Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The World according to Zappa

Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music.
Music is the best...

Frank Zappa’s lyrics from “Packard Goose”.

Hard to improve on…

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Garden of Forking Paths

Over Christmas Day I read again “The Garden of Forking Paths”, a short story by the Argentinean writer and philosopher, Jorge Luis Borges.

Only ten pages long, it is densely complex in meaning, but the garden at the heart of the story stands as a metaphor for creative decision-making.

The central character describes his struggle to unravel the meaning of his great-grandfather Ts’ui Pên’s twin projects – a novel and a labyrinth - both apparently unfinished at his death:

“Almost instantly, I understood: ‘the garden of forking paths’ [ie the labyrinth] was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not at all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space… In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork… In the work of Ts’ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings”

I believe this passage describes the constant dilemma faced not only by writers and gardeners, but also by artists, composers, inventors, scientists, innovators – in fact all who see themselves as living the creative life. Every creative decision, Borges suggests, has many possible ways forward, perhaps an infinite number, several of them potentially fruitful. The issue for most of us (though not for Ts’ui Pên) is to make choices, often working, in truth, in a mist.

This is not a proposition guaranteed to delight the hearts of publishers, academic supervisors, or leaders of teams and organisations, who necessarily seek clarity and reasonable certainty.

How do you deal with these creative forks?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Shelf-stacking in Nuneaton

Of course, before I started real work, as a teenager I had a holiday job. It was at the Marks & Spencer's store in my home town, Nuneaton, around 1960-62, and I was a shelf-stacker.

But because what now appears to be called “logistics” was in its infancy, what I did in reality was shift the arriving goods manually off the delivery vans into the store-room and from there into the store itself. The company moved into chilled foods for the first time while I was there, so we installed lots of new equipment.

It all came to mind because it has been announced by the company that that shop is to close early in the New Year after 80 years in the Market Place - a “devastating blow”, according to Nuneaton News.

Although the technology and systems have changed dramatically in the intervening half century, the principles I learned then mean that I still understand the fundamentals of retail. (I don’t believe I mentioned this experience when I worked again as a consultant to M&S many years later.)

I also learned a good deal about how management hierarchy works. One of the greatest fears of the Nuneaton store manager, almost an obsession, was that the Midlands area manager, next door to God himself, should walk in unannounced to inspect, and would discover dog dirt on the shiny floor just inside the front doors. You know what happened next…

Monday, 20 December 2010

Meetings, bloody meetings

Research we did at Synectics before the social media revolution showed that managers in America spent some three quarters of their time in meetings of one sort or another. It does not seem to have been a happy experience for them.

Among managers in “star” innovation companies, only 25% thought that they regularly had productive or creative outcomes, whereas for those in “spectator” innovation companies, the figure dropped to a pitiful 2%.

But here is an interesting sub-finding: my meetings are more productive and creative in outcome than yours. The research showed that, irrespective of who I am, or in which function, I think that my meetings are pretty good – but yours are not!

I wonder whether things are improving? Or are meetings just as dire as they have ever been (as in those John Cleese videos)?

One problem that persists, it seems to me, is that the ability to chair a meeting productively is not a skill widely embraced (or well taught). The co-founder of Synectics, George Prince, concluded that it was better to split the role of the chair into two – a “problem owner” (who would lead content), and a “facilitator” (who would lead process). Both would need to model and promote positive climate in the meeting.

Is this happening much? I rather doubt it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

A sort of Christmas card

One of my favourite poems in this season is "Journey of the Magi". TS Eliot first published it as “a sort of Christmas card” in 1927. The first five lines are within quotation marks because Eliot had taken that passage from a sermon given by Lancelot Andrewes in 1622.

The whole is a reminiscence by one of the Magi (or Kings if you prefer) of almost incomprehensible change, told in old age.

I’m to read it at Evensong in the parish church of our village on the Northamptonshire-Oxfordshire border on the Sunday before the Twelfth Night, Ephiphany, marking the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.

Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Debrett’s informs us that “it’s simply not sufficient to send your ‘season’s greetings’ via Facebook”. No mention of the blogosphere. Ah well.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Creativity bubbles at the edge

In a recent issue of the RSA Journal, management guru Charles Handy states unequivocally: “Creativity has always bubbled best at the edge of an organisation.”

This certainly chimes with my own experience. For example, some years ago I was hired by a major multinational to explore the stories behind the breakthrough innovations of all kinds that they had launched in the previous decade. We identified ten of them and built up each case through one-to-one interviews with all the key players who had been involved.

It became obvious quite quickly that, although the business was headquartered in Europe, most of the breakthroughs came in countries far from HQ – in Australia, South Africa, Finland and so on. Far from the eyes and ears of the centre.

I shared this finding with the chairman. Mistake. He and his management team had just decided that innovation needed to be concentrated into “innovation centres” where projects could be resourced and scrutinised continuously.

The consequence has been that those centres have indeed produced a continuous stream of incremental improvements.

But breakthroughs?

There are clearly many upsides to centralisation – two of them being control and cost efficiency. Unfortunately breakthrough innovation doesn’t appear to come in this package.

What’s your experience of local versus central in innovation?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Quoting Shakespeare

In 1986 Bernard Levin wrote this scintillating piece on William Shakespeare’s enduring invasion of the English language. It also shows the playwright's extraordinary grasp of the power of metaphor:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

Does anyone else come close?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tailoring and the Ice Age

When I speculated that the wheel might be the first breakthrough technology, my friend and ex-colleague, Arun Prabhu, counter-proposed fire. Although it predates the wheel by a long way, I’m not sure that the harnessing of fire constitutes “technology”. I’ll come back to that question on another occasion.

A good candidate for “first” must be tailored clothing. The earliest thus far discovered dates from around 23,000BC – some eighteen millennia before the first wheel. The finds (in Russia and Siberia) consist of shirts, trousers and hats, all made from animal skins. Of course, they were made in order to protect against the cold.

Often one innovation depends on another, and the threadable bone needle, which appeared at around the same time, enabled the animal skins to be sewn together and shaped according to the intended wearer – tailored, in fact.

