Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Improv in Innovation

Angela Dove of Cass Business School proposes IMPROVISATION as an addition to my short list of “Words, words, words”.

I know that, well handled, it can be catalytic in powering up the creative process, enabling folk to escape from those unhelpful impulses – correct/incorrect, aggressive/defensive, rule-bound, power-driven, anxious, fearful, hierarchical, information-driven, sacred-cow-filled, risk-averse – and generate fresh, new thinking, feelings, connections and ideas.

Over the years I’ve used improv in many different contexts – loosening groups up, on the way to developing breakthrough concepts, problem-solving barriers, in NPD and in strategy development, and so on. Usually it creates a kind of stepping stone towards new solutions.

There are just so many different forms that improv can take. For example, I’ve had groups writing poems or jingles (sometimes a word at a time, working in a circle). I’ve had them creating and acting out a scene from a soap (Neighbours or Eastenders or Coronation Street or whatever), or collaboratively creating and presenting a human sculpture. Or making collages from piles of rubbish.

The important thing is to help people to be truly “in the moment” when they do it, spontaneously responding both to their own inner feelings and thoughts, and to others.

This kind of approach is habitually used these days in theatre, in comedy, dance and music. But I find it extraordinarily powerful when it’s used well with scientists and engineers, with lawyers, bankers and accountants.

What’s your experience with improv?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Words, words, words

At risk of catching the dread disease of definitionitis (see blogpost, 27 October 2010), I think it’s useful to distinguish between some words that are commonly used and confused. For example…

Invention: is the application of creativity to solve a problem, usually involving technology of one sort or another.

Discovery: is usefully applied to productive new insights and new understandings.

Creativity: is the generation of new thinking, ideas that may be quite speculative in nature.

Innovation: is the process of turning new ideas into reality, making them happen. It usually involves problem-solving.

How am I doing?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Exploring the “founding myth”

The school that I went to had an extraordinary musical culture which went back to the earliest days of its establishment as a boarding school in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1864, the pioneering headmaster of Uppingham, Edward Thring, was looking for a new director of music. The English composer, Sir William Sterndale Bennett, was commissioned by Thring to find him. He went to the place in Germany where he had studied, the Leipzig Conservatorium. There, amongst others, he asked the advice of the violinist leader of the Gewandhaus orchestra, Ferdinand David. David had given the premiere of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and was a close friend and associate of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

Ferdinand suggested that his own son, Paul David, would be appropriate for this new post. Paul was just 25 years old with little or no English. He travelled to England in company with one of his father's most gifted pupils, Joseph Joachim, who was by this time already one of the most famous violinists in the world. (Joachim was to give the first performance of both Brahms’s and Bruch’s first Violin Concertos.)

Paul David inspired high standards of music at the school - a tradition which persists to this day. By no means an outstanding composer, nevertheless he was a fine violinist, and he wrote much music for the school. He continued to teach at Uppingham for some 40 years.

Joachim (above, by Adolph von Menzel), who frequently made concert tours in Britain, would always go to the school deep in the English countryside to visit his friend and to do some coaching. He even played in the back row of the violins in the school’s string orchestra. He had made his debut in England in 1844 playing the Beethoven concerto under Mendelssohn - and his final performance of this same work was given at Uppingham in 1905 at the opening of the new concert hall.

Fittingly, Paul David was succeeded as head of music at Uppingham by William Sterndale Bennett’s grandson, Robert, who continued to maintain and develop musical standards for a further four decades.

Among the many distinguished musical pupils who have emerged from the school are the folklorist Cecil Sharp, the composer EJ Moeran and the violinist leader of the Lindsay String Quartet, Peter Cropper.

When I work with established organizations who wish to create change in some way, I always encourage them first to re-examine their “founding myth”. So often it has a profound influence on the current situation, usually quite subconsciously. At Uppingham, it’s not so hard to find.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Rehearsal as a creative activity

I’ve always loved rehearsals. Probably somewhat more than performance or presentation. It’s a time when current ideas cross over with experimentation, so it can be a highly creative process.

