Get Creative(s)

Steven BOnner“I was on my own without a grand plan.”

Last night I attended the Northern Digitals BLAB event in Manchester to listen to two heavyweights (reputationally) of the creative world, Steven Bonner and John McFaul.  A packed room of around 190 people gathered to hear them tell their respective stories of how they carved their niche in the heavily crowded world of design, to establish themselves as renowned in their peer group.  Bonners line above conveyed well the risk he took to follow his dream of turning his love of “typography” into a business.

Highly creative people always really interest me.  I’m a person that can happily generate ideas, however turning those ideas into original concepts, art or design is a skill I’d love to have.  Both presenters showed amazing visual work, like the image to the right which Bonner helped to co-collaborate.  After hearing him speak I’ll never look at a font again without a greater appreciation for the work that may have gone into it.

John McFaul (see pic below) demonstrated a real panache in his delivery, he articulated well his obsession with momentum.  Always moving forward, pushing a new boundary, re-defining something new.  No surprise that he now specialises primarily with sporting companies like Vandeyk, Ashmei and Beacon Bikes.  He spoke of his personal journey, often troubled, whilst he ultimately defined what he really wanted to do in terms of working with brands which connected with his personal passions of running and cycling.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know John personally and professionally, through our shared interest of all things two wheels.  In him, I’ve seen this obsession for the small details come to bear, I compare him to the level of obsessiveness that Steve Jobs had for perfection, seeing things others may not, taking care of the tiniest detail in order that a brand proposition be fulfilled.  Precise and controlled, he looks for simplicity in a brand promise, de-layering a proposition to its truth – powerful stuff.

Driving home, I always like to think about take-aways for others, here’s a few things: -

  • Both individuals had previously been unhappy at some point, which ultimately then led them to their individual passions.  A lesson for us all there.
  • Both were big collaborators.  Never seeing themselves as the single solution to a problem, able to generate a single solution naturally, but always open to the critique, ideas and collaboration opportunities working with other like minded people may bring.  A reminder to always be open and allow other people to develop you through new ideas.  A saying I like is “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know.  But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
  • Both were incredibly hard workers.  Bonner citing “Hard work trumps talent.”  He’d done the hard yards in learning the technicalities of his craft.  McFaul spoke of the crazy hours he worked serving clients in different time zones across the world.  Nothing on a plate here, listen up Gen Y!
  • Both were habitual learners and de-learners.  Never satisfied with the current, there always had to be something new.  What do you need to de-learn in order to open up to new potential?
  • Both took risks.  Following their real passion, their hearts, getting aligned into their personal truths.  Leaps of faith were regularly required, but they both took them in order to follow their desired pathway.  Both ultimately are entrepreneurs, running their own businesses, but they would not label themselves that way.  Both put thoughts and words into action, where creativity becomes innovations.  Lesson – Stop talking, start doing.

I’m a great believer that you should always stretch your thinking by looking for inspiration anywhere.  These two were great examples of individuals that the world needs.  Radical and original thinkers who create cool, beautiful things.  Inspiration aplenty.  You can find both gentlemen on Twitter.  @stevenbonner @johnmcfaul.  Well worth a follow.


Delivering a Killer Punch

Mike Tyson

“Everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face, and then they don’t have a plan” – Mike Tyson.

The great thing about Twitter is that you get to read some really good stuff.  The quote above appeared earlier, which really did make me smile. 

Typical of the man, Tyson was a brutal fighter.  It reminded me of some time spent with some senior Army people discussing their ‘Mission Command’ strategic planning framework and how unexpected blows and outmaneuvering can unstabilise an enemy, doing the ‘unexpected’.

You can only ever deliver those punches if you spend time creatively thinking of new ways to disrupt your service delivery or your sector.  If you continue to trade blows on the same terms within the conventions of your sector, one day the equivalent of Mike Tyson is going to turn up and give you a bloody nose.  A highly effective strategy would be to devote time to be the person that delivers a bloody nose.  You don’t need to be the business equivalent of Mike Tyson to do it, in fact, quite the opposite.

Many a boxer has been outsmarted over the years by a clever opponent, look at Muhammad Ali, who was the master of it.  Many a large business has been frustrated by the antics of smaller, more agile, more disruptive, new entrant who has a cool new idea.  They normally end up buying them to either adopt or destroy their impact.

