Tag Archives: Creativity

Innovating A Mature Product – The Sealy Case


We sleep on one every night.  But unless you suffer from chronic back problems, how many of us give this product (our mattress) a second thought?   Eighty percent are made from some coils, foam topper and some fabric.  Each manufacturer calls their version something different, and we can buy them with more or fewer coils, fluffier foam or softer fabric to suit our preferences.   Does it really matter which brand you buy?  Not to me.  I presume that Sealy, Simmons, Serta (not sure why they all begin with “S”) are all comparable, and I buy what’s on sale that feels comfortable for the 2 minutes I lie on it in the store. What’s the big deal?

Well, when you are in the mattress business, and the sales of your premium brand starts to plummet with new energetic competitors entering the luxury mattress segment around 2002  (made even worse after the economic melt-down of 2008) it is a very big deal.  That is what was happening to the Stearns and Foster brand of the Sealy Corporation.

Can you imagine a meeting at the corporate office where the Brand Manager stands up and says “Sales are in the toilet.  We think it is related to the economy.  Our plan is to RAISE prices by 40%!”   Can you imagine any sales leader in their right mind who would make that case?  Well, that is what they did.

To the credit of Sealy management, they decided to try a new approach, applying a creative problem-solving methodology called Design Thinking.   They partnered with the Boston office of design powerhouse IDEO (the people who became famous for inventing the first computer mouse for Apple).

Like many companies that have been around a while, their R&D/Product development department was a stand-alone group that operated in their own sort of ivory tower, bouncing bowling balls on mattresses, and such.  But the design thinking process approach they used with their Stearns and Foster problem called for a new way of working.

So, with IDEO’s help, their engineers from the Trinity, North Carolina headquarters were sent out with sales and marketing people to visit retailers in New York, Atlanta and Chicago.  They spoke to customers (yup, that’s a novel idea), interviewed retail sales clerks and they studied their competitors’ products not through the eyes of the technicians in the R&D facility, but through the eyes of the sales people who were talking to live buying customers on a daily basis.

When they watched customers on showrooms, they observed some who walked up running their hands along the mattress top, remarking about how smooth it was, or noticing the decorative patterns on the fabric.   (In some ways this seems counter intuitive when you consider that none of those attributes are ever appreciated by consumers when the product is in use.  After all, it is covered with blankets and sheets.) Yet, these things seemed to matter, no matter how irrational they may be.

The redesign team learned that unlike yours truly, many customers take their mattresses quite seriously and see them as reflections of themselves.   Mattresses needed to have a kind of personality, right down to the embossed fleur-de-lis pattern on the mattress cover that hearkened back to the early days when Stearns made seats for high-end carriages in the mid 1800s.

Armed with these new consumer insights, marketing and engineering managers from Sealy sequestered themselves in IDEO’s Boston offices for eight weeks to re-think their product design.

It was natural for Sealy – as they saw sales decline dramatically after the stock market crash and following economic downturn–to focus on cost cutting.  However, the process they followed kept the team away from the corporate bureaucracy and allowed team members to influence design not based so much on costs, but on what they were learning from customers and field sales people.   While other mattress manufacturers were cutting costs, Sealy’s creative problem solving team went the other way, adding material and labor cost, resulting in their raising prices a whopping 40 percent (from $1,000 to $1,400 per mattress)!

The results?  Since the newly designed products were launched at the end of last year, they broke all previous sales records for the product line.

Why did it work out so well? Here are some observations:

Immersion research is vital.   The final design version was pretty interesting when you consider how much effort went into improving the physical appearance of the product in the showroom. (These are insights not attainable any other way than by direct observations in the field.  You can buy your competitors products and reverse engineer them all day, and never understand how consumers FEEL when they are buying them.)  One of our biggest enemies is what we all think we already know.   We all believe we are good at our jobs (experts in fact).  We form opinions about lots of things over time, our customers, our own organization, competitor behaviors and so forth. Once we form our opinions though, we tend to hang on to them tenaciously – a dangerous thing in a constantly changing world.   So any creative process is aided by field immersion learning. Get out of your cube, your office, your building and even your industry to look at things through different lenses. I have never seen one such experience yet where observers didn’t learn important new things.

This cross-functional approach was crucial.  Getting sales, marketing, product development and R&D together to solve a problem seems so logical, but is yet too often avoided.  We never have time.  It will cost too much. It will slow us down. (Pick your favorite excuse.) Forming eclectic teams of diverse people is highly productive.  You want to surround yourself with people who don’t normally think like you do.  You then want to teach your teams to build on each other’s ideas rather than criticizing them.

