The Why
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Our culture mythologises creativity while, simultaneously, putting up barriers which prevent people from reaching their creative potential.

As much as “innovation” has been put on a pedestal, enshrined in corporate vision statements and funded by private, state and transnational investors, most companies still do the thing they have always done, in the way they have always done it. We keep hanging on to the coattails of the status quo, for good psychological reasons – fear of failure, various biases – but also because most people, most of the time, do not really understand the direct connection between business innovation, imagination and creativity.

We applaud the achievements of star artists, musicians, designers, architects but that is as far as our appreciation, and our understanding of creativity usually go. The process is reduced to admiration of talent and awards for spectacular success. Creativity is for the chosen few. With talent. And special abilities. It’s just not a thing for average people. Right? Wrong.

We celebrate creativity and applaud the achievements of those star artists, designers and entrepreneurs, but when it comes down to it we accept the new and exciting only once it has been well tested by others.

In the meantime, instead of trying the untried, dreaming up the new, we continue to attend fabulous events and reading blog posts by thought leaders, who continue to tell us that innovation is a good thing, and we must all do it. Yay! It really is like putting lipstick on a pig.

It’s a wonderful idiom “putting lipstick on a pig.” Trying to make something that is too difficult and too ugly seem better by pretending that if you put gloss on it, you’ve done the hard work. Lots of effort, lots of shine, but practically no real effect.

Somehow, putting lipstick on the pig has become the central activity to such a degree that we no longer see the pig, just the lipstick.

If a business is to survive the next five years and then thrive for the subsequent decade, assuming it is in an industry that has a future and that it is run by competent professionals, it has to draw on the collective creativity of all of its people, and all of its customers. It has to see fishing in this collective pool of ideas as a strategic asset, not a thing you do on team building weekends. Can you remember the last time when you spent a week working on something completely new, doing things in ways which were different from the usual ways of doing things, connecting with people outside of your normal circle of colleagues?

Creativity is in part about connecting what is in our heads with ideas from “the edge” and seeing patterns and linkages which may not be apparent to anybody else at the time.

What is required are ways to release the inherent creativity of your people and a system which builds on people’s natural strengths by centering on the psychology of individuals and groups. It needs to be simple in its fundamentals, and a “natural” thing to run. The point of innovation thinking is to allow people in your organisation to have insights about what can be done better, with a system in place to inspire them to do so, collect those insights when they come, and work with them.

Creative professionals have very real value to the business world just beyond that boundary line where art and commerce ordinarily meet.

The value which creative professionals can bring to the table, in addition to providing their specialised services, is in assisting executives in being able to look into the future and to train their people to work in this quickened, confusing, rapidly changing digitally transformed context that surrounds us. Creative professionals can answer the call when someone asks “take me, where I haven’t been.”

Creativity is not about finding new ways to put lipstick on a pig but about ways to make the pig a better pig.

This is the reason why I do what I do – or rather a number or reasons, all pulling in the same direction.

This text is an edited version of a talk I have given several times at conferences large and small, including gatherings of hundreds of bankers, and a dozen or so telecommunication executives. The message is always the same – to innovate you need new ideas, to get new ideas you need people and places you do not necessarily meet or see every day, and the best people here are artists and creatives of all kinds.

This guest blog post for Amati & Associates has been rather popular.

In a December 2016 article in Fortune, Heather Clancy hit the nail square on the head: “when it comes to digital transformation, most companies don’t know what they don’t know.”

This rapid digital transformation taking place now is rooted in what began to take place in the decade between 2000 and 2010. Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management, defined that time as the “wormhole decade,” a period when traditional rules of economic might, social status, and political hierarchy were completely rewritten.” Within that short period, the BRICs more than doubled their share of the World’s GDP, explosion of internet and mobile infrastructure enabled an entire generation of people in developing countries to gain access to information that was simply unavailable to their parents, and technology allowed the formation of entirely new forms of global social and business interaction.

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My friend Richard Lucas has created a most interesting podcast in which he shares his conversations with a truly broad range of people on a huge range of topics. Here is our conversation from back in 2017 when we talked about leadership, creativity and staying competitive.

(Clicking the link will take you to the podcast page.)

