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.

Thursday, September 15

Some words are worth a thousand pictures!

How many business books from 1963 still hold a position of status in the collective psyche today?

I'd be surprised if any were held in better esteem than David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man".  

I've been interested in advertising for some months now, because it's one of only a handful of vocations which are truly creative but which also directly support businesses.  So I recently discovered this book, and read it from cover-to-cover one day last week.

How does it stand-up then?  And what can it offer to the creative thinker?

The first thing to say is READ THE BOOK. There's a wealth of commonsense advice in there, even if it's not all germane to this topic.

If we're looking for advice on creativity though, there are pros and cons.   A lot of good messages about constructing the right environment to encourage new thinking, but then something rather more controversial ...
"I will not allow [new recruits] to use the word CREATIVE to describe the functions they will perform in our agency."
How surprising.

Didn't I just classify advertising as a CREATIVE industry?  So why is the "Father of Advertising" dismissing the word?

Ogilvy worried that the focus of his new recruits could too easily become the perceived artistic quality of their adverts, rather than the more concrete measure of the product sales they stimulate.  He had little respect for advertising for its own sake, only seeking to measure them by their quantitative benefits to the clients.

So what do we reckon?  Should I be flinging-around the word "creative" as liberally as I do?

Yes, I think I should.   And here's why:

I seek to appeal to professionals in industries which are traditionally seen as non-creative.   In those industries, people need active encouragement to rediscover their instinctive creativity.   They need reminding that creativity exists, that it exists in them, and that it's a valuable means to an end.  Few of us in the more analytical sectors would fall into the trap of thinking themselves as "creative" first-and-foremost, and so few would run the risk of forgetting the business imperitives in their excess enthusiasm for creativity.

Forget the means until you understand the ends.  When the ends are clear, revisit the means.

Thursday, September 8

Something Borrowed

I've sheepishly raised the subject of my 'reading pile' before.  Much as I aspire to read regularly, I'm invariably months behind.

For you, dear reader, I feel this can only be a good thing.  How comforting it must be to read my observations on news events which you've had ample time to acclimatise to; and how pleasant must be the feeling of deja vu when I seem to be alluding to something groundbreaking which actually broke it's ground back in 2010.

With this in mind I'd like us to cast our minds back to the month of May.  Spring was in the air (a bit), Twitter's gossip was occupying the bored more than ever before, and we were all about to witness the collapse of a long-standing UK tabloid.

Had I been paying proper attention, I would have been delighted to spot an
article by Daniel H Pink in the Telegraph's "Business Thinking" column, presenting a set of research in support of something I already thought I knew.

This week, when I finally did read the column, I was delighted to see that something solid and scientific appeared to be backing-up a hypothesis I was already nurturing.

The contention was that it's much easier to arrive at unusual ideas if you're one step removed from the focus. That's to say: I'm far more likely to give you something new to think about if I work in a different company, or a different sector, or hold a different specialisation.

Although there's value in bringing local knowledge to a problem, there's even more value in applying scarcer foreign knowledge.

Several experiments were submitted as evidence:  In general, people were judged as more creative when trying to solve other people's problems.

In some respects this is just natural fallout from my
grand unified theory of creative thinking.  And it's encouraging to others in the field too, supporting as it does the idea of Weak Ties.

It leads me to question the Six Thinking Hats though: They certainly help surpress local knowledge, but they can't readily be used to replicate foreign knowledge.  And nor can any amount of attempted random provocation properly synthesise that outside nous.

Good news for me, perhaps, if I want to continue working in this area with clients.  But uncomfortable food-for-thought for anyone seeking to find all their ideas within the bounds of the immediate organisation.  Maybe one low-cost way to address the problem is an ideas exchange, where organisations lend their time to each other to provide these all-important outside perspectives.

Friday, September 2

Acquired Creativity

In media, last week's MacTaggart Lecture by Eric Schmidt of Google considered the UK's appetite for fostering sustained innovation.

