Google and Creativity?

Fast Company’s website has posted a nice video that steps inside the Google Garage, a collaborative workspace that they say boosts creativity. There is ample evidence that workspace design can contribute to creative thinking and creative collaboration.

Google is also famous for allowing its engineers 20 percent of their time to work on projects of their own choosing.

Both of these things are to be applauded. Still, I have many questions for Google, including these:

1. With all that time being devoted to creative tinkering, why does Google not produce many, many more creative products? Is there something about the Google culture that actually kills, rather than supports, new ideas?

2. Why are Google’s core products not better? The interface of Gmail, for instance, has never been very good. The late Google Reader had arguably the worst interface of any news reader on the market. Google groups are a clumsy mess.

Ubiquity might be working for, say, Facebook, but it’s not a winning long-range strategic plan. Successful creativity requires more than space, and time. It requires dedication to certain outcomes (such as elegance, usability, differentiation, and so on), and the willingness of the organization to support them.

You can view the video about Google Garage at

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Creativity is Messy

Picture these scenes: a whiteboard wall covered with Post-it notes, scribbles, and sketches; a workshop table with a dozen different prototypes made of clay, paper, and found objects; a recycle bin filled with balled up paper.

Creativity is messy.

The mythology of creativity includes this image: the answer arriving in one’s mind, fully formed and ready to present to the world. The popular books on creativity offer a different myth, that of the disciplined, step-by-step creative process that leads to the well-formed solution. In truth, it’s almost never like either one of those extremes.

Creativity—the act of producing something that is both novel and useful—is often the result of deliberate action, and often includes flashes of insight. Rarely, if ever, is it orderly. Generating ideas is messy work. The work of crafting and shaping and improving ideas is start-and-stop, trial-and-error, filled with doubt and mistakes. Accepting others’ input can be difficult. And let’s not forget that the ultimate solution, the creative product, is by definition disruptive in some way.

Now there is some evidence that messiness itself may contribute to creativity, too. Dr. Kathleen Voss and colleagues ran two studies looking at the messiness/creativity connection. In one, people were much more likely to make a conventional choice when in a tidy room, and to make a novel choice when in the messy room. In the second, an idea-generation task, subjects in a messy room and subjects in a tidy room came up with the same number of total responses, but ideas from those in the messy room were 28% more creative in general, and were five times as likely to generate a “highly creative” response.

You can read the principal author’s discussion of the study in the New York Times, and find the study itself in the journal Psychological Science (subscription required).

The question for you, then, is this: how might you arrange your thinking space, or where might you go to do your thinking, that will enhance your creativity?

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On Not Writing

Stephen King wrote a terrific book for writers called On Writing. I’ve been thinking this week about the act of not writing.

As a writer myself, I am ever interested in other writers. We can have have long discussions about what we write, and how we write, and where we publish, and how we get published, and on and on. Over the years, I have met many, many writers.

And I have met many writers who do not write.

More correctly, I should say that there are many people who identify as writers, and who wish to be writers, but who do not actually write. I believe there are at least three things going on here.

First, it seems that some would-be writers believe that their work should be de facto brilliant, because they wrote it. They believe that they have already mastered the craft, that their current skills are enough. They do not continue to develop their skills…which, in my experience, is done by writing and writing and writing, regardless of the chance of publication. They write only for publication, or else they do not write. They don’t write just for the sake of writing and developing their craft.

A friend who is a visual artist recently showed me an entire sketchbook of color studies. She had devoted countless hours to looking at a scene and attempting to replicate on the page the colors she saw. I said I thought this would make an interesting exhibit, a wall-full of these color studies. She shook her head: that wasn’t the point of them. The point was to help her learn to see. I should mention that my friend has been a professional, paid, collected artist for more than 20 years, and that these color studies were done in the last year as she continues to improve and master her craft.

Second, I believe that writers-who-don’t-write either do not know, or do not remember, that writing is a craft: it is crafted, created and then shaped and re-shaped until it is right. It is the rare piece of writing that hits the page and is already right. Writing, like most acts of creation, take time and effort and a willingness to improve and improve and improve it. And so they don’t write, because good writing takes work.

Finally, I think the biggest stumbling block is this: it is one thing to want to be a writer, and another thing entirely to be one. Or to make it more immediate: the writer-who-doesn’t-write wants to have written a book, but doesn’t want to do the work required to actually write one.

Like most acts of creativity, writing is hard work. Like most acts of creativity, writing is an act of faith. The creator has to believe that somewhere in the future, it will be worth the effort. That it will be good, or that it will help the writer to improve, because creating is also about learning. Not writing, not creating, is easier: one doesn’t have to face the blank page, the bad page, the fifteenth edit, the failed attempt.

If one doesn’t create anything, there is nothing for others to reject. That’s much safer, much easier, than creating.

But if you want to create, I suggest this: first, you have to care enough about something to create it no matter what might become of it. If you care enough to be a writer, you will write. Accept that most of what you write will be unreadable, unpublishable, uncompensated.

