Category Archives: Creativity

The Hundred Languages of Childhood

child-skyEver since watching Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on how schools kill creativity, I’ve been determined not to let school get in the way of my daughter’s education.   I love Sir Ken’s analogy of schools being industrial when they should be agricultural.   Our school models, he says, are linear rather than organic.   We teach children what to think, not how to think.   We put them on a production line, feed them facts and test them to death to see how much they remember.   Where’s the creativity in that?    I once heard Michael Morpurgo talk about why he hated school.  He said he was always told off for looking out the window.    “But why”, he said, “that’s where the world is.”    I came across this wonderful poem by education pioneer Loris Malaguzzi.   I think it pretty much sums it up, but the uplifting finale provides inspiration to all of us.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood By Loris Malaguzzi

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marvelling of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

A hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way.  The hundred is there.

Test your creativity – No 2

bicycleOne of my favourite creativity techniques is conceptual blending, or synthesis.   It simply involves taking random or unconnected objects/words/topics and blending them together to form new ideas.  Almost every idea or invention is a blend of, or an inspiration from, an existing idea.   Our ancestors would have invented fire after observing lighting strikes.  DaVinci combined the wheel and the horse to sketch a prototype bicycle.   Gutenberg invented the printing press after visiting a vineyard and seeing how the crushed black grapes left imprints on the wine press.  The man who invented the typewriter (Christopher Sholes) was inspired by watching a pianist.   If each key on  a piano could play a different note, he wondered, then why can’t I produce keys that each stamp a different letter?

Creative people look for these connections by forcing ideas and objects together.   In my creativity workshops I play a game with random objects.   Each person finds a partner and selects a random object from a hidden list (they don’t know what object they’ve chosen until the game starts).   They then have to work with their partner to come up with a new object or idea by blending the two selections together.  The key here is to think laterally.   Let’s say one person selects the word ‘cake’ and the other person gets lumped with ‘trumpet’.  Now, at first glance you might think you’ll never find a connection there.   You could just opt for the obvious, a cake in the shape of a trumpet, but that’s hardly creative.   The trick here is to remove the physical manifestations of the cake and the trumpet from our minds and to start thinking more about the ‘concept’ of the objects.  To do this, write down or shout out the characteristics of a cake, or things you associate with a cake – it’s made up of ingredients; baked in an oven; it can’t be stored for too long; icing; candles; eaten at parties etc.   Then do the same with a trumpet – made of brass; blown into, valves that move up and down; part of an orchestra etc.   Then you have more to blend, so you look for inspiration by connecting the characteristics or concepts.   I’ve just spent five minutes thinking about this (because I honestly did pick cake and trumpet randomly for this example!) and here’s what I came up with …

How about a cake icing device that you blow into, or push air into, to enable the icing to flow through the nozzle?   Then how about adding valves, like on a trumpet, so you can alter the thickness of the icing without having to change the nozzle?   It’s saves time, washing up and makes your icing patterns more creative! 

OK, I won’t win any prizes for that, but you get the gist.   Now how about a hose pipe and a spider?  A compass and a telescope?   A wheelbarrow and a firework?   This type of random blending is a great ice-breaker to get the creative juices flowing.   The challenge is to force connections, not to give up.  And you do that by breaking the object down into characteristics, get your mind away from thinking about the object itself and more about what it does, how it works, how it’s made etc.   I’ve done this exercise with dozens of groups and nobody has ever failed to come up with a great idea.

To take things further, introduce a problem, rather than another object, into the mix.  Try blending a work problem you need to fix with a random object from the list.   This brings it into the workplace.   For communicators, a common problem is getting the message to stick.  So combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with the name of an object drawn from a hat.   Let’s say a purse, for instance.  How can we combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with a purse?   You may start thinking of what people keep in a purse, like credit cards for instance.   Could we produce key messages on a credit-card sized piece of plastic so people can carry them round with them?    How about a torch?   Does that give us ideas about ‘shining a spotlight’?    I was looking for inspiration the other day for communicating a project I’m working on to do with performance reporting.  I walked past a Virgin Active health club and it got me thinking about the term ‘active’ – how business performance is not unlike measuring fitness.   I came up with a concept of using the word ‘ACTIVE’ alongside the company logo as a brand through which we’d communicate performance, and we’d use fitness-style graphics like you see on running machines to show business metrics.   It’s a tiny example but it all came about because I happened to look into a window, saw something that caught my eye and blended it with a challenge.