As reported in the Fortune article referenced below, Allen Platek,  Sealy’s VP for new product development, reacted this way to the new way of working together to solve problems:  “[It] was one of the most fun times of my career.  Prior to this, what we did was in silos. Sales did their thing, marketing did their promotions and ads, R&D developed innovation, and then it was all thrown to operations. We had a disjointed effort.”

Get people away from the bureaucracy.   The truth is that when we are in our familiar work surroundings, we adopt many of the paradigms, biases and bureaucratic practices that normally accompany that environment.   This design work at Sealy was not done in North Carolina, but in Boston at IDEO.   There, they weren’t having people second guess them each day, posturing or trying to exert influence on the process for any reason.  They didn’t have to follow normal procedures, get approvals and so forth.  The result was speed and freer thinking. Outside facilitation can help here as well.

Senior leaders were willing to let go.  This whole process can be destroyed if senior leaders are too afraid, and decide to second guess or overrule their creative problem solving team.  Sealy executives were willing to let go and see this experiment all the way through.  They trusted their people to use their best judgment and to trust in the process as well.  An initial success encourages more experimentation and you can really build momentum.

I have been sharing in prior posts examples from public education, federal and municipal government, and now here in the for-profit sector.  We are in the throes of a similar bold experiment like this at Xavier as well, as we are guiding over 100 people in various cross-functional teams through this same creative problem solving process experience used by Sealy.  Xavier has assembled a team of globally experienced “innovation guides” and we are using Innovation as a transformative process for our entire organization.  For us it is too soon to demonstrate the success of our outcomes, but I can see that some exciting new ideas are already starting to emerge, and the we have not before seen such cross campus energy as we are working together across our own internal silos.

At Xavier we teach and guide external client teams through both Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking projects.    So pick whichever case example I have written about as a starting point: NY Public Schools, the VA in Washington (and with the 100,000 Homes Campaign), St. Vincent’s Medical Center (Birmingham AL), Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (Hanover NH), Google, or IDEO.   They all have some common threads.  Start with them, and see if you can add your own new improvements.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this before and want to see Design Thinking in practice, here is an 8-minute video showing how IDEO designed new shopping cart in five days.

Other Resources

Reinvigorating the Stearns and Foster Brand for Sealy, from IDEO

Next Generation Posturepedic for Sealy, from IDEO

Sealy goes to the Mattresses, by Daniel Roberts, Fortune/CNN

5 Innovation Secrets from Sealy, by John Kotter

IDEO helps Sealy revive its mattress sales via design, by Reena Jana, Smart Planet

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Slowing Down to Move Fast


Tell me if this sounds like how your organization approaches problem solving.   Once a problem emerges, a responsible executive or manager calls a meeting.   At the table are key people who have relevant knowledge and experience.   The meeting organizer describes the problem.  The next step is for people to announce their suggested solutions to the problem – what they feel should be done.

The next step in the process is for individuals to advocate for their own idea.   They describe why they proposed what they did, and why they believe it is the best idea on the table.  Now, depending on the meeting facilitation skill of the organizer and the degree to which they feel their own idea is better than all others suggested, the subsequent rounds of advocacy can become increasingly intense.

Consensus does not seem to be emerging, and people advocate for their own ideas with increasing ferocity.   In this situation, extraverted persons (or those with higher organizational rank) have a decided advantage.  Ultimately, the introverts begin to shut down, and stop contributing to the discussion.   You DO make a decision because you must . . . but the one we selected is not one the entire group REALLY believes in.   The one person whose idea was selected leaves the meeting content, but many of the others present do not feel the process was honest and objective.

After the meeting, the unbelieving members of your team don’t enthusiastically support the effort, and in some cases even demonstrate passive-aggressive behavior that actually undermines the chance of success.

Sound too familiar?  If so, you can take at least some solace in the fact that you are probably not alone. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems that we tend to value people who can face problems and solve them quickly and effectively.  Time is money (so they say) so we instinctively feel the need to dive in and take action whether it is right or wrong.

Creative Problem Solving – PROBLEM FORMULATION

What we need instead, is a PROCESS that guides teams through a series of facilitated steps to help them better understand what is behind the problem to be solved, so they can generate more effective solutions.  Here is a graphical representation of one such process used by Procter and Gamble at their innovation center.It is designed to specifically slow down problem solving by inserting a whole new set of steps not evident in the case example that led off this article.  It is the region of the pie chart depicted in orange called “Problem Formulation.”  While it represents a full third of this physical pie, it should represent about 50 percent of the total amount of effort and time!

Why so many steps?