(A guest blog post at Amati & Associates. Managers are usually very good at stifling dissent in organisations, seeing it as a negative force. Large amounts of research suggests, however, that dissenters can actually be a hugely valuable asset, if you can stomach what they have to say… Occasionally I get to guest-blog for my friend Filiberto Amati. It’s always a good chance to discuss contrarian ideas.)

Time to think REALLY different, and why dissenters are your most valuable assets… if you can stand to hear what they have to say, that is.

Limits are not final, limits are not set in stone, and limits for today are certainly not rules to be adhered to for ever. Limits are merely the extent of what your imagination considers possible right now. If your business is centered on providing products and services that can be in any way replicated, assume that someone is already looking at ways to do so, except your competition will likely provide an entirely new solution that does the job faster, or more reliably. Certainly cheaper. Their costs may well be not 10% lower than yours but 10x lower, with little of what you see as standard overhead. And they will not move at 110% of your speed to market but 10x your speed, because their internal communication moves like greased lightning and their entire organisation is aligned towards that overly ambitious goal, way over the horizon line. Considering limits as somehow preordained and needing to be adhered to, is terminal.

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Export@Google brought together company leaders and marketing directors from the CEE region at the Campus Warsaw. It was my pleasure to open the day with a mix of thoughts on strategy and creativity, including weak signals and how to capture them, exponential growth and what it really means, and the “technology stack” as a stack of pancakes, smothered in a rich syrup of vast computing power.
Many thanks for the invitation to share what has been on my mind for a while.

In late October 2017 I had the pleasure of talking to a group of students who were about to embark on MatchIT, a hackathon organised at the University of Warsaw. The project has since become the University’s internal incubator. This text has been slightly edited for publication.

Nothing succeeds like success. You’ve probably heard this saying. Let’s take it apart and see what is actually means to us right here, right now, as you get started with the hackathon. You have a chance to start cooperation at the confluence of science and the application of science. This is a hugely exciting thing, and not often done in this country, or the neighbouring countries. To do this you will need three things. What are they? A killer idea, some money and a strategy to conquer the world, right?

Not quite. It’s too early for strategy if you have no idea what you’re selling, and nobody in their right mind will give you any money until you have figured that out.

Right now you need trust, a willingness to communicate well and stickability, that magic dogged persistence. The good thing is, while whether or not your idea is any good, if anybody will give you any money to work on it, and if you can find a market to sell to are all full of external factors beyond your control, the three things that your really do need right now are entirely, and exclusively, up to you. You decide if you trust people. You decide if and how well you want to communicate, and you decide to stick at it until such time as you find an idea that makes sense enough for someone to fund it, so you can find that magic product / market fit.

The thing to realise quickly is that business is 90% psychology. You are working with people, manage or are managed by people, you are selling to people, and hoping to persuade people to your point of view. Therefore, knowing the general background to how their thinking might be influenced by the cultural conditioning of all those people is a very useful thing, so here is a shortcut.

You are probably not familiar with the work of the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede and his son, Gert Hofstede, with one e. They have spent decades studying many nations and cultures to find and describe common characteristics. Not to generalise at the level of stereotypes but to see if there are ways in which people of different nations and cultures might share attitudes and ways of thinking. I encourage you to learn more about these, as they provide very useful clues to working with people from different cultures, including, and especially, your own. Today I’d just like to pick out a few of the characteristics which have direct bearing on how startups in this country, and beyond, might function better.

The Polish are highly individualistic, so our ability to cooperate in groups is severely hampered. This means, an effective team will have a person whose job will be to work towards overcoming this limitation. This may be the team leader, or someone else, and they will work hard to make the team function as a team, not just a group of people.

Another thing, on a scale called Uncertainty Avoidance, we score very highly. We hate change. We would rather know something will not work than take a chance that it might. In a startup, this means that in order to get maximum value from the team, its members will need to be comfortable with the idea that a startup by definition is an experiment, and thus you will all be learning by trial and error. This is a situation that is by definition uncertain, and searching for artificial certainty will not help. As has been said many times, a startup is not a small version of a large company. It is a lab to see if the mashup of your ideas makes sense in a business setting to then try and build a company around it. This means, thinking that uncertainty will be alleviated by business plans and projections before you actually know if anybody wants your product or service is not going to give you any certainty but is actually going to reduce your chances of succeeding.