In music, the first rehearsal that I remember was at school. It would have been around 1959 and I would have been fifteen.

Walking across the quad one afternoon, I could hear an orchestra playing in the hall, wandered in, and discovered Sir John Barbirolli rehearsing his wonderful Hallé Orchestra from Manchester. Rather shamefully, I don’t remember what the work was. What I do recall vividly was a dynamic sense of collective trial and error. And Barbirolli’s genial cajoling of the players to give of their best. His voice I can hear now – deep, authoritative but warm, the hint of a chuckle.

He struck me as an ideal leader figure. At one moment Barbirolli jumped down from the conductor’s rostrum and took the principal cellist’s instrument from him in order to demonstrate how he wanted a certain passage to go. Cheers and laughter from the players.

Ever since that time, I’ve attended rehearsals whenever I can. In fact for several years now I have an arrangement with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment that, in return for bits of work that I do with them, from time to time I can sit in on their rehearsals. To watch a great conductor working with a brilliant group of musicians is a real thrill for me to this day.

And as our little music festival kicked off this weekend in King’s Sutton, one of the greatest pleasures has been to see and hear Alissa Firsova (above) coaxing our restored 1872 Broadwood into giving voice again.

She played, exploring and polishing, for some four hours before finally giving her brilliant concert – Beethoven’s last sonata opus 111, Scriabin’s Poèmes, Bartok’s rarely performed Elegies and Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jest from Vienna) opus 26.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Left brain/right brain: the hidden truth

We all know nowadays about what the left brain does and what the right brain does. Yes?

The theory was first put forward by neuro-psychologist Roger Wolcott Sperry. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, having developed his thinking from the research he had done in epilepsy patients. Basically he concluded that each side of the brain, each hemisphere, is conscious in its own right, and that the left side deals primarily with language, logic, numbers and so on, and the right side deals with the expression of emotions, music, intuition etc.

The creativity and innovation industry rapidly swung into action, co-opting the right brain as its own proprietary territory, and creating new theory and practice, built upon new theory and practice… All of it a bit shaky was my impression.

Now here is the hidden truth: more recent research conducted by the American Psychological Society concludes that, in reality, our abilities in most fields are at their best when both hemispheres are working together.

Well, waddaya know.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The building blocks of LEGO

Some years since, I took a trip to Denmark – not to Copenhagen or Aarhus or Aalborg, my usual destinations, but to Billund. A hundred years ago, it was a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Now it has an international airport, no less. All this the result of the amazing global success of LEGO.

While I was there, I was told by my hosts at the company about their origins. This is what happened.

His business going bust, a carpenter in Billund, Ole Kirk Christiansen, decided to fill in the time - and in 1932 he started making wooden toys for his family and friends. In the depression years he also traded toys for food. A new company was formed, and in 1947 they started making plastic toys, two years later producing the first batch of the famous interlocking bricks. Quite simply, they were developed from traditional wooden bricks.

By the way, the word LEGO comes from the Danish “leg godt”, which means “play well”.

Altogether a small step for mankind. But a giant leap for children around the world. And for Billund.

(By the way, I keep wondering why this blog consistently has so many visitors from Denmark. Any answers?)

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A New Churchill?

Extracts from an outspoken speech, largely unreported, given on 2 June to the House of Commons Defence Committee in London by Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham:

“We are used to the comforting and rather romantic thought that our forces are world class, and that we are military leaders in Europe. I believe this is no longer the case. As just one piece of evidence the French, now indubitably the leading European military power, have flown three times as many sorties in Libya as the RAF…

“UK governments seem today more ready than ever to use military force…

“The world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been. Not my words but those of Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons in November 2010… The Prime Minister has said that Defence is the first duty of government…

“The nature of threats changes over time, in geographical, ideological, economic and technological terms, and can change quickly… The fact [is]that we have simply been unable to foresee every conflict in which we have been engaged since WW2…

“We shall by 2015 have a Royal Navy which will be the smallest since Pepys day… a Royal Air Force with less combat aircraft than Sweden, and an Army of about 80,000 soldiers, one of the smallest amongst the top 20 or 30 nations… Incoherence has become the name of the game…