Some of you are thinking that this seems wasteful and unnecessary.   Let me try to make the counterargument.

In the problem-solving description I included at the top of this article, we see that different people launched their own suggested solution based on how THEY individually see the problem.   In most organizations, this is greatly influenced by what functional role one plays in the organization.    If the problem is to grow sales revenue, the engineers may feel that the key point is about sales force effectiveness and training:  “If our sales people could just explain our product features better, we would sell more.”  From the sales perspective the problem may have more to do with having the WRONG product features or perhaps too high a cost.   Operations people may feel the product specifications are too complex and exacting, thus driving up costs.   All perspectives are perhaps “truthy” but all are heavily colored by the different perspectives of each group, each of which is relying on different facts –- anecdotal or empirical — that inform their view.

What we need is a process that carefully considers a new set of facts, ones that inform all the participants similarly–so that we are all developing solutions from the same final perspective.   In some cases we need to broaden our view (beyond our own parochial viewpoint) and in other cases we need to make our view more granular to better appreciate the subtleties behind each layer of the problem.

Another problem is that we form opinions based on our individual world views.  We believe certain things to be “true” based on our cumulative life experiences, but sometimes what we hold onto as “truth” may in fact not be.

We may believe, for example, that customers would prefer lower prices.   We may have had many clients even say these words to us.   This seems like an incontrovertible fact that needs no further debate.   However, if we showed customer a product or service offering that had several important new features or attributes, they might actually be willing to pay a much higher price if they believe greater value was provided.

Developing deeper understanding of the problems in all its facets and layers is perhaps the most important step.

Here are some guidelines that may help:

  • Rely on diverse teams.   Eclectic groups are likely to bring new and fresher insights and perspectives to bear.  So mix them up by age, gender, race, rank and function.  Always include some people who are “outsiders” and are not as likely to be blinded by conventional organizational wisdom.
  • Get outside of your organization.  Most of the time, answers and ideas don’t lie inside the walls of our company.  Don’t assume you KNOW what your customers want. Go out and talk with them.  Observe them if you can. Listen with empathy. Speak less and listen more.   Look for deeper insights into what is behind their actions and words. Visit competitors, suppliers or even companies outside your market or industry.  Every organization I have ever visited does something better than the way I would do it.   Learn from others and copy ideas that bring you internal value.
  • Engage in divergent thinking.  Linus Pauling was asked once how he comes up with a good idea.  His answer was “Simple.  Start with a lot.”   We just completed a wonderful creative problem-solving workshop for senior executives at Xavier University around the question of how we drive future growth.   After spending one day in problem definition, we generated over 200 ideas, which, over two days we filtered down to about 12 key ones.   And finally, these were condensed to about 6 ideas, which we are now developing plans to move forward.  This process helped make everyone feel we considered their ideas, not to mention a seeming universe of possibilities, and in the end  everyone felt we had a few killer ideas with great value and promise.

Other Related Resources:

7 Step Problem Solving  (watch video)

Why Meetings Fail and What to Do About it?

Why Meetings Fail

How to Make Your Meetings Fail

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Think Better (Through Biochemistry)


Have you ever felt that it would be useful if you could “amp up” your thinking and problem solving skills?  Who wouldn’t?   Would you like to be a more creative thinker?   I know I would.  What if you could do things by yourself that would help you on all accounts?

First a Science Lesson

I came across some interesting work in an article called Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box, by Swedish neuro-researchers Manzano, Cervenka, Karabanov, Farde, and Ullén.  (Warning: it is pretty heavy reading if you don’t have a chemistry degree.)

These people were looking into the link between dopamine (the chemical substance commonly associated with pleasure and some addictive behaviors) and creative thinking.  One crucial skill correlated with creativity is called divergent thinking.   In fact, this skill can be tested.   Such tests typically involve generating a multitude of novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions.  For instance participants might be instructed to propose different uses for certain artifacts, such as a brick or a shoe, within a limited time.

Dopamine’s are neurotransmitters in the brain that promote information flow between different parts of it.  So in theory, the more information you have flowing between and within different parts of your brain, the more ideas you will be generating.   In fact, the Swedish study found high correlation between one’s divergent thinking ability and the flow of dopamine in the frontal lobe of the brain.

So how do we increase dopamine production?

It turns out that you can do quite a lot, including:

  • Improve your diet.  Eat bananas, and other antioxidant rich foods like blueberries and red beans.   Reduce saturated fat, sugar and alcohol consumption.
  • Exercise more. Studies show that even mild exercise (30 min) will stimulate natural dopamine production.
  • Get adequate sleep.  Sleep relaxes the mind, and therefore aids dopamine production.  For most of us, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

OK, you should be doing these things already.   But among the most interesting ways to increase your dopamine’s, is to experience new things.

