Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

I have always described myself as a ‘structure freak’, that is to say someone who is fascinated by the shape of things and the frameworks we develop around our activities to express our ideas. When I was working as a choreographer I was as intrigued by the challenge of developing the structure of the narrative or flow of impressions of a piece as I was with coming up with the right combinations of movements.

'Sarabande pour Femme' from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org
‘Sarabande pour Femme’ from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org

As much as I am this structure freak so too am I creative, in love with ideas, my own as well as those of others. I started moving into project and business planning and strategizing via working in arts management, where I was supporting other creative minds in realising their projects even when I wasn’t working on my own.

In working with various groups and organisations in different contexts I experienced and witnessed how much power underlying structures could have. “Culture follows structure” (Craig Larman) does the rounds a lot on Twitter, and culture is not the only thing.

But the imagination doesn’t follow any damned thing and new ideas can be odd, awkward, engrossing and compelling things that take some careful handling when they emerge out of the glorious protective sanctuary of someone’s head and start getting manhandled through brainstorming sessions or operational procedures, being judged, all the while, against a context and agenda set by the structures defined by an organisation’s governance model or business strategy.

The trick is to come up with structures that define space into which new ideas can emerge, and then provide a supportive and protective framework within which these new visions can be worked on. If the structures are too rigid, tight or proscribed then any creativity will be squelched; too lax or inconsistently applied then unproductive chaos can ensue.

Getting the balance between structure and creativity can be tricky, especially when by ‘structure’ you could mean governance or business models. These things belong to the world of logic, and can seem to be opposite to the world of creativity (although some of us creative find an organic flow between the two as was the case with my own choreographic practice). I have come across both business people and artists who talk as if the two were mutually exclusive.

There is often a tension between addressing the need for both structure and creativity but I don’t believe that this has to always be an unhealthy tension. The right kind of tension can, itself, be a spark that ignites more innovative thinking and elicits intelligent problem solving. I think the answer lies in thinking deeply about both. Spend the time understanding what the glorious images on that cinema screen inside your head are really trying to tell you. Don’t treat choosing your governance structure or writing your business strategy as a tick the box activity; do your research and think about the ramifications.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

Another of M. Feuillet's beautiful notations
Another of M. Feuillet’s beautiful notations
Advertisements
Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.

Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

I spent my childhood on a beautiful island with a tiny population called King Island. There being no established pre-school at this time* my Mum and some other ladies started their own, with Mum stepping up to fill the role of pre-school teacher. She tells stories of walking around the playground and looming up behind groups of little rosy cheeked kiddies embarked upon enthusiastic play. Mum says that she never realised until then just how feral and atavistic kids are; the little ones she saw were pretending to lock Granny in the oven or preparing to be eaten by wolves. If most of us think back to the playground we can probably remember a weird dark undercurrent that bubbled alongside our games and imaginings: I was obsessed with witches, and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a lady with long fingernails who slapped men across the face when I grew up; my sister cut the whiskers off our pet cat in the spirit of scientific enquiry. Other kids acted out even uglier instincts by bullying. Most of us, thankfully, grow past these behaviours.

This morning I read an article entitled ‘Don’t Try This at Work: How Entrepreneurs Sabotage the Competition’ by Dana Severson. In it Severson lists some examples of some things that people have done to stymie, backfoot or downright sink their competitors:

“A few weeks ago, Uber was once again accused of trying to sabotage their competition. According to Uber’s lead competitor, riding sharing service Lyft, 177 Uber employees booked and cancelled over 5,000 rides.”

Severson asks “Are these dirty tactics or just competitive spirits at play?” I would call them dirty tactics, while Severson doesn’t seem to directly condemn or endorse them and is, I feel, trying to create a light hearted vibe with the piece. He encourages his readers thusly: “If you’re the type of entrepreneur that appreciates a bit of competitive rivalry, you may enjoy their confessions below” and seems to strike an approving note when he writes “In the sport of business, competition is fierce, there are winners and there are losers.”