Despite the critical responses, I'm sure there is more we could do here.  And given the difficulties (documented extensively on this site and elsewhere) that UK's largest enterprises have improving their creativity organically, perhaps a change in attitudes could be a 'win' for them too.

So what does large enterprise already do to encourage new ideas ...?
  • Feed and water a rather privileged R&D shop, with only loose measures for success
  • Periodically experiment with broader cultural change, suggestion schemes, rewards for new ideas, etc.
  • Decreasingly, license it's people to experiment with the way they get their tasks done
  • Occasionally sponsor extra-curricular work with charities, industry bodies and civic groups
It's all rather hit-and-miss.

So why not supplement (or re-assign some of) the R&D function to acquire ideas instead?

Some organisations are already trialling Open Innovation, and that's certainly one way to do it. But how about a direct approach?

Why not have a small team explore the emerging outputs of entrepreneurs in a wide range of fields, run "Dragons' Den"-like events to assess them, and set-up alongside the venture capitalists in licensing the ideas before they hit the market?  Or if the idea is strong enough, why not just acquire the small enterprise?

At least in principle, this idea ought to be sound, and one response to the Schmidt lecture suggests it's already happening - at least in pharmaceuticals.  This approach really leaves a lot less to chance than does the cultural change programme so beloved of the HR department!

So what does our Idea Acquisition Squad look like?

Let's start with a leader.  A leader who is a former serial entrepreneur, so thinks like the target audience, but also values ideas, knows about risk vs. reward, and recognises the virtues of a diverse portfolio.

Then let's have a couple of roving reporters, enthusiastic about innovation, varied in their backgrounds, and with good instincts about the market.

And finally, let's balance the team with an analyst, to keep them on the straight-and-narrow.  Ideally this should be someone who can fill in the gaps in any business case, combining management accountancy with substantial and applied market intelligence, and solid product development experience.

The legal and commercial teams would be waiting in the wings, but not a core part of the team.

If you run such a team then I'd love to hear all about it.  If not, then isn't it about time you did?

Thursday, August 25

Supply-Side Creativity







My day job at the moment is in something very close to sales. As such, I spend a lot of time with (or preparing to be with) clients.

As you might expect, I've been applying creative thinking to this client work.  Usually that's been beneficial, but sometimes not.  And only today did it dawn on me why not ...

Supplying creative thinking really should be something that clients appreciate. It's a relatively scarce skill, at least in my industry, and that's what makes it valuable.   But too often it's rebuffed.  Here's what I think's going on:

1. Sometimes I've failed to present my 'Creativity Licence' in advance.  My interlocutor is receptive to new ideas, but is expecting something rather different from me, and can't adjust away from a preconceived agenda during our short time together.

2. Sometimes I choose an audience which has no licence to receive or process creativity.  Typically this means I've agreed to meet someone with rather a specific remit, whose only real focus is to shave costs and polish the quality of perfectly serviceable machinery. This is an audience for continuous improvement, not for disruption.

3. Sometimes I'm allowing a moderator to surpress creativity.  Three can be crowd sometimes, even in the collective, collaborative world of innovation.  Abdul's outlandish idea has huge potential, which strikes a chord with Belinda.  But Charlie's in the room too, and when he catches Belinda's eye momentarily she withdraws from the idea in her determination to appear grounded and rational.  The greenhouse has smashed, and the sapling withers.

I need to try harder to:
  • Wear my Creator's Licence on my sleeve
  • Carry some spare licences around with me to loan out to clients
  • Avoid meeting people who aren't interested in borrowing one!

(Either that, or revert to purely sequential, logical working again, and miss out on all the fun and fury!)

Friday, August 19

Innovation you could drive a bus through ...

You've heard about Open Innovation.  It's a very fashionable concept which is probably somewhere around the "peak of inflated expectations" on the Gartner Hype Cycle.  It's a concept with bags of potential, relying mainly on the premise that your business can get better ideas if it opens its doors to selected outside organisations, and GlaxoSmithKline's consumer healthcare division is one of its leading proponents.