If you want to read this article, it is called Exposure to New Experiences Rewarding, from the University College of London.

This seems right, doesn’t it?  When our lives are filled with sameness every day, we get bored, even lethargic . . . like going through life on auto-pilot.  Our brains are not stimulated and we are not at our best in terms of our cognitive output.

When you think about most of the innovation tools and methods out there, they are mainly designed to “surprise” participants with a new situation or assignment they did not expect and then challenge them to look at things with a totally different perspective.    For example, you could ask a group of engineers to list all of the assumptions that they felt were behind the design criteria for a certain product.  Once they have listed their assumptions, try reversing them, asking “What if none of these constraints were true . . . how would that change your design criteria?”    In an environment where it is suddenly OK to think in a different way, people can become amazingly energized and creative.   One assumption they might have listed is the need for a specific low price.   Instead of thinking about how to drive costs down, what about making the ultimate high-priced, high-performance version of your product?   (Why do some companies, for example, think about motorcycles as a low-cost means of transportation (like Suzuki with its TU250X that sells for under $3,800) while others see a bike as the ultimate luxury good (like Harley Davidson whose Electra-Glide CVO motorcycle sells for more than $37,000)?

So challenging people with new ways of thinking can be an effective catalyst for creative thought. Here are some other strategies (guaranteed to stimulate dopamine production):

  • Get out of your office.  Meet offsite.  A new location, venue, or destination can help you clear cobwebs.   Combine your meeting with some activity that your people have never done.   (Personally, I prefer ones that have a learning purpose, like our Cincy Chef program that teaches team planning, problem solving and executions skills in a competitive time-constrained cooking challenge that we do in a specially designed kitchen design studio.)
  • Visit and talk with customers.  Be prepared to have you assumptions challenged, all you need to do is go out where customers are, ask them questions, and listen without getting defensive.  Conduct surveys, or have a focus-group.    Be on the lookout for the unexpected things that they dislike, find value in and where they find it disappointing to do business with you.
  • Visit other companies.  I have never visited another company (whether a supplier, customer, client or competitor) where I did not learn something valuable.   Everyone is good at some things that you are probably not.   At some level, many of us are trying to solve the same problems (like drive down cost, improve our customer experience, safeguard our information, develop successful new products, etc.)   Sometimes others will have thought of solutions you have NEVER considered.
  • Look outside your industry, or region.  In my business, we operated in Asia, Europe, and North America. When traveling throughout our markets, I was always struck by how differently customers in these regions saw our products, defined quality, sought features, or expected support differently.    Each difference (even subtle ones) you observe just might trigger ideas that could be applied elsewhere.  Also your “home team” is not likely to have a monopoly on all clever ideas.
  • Play (like you once did).  See also my article Play . . . Seriously?   Take a group of adults, give them pile of Lego blocks or Tinker Toys and then challenge them build something in a way that relates to a business problem they are facing.  Here again, in the right environment, the inhibitions will melt away, increasing dramatically the flow of ideas. Good facilitation helps.
  • Go to a conference.   I’m convinced there is a conference addressing almost every imaginable problem or issue you can imagine across the globe.  Do your homework by researching the conference, checking out the social media comments, and evaluate the speakers before you sign up, but pick some that are strategically important to you and your business, and go immerse yourself in a world filled with thought-provokers and thought-leaders.   You only need to meet one key person or hear one key new idea to make the event worth it.   Then come back home and talk with your colleagues about what you learned and how it might be adapted within your business.

You might feel that these ideas or activities take too much time, or cost too much.   You may feel “how can we afford it?”  I would ask you “How can you afford not?”

Other Source:

Here is an interesting TED talk on the chemical drivers behind creativity and how we interpret patterns.

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/884


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Innovation: “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”


Based on this quote alone, Yogi Berra has to be the best source of leadership insights ever.  So what does his quote have to do with innovation?

Innovation is a nebulous topic that people think about in varied ways.   Most people are quick to say they would like their organizations to be more innovative, but when you ask “tell me what that looks like to you?” it requires more careful thought.  What does it look like to you if your organization is acting in innovative ways? Are people solving problems better?  Designing products your customers will love more? Creating revolutionary new ways of doing things?

All these things describe innovation, but creating revolution may involve more risk than you are willing to accept.  So what does innovation look like to you?   How do your people behave?  What skills do you feel they need to have? And, how does your organization behave as a result?