The first textile-based clothing appeared 16,000 years later, in the 7th millennium BC. They were found in Turkey and were made from linen. Around 5,000BC, flax was used in Egypt. Cotton as a textile only arrived in the first century AD.

It has been proposed recently by Ian Gilligan of the Australian National University in Canberra that Neanderthal man may well have become extinct simply because of their lack of tailored clothes, as temperatures fell in the Ice Age. They finally disappeared at around the time that tailored clothing was being used by Homo sapiens.

The earliest breakthrough technology? Unless you know otherwise…

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Arts creative, science logical?

Throughout my childhood and so-called education, I had the notion that the arts were “creative” and science was “logical”. And I clung to this belief for a long time, only gradually coming to realise that some profound paradoxes were involved.

On the one hand, with the help of Karl Popper I came to understand that scientific advance comes from intuitive creative leaps (to be later explored through experimental research).

Yet most scientists (and lay people) still appear to believe that the process is the other way around, and that logical deductive thought is the driver of new knowledge. More than that, my experience is that too many scientists and engineers seem to have a belief that they are not creative beings at all.

On the other hand, most musicians and artists go through rigorous executant training that enables them to become highly skilled practitioners in their particular field. Most artists and musicians (and people generally) assume that their achievements are driven by creativity, whereas my sense is that they are usually driven by learned skills.

Put simply – science is primarily driven by creativity and the arts by skill.

Why have we come to believe that it’s the other way around? And what might be the implications for our education system?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Edison’s “failures”

Amidst all those amazing inventions that everyone knows about – electric lighting and recorded sound perhaps the most widely recognised – Thomas Edison had his fair share of "failures".

At least that’s how I thought about them initially. It’s clear to me now that most of them were either technical problems that he and his teams could not solve, or ideas too far ahead of their time.

For example, early in the twentieth century he worked on a storage battery that would drive automobiles. He and his teams had already been working on battery design for several decades at this stage. After several years, it turned out that the internal combustion engine was more effective - and petroleum was readily available at that time in what appeared to be an inexhaustible supply.

Wind forward a hundred years and the competition to produce acceptable electrically-powered automobiles is now a major obsession of the motor industry, with billions being invested in development by General Motors and other leading companies. A recent report has signaled that by 2020 electric and other "green" cars will make up a third of global car sales.

Edison must be smiling somewhere.

My own experience is that nearly all “innovations” have been "failures" before they were successful, the gap filled by creative problem-solving.

Is that your experience?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Brown’s Job

Advertisements are not generally heart-warming. This one is that and highly original too.

It was written in 1920 by FR Feland of BBDO for the agency’s own house magazine, and it was later placed as a full page in the New York Times. Feland was not a copywriter, but treasurer of the agency. For me, its style is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler in more tender mood. Chandler’s work was to come a few years later.

Although not PC by today’s standards, it says more about the employer’s attitude to colleagues than any amount of the usual HR strategies can.

Do give it a read-through. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The wheel - the first breakthrough technology?

When asked to name an early invention of the greatest importance, people in my workshops seem most often to come up with the wheel. It seems to represent the mother and father of innovation in folk’s minds. Asked what they know about its development, there’s usually a longish silence.

Archaeologists tell us that the earliest evidence of the wheel is in Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is roughly modern-day Iraq), some 5,500 years ago.

The problem that was solved by its invention was the need to move heavy loads without high levels of friction between the earth and the vehicle. (Sledges are only good for this purpose on ice or snow.)

The idea of using tree trunks as rollers had been in use since much earlier times. It seems likely that the use of two cross-sections of a tree, joined together by a pole (a primitive axle) would have been a first step, but it would have been discovered quite quickly that, with any substantial weight, the wheels would have split. So a long period of incremental innovation followed.

The spoked-wheel chariot used in warfare seems to have emerged in Syria early in the second millennium BC, arriving in China some 500 years later. In Egypt, the river Nile had always provided an important means of transport for the materials of the pyramids, and wheeled transport emerged there around 1,700BC.

Of course, we can only speculate on the process by which the wheel was invented. Was it one person's Eureka? Or several people in parallel? Was there a long period of trial and error? Did tribal elders support or oppose its development? Was it primarily driven by military needs?

At home, we recently discovered the frame of a nineteenth-century farm cart in the barn we are converting – unfortunately without its wheels. In many ways our cart is not so very different from wheeled vehicles that existed five millennia ago. It had been stored in the roof of the barn, I guess in the 1930s, when motorised vehicles arrived on the farm. Perhaps it was prudently saved against the day when it might be needed once again. We will be keeping it!

The first breakthrough technology. Unless you know otherwise, of course…

Friday, 26 November 2010

Maestros all?

Why are all orchestral conductors called “Maestro” these days? It seems to me that the word now comes with the territory, having previously been common practice in America.

How passé Wikipedia’s current definition reads: “A title of extreme respect given to a master musician.”

Nowadays that might more truthfully read: “Stands in front of an orchestra, usually able to read a score, waving a stick.”

I don’t mean to disrespect the really outstanding practitioners around – among them Vladimir Jurowski (above), Simon Rattle, Mark Elder and Ivan Fischer. These are the Real Thing.

But how do they feel when every Tom, Dick and Harry is apparently a Maestro?

I’d love it if we could park the word on an indefinite basis and find another. Conductor maybe?

(BTW there’s a separate issue here for the few female conductors around. Maestra in Italian means schoolmistress.)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Skoda now No 1 best car-maker – no joke!

I’ve written a couple of times this year about the extraordinary re-invention and re-staging of Skoda since its acquisition by VW in 1991 (“Renovate or die” 01/01/2010 and “Renovating Skoda” 16/09/2010). And Skoda was a central case study in the recent Brand Renovation masterclass – “From death-trap to top of class. From joke to cult".

Well, now 30,000 readers of What Car magazine have voted them “Best Manufacturer 2010”, outshining both the mother company and Audi - and every other car-maker.

It’s an extraordinary turn-around – achieved by a whole cocktail of initiatives and changes, several of which were described in the earlier of the two blogposts.