Write anyway. Write every day. Write to become a better writer. How did Stephen King become the Stephen King? By writing and writing and writing. By writing you are developing your craft, including the craft of making your creations better.

Not writing is easy. Not creating is easy.

Saying you are a writer is easy. If this post is about you, go and do something about it.

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Recommendation: Objectified

Worth a watch: Gary Hustwit’s 2009 documentary Objectified is “about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them…[those] who re-examine, re-evaluate and re-invent our manufactured environment on a daily basis. It’s about personal expression, identity, consumerism, and sustainability.”

Favorite quote: “Remove, remove, remove.” (Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec)

Website: Available currently with a Netflix streaming subscription, and viewable for a small fee from the film’s website, Amazon Instant Video, and other sources.

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The Cure for Creative Blocks

The poet William Stafford, responding to a question about how he manages to be so prolific, is reported to have said: “Every day I get up and look out the window, and something occurs to me, something always occurs to me. And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.”

This concept — “lower your standards” — is now commonly recommended as the cure for writer’s block. While I don’t suffer from writer’s block per se (I can always write; far from intimidating me, I find the blank page/screen luxorious), I do have periods when I’m not feeling it, if you know what I mean. The solution for me is to write my way through it. I might discard all of it, but that’s okay; that only means that I was writing as a means to discover what I wanted to write.

There are two directions I’d like to take you from there.

First, I think it’s just fine to write as a means of discovering what you want to write. (Clearly: I have just confessed that I do it myself.) But I think there’s an easier first step: sketch a concept map (like a mind map, but more freeform). Do this: on a sheet of paper (of whiteboard, or what have you), write the word or phrase that you are exploring. Radiate from that (that is, draw a line) and write a related word, idea, concept, etc. Repeat for the original word or any of the new words. After a fashion, look at the image and draw additional connection lines. The act of putting words down usually greases the writing wheels sufficiently so that you’ll know how to begin.

(Aside for aspiring novelists who get stuck in the middle, as opposed to at the beginning: check out Larry Brooks’ website and his book Story Engineering, in which he argues persuasively that the reason writers get stuck in the middle is that they are “pantsing,” or writing by the seat of one’s pants. The fix here is to know where you’re going before you try to go there.)

Second, I want to extend the idea of “lower your standards” past writer’s block and into being blocked during any creative endeavor, including cognitive creative problem solving processes. Stuck for new ideas? Lower your standards for what makes a good idea. In fact, make lists of ideas, including lousy ones. It doesn’t matter: you can judge and throw out and improve upon them later.

When I was co-coaching my daughter’s elementary school Odyssey of the Mind team, we started the process of teaching the kids how to tell a story (in OotM the kids must do everything themselves, including writing the script of their performance) by giving them this assignment: go home and write a lousy story. This lone adjective, lousy, freed them to explore the process of storytelling without being concerned about whether it was good. In fact, none of the initial stories were good, but from that beginning, they ended up with a wonderful little eight-minute story.

Your assignment, then, is to find that thing on which you are stuck, and lower your standards as a way of getting unstuck.

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Learning Lessons from Lin

While fans are falling over each other trying to jump on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon, writers are likewise stumbling about trying to explain how the NBA phenomenon was overlooked for so long and by so many.

The primary conclusion being drawn, it seems, is that this is an example of ethnic blindness or stereotyping, that the lack of Asian basketball players means there are not sufficient comparisons. That is, that those assessing basketball talent did not have an Asian basketball player to whom Lin could be compared.

I think this conclusion entirely misses what is happening here.

Before I explain, let me provide a parallel example. In my city, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a charter school for gifted children that requires students take an intelligence test, and to reach a certain level (three standard deviations above the mean), before they can enter the admission lottery. Leaving aside concerns about the validity of intelligence testing for four and five year-old children, let’s consider the implication of this mandate: the gifted, capable children who are left out.

An intelligence test is a very narrow measure, yet giftedness comes in many forms. By focusing on only those children with a specific form of achievement at 4-5 years old, the school misses many other children: those who mature a little later, those who have less-developed vocabularies, those whose giftedness is more visual, those whose giftedness has not been nurtured, etc.

With Jeremy Lin, I suggest it’s not at all that he’s Asian. I suggest this has everything to do with the inability of scouts to measure, and therefore to see, certain intangibles that Lin possesses: the fast first step, the ability to see and make the right pass, and — most intangible and difficult to assess — an extraordinary understanding of the game-in-action. The quarterback Tom Brady possesses that last quality in his sport, and he was similarly overlooked. Tom Brady didn’t look like a football player, in just the way that Jeremy Lin didn’t look like a basketball player. Brady is not Asian, and I would be surprised if Lin’s ethnicity actually had anything to do with it.

At the “scholars academy” in Charlotte, kids are being left out because the school is not measuring essential intangibles. In the NBA, the NFL, and everywhere else, people are not being given a proper chance to demonstrate those things we don’t look for or don’t know how to measure.