On my workshops, I send participants out into the street to look for random objects to blend.  They go into shops, look at signs, watch people and study products … and they always come back with some incredibly creative ideas drawn from blending or inspiration.   It’s not hard to do.   Play the game in the car on a long journey or walking round a park.  Play it with children for really great results.   And play it with your team when faced with a problem that needs solving.   Go on, Blend it like Beckham!

Test your creativity – No 1

creativityaHenry Ford once said “if you think you’re not creative, you’re not”.   Creativity isn’t natural born or God-given.  It’s not in the exclusive gift of painters, writers, graphic designers and those in the performing arts.   It’s in us all (yes, even you).   The bad news is that school and work suppress creativity, so as we get older we lose the opportunity and encouragement to be creative and we begin to feel we (i) can’t do it and (ii) shouldn’t do it.  The good news however is that creativity can easily be reawakened.  And the start point is to change how you see the world.

Creative people seek difference.  They look for the things that others don’t see.  Our brain – when faced with a stimulus – will always take the path of least resistance.  Have I faced this situation before?  If so, what did I do last time?   What connections already exist?   This obsession with familiarity enables our brain to cope with some ambiguity.  It’s why we can easily read the famous passage below, even with the letters mixed up (incidentally, the research referred to is made-up).

cambridge

So our brain will do its best to use its existing database rather than seek new data.   The trick therefore, as creative people know, is to break the pattern and establish new connections.   That may mean deliberately changing your normal behaviour – physically sitting in a different seat to see things from a new perspective, changing your normal routines (a different route to work?) or thinking laterally.    Take a look at word below.  What word do you see – flip, or is it flop?    Your brain will jump to a conclusion but is it the only conclusion?

FlipFlop

Now look at the FedEx logo below – a very familiar brand to all of us.  But most us look at the image (the stimulus) and just say “oh yeah, it’s the FedEx logo”.   How many of us see the ‘hidden’ brand icon – the image that defines FedEx’s business – within the logo?   Yes, you’ve got it – the white arrow between the E and the X.   That’s because we instinctively look at the letters not what’s within the letters.

fedEx

Study the picture below and find the hidden tiger.   Give yourself 60 seconds.

Tiger

We can all see an image of a tiger in a jungle, right?   But I said look for the hidden tiger.  Instinctively, most of us will look for another image of a tiger hidden in the bushes – some of us will even insist we can see one in the leaves.   The answer, if you look closely, is in the stripes of the tiger.   I didn’t say look for a picture of a hidden tiger.  I just said find the hidden tiger.   It’s that pesky brain again, making us do what we’ve always done.

We’re not always in control of our brain, it does most of its work without us (so to speak) so sometimes we need to train ourselves to open our eyes and seek those new patterns, those new stimuli.   Try it next time you’re out and about.  I guarantee you won’t look at the FedEx logo in the same way again.

More next week.

Ten creative ways to energize a project team

charge2What’s the best project team you’ve ever worked in?  Not the best project, but the best project team?  Why was it so good?  What made it special?   Most of us get to work on project teams at some point, very often with people we’ve never met or worked with before.  In fact, some of us only ever work in this way.  But what makes some project teams soar with creativity, energy and shared commitment while others never really ‘click’?   Why do some teams just ‘feel’ right from day one?    No doubt the leader plays a big part, but come on, we can’t put everything at the door of the project lead.   We all want to be part of something good and projects give us the opportunity to do just that – to work with others towards a common goal, to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.    It helps to get off to a good start – to set the tone at the beginning – but even a mis-firing team can be re-energized.   So here are ten creative ways to put that little bit of ‘oomph’ into your project.