From my vantage point, innovation is about enabling your people to see things through fresh eyes (or from different perspectives) in the hope that they will consider new and interesting solutions that they would under normal circumstances.   It can be a bottom-up organic thing.  It is not forced from above or commanded.   Innovation leaders needs to see themselves more as holding a watering can where they engage in cultivating seeds of ideas in their people.  As with plants, how they grow up is unpredictable, yet still somehow related to their care and feeding.   We need to create the ground and MAKE IT POSSIBLE for the ideas to germinate and flourish.   It is the ultimate in unleashing human power and imagination.

We are trying to create a certain mindset among our people.

Here is a list of desired traits and skills proposed by Lisa Bodell, in her new book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.

1)      PROVOCATIVE INQUIRY Truly valuable employees are not just curious; they have the ability to ask smart, even disturbing questions. These questions stretch their own thinking and that of others. Employees who have this skill are willing to question their own assumptions instead of holding them sacred.

2)      CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING Creative problem solvers draw on a wide range of resources to go beyond the quick and obvious to create novel and game-changing solutions. They apply best practices from offbeat sources and unrelated industries, making connections that others wouldn’t think of. They’re excited to think in new ways, instead of using the same go-to solutions for every problem that arises.

3)      AGILITY In today’s business world, change is the only constant. Employees will need to think on their feet and nimbly change directions. They need to be resourceful and confident in their own abilities to handle unexpected situations. Employees who are agile can be counted on to effectively deal with any wild cards that are thrown their way.

4)      RESILIENCE Employees who are tenacious will be incredibly valuable. Their courage to overcome obstacles and push on undeterred will give their organizations an advantage in good times and in bad. As our positive culture encourages teams to take on more autonomy and responsibility, resilience will become more and more important, and they’ll need to get a little bit tough to thrive.  Finally, I would add:

5)      INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY Innovative people are consummate students – of their industry, their technology, their customers, the way people behave, and how the world works.   They read, explore, and observe everywhere they go.   They tend to see possibilities for how their organization could operate better no matter what they are looking at.  They think in metaphors and imagery, and see more similarities than differences when looking at businesses outside their home industry.

You can argue about whether these are trainable traits or whether we have to hire for them (because we are born with them).  The answer, of course, is a resounding YES!

In many organizations, we smother these instincts and make it almost impossible for them to flourish.

The Biggest Culprit?

It has to do with striking the right balance between the short-run and long-term . . . between doing what you think will ultimately produce the best business outcomes and actually achieving them.  When I speak with managers (especially mid-level) they all sing the same song.  Everyone is being challenged to do more with less, and many days, it doesn’t feel like we can keep up.  Couple this with the pressure to hit various performance metrics against which we will be evaluated, and it is no wonder innovation suffers.

Innovation requires that we give our people the ability to stand back from what is right under our nose to observe,  think, experiment, question and explore in new ways.   There is just no getting around the fact that this needs time. If we want our teams to be innovative, we as leaders need to provide the opportunity, encouragement and resources.

I have never worked in an organization where there weren’t more problems than people to solve them.   I learned that you can’t do it all.  What you can do is choose.  Choose the most important issues and decide that you are willing to let some small fires smolder while you are seeking to address something bigger that can make your operation sustainably better.

Perhaps you have experienced otherwise, but I never had success with project teams that met once a week for forever, and really drove innovative solutions.   My best results always happened when we cleared the decks, locked people in a room, and told them this was their day job for the next ‘X’ days.  Sure, it takes some courage, but it works.  Focus, understand the problem, generate new ideas, filter them to find the best and carefully plan the execution.   That’s the formula.

Often, Your People Don’t Want to Try.

Why should they?   If you live only in the world of today’s tasks, and only focus on the short run, your people will quickly learn that it is pointless to think more broadly, because nothing will come of it.   We will then lose patience and interest.   And they’ve seen it before . . . too many times.  By focusing on the short-term, you will cultivate a team of mindless drones, who may keep the planes running on time, but they will be locked in the here and now and attached to what is.  What a waste.

In my next blog, I will suggest an exercise you can try if you want to slowly move your organization to a place where people are alive, and shaping their own future (rather than merely reacting to it.)

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Preparing Students for the Age of Innovation


Education was a luxury of the aristocracy, but in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that education should be offered to the masses began to take hold, leading to a rapid growth of schools colleges and universities.   While education has been a fact of life for most of us for the past three centuries, our concepts of intelligence and of intellectual success (in school) have not undergone a major transformation since then. However, the world has.

