To Reinvent, Recruit The Rebels

June 7, 2009

History is rife with stories of how people bursting with creativity were forced to take traditional safe jobs in deadening organizations while they toiled at creative pursuits on the side.

Early American writer Nathanial Hawthorne was a customs agent. The ultra creative Franz Kafka worked for insurance companies. I had a relative who became one of Holland’s greatest regional writers, but spent his entire life working as  an office manager. He would get up at 4 am each day to write before he went to work.

This imperative to take a safe but boring job popped into my head during a recent discussion with someone who was tasked with reinventing a business operation that has been running sleepily in well-grooved tracks for some time.

My friend knew his industry very well, and was a good analyst, so could see what was needed to put some life back into the organization, and revive the business.

But he couldn’t figure out how to make the conversion. The organization was operating in the creative field but had long ago lost its creativity. Working there had become an  annuity job for most of the people in it, providing them with a very nice life, even though they knew the business wasn’t working.

They had made the choice: Shelve their innate creativity, keep their mouths shut, and let the place lumber along.  This is not an unfamiliar situation. The rise of entrepreneurship aside, society generally encourages us to take the “safe” steady job that provides us with a good consumer-oriented life.

My friend correctly deduced that as an outsider, he had to find some champions from within the company to make change happen. But it was clear that those champions were not going to be among the central management who had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo.  So where would he find them?

Find the secret rebels, I said. And let them do their thing.

All organizations have rebels, but the organizational imperative is to usually kill them, or at least neutralize them so they don’t harm the smooth running of the operational machinery. Over time organizations can form antibodies – conventional thinking, a unique language, a socially-imposed groupthink – with a sole purpose of destroying anything that upsets the system.

So the rebels usually hide, sometimes quietly nurturing their creativity in their outside world. I’m convinced this is one reason for the rise of social networking – it allows people to express their creativity. Online, everyone can reinvent themselves.

In the 21st century no organization can remain content to operate in familiar grooves that have become ruts.  Change is the norm today, and if you don’t sieze it and work with it, you probably won’t survive.

So, since your organizational life may depend on it, you might want to make an extra effort to find those secret rebels. Then let them apply their creativity inside instead of outside where that creative power is lost to you.


Creative Fakery

May 14, 2009

In all the methodology of creativity and reinvention, rarely mentioned is a simple and effective technique that is commonly used, but no one ever talks about.  Faking it.

Go ahead,  take a moment to recoil in horror. Huff and puff about blasphemy. Innovation is “serious” business and to suggest that “faking it” is a tool amounts to trivializing the entire movement. Etcetera. Etcetera.  Then get over it.

Faking it is an essential part of any creativity, innovation or reinvention effort. It’s a mind tool based on the concept that to be something, you have to think like that something. Actors do it all the time and even have a name for it: Method acting, in which they become the character they’re playing.

Another way of looking at it is to, as psychologist Carol Dweck tells Forbes.Com innovation writer Terry Waghorn, act as if — adopt a mindset of the kind of person you have to be to perform a task, or achieve a goal.

Why does this work? Well, let’s break it down.

When you’re innovating – a product, a business model, a marketing campaign – you’re also reinventing to an extent. Your view of that product or business model has to change, and the deepest way to do that is to adopt a different persona – to become someone else.

In any creative act, you as a person, have to change. At the same time, overall change isn’t a single event: Transformation is an ongoing process because the result is never clearly known. With each step in the transformation journey, you learn a little bit more about where you’re going to be in future.

The only way to cope with this fuzziness is to form a mental view of the kind of person who can handle such a journey, and then adopt it.

If you want to be more creative, then start asking as creative people act. Start using the methods they use to jumpstart their creativity. Eventually, they’ll become habitual and you will be that creative person.

Similarly if you’re reinventing yourself, or your organization, imagine what the new reinvented entity will be like, and start acting like it. Your entire viewpoint will change, and eventually will be come so ingrained it will be reality.

So to be it, think it.


Log Rolling

April 29, 2009

In regions where forestry is big industry, loggers regularly gather for games, one of which is something called log rolling.

With this, two loggers climb on a log floating in water and use their spiked boots to “roll” it furiously to throw their opponent in the drink.

To be successful at log rolling, you have to be very fast on your feet, creative, and nimble. You have to be able to adjust instantly to changes going on under your feet. If you can’t, you’ll end up all wet.

Similarly, to be successful as an organization today, you and many of the people in it, have to be very adept at a version of log rolling.  It has to become an essential part of your strategic planning.

Traditionally, strategic planning sessions involve a team of leaders who gather somewhere and map out where their organization is going over the next one, three to five years. Then they produce a formal plan with key performance indicators, success measurements and all the other formalities that go into a plan.

But formal plans are too often disrupted these days, and not just by economic forces like the recession. There’s simply too many uncertainties out there now, so plans can become straightjackets that hamper what you really need – the ability to react to emerging circumstances creatively.