So, firstly, trust. On the road to finding out whether your grand idea will be useful to more than three people, you will need to trust each other, more than anything else. Building up trust in a team is of course a process, and it is difficult to do in a hackathon setting so I would like to propose a challenge to all of you – you’re up for a challenge or you wouldn’t be here, right? Start your weekend from a point of giving each other a good line of credit when it comes to commitment and good karma. Be more trusting as a conscious choice. These things don’t happen by themselves, it is a choice to be made. You will get tired and pissed off and doubtful. This is normal. If you continue from a perspective of assuming that everybody else is doing their best and deserves your trust unless they prove otherwise, you will be able to get past those emotional roadblocks a lot more easily. In any business, but in a startup especially, lack of trust is expensive. It is expensive in terms of time because it slows you down. Team members who do not trust each do not think that everybody else has each-other’s interests at heart so they do not work cohesively as a group. And it is expensive in cash terms, if you have your lawyers write reams of pages of agreements trying to figure out every eventuality before the first line of code being written. Startups that fail rarely do so because they run out of money. They fail because they run out of trust.

A startup is, before anything else, a laboratory of human behaviour. If you start out assuming that people are there because they want to give it their best, they usually will do so. Naturally, if they abuse that trust and continue to disappoint, they have no place on the team.

Next, communication. In my experience, it is the single most crucial thing in a startup. Internal and external communication need to be as good as you can get them. If people on the outside don’t get what you are building, it’s not because they are stupid, it’s because you explained it wrong. And with no energy to waste, and little time to waste it in, your communication on the inside and the outside needs to be at Level Pro : crisp, precise and easily understood.

You pitch your points, and follow up with more content later. A startup founder’s mantra is “I pitch therefore I am.” You pitch to get partners and clients, you pitch to explain what you’re doing to the team, you pitch for investment – as the ancient Romans used to say, “Pitchito Ergo Sum!” Startups that fail do so not because they run out of money but because they don’t communicate well.

Finally, stickability. The temptation to give up will be there all the time. Everyone and their uncle will be telling you to go and get a real job. Until you have really tried, however, giving up means you are probably not giving yourself enough runway. Startups that fail don’t fail because they run out of money, but because they give up too early.

Luckily, the Polish have tons of stickability in the face of adversity. Stubborn persistence is one of our national traits – in that sense you are therefore already ahead of the game. So, go and build a team that trusts in its purpose, and communicates well. The third, stickability, you already have.

/Read this on LinkedIn here:

This was rather a good conversation about the future of retail in the digital era, at the European Economic Congress – a large affair which takes place annually in the Silesian city of Katowice. The other panellists came from the worlds of retail and finance, plus online commerce and consulting – a good mix, well moderated by the editor of a trade magazine.

All event organisers out there, please take heed: a half hour panel with eight people makes absolutely no sense. This one, with six, took an hour and a half, which was perfect. The conversation went in all sorts of directions, and everyone could expand on their ideas, comfortable in the knowledge that they were not stealing time from others.

Nice chatting to everybody, thank you.

TEDx was a large part of my life for over a decade. I guess that makes me one of the more experienced TEDx organisers in the World… Mark Sylvester, himself no slouch in the field, created a fantastic resource about the community and the people creating those events, and asked me in for a chat. Here is the result…

This one is an interview with a Polish business magazine (in Polish, no less…) The essence of it? We celebrate creativity but are terrified of change. That doesn’t quite work…

If you read Polish (or are handy with a translator bot), READ IT HERE in full

(A guest blog at Amati & Associates.)

Innovation thinking cannot be deployed, it must be cultivated, and in order to be cultivated, it needs to be embraced, not imposed.

A properly executed and well communicated innovation thinking programme which starts out gradually and lets everyone become used to the idea can change the mindset of entire departments, changing the course of the company as a whole. We have often seen that the majority of workers do not feel engaged with their work, but what about a fifth of them feeling “actively disengaged?” A recent Gallup survey of 1500 people in Australia returned just that result. This means tens of billions in waste and lost profits now, but what will it mean in a few years if the number climbs? Large companies may fight low morale by throwing ever increasing resources at recruitment, or buying expertise from outside providers. Small and medium companies, however, do not have quite the same momentum or cash reserves. Their journey between plummeting employee morale and going to the wall will likely be a short one. Substantial change is required.