Our education system has its roots in the age of enlightenment.  The goal was to create an egalitarian society by educating citizens to reason for themselves. This was a pretty big idea, and must have been threatening notion to the nobles and Church leaders of the time who up until that period were the main disseminators of “truth.”   Knowledge really IS power.

So, our modern college curriculum evolved from this period of thought.  Later, with the dawn of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, concepts like problem solving skills, business acumen, and innovation (which came from people like Henry Ford) were introduced to help support the evolving industrial market.

If you think about what your children are being taught in school today, they are all taught the core fundamentals: mathematics, science, literature, language, vocabulary, composition, and history.   Art, music and foreign languages have been around, but usually rank secondary in importance.  And these non-core subjects have become increasingly under scrutiny in today’s time of budget cutting.   So it seems that our curriculum is decidedly aimed at the LEFT side of our brains.  This is what we measure on the SAT and ACT tests, and how we mainly define success for students across the land.

The priorities, reflected in our education system, match our value systems as a society, too.   The jobs that rely on these analytic skills pay the most money.   (Just check out this list of the 15 highest paying jobs in 2011.)   Dancers, actors, musicians, and artists do not make the list.   While we all want our kids to pursue their dreams . . . whatever they are . . . don’t most of us cringe a little when our kids say they want to pursue an artistic career path?

However, in spite of our LEFT BRAIN bias in our schools, the evidence suggests that at least US kids in the US do not perform well.   In the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries and 25th out of 30 in math literacy. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, 4th graders showed no signs of progress for the first time in many years, and 8th graders tallied only modest evidence of progress.

In response, there seems to be a renewed call for more and better focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  The White House calls the initiative Educate to Innovate.

As a person with multiple degrees in engineering, I certainly appreciate the ideas behind this new call for education reform, but I wonder if something else is missing?

Today, more is being written about the need for more innovation, and why innovation and creativity are suppressed in our schools and our society.   If we truly want an age of innovation, then don’t we want to educate the RIGHT side of our kid’s brains as well (where creativity is thought to reside)?

That’s exactly the conclusion the State of California may be coming to.   In his article It’s All About  Creativity, San Diego State University professor John Eger describes new initiatives in California intended to transform classrooms by incorporating the arts and creative education.

Eger reports that there is currently a bill before the State Senate (number 789) which calls for the Governor to create a school “creativity index” on the premise that if you can’t measure it, you can’t tell if you are making progress.

The thinking in California is not about adding more arts classes to the curriculum, but about integrating arts into the remainder of the curriculum.  This seems a revolutionary idea, and California does not seem to be alone.

Professor Eger writes,  “This movement by California matches the legislation signed by the governor of Massachusetts last spring, and is much like a bill working its way through the state legislature in Oklahoma to also establish a creativity index. Equally significant, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado and Wisconsin are beginning similar discussions and Nebraska is getting itself organized, according to CreativeChallenge, Inc., which monitors creativity discussions worldwide. The group notes that Seoul, Korea, and Alberta and Edmonton in Canada — and probably other cities and nations around the world — are following these efforts closely.”

Perhaps this makes sense.   Some of you may recall reading the book called The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley predicts, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It seems like time to rethink what and how we teach.

Other related articles:

Opening the arts to children

The New Children’s museum is a model of fostering creativity

Students get hold of augmented reality

Educating for the Knowledge Age

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Unlocking Creativity


Creativity and innovation are words often used together.  We see creativity as the act of generating new ideas or patterns of thought, while innovation is the act of implementing them into something tangible and useful.

I have written about the innovation process, but today I wanted to turn my attention to creativity.  So what distinguishes any new idea from a creative one?  Creativity is  defined as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns,relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations.”

This begs the question, though, how does one gain the “ability to transcend ideas….and create”? Are people just born with creativity–like artists, musicians, and some scientists? Or is creativity something that can be taught and then practiced?   Let’s look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Stephen King, Albert Einstein, or Crick and Watson. Were they just born creative geniuses? How did they gain that “ability” that defines creativity?

Let’s first de-mystify what creativity is.  Wired magazine had a piece some years back in which Steve Jobs opined about creativity.  Jobs put it this way:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things… A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design [they] will have.”

Reading that, creativity sounds a little easier, doesn’t it?   Have more experiences. Get outside of your normal frame of reference. Let the problem soak in, and reflect.

There is an adage that asks: “How do you get a good idea? . . . start with a lot.” Creativity requires both divergent thinking (the generation of lots of fresh ideas) combined with convergent thinking (channeling those ideas into a practical solution). The tension of toggling between right-field thinking and pragmatism generally leads to the greatest creative insights.

