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.


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.


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.