Category: Creativity

Ideas Are Not Singular

In isolation, good ideas alone are not enough to produce something great. The right people are what make ideas work. Read on to learn about how Pixar used that principle as the basis of its amazing creative culture.

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“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

In January 2006, Disney announced it would spend $7.4 billion to buy its “cousin” Pixar Animation Studios. Many wondered about the fate of Disney Animation Studios itself – would Disney shut down the division that forged its identity, but had stagnated since its success in the early 1990s with films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast? Would it leave hand-drawn animation behind in favor of computer animation?

Within months, the question was settled. Disney CEO Bob Iger named Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull to head Disney Animation, and the duo decided to leave the divisions separate and autonomous.

The decision played out brilliantly. Not only has Pixar continued to release hits like Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Disney Animation recently released the best-selling animated movie of all time – Frozen – on the heels of its other well-received animated films, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled.

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This kind of success seemed far from reality in 1986 when Steve Jobs decided to purchase a small, struggling division of Lucasfilm with one product: the Pixar Image Computer. As Catmull explains in his book Creativity Inc.:

From the outside, Pixar probably looked like your typical Silicon Valley startup. On the inside, however, we were anything but. Steve Jobs had never manufactured or marketed a high-end machine before, so he had neither the experience nor the intuition about how to do so. We had no sales people and no marketing people and no idea where to find them. Steve, Alvy Ray Smith, John Lasseter, me—none of us knew the first thing about how to run the kind of business we had just started. We were drowning.

By 1990, the team had realized Pixar’s future was not in selling machines, but selling art. Still, it was a tough time. Even as Pixar produced computer-animated TV ads and shorts, the company was losing too much money. Jobs tried to sell it more than once – luckily, without success.

Pixar caught its first break in 1991 when Disney’s Jeff Katzenberg asked the company to produce three computer-animated features, which Disney would distribute and own. (These would go on to become Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2.)

By the end of 1995, Pixar was a public company, and Toy Story a legitimate hit. Amid the success, Catmull had his first existential crisis as President of Pixar Animation:

For twenty years, my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that goal had been reached, I had what I can only describe as a hollow, lost feeling. As a manager, I felt a troubling lack of purpose. Now what? The thing that had replaced it seemed to be the act of running a company, which was more than enough to keep me busy, but it wasn’t special. Pixar was now public and successful, yet there was something unsatisfying about the prospect of merely keeping it running. It took a serious and unexpected problem to give me a new sense of mission.

Catmull realized that although it had put out a great film, Pixar had a large group of employees who were reluctant to sign on for a second project. With the creative team behind Toy Story being given tremendous resources and status, the production team – responsible for executing thousands of movie-making details – felt marginalized.

In the process of solving his organizational problem, Catmull realized a new purpose: Fostering a sustainable organizational culture.

As I saw it, our mandate was to foster a culture that would seek to keep our sightlines clear, even as we accepted that we were often trying to engage with and fix what we could not see. My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. This sounds like a lofty goal, but it was there for all of us from the beginning. We were blessed with a remarkable group of employees who valued change, risk, and the unknown and who wanted to rethink how we create. How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way? That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

From there, Creativity, Inc. explores the process of developing the culture envisioned in his post-Toy Story hangover. Given his success at Pixar, and then Disney, some of the key points are worth examining.

In the end, it’s about people, not ideas.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.

[…]

Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Solicit criticism from a trusted group:

I want to stress that you don’t have to work at Pixar to create a Braintrust. Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.

[…]

Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.

Failure is necessary for creative work:

Says [Director] Andrew [Stanton]: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

[…]

Even though people in our offices have heard Andrew say this repeatedly, many still miss the point. They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure if a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by a desire to avoid it.

Protect the New:

When I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched—and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to see it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.

Conflict is Essential to Creative Progress

As director Brad Bird sees it, every creative organization—be it an animation studio or a record label—is an ecosystem. “You need all the seasons,” he says. “You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it does’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.”

Creativity Inc. is an engaging look inside the creativity engine at Pixar.

Google and Combinatorial Innovation

In his new book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt argues that “we are entering … a new period of combinatorial innovation.” This happens, he says, when “there is a great availability of different component parts that can be combined or recombined to create new inventions.”

For example, in the 1800s, the standardization of design of mechanical devices such as gears, pulleys, chains, and cams led to a manufacturing boom. In the 1900s, the gasoline engine led to innovations in automobiles, motorcycles, and airplanes. By the 1950s, it was the integrated circuit proliferating in numerous applications. In each of these cases, the development of complementary components led to a wave of inventions.

