Visual Practice Leads to Innovation

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I reviewed several hundred movie posters yesterday to remember which movies stirred something within me. I wanted to create a list of 20 films and then study the movies to learn what the directors had done to capture my heart with their story.

However, flipping through the pictures not only reignited those past feelings, but it also sparked my imagination with ideas worth keeping for future innovations. The experience also gave me the idea to share those steps with you. They are simple enough that a monkey can do it—sort of.

Did you know that track lighting was invented as a result of a monkey picture?

Back in the early 1960s, the designer who came up with the idea for track lighting while working at Lightolier, was browsing through a National Geographic magazine and spotted a picture of a monkey. He allowed the visual stimulus of the incredible photograph to play around in his head. He imagined the monkey running around inside a house moving lights to where ever it was needed. That imagery of moveable lighting led to the invention of track lighting.

We can use the same techniques to spark our imagination in four steps.

BROWSE IMAGES

Scanning through images in newspapers, magazines, and online is an easy way to spark an emotion. When you find a few that grab your attention or interest, set them to the side for the next step. I like to skim through Pinterest and then capture the images that stir me into one of my boards.

WRITE DESCRIPTIONS

Pull out a piece of paper or open a WORD document and write out good descriptions of the image. You can write in prose or bullet points. Try to use strong verbs to describe as much as you can as it relates to why you were stirred by the image. Make a good selection of your words to clarify the action within the image and the feelings it exudes.

MAKE CONNECTIONS

Review the problem or challenge at work that you are facing. Glance through the pictures and descriptions you’ve written. Then force yourself to find any correlations that are possible. It’s okay to stretch yourself in this step. The key is to not ever limit your connections with made up rules in your head.

BRAINSTORM IDEAS

Make a list of possible considerations based on the correlations you’ve discovered. Play with the ideas in your head, expanding them creatively to things you would not normally consider. Then determine the top three ideas worth looking into for its business potential.

Whenever I run through this process I always gain insights that are useful. The connections are many times abstract, but they are present and become fuel for my imagination, driving my next steps of innovation.

As I finished looking through the movie posters, I suddenly realized that all the posters I selected were about a specific story concept. The protagonist decided to be himself regardless of the system demands placed on him and when he got to the end of his rope with failure imminent, his friends stepped in and empowered his success.

I hope this article empowers the success of your next innovation.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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The Creativity of Burning Ice—What Doesn’t Come Next

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My first winter campout was filled with contrasting activities that saved my life. Pitching a canvas tent in three inches of snow seemed odd and the packing of snow around the base of the tent felt counterintuitive, yet it was a great insulator that kept me warm inside.

The freezing night air suggested I wear every piece of clothing that I brought to bed, but my scoutmaster recommended we sleep in our underwear. My sleeping bag did the trick in keeping me warm in my shorts, while my roommate hardly slept in his layers of clothing because he shook all night from his sweat trying to freeze.

The next night included a hazing ritual for those who braved the winter camping experience. One at a time, we were taken from seclusion to the bonfire area for the testing of our manhood (something that would not be allowed today). When it was my turn, I was told that if I screamed from the pain, I would fail the test.

I was taken to a fire pit that was two feet wide and six feet in length. I felt the heat rising from the bed of hot coals and was instructed to take off my boots and socks. After blindfolding me, I was turned around a few times and then instructed to walk across the hot coals to prove myself manly. Being a teen raised by a cop and a teacher, I figured the scouts couldn’t afford a lawsuit, so I decided that the spinning around was to disorient me. I assumed that I was no longer in front of the coals.

I willingly took a bold step forward and felt my feet on the hot searing coals. I was blocked by onlookers from turning back, so I moved quickly across the hot embers. Once my feet hit the ground, I turned back as I pulled off my blindfold and watched the guys cheering as they pointed down to the long pit of ice I had crossed.

My eyes, having seen the hot coals, coupled with my mind knowing what comes next, connected with the extreme temperature change felt by my feet moving from the ground to the ice. This caused my mind to interpret the contrasting temperature to be hot rather than cold. My senses had been fooled.

When our mind thinks it knows what comes next, we are naturally biased based on our previous experiences. This bias reduces our creative ability, surrendering our thoughts to the logical side of our brain. To increase our creativity, we must learn how to explore what does not come next.

School taught us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When we engage our creativity, we find that this rule can kick in by immediately bringing to mind the opposite of our initial thoughts. If we think about things that make us feel hot, the contrasting items that make us cold subconsciously pop into our mind as well.