The Killer Blow

Looking outside of your industry for how other industries are treating customers is a surefire way to fire up those neural nets of creativity.  What can you learn from Tesco, Amazon, eBay, Easyjet about the way they do things which might be relevant or revised for your sector. Example, if Michael O’ Leary were to enter your industry sector, what would he do?

For a start, every part of your offer to a customer would be de-packaged.  Things that you do for free, like delivery, would become chargeable.  Your pricing policy would come under strict review, with every discount questioned and elasticity introduced.  Every element of your costs would be under the microscope.  Lavish offices would be replaced with functional ones.  No free coffee machine anymore.  You get the picture…..

Thinking in this way really drives you to understand where a new entrant might deliver you that ‘punch in the face’ they think you deserve by becoming complacent.  Agile organisations can roll with the punches, take the hit, get up and continue, that’s why there is so much talk about them in the press, because the times are so disruptive.  Innovation is simply “creativity implemented”, so action is the key part of any idea.

With the speed of the market now, it really is “seconds out”.  Ding ding, you ready?

If you want to fly in life, fly TWA

Remember TWA?  If you do, you’ll be thinking of an American airline that existed until 2001 when it was acquired and merged into American Airlines.   It was one of the big two at the time, competing with Pan-Am for control of the skies.  I use the acronym of TWA when talking about success.

A distinguishing characteristic of successful people is that they take action.  How many people do you know that do a lot of dreaming and talking, but not a lot of doing?  When it comes to putting the rubber on the road, they are to be found lacking.

Action is the most important component of creativity and innovation.  Implementing ideas is where it’s at.  It’s no mistake when you get a super successful entrepreneur on a stage at a conference that their journey always started with a single step, that step being they did something about their idea.  Nowadays with so many social platforms available, you can get going in a really agile way, developing and refining your concept as you go, there’s fewer barriers than ever.

But still some people choose to talk, procrastinate and put off the vital component in creating success = ACTION.  If you want to fly in life, you need to put your Thoughts and Words into Action (hence the acronym).  What you’ll quickly establish is whether your ideas will make it or whether you are the next Richard Branson.  Without action, you risk falling into that marvellous category of talkers, not implementers. You’ll never find that success unless you take steps to action your ideas.

For many, it’s the fear of failure, fear of exposure, fear of what might happen.  Successful entrepreneurs don’t look on it as fear, they look on it as risk management.  Many hugely successful people see failure as simply the process of finding success, they start multiple businesses expecting some to fail, in order that the stronger ones survive and prosper.  They consistently seek out opportunity and quickly get on with it, when that opportunity looks realisable and able to be monetised.  So if you want to fly, buy a ticket to destination Action and see what happens.

5 Creativity Tips

Business relies upon ideas.  Creativity leads to innovation, innovation leads to new products and services, new products and services lead to temporary monopolies, temporary monopolies lead to market demand and ultimately profits.  However, time pressures mean we are spending less time thinking and more time doing in today’s “must make every moment count by doing something” world.  Here is a short presentation outlining some reasons why you should spend some more time thinking, five frameworks for creative thinking or problem solving and some tips to get you going.

Igniting Innovation Conference

Yesterday I attended an innovation conference in Manchester, with keynotes from two people coming at innovation from different angles.  For me, innovation is key – or at least the relentless drive to find new ways to do things, or creative ways to to problem solve.  It’s important to keep yourself up to date with the latest thinking and to listen to alternative views, so the conference, organised by Benchmark for Business, was a great opportunity to listen to two masters of their craft.

Business brain Kjell Nordstrom kicked off the morning session with a real macro level view of the world and some of it’s trends.  Nordstrom, tall and wiry, with a mandarin jacket, no socks and espadrilles – was an imposing figure.  You just had to listen as he spoke for nearly two hours, without notes, accompanied by a few visual aids about the new world order he foresaw, socially and at a business level.  Some bits of his talk which I thought interesting were: - 

  • The world is now full of “liquid fear.”  That is, we are fearful, but there isn’t a specific threat, it’s a combination of many different things.
  • We are in a time of “genuine uncertainty.”
  • That capitalism should be renamed “innovism.”
  • There are more women in Universities than me.  65%/35% split.
  • 52% of the worlds populations live in cities.  By 2040 this is predicted to be 80-85%.  The City will be the new country.
  • Creative Destruction is the new term for innovation.  Think i-Phone which blew apart the conventions of the mobile phone industry.
  • China’s cost advantage is similar to an ice-cube in the desert.  It has a sell by date.
  • De-learning can prove more difficult than learning.  Cultural reality of trying to be more innovative in your culture.
  • USA will continue to dominate the world innovation stage as they have a “plug and play” economy. You can become an American in three to four years, regardless of where in the world you originate.
  • Temporary monopolies is what you have to spend your time trying to design (capturing a market for a period of time with no competition).