So what things can you do to increase your flashes of creative insight?   Here is a list I came across in an article by Ann Creamer (former Executive Vice President, Worldwide Creative Director, for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite). Her perception is that the best paths to innovation and creativity are so deceptively simple, that they are easily overlooked.   Here is her prescription:

Reduce stress.  Stress reduces your creativity and problem solving effectiveness. Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman and his colleagues completed a study where they concluded that your emotional state of mind is a significant factor in determining your problem solving effectiveness.  His research suggests that we solve problems with a process called insight, accompanied by an “Aha!” moment when we finally see the dots connected.   Jung-Beeman’s research points to the fact that stressed individuals generate far fewer brain waves associated with insight when under stress.   Want a simple way to reduce stress?   How about:

Take a Walk, and BE MINDFUL.   It sounds like the best thing to do when you are under stress, is to get away.   But, Michael Craig Miller, M.D (from Harvard Medical School) suggests that while it may be counterintuitive, the best prescription to your stress is to think about what’s going on at that moment.   The concept of being mindful probably has its roots in Buddhism. Walk and mull it over in a fresh space away from the office environment where you normally work.   The article referenced above offers some techniques for practicing the art of mindfulness.

In Ann Creamer’s article, she recounts how Verlyn Klinkenborg connected Charles Dickens’s extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. “He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism,” he wrote, “calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, ‘I should just explode and perish.’ Dickens wrote, ‘There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though ‘the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.’”

Try it (for me it works best when I am by myself).  You can always use your DVR to record any program you might otherwise miss.

Aim for ambivalence. Christina Tong-Fong (from the University of Washington) did an interesting piece of research, reported in her paper: The effects of emotional ambivalence on creativity.   She describes that emotional ambivalence is the state where you experience a combination of both positive and negative emotions.   She says this is an under-explored state in organizations. The state of emotional ambivalence is perceived as having an ‘unusual emotional experience” which in turn increases sensitivity to unusual associations. This helps you make connections and generate new ideas.

What is the best way to get into this state?

Get out of the office and into unfamiliar environmentsOne to the most creativity-killing things we do is to lock ourselves within our own business environment, surrounded by people who think like us and help us reinforce the same ways we tend to think about our world, business, customers, products and services.  We trick ourselves into believing we are experts.  This is a pretty dangerous assumption.

Get out of your office. Talk to customers. Take their pictures. Talk to customers of your competitors. Take public transportation.  Go to a remote resort. Visit a foreign place or country.  Oh yes, it also helps a lot to first open your mind to the possibility that all that you currently know or believe . . . just may be wrong.

And when you do go for your walk or into other unfamiliar environments . . .

Let your mind wander.  Throughout our lives, we struggle to learn patterns, behaviors, rituals, customs and practices that help us become accepted in society and within our respective organizational cultures.   Conforming give us security and comfort.  But it can also be constraining.

Think about how we learned these new initially unfamiliar behavior patterns, like when we first went to school or arrived in our first job out of college.  We assumed we were in a strange new world.  We watched, we listened and we experimented.  By trial and error we figured it out, and became who we are.   Wouldn’t it be good to allow ourselves the freedom to seek our new physical, intellectual, and emotional behaviors?   This is how we grow.

Allow yourself the privilege of being more child-like, inquisitive, and naive again.

What do you have to lose?

Related Article:

Creativity Lessons From Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs By Anne Kreamer, Wired, March 27, 2012

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The Link Between Entrepreneurship and Innovation


Every so often, an entrepreneur emerges who really changes the game.

Can you remember a time (before Howard Schultz) when someone told you that we would pay $2 for a cup of coffee?   You would have thought them unstable.  Today, you would have trouble leaving Starbucks for just $2.

When McDonalds, came on the scene, I can remember the first time my family visited one.  My dad was pretty skeptical.  “Fast food?” he asked? “Why would anyone want fast food? . . . I’d prefer that mine was good food.”   That’s how I suspect many people viewed restaurants before Ray Kroc.

Could you imagine the banker who Herb Kelleher approached to borrow money to buy his first airliner after being told Kelleher’s business model was to offer prices that competed with bus fares rather than plane fares? Yet his simple business model revolutionized commercial air travel and arguably drove some of aviation’s proudest names into bankruptcy.

Or how about Woz and Jobs who struck out in their garage to take on mighty IBM, HP, Tandy and even Microsoft in the PC market? Today Apple’s market cap is at stratospheric levels (over $550 Billion) – a testament to their vision.

Yes, some people have what it takes to see things that most other mere mortals miss.  Not only can they see it, but they have a belief that their visions will be realized when most of the rest of us say it just couldn’t happen.