This natural phenomenon can help us ponder alternative solutions for a problem at work. By exploring the various contexts that arise, we are able to consider things that can expand our perspective. Contemplating things that are not directly connected to the obvious next steps, opens our mind to a new world of possibilities and solutions that would otherwise never be considered.

After the invention of the small 9” television screen that was mounted in the huge box to hold all of its tubes, who would have thought that we could carry a portable 9” television built into our flat tablets or phones?

Only by exploring the things that don’t come next can we find uncommon solutions that change the face of our market. To be a company that innovates, the workers must learn how to explore what doesn’t come next to spark new perspectives and ideas.

A simple exercise that you can do right now is called “What’s Not Next.”

Consider what you are doing right now. You probably know without much thought what you’ll be doing next (after reading this article). However, the exercise asks you to consider the opposite—what you will not do next. Explore the possibilities and consider any correlation to what you are currently doing.

Then ask yourself how what doesn’t come next impacts what does come next.

This exercise forces you to be open-minded and allows you to strengthen your creativity by changing your perspective. By picking arbitrary times throughout the week to explore this exercise, you will expand your ability to switch perspectives more rapidly and increase your ability to solve problems caused by a changing marketplace.

© 2019 by CJ Powers
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Solving Problems When You Don’t Feel Creative

CandleBoxTacksWhen I was in college, Oktoberfest was a big celebration in Wisconsin. One year, the local radio station had a competition to find the hidden medallion. The winner received thousands of dollars’ worth of prizes, major media coverage, and was honored in the parade. Every morning the radio station broadcasted a clue to help people find the medallion that was hidden somewhere within a half-hour radius of the tristate area along the Mississippi.

Known for my creativity, numerous people asked if I was going to solve the puzzle and reap the rewards. I decided to give it a try and found myself following the clues to within an inch of the medallion. I even rested my hand on the stone that covered the medallion. But I never lifted the stone to find it. Why? Because I had a functional fixedness bias from my childhood.

A common game we played in our childhood was called Hide the Thimble. The rules were that the person hiding the thimble had to place it in plain sight, so it could be seen from at least one angle without anything blocking it. My heightened observation skills made me a natural at winning that game. But in the case of the Oktoberfest medallion, there was no rule of it having to be in plain sight. I assumed the rule because of my functional fixedness.

The emotional pain I experienced when the station announced where the medallion was hidden, having had my hand on that very stone, was intense. I cringed when I realized that the reason the stone wobbled under my hand wasn’t that it was uneven, but because part of it was sitting on top of a medallion. Argh!

Today, I’m very conscious of any form of bias. I also practice interrupting patterns on a regular basis. The reason I work diligently at breaking away from functional fixedness is that innovation demands my mental freedom and the longer a person continues in functional fixedness the harder it gets to break free and think creatively.

Functional fixedness is a bias that hinders creativity—limiting people to only use an object in the way it was intended to be used. The opposite of functional fixedness is reflected in MacGyver’s ability to use common objects in a different way than originally designed. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to use unrelated objects together for a solution, like using a cellphone camera as a mirror, a brick as a doorstop, or a quarter to unscrew a screw.

In moments when we feel less creative, psychologists suggest that we are likely caught in the functional fixedness mindset. This concept was first introduced by Norman Maier in 1931. By 1945, psychologist Karl Duncker designed a test to determine if a person held the bias or not. The test included a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches.

The test subject was to solve a simple problem. The goal to find a way to hang a lit candle on the wall using only the materials provided. The person with a high degree of functional fixedness was not able to see the box of tacks as part of the solution. He could only perceive it as the container holding the useful thumbtacks.

The unhindered creative solution had the person dump the tacks out of the box. Place the box on the wall using thumbtacks and placing the candle in the box. Then the matches were used to light the candle. This simple solution is mentally blocked for many people who hold a bias that they are unaware of.

Unfortunately, many people who realize they are no good at solving these types of problems seldom take time to break the bias and improve their creativity. They typically state that they aren’t creative, allowing their functional fixedness to grow more powerful. The only way to reduce our unhealthy biases is to build and empower our creativity.

There are three steps I use to break free of functional fixedness:

Explore the Problem using Make-Believe

Today’s culture suggests that problem-solving is a logical practice because of functional fixedness. To use the right side of our brain, where most of our non-diagnostic troubleshooting skills reside, we have to make the problem abstract. This can be considered a form of play, which opens our mind up to all possibilities.

Sometimes I pretend that I’m living in a sci-fi world where normal rules of nature no longer apply. This creative world-building allows me to look at a problem from new vantage points because it distills the issue down to its core elements—surface issues that typically hold our attention due to bias fade away.