A diverse range of people get into business driven by a diverse range of reasons and personal motivations, ranging from necessity to opportunity and from desperation to inspiration to a spirit of adventure. For some, the business world will, indeed, offer an expression for a naturally competitive personality. If this competitiveness is also combined with the right set of skills and qualities then there is no reason why these sorts of people won’t succeed (and good luck to them if they do). Severson quotes businessman Mark Cuban as saying “business is the ultimate sport” and writes: “For people like him, being an entrepreneur is akin to quarterbacking a team to victory.”

While the businessman = quarterbacker analogy doesn’t apply to all of the business people I know, it is still a good analogy for some, granted. But the examples of behaviour listed in this article don’t remind me of the best kind of athletes. There is something heroic about great sports achievements (as long as they’re not tainted by bad sportsmanship or cheating) while the business people’s actions listed in this article are just sort of… mean.

You have probably guessed by now that I don’t approve of the entrepreneurs’ shenanigans listed in this article. In the greater cosmic scheme of things this won’t mean much. People who think as I do don’t need to read this article or blog to be convinced; people who think as the cunning entrepreneurs in this article do probably think people like me are idiots who deserve to have our schemes wrecked someday. I would like to think we lived in a world where people who were pure of heart and mind always prevailed and bastards got their comeuppance but we don’t live in that world: we have all seen appalling people live happy happy lives and good people suffer, and vice versa. And how we measure our rewards varies as well: if I did something mean to a competitor I would never sleep again and any profit that ensued would really turn to ashes in my mouth. But there are people out there who get a kick out of being mean, it does make them feel smug and clever. So the question of whether these actions is right or wrong, or whether you will ultimately be rewarded by them is a fruitless one to prosecute**.

But there is one question that I think really is worth considering. If you devote time, intellect, imagination, energy and even material resources to thinking up and then doing something mean to nobble someone else’s business, why not just devote these things to doing your business really really well?

From an 1882 book 'Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website
From an 1882 book ‘Golden Rays’; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

Imagine a little kid who has just discovered that a magnifying glass can be employed to burn ants on an anthill, and who is lying on his stomach engrossed in doing just that. You would be looking at a child who has applied a certain amount of logic and intellect and concentration, yes, so maybe not a stupid kid, but one who has turned his back on a whole wide world in which he might play at various things to do this one nasty act.

Just as this child becomes myopically focussed on this mundane act of cruelty, so devoting one’s self to acts of sabotage surely becomes another form of myopia. If you are obsessed with acts of treachery, what are you not being aware of in your business? If silly tricks are filling your head, have you been robbed of a broader or more creative vision for your enterprise? I guess what I am trying to say is that the things that have been offered up as example of competitiveness in this article, can also be seen as examples of a business owner being distracted from opportunities to make his / her business better. Why swap the opportunity to direct your talents towards innovation and making yourself unique for the furtive end game of bringing other people down? As Gary Hamel said “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”*** You can never know about or control the business activities of all of your competition, but you can control your own decisions as to where you focus your abilities and resources.

*a million years ago now…

**Even though I know I AM right!

***Going to have to write a blog one day about how macho the language of business is – all these metaphors from the world of sport or combat.

Darkly wise, rudely great

Darkly wise, rudely great

A short wild stumble through ideas about ideas, how they are used and where they come from.

 

Man: “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great.”

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.

 

Recently I attended a session of the Third Place Meetup Group for learning professionals. There was a small group of us, all from diverse backgrounds, chatting about this and that. One member had attended a Meetup group for people who work in developing virtual reality technology and he was talking about some of the amazing stuff they create and the variety of places in which it is used. A nice man, he somewhat blushingly and reluctantly(1) referred to the way that some virtual technology is finding a ready home in the porn industry. Of course, this started me off on a lovely train of thought about ideas, the seemingly higgledy-piggledy(2) ways in which they pop into our heads and the different ways and places they make it out into the world.