What I find interesting about this is how so often the people who introduce a new order of things are outsiders who inflict amazing damage on the slower moving companies who dominated their industries at the time. Why do you suppose Blockbuster could not see the opportunity to stream video content – or even deliver it by mail?  Why do you suppose it took Borders and Barnes and Noble so long to see the need to offer online ordering, and even electronic delivery of written content?

So why aren’t there more “intrapreneurs” within our organizations who can drive innovation thinking fast and dramatically enough to thrive in the face of shifting technology, consumer, economic, and social trends?    What makes these great entrepreneurs so successful, and aren’t they the same things we need to cultivate within our own organizations?

There have been many attempts to classify the vital traits of great entrepreneurs.  As an entrepreneur myself, and as someone who met many successful other entrepreneurs through Young Presidents Organization (YPO) I have been reflecting about some of the common traits I observed among great entrepreneurs.  So, for what it’s worth, here is my list:

1)      Sense of Self-Confidence.  When I think about when I started my first business, I was arrogant and cocky.   I was armed with my MBA, and my belief in myself was so strong, no one could talk me out of what I wanted to do.  I would say my belief possibly bordered on naïve – but without this belief I would have never taken the risks required to pursue my dream.

2)      Incredible Optimism.  This goes hand-in-hand with the preceding.  A few years ago after I sold my business, I was assisting a friend (an amazing entrepreneur in his own right) with his business.  I had some operations and financial skills that he needed.    I regularly saw things that merited some caution that I thought were worth bringing to Ron’s attention.  One day he finally told me, “Never give me the numbers and tell me the risks.  It just brings me down, and without my positive mental attitude, I cannot be effective.”  Great entrepreneurs see the possibilities in everything and minimize (or even filter out) the threats that would cause a no-go decision.

3)      Boundless Energy.  All of the entrepreneurs I have known were married to their dreams, and virtually always were working on them.  It’s a 24/7 proposition.  If they went out there was always a business purpose (whether networking, entertaining clients, or learning something they could subsequently use).  Whether in or out of the office, they just can’t turn it off.   Most of my colleagues slept less than many people, getting up at 3 in the morning to read, work on a project, or simply do some online research.   This takes personal resilience along with both physical and emotional strength.

4)      Risk taking is EXCITING, not debilitating.  Trying to do something no one else has before in the face of uncertainty, is risky.   For some people this is a crippling thing.  Once you start making lists of pros and cons, you are already defeated.   Entrepreneurs believe that risks are proportional to the potential rewards.   Since they generally dream big, the idea of taking larger risks is invigorating.   That doesn’t mean they will do stupid things, but they aren’t afraid of the uncertainty.  The first time I signed a personal loan guarantee to a bank, I remember feeling remarkably calm about it.   Sure I could have lost my house, but the possible upsides of success outweighed the potential hazards.

5)      Have Something to Prove.   There are lots of people I have met who at one point or another were passed over for a promotion, or even fired from their employer.   Whether trying to prove something to yourself, to the world, to those kids who made fun of you in high school, or to that former boss who had you sacked . . .  this is a powerful driver.

6)      Love coloring outside the lines.  Another common trait among entrepreneurs I have known is that they LOVE to break rules (or they automatically assume the rules apply to others but not to them. Just ask me how many speeding tickets I have had . . . 3 in one day was my record!)   These people revel in the thought of playing in uncharted space, changing the game, and doing what others say is not possible or practical.

Now this is surely not an exhaustive list, but it these are some key traits that seem to make a difference.   I wonder whether if we had more of these traits in larger organizations, whether we would get more intrapreneurship?

It is true that most entrepreneurs I have known would never have considered working for a large company.  To them, such a life would seem too constraining, bureaucratic, and unfulfilling.   However, would we drive more innovation in our organizations if we sought to hire people with some of the character traits listed above?  In most organizations, we don’t screen for such things.  But . . . we could.

The final point I need to make is that the challenge of leaning innovation within a large organization is a unique one.   There is a wonderful quote attributed to Stephen King that goes : “Artistic talent is far more common than the talent to nurture artistic talent. Any parent with a hard hand can crush it, but to nurture it is much more difficult.

Nurturing talent maybe more difficult, but it is no less important than entrepreneurial talent.   That is the leadership challenge in large companies.

Other related Articles:

Are you an entrepreneur or a leader?, By Rich Russakoff and Mary Goodman

Want to start a business, but not sure what to pursue? Here’s how to discover what you love:

Five Creativity Exercises to Find Your Passion, by Lisa Girard

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