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.

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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


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.


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.