Is there any more amazing brand renovation story, anywhere?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Imagining the Jump-Jet

The recent death of Gordon Lewis, the engineer who pioneered jump-jet technology, prompted me to think about the important role that the Harrier has played in both the British and American military operations over the past four decades.

A view often expressed is that the Falklands war could not have been won without it, and the revolutionary aircraft has been essential to operations in many spheres ever since. Yet the recent British review of military requirements means that it will be retired without any obvious replacement for its unique capabilities.

In the 1950s, the Cold War at its peak, the military needed an aircraft that could take off and land with little or no runway. A French engineer, Michel Wibault, had come up with a proposal which had been rejected in France, so he approached the Bristol Aeroplane Company in Britain, where Gordon Lewis was working. Lewis built on Wibault’s concept, sketching jet engines with a rotating nozzle. This was the great breakthrough, completely outperforming the rival system being developed by Rolls-Royce, which had eight lift engines and one for forward thrust. Of course, when the thing was airborne, the Bristol concept would have far less dead weight to carry.

Yet still the British government of the day was reluctant to support the project, so financial support had to be found in America.

The test flights using this new technology were, to say the least, hazardous. The inherent instability of this new kind of bird meant that emerging problems had to be solved bit by bit. One of the prototypes did indeed crash.

Like his engineering predecessor, Thomas Edison, Gordon Lewis was a multi-talented innovator. Not only did he have big ideas, he also managed and inspired his project teams to solve emerging problems, dealing at the same time with complex commercial issues, often involving international partners.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Facilitating Britain’s Got Talent

I ran a day’s facilitation skills class on Monday with a group of seriously talented young people from the innovation agency, Happen.

Early in the session, they made nominations for best and worst from the public arena – and Simon Cowell came top of both polls.

Surprising? I guess not. In many ways Cowell is a superb facilitator. He can relate closely to the other judges, to the artists and to the audiences, responding immediately to enthusiasm and the lack of it, and particularly to changes of mood.

On the other hand, he can be judgemental before giving contestants a chance to show what they can do, and cruel in his dealings with vulnerable people.

One only has to think of his chain of responses to the Scottish singer, Susan Boyle, First there was the dismissive, even contemptuous roll of the eyes as she walked on, then the amazement that she could actually sing, then the recognition that the audience loved her. Later he was to eat humble pie.

But has he really learned anything from the experience in terms of facilitating situations more equitably?

Perhaps he doesn’t want to. After all, those graphic emotions from him pull in the viewers. It’s just that Susan couldn’t handle it, retreating afterwards to The Priory (at Cowell’s suggestion, I believe), which she hated even more.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Metaphor and creative fertility

At Thursday’s masterclass, Turning Ideas into Action, I introduced the use of metaphor in creative thinking. “Give us an example,” I was challenged.

So I talked about Alastair Pilkington doing the washing up, observing the grease floating on top of the water, and imagining a new way of producing plate glass. “No good” was the response from a feisty (and knowledgeable) group. That’s just an extension of scientific knowledge, not a real metaphor, and anyway, apparently it wasn’t really Pilkington who made that breakthrough.


Well, how about the invention of Pringles?

The founders of Synectics, Bill Gordon and George Prince, made the use of metaphoric “excursions” a central part of their methodology. A special favourite for them was to explore metaphors from nature.

In the 1960s Gordon worked with Procter and Gamble to find a new way to make potato chips. The problem for consumers was that existing products would fracture far too easily, resulting in piles of broken bits at the bottom of the bag. And the problem for manufacturers was that bags of chips are full of air – making the shipping of product unnecessarily expensive.

One fall, Gordon was sweeping leaves in his back yard. On sunny days he noticed that the leaves were crisp, just like potato chips. And when he put them in a bag they fractured and crumbled. But on rainy days he noticed that the leaves moulded easily one to another with no breakages. Thus the idea for Pringles was born, solving both consumer and manufacturer problems at one and the same time.

The British theatre and opera director (and astounding polymath), Dr Jonathan Miller, has written: “Since finding out what something is is largely a matter of discovering what it is like, the most impressive contribution to the growth of intelligibility has been made by the application of suggestive metaphors.”

More succinctly (though less politically correctly), the Spanish philosopher-poet Ortega y Gassett wrote: “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by men.”

Do you have good examples of the use of suggestive metaphor in creativity – either your own or others?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Legend in his own lunchtime

Working on innovation skills with a young team in Sydney, I was asked “What’s the secret of your success?”

Possibilities scrambled through my brain. Was I any kind of real success? What is success anyway? And so on. However, my sense was that they were after a snappy, to-the-point headline.

“Lunch,” I responded. “I attribute any success I’ve had to it. I really built my career around lunch.”

They were aghast. What can he be saying? Nobody does lunch any more. In fact, it’s become symbolic of a bygone, unprofessional, decadent age.

Well, it took me a while, long ago, to discover the potency of the shared midday meal. Up to then, clients (often Procter and Gamble or Rowntree) were endlessly wrecking perfectly good ideas.

Why? Because they were presented (and I mean presented) in the formalised atmosphere of a proper meeting. The consequence was inevitably to push the clients into judge and jury mode. There they would take pride in finding the jugular, the weakest point, with unerring accuracy, sending us back to the start.

What I discovered was that lunch (often, I admit, in an unnecessarily expensive restaurant) provided an environment where challenging new ideas could be tabled and discussed, quite informally, on the basis of mutual interest and exploration. By the time we went into the meeting with client, they had already grasped the new concept, sometimes even promoting it to colleagues.

“It is a midday meal taken at leisure by, ideally, two people,” as the Fleet Street legend, Keith Waterhouse, put it. “Three’s a crowd, four always split like a double amoeba into two pairs, six is a meeting, eight is a conference.”

Sadly, of course, in these more straightened times, lunch may consist of a sandwich and a Coke. But the principle remains the same. Get them into the boat, rowing with you.

Do you lunch?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Leading by backing off

The conductor Sir Simon Rattle was rehearsing Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a Promenade concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the summer.

The cellos were playing a particularly prominent passage, but couldn’t quite get it together. Rattle tried several times over, intently focused in their direction, never completely achieving the unanimity he was seeking.

“It’s me,” he said. “I’ll stop conducting.”