Drawn from Alternative Fields of Knowledge

Once I’ve exposed the bare essence of a problem, it is easy to see similar issues being worked on by professionals in other fields. This allows me to draw from their expertise in how they work the basics and transfer them to my situation. This process typically fuels my creative thought process and feeds me new perspectives and ideas worth exploring for my specific problem.

Play with the Inspired Possibilities

At this point in the process, my thoughts are freer of bias and I continue to play with the ideas. This is the stage where I keep all possibilities open for as long as I can, not wanting to take just the first solution that pops into my head. The playful stance during this phase of the process allows me to explore multiple solutions so I have a few to choose from.

Freeing our creativity requires the breaking of strongholds like functional fixedness. A bias never self corrects, so we must purpose to change our viewpoints. By acknowledging our bias, we can focus on strengthening our creativity and fuel our future with a greater ability to problem solve and innovate—making us a valuable resource for our company, community group, and family.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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The New Season of Creative Mindfulness

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I remember the changes that occurred in business when upper management altered its focus to an innovative mindfulness called a paradigm shift. Every executive I knew was searching for a new way of looking at processes and conducting business. Changes in operations led to consolidations and the tossing out of unneeded practices. Even sales teams shifted their selling techniques to fit the changing marketplace.

During the fourth quarter of last year, a new mindfulness started to appear. Fresh research was published by Linked-In, Adobe, and the Forrester Group. All of the results and documentation pointed to the emergence of this new mindfulness being that of creativity. Executives at Fortune 500 companies started to pay attention to the fact that creativity was directly correlated to business success.

In his new book, Creative Calling, releasing on September 24, 2019, Chase Jarvis shares how the practice of creativity in business will soon be established as a standard for a healthy employee. The creator of the Creative Live website takes it a step further by insisting that creativity will be considered just as important to each day like exercise, nutrition, and meditation.

For this very reason, I have shifted the focus of this blog and my new podcast to help people grow their creative thinking and abilities. We are all born with creativity, which is seen in every child prior to them starting school, where we are taught to focus on logic.

The logical side of life is tactical in nature and the creative side is strategic. It didn’t take long for business futurists to figure out that within another decade Ai technologies will replace the vast majority of tactical jobs, leaving only strategic and creative positions available for people.

To help people start increasing their creative abilities and thought processes, Jarvis illustrates in his new book the I.D.E.A. system.

IMAGINE

The imagination can create hope and a vision for our future. By improving one’s ability to imagine things, a businessperson can bring clarity to new processes and gain an understanding of what is required to implement that new future. The imagination can also drive an individual’s focus to clarify their intentions on how to proceed.

DESIGN

Jarvis’ design phase is all about establishing a daily practice and conforming our lives to support expressions and transformation. The average person in business today fears change and is hesitant to move forward in what appears to be a blind expedition into the unknown. However, the strongest employees are the ones who are at the forefront of creating change.

EXECUTE

Creativity isn’t innovative or more than just a concept unless it is fleshed out. The businessperson has to learn how to execute their innovation, turning their vision into reality. Even the most ambitious plans can be accomplished one step at a time when a businessperson learns how to execute creative ideas.

AMPLIFY

The business world has turned into a community that requires the participation of many hands for the out-rolling of new projects, products, and services. Finding ways to impact our partners and engaging our communities, increases our productivity and success rate. This amplification process provides a natural byproduct of replicating the best part of ourselves in others.

Developing our own creative thoughts and abilities is critical for our survival in the coming years. This is due in part to the unprecedented challenges in our economy, environment, and technology. We can’t erase the past that put a powerful computer/phone device in the hands of every business person, so we must learn and master what the device can’t provide us—CREATIVITY.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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Good Deadlines Drive the Imagination

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All projects need an end in sight to bring the creative flow to its natural conclusion. Yet many see the deadline as a dreaded device that squeezes the life out of a project. Disney Imagineer and Senior Principal Production Show Designer, Neil Engel, put a positive spin on deadlines when he says, “Deadlines can keep your imagination active, and ideas fresh and flowing.”

Engel’s perspective is about shifting our perspective to one that energizes activities, rather than causing the creative to freeze up. By shifting our attention to what motivates us and keeping the focus on the portion of the project being worked, Engel suggests that we can reframe our perspective and make the deadline just another objective.

After giving his viewpoint consideration, I realized the validity of making sure every deadline-based project is broken down into easily managed milestones. A fiction writer that has to write and deliver a manuscript in twelve months wouldn’t have to fret if he broke down the overwhelming 100,000 words into achievable milestones.

