Tag Archives: creativity

Show Up and Start Anywhere

“If they had to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin.  Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening.  They just show up.  Then the magic begins.” – Patricia Ryan Madson

We make change too complicated.  We seem to find endless reasons to talk more and do less; waiting for the perfect answer rather than experimenting to develop the right answer.  The secret to great results is focusing on a compelling vision, adapting to changing situations, and above all, taking action.  80% of the battle is just showing up and putting yourself in a position to succeed.

Improv actors understand this principle.  They live in a world of real time creation and creativity, where success depends on taking risk, being present and accepting all offers.  As opposed to most leaders, improv actors spend more time working on adapting to a fluid environment than trying to control their environment through better scripts.  They understand that in order to discover new lands you must be willing to loose site of the shore and embrace the unknown.  In the process however, improv actors also experience the joy of discovery and create unique works of art each time they step on stage.

So how can we apply the principles of improvisational theatre to our change process?

First, don’t wait for million dollar ideas.  There aren’t many million dollar ideas out there to be found and you will pass up millions of dollars in good ideas while you search in vain for the big one.  Second, don’t overanalyze the obvious.  Far too often we give ourselves analysis paralysis by making more out of the situation than is warranted.  Improving a process is not that complicated, so don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.”  Finally, don’t worry too much about where to start .  When faced with the task of creating a culture of continuous improvement, trying to find the “right starting point” only wastes time.  Begin with the most obvious need and focus your energy on where you can take action now.  Once you take action and get your first improvements underway, you will have a more realistic perspective of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Above all, rather than worry about what might be, concentrate on what is and liberate yourself from the fear of the unknown.  Focus on developing your current ideas into great ideas through experimentation, rather than waiting to think of “great ideas.”  Once you take action and engage people through active participation, the path to creating the culture you want will begin to reveal itself.

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Creative Collaboration at Pixar

A couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article on creativity and collaboration at Pixar.  According to Ed Catmull (President of Pixar), the trick to fostering collective creativity is three fold: place creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders, dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines, and build a culture that encourage people to share their work-in-process and support one another as peers.  A key to creating this culture is implementing processes that drive collaborative behaviors every day.  The article defined two simple, but effective processes which form the foundation of Pixar’s innovation process: the use of daily reviews and the creation of a postmortem process.  Let’s take a brief look at each of these processes to see how they work to drive right behaviors.

The daily review process is relatively simple, but powerful in its effectiveness.  At the end of each day, everyone involved in the creative process shows the progress of their work to the entire team.  Everyone is encouraged to comment on the material presented, but the director makes the final call with respect to the work and the next steps.  By forcing a collaborative approach to presenting incomplete work at the end of each day, people get past the embarrassment of an unfinished product and are more creative as a results.  In addition, the group interaction allows everyone to learn from and inspire each other.  Finally, by establishing a time for the team to meet each day, the director saves time and reduces the opportunities for error by communicating to the entire team at once.

The power of postmortems is forcing the team to take moments for deep reflection and share lessons learned which can be applied to future projects.  At the core of the postmortem process is time spent asking the team to list the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things to avoid.  To keep this process fresh and engaging, the team varies the manner in which they conduct the postmortem each time.  In addition to the top five review, the team employs performance data with which to analyze opportunities for improvement.  Among other data the team collects is the lead time to completion for each activity as well as the number of times something is reworked.  These data points provide both a delivery and quality measure which can be compared against predetermined goals.

At the core of Pixar’s philosophy is a belief that driving innovation depends on finding the right people and putting them in an environment which encourages daily collaboration and taking risk to accomplish great things.  Betting big on people, giving them enormous leeway to create, and providing them with timely, honest feedback sets teams up for success and enables Pixar to consistently turn out award winning products.

The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey

Focus and Ambiguity

A Chinese man created these structures on a beach using nothing other than the natural balance of the objects.  When asked how he did it, he responded “Well I guess with everything in life, there is a place of balance…”

Amy Tan, once noted that the key to creativity was first establishing a focus for her work.  Once she identified a focus, she obsessed on it and (in her words) the universe opened up to show her clues everywhere that related to the topic she had selected.  The irony is, the clues had always been there, she just repositioned herself to see and observe those clues due to her choice of focus.

Like Amy, once you identify the focus (the vision) of your organizational improvements, the “universe” will open up and show you clues.  Providing a clear focus and strong vision for the improvements however, is more than just putting a goal on the wall and making a presentation at an all hands meeting.  It is about connecting people with organizational outcomes in such a way that drives targeted questioning and problem solving, engages people in the improvements, and motivates people to take risks and redesign their current concept of reality.

The problem is that while you need a crystal clear focus to frame your work, it is in the midst of the ambiguity where innovation is born.  The act of creating something new by juxtaposing seemingly opposed ideas, requires you to be comfortable working in a “grey area.”  Focus provides the vision but ambiguity provides the fuel for creativity.  It takes a balance of both focus and ambiguity to accomplish your goal of driving rapid results through daily innovation.