Sunday, 29 April 2012

Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

I used to take friends and colleagues to lunch at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain). The food was good.

But the real reason that I went there was to see this painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby. He painted it in 1768.

In it, candlelit, a scientist with wild grey hair, an image that was to become the very archetype, shows to a group of family and friends the effects on a fluttering, panic-stricken white cockatoo of using an air-pump to create a vacuum.   

Will the bird live? The children are frightened – reassured by their father(?). The boy on the left is absorbed in the experiment, but the young couple (extreme left) are fascinated only by each other. Is the seated pensive grey-haired man (extreme right) a second image of the scientist? 

Through the window (top right) we see a full moon. This has been interpreted as a reference to the Lunar Society, a group of men in the English Midlands (centred on Birmingham) engaged in exploring the practical potentialities of science.

They were friends of Joseph Wright and would together be a major catalyst for the Industrial Revolution – among them the pioneering manufacturer Matthew Boulton, Scottish engineer and inventor of the steam engine James Watt, the great potter Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. Another member was Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen just a few years after Wright painted this picture.

By the way, the painting has now returned to its proper home, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Always in Beta

“Do and learn,” advises Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer of Procter & Gamble, in a recent speech. “We have to try new things, be accepting that some things won’t work and learn why.”
This is far from the risk-averse P&G that I knew. They used to talk endlessly, and only reluctantly made decisions to act. Pritchard recognised this in his address: “We are trying to make this shift ourselves at P&G,” he said, “and it’s not always easy.”

But the validity and power of this approach is amply confirmed by the experience of many of the most successful businesses in Silicon Valley – Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Disney and others.

In an article in the current issue of Market Leader magazine, Marc Nohr reports that it’s a constant refrain in their corridors – “test, test, test”, “launch and learn”, “always in beta”.

Market research is nearly always a poor substitute for real life experience – especially in the case of breakthrough innovation.

It’s something that those big old corporations need to learn. And soon if they are to survive.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Snoozing through Julius Caesar

My colleague, Bill Boggs, came over from America to work with Andrew Bailey and me on a new book on creativity. (Sadly it never saw the light of day.)

Since we were nearby, I took them to a performance of Julius Caesar by the RSC in Stratford.

Quite early in Act One, I noticed that Bill was asleep. Irritated, I wondered why I had brought him along.

Then, later, I glanced in his direction again. He was awake. And his lips were moving constantly. He was silently mouthing the words of the play. All of them, apparently.

I didn’t know at that time that he suffered from sleep apnoea and was likely to drop off for a nap at any time.

Nor had I realised that he knew Julius Caesar inside out.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Alyque at Shakespeare’s Globe

All that Shakespeare in the air at the moment reminds me of the day when I took my friend Alyque Padamsee to see the nearly-completed Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside in London.

Alyque is a colleague who led Lintas in India and was also founder, director and leading actor with the Theatre Group of Bombay. He’s best known in the English-speaking world for playing Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the film Gandhi. He was on a trip to London with his wife, the actress and singer, Sharon Prabhakar, and wanted to see how the project was progressing.

This was in mid-1996, the year before the theatre was opened, and Alyque was accorded a VIP tour. It so happened that the stage had just been installed – the great apron reaching out, to be surrounded by the groundlings.

Alyque enquired as to whether the stage had yet been performed on. “No, not yet,” was the reply. So without further ado, Alyque stepped forward and, to the amazement of the hordes of tourist groups also there at the time, he declaimed Jaques’s speech from As You Like It:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…

So, rather extraordinarily, whatever the books will say, Alyque was first.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Einstein: Master of the One-Liner

Not content with being voted the most important human being of the twentieth century, Einstein was also the greatest master of the insightful quote about the business of creativity. I’ve written about several of them previously here and I expect to use more in the future.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

"The only really valuable thing is intuition."

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."

“I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.”

"Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created." 

“Information is not knowledge.”

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

“Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." (Sign hanging in Einstein's office at Princeton)

So many of them turn “common sense” on its head. Which is the MOST important, yet LEAST understood?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The patron saint of innovation

Who? Joseph Schumpeter, of course.

I wonder why he’s not more well-known, more celebrated, among innovators?

Perhaps it’s because he was an economist. But what an economist.

He was born in 1883 in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, and moved to Vienna aged ten, where he was to study law. In time he became a professor of economics and government at the University of Czernowitz, later serving as finance minister in Austria and as president of a private bank.

In 1932 he moved to Harvard and the USA. During his time there, his views were regarded as “old-fashioned”, not at all in tune with the dominant Keynesianism of the time.

Fundamentally, Schumpeter believed that capitalism was driven by a continuous process of innovation and by “creative destruction”.

Was Picasso aware of Schumpeter’s work when he said: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction”?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Keith Vaughan exhibition in Chichester

Congratulations to Simon Martin, curator of the excellent exhibition of the work of Keith Vaughan at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Is it the first collected showing of Vaughan’s work in a public space? Vaughan was born at nearby Selsey.

I’ve been interested in him for many years. He was the major figure in an exhibition that I commissioned in 1988 of artists who had worked at the Lintas advertising agency (where I spent ten happy and productive years). It ran at Agnew’s gallery in Mayfair.