So he beat them in, put down his baton, and folded his arms while they played.

“That’s perfect,” he said. “You’ll be fine from now on.”

And they were.

Now that’s leadership.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Blurting the truth

Reports in the Sunday Times of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson’s new Chelsea home brings to mind the disastrous interview I did with another advertising legend, Frank Lowe, also in Chelsea.

He was looking for someone to head up his then burgeoning international agency business and I’d been recommended.

I arrived at his elegant terraced house and was shown into the “front room”. I marvelled at the extraordinary glass dome three stories above and the enormous fireplace. It reminded me of something, but what was it? Ah, yes - Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”.

After a wait of thirty minutes or so, Frank finally appeared. “What do you think of the house?” he enquired.

“Seems to have been designed by a megalomaniac,” I blurted.

“Yes,” he said. “I designed it.”

I wasn’t offered the job.

It was one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” moments for both of us: he knew instantly that I was not right for him. But, before he showed, I already knew that it was not for me.

Have you had instantaneous “Blink” moments - ones where you have blurted the truth?

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mind Without Fear

I shared this wonderful poem by the Indian poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, with participants in my Creative Leadership masterclass in September:

WHERE the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

I wonder what it says to you?

By the way, the final masterclass of the series – “Turning Ideas into Action” – will be at Cass Business School in London on Thursday 11 November. http://bit.ly/9JfYAc

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Definitionitis Syndrome

I find in academe (more than in the commercial world) that a great deal of time is spent in discussing definitions. This seems true of all disciplines, but of course it impacts on me particularly when people say, for example, “What exactly do we mean by innovation (or creativity or leadership or ideas or concepts or whatever)?”

It’s never appealed to me much as an approach. A great deal of time and intellectual energy is consumed getting to “Go”. Sometimes that process never seems to stop – as though finding the perfect definition is itself the purpose of the exercise. The consequence, of course, is that correspondingly less time is spent addressing the issue in hand.

The philosopher of science, Professor Karl Popper (of whom I wrote on October 11 - "Searching for flaws"), was equally dismissive of this syndrome, which I call definitionitis. Definitions, he pointed out, are by their nature tautological, and therefore of limited value in the problem-solving arena. A second consequence is that definitions laboriously arrived at can have the unintended effect of excluding interesting, speculative, lateral ideas – ideas which might lead to previously unconsidered new hypotheses, approaches and solutions.

Popper believed that discussion of the meaning of words can become not only unhelpful (and boring), but can actually be destructive. He was of the view that creative discussion itself, uninhibited by prior agreement around the meanings of terms being used, was more likely to lead to breakthrough ideas.

Have you been in situations where inability to move past the defining of terms led to short- or long-term paralysis?

By the way, it’s exactly a year since I started this blog. Let me know if there are particular issues you’d like aired in it.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Starting out at Grand Hotel

Quite often I get asked about playing as a rock musician at the start of my working life.

Of course I did have a day job as well – as a mailboy at 40 Berkeley Square in the middle of London’s Mayfair district, the home of the leading ad agency in Britain at that time, J Walter Thompson. Coming as I did from a Midland town, I thought Mayfair was clearly the epicentre of the universe. These were the early days of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant and all that.

Initially I played in a not-so-great band on the South Coast. I was nineteen years old and the most memorable thing about it was that over weekends I would stay with the manager of our band, also nineteen, who just happened to be the son of the manager of the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. So of a Saturday and Sunday morning, following a gig, we would eat a sumptuous late breakfast, served by the head butler. Then I would take a leisurely morning by the pool, chatting with whichever celebrity guests happened to be staying at the Grand. These were the first celebs I ever met. They must have been thrilled.

Later I was invited to play with a much better outfit, The Idle Hands, based nearer home in London – in heavenly Hampstead. But that’s another story.

There is no doubt that I learned three big things from those early performing experiences: the paramount importance of good product, constantly evolving; the value of good presentation; and the need to negotiate what the market will bear. Not more, not less.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Edison and Turning Ideas into Action

For several years I have been talking with participants in innovation workshops around the world about the American inventor, Thomas Edison, and recommending that they study him - his ways of thinking and his methods.

Luckily, Mr Edison will be with us at the last of a short series of innovation masterclasses – “Turning Ideas into Action” – at Cass Business School in London on Thursday 11 November. http://bit.ly/9JfYAc

While Edison’s reputation as an inventor of genius, perhaps the greatest the world has known, is secure and acknowledged throughout the world, his pioneering role - as the father of innovation management - is less widely recognised or understood.

This situation was substantially of his own making, the result of his consistent management of his personal “brand” – a term from a later era, but one which he would have understood well. Edison the Great Inventor bestrode the media of his era, personally creating and managing his reputation as a genius and becoming as a consequence a major celebrity in his own lifetime.

In reality he managed multiple parallel project teams from quite early in his career – teams consisting of brilliant and diverse talents, working together to solve problems and find new solutions. He and his teams often worked by trial and error, assessing sometimes thousands of different possibilities before arriving at an ideal solution.

“The greatest invention of the nineteenth century,” the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “was the invention of the method of invention.”

So, over a century later, why are there such intractable problems in turning ideas into action?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Searching for flaws

At last week’s Brand Renovation Masterclass at Cass Business School, our guest speaker David Walker talked about the need to use testing and research not as stop/go indicators, but rather as springboards to improving the innovation or renovation.

It put me in mind of the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper totally rejected the commonly-held notion of scientific method – that research leads to knowledge and that knowledge leads to ideas or hypotheses.

Popper held that the only reason for conducting research is because you have an idea in the first place (however sketchy it is) – and the purpose of research is to test the idea rigorously, so that it can be improved. In short, in research we are not looking for confirmation of the concept, rather trying to identify flaws, so that they can be problem-solved.

As he put it: “Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths.”

So often, in the commercial world, managements want the warm and comforting feeling from the data that they are backing a winner – and end up going to market with an innovation that does not work in practice in some way or other because there are still issues that need to be addressed.

And in academia, I often seem to read papers that apparently have no idea behind them at all. Often the work is prefaced by a question to be answered, where no one has interrogated the idea behind the question. The result is usually just to add to the bottomless pit of never-to-be-seen-again “knowledge”.

