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.