Today’s components are often about information, technology, and computing.

Would-be inventors have all the world’s information, global reach, and practically infinite computing power. They have open-source software and abundant APIs that allow them to build easily on each other’s work. They can use standard protocols and languages. They can access information platforms with data about things ranging from traffic to weather to economic transactions to human genetics to who is socially connected with whom, either on an aggregate or (with permission) individual basis. So one way of developing technical insights is to use some of these accessible technologies and data and apply them in an industry to solve an existing problem in a new way.

Regardless of your business, there is a core of knowledge and conventional wisdom that your industry is based upon. Maybe it’s logistics, maybe it’s biology, chemistry or storytelling. Whatever that core is, “that’s your technology. Find the geeks, find the stuff, and that’s where you’ll find the technical insights you need to drive success.”

That’s also the area to look for — where conventional wisdom might be wrong. What was once common sense becomes common practice. When everyone agrees on some fundamental assumptions about how the industry works, the opposite point of view can lead to disruption.

Another possible source of innovation is to start with a solution to one problem and then look at ways to use the same solution on other problems.

New technologies tend to come into the world in a very primitive condition, often designed for very specific problems. The steam engine was used as a nifty way to pump water out of mines long before it found its calling powering locomotives. Marconi sold radio as a means of ship-to-shore communications, not as a place to hear phrases like “Baba Booey!” and “all the children are above average.” Bell labs was so underwhelmed by the commercial potential of the laser when it was invented in the ‘60s that it initially put off patenting it. Even the Internet was initially conceived as a way for scientists and academics to share research. As smart as its creators were, they could never have imagined its future functionality as a place to share pictures and videos, stay in touch with friends, learn anything about anything, or do the other amazing things we use it for today.

Schmidt gives his favorite example of building upon a solution developed for a narrow problem.

When Google search started to ramp up, some of our most popular queries were related to adult-oriented topics. Porn filters at the time were notoriously ineffective, so we put a small team of engineers on the problem of algorithmically capturing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of porn, “I know it when I see it.” They were successful by combining a couple of technical insights: They got very good at understanding the content of an image (aka skin), and could judge its context by seeing how users interacted with it. (When someone searches for a pornography-related term and the image is from a medical textbook, they are unlikely to click on it, and if they do they won’t stay on the site for long.) Soon we had a filter called SafeSearch that was far more effective in blocking inappropriate images than anything else on the web—a solution (SafeSearch) to a narrow problem (filtering adult content).

But why stop there? Over the next couple of years we took the technology that had been developed to address the porn problem and used it to serve broader purposes. We improved our ability to rate the relevance of images (any images, not just porn) to search queries by using the millions of content-based models (the models of how users react to different images) that we had developed for SafeSearch. Then we added features that let users search for images similar to the ones they find in their search results (“I like that shot of Yosemite-go find more that look just like that”). Finally, we developed the ability to start a search not with a written query (“half dome, yosemite”), but a photograph (that snapshot you took of Half Dome when you visited Yosemite). All of these features evolved from technology that had initially developed for the SafeSearch porn filter. So when you are looking at screen upon screen of Yosemite photos that are nearly identical to the ones you took, you can thank the adult entertainment industry for helping launch the technology that is bringing them to you.

How Google Works is full of interesting insights into the inner workings of a company we’re all fascinated with.

Steve Jobs on Creativity

“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas.”
— Rosamund Harding

In a beautiful article for The Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes:

[C]reative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. … Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.

The same point of view is offered by James Webb Young, who many years earlier, wrote:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

A lot of creative luminaries think about creativity in the same way. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

In I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, editor George Beahm draws on more than 30 years of media coverage of Steve Jobs in order to find Jobs’ most thought-provoking insights on many aspects of life and creativity.

In one particularly notable excerpt Jobs says:

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. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. 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 we will have.

The more you learn about, the more you can connect things. This becomes an argument for a broad-based education. In Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to the class of Stanford, Jobs makes the case for learning things that, at the time, may not offer the most practical benefit. Over time, however, these things add up to give you a broader base of knowledge from which to connect ideas:

Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.

While education is important for building up a repository for which you can connect things, it’s not enough. You need broad life experiences as well.

I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words is full of things that will make you think.