1.  Make your team’s mission visible.   The team is more likely to be focused and motivated if they can see tangible representations of the project objectives around them.  A great way to do this is to create an inspiration board.    Put aside space in the project office as an area where team members can share ideas, inspirations and artefacts that will get them and the rest of the team fired up.   This doesn’t (necessarily) mean Gantt charts and project documents.  Try to be much more creative than that.    Go for cuttings, photographs, newspaper headlines, postcards, drawings, anything that has a meaning related to what the project is about.   For instance, if the project is about ‘delivering service excellence’, ask the team to bring something in that they feel represents ‘excellence’.  It could be a picture of Roger Federer or a Ferrari.    Think laterally.  Try to encourage the team to be expressive, colourful and have some fun with it.   These things really do have a positive psychological impact on performance and behaviour,

2.  Write a press release.   Get the team or each workstream to write a press release about their part of the project, but ask them to date the release two or three years in the future, when the project has finished.    This forces them to forward wind and imagine looking back at the project.    Encourage them to imagine it’s been a great success and everyone delivered everything they set out to do.  What would the press release read like then?   When complete, look at the words the team has used and how they have captured what success means.   Pin the press releases up on the inspiration board.

3.  Turn the project into an adventure.   This brings the art of storytelling into an office project.   Step back from the nitty gritty of the project, strip out all of the detail and think of a metaphor for the change/project.    What, when all is said and done, is this project all about – making something better, introducing something new, fixing a problem, finding a new world, learning new skills?   Boil it down and then ask the team to turn it into a story, with a title, characters, heroes, villains, obstacles, romance (?), locations etc.   Keep the metaphor running through the project, just within the team only, so everyone involved feels part of it.  Use the inspiration board to bring it to life.

4.  Give workstreams decent names.   I always find workstream names to be so dull and uninspiring.   Get the team to think of titles for the workstreams that generate some excitement, maybe linked to the story idea above.    Use imagery, colour and icons to give some character to the team names, a bit like you get in sports and call centres.   Use it to build a competitive element into the project and help colleagues in other teams to understand more about what each workstream does.  Build identity and get people wanting to belong.

5. Do something together.   Even the best and most productive project teams can run out of fizz, so keep injecting some freshness into proceedings by bringing the team together.  It may be work-related or maybe not, it doesn’t  really matter but whatever it is, make it engaging and creative.   Step away from the office every now and again.   Take a problem up a hill, meet over a picnic or chill out down the pub and have a game of darts (in workstream teams of course!).  Use this time to get to know the people behind the job titles, those people who are helping you make this project a success.

6.  Make project meetings fun.   When you ask people about the best team they ever worked in, they will often talk about the characters in the team, fun activities or how the individuals “just clicked” with each other.   Projects can be tough, especially if they’re not going well, so try to keep the team relaxed and motivated with some light-hearted team building.   I know of a project manager who likened every team member to a character from the Muppets.  When they came in for a meeting he had each person’s character stuck to the back of their chair.   I worked on a project last year in which the PM opened team meetings by playing clips of old Peter Sellers films from You Tube to lighten the mood before a heavy discussion.   These little things work.  They make work fun.   Instead of spending your next team meeting going round the room for individual workstream updates, ask the leaders to present their update in the form of an infographic or photo montage.  Try it. charge

7.  Plan in 3D.   Most project plans are on Gantt charts, MS Project, PowerPoint right?   Fair enough, but try planning in 3D.   Think of how they use models in architecture and construction to visualise the ‘end state’.  Think how the military plans its engagements, with those huge table top maps and model representations of forces moved like chess pieces.  Think how the local church roof fundraising committee uses giant thermometers to show money raised so far.    Be creative and turn your plan, milestone, dependencies, risks, workstreams, progress etc into practical three dimensional models to bring your journey alive.   In fact, create it as a journey, like a model railway, with stopping points, obstacles and journey times.  Again, be creative.  Bring in ideas from other worlds.  Make it fun and engaging.