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I was asked to keynote at What’s Next in Vilnius – a conference for creatives and people generally associated with the creative industries. My people 🙂

In preparation, the organised wanted to know what I thought about where ideas came from, and what they were worth. Here is the, slightly edited, interview.

When you need an idea, what kind of actions do you take to keep generating better ideas?

There are three suggestions I give clients, and – taking my own medicine – use myself when stuck for ideas: the right environment, the right level of concentration and the right amount of data and distraction.

Given that in order to have a few good ideas you need to have a great many ideas, it is necessary to get into a mode of thinking has been best described as “open” – your mind is free to wonder, synapses are clicking and buzzing with connections, there are different kinds of inputs (music, visuals, text, nature), and the environment is controlled so as to provide “Goldilocks” level of stimulus – not too much, not too little, just right. White noise is great for this – though it has its own problems, and doesn’t always work. Cafe noise, at around 45 dB and without intelligible conversations can help and is the second reasons why many people like to work in cafes. Open fields work for some, cluttered studios for others, while there are people who like empty rooms – as with everything to do with creativity the preferred environment is an individual thing.

For me a fundamental building block is music, and the choice depends on what I’m doing. If it’s conceptual work with research, concentration, writing, generally working with words, it’s ambient or instrumental jazz. If I’m doing layouts or working with visuals (form rather than text), it’s grunge or fusion and usually rather loud. This is just something I have noticed – and it works for me. It is also an excellent reason to explain having a CD library of over 2000 titles… That’s my excuse. If I’m working on time-based media, video or audio, then silence is the order of the say, and my earphones serve more as earplugs.

Lack of interruptions is absolutely vital. Ask any creative professional and at the top of their list of things required to get work done is “for everyone to leave me alone while I’m working.” Open space offices spell death to creativity, unless people can enclose themselves in their own space, usually through headphones. No calls, no emails, no tweets – concentration is the lubricant that keeps the creative wheels turning and the glue that sticks various ideas together. Ideas are precious, fleeting things and have a way of starting to disappear as soon as they come up.

Finally, input – usually the rule is “as broad and as varied as possible.” Input comes in two forms – data and random, both of which are vital for ideas to keep flowing. Data is simple – this is all the stuff you need so as to be able to get into the work, understand what you’re doing, delve deep into the subject. This is of course highly subjective and depends on the type of work you do. A musician will have a very different set of data from a hardware engineer. Random is more interesting, and also more universal. I very often walk to my library, open a random book case and pick out a book that has nothing to do with whatever I’m working on at the time, in order to “ping a different perspective”. This can just as easily be books of, and about, mythology, or collections of photographs of graffiti. There is also the visual random, which for me is very important. My study is lined with photographs, paintings and prints – which drives my wife nuts, by the way, it is just too busy for her. It works for me, since I’m able to use them as “unrelated objects to stare into while thinking” – there is probably a word for that in some ancient language that is about to go extinct, and we’ll never know…

But I digress. These are three of the key components of what makes creativity flow. There are a number more, which are just as important, but require a lot more explanation. The point really is to find out what mix of these works for you, in what proportions, and in what circumstance. Just like each of us has a different definition of the perfect cocktail.

Without which innovations couldn’t you live nowadays?

We need to define the term “innovations” since it is a most misused and, therefore, misunderstood word. I’m assuming you don’t mean such innovations as vaccines, antibiotics, motorised transport or radio, which of course were major innovations in their time, and now life would be very, very different without them. Technological innovation is a constant process which has been speeding up at an exponential rate over the last fifty years or so. If we’re talking about current areas of innovation rather than individual products then I suspect, like many people, I would find it difficult to function effectively without my communication devices, be it my smartphone or tablet. Could I live without them? Yes of course, and I would love it, sitting on a beach, reading physical books, getting up to make a phone call on a landline every once in a while, but because technology has been speeding up, life has been speeding up, so in order to keep up – if indeed we want to keep up – we have to remain current with the technology we use.