My employer is pretty advanced in its Open Innovation thinking too, but I'll leave colleagues to spread that message.

So let's consider for a moment a form of innovation so wide-open that it's gaping, and probably couldn't close-up if its life depended on it?

That's the model for, the brainchild of a rather precocious US youngster who'll could probably have retired at 19!   Here's a brief video featuring Ben Kaufman where he explains the evolution of Quirky in his own words:

So in five years, Ben has changed his focus as follows:
1. Passion for product #1
2. Using collaborative invention for product #2
3. Using collaborative invention as product #3

i.e. Ben's product is the process of using the whole world to shrink the time to market down to 3 days.  And doing so repeatedly.

Unless there's a whole back-story we're missing, we could all take some inspiration from this story.  It appears to me that Ben hasn't resorted to over-sophisticated methods; he's just worked out what it takes to launch a product, then called on the forces of social media to inject some of the thinking.

What can each of our organisations learn from this?   All comments gratefully received!

Friday, August 12


As mentioned in an earlier posting, the qualities of the input we receive are critical to creativity.

Those of you in the creative sector might find you can survive predominantly on your imaginations.  (Or is my view of art, advertising and architecture far too romantic?)

But over here in industries which are traditionally more analytical, at least some of our input must be directly relevant to the situation where we seek inspiration.

So we have to listen.  This is a hugely underrated and largely neglected skill.

You may think you're a good listener, but do you exhibit any of these behaviours? 
  • You start talking before your interlocuter has finished what sounds like his last word?
  • You wish she would stop repeating herself in paraphrase, when the point is already made.
  • You're thinking about the next point you need to make, and how you're going to crowbar it in?
  • You're pattern matching:  You've heard this tale of woe before, and have already mapped it onto a story you heard three years ago.
  • You're nodding emphatically, but not bothering to understand what appears to be deep detail.

(Score minus one mark for each hit!   On a typical day my score is minus two.)

In each of these cases something has gone wrong.  I believe these problems can be overcome with four measures:
  1. Only enter those interviews and meetings which you expect will be valuable enough to justify the time taken.  Once you've made a rational decision to be in the room, you're likely to engage better.
  2. If there's a clear agenda for the meeting, then consciously choose to listen to everything that's said.  It's probably being said for a reason.
  3. Actually listen.  This is an act of will, not an unconscious behaviour.  Turning-off distracting phones and laptops helps, but there's more to it than that.  You need single input, but you also need to be single-minded.
  4. Show that you're listening.  Behaviours like nodding, maintaining eye contact, and saying "yeah ... uh-huh ... yep ..." are called Active Listening.  They tell the speaker that you're listening, and guard against very some very disciplined speakers repeating themselves time and again until they get a signal that they've been heard.

I actually think I'm rather good at active listening, but that alone doesn't make me a good listener.  People often tell me I am one, when in fact I know different.  Maintaining eye contact and nodding are no guarantee that I'm paying proper attention, they just strongly suggest it.   I'm trying my hardest to change this, and that became much easier in the last couple of years when my job became much more interesting.

Nancy Kline covers some of this in her book "Time to Think".  I've had other books recommended to me, which I'll cite once I've had "Time to Read"!  

Until then, please comment with any suggestions in this area.

Thursday, August 4

Too Busy to Think

You know perfectly well what I'm going to say, don't you?   You've clocked the title of this posting, and you've already worked out the next 600 words!  

I fear you'll be right in your guess, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth reinforcing.  So here goes ...

If you're reading this, then you're probably a "Knowledge Worker".   But wait ... does that epithet really cover it?   No, you're actually an "Intelligent Worker".  You shouldn't just be relying on knowledge (i.e. resting on your laurels) but also using your intelligence to develop new knowledge, and to overcome knowledge where it's simply insufficient to the cause.

Much of modern management is about learning what constitutes "best practice", or what is the approved process, and applying it doggedly to every situation, however dissimilar from the last.  If it doesn't work, you'll just conclude that there's an even better process out there somewhere, and you just need someone to show it to you.  People make very good careers in middle management this way.

