATIVE: “Oh. OK then."
ANALYTICAL: “That was a bit sneaky. You must tell me how you did that sometime.”
The cast of characters in this simple drama can come from anywhere. The important thing is the interaction.  More about how to launch these interactions when next I write.

Friday, September 3

What's wrong with "Innovation"?

There's nothing wrong with innovation of course, but there's plenty amiss with the buzz-word "innovation", at least in my humble opinion.

In recent months especially, the word has come to mean all things to all men, which of course results in the total obliteration of any useful meaning. In the last month alone I've seen lazy uses of the term used in place of:
  • Technology invention
  • Product introduction
  • Process simplification
  • Pricing policies
  • Changes of absolutely any type whatsoever, however pedestrian ... and even
  • Triumphs of marketing disguising a complete absence of change!

This is perhaps the natural consequence of excess hype, and I've seen similar problems occur in my industry with terms like "Cloud", "Service", "Grid" and "Component".

So what shall we use instead?  My preference is to talk about ...
  1. Ideas - We all know what an idea is, and we differ very little in our intuitive understandings of what constitutes one.
  2. Creative thinking - Again, I think we share an intuitive understanding of creative thinking. It's a skill which leads us in unpredictable directions, to outcomes which might not be reached using a purely analytical train of thought.
  3. Imaginative thinking - An alternative to "creative thinking" but perhaps a little too wedded to the root word "image".
In using these alternative terms we're preventing the audience from leaping at a wide range of conflicting preferred definitions, and demanding instead that they suspend judgement whilst we explain.

I'm rather fond of "lateral thinking" too. This term was coined by Edward de Bono, but actually refers to a rather specific set of techniques, so might be better avoided for general purposes.  "Inspired" sometimes suggests luck, and the best "original" ideas are often anything but!

So when is it still useful to use the "i" word?  Often the best way to reach customers is to use their adopted language, and "innovation" seems to be the preferred term.  By all means launch a new conversation on "innovation", but quickly seek to convert your correspondents to something more concrete.

In recent weeks I've probably exercised this little diatribe almost every day with colleagues. By blogging I hope I can reduce that rate in future.

Thursday, August 26

Want to work creatively?

Shall we switch tracks?

I spent much too long working mechanically, without even realising it. 

I mistakenly thought I was applying intellect to my work, but failed to spot the problem whilst I still made sufficient career progression.

I suspect I'm not alone, and that we fall into this trap for many different reasons.  For me the principal cause was the scientific approach drummed into me in childhood:  I'd become such an acute analyst that I invariably promoted above my own the opinions and instincts of colleagues with greater experience or greater apparent authority—surpressing most of my creative thoughts as a result. 

Becoming a thirty-something parent helped me overcome this crippling inhibition.  But if you're reading this, and there's still time, I'd like you to rise much sooner.

So why switch tracks?  If you're swayed by matters practical then consider for a moment the future of work:  In 5-10 years time, I believe that even more of our analytical thinking will migrate offshore where labour is still cheaper.  And in 20-30 years time, I believe much more of it will be done by machines.  We'll be valued most where we can listen to our customers' problems in person, and offer ideas that wouldn't occur to machines.

Perhaps more importantly, creativity is in fact ... fun.  And work needs to be fun.  Enter your second childhood if you dare, and become a real asset to your organisation.