The question for you is this: in your organization, what are the Lin-like characteristics that you are overlooking? It might be the ability to solve problems creatively, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to inspire loyalty, the ability to get people’s best performance, or any number of qualities that we can’t put our finger on…but might, if we start looking for them.

Recommended reading: Robert Sternberg’s Successful Intelligence or
Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized.

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The Kodak bankruptcy, brought to you by…Kodak

All nuance considered, the Kodak empire was built on film. The company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization has no one cause, but if there was one primary driver, it was the rise of digital photography and the end of film, and Kodak’s inability to adapt to that change.

Here’s the part of the story you probably don’t know. The digital camera, the ultimate cause of Kodak’s decline, was invented by Kodak.

Now, given the nature of technological invention, it is likely that some other company would have invented the first digital camera, but let’s stay with this line for a moment, and say that by inventing the digital camera, Kodak brought about its own decline.

Well, no and yes.

Kodak did bring about its own decline, but not because of the invention of the digital camera. Kodak was the instrument of its own destruction because it clung too fast to the business of film. It was not an either/or decision: it was a yes/and. Kodak’s path forward was to embrace both worlds, the one they were leaving and the one they were entering.

Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, but did not truly begin the company’s move into digital until 2004. Clearly, we can see with hindsight, this was too late. True, few could have foreseen the speed with which film was eclipsed by digital, but Kodak did not have to foresee this in order to be ready. They brought about their own decline not by inventing the digital camera, but by closing their eyes to change for far too long.

It was never a film-or-digital decision, until it was. For a long-enough time, it was a film-and-digital decision, and Kodak failed to make it.

The question for the rest of us is this: what is changing in your industry that you are choosing not to embrace? Remember, it’s not either/or; it’s yes/and. What’s your yes/and?

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Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs

Much of the time, creativity is a team sport. One essential aspect of team creative performance is the climate in which the team works. The climate affects the level of engagement people have in their work, and I would posit that — since creativity is a decision — that a worker must be engaged in order to be creative.

Here’s the bad news:

Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs.

Here’s the good news: if your organization is filled with engaged workers (which does not happen accidentally; you have to work at it), you are going to out-think and out-create your competitors.

[OmniSkills can help you assess and improve your creative climate. Email us to learn more.]

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Everyone gets the tattoo they deserve

The title of this post comes from an episode of “The X-Files,” and it illustrates how some creative products perfectly fit the time in which they were created.

Howard Gardner (among others) would, I think, argue that this must be true. If a new product (or service, or theory, or what have you) is to be considered creative, it must be accepted by the domain into which it is introduced. Thus, by definition, a creative product fits its time.

All this is leading up to an observation about mobile phones.

When I was in college, communicating with my parents meant sending a letter (an actual, written-on-paper artifact), or calling on the telephone, either the one in my room or a pay phone. There was no texting, to email, no calling from wherever I was standing with the phone that’s in my pocket.

This is precisely how my parents wanted it.

I was raised in the time before helicopter parenting. My parents did not consider me and my siblings to be the center of the universe. The would not have wanted to text me, or receive texts from me, multiple times each day, even if the technology had been there.

Today, though: not only is the technology there, it is perfectly placed for the helicopter parents of our day. By trying to shield kids from all pain and disappointment, by rewarding them for showing up rather than for their accomplishments, by praising anything they did and not praising effort, by speaking for them even when they could speak for themselves, etc., we have set the stage for sending them off to college, too, with apron strings firmly attached.

One of my younger daughter’s six-year-old classmates proudly showed me her cell phone at school one morning. “It’s for emergencies,” she said. Given that kindergarteners are always in the care of an adult, it is difficult to conceive of an actual emergency that would require that phone. But, it’s not about the emergency, is it? It’s about access to the kid at every possible moment.

Every generation gets the technology they deserve. Enjoy.

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The Seventh Imperative: Go

Ideas are cheap. Plentiful. Less than a dime a dozen. Ideas are not creativity. Novel solutions, crafted from ideas, make up creativity. What is the difference between having an idea and having a solution? The hard work of actually doing something.

From Poke the Box, by Seth Godin:

  • The first imperative is to be aware—aware of the market, of opportunities, of who you are.
  • The second imperative is to be educated, so you can understand what’s around you.
  • The third imperative is to be connected, so you can be trusted as you engage.
  • The fourth imperative is to be consistent, so the system knows what to expect.
  • The fifth imperative is to build an asset, so you have something to sell.
  • The sixth imperative is to be productive, so you can be well-priced.

I can find a thousand books and a million memos about the first six imperatives. They were drilled into you in countless moments in school, and plenty of graduate schools and bosses are delighted to help you with them. But when it comes to the seventh imperative, it seems as though you’re on your own. The seventh imperative is frightening and thus easy to overlook or ignore.

  • The seventh imperative is to have the guts and the heart and the passion to ship.

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