Today’s world is unpredictable and dynamic. New information is always coming in. Situations change on a dime. Markets morph or fracture. Operations are disrupted. New technology is constantly changing the game. Precisely predicting where you’ll be in five years can be a real gamble.

So a new form of dynamic and creative strategizing and planning has to emerge. Instead of rigidly planning out every moment of their lives, organizations, both large and small,  have to set directions,  keep their minds open, be prepared to shift rapidly, and greatly enhance their creativity and innovation thinking.

They have to be able to assess the impact of new circumstances very quickly, and then react just quickly,  not blindly ignore them and hope that “sticking to the plan” will get them through it.

In a world of high-speed change, it won’t. But a superior ability to “log roll” might.


Killing Your Babies

April 11, 2009

A review of my wife’s new novel Underground (June Hutton, Cormorant Books) called it “taut”, “lean” and “elegant”.

It was, but having been involved in its creation, I can assure you it wasn’t always so. Like many ideas, it was originally confused, a little bloated, and unfocused. It took many rewrites and a lot of “killing her babies” before it became taut and lean.

And it’s a good lesson on how ideas can result in creative and successful business strategies.

First, let’s identify a few things. Ideas are bits of information that, when put together, form insights. In Underground‘s case, it was the juxtaposition of a symbol (the raised, closed fist of defiance) in very disparate areas.

Creativity is putting those insights into concrete models. And that can be a long process that involves much reshaping to make an idea useable. With Underground, it meant years of rewriting, in which she had to kill some beloved babies  — favorite scenes, beautiful writing, and characters she loved — because they didn’t fit the overall theme or purpose.

Probably the most difficult period came after she thought she had finished it. Then, after reviewing it, she had to strip it down to its absolute basic story and literally rebuild it, carefully adding layer after layer that eventually made it not only taut and lean, but also elegant.

Ideation is the fun part of creativity. There’s nothing as exciting as generating ideas, which is why so many of us like to do it. But we can’t fall in love with those ideas because shaping and refining them is hard, and sometimes brutal, work — the “99 per cent perspiration” that Edison referred to.

Killing your babies in the creative sense is ridding a concept of its superfluous and wrongheaded aspects, no matter how much you may like them. Unlike the ideation process, this requires a much more ruthless mindset.

Like in writing, innovation strategists have to apply extreme focus and evaluative strength if development and commercialization is to be successful. They may have to take an idea and — after careful evaluation for purpose, likelihood of success, and development capability – toss much of it in the trash.

Then, once the idea is pure and unencumbered, they must carefully add layer after layer to it so that it will work.


Recession Biting? Reinvent!

April 7, 2009

Although all the noise so far has been about large organizations collapsing like houses of cards, the economic downturn is now also affecting entrepreneurial and small businesses.

Yes, this can hurt. But small businesses have advantages in troubled times. They’re more resilient than large organizations that carry massive superstructures.  They’re more agile, and so can creatively move faster away from declining areas of business and into opportunity spaces.

As a reinvention coach, I see examples of this resilience and agility regularly. In fact, I saw it long before the recession became a daily headline. Entrepreneurial businesses, especially in the early years, are always in recession mode.

Every day in a small business is a challenge, which is why creative entrepreneurs are reinventing constantly.

But that’s not always as easy as it sounds. To reinvent, you have put aside all the standard advice, the grand strategic plans, the five and ten year BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), and concentrate on the immediate.

There’s a way to do this reinventing, which is really a matter of solving several problems. But instead of trying to solve them all at once as most entrepreneurs do, you break down the overall problem to a series of smaller problems, and tackle them one at a time.

As with any creative problem-solving method, you have to first define that single problem. Then you narrow your focus to conquering only it. If you let nothing else intrude in your thinking, you will be successful.

In a sense it’s much like taking a journey. You don’t think about the five miles you have to cover; you think about the first mile, in particularly, the first quarter-mile. Then the next one. Then the one after that, etc. While you might know your destination, you take your eyes off the horizon and work only on what’s right in front of you.

Because this is also a method of reinvention, my company Knowpreneur, is co-sponsoring a North American tour by the consulting company Silver Lining Limited. Silver Lining’s dynamic and creative young leader, Carissa Reiniger will show entrepreneurs in free seminars how to create quarterly targets that will produce quick results in the first year.

silverliningknowpreneur-tour-logo1


The touring seminars are being held in Staples stores in major cities. The tour is crossing Canada first and lands in my own back yard, Vancouver, April 22, where it will be offered from 6-9 pm at Staples, 1322 West Broadway, Vancouver.

Then it’s moving down to major cities in the US.

More information on the tour and the methodology can be found at Silver Lining’s website


Cartooning For Creative Problem Solving

March 9, 2009

Since I’m always looking for useful creativity methods, I had an Aha! moment during a recent visit to a video game studio.

For those of you who aren’t in the film or video game business, storyboards are really single-panel cartoons, much like the comics, that outline the “story” a film maker or video game designer wants to tell.