You in 2025 – where are you, what are you doing, what is your enviroment (let your imagination flow)?

Letting my imagination flow is what I do for a living but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets any easier to imagine what our lives will be like in ten years’ time. I would hate to be a science fiction writer now – by the time your book is on the shelves, half the things you dreamed up are in production, instead of being “in the future.”

First, work. Given that I am a knowledge worker and my consulting work happens at the intersection of empathy, communication and technology, I assume I will not have been replaced by artificial intelligence quite yet. I expect that my work will consist ever more of learning, filtering information and making sense of it, drawing strategic insights and delivering them to a large body of clients worldwide. How these will be delivered is another question. Right now, it is mostly in person. You can’t beat actual physical presence. As a partner in a video streaming business, I am able to reach global audiences with high quality programming right now, but I expect in ten years’ time we will have moved on with the technology we use, and it will be closer to tele-presence than it is now. I expect I will have an AI assistant who will be tuned precisely to search for information and present it to me in a way optimised for my limited-bandwidth human brain to handle easily. The same assistant will likely have learned my presentation style and will be able to create visuals on the fly as I write my texts. In short, technology will help me get more done faster and better. The work that I do best, thinking and talking, will be augmented by research and assembly done by AI.

Where will I, and my family, live in ten years’ time? That is possibly the wrong question to ask since, given the nature of my work, I can live anywhere. Where will I choose to live, and how? The how is easy, since I like a simple life, close to nature, and close enough to civilisation. That will not change. As for the where, that is probably impossible to answer right now, given that the geopolitical situation may change several times, with places worth living in becoming hostile, and then turning back to “normal”. Ten years is a long time from that perspective.

How much do ideas cost? And how can you assess the value ideas?

The cost of ideas is the cost of the time and effort required to bring them to the surface, connect the various threads and elements and present them in a fashion that is understandable for those outside of the idea generating process. If, for example, I work with a five person team from a client company, and we get three good ideas in a workshop, that means the cost of each idea is my fee for the preparation and the two days, plus their internal staff costs, plus any expenses, divided by three, but of course the truth is far more complicated.

Picasso once made a simple line drawing while talking to a journalist, who asked him how much he would sell it for. To that, the master gave some fairly large figure. “But it took you twenty seconds to draw it”, said the journalist. “Forty years and twenty seconds”, said Picasso. Which, by the way, points to the fact that our continuing functioning stuck in “charge for time” mode, really needs reassessing, but that is a related but different question. The point is, ideas happen at the confluence of trains of thought. They are fed by a constant stream of inputs, only some of which we may be consciously aware. For them to come at a predestined time and location is really, really difficult, and requires concentrated effort. So the cost of ideas really consists of the cost of all our combined education and experience, divided by the number of ideas we may end up with.

As for their value, well, ideas are a dime a dozen, as they say. It is the execution of an idea that makes it important or even interesting. This means, assessing ideas is just as important as having them. Ultimately, of course, we can only measure the effect of ideas that have been put into practice – and while it is tempting to put a number on an idea which appears to be successful right now, only history will tell which ideas have been “good”, which “bad”, and which just moderately useful but without bringing any major change. But that is possibly too-broad a perspective. On a more practical level, it is rare to find people who as as good as assessing ideas as they are at having them. When they do, they find that their minds work in a different mode each time. The “open” mode, I mentioned before is what is required for ideas to flow. Assessing them, figuring out what to do with them and how, letting the mental dominoes fall and see where they go requires a more analytical approach, and that probably means slight (or substantial) changes to the team of people working on the question. Did I mention that creativity is a social activity? Well, there you go. While we may wax lyrical about the lone artist in the tower, that is true for a very narrow band of activity. Modigliani was probably alone when he painted, although he still needed models. Surrounding ourselves with a small group of diverse individuals is a recipe for creativity to happen spontaneously. The emphasis there is on “small” and “diverse”, by the way. Check out “Kelly Johnson’s rules” for real practical advice.

In the end, ideas are worth what someone is willing to pay for them, whatever we use as currency. For commercial uses, crowdsourcing of feedback is a great tool, and there are plenty of tools to do that. If your idea, turned into something useful – be it real or virtual, social or commercial or both – is useful to people, they will soon tell you.