As my brain started rummaging around the “rag and bone shop”(3) of its storage banks it first dragged into the light a remembrance of a terrific blog by Jeff De Graff called ‘Innovation Starts in Dark Places’. “The most radical innovation in video streaming started in the pornography industry…Why does innovation often start in dark places? When you’re working in the fringes, the normal risks and rewards associated with radical change suddenly become different: you have a lot less to lose, but you can also gain a lot more.”

I then couldn’t get out of my mind a YouTube clip that I saw in one of my favourite current affairs blogs The Weekly Sift(4). In this clip, somebody had attached a camera to a drone and sent it into the middle of a fireworks display to capture footage that is breathtaking and very lovely. And yet drones have a certain notoriety about them that comes from their use as killing machines in war. I have often thought that this is a typically human thing to do, and is our curse and our blessing. We are cursed with the inventiveness to create a flying robot for remote controlled murder; and we are blessed with the inventiveness to look at this same machine and figure out that it can be used to film something beautiful and make art.

 

And this made me think of the quote “… the falling angel meets the rising ape…”. I felt I knew where I had seen this quote before – it was in a book by Terry Pratchett called Hogfather. I decided to make sure, though, and, not having the book with me threw myself on the combined resources of the Twitterverse to make sure. Philosopher Damon Young replied to my question with a tweet containing the beautiful quote from Pope “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great” which contained a similar idea(5).

 

So… in this blog so far I have rambled between quotes from poetry and fiction, discussions at Meetup groups, the blog of a thought leader in innovation, a current affairs blog, and a news story. Information and stimuli have been garnered from face to face conversations, Twitter, youtube, blogs and print media.

 

We all do this every day – our brains and instincts ping from a chat to an article to a tweet to a half heard news bulletin. Magpie-like, we collect concepts, impressions, and little bits of information. Ideas come to us out of a strange convex of need, opportunity, yearning, applied cleverness and primal instinct. The imagination is a bugger, really. It doesn’t care where it gets its stimulus from or how that might make its host (i.e. you or I) feel. It’s an amoral function. The images get splashed vividly across the screen inside our heads; if and how we manifest those impressions externally, and in what moral context, is up to the rest of our being.

 

And that’s where the fun really starts. Coming up with ideas? Pfft! That’s the easy part – we are primed as a species to have ideas. But what dark wisdom or rude greatness do we apply to expressing them, developing them, to allowing each other to share ideas, to act on them, to use them to look after our own needs and / or the needs of others. How do we get the balance right?

 

When businesses talk about creativity and innovation it is the conditions that surround the realisation of these things, and the values that those conditions betray or reveal, that interest me. This is where the apes are separated from the angels, and where rising and falling takes place.

(1) And on behalf of the Sisterhood I gave a nod of approval at this

(2) Although there is much great work being done on how to create conditions and methods on optimizing creative thought; so if creativity cannot be controlled the capacity for creative thought in individuals, organizations, societies can be boosted and nurtured.

(3) With apologies to W.B Yeats, whose splendid “Rag and bone shop of the heart” line from the poem ‘Circus Animals Desertion’ comes to me so often and in contexts that poor old Yeats probably never envisaged.

(4) The Weekly Sift covers US current affairs. I really recommend it. It is beautifully written and contains some very insightful in depth analysis.

(5) Google search indicated that it probably was Pratchett who had written “the falling angel…” quote.

Introverts, extroverts, and the art of hubbing together

Introverts, extroverts, and the art of hubbing together

I have set myself the challenge, this calendar year, to create some training to help organisations boost their ability to be innovative (I will leave the specifics till a future date). I am drawn to do this because I have, in one way or another, had a long history with people who were creative and innovative. The process of winkling an idea out of someone’s head and into tangible form has long fascinated me; of a darker, unhappier fascination have been those elements that kill or enfeeble a promising innovation and how, perhaps, these can be dealt with.