Most beginning novelists can write 1,000 words a day and pros can write twice that amount. By setting milestones for 1,000 words a day gives the slowest of writers a completed first draft manuscript in six months. A goal of 2,000 words a day converts the writer’s ideas into a first draft in half the amount of time.

The business salesman making cold calls can also breakdown his activities into milestones. If he makes 23 cold calls an hour, he is likely to get 3-7 prospects. Out of the 40 prospects during the day, he is likely to get 1-2 meetings. Out of seven scheduled meetings during the week, one or two are likely to convert into a sale.

If the boss is pressuring everyone to close one sale a week, the salesman might feel more pressure at the beginning of every week unless he focuses on the milestone process instead of that one deal that must be closed. In other words, our perspective makes the deadline nerve-racking or just another milestone.

A screenwriter doesn’t count the words, but the script pages with the total landing at 110-120 pages on average. The milestones for a first draft might be writing four pages a day, which would deliver the first draft in a month. However, most screenwriters that I know don’t go by page or word count, but by the number of scenes that the story requires.

The milestones for a screenplay are usually first broken out by reels, story sequences, or mini-movies. Then the story is broken down into smaller segments that meet the requirements of the beat sheet. When the writer focuses on just the key beats for any given day, there is little stress related to the deadline, which also reduces the pressure of on set rewrites—when everyone is waiting for the changed pages for that day’s shoot.

My past experiences confirm the accuracy of Engel’s perspective. I also agree with his view that some pressure is necessary to force the creative process to flourish. There is a reason all Broadway musicals take 8-12 weeks to rehearse. While some suggest producers can’t afford to pay for a longer rehearsal period, most pros agree that the show would become boring and flat for the performers if it extends past that standard period.

Engel presented the concept from a creative’s perspective when he says, “With too much time, a project can become overworked and lose its spontaneity or direction.”

For a successful project, it is critical that creatives stay fresh. They need enough time to do the job properly, which requires a strategically placed deadline. They also need to learn how to turn the deadline into a normal milestone to reduce the pressure to what is manageable in a normal day. By facilitating these two issues concerning deadlines, bosses and managers can get the most creativity and efficiency from their teams.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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How to Reverse Brainstorm in 4 Steps

ReverseBrainstormBrainstorming is a known creative process with specific guidelines that must be met for success. However, there are certain conditions that stop even the best at brainstormings, such as a growing level of cynicism within the ranks or an unknown problem that can’t be pinpointed. The quickest way to turn the attitudes and results around is by using the creative technique of reverse brainstorming.

The process focuses on discovering an unknown or futuristic problem. The first phase typically assigned to the task force is figuring out what problem can be identified. The second phase is to facilitate a troubleshooting recommendation that can reveal the needed action steps for change and implementation. Both phases require an understanding of the guidelines used to facilitate the process.

Here are the guidelines for reverse brainstorming:

Figuratively Break the Process

Reverse brainstorming is the opposite of finding a solution. The team must work hard to come up with ways of breaking the system. This holds true regardless of the topic. For instance, let’s say the original brainstorming goal is to find ways to keep customers on the website. The opposite becomes the starting point for reverse brainstorming: Finding ways to drive people away from the website.

Everyone shares their ideas. Maybe the list looks like…

  1. Require user sign-ins every 20 seconds.
  2. When the reader gets to the critical part of the post they’re reading, startle them with pop-up pictures from a horror film.
  3. Don’t allow anonymity.
  4. Blast new music with every page.
  5. Place ads in between paragraphs.
  6. Etc.

Clearly, the list could reach a hundred items in a short period of time.

Flip the List

The next step is to analyze the list. The goal is to discover what real items are directly correlated with its opposite. For instance, “require user sign-ins every 20 seconds” suggests that the site should not require any sign-in unless someone is signing up for a specific offer. The horror pop-up picture suggests that customers will get irate every time the reading of their important article is interrupted.

The flipped list might look like…

  1. Only have a sign-in for specific offers.
  2. Don’t interrupt the reading of an article.
  3. Allow all people to peruse the site.
  4. Don’t play music or have a silent default setting.
  5. Keep ads away from, or to the side of important articles.
  6. Etc.

Evaluate the Potential Solutions

Out of the long list of possible problems and its probable solutions, each item needs to be evaluated. The top three or ten, whatever length of possibilities deemed right for more in-depth exploration, are assessed to determine its value to the company. The goal is recommending the items considered to be low hanging fruit (quick fixes) or bigger bang for the buck (fixes with a greater financial impact) to decision makers. The evaluation process can review the list based on any criteria needed for planning improvements and implementations.