8.  Spring some surprises   It’s easy to get very introspective when working on a big project.   Everyone’s looking inwards and the topic of conversation at project meetings is invariably about things that aren’t going to plan.   It can become negative and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.   What’s more, morale can drop quickly.   People get tired, irritable and unproductive.    So that’s when someone in the team (not always the PM) needs to break the pattern and do something out of the blue.   It may be as simple as cakes all-round in the office or as drastic as whisking the team away for an impromptu morale boosting activity.   I know a PM who uses any old excuse to celebrate an event or theme her communications to the team – chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Shakespearian style memos on midsummer’s day, fluffy rabbits at Easter, surprise gifts at Christmas, a film quiz in Oscars week, sporting metaphors in the Olympics etc.   Great creativity which really energises teams.

9.  Celebrate the heroes.   Forget formal recognition schemes (well, put them to one side for a minute) and think about more creative ways to celebrate achievements in your project.   Make a big play of good work done well.   Call out the ‘heroes’ and the hardworking back-office grunters who very rarely get the credit they deserve.   Have a Heroes’ Wall in the project office and stick photos up of the good performers in the last week.   Make a point of recognising contributions at team meetings and highlighting individual achievements that have helped the project inch nearer a successful conclusion.  But do it in a creative way.

10.  Encourage creativity.    We all know the old cliché that most projects fail.  It’s well documented that the vast majority of business change projects fail to deliver on at least one of their objectives, and the reasons why projects fail are too many and varied to go into here.   But often they just run out of steam.  They lack momentum and drive.   Projects rarely go to plan, we know that, but they can be rescued under the right conditions – good leadership, realistic objectives, a fired-up team etc.    The best projects have a good ‘culture’ – a can-do ethos and a great sense of common purpose.   They also encourage creativity.    So if you want to energize your project, open the doors to new ideas and diversity.   Create a culture of innovation.   Put up whiteboards for colleagues to share ideas, create and use collaborative spaces, follow principles that encourage creativity and challenge.   Give team members time and space for quiet reflection.   Run creative workshops and create an inspiring environment for the team to work in.   Creativity is key.   Keep trying new things, challenge the status quo and generally just give it some welly.   But always stay focused on the business outcome, of course.

 

Why we need festivals at work

festival2I walked past my local pub this morning after dropping the car off for an MOT.   Outside the pub was a board advertising an “icons & innovations beer festival”.   When I got home, some tickets had arrived for next month’s Hay Literature Festival.   I then booked a hotel for a quick few days at the Cheltenham Science Festival and while I was doing that I had an email about this year’s Just So Festival – a wonderful weekend of creativity for children in August.    We really are becoming a nation of festival goers.   And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of music and food festivals you could pick and choose from this summer.   Anyone for the East Anglian Guitar Festival?  Or the Cornwall Asparagus Festival?   Or the Settle Storytelling Festival?

So this got me thinking.  Why don’t we have festivals at work?   Why don’t we have the “Company X Festival of Collaboration” or the “ACME Innovation Festival”?    There’s something about the immersive experience of festivals that make them so popular.   Maybe it’s about hanging around with like-minded people.  I imagine everyone at the Cornwall Asparagus Festival has a particular fondness for, or interest in, asparagus.   Even spring vegetables can provide a common bond.   People go to music festivals not just to see their favourite band but to learn about and explore other groups and styles.    One of the highlights of our year as a family is going to Hay – five or six days of intelligent conversation, mind-expanding education and relaxation.    I learn more at the Hay Festival in one week than I do in the other 51.   And the ideas I get are endless.   When I’m at Hay, or Cheltenham, or Just-So, or a music festival, I’m 100% engaged.    So, again, why don’t we have festivals at work?

