Make Me Mess Up

March 28, 2009

Many years ago, while living in Amsterdam, I had the misfortune to work in an egg factory. Yes, that’s right. An egg factory.

In this place, a production line mechanically separated the yokes from the whites for further use in baking, cosmetics manufacture and who knows what else. But the mechanics didn’t always work, and sometimes the eggs and whites mixed.

My job was to sit on the line with an icecream scoop and flick these mixtures into a separate container. It was monumentally boring work, and after about an hour in this nightmarish and surreal situation, I would start experimenting with different flicking methods.

This usually resulted in gooey egg mixture covering myself, the floor and, often, the poor North African woman who was backing me up. Sometimes it even hit the bucket in which it was supposed to land.

This happened because it was impossible to maintain my attention for much longer than an hour or so (or my job – I only lasted two days). Apparently, I was incapable of being a good machine.

I thought of this while reading about new brain research that discovered increased brain activity occurs in humans just prior to their making mistakes in tasks that require attention.

Scientists hope that the research will help them determine when a person involved in a task is in a state that is conducive to making a mistake. The person could then be trained to self-regulate out of that state and so avoid the mistake.

Oh joy. I suppose this is important if you’re an air traffic controller, but for the rest of us, this sounds very much like industrializing brain activity to better keep us on some task.

And this is the antithesis of the creativity that’s needed in the 21st Century idea economy.

Other brain research shows that you need distractions from conscious methodical activity in order to find Aha moments. That’s because creative problem solving is facilitated when unconscious thought kicks in.

And unconscious thought is what creates those insights that we call Aha or Eureka moments. So, while these scientists research how to make us better machines, I think I’ll go with the opposite viewpoint.

Make me mess up. It produces more of what I need.

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Intelligent Innovation

March 21, 2009

As organizations recognize the need to be more innovative in the creative economy of the 21st century, an ideological debate over methodology continues to rage.

Most creativity and innovation training falls into two camps – the systematic  “thinker” approach, and the right-brain-first approach of the “intuitives”.

Despite the growing adoption of whole-brain thinking, the two camps are still strong. As a result, many creative campaigns founder amidst warring over approaches.

But there’s another approach that might resolve this issue. Studies into learning have shown that people process information in several ways. Almost 20 years ago, Howard Gardner of Harvard, postulated that people can have one or a combination of seven types of intelligence.

These are:

  • Visual-Spatial people think in terms of physical space and are very aware of their environment. They visualize and daydream. Think architects.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic people have a keen awareness of movement and use their bodies to interact with their environment. Think dancers.
  • Musical people are sensitive to sound and rhythm and put everything into rhythmic patterns. Think musicians and rhetoriticians.
  • Interpersonal people process information by interacting with others. They’re empathetic and agile. Think sales people.
  • Intrapersonal people have strong understanding of themselves. They are in tune with their own emotions so are often introspective. Think those who say “I feel in my gut.”
  • Linguistic people use words and understand the nuances that words can convey. Think poets or storytellers.
  • Logical-Mathematical people are reasoners. They conceptualize, recognize patterns and can quickly understand relationships. Think mathematicians and engineers.

Clearly, these different intelligences can also provide a good framework for creativity, which is really a form of information processing. In that way, multiple intelligences frameworks would be similar to deBono’s Six Thinking Hats approach.

A strong innovation team would probably have several dominant intelligences represented. When they work together, these different types of intelligences can be immensely productive for idea production and evaluation.

But they have to understand that everyone might have a different way of viewing the world, and thus a different way of forming ideas.

Tony Wanless, Knowpreneur


The Movie Pitch Method

March 15, 2009

Movie pitches are High Concept taglines thrown at producers by scriptwriters and other movie developers looking for funding. They’re meant to put an idea into some concrete form that’s understandable by the recipient.

This can result in some pretty awful high concepts that sometimes generate much laughter. But the best of them are quite good. For example:

“Jaws in space!” (Alien)

“A bus with a bomb!” (Speed)

“Snakes on a plane!” (Need we say more?)