Usually, it’s a visual reference that the director, designers, cast and crew can use when planning each shot. So it’s a project management tool similar to a Work Breakdown Structure.

I think storyboarding, if adapted, might be a method to put in your bag of tricks, especially for group situations. What if we take that utilitarian aspect out of storyboarding and use it to jump-start creativity?

To me this would be a great way to get a team that’s trying to find a solution to a problem out of the thinking rut. Also, it’s visual, which always helps in our linear, word oriented world – which is often my problem with traditional storytelling.

And it’s something to focus on (the story) that parallels the problem you’re trying to solve. So it’s a version of DeBono’s Lateral Thinking methodology.

Here’s my suggestion for a storyboarding session.

  • Have the team tell a story that parallels your problem in comic form. The drawing (probably on a whiteboard or flip board, although there is software for it) can be very crude, i.e. stick figures.
  • Like all stories, the storyboard should outline the problem, sketch out the main characters, and have them arrive at some solution – good or bad.
  • Put the first storyboard aside, because it will involve very templated thinking: Everyone will simply shape the story from familiar material.
  • Use a form of questioning to become increasingly more creative. Go for comedy or tragedy. Ask “what if”. What if the character was like this? What if the character did this? What if the character wasn’t limited by this? What if the character could use magic, could fly, had X-ray vision, or multiple lives, etc?
  • Draw a simple storyboard for each option. See where it leads you.
  • Compare each one to the original story or problem statement to see how they might correlate. For example, if the storyboard has the character using magic to solve the problem, figure out how you can do find your own kind of magic.

At the end of this session, which will be a heck of a lot more fun than simple brainstorming, you should have some interesting options.

You’ll also have a much more energized group because they will have tapped a creative wellspring within themselves that wasn’t so “serious”.


Dreamtime: You Need It To Grow

February 20, 2009

You’re a marketer, a manager, a small business operator trying to handle a dozen different chores, or maybe you’re toiling in some corporation and hoping to climb the ladder.

No matter what you do for a living, I bet I can describe your day: Rush in, fire up the computer, check your schedule for the day’s tasks; have a meeting or two; get rolling on the stuff that’s piled up since you last left. Grab a quick lunch. Maybe read some back stuff that’s been untouched for a while. Back to work.

Suddenly it’s over and you’re joining the commute back home.

Any dream time in there? Not likely.

The result is that you’re a kind of drone, spending all your time on tasks, instead of creating or thinking. This has always been a problem with industrial society, but it’s become even bigger in the modern world with all its gadgets that can occupy your time.

But if you want to grow as a person, a business operator, or in your career, you’ll need to take some time each day and spend it dreaming.

Ideation, problem solving, thinking, mulling — dreaming — is what your job is really all about. It’s the strategy part of your life: The rest is mostly just implementation and follow through.

Here are several tools to use when you want to build dream time into your daily life:

Self hypnosis: This isn’t the stuff of stage shows. It’s really just extreme relaxation — a flow state, or “being in the zone” that allows the subconscious mind to go to work, usually in a very visual way that’s almost like a movie running in your head. But instead of simply watching the movie, you can be the director, using it to address a specific problem or subject. In self hypnosis, you carry on a conversation with your subconcious, which is always working, whether you realize it or not. Often this subconscious is a kind of mental avatar that helps you work out a solution to a problem, or simply lets you be creative. If you decide to try this, it’s best to be hypnotized first by a professional so you can get into a hypnotic state quickly.

Meditation: Many people like this, especially now that yoga’s popular again. Meditation is in a sense the opposite of self-hypnosis in that it lets you “empty your mind” so that thoughts can just bubble up to the surface. You’ll never completely empty your mind, of course, because the mind doesn’t like to be empty: it’s wired to solve problems, so will immediately work on anything that’s bothering you. But meditation allows those thoughts to rise to the surface and often dissipate. It’s a way of clearing the mind of negatives or clutter.

Exercise: Many people pick a time during the day when they can run, walk, work out, or whatever they do for exercise. But not many convert it to dream time. It’s suited to it though, because in most exercise you are going through repetitive actions that don’t require thought, which frees up your mind for other things. I’ve known several poets, writers, and others who do their best work when they’re exercising: all have shared one thing. They direct their mind to a specific task. So stop watching others while you’re working out, and start dreaming.

Creativity techniques. There are many creative thinking techniques that can be employed if you simply let yourself use them in quiet moments, or dreamtimes. To do so, you have to put yourself in a creative state: calm, uninterrupted, and open minded. This is what the athletes call in the zone, or what cognition experts call a state of flow.

The main thing with any of these methods is consistency. It’s difficult to dream at first because you’re not used to it, but like any muscle, the brain responds much faster if it’s used regularly. So, yes you’re probably busy, but you have to keep using your dreaming muscles if they’re going to work optimally.

You’ll find after a while that it responds quite rapidly when you’re ready for your dream time.