A useful way of thinking about all this is to focus at each stage on the question, “What’s our BEST CURRENT THINKING?”, and go forward from there.


Friday, 8 October 2010

Do not fear mistakes

“Do not fear mistakes,” said the great American jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. “There are none.”

(I usually have “Kind of Blue” in my car. Desert island music.)

It reminds me of what the inventor, Buckminster Fuller (he of the geodesic dome), wrote on a related theme: “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

So many successes emerge (sooner or later) from so-called mistakes and failures.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The strangulating undergrowth of IP law

A paper given by Dr Lucy Montgomery of Queensland University of Technology at last week’s Cultural and Creative Industries Symposium (at the House of Lords in London) started me thinking again about the whole business of intellectual property law and its negative role in our society now.

German historian, Eckhard Höffner, argues that Germany’s Great Leap Forward in the second half of the nineteenth century – from agrarian society to one of the world leaders industrially – sprang from the country’s lack of copyright laws. Thus ideas and knowledge spread quickly, spawning continuous innovation and entrepreneurial activity.

The same situation – lack of effective intellectual property constraints - applied to the USA in the same period and to Britain’s own leadership of the Industrial Revolution in the previous half century (although, as Höffner points out, the introduction of copyright law in Britain in 1710 did have something of a crippling effect, even then).

Now, of course, Europe and America are both enmeshed in IP laws of all kinds, all intended to protect (and enrich) originators, but at the same time placing comprehensive barriers in the path of innovative scientists, engineers, artists, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs and companies.

In the twenty-first century, the economic survival of the West in the face of intense competition from the East will depend on Europe’s and America’s ability to innovate. At the moment, the game is being played on a very uneven playing field.

India, China and other Asian countries have limited frameworks of intellectual property law, and what exists is scarcely enforced. The West, on the other hand, constantly extends the tentacles of IP restriction.

Europe and America, thinking that they have the moral and intellectual high ground, expend their energies nowadays seeking to persuade countries in Asia to adopt Western standards. There is little evidence that this strategy is working (or will ever work).

What is needed is a complete re-think. The West should start to dismantle the strangulating undergrowth of IP law, freeing up innovators and artists, entrepreneurs and organisations alike, to compete again on a global stage on an equal footing.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


One of the earliest major art exhibitions that I went to in London was of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinary drawings from the royal collection. It was at the recently opened Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and the year was 1969. I have the modest catalogue (nothing like today’s glossy doorstops) open in front of me now.

I don’t think that I’d previously taken in the amazing range of Leonardo’s interests, inventions and speculations. Human anatomy, engineering, animals and plants, dragons and other beasties, weapons, astronomy, not to mention a multitude of studies for his major paintings – continuously recorded both in a series of notebooks and on loose sheets.

Buried in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, amongst a series of mathematical calculations, is the single line, written in large letters: “IL SOLE NO SI MUOVE” – “THE SUN DOES NOT MOVE”.

The implication of the observation is clear. The sun does not revolve around the earth, rather the earth revolves around the sun. He wrote the line a whole century before the great astronomical breakthroughs of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

Perhaps Leonardo did no more with his revolutionary thought, leaving it buried in the notebook, not sharing it with anyone, because he feared the consequences. After all, when Galileo started to disseminate this discovery in 1615, he was tried for heresy.

Self-censorship (springing from fear of the consequences of sharing an unusual idea with senior management) is one of the major reasons that breakthrough innovations are stillborn. That is why the creation by management at all levels of a climate of openness, of speculation, of absurdity even, is so important.

How is it in your workplace?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


At the new Brand Renovation Masterclass at Cass Business School on 7 October http://bit.ly/cNPhQl , I’m being joined by the wonderful Dr David Walker, who leads the successful innovation consultancy, Happen.

We were colleagues for several years, and, thinking about the forthcoming event, it came back to me that David and I together achieved the rather remarkable result of scoring an average of 11.3 recurring out of 10 when we asked for feedback from the group we had just trained together in creativity and innovation at Unilever in the Netherlands.

I’d love to say that this kind of thing happens frequently, but no such luck. The team had clearly managed to escape from the constraints of logical thinking.

Happened to you?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Renovating Skoda

What do you call a Skoda with a sun roof?
A skip.
What do you call a classic Skoda?
A Lada.
How do you double the value of a Skoda?
Fill the tank.
Why do Skodas have heated rear windows?
To keep your hands warm when pushing.
What do you call a Skoda in winter?
A freezer.
What do you call a Skoda at the top of the hill?
A miracle.
“Do you have a windscreen wiper for my Skoda?”
"Sounds like a fair swap."
How do you overtake a Skoda?
What do you call a Skoda with twin exhausts?
A wheelbarrow.
How is a Skoda similar to a baby?
They never go anywhere without a rattle.

These familiar jokes are now totally from that foreign country, the past. In fact, Skoda turned around both the quality of the product, and the reputation of their brand, to become the car manufacturer with the highest level of repeat purchase in Britain.

Join us and learn more at the Brand Renovation Masterclass at Cass Business School on Thursday 7 October http://bit.ly/cNPhQl

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Trawling for ideas

Credit to Britain’s Chancellor (Finance Minister), George Osborne, for this initiative:


Archie Norman and Allan Leighton pioneered this highly people-centred search for good new ideas very successfully - the “Tell Archie” programme - at ASDA.

Hope Osborne gets similar results (and credit).

So many organisations could up their game (and motivate their people) by transforming their tired “staff suggestions” schemes.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Down at the Old Bull and Bush

It’s over two years since my friend and colleague, Tom Tracey, died. I went to the ceremony at Golders Green Crematorium on a wet day in June.

I’d first got to know him when he was the brilliant and iconoclastic creative director of Lintas in New Zealand in the 80s.

There were eight of us in all there at the service. For someone so interesting and engaging and creative, it was strange that there were so few. But then Liverpudlian Tom had lived his adult life all over the world, everywhere it seemed except London. The lady who led the ceremony read out loving remembrances and tributes from Tom's friends in far off lands.