In the afternoon, motivational speaker and innovation expert Chris Barez-Brown took the stage.  Barez-Brown, with a polar opposite style to Nordstrom talked of innovation in terms of unlocking people and your own capability to innovate. In a high-octane delivery, some of his key points we’re: -

  •  Innovation should be as easy as going down a waterslide.
  • You’re best ideas come when you are in your “alpha” state of mind.  That is, not busy doing stuff but in a more relaxed state.  My example of this is when I’m out riding my road bike, I do some of my best thinking.
  • You have to be positive minded.  Don’t dismiss anything, even if it’s been tried before.  Conditions may well be different now.  Seek the value in new ideas.
  • Speed is the key.  Momentum is a function of passion.
  • Have some belief for your ideas.  No belief, then no momentum.
  • Perception is as important as truth.
  • You have to have a portfolio approach to risk.  Assume some elements of your portfolio will fail.
  • Use external stimulus.  Break habits, go to different spaces, do new things.

Two very different speakers at different ends of the scale.  Nordstrom the superbrain and Barez-Brown the high-energy motivator.  They made for a contrasting day.  What was interesting, is that they were the only two speakers.  No forty-five minute keynotes, both speakers were on stage for a couple of hours, which meant you could go a little deeper into their philosophies.  This is in contrast to the “speed dating” type conferences which are becoming en vogue.

Overall the day was well worth the time investment.  I personally enjoyed listening to Nordstrom as I love the bigger picture view and future forecasting.  If some of the things he predicted come to life, then we’ve got some interesting times ahead.

Idea Generation

Coming up with new ideas normally takes the route of sitting with a stack of post-its and trying to fire out as many thoughts as you possibly can.  However, there are a large number of methods/frameworks to assist you and perhaps give you some added stimulation when trying to come up with something new.

Lateral thinking gives you some additional avenues to be creative.  We used some of these on an internal workshop yesterday, let me share three of them with you.

1.  Random object. Pick a random object and then describe how that object is going to help you solve your problem. The fact that it is a random object gets the creative juices flowing.

2.  Breaking the Rules? How would your problem/challenge/opportunity come to life if there were no rules, organisationally or otherwise.  It stops people thinking about what is achievable based upon the business/world works today.

3. How would someone else tackle it? I’ve previously written posts about this, relating to Richard Branson and Michael O’ LearyIt always delivers great results.

Many of these techniques can be easily learned.  I’ve attended some great workshops with innovation and lateral thinking expert Paul Sloane who has written books on the subject.  Great guy to follow on Twitter, always posting interesting and stimulating stuff.  Main thing is, sometimes brainstorms aren’t good enough on their own and you need an extra little bit of something to sieve out the gold.

Don’t look at me, look at the road!!

Ah, little Johnny riding his bike without stabilisers, quick grab the camera!  A familiar tale to many a parent.  The funny bit is when the Johnny sees you with the camera, looks at you awaiting approval, loses his balance and falls off!! 

The metaphor works for business too.  If you spend too much time looking at what’s closest to you, rather than what’s down the road, it’s easy to fall of your methaphorical bike too.  Short term distractions are exactly that, distractions, and shouldn’t demand too much of your time. 

It can be the same with competitor gazing.  If you spend too much time trying to beat them using their methods, all you’ll become is a cheaper version of them, rather than a business with a more unique proposition.  Spending all of your time trying to grab the camera time with a customer, salami slicing your pricing and margins until they are wafer thin.

So, as you think ahead for 2011 consider how to keep your eyes focussed on the road ahead and avoiding the distractions, which consume time, profit and energy.

Branson Pickle?

Richard Branson has just acquired your business.  He’s decided to run your business the Virgin way.  Tomorrow, he’s visiting to start the process.  Panic!

Aside from rushing around with the duster and filling cupboard boxes to stick out sight, what do you think he’d find?  What would he tackle first?  What stuff would he chuck in the bin? What structures are going to get busted up?  Who is going?  Who is staying?  How is marketing going to change?  How are you going to get more intimate with customers?