But in 25 years, my brain's microscopic co-processor implant will be able to apply best practice to modern management dilemmas while I'm watching my favourite "Britain's Got Robot Talent" repeat on ITV17.  I won't even need to turn the volume down.

So shouldn't we use our uniquely human faculties (like creativity) to solve problems?   Even if we're no brighter than the next person, we can really differentiate ourselves this way precisely because there's such scarcity in the actual application of intelligence.

So ...
You ...
MUST ...
Make ...
Time ...
To ...

If you always feel too busy to think, you don't need me to tell you that this is because you're doing the wrong things (and possibly in the wrong order too).

Either that, or your busy diary is just your displacement activity, because you're afraid of the consequences of thinking.

Which is it?  

(Do I get my coaching certificate now?  Or just my bullying medal?)

Thursday, July 28

Oh! The audacity!

In this week's post I'd like to use one of the best tools in an innovator's armoury: plagiarism!

To give you flavour of the kinds of ideas that entrepreneurs can arrive at with a pinch of creative thinking, here are my top 5 from the recent archives of Springwise.

In a loose attempt to add some value (and at the risk of trumpet-blowing) I've also outlined the reasons why I think they're extremely good ideas.

1. In retail ...
When a bookstore fails, rent the vacant space and open ... a bookstore. What wonderful bravado. This one is great, because it challenges conventional thinking head-on.

2. In education ...
We need more teachers +
people will pay for teachers +
India is well-educated +
teachers can add value remotely =
Bright Spark
(An obvious idea in retrospect.)

3. In transport ...
I love this one for it's simplicity.  Why on earth shouldn't you give up your car in return for a lifetime's free transport?  A simple solution to an often overcomplicated problem.  Come on Manchester, keep up!

4. In government...
Genius, genius, genius. What usually comes out of fountains? What else can do done with that thing? What varieties are available for the thing which comes out of fountains?  Leave the rest to the project manager!

5. In financial services ...
Social media is massive, and if you look hard enough there's value in all that "Big Data".  Why not apply it to unexpected industry sectors?

What's to stop us all coming up with ideas like these?  Just two things:
- Confidence to speak the unspeakable
- Determination to see it through

Both barriers are about state of mind, rather than concrete skills or experiences.  I believe that both can be overcome within half an hour, given the right environment.

Friday, July 22

Seven Faithful Serving Men

Even those of us not benefitting from a proper education will mostly know the Rudyard Kipling verse:
I had six faithful serving men
Who taught me all I knew
Their names were What and Where and When
And Why and How and Who

His suggestion is that we should question, question, question if we're really to understand the world, and best contribute to it.

As you might expect, I love that sentiment, but I grew-up with rather a narrow view of it.  I supposed that my incessant questions should be specific and rational.

Now I'm a proponent of general and irrational questions.   Let's cover the general ones first:

This is fairly straightforward.  Ask open questions if you don't want to close down the field.  Asking Henry Ford "Why does it have to be black?" is rather less powerful than asking "Could it be blue?"  But better still to ask "What other colours could it be?"

So far, so good.  We've invented spray paint for cars.

If we really want to work creatively though, we can start asking seemingly irrational questions too ...

"Can the paint be two colours at once?"
"Could the paint be added before the metal is moulded?"
"Does the car have to be painted at all?"
"Could the car change colour every week?"

This time we've tried our best to be borderline silly.  By doing so, we may have invented iridescent paint, pour-in metal dye, fibreglass bodywork and car fascias (Nokia's last stand, perhaps?)

When you're involved in creative thinking activity, alone or in groups, always try to ask silly questions as well as sensible ones.  If anyone laughs, they're probably laughing with you, not at you.

Formulating one of these irrational questions is only slightly harder than it sounds. Aim for totally unachievable superlatives and radical transformations of the normal associations with your chosen topic.  Think like a child if you can, and expect to marvel at the outcome.

I had seven faithful serving men
Who taught me all I knew
Their names were What, Where, When and Why
And How and Po and Who