Innovators come in all shapes and sizes and accordingly require a diversity of conditions in which to operate. And yet, somehow, as a society we have a set of assumptions about the ways that creative thinking and / or innovative activity evolve and manifest that are a bit ‘sameish’. I just read a terrific article on The New Republic website (www.newrepublic.com ) by Elizabeth Winkler called The Innovation Myth: Why You Can’t Engineer Creativity with ‘Innovation Districts’. I think that innovation districts and hubs have their place, but I think this piece has some ideas worth considering.

It highlights the popular idea that group activity can produce great ideas and then great innovations, that the collaborative process rules. The article then goes on to offer opinions and evidence that this is not the case, that sometimes collaborative processes can stifle creativity. As an introvert with a long history of being creative and innovative (and being around others of the same ilk) I let out a hearty cheer when I saw supporting quotes from Susan Cain’s splendid book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’! I also loved this quote from Steve Wozniak:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist … Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Now, I have worked with some people who have very extroverted personalities who absolutely love to work as part of a group, and find the cut and thrust of the group dynamic to be a springboard for ideation and effective innovative process. But not everyone is cut from the same cloth; some of us, like Wozniak, require solitude with the same urgency that extroverts require the dynamism of a group. In my own work and creative history there have been plenty of times when I have been compelled by well-meaning colleagues or managers to participate in group activities – workshops, training sessions, rehearsals, brainstorming sessions – and I have done so through gritted teeth and with a sinking heart. These things have left me often exhausted and uninspired, sometimes anxious and disorientated.

More positively and happily, I have willingly accessed groups for company, to test material or iterations on an audience, to provide a bit of fun, or, importantly, to develop networks to support my projects. But my richest creative thinking and most effective innovative grunt work has always happened when I have been alone. I am not the only introvert I know who is like this.

Innovative districts or even single hubs can certainly provide the positive benefits I outlined above to people like me (and Winkler alludes to this in her last sentence). They can certainly be a source of creative and innovative insight and activity for my extroverted brethren. I view the evolution of the co-working movement with great satisfaction, and think that it brings some exciting possibilities and lovely values into the business world. You can’t “engineer creativity” in these, or any, physical set up. But you can use innovative hubs to generate opportunities for creative insight for extroverts.

And there’s the nub: we need, as a society, to understand that creative thinking and the potential to realise that with innovative outcomes can be available to everyone; it’s a defining feature of the human species. But we need, also, to understand that the path to doing this is different for everyone. It is not the sole purview of those who function well in jolly group settings.

All my life I have surprised people without meaning too. It’s why I call myself Dangerous Meredith. I think people see me as a quiet and assume maybe that I’m a bit dull, somewhat passive, a reliable workhorse and perhaps a potential yes-man. But then I rouse myself out of a reverie and pop certain ideas into the conversation, or go ahead to do stuff that I think is useful but which other people find startling (perhaps even threatening to their perception of the status-quo). As an introvert I have often felt locked out of society’s approved mechanisms or forums for generating or articulating ideas; in group settings my ideas are shot down in flames for being strange or are not heard at all.

What people like me need is a pathway into accessing group support when we have finished our solitary work in our hidey-holes, and when we are ready and able to articulate what the hell it is we have been doing. I don’t have a problem with innovation districts existing, even though I do fully understand the dubiousness that Winkler seems to be expressing in her article. But I just hope that whoever is designing them remembers to leave a pathway open (physically, culturally, socially) so that us outliers can visit and share.

Creative minds and accounting metrics

Creative minds and accounting metrics

I have been doing plenty of reading lately about innovation, an area which has long fascinated me. Over the years I have worked with lots of artists and creatives to help them realise their splendidly innovative concepts in tangible form. Along the way I saw innovative projects go swimmingly and some, er, not go so well. The various factors and issues that support or impede innovation are many and diverse, and getting the right mixture of conditions to support innovators is something that continues to, well, obsess me.

