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 Benefits of Creativity

How to Extend Life, Solve Problems, and Develop Confidence

Going against the crowd with an innovative idea does not create bad stress as some might think, but instead adds to your life, allows you to help others by solving problems, and instills a deep sense of self-confidence. Yet these values are seldom sought after in business because it goes against the cultural norms of the corporate world—leading to the demise of 100+ year old companies like SEARS.

pen-idea-bulb-paperI was working in a theatre on the set construction team when the director went nuts. The scene being rehearsed left too much to the imagination and came across flat. The lead actor was supposed to use a special techno device that lacked originality and looked far from a working model. The property master had failed in bringing about the believability factor.

The director turned to me, pointed his finger and said, “You, make something that will wow the audience.”

I put on my “Imagineering” hat after scavenging through my basement, the prop closet and stage workshop. The creation required me to play with levers, buttons, gismos, blinking lights, and a bit of fog pouring out of cracks in the hoses. And of course, I did use some gaffer’s tape for good measure.

The audience admired the innovation with several people offering the theatre money for the prop. Bids kept coming in throughout the run of the show and the machine was eventually sold to offset some of the production costs. But more importantly was the outcome in my life. I was given free stage access to produce my own show to a sold out crowd.

Not only was the creative moment the key to unlocking my future in theatre, but it also gave me three additional benefits.

A Longer Life. Numerous studies now show that creativity reduces stress. The Journal of Aging and Health published findings, from 1,000 men studied between 1990 and 2008, that only creativity—not intelligence or overall openness—decreased mortality risks. In fact, all of the creative men lived longer than the others.

The University of Rochester Medical Center’s Nicholas Turiano said, “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age… Creative people may see stressors more as challenges that they can work to overcome rather than as stressful obstacles they can’t overcome.”

Improved Problem Solving. Creative people are used to seeing things from multiple perspectives, giving them an advantage in finding a solution that will work. Because creativity is a form of play for the creative, he or she is more likely to try things others may never consider. Even Einstein used what he called combinatory play. By testing the juxtaposition of various unrelated ideas he was able to create his theory of relativity.

During the NASA space missions in the 1960s and 1970s, scientists followed Einstein’s lead by using combinatory play to explore solutions that might benefit the space program. The result was over 4,000 patents that led to the creation of many common household goods of today including the super soaker, cordless vacuums, treadmills, insulation, water filters, scratch resistant lenses, solar energy, ear thermometers, etc.

A High Level of Confidence. While some people think confidence opposes humility, it is the exact opposite. Confidence is the ability to see failure as a tool that leads to success. People who have a high level of confidence seldom hold onto fears in life. This stance brings clarity of thought and the ability to improvise when needed.

The creative person who lives with failure as a tool for success sees a looming deadline as an opportunity to play. The person who lacks creativity sees the deadline as pending failure. He or she will tend to freeze up and block new ideas from forming.

We know that Thomas Edison was a creative because it took him 1,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. That means he had to be creative enough to come up with 1,001 new ideas. He didn’t have one idea that happened to work. He had a creative process in place that allowed him the opportunity to test out 1,000 freshly brainstormed ideas.

People who play it safe in corporations by not speaking up or volunteering for tasks that require creativity are missing out on the great benefits that creativity gives us: a longer life, improved problem solving abilities, and a high level of self-confidence. They are also missing out on the opportunity to play when associates freeze up with fear. For these reasons I always recommend people work on developing their creativity.

Are you able to come up with 1,001 ideas, one of which will change the world?

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Capturing the Surge of Inspiration

If I were to write a formula for innovation it would look something like this:

Creativity * Inspiration = Innovation

There are few who will disagree with my formula, but almost everyone would admit that the tricky part is capturing and maintaining the surge of inspiration. Finding it is never the problem, as inspiration is always associated with life. When you find life, you find inspiration.

To find inspiration all we have to do is seek out the things that are infused with life. The meaning of the word is also associated with life. One definition is about inhaling to bring something to life. Another is about giving life. Still another is about a divine influence that creates life.

When you find a person who is full of life, you find a person that inspires you. If you are able to maintain a relationship with him or her, you have found a source of continuous inspiration. Many artists during the renaissance referred to inspiring people as their muse or a goddess that inspires. Today, we call the person a rare treasure and a joyful find.

CreativeMost artists find different people over time that brings about various levels of inspiration. Seldom do we come upon a person who overloads us with so much inspiration that we go off creating project on top of project—but it does happen.

The key is trying to figure out how to keep someone special like that in our life, especially when they need to receive something in return like any good two-way relationship. But what do you provide a muse?

During days of old, the artist would bring honest heartfelt emotions and words of love to the relationship—driving some into romantic relationships. During the late 1900’s partnerships were formed with each person bringing something to the table that the other needed to keep the business functioning. However, few people developed long term relationships, whether platonic or not, that was based on each person focusing on the needs of the other.

I’m convinced that when you pour some form of inspiration into another person’s life their heart overflows with joy, love and hope. The combination of those three things settles into the heart, which produces inspired words of affirmation and encouragement—life giving things in their own right that inspire the artist in return. This results in the artist being inspired more than they gave out.

In other words, if we sew seeds of inspiration into the lives of those around us, they may in turn inspire us. If my theory is true, then the best way to capture inspiration is by giving it away. To test my theory, I recommend that artists find ways of inspiring others and pay attention to see how much inspiration comes back to them.

But, if you are truly fortunate, you may stumble into a person who matches your synergy for inspiration. You both would fly high with joy overflowing because it takes little effort between you to generate more inspiration than what your humble hearts can hold.

I’ve only had that experience a couple times in life and I can tell you that you feel capable of changing the world because of them, yet you never want to leave their presence for fear that the inspiration might fade. You want to spend every waking hour with them, but instead you’re driven to create and innovate from your overflowing heart. That gift of inspiration gives birth to new ideas and work that changes lives. The inspired creative cannot sit still. He or she must respond to what they receive.

Since those experiences happen ever so seldom, I recommend you put my theory to the test and see if it works or not. Go out and inspire someone and let me know the results.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

5 Rules of Brainstorming

Idea LeadershipWhenever I ask if anyone knows how to brainstorm, they always say, “Yes.” Not long into the activity they demonstrate that they don’t know how or are unable to follow the rules. I always keep a reminder sheet of brainstorming rules on me to quickly review with teams. Here is the list—

1. There are No Dumb Ideas. This is the hardest rule to keep for people who don’t practice brainstorming often, especially when someone shares an idea from out of left field. Any negative feedback immediately closes down part of the person’s mind in the name of protection. It also shuts down anyone else who heard the comment and hinders the team’s progress.

The best way to approach all ideas is from a position of acceptance. Everyone knows when a better idea is shared, so no one ever needs to be told their idea wasn’t any good, especially when the weird ideas tend to spark more creativity that leads to great ