Saturday, 29 October 2011

Sources of the Arab Spring

Have you read Dr Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy?

Combined with the dramatic growth of social media, it’s certainly one of the most influential books of the early twentieth century. And his whole approach represents a major innovation in political life around the world.

Basically Sharp promotes the idea that change is much more likely to be brought about by the skilful use of non-violent strategies, some of them originally developed by Gandhi.

Perhaps the most recent examples of the practical application of his theories have been in what is called the Arab Spring, but before that his work was influential in Serbia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Latin America, China, Tibet, Iran and elsewhere. In some cases this led to democracy replacing dictatorship, and in others the process has yet to lead to real change.

Gene Sharp himself is now in his eighties and lives in Boston. The documentary film made by the British TV journalist, Ruaridh Arrow, based on Sharp and his work, “How to Start a Revolution”, is wowing audiences at film festivals currently. Looking forward to seeing that.

In recent weeks, I have thinking about how his approach can be adapted and applied in dictatorial and autocratic regimes within corporations and in academia.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The chasm between intent and effect

How often in life we get the wrong end of the stick.

This can have disastrous, destructive consequences, not only in terms of our interpersonal relationships, but also in the area of creativity.

For example: Person A says to Person B, “That shirt is the wrong colour for you.”

What does B do in response?

They may choose to ignore it and move on.

Or B may take offence, taking A’s observation as an uncalled for intrusion, and make one of a range of responses:

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion.” Or

“What’s this to you?” Or

“You’re quite wrong. It’s just right for me.” Or

“Please mind your own business.”

These are just a few of samples of how A’s statement can be dealt with by B. The problem with all these is that, in turn, A may well take offence at the bluntness of B’s response – and consider how to follow up in kind.

You know where this is going. A sequence of traded insults, sometimes cloaked in apparent politeness, can easily happen. It can go on for minutes, hours or days, weeks, months or even years.

This is sometimes called a Discount Revenge Cycle. And it can have the effect of closing down communications, not just between A and B, but throughout the whole team. The resulting damage to creative productivity can be immense.

So how can this negative cycle be stopped and even changed to something more constructive?

The simple answer is for one or other (or both) of the participants to ASSUME POSITIVE INTENTION. Maybe to respond: “That’s interesting – tell me some more.”

It doesn’t always work, but it stands a much better chance of doing so than sending a heat-seeking missile back at the offender.

And it can set up the opposite of the Discount Revenge Cycle – what might be called a Positive Cooperation Cycle. That is so much more likely to create a climate of creative possibility.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Revisiting Tom Stoppard’s Travesties

I went on a double pilgrimage yesterday.

First to see Tom Stoppard’s play, Travesties. It’s thirty seven years since I first saw it in its first run in London. Although many of its allusions passed me by then, I already knew that it was to be one of the finest works of twentieth century theatre.

Set in First World War Zurich, multi-layered and filled with reference from other works and worlds – Oscar Wilde, Dadaism, Lenin and Marxism, Shakespeare and James Joyce among them – nevertheless it communicated so clearly. And with such constant wit.

It was so wonderful to see it again. A play of great genius. Fine production and playing – rightly focused on the words.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch three Stoppard plays in recent times – The Real Inspector Hound, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (both at Chichester) and now Travesties. Hopefully I’ll see more soon.

The second purpose of my pilgrimage was to visit, for the first time, the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. My father used to speak of it, and of its founding director Barry Jackson, with great warmth.

The theatre was built in 1913 and for several decades Jackson presented there pioneering, ground-breaking productions of plays old and new, building a worldwide reputation. Perfect for Travesties, it’s a small theatre, seating just 464. I suppose that was just one of reasons why the Birmingham Rep company abandoned it in the 1970s. But I never warmed to their new venue.

Perhaps they should consider going home.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Nellie Melba and The Star Spangled Banner

As we all know, a vital ability in life is to respond creatively to an unforeseen threat quickly and decisively.

The great Australian diva, Nellie Melba, was set to sing Rosina in The Barber of Seville in San Francisco in 1898. Nothing unusual about that. It was one of her regular and best roles.

The problem was that the opera is set in Spain and, at that moment, Spain was threatening to invade and lay claim to Cuba. War appeared imminent and anti-Spanish feeling in the USA was running high. At the performance, although Melba herself was treated courteously by the audience, the barber, Figaro, was roundly booed.