It struck me that Tom made relationships with people wherever he happened to be. And that he tended to move on, appreciating each place, and his colleagues and friends there, without needing to hold on to the past.

At the ceremony I told the story of Tom's campaign for Unilever's Rinso, one that he was intensely proud of. Following orders from HQ, the brand name was dropped in favour of one of those international brands, although Rinso was right up there among the most trusted, even loved, products in New Zealand. It had been patiently renovated by Kiwi marketers over the best part of a century. Tom thought it right and proper that there should be a proper goodbye to such a constant friend, even if it was only a washing powder. What a paradox that he himself should leave us so quietly, without fuss.

Afterwards we repaired to the Old Bull and Bush in Hampstead. Somewhat embarrassed, we sang the chorus of Florrie Forde’s hit song from the early 1900s in the saloon bar - “Come, come, come and make eyes at me, down at...”, and we raised a glass to him.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Support for Creative Leaders - I don't think so

Our Centre for Creativity at City University yesterday held a “Creative Leadership Summit” at Cass Business School – a select group of leaders assembled to explore the implications arising from IBM’s recent global study of Chief Executives.

That survey revealed for the first time that “creative leadership” is now the number one requirement from CEOs around the world, 60% of them naming it as their top priority. It is an extraordinary rise in the perceived importance of creativity to leadership, quite unprecedented.

But how well equipped are British organisations to recruit and support creative leaders? The meeting concluded that Britain is at risk in two key areas that effect creative leadership.

First, current research conducted by Social Science colleagues at City makes it clear that less than a third of British organisations (29%) include innovativeness or creativity in their recruitment selection criteria. Yet the vast majority of our businesses (78%) recognise that innovation is vital to their future survival and success.

And second, less than one in three British organisations build innovation and creativity into their appraisal and reward programmes. This is quite tragic! Every company’s appraisal and reward processes need consistently to enhance creative potential.

In short, unless these issues are addressed, we will simply not have the creative leaders and innovation needed to get Britain moving decisively out of the current economic doldrums. CEOs in both the public and private sectors need to understand these issues and take decisive action to remedy the situation.

But not only CEOs. Government can also play a much more dynamic role in re-shaping attitudes and behaviours.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Creative Leadership Summit

On Tuesday 17th I’ll be chairing a meeting of prominent leaders at Cass Business School in London aiming to shed light on “Creative Leadership”.

As I wrote recently, it was voted as their top requirement in an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs worldwide. But what does it really mean? Why is it so important? Are Creative Leaders properly supported and promoted? Is their special ability fully recognised and rewarded? Do recruitment processes make it easy for Creative Leaders to be hired?

I’ve already had valuable feedback by email. But what do YOU think about all this?

Friday, 30 July 2010

Creativity and Crime Reduction

In the early 90s the newly-elected Mayor of Boston and his team (including social services and police), together with local communities, the victims of crime (and the criminals), got together to reduce crime in Boston. The creative/innovation team was led by my colleague, Marvin Smith.

They started with a blank sheet of paper and something more than fifty new strategies were evolved in creative workshops - and put into action.

Extraordinarily, crime came down by over 50% within a twelve month period, and violent crime and homicide was reduced by some 75%. I was astonished by the sheer scale of the success, but Boston managed to maintain this improvement for nearly a decade – in effect until the aftermath of 9/11, when political priorities were rather radically changed.

The new strategies were eclectic in nature, aimed at attacking the major issues from many different angles. The strategy that dominated the media was "zero tolerance". It seemed to appeal strongly to both journalists and the police.

When I was building up a case study on the programme, I asked the central coordinator of the project at City Hall which of all the new strategies had been the most effective? Was it zero tolerance?

His response was very interesting - he said there was no way of knowing. It was the combination, the whole cocktail, that had done the business for them. For sure some strategies will have had a greater impact than others. But which? No one knew.

The most immediate aftermath was that the Chief of Police in Boston, Bill Bratton, was hired by Mayor Giuliani in New York to repeat the process. This he did and crime rates came down by similar amounts there.

Interestingly, Bratton had not been in the original group in Boston - and most of the new strategies had already been developed when he joined the team. He went on to become the world's most famous crime-reducing policeman, eventually (and very publicly) getting fired by Mayor Giuliani in New York (some said for getting too much limelight and too much of the credit), and turned himself into a "super-consultant", carrying that package of strategies (and subsets of it) around the world.

That rather seemed to miss the point . For example, Johannesburg, which he advised, has a quite different social context from New York and Boston. So it will undoubtedly have needed a quite different mix of strategies.

In the meantime other cities across America learned from Boston/New York and all experienced smaller but nevertheless significant reductions in crime, often with Bratton’s advice and counsel.

As a post-script, I went to talk with several police managements (and the Home Office) in Britain to explore whether a similar creative approach to strategy development might work
here. The consistent answer I got was that they knew all about it, knew what was needed, and were in the process of implementing it. Many times it appeared that they believed that zero-tolerance would on its own do the job for them. In no case that I encountered did British communities start out, as had happened in Boston, from scratch to create a set of specifically relevant new strategies – specifically relevant that is for London or Manchester or Glasgow or Belfast or wherever.

I wonder how our bright new coalition government is approaching this whole issue. Hopefully with open minds. There’s no doubt that in the tough times ahead, crime is likely to rise again.

Suggestions on how to influence them gratefully received.

Friday, 16 July 2010

“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!”

Among the Mastersingers in Wagner’s great opera, it is the cobbler-poet, Hans Sachs, who provides a potent mix of wisdom and disruption. It is he who points out to his fellow judges in the prize-song competition that they should not be trapped by their own rules, ignoring new forms of creativity and expression.

“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” he sings in his famous Act 3 monologue. Wahn translates into English somewhere between madness and delusion. It is all around us and nothing happens without it, he sings, nothing whatever.

It seems to be an important mantra to bear in mind - both for innovators and for those who sit in judgement on innovations.

Wonderful new production from Welsh National Opera with Bryn Terfel as Sachs. It will arrive at the Proms in London tomorrow (Saturday 17 July). Beg, borrow or steal a ticket!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Creative Leadership is It

The latest IBM Global Chief Executive Officer Study, published a few weeks ago, has a rather extraordinary finding. The quality most cited and sought by CEOs around the world is CREATIVE LEADERSHIP.