A festival is different from a one-off event or conference.  A festival provides an over-arching ‘reason why’ for a number of activities to take place.  It connects different events through a common theme and provides an ‘experience’ for attendees and participants.   A festival creates a buzz, a bond and a sense of collaboration.   Isn’t this exactly what we try to do to engage people in the workplace?   Don’t we want to provide an environment for learning, collaboration, interaction, discussion, engagement and innovation?   A work festival doesn’t have to interfere with business.   It doesn’t have to be ‘Glastonbury in Accounts’.   It could be a week-long series of lunchtime knowledge-sharing events, or a fortnight of after-work talks on relevant topics.   It could be a period of competitions, idea jams or innovation sessions.   It could be a festival of learning, with new subjects unveiled every day.   It could be a ‘CommsFest’ with daily features and presentations.    People like festivals.  They like the atmosphere, the belonging, the social interaction and the excitement.   Festivals are perfect for internal comms – imagine the concept of the settle Storytelling Festival brought in-house.   I’m a big believer in being inspired by ‘other worlds’ to bring difference and freshness to our really rather sanitised corporate environment.   That, to me, is creative communication.    I’m glad I took that walk today.  And the car passed its MOT too.  Yay!

Could you pass the 60-second challenge?

60seconds[1]This weekend at Manchester Museum, researchers from the University of Manchester gave one-minute microlectures to the public on the subject of biomedical research.   The ‘Manchester Minute Microlectures’ event challenged the researchers to explain aspects of their work in just 60 seconds, followed by tea, cake and questions.   It was a real eye-opening event (part of a day of family activities at the museum on the subject of the human body) and a great way to gain insight into an area of science most of us wouldn’t normally be exposed to.    The challenge for the speakers of course was to crystallize their message and ‘sell’ their research to an audience of people from eight to eighty years old with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever….. in just one minute.

The microlecture format is growing in popularity in education.  Of course, in comms we have the rather tired but effective ‘elevator pitch’ concept in which we encourage teams and functions to memorise and sell their vision/project in about 40 seconds …. the scenario being that you bump into the CEO in an elevator and he asks you what you’re working on.  You’ve got until the doors open to make your impact.    Microlectures offer greater variety.   They can be in video, podcast, presentation or ‘stand-up’ format, from one minute to (roughly) five or six.   As refreshers or ‘quick dip’ exposures they can be really effective.   For the ‘seller’ or presenter, it forces the selection of not the ‘important’ messages or the ‘really important’ messages, but the ‘most important’ messages.     And it encourages creativity.   If you’ve got one minute to make an impact, wouldn’t you look to do something different?   Microlectures can be fun too, by pitching competing or diverse topics together in a Dragon’s Den environment, or inviting the audience to vote on the talk that made the most impact.

In Manchester at the weekend, some lectures succeeded, other’s didn’t.    The speakers who did well were (surprise, surprise) the ones who told stories.   In their best-seller Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath recall an experiment in which they asked Stanford students to give a one-minute presentation on crime patterns in the United States.   They were all given the same source material but half the group was asked to deliver a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that nonviolent crime is a serious problem in the country.   The other half were told to take the contrary position – that it wasn’t particularly serious.    After each speech, the presenters were rated on their delivery and persuasive ability.    Not surprisingly, the eloquent, polished and charismatic speakers rated highly.   At the end, the experiment appeared to be over and the facilitator moved on to something else.  Then, ten minutes later, he stopped abruptly and asked the students to pull out a piece of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every idea or message they remember.    Guess what?  The students could barely remember anything!   They only heard eight one-minute speeches and it was only ten minutes ago, but they could hardly remember a single message from each talk …. EXCEPT for those who told stories.   On average, 63 per cent remembered the stories, while only five per cent remembered the statistics.   They also found that the polished speakers did no better when it came to remembering the messages.   It was the story, not the delivery, that made the difference.

So why not consider the microlecture format when you’re thinking of ways to share knowledge, explain a project, debunk some jargon, impart some learning or build a community.   It’s good for the speaker, good for the audience and great for the organisation.   Just remember the stories.