What to do?

It so happens that in Act 2 there is a singing lesson where the composer, Rossini, allows Rosina to perform a song of her own choosing “ad libitum”. In San Francisco, the piano was pushed on stage, and Melba, a fine pianist, accompanied herself singing one of America’s favourite songs of the day, Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”. And, when the applause had died down a little, she followed up immediately with “The Star Spangled Banner”.

A local reporter noted: “People rose in their seats and cheered themselves hoarse.” The audience wept – the diva with them. Problem solved.

Sadly there are no recordings by her of those songs, nor of The Barber of Seville, so here she is singing (dazzlingly) the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust in 1905:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Best language for brainstorming?

I have found over the years that brainstorming is best done in local language.

Quite simply, the freshest ideas seem to come into our heads most readily in whatever vernacular we learn in childhood. And they are most easily expressed verbally in that language too.

This is not so easy when, as is usually the case in workshops with multinational companies, the common tongue is second-language English.

My Lintas colleague, Eleanor Modesto, discovered this vividly when she went from Manila to be managing director of the agency in Indonesia. She quickly discovered that the language of business in Jakarta is Bahasa Indonesia, so she got down to learning it, becoming expert enough in the language to pass as a local.

Yet it remained clear to her that being able to speak a language is one thing, whereas thinking in it, having ideas in it, is another thing altogether.

“Sometimes, it’s better to think conceptually in Tagalog [the major Filipino language],” Eleanor has said. “I would ask them ‘Do you have an idiom like this?’” And instead of generating ideas from “Man of Steel,” she would throw Filipino idioms like “tibay ng loob” [loosely translated as strength of character] into the mix, enriching the whole process.

Of course, I’ve discovered over the years that the facilitation of workshops in local language(s) brings greater complexity and requires special skills…

To explore this and much more, come to my Brand Renovation Masterclass in Manila, 8 November:

Monday, 17 October 2011

Living life backwards

I’ve just signed on as a student.

I’m starting a doctoral course in music history at Goldsmiths College, which is part of London University, specialising in the arts and humanities.

My father groomed me to follow in his footsteps in medicine, but I don’t remember ever showing any real interest in that path. It seemed to me some fifty years ago that the only way to escape was to fail my ‘A’ levels and go to work. So that’s what I did.

Now, in my 60s, I may well fulfil my father’s wish and become a doctor – though not exactly in the field he anticipated for me.

It’s an exciting new chapter.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

To be or not to be – is it original?

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” The best known line in all literature?

And we all know where it comes from…

But is it original?

No, says Professor John Sutherland in a recent review in Literary Review magazine. In fact, Shakespeare would have known perfectly well that his contemporary Christopher Marlowe wrote in the opening soliloquy in his Doctor Faustus, “Bid Oncaymaeon farewell.”

The Greek Oncaymaeon translates, says Professor Sutherland, as “being and not being”.

He goes on to point out that Faustus himself is a professor of philosophy at Wittenburg University. “And where is Hamlet a student of philosophy?” he asks. “The University of ….”

So Hamlet (or rather Shakespeare) is in effect not thinking but quoting.

Does it matter? Not at all.

It just goes to show that, in one way or another, everything that is new grows out of what already exists – in science and technology as in the arts.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Tale of the Unknown Island

I was working in Porto and was surprised that the participants in my Innovation Masterclass, all Portuguese, were so convinced that they and their compatriots were not really innovative. I reminded them of the proud Portuguese history of discovery, but they were not convinced.

Perhaps they had not read the short story by their own novelist, José Saramago, “The Story of the Unknown Island”. It opens: "A man went to knock at the king's door and said, Give me a boat..."

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

The story is in the form of a fable and covers so many of the critical issues in creativity and innovation in a hierarchical society – powerful bosses, having clarity of vision or destination, managing doubts, the value of persistence, and courage, paying attention to one’s dreams, breaking away from current wisdom, finding partners with complementary attitudes and skills, realising that we already have the answer within. And much else besides.

I picked it up at the suggestion of my friend, the composer and trombone-maestro, Simon Wills.