This is not some small-sample, quick-fix survey. They interviewed over 1,500 CEOs all over the world and in all sectors – industry, services and public sector.

What’s more, it’s the fourth such study, and creativity has never been close to the number one previously. In fact, this time it ranked way ahead of the field at 60%, followed (at some distance) by integrity, global thinking, influence and openness.

There are several questions that arise in my mind:

What has pushed creative leadership to the forefront in CEOs minds? What is driving the dramatic rise in its importance? What do they really mean by creativity in leaders? How would they know when they've got it? And what are they doing to recruit, promote and support creativity and creative leaders?

One more question: Why has this rather dramatic shift not received more media attention? I think the answer to that is contained in the way the study has been packaged up by IBM. It’s entitled, for some reason, “Capitalizing on Complexity”, and you have to get to page 23 before you get to the important news.

I’ll be tackling all the issues surrounding creative leadership at the masterclass we’ll be running at Cass Business School on Thursday 9 September. More info on that here: http://www.perdiemprojects.com/news.php?subaction=showfull&id=1276792934&archive=&start_from=&ucat=2&

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Inventing lawn tennis: a tale of two majors

With Wimbledon almost upon us, I’ve been thinking about who might have invented the game.

Like so many innovations, it seems to have emerged in two different places at much the same time.

On a croquet lawn in Birmingham, an Englishman, Major Harry Gem, and his Spanish friend, Augurio Perera, started playing a game that combined rackets with the Basque game, pelota. In 1872 they founded the first tennis club at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

And in 1874 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welshman, invented a game with similar characteristics that he called “sphairistike” – from the Greek meaning skill at playing ball. He actually patented the net.

Why is it that inventions and discoveries so often appear in parallel?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Taking the MICL

Top priority, since I joined City University in London to set up their Centre for Creativity, has been the development of an interdisciplinary Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership – the MICL.

That’s done now and over the past two weeks we have started the marketing campaign for it. A real opportunity, it seemed to me, for the marketing communications folk in the university to strut their stuff with this unique new offering.

Not so fast!

Because the Centre itself is interdisciplinary, the marketing people in the School of Informatics, where we live, said, “Sorry, you’re not part of our School. Nothing to do with us, Guv.” And the people in the corporate team said, “We don’t market academic courses, that’s all done by the specialists in the Schools. Nothing to do with us, Guv.”

The consequence has been that we decided to hire a dynamic, hungry young team at Claremont, who helped us shape up a complete strategy and plan, and went on to develop a range of exciting and unusual marketing materials.

The one I like best is the video they created for us, which links a Big City Brainstorm we ran together with the new Masters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqVqU-c00lE

The MICL is designed to give innovation leaders all the tools to turn ideas into action. It’s a two-year programme for people with experience who are looking for accelerated career progression.

You can read more about it here: http://creativity.city.ac.uk/master/overview.html

Something for you? Or for a colleague?

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Credit where credit is due?

Years ago I went to see a client at Unilever in New York whom I’d worked with previously in Australia. At the time he was being fêted as Mr Innovation in the company worldwide, having presided over the tremendous success of a new soap brand. His opinions were sought continuously on how it should be done, on the terrific culture he’d built, on every aspect of his innovation skills.

We chatted for a while about the brand and then I said: “You know, we were pretty happy about the role we played.”

“Really? he said. “I never heard about that. Surely not.”

“Well, yes,” I said, “we facilitated the workshop when the basic brand idea was created.”

“No! I can’t believe it. I would have been told.”

“Well, I brought along the minutes from the meeting. Here – take a look.”

By this time there’s no doubt he was somewhat embarrassed.

How could this disconnect have happened?

Quite simply, he was the third team leader on the project. There had been one at the inception. That’s when we had been involved. Then one who managed the development of all aspects of the mix into test market. Then, finally, my friend, who had brilliantly led the rollout coast-to-coast.

And, in the handovers, no mention had been made of our part in it.

Is good creative facilitation so unimportant, so forgettable? Maybe it is. But, without it, would the brand ever have been created?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Strategy first?

We had a Creativity Research Network meeting yesterday at beautiful Kent University in Canterbury – Creative Campus was the theme of the day – and it was followed by the opening of the newly transformed foyer of their Marlowe Building, just one of the Creative Campus initiatives.

Making the necessary unveiling speech the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Nightingale, observed that many of the most interesting innovations are born out of individual and team passion, not resulting from any particularly well-formed strategy. In fact, he went on, so often the strategy is only formed once a new idea has been both born and successfully implemented.

It made me think of my time at Saatchi & Saatchi. I had been brought up before Saatchi in highly disciplined, “professional” advertising agencies, where the strategy would be sweated over for months, sometimes (as with P&G) years. When, and only when, that phase was totally complete would the creative people be approached to start work.

What I discovered at Saatchi’s was that, invariably, the best, the most exciting and salient work would be created in exactly the opposite direction. Long before a strategy had been formulated (or even thought about in any depth), the creatives would be presented with the product or service and challenged to come up with something brilliant. When they had achieved that, the strategy behind their work would be formulated and researched.

The work was then presented to client in the usual sequence: strategy then creative. After all, that’s what clients imagined to be the only “professional” way. How shocked they might have been if they had discovered the truth.

It changed my own thinking dramatically. In fact, there may be something profoundly dulling in the traditional sequence. How inspiring that Professor Nightingale should know all that.

Do you have examples of brilliant new ideas preceding strategy?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

“Six impossible things before breakfast”

The Queen remarked: “Now I'll give you something to believe. I’m just a hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Is the pre-breakfast time best for new ideas? I like it myself.

Is deep breathing and shutting the eyes useful?

Is practice important in developing creative skills? I’m sure it is.

But how about impossibility?

Einstein wrote: “If at first the idea is not absurd, there’s no hope for it.” Everything that exists, all knowledge, was once invented or discovered. And quite usually the new idea or discovery can seem impossible (or absurd) to existing “experts” in the field.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Body Language and Authenticity

Thinking about non-verbal communication, I thought I’d look out the book that made the whole concept famous – Julius Fast’s seminal Body Language of 1970.

