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.


Creative Free Falling

April 19, 2009

Have a problem to solve, a strategy to create, a market to decipher, or a product or service to design? But you just can’t seem to get going on it?

It’s probably because your logical brain is restricting the part that’s creative. We all need to use both sides of our brains today, but it’s a natural hazard in our task-oriented world for the logical and linear to always dominate.

One method to escape the imprisonment of logical thinking is a version of the writer’s technique of Free Falling, which was adapted from the exhilerating and freedom-inducing periods that parachutists experience after they’ve jumped from a plane and before they pull the ripcord.

Anyone who has ever written knows the dreaded blank page syndrome – where you stare at that blank page without a clue as to how to begin. Free falling gets you over that frozen state. It forces you to just start writing. Anything and everything. Eventually insights, images, and themes start to emerge.

Creative Free Falling has a similar purpose in that it frees the subconscious mind from the bindings of the logical, which always wants to order things. In that sense it’s like meditation or self-hypnosis in that it allows the subconscious to rise to the fore. It’s also similar to the old psychic’s trick of automatic writing, in which one was supposed to  commune with the “spirits” through writing.

When free falling, remember the objective is not to come up with a cogent argument, a perfectly crafted piece, or an orderly plan. Free falling results in a jumbled mess of images and thoughts, much of which will seem silly and inconsequential. But there will also be insights and idea nuggets that your logical mind can that work on later.

To engage in Creative Free Falling

  1. Sit down at a table or desk with a pen and a piece of paper. (Don’t use a computer! It blocks the process). Close your eyes, take a few deep and slow breaths to put you in a relaxed state, and imagine a situation. It could be an incident from the past, or, for those who insist all actions must be useful,  it could be a problem you once faced. It could be joyful or sad – it doesn’t matter, although funny and joyful is usually better than misery and gloom. The point is to take your mind off the issue that’s blocking your thought flow.
  2. Write every thought that pops into your head. They may be emotions, arguments, or visuals. Don’t judge, don’t analyse, don’t order, don’t look at what you’re writing. Just let it flow. Keep your eyes closed and write as fast as you can. You’re connecting your writing hand to your subconscious, and you want a torrent of thoughts.
  3. After a while, you may reach a blank moment, where it seems there’s nothing left. No problem. Leave a space. Take a couple of deep breaths and start again. If you need to imagine another situation, go ahead.
  4. After 10 or 15 minutes, stop. Leave it. Go get a cup of coffee, or move around a bit. Clean your desk. Sort your books. Whatever. Do something completely unrelated for about 10 minutes. Physical action usually works better than tasks such as reading your email.
  5. Then go back and examine what you’ve written. Don’t worry that much of it might seem like utter gibberish. In there somewhere will be insights that will form a platform, or foundation for a solution to your problem. You’ll start to see some directions.
  6. Practise this often, even daily, because the more you do it, the easier it will get. After a while, you’ll see less gibberish and more useful thoughts that require only a little touching up to be exactly what you need. The subconscious likes to perform, and by practising this, you’ll train it in what you want it to do.

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.


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.


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