Saturday, 30 June 2012

Which language is most useful in multinational meetings?

A bright young Frenchman, Dominique de Jarnac, came to work with me in London. Things went well, then one day he told me that he was disappointed.

“You never correct my English,” he told me. “How will I ever improve?”

“But your English is good,” I replied. “It’s very charming when you make ‘mistakes’ – and we understand you perfectly.”

“If we were in Paris, we would correct your French constantly,” he told me.

It’s clear that the French hold tightly to the idea that there is one ‘correct’ French and that everything else is ‘incorrect’. Whereas in England we seem to know intuitively that there are dozens of versions of English, each with their own validity – Southern English English, Northern, Scots, Irish, Welsh, American, Australasian, Indian, West Indian.

All these, of course. But also Singaporean and Malaysian, Philippine, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese… and French English.

So if one is facilitating or chairing a multicultural meeting, the most useful common language is… second-language English. Worth learning to speak it fluently if English is your first language. It’s different.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The extraordinary creative journey of Frances Hodgkins

In Brand Renovation masterclasses, one of the examples that I use is the wonderful Kylie Minogue. Has there ever been a singer more skilful than her at consistently re-inventing her public self?

But it’s not only in pop music that artistic renovation happens. The New Zealand-born painter, Frances Hodgkins, managed to stay current through six decades - and through several radical changes of artistic fashion.

First, in the 1890s in her hometown of Dunedin, she fell under the spell of the Italian impressionist, Girolamo Pieri-Nerli.

Then, in the period before the First World War in Europe, she was influenced by the Newlyn School in England, and particularly the work of the Scottish colourist, Arthur Melville. .

After the war in the early 1920s she embraced the Post-Impressionists Matisse and Derain and the Cubists - Braque, Picasso and others.

In the latter part of that decade, when she was already sixty years old, Hodgkins was invited to join the Seven and Five Society, a group of younger British modernists, including Ben Nicholson and his then wife Winifred, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and John Piper. With them she moved steadily towards abstraction.

Through the thirties and forties, she continued to evolve, becoming closely identified with the leading Neo-Romantics – Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Craxton, John Minton and others.

Altogether an extraordinary creative journey of a fine artist.

Time for a major exhibition of her work in Britain?

Above: Frances Hodgkins, Self portrait: still life, oil on cardboard, c. 1935, Auckland Art Gallery

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Murdoch’s Fool

Shakespeare’s Fools are entitled, privileged. And in ways that no other characters are. They may presume to speak up, to tell the truth as they see it, fearless on all occasions – whether they are dealing with princes or paupers.

They use a variety of means: they sing; they dance; they juggle; they joke - they do stand-up.

A particular favourite for me is the Fool in King Lear. Yet while the Fool tells Lear when he’s being foolish and is listened to, others who do so are given short shrift. When Lear’s favourite daughter, Cordelia, doesn’t go along with his wishes, she is disowned.

As Isaac Asimov puts it: “That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.”

So many corporate and political leaders seem to surround themselves with yes-men (and women). Maybe it would be a good idea to appoint some licensed jesters, whose job it would be to puncture idiotic balloons.

I only ever met one ‒ Paul Birch at British Airways ‒ but he lasted eighteen months in the job.

So how to give them protection?

Mad Lear understood that his own Fool was intensely loyal and spoke out of love for him. Stalin, I sense, was less forgiving.

Does Rupert Murdoch have one? Could be useful.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

I have PMS and a handgun

When I was collecting additional innovation and creativity stories and quotes for the IMAGINE book, I wandered around offices looking at what was pinned up as constant reminders.

In the Synectics office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among all those rather cheesy self-help quotes, I found this one.

“I have PMS and a handgun. Any questions?”

So much more helpful.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Write as short as you can

“Write as short as you can / In order / Of what matters.” Thus American poet, John Berryman.

Certainly I endeavour to follow his advice in writing blogposts. I have just one thought – and come to it as briefly as possible.

Sometimes this seems to be difficult to achieve, as I wander round the houses.

But I never post a blog the day I write it. I always give myself the chance to make it pithier.

By and large I don’t like many blogs for this very reason. They go on (and sometimes on and on) beyond what’s necessary.

Often attributed to Mark Twain and to Oscar Wilde, it seems that it was the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, much earlier (in 1656), who originally wrote: "Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I have only made this letter too long because I have not had time to make it shorter.)

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Alan Turing’s 100th

When polls were conducted in the media at the millennium to discover who folk thought were the most influential people of the previous century, I don’t recall Alan Turing’s name being mentioned.

Yet arguably, if he had been better celebrated, he might well have been No 1.