I happened across a nice article today called The Seven Deadly Sins of Large Company Innovation by Rick Smith published on the Forbes website.

The sins that Smith lists include

  1. One and Done (“… a sign of failure, and the project is dismantled”).
  2. Product Development Over Customer Development
  3. Death by Committee
  4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators
  5. A Culture that Stifles Entrepreneurship
  6. Poorly Aligned Reward Systems
  7. Custophobia (or a fear of interacting with customers).

This article is well written and interesting, and very well-worth a read. I felt that it pulled together a lot of good ideas and issues that I have either seen other people talk about or felt I recognised because I have seen them unfold before my very eyes. But the one sin that really made me sit up and sigh ‘Hallelujah!’ was actually number 4:

“4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators.  Companies typically rely on traditional accounting metrics to track the progress of their new growth initiatives.  But metrics like sales, profit and market share are lagging indicators in a new growth business.  These appear after the business has already been validated and is scaling (or not), providing little guidance from which to manage the project during the critical discovery phase. Looking backward at sales and profit are uninformative at best, and misleading at worst.

Alternative Approach: The key is to manage a project based on leading indicators – quantitative and qualitative data that can better predict the future. Metrics such as customer trials, usage of the product after purchase, and referral rates foreshadow whether a business is not likely to grow as expected, or has the real potential to scale. Unfortunately, the most appropriate leading indicators vary greatly from project to project, and are unique to each situation. But it’s well worth the effort – uncovering true predictive indicators of the future can dramatically impact the ROI of any growth investment.”

I don’t actually recall ever hearing or reading anyone say this (and maybe this is just an indication that I read the wrong stuff) but it is so true. I work with people who are either just starting up a new venture or with people who have been making creative work for a while and are very new to putting a business framework around what they do. The traditional accounting metrics mentioned above mean very little to these folks and they always assume that it’s because they, themselves, are nuff-nuffs and not because those particular metrics are not appropriate to their business practice at this stage of its development. It is so refreshing to see Smith unpack this and suggest alternative measures. Thanks Rick!

Some nice juicy quotes about creativity and business

Some nice juicy quotes about creativity and business

I just read Ralph Kerle’s interesting paper ‘Creativity in Organisations’. I enjoyed it. The following juicy quotes caught my eye:

“… circumstances led the CEOs to identify “…creativity as the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path way through the (emerging) complexity…”   P.2

“The first challenge then for educating for creativity in organizations is to locate and find methods and processes for leaders to use to identify, discuss, reflect on and make sense of their own practices of creativity, paying particular attention to the organizational context for their practice; to the constraints the organization places around that practice and to the practice itself.”           P. 8

“It can only be concluded that creativity training is viewed as tactical rather than strategic organizationally and something of a necessity in much the same way as compliance training or the introduction of a new technology platform is considered – a three hour training session after which you will be able commence working creatively and if you have any further questions go to the FAQ page or consult the manual!!”*                P. 9

“In other words, the organization as a working entity itself often acts as an impediment to creativity and innovation.                “* and “The critical challenge therefore in educating for creativity in organizations is to develop a model or method enabling organizations to perceive themselves creatively. “        P.9

“Organizational creativity does not fit simply around a linear construct or theory. Rather like a theatrical production, organizational creativity is the sum of all the parts involved in the organization’s operation with the outcome being the organization in performance.”           P.10

“An organization’s creative performance is based on four key building blocks – its culture and environment; the strategic thinking style of the organization; the practices of ideation and collaboration for strategic implementation and the individual and accumulative creative behaviors, knowledge, experiences, practices and actions of the organization’s managers that are the actors in the creative performance.”          P. 10

“Creativity and innovation as phenomena are difficult to observe as they occur. They emerge out of the dynamics of action, practice and reflection and in the moment, not through theory and explanation. Whilst creativity is generally viewed as abstract, it needs to be viewed differently in an organisational context in order for it to be understood.”                P.11

*Do you agree? Leave a comment below…