Have Fun without Commiserating

The reverse brainstorming activity tends to be humorous and sometimes sad. Laughter typically comes from those moments when people are surprised that they unknowingly built a stupid problem into the website while attempting to do something positive for the customer. The sad moments come when people realize that they were clueless about problems they didn’t even know existed.

These moments can drive sarcastic comments and enlightenment. Unfortunately, it can also open the floodgates for those who feel the impulse to commiserate, all because the learned problems can be systemic and highly relatable. The guideline is for the team to have fun with the surprises, but to avoid sharing war stories because it changes the tone and focus in the room to something less productive.

Reverse brainstorming is a simple tool to implement and requires the same respect for one’s peers as brainstorming. The key to remember is that all boarded items are welcome, as some are there for the sole purpose of prompting other ideas. No idea is wrong or wasted.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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Takeaway Creativity

JengaHave you ever given a talk and had too much information to share?

Last night, I shared how to give a six-minute talk that helps the audience understand a key problem, learn the steps necessary to make changes, and inspire them to take some form of action. I wanted to give the talk in six minutes to demonstrate my point, but I had 30-minutes of information to share.

My prep time reminded me of the Jenga game. Players start with a large tower of wooden pieces and have to carefully remove one piece at a time without the entire structure collapsing. The game is always a challenge because opponents alternate the removal of pieces, which means their move might be to keep the tower stable for a few more rounds or designed to force the destruction of the tower upon your next move—so they can win.

In business projects, takeaway creativity is like a Jenga game. We research and are supplied resources for our assigned project. A brain dump occurs of all the information we have to work with followed by a sifting and sorting process to select only the useful or pertinent information. And then, we decide if we’ll give a presentation with 46 slides or whittle it down to our best seven.

The ace solution is always the simplest. It’s true in filmmaking, writing, and presentations. No one wants to be lulled to sleep by the information that isn’t relevant.

When television first got started, the shows were 58 minutes in length, giving time for sponsors to demonstrate their products in exchange for covering the show’s production costs. Once the power of television became known to advertisers, a deluge of companies started promoting their wares, which forced show lengths to drop down to 43-minutes.

The programs improved as a result because writers were forced to use only the pertinent information that was absolutely necessary to tell the story. Then streamers hit the market and the rules about programming length changed to fit the story. Suddenly the advertising-free shows were released at varying lengths based on what the story dictated for each episode.

The right-sizing of content to close a business deal is important and the information must dictate the length of a presentation. No longer will a cookie cutter template keep the prospect’s attention. This forces businessmen and women to reduce their presentations down to the bare essence of what is necessary for the deal.

A published humorous anecdote that 100 years later was attributed to Michelangelo, alleging that it was a true story at the revealing of his David, reflects the idea of takeaway creativity. The man asked, “how could you achieve such a masterpiece from a crude slab of marble?” The response, “All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”

Taking away what doesn’t belong in your presentation starts with a Jenga-like tower of information. Knowing what pieces to pull from the presentation will reduce the structure down to its ideal size. But if too much information is taken away, the story is incomplete and the client lacks the necessary information to say, “Yes.”

The art of condensing the information down to its core elements can be learned from the Jenga game. Here are the steps in the search for the key elements that must be removed to condense the presentation:

  • Start with all project related information.
  • Take away the obvious that the client already knows.
  • Take away the fluff information.
  • Take away the repetitive information.
  • Take away the features that don’t benefit the customer.
  • Take away the history of the product.
  • Take away anything that doesn’t perfectly meet your focus.

What you are left with might be…

  • The client’s problem.
  • The recommended solution.
  • The features and case studies that proved the solution successful with other clients.
  • The benefits the client receives from the solution.
  • The structure of the deal and its related offer.
  • Plenty of time for Q&A to fine-tune the client’s solution.

Just like pulling one piece from the Jenga puzzle at a time to focus the presentation down to its bare essence, making sure certain elements stay in place to maintain the health of the offer is also critical.

In preparation for my talk last night, I distilled a 160-page book on how to give a six-minute talk down to five critical sentences. Then I added in relatable information to clarify those sentences and help the audience take ownership of the structure that I shared. The result, several people took notes for their next presentation and one woman changed her planned talk that she’s giving to a national group of investors tomorrow. Oh, and I gave my talk all within the six minutes time frame to prove it works.

One of the greatest forms of creativity that we must practice is the art of condensing information, or what I call Takeaway Creativity. I have practiced it by reediting a feature movie down to a short film, taking a novel and turning it into a short story, and taking a 46-slide corporate presentation deck and turning it into a 7-slide show.

Take time this week to practice your creativity by cutting out the unnecessary and reforming it into a highly impactful solution that will impress your associates.

© 2019 by CJ Powers