“I should mention people too, our people. Their commitment and courage are what makes it all work. They were seriously overstretched, according to the Liam Fox, who was then in opposition. We are now running them down further and yet we have found them a new war…

“I believe we are in some kind of denial. We are continuing to pretend that we can be a major international player and deploy military force without taking the trouble to invest in it and especially without investing in its future… We want something for which we are not prepared to pay the price…”

Scary stuff. At one point Blackham muses that he may be sounding like “disgusted of Greenwich”. Not that I was around then, but it rather brought to mind, for me, Churchill in the 1930s. The difference is that Churchill was front-page news, while these issues no longer seem to engage either the electorate, or the media.

There are major issues of leadership here. And not only in government. Time for some more plain-speaking.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Promise, large promise: the soul of an advertisement

I have been lucky enough to have had a number of teachers and coaches who were very influential in my life, none more than David Bernstein. He was then Creative Director of Garland-Compton (who were to become Saatchi and Saatchi). They had hired me at twenty-three to be an assistant account executive on one of their biggest clients, Rowntree. And I was in deep need of help and guidance.

At the heart of David’s approach to advertising was a simple mantra. To be effective, ads (in any medium) had to have four qualities:

V: Visibility (they must stand out from the crowd - if folks don’t notice them, there’s no point in spending the money)
I: Identity (your ads must be clearly, inextricably, for your brand and no other)
P: Promise (as Dr Johnson put it in the 1750s, “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” Nobody said it better than the doc, Bernstein would add.)
S: Simplicity (so many ads try to do too much and fail in consequence)

VIPS. Clear, memorable. Bang on the money. It served me well through a quarter century in that business. And, since that time, working in innovation.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Tennis in Art at the Barber

Lots of coverage over the past week for the new show at the Barber Institute of Fine Art at Birmingham University. They have put on the first ever exhibition exploring tennis in art, “Court on Canvas”.

Aside from the pioneering paintings by the “Glasgow Boy”, Sir John Lavery, my own favourite is a fabulous Laura Knight of tennis in suburban London.

And this is my mother, Doris Parsons (above, second left), relaxing with unidentified friends at Newton Tennis Club in Birmingham in 1930. I’ve just lent the photograph to the Barber.

Of course, as I wrote in an earlier post (19 June 2010, “Inventing lawn tennis: a tale of two Majors”), lawn tennis was born in that city.

From her photograph albums, it is clear that my mother was already a member of Newton from 1919, when she was just nineteen years old. She was born and brought up in the suburb of Moseley and tennis appears to have been a central part of her social life as a young woman. It was a new way in which young ladies could socialise without the benefit of chaperones – a significant shift pointing the way towards the modern world.

And she may well have first met my father, the recently graduated Dr John Clarke Neill, there. Newton was one of the city’s earliest clubs (founded in 1884), and was particularly associated with the medical profession. He was captain of the university tennis team in 1932.

Note: they are all smoking! My guess is that it was still perceived as a health-promoting activity in 1930.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The need for new eyeglasses

In response to the top priority placed on innovation by senior managers, there has been a flood of new research conducted by academia over recent years around the world.

Most research shows that some 90% or more think innovation is vitally important. But when managers are asked whether their organisation is good or superior at it, less than 10% say yes. It’s a vast gap, unmatched by any other significant competency in contemporary business.

These new research studies mostly make for interesting reading and often contain useful insights. But at the same time they all suffer from a fatal flaw.

The people who are interviewed, the respondents, generally don’t know that they don’t know. It’s as though we were to ask a hundred people in engineering in 1850 how to make an airplane fly. And then to treat the response as the answer to the problem. The difference in this example, of course, is that they did know that they didn't know.

No wonder such slow progress is made in addressing the problem, especially by the larger, longer-established companies.

As John Seely Brown, once chief scientist for Xerox Research in Palo Alto, put it: “Instead of pouring knowledge into people's heads, you need to help them grind a new set of eyeglasses so they can see the world in a new way.”