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.

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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.


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.