Do read it! And let me know what it says to you.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Thrilla in Manila

November 8 I’ll be doing a Masterclass focused on Brand Renovation in the Philippines.

Come along!

A case study I’ll be covering there will be on Olympic Cities – the ways in which they brought about improved image, tourism and urban renewal. Or not.

After all cities are, amongst other things, brands. In Manila we’ll be awarding gold, silver and bronze medals. And a wooden spoon.

I was lucky enough to have the International Olympic Committee as a client for several years, so I was able to observe all this at close quarters. And more recently I set about researching the whole business in some depth.

It brought to mind the “Thrilla in Manila”, the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1975. All the world tuned in. And it was an astonishing event.

Trouble is: it was held in Manila at the suggestion of President Marcos, who wanted to distract attention from the social upheaval that the Philippines was experiencing. And it left no tangible legacy for Manila whatsoever.

I hope that one of the conversations that we’ll have there will be: how to mount another major sporting event that might have a more enduring transformative effect on that city.

Got any ideas?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Individuals or teams for breakthrough creativity?

For years I believed that the best ideas emerged collaboratively. As international managing partner of Synectics for many years, a leading proponent of team creativity, that’s what you’d expect.

I’m not so sure any more.

It’s gradually become clearer to me that real ground-breaking ideas are more often hatched in the brains of highly creative individuals. Think Galileo, Harrison, Einstein, Edison.

Certainly Edison’s biggest breakthrough ideas were conceived in solitude – but he was also superb in organising his innovation project teams to work systematically towards implementation once he’d made that initial imaginative leap.

In my experience team creativity is generally better for more day-to-day creativity, for problem-solving, for the creation of strategy and for getting the team fully on board.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Microphones changed the way we sing

One of the most important inventions of the early twentieth century was the microphone. It came into general use in the recording industry in the mid-1920s.

Of course, over time they became not only a means of transferring and enhancing sound, they also profoundly influenced the way in which singers sang.

No longer did performers need to project their voices to the back row of the gods, as opera and music-hall singers had always learned to do. In fact, they could sing very quietly and still be heard clearly.

An early example of this is Harry Plunket Greene’s recording of Schubert’s “The Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Born in 1865, the Irish baritone had necessarily learned the art of projecting his voice.

But by the time of the recording he was 69 years old and his voice was a pale shadow of what it had been in his prime. So he almost whispered into the microphone. The result is extraordinary.

Let me know what you think…

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

“We’ve got plenty of ideas”

In a recent Comment, Arun Prabhu of Arla wrote: “Where I work we are growing in ideas, every time someone runs an idea generation session of any sort, the same "brilliant" ideas come up. The credit deserves to go to the ones who push ideas through the system, into reality and make them succeed.”

So often I hear from clients that they have plenty of ideas, but have difficulty turning them into reality.

It’s a very real issue and for that reason I do more masterclasses on the subject of “Turning Ideas into Action” than any other.

And yet…

Do these organisations really have a surfeit of good ideas? Of ground-breaking new thinking? I’m not so sure.

And the unintended consequence of placing all the emphasis on implementation, as some do, can so easily be that over time the ideas themselves become atrophied, a pale shadow of what will make a real difference, and the flow can start to dry up.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Giving thanks for the life and work of Lord Harewood

On Friday I went to the Thanksgiving Service for the life of Lord Harewood at All Saints Church, Harewood. Several of our greatest singers performed for us, including Sarah Connolly, Mark Padmore and Sir John Tomlinson. Moving tributes were paid to him by the conductor, Sir Mark Elder, and the footballer, Jack Charlton.

What an extraordinary achievement his working career was. Born into a family not noted for its devotion to the arts, he was first cousin to the Queen and a grandson of King George V and Queen Mary. As a young man he fought in the Second World War and was a prisoner-of-war at Colditz in Germany.

After the war he joined the staff of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, going on to direct annual music festivals in Edinburgh, Leeds, Adelaide and Buxton. Later he joined the English National Opera first as managing director and then as chairman.

His time leading the ENO was the triumphant peak of his career, and I was lucky enough to be there for many of the finest productions of that era. He brought together a brilliant and innovative artistic team, with Charles Mackerras and then Mark Elder as musical directors, and a superb company of singers.

Was he the first member of the British royal family to have a full working life, aside, that is, from joining the military or running the family business?