Paula Scher on Process versus Outcome

Iconic typography designer Paula Scher discusses her creative process, including the famous Citi logo. Interestingly, the idea came to her in seconds and that presented a problem for the client. They wanted to buy a process not an outcome. Scher’s process is very much one of combinatory creativity, whereby she combines existing things in new ways.

A lot of clients like to buy process. It’s like they think they are not getting their money’s worth because I solved it too fast.

[…]

How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and everything in my life that’s in my head.

This reminds me of an old story with many variations. Here is one version.

A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young [boy]. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.”

The man sent a bill that read:
Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

*Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort makes all the difference!*

 

Why We Miss Creative Ideas That Are Right Under Our Noses

Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview with Jennifer Mueller and Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

While this is an argument for distance, it’s also an argument for the incubation phase of innovation.

[T]he research seems to suggest that part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose. There’s this new research that looks at how people evaluate creativity. Jennifer Mueller at the University of San Diego and her colleagues … find that where the idea comes from appears to influence whether people think it’s creative.

We found that when we told people the idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby.

We’re talking about how a manager, a boss, would evaluate an idea that’s brought to them.

So it seems to happen … because our minds are prone to mixing these two things up. When things are nearby, they’re concrete and you can see the details of the things. On the other hand, when things are far away, they’re much more abstract. So thinking about things that are near and far puts us in different mental states. When you think about things nearby, you see the details, and so when a creative idea comes along, the first thing you ask is, can it work?

Now, most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details, so when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down. On the other hand, when you’re thinking about things that are far away, you’re in a more abstract frame of mind and so the first question you ask is not will this work; you’re more open to seeing the creative possibilities.

So it’s not just that as a manager, that the manager disrespects the employees. The manager is just familiar with the employees, he or she works with the employees every day, and they’re thinking about the details of it. Whereas somebody comes from the outside, they can think big.

So obviously it has to be said that some ideas are not creative and they deserve to be shot down, but the reason managers often are shooting down ideas that might be creative that come from subordinates is not because they’re necessarily bad managers, but they might be in this different mindset.

Creativity and innovation in organizations are inherently difficult. In part, because the people who make decisions tend to be the people with the most experience. That experience helps you spot big mistakes, but it also makes it harder for you to “recognize out of the box possibilities” or do something that might go against how your organization makes money today. Also, in part, because the skills generally associated with innovators overlap with one’s organizations don’t like (such as questioning and experimentation).

The key to building an innovative organization is developing a culture of open-mindedness: a sense of shared curiosity.

The 7 Myths of Innovation

In The Power of Why Amanda Lang argues that innovation is simpler than you think.

One reason we’re endlessly focused on expert innovation, or as she calls it, innovation window dressing, is our core belief that innovation is difficult. According to one recent study, 68% of business leaders believe that innovators are “born and cannot be made.”

However, scientists have shown the exact opposite is true. For instance, a landmark study of identical twins who were separated at birth found that although 80 percent of the variation on IQ tests is attributable to genetics, only 30 percent of performance on creativity tests can be explained that way. In other words, 70 percent of creativity is related to environment, which means that it’s entirely possible for just about anyone to learn to think more innovatively.

What is innovation?

Innovation is not, as many people believe, synonymous with invention and therefore out of the reach of the average person. It’s simpler than you might think. You don’t have to create something mind-blowing and entirely new, like the automobile or the Internet. Often, innovation simply means making incremental improvements to something that already exists … And frequently that’s accomplished by borrowing and adapting an idea or approach or technology from another field altogether.

Sounds a lot like how Gutenberg developed the printing press. “An important part of Gutenberg’s genius,” writes Steven Johnson, “lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem.”

So innovation is often remixing and cross-pollinating ideas. Most innovation starts with curiosity. Can this be done? Can this be improved? Why won’t this work?

A lot of us, though, just don’t do this. On the job and at home, many of us hit on an answer that sounds “right,” or that others approve of, then figure question period is over. We burrow down and focus on implementing whatever solution we’ve devised, unwilling to revisit or rethink it. And that’s a mistake. Sometimes it’s the follow-up question, or the one after that, that is going to field the game-changing revelation. …. Just stopping at the first plausible response is how a lot of us get stuck and find ourselves unable to solve problems.

Sounds like we’re losing our grit. We’ve been brought up to think we’re so smart and clever and that we don’t have to work hard for anything that we just give up when we come against a tough problem.