I knew that it had been a best seller – some three million copies have been sold to date – but I’d always assumed that he was some kind of academic who had done ground-breaking research in the area. Quite wrong.

In fact Fast was primarily a popular novelist. It’s true that he also wrote and edited pieces for a medical magazine, but even there he was dealing with the findings from other people’s work. The major research that Fast used was done in the 1950s and 60s by RL Birdwhistell, E Goffman and AE Scheflen.

What strikes one now about Fast’s Body Language is how dated it seems, both in its thinking and its photographs. Essentially the message appears to be: the effectiveness of your courting/mating rituals could be transformed if you were to master these ways of sitting/standing/moving. And of course, it’s all grounded in American culture, gesture etc. Not so very useful in China, India, Italy, Japan, France, Norway, Nigeria…

Those of you who have studied, for example, NLP will know how sophisticated and multi-purpose all this stuff has become over recent decades. So sophisticated that it seems to me to have reached a stage of willed manipulation, whereas in real life what people respond to best is genuine authenticity.

How to become skilled and yet remain authentic? Is that the challenge now?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Misunderstanding Mehrabian

All over the internet are references to Albert Mehrabian’s most famous “discovery”, the so-called 7%-38%-55% rule.

Supposedly only 7% of communication springs from what is said, the verbal, 38% from the tone of voice, and 55% from the non-verbal – facial and body language.

But this is to miss the point completely. In situations where words, tones and non-verbals are consistent with each other, it’s clearly the words that carry the message.

It’s where there are mixed messages, where words, tones and non-verbals are incongruent, seeming to contradict each other, that non-verbals are most likely to be believed.

So for example if I say to you that I trust you, but my facial and/or body language suggest otherwise, it will be lack of trust that is the received message.

Making sure that all channels are aligned is not so easy – it trips up politicians all the time – and while we may not be conscious of what has happened when they are not, our unconscious registers the real messages loud and clear.

So often, when I facilitate innovation meetings, the lead client puts on the table one task, where the rest of the group has a completely different issue in mind. The complexity of reading bodies, faces, tones and words in situations like this can be daunting. And without a great deal of experience, young facilitators (and old) can come unstuck.

The question is: how to become skilled at reading all these signals and responding appropriately?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Lady Gaga: Innovation Princess 2010

My now eight year-old daughter was given “POP Princesses 2010” – CD and DVD – for her recent birthday. It’s been a massive hit with her and consequently I’ve had a good deal of exposure to it myself.

Many of the current diva crop are included – Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Sugababes, Britney Spears, Shakira, The Pussycat Dolls, Cheryl Cole, Girls Aloud and so on.

What has struck me most clearly, however, is what a unique performer Lady Gaga is. While most of them could easily be mistaken for each other, their sound world being so similar, Lady Gaga creates something quite different.

Thinking about this from an innovation perspective, if you want to be reasonably successful with your offering, you swim with the tide. But if you want to cause a breakthrough you take the greater risk of creating something that either may catch on, as Lady Gaga has, or may equally sink without trace.

Of course, Lady Gaga has not only made a different sound, she has given birth to a complete artistic creation, and it may well be other parts of the artwork that have caused the wave to mount up.

Will she remain a one-off? Time will tell.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Last Laugh

From Shall We Dance, 1937

Words: Ira Gershwin
Music George Gershwin

The odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn't a bit concerned
For from hist’ry I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It’s the same old cry
They laughed at me wanting you
Said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through
Now they'll have to change their tune

They all said we never could be happy
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh now?

They all laughed at Rockefeller center
Now they're fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar

Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That's how people are
They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, "hello, goodbye."
But oh, you came through
Now they're eating humble pie

They all said we’d never get together
Darling, let’s take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
He, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now?

Does any other song have so many important messages for innovators?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Stravinsky the bank manager

Do highly creative individuals look different?

In my experience some do, some don’t.

There’s no doubt with Albert Einstein. The amazing breakthrough thinking matches up precisely with the visual image of the wild-haired, wild-eyed maverick.

But consider Igor Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring ballet that he composed for Diaghilev was so shocking when it was first performed in 1913 that there were riots in the streets of Paris. And composers are still dealing with and responding to the savagery of his musical vision.

Yet Stravinsky presented himself more like a bank manager than a revolutionary artist. And so did one of the greatest and most radical of twentieth century poets, TS Eliot.

In my own working experience, I learned over time not to trust the packaging as an accurate guide to the contents when dealing with “creatives” in an ad agency. Some of the greatest copywriters I worked with dressed and behaved conservatively, while some of the least talented presented themselves as geniuses.

But how are we to tell the difference?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

“I’ve never tried it because I don’t like it”

A friend of mine was working on some new ads for Guinness when he heard a lady say this in a focus group. So he used it as a headline for a poster.

It seems to me to be the underlying attitude of the “late adopter” in so many fields. Reluctance to try something new because they don’t want to take a risk.

With new products, so much marketing effort appears to be expended on early adopters, who represent a much easier target - one that will get sales moving quickly and demonstrate to senior management that we have a success on our hands.

Yet by their nature, early adopters are fickle. They’ll pick up the next passing cab without a thought. Not the firmest of foundations.

The thing about the ones who never tried it because they don’t like it, is that, once tried and enjoyed, they will be tons more loyal.

So how to get them to take that step?

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Innovative vs Conscientious

“Find good people”. “Set them free”. Two of the basic rules set out by Richard Branson in his recent book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur. Simple? Or not so easy as it might appear?

One of the most interesting findings in a major new innovation study undertaken for NESTA by my City University colleague Professor Fiona Patterson and her team is that, at work, “innovativeness” as a personal characteristic has an inverse correlation with “conscientiousness”.

One way or another, most organisations treat conscientiousness as a basic given in the recruitment and promotion of staff. The question that arises from this is: are we effectively screening out highly creative people and thus restricting our chances of developing breakthrough innovation?

I wonder if Branson’s Virgin has this cracked? Or you and your organisation?