What an extraordinary and sad life he led. He was born in London on 23 June 1902 – so the hundredth anniversary of his birth falls on Saturday.

These are some of his achievements:

Before the Second World War he invented the Turing machine as a tool for studying the computability of mathematical functions. Turing's hypothesis holds that a function is computable only if it can be computed by a Turing machine. This implies that Turing machines can solve any problem that a modern computer program can solve.
During the war he worked at Bletchley Park, leading the team that broke German codes, including the settings for the Enigma machine.
At the National Physical Laboratory after the war he created early designs for a stored-program computer.
Many think of him as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

Throughout his life he most likely suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, although this was never diagnosed. He was arrested and charged with gross indecency in 1952 (when homosexual acts were still illegal). Given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, he chose the latter.

He died from cyanide poisoning two years later, the inquest deciding that he had committed suicide.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The house that Simon built

I first saw Simon Rattle conduct at Glyndebourne in 1977 – thirty five years ago. He was twenty two years old – a ridiculously young age for such an assignment. The opera was Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen.

Everything about the production was bewitching – the designs, the acting, the singing, the direction by Jonathan Miller. But most of all what sticks in the memory was the playing of the London Philharmonic under young Rattle.

Then two years later, there he was again, this time in one of Haydn’s neglected operas, La fedeltà premiata. He bounced into the pit, all youthful energy, and conducted a scintillating performance.

In the early 1990s I went to live in the country, half way between London and Birmingham, and I was lucky enough to hear him conduct quite frequently at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Simon Rattle had already been Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 1980, raising the orchestra to worldwide prominence. As part of a re-negotiation of his contract, it’s said that he agreed to stay on if a fitting concert hall was built to house his orchestra.

And so, twenty one years ago, Symphony Hall was opened. For me it is not only the finest custom-built concert hall in Britain, but one of the best in the world.

In recent years, Sir Simon has moved on to be Principal Conductor of one of the leading orchestras in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic, but on Saturday evening in celebration of the hall’s twenty first birthday, he brought another great orchestra to Symphony Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic, who gave us Brahms’s Third Symphony, Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces and Schumann’s Third.

It was a pretty special occasion.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

First comes the discovery

I constantly see research reports (in business no less than in academe) that are filled with observations, but appear to lack any kind of initial idea. Who is commissioning and paying for these tomes? And why?

Without an initial hypothesis, they are destined for the great pile of the unread, unnoticed. A complete waste of everyone’s time and money.

The right sequence was clearly enunciated by the great Czech photographer, Josef Sudek:

“Discovery — that’s important. First comes the discovery. Then follows the work. And then sometimes something from it remains.”

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Jugaad Innovation – game-changer?

Most exciting and challenging new innovation book so far this year is Jugaad Innovation*. I was introduced to it by a young researcher at the Big Innovation Centre, Prateek Sureka. I facilitated a strategic workshop for the BIC team at Hertford College in Oxford last week.

Jugaad is a Hindi word that means something like “clever, frugal innovation”. It’s the reverse of the process-driven, rule-bound, dollar-driven innovation approach that has been steadily adopted by Western companies in recent years – an approach that has done more to strangle good new ideas at birth than to liberate the creative forces of growth.

I particularly enjoyed the authors’ description of the way that Six Sigma had gradually strangled innovation at 3M, and how the new CEO eventually set them free again by the suppression of Six Sigma and the re-introduction of 3M’s venerable, powerful (and empowering) 15% rule.

Jugaad is an approach embraced in resource-poor communities – especially in India, of course. It has six main principles:

Seek opportunity in adversity
Do more with less
Think and act flexibly
Keep it simple
Include the margin
Follow your heart

What an opportunity it presents to a range of Western mega-corporations who seek to spend their way to innovation success – not least Microsoft, who are reported as having invested $9 billion a year on R&D, but with rather paltry outcomes.

*Jugaad Innovation: think frugal, be flexible, generate breakthrough growth by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, Foreword by Kevin Roberts. Jossey-Bass, 2012

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Creative problem-solving in Paris

When it comes to collaborative creativity, there are indeed many ways to skin a cat.

I started teaching a group of young French managers in Paris as usual, by asking them how they normally went about it. They looked puzzled.

“Well, when you want to brainstorm or problem-solve, what do you do,” I asked.
“Don’t you do it at all?”
“We do it all the time.”
“Yes, but what do you do? How do you go about doing it?”
Another pause.
“We go into a room together.”
“Yes, and…”
“We shut the door.”
“Er, we argue with each other for a while.”
“Then someone decides what we’ll do about it, and who will do it. And we leave the room.”

Job done.