And I have a set of three ballet-based gouaches from 1936 – when the young artist was working as a designer at the agency.

At that time, Lintas was Unilever’s in-house advertising business, and the boss, Ivor Cooper, was that rare combination – a good artist and a fine businessman. These were the days before television, and most print advertising was art-based, with very little photography in use.

Cooper hired the best artists he could find and encouraged them to develop their gifts, even to the extent of allowing them to do their own work at the office.

Among Vaughan’s colleagues there were the Australian John Passmore, New Zealander Felix Kelly and Englishman Roy Hobdell. The last two were both deeply involved in the transformation of Buscot House for Lord Faringdon.

But, even though he was younger than most of them, Keith Vaughan was always looked on by colleagues as the leader of the pack.

Keith Vaughan: Romanticisnm to Abstraction runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 10 June.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The illusion of communication

“The main problem with communication,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “is the assumption that it has happened.”

This may well be one of the eternal truths of mankind.

And it’s particularly a problem when we are innovating. The nature of innovation is that new ideas break existing “rules”, and an immediate and natural response is to invoke the rule and put up an objection.

So often this knee-jerk reaction springs from having misunderstood some aspect of the new idea.

The best way I know to deal with this syndrome is to use paraphrase.

To say to the person who has put forward the idea, “What I hear you saying is…”, is far more likely to result in real comprehension. Especially compared with the usual tactic.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Still no girls in Chichester Cathedral’s choir

Visiting Chichester, wonderful singing from the Cathedral Choir at Evensong on Easter Sunday. Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Stanford. The anthem: the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

So much more musical than I recall them from previous services over the past two decades - the improvement evidently springing from their superb, musicianly “choirmaster”, Sarah Baldock (above).

But why has she not yet enabled girls to join? They are still an all-male outfit.

Anachronistic. No?

And given that boys’ voices break at such a young age nowadays, there must be a reduction in musical maturity among the trebles compared with, say, a century ago. Enabling slightly older girls to join would solve this problem at a stroke.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Henry Handel in Lyme Regis

We went away for a few days last week – to beautiful Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. Joyfully, I started reading a proper book for the first time in several weeks (since my sojourn at the John Radcliffe).

I found the book itself in the tiny but excellent second-hand bookshop down on The Cobb – The Way Home by the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson. It’s the second part of her triple-decker, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

It opens in Lyme Regis. Her house and garden, Westfield in Cobb Road, still stands, rather neglected. She was so rude in the book about the snobby natives in the town. No wonder she's not much celebrated there. One wonders how much things have changed in that department in the intervening century.

Born Ethel Richardson in Melbourne in 1870, she was educated at Melba’s old school, the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, before going to Germany as a young woman to study at the Conservatorium of Music in Leipzig. She was to write a damning novelised version of her schooldays at PLC, The Getting of Wisdom, .

Deciding that she was not going to make it as a musician, she went on to become Australia’s first really significant novelist.

By the way, she wanted to be judged as a writer, not as a woman writer, so Ethel was ditched in favour of Henry Handel (which she borrowed from a cousin).

Monday, 9 April 2012

Short term versus long term

The question has arisen: how to balance short-term and long-term developments in an innovation portfolio?

Like so many of these, I have a problem with the framing of the question itself.

My experience of funnels organised by short- and long-term is that the long-termers never get hatched. There are so many barriers for them on the journey – among these changing priorities, shifting environment, new team members, new bosses. And sheer loss of interest.

For me, it’s more useful to categorise innovation project candidates as either urgent or important. That way they all get appropriate and timely attention and resource.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Art of Conversation - is it dead?

I don’t know why there is so much noise in the system about email, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and the rest – all of them apparently destroying the so-called Art of Conversation.

In reality they do exactly the reverse, bringing new forms of conversation (with old and new friends and acquaintances) via new media.

And the issues involved in dialogue are just the same as in face-to-face intercourse – inability to listen, not sharing the airtime, assuming negative intention, sarcasm masquerading as humour and so on.

Of course there are new social protocols which grow up around each new channel. Enjoyable to learn (and to ignore).

For example, “Hello” was first coined in response to the need for an ice-breaker on new-fangled telephone calls. It’s credited to Thomas Edison in 1877.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Who Moved My Cheese? Worth reading?

Are you one of the twenty-one million people who own this little book?

I’ve had it on my shelves for years, occasionally opening it and never getting far beyond the beginning of the story. Now I have just managed it from cover to cover – it took about an hour – and, really, it must be among the most objectionable things I’ve ever read.

From the outset it’s patronising, treating the reader as a complete idiot.

Every turn in the story is signalled ahead and re-explained afterwards with a sledgehammer, just in case we missed the point. Aesop does not do this.

It’s written in supposed “allegorical” language, which means in this case at around the reading level of a seven year-old.

It assumes that all change is good.

Change, it seems, comes exclusively from outside forces. There’s not a hint that we might ourselves initiate it.

It is fundamentally about suppressing dissent and ensuring compliance.

It trails clouds of training and merchandise spin-offs.

It has absolutely no ability to use words stylishly and zero sense of humour.

The question is: what is it that has driven sales relentlessly over the past fourteen years? Is it the catchy title (a question never actually addressed in the book)?

Or is it the desperate need of insecure leaders to regain control?