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.