The main difference between innovators and the rest of us is that innovators ask more and better questions “and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are first not what they wanted or expected to find,” Lang writes. “They have less in common with Einstein, frankly, than with young children.”

Kids do a lot of things we’ve learned not to do, ignoring conventional wisdom in the process. Most times the results are as you’d expect — sticking your tongue on cold metal? Yea, that was a bad idea. But sometimes the ideas stick and they come up with something we never would have thought of.

So when kids ask questions, we should encourage them. When you don’t answer questions kids do an odd thing: they stop asking.

That’s exactly what we don’t want them to do, for a number of reasons. For starters, highly curious kids learn more; the more they find out, the more they realize they don’t know and the deeper they dig for information, whether the topic they’re interested in is computers or rap or chemistry. Curiosity is, therefore, strongly correlated with intelligence. … Researchers found that kids who had been equally intelligent at age three were, at eleven, no longer equal. The ones who’d been more curious at three were now also more intelligent, which isn’t terribly surprising when you consider how curiosity drives the acquisition of knowledge.

“In the industrial economy, the person who wins is the expert,” explains Claude Legrand, co-author of Innovative Intelligence. “In the knowledge economy, the person who wins is the one who has the process to solve complex problems.”

Here are the seven prevailing myths of innovation.

Myth #1 Innovation is about the newest thing.

Sometimes a great innovation is indeed a “step-change”: the motorized vehicle that displaces the horse and buggy. But most innovation is incremental. From my own favourite, life-improving innovation-the curved shower rod—to just about any product or service you can name, little improvements and developments are being introduced all the time. …

Myth #2 Innovation is a solo activity.

Consistent with our tendency to think of innovation solely in terms of mind-blowing new inventions, we often think of innovators as geniuses, oddballs with wild ideas and wilder hair. People who occupy the far end of the innovation spectrum were probably less easily tamed by our school systems and may therefore be less comfortable in corporate environments. But even mavericks and mad scientist types need other people to implement the innovations they’ve dreamed up, and usually, those other people wind up incrementally improving their inventions in some way. …

Myth #3 Innovation can’t be taught.

Every day, people like Colonel Rolf Smith teach organizations, businesses and individuals how to get in touch with their inner innovator. But teaching innovative thinking isn’t like teaching Math or French—it’s more a matter of teaching people how to harness their existing natural curiosity in order to unleash their innate capacity for innovation.

Myth #4 Innovation is top-down.

Remember the flocking theory? Flying in formation, birds on the periphery—where the risks are, and where you can see more—send messages and warning signals to bring flying in the centre, where it’s more protected and safer. Similarly, in a fast-food restaurant, the clerk at the counter cottons on long before anyone at head office does that the new trays are flimsy and hard to stack. In a hospital, the nurses may resist washing their hands unless there’s a way to communicate both up and down the food chain that the problem is the harsh cleanser they’re made to use. Smart companies like Four Seasons and Whole Foods explicitly recognize that the closer an employee is to the end-user, the more likely he or she is to have concrete ideas about how to innovate—and the more important it is for the higher-ups to listen.

Myth #5 You can’t force innovation.

It’s very true that you can’t tell others to start innovating pronto, and expect much good to come of it. But you can create an environment that encourages and rewards curiosity and therefore promotes engagement and innovation.

Myth #6 Change is always good.

Tell that to the product team that dreamed up New Coke. The funny thing about that epic failure was that the beverage itself actually tested well—people liked the stuff. What didn’t fly was the implication that there was something wrong with Old Coke. … The sheer math on ideas suggests that about half of them will be lousy. But that’s not catastrophic unless the lesson taken is that there’s no point in continuing to dream up anything new, and it’s safer to stick with what’s always worked in the past.

Myth #7 Innovation isn’t for everyone.

Let’s put this one to rest forever. Remember how kids in developing countries respond to the Soccket? When they see the ball, they almost immediately start asking questions and dreaming up their own innovations. Innovative thinking is contagious. It’s a bug that anyone can catch.

Since our ancestors first stood upright, humans beings have been innovating: more and better tools, different and improved circumstances, more effective and efficient ways of doing things. It’s pretty silly to think we’ve suddenly all lost that basic drive now that we’ve hit the twenty-first century. If anything, our capacity to innovate is now exponentially greater because of our unprecedented ability to share information and ideas, which also makes it much easier to take something from one field and apply it to another.

The Power of Why is worth reading in its entirety.