Does every culture have its own default way of problem-solving?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Ten things I like

Walking on footpaths in the country
The New Zealand stories of Katherine Mansfield
Roast lamb with rosemary and garlic
A quiet journey on the train
Sitting at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
A crisp cover drive
The symphonies of Brahms
The theatre paintings of Walter Sickert

How about you?

Friday, 8 June 2012

British Airways and the food and drink kart

There are moments to treasure in innovation workshops – and this was one for me.

I was in Dubai, working with a large group of British Airways people from around the world, together with some Club World customers. We were in the process of brainstorming ways in which BA could transform that part of the airplane, giving itself a real competitive advantage. (See blogpost 16 March 2012, “How long haul business class was transformed”, )

Somehow or other, in mid-flow, there emerged a group whine about the food and drink kart. “It’s absolutely awful… it takes up the whole aisle… it looks awful… it’s hard to handle… and if you want to go to the bathroom while it’s there ‒ no chance.”

This seemed to go rolling on, one criticism following another in an apparently endless stream.

Then I noticed that a hand went up at the back, rather tentatively at first, then a little more assertively. “Yes, Fred.” Shamefully I forget his real name. “What would you like to add?”

“Well,” said Fred, “me and my team designed that kart twenty five years ago. It’s really just a box with a lot of shelves. And people have complained about it ever since. But no one seems to have found a way to improve on it.”

There was a hush around the room as everyone took this in. It seemed to me that people had realised that here was a man who, with his team, had created a genuine innovation, what’s more one that had stood the test of time. There was a slight but definite sense of shame about all that whinging.

And then, slowly, the applause started. They all stood up and applauded.

Quite right too!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Aristotle and the Power of Metaphor

“To be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far,” said Aristotle. “It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others. And it is also a sign of genius.”

I believe that facility with metaphor is at the very heart of creativity. Yet when I introduce the subject in training workshops, there usually descends a look of apprehension, even fear, shortly followed by an apparently semi-hypnotic state, as though the mere mention of the term has induced a measure of psychic paralysis.

I wonder why this is so? In my own school days we were taught the meaning of metaphor alongside simile and analogy, as though defining them would in some mysterious way set free our ability to use them freely. Not so. It’s practice that counts.

In my old company, Synectics, we sidestepped the whole issue by talking about “excursions”, which seemed to me to be in practice a practical way of getting into metaphor without using the mesmerising term itself.

(Have you noticed how many suggestive metaphors exist in this brief piece alone?)

Monday, 4 June 2012

The rise and rise of La bohème

I’ve been aware for many years that the catalytic role of Nellie Melba in turning Puccini’s opera La bohème from something of a flop into one of the world’s favourite operas has not been understood. One could read any of the multiplicity of biographies of the composer or the diva without grasping this.

So I was thrilled to be asked to write an essay covering the way she went about it for this year’s programme for Glyndebourne. And delighted to be invited with my wife and ten year old daughter (her first opera) to the dress rehearsal of David McVicar’s superb production on Saturday.

Briefly, this is what happened.

Although La bohème had its première in 1896 in Turin with Toscanini conducting, it was something of a flop. Several other productions followed, including one in England given by the Carl Rosa company.

Melba somehow had decided that Puccini was “the coming man” and arranged to go to Lucca, where the composer lived, to study the role of Mimì with him. There are various versions as to how long she was there, but she worked with him every day on the rôle.

She was already the most famous opera singer in the world and could so easily have taken the opera into any of the leading houses in the world. But she did not do this. Instead she formed a company of her own in the USA and toured La bohème from coast to coast in 1898/99, starting at Philadelphia in the east and finishing in San Francisco.

Only then did she feel ready to take it to Covent Garden, where it was “the hit of the season”, according to Punch.

Then she went on tour with it a second time, again from coast to coast in America, but this time with the Metropolitan Opera, starting in Los Angeles, and arriving triumphantly at the company’s home base in New York on Boxing Day of 1900.

The opera never looked back.

The question is: why is this story not better known, even to opera buffs?

Here she is, singing the duet from Act 1 with Enrico Caruso, recorded in 1907:

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The meaning of The Duck Song

A good example of the late adopter would be my discovery recently of "The Duck Song".

I say discovery on a purely personal basis, because currently 89 million people have seen it ahead of me on YouTube.

But what does it all mean??

My wife says it’s about the reluctance of children to try new foods.

I think it’s about the need for manufacturers and service providers to be responsive to changing market needs.

When I asked her, our ten year old daughter said “dunno… but it’s meant to be funny.”

Whatever it means, I believe it’s intriguing and has an innate poetry of considerable beauty.

Just in case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

What does it mean for you?