“A serial killer who bases murders on the seven deadly sins!” (Se7en)

“Human adopted by elves seeks his roots” (Elf)

Over at Venture Hacks, they suggested this technique to technology entrepreneurs to catch investors’ attention instead of the often boring elevator pitch. This turned up:

“Friendster for dogs” (Dogster)

“Flickr for video” (YouTube)

“We network networks” (Cisco)

“Massively Multiplayer Online Learning” (Grockit)

“The entrepreneurs behind the entrepreneurs” (Sequoia)

I have used this method when creating marketing strategies, and have found it can be effective at getting people off the deadly “here’s how my product works” track so loved by product developers. Instead, it generates marketing concepts that will excite potential buyers.

So it seems to me this could also be a good method when a team is trying to solve a problem, or generate ideas for innovation. Certainly it would be a lot more fun than some of the more ponderous processes that are commonly used.

Basically, the movie pitch method uses juxtaposition thinking. It jams one concept with another, unrelated, concept to arrive at a completely different concept.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to come up with an innovative business model that might power you to some kind of Blue Ocean strategy (in which you create uncontested market space). How about:

“The Dell Computer of Training” (Supply Chain + Sales Channels)

“The Cirque du Soleil of Process Consulting” ( Entertainment + Knowledge)

“The Minivan of Media” (Multifunctionalism + Information Distribution)

Not all of these movie pitch results are going to be winners. (Looking at my examples, some might say that none of them will be. I’ll soldier on anyway).

But if you increasingly focus on your particular problem, and generate several of these pitches, there’s bound to be a couple that will lead to some breakthrough thinking.


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”.


Brainstorm or Braindrain?

March 1, 2009

A post by Mark McGuinness, of Lateral Action, laying out the case for and against Brainstorming made me realize why I cringe whenever I hear the term.

The name for the technique advanced by Alex Osborn in his 1963 book Applied Imagination is used — or make that misused– too often today. Can you think of any kind of problem solving situaion in recent years where people haven’t said “why don’t we brainstorm a bit on this?”  What they really mean is let’s discuss it.

Brainstorming is a technique that’s supposed to generate a large volume of new ideas. That’s it, pure and simple. To do it, brainstorming leaders, most of whom are project managers or other linear thinkers, use several formal methods to generate ideas rapidly.

These leaders often value step-by-step processes. This industrializes creative thinking, turning it into a mass production process based on efficiency. The result might provide a wonderful Key Performance Indicator, i.e “we generated  1,000 ideas in one day!” but for utility is generally useless.  The great majority of those ideas are conventional and derivative,  while the few that may have some worth are usually lost in the onslaught.

Also, much brainstorming, although supposedly aimed at freeing the mind from convention, sometimes has the opposite effect because it works best for people with a bent toward collaborative and verbal ideation leaps.

Many others use different creativity processes such as visualization, combination thinking,  or mindroaming, that aren’t allowed in the mechanized formal processes that often govern brainstorming session. When it’s “their turn” to throw out an idea, their mind may be far, far away, triggered by some sensual observation that is anything but verbal. Suddenly, they are yanked back from real ideation to a task, and the idea nugget often vaporizes.

Brainstorming’s namesake — real storms — produce vast amounts of rain. And in the physical world, most of that rain goes right down the drain. There’s too much all at once and the collection systems can’t handle it all. Similarly, most of the results of brainstorms are also wasted.

So am I saying that brainstorming is stupid? Of course not. Led by a softer hand and focused by a challenge or problem, it can be a good method to start people on entering the state to create. It’s a warm-up that can force people out of routine thinking ruts.

But brainstorming by itself is only a beginning, an exercise to ready a group for real creativity. And that happens with other tools.


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.


Creation By Community

February 14, 2009

These days it can be a brute to get noticed amidst all the noise out there.

So some SMEs are putting on their thinking caps and using all the tools available today to launch creative campaigns to engage people. What’s the best way to do that?  Make community collaboration not only an idea generator, but also a method to grow the community.

One such company is AdHack, an online community where ad creators and ad buyers connect to produce high-quality, low-cost, commissioned ads.

The company posted an entertaining cliff-hanger commercial on You Tube during the super bowl that began a story, and then asked anyone out there to complete it, in a contest for production of the ad’s sequel.

The AdHack “Show Us Your Balls” commercial placed within the top 100 viewed Canadian videos on YouTube, and the related contest page had over 4,000 new visitors in the first couple of days post-launch.