Point being.  Do you think he would do a better job of it than you currently do?  Would he add an element of “pzazz” to the brand that has been lacking for a while?  Would he inspire you to do great things?  To speak up with that idea you had to do something different?

This simple exercise which is used a lot in inovation workshops is a great way to get thinking about your business.  The things you should tackle.  Implementing the changes people would love to see.  Of course, we can’t all be Branson, he’s a special fellow.  However, you could take the essence of the way he does things and have a crack at doing something new.  If you don’t think differently every now and then, you’ll end up in a pickle, indifferent, undifferentiated and blended into a crowded marketplace.  Kick on.

Break it down!

I’m not trying to get down with the kids (innit), I’m describing an approach to problems.  Some people call them challenges, whatever you call them, we all have them.  Solving them can sometimes be technically challenging, fun or stressful.

Working within a Japanese business for over 15 years, I never cease to be impressed by the way they approach problems.  Everything is always de-constructed, rigorously reviewed, all potential outcomes are scrutinised and the best possible solution applied.  You could call it an art or a science, either way, it’s impressive to see.  The core element is that the problem is always broken down into constituent parts such as what elements are in their control or outside of their control, problem analysis is used to identify the best approach, problem by problem.

Which approach you use depends on the complexity of your problem plus the speed and resources required, potential impact on your business model amongst many things.  Over the years, I’ve witnessed BIG problems get solved by creativity, logic or just sheer effort.  The main thing is not to be daunted by problems.  If you’re not being presented with problems regularly, you may not be trying hard enough.  You might not be pushing your barriers as far as they could go.  Your potential may not be fully realised.  Growing businesses embrace problems, tackle them, solve them and move on.

Seeing the light…

“Now everybody, before you enjoy your desert, let me show you a short film which shows you the surgical procedure I used to insert the implant into the eye”. Not many people can stomach the sight of surgery at the best of times, but between your dinner courses, that’s a new one on me.  However, that’s what happened to me on Monday night at a dinner hosted by leading Consultant Opthalmologist Paulo Stanga, to showcase the pioneering surgery being carried out at Manchester Eye Hospital (you can read a bit more about the procedure by clicking on the link).

Giving someone back their sight is a pretty special thing.  This new technology – developed by California based medical company – Second Sight – aims to do that.  Imagine a pair of dark glasses with a small sixty pixel camera hidden within the frame, attached to a transmitter. The transmitter sends the images to a small receiver implanted within the eye and attached to the retina.  As the camera transmits the images, the electrical signals are then passed up the fibre optic nerve to the brain, where they are decoded.  Clever stuff.  In reality, this low resolution image would allow someone one stage away from total blindness, with only recognition of light, to see shape outlines or follow  a white line on the floor.  Mr Stanga showed us the full video of the procedure and results on some of his pilot cases at the eye hospital.

What fascinated me was the technology behind it. Why only 60 pixels for example?  Answer – This is the limit of the actual transmitter size and the actual number of electrodes you can safely fit onto it without incurring additional heat within the eye.  Could the retina or fibre optic nerve carry higher resolutions if the technology were improved? – of course.  Tonnes of questions were coming to my mind.

One thing that I did think of was this. If this camera device is transmitting electrical signals to the brain to decode, why couldn’t this technology be used to input other information into the brain?  Let me explain.  In a world where geotagging is now the norm, where google are mapping the world in photo form or 3d flyrounds is considered part of everyday life, why not use augmented reality to input both sets of data to the brain to process?  This would potentially give a blind person a blended image, of real time and virtual time.  With the virtual information being taken from a small geotagged wireless processor attached to the subject somewhere.  It sounds  a bit crazy,  however seeing this effective “input device” to the brain just made me think that all the location based technology that exists, might have uses in the medical sector, such as this.  In my mind, it was almost like the human equivalent of a USB port.

Bearing in mind that this is first generation technology, you have to say that it is a breakthrough.  If it can be commercialised after trials, it will impact many thousands of blind people across the globe.  As the processors are improved and more electrodes added, image resolution can improve and vision along with it.  What made me really excited is that this is being pioneered in Manchester, by Mr Stanga.  For the region to truly be considered a technology hotbed, we need more innovation like this.  Whilst the core technology is from the states, the surgical procedure is being further developed and refined in the eye hospital under his watchful eye.   It was well worth sitting through dinner (including the gorey bit) to hear this story,  I’m always in awe of people like Mr Stanga who devote their lives to medical science, putting patients first and driving for new answers.  A very genuine and clever man.