Five animals that will unleash your creativity

HawkA few days ago I ran a short workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in Leeds called ‘unleash your creativity in two hours.’   It turned out to be a really enjoyable session, with a great group of people and some fabulous ideas.  In the opening few minutes of my workshop I asserted that everyone has it in them to be creative at work – creativity is not the exclusive domain of those of us who ‘create’ a tangible output like a piece of writing or design.   The accounts clerk tapping numbers into a PC all day is just as creative if he/she comes up with an idea to alter a business process to improve efficiency.  We then talked a little about how the human brain works – with its 86 billion cells and one quadrillion nerve connections – and how it both enables and stifles creativity.    These connections are the key to creativity.   A newborn baby’s brain will form a million new connections every second.   Every experience, memory, activity, thought and movement creates connections which are stored in the ‘database’ for future reference.    For the most part, these connections keep us alive and make us who we are, but they can also make us (or our brain) lazy.   The brain loves a short cut and likes to jump to conclusions.   Daniel Kahneman explains all this in his bestseller ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.   If it’s faced with a new stimulus, it looks into the database, pulls out a pre-programmed response and offers it up, almost without ‘thinking’.   It’s why we do what we’ve always done.    So the challenge – if you want new ideas – is to create new connections and deliberately break the patterns of existing thinking and behaviour.

In the workshop, I suggest a five-step process to having great ideas – each one characterised by an animal.

We start with the hawk – which is all about focusing on the problem or challenge you’re trying to solve.   It may sound tempting to ask people if they have any ideas on any subject, but you won’t get much back because the frame was too wide.   Narrow it down and define the challenge clearly before looking for ideas.   They call it ‘squeezing the problem’.   Einstein once said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.”   Ooh, you curly haired Germanic genius.

What you do next depends on how much of a kitten you are.   Now that we’ve focused on the problem, we need to start finding ideas – and that means being curious.   Here’s where we seek new connections, new stimuli, new perspectives, new angles.   Creative people always try to look at things in different ways.  They step outside their own world into other industries, places, experiences and styles.   They seek learning and freshness.   In the workshop, we tried out a technique called ‘other worlds’ to see what we, as communicators, can ‘borrow’ from other industries.  It’s an enlightening exercise and you’ll be amazed at how many influences you can find…. if you look.

Taking things further, we then look at team creativity by becoming puppies and being playful.   Play stimulates creativity.  It creates a safe environment in which people can take risks and try out new things.   We looked at a technique called ‘conceptual blending’ in which we take two random objects and force them together to create a new idea.   A toothbrush and a fishing rod, a boat and a tent, a spider and a bottle etc.    It’s a fun group exercise which forces new connections and lateral thinking.   The trick then is to ‘conceptually blend’ a random object with your work challenge.  For instance, blending a cake with a challenge to get a complex message across may make you think of the way cake recipes are communicated and whether you can use the concept of recipe cards, or the way individual ingredients come together to form a big picture (or a big cake in this case!).

Step four is the owl.  Up to now, the whole creative process should be an entirely open and positive one, with all participants suspending their judgement.  There’s no room for negativity in the ideation phase.   But at some point we have to start applying a bit of discipline.  It’s a business after all, and we do have budgets, pressures, logistical barriers, resource issues and practical limitations.   So now that we have all these ideas, we need to start sifting them.   Being an owl is about being wise – filtering what you have, nurturing (or greenhousing) the ideas, applying some business rationale.    Only now do we start to apply some judgement, so we need criteria and process and all those left-brained qualities we’ve ignored up to now. Shark

Finally, it’ll all be for nothing unless we actually make it happen.   A good idea that doesn’t get implemented is just a good idea.  So here we introduce the shark.  Here’s where you need a whole new set of behaviours –  determination, risk-taking, collaboration, COMMUNICATION, negotiation, boldness.  The great innovators of our time had these qualities in spades.  They didn’t take no for an answer and they weren’t deterred by adversity.  They were sharks.

The next part of my workshop was meant to go on to talk about how we communicators can apply these five-animal-techniques to our role – becoming creative communicators.   But I ran out of time.   If anyone’s interested, I’m doing a full-day creativity workshop for the IoIC on 13th June in London – details here.   Or contact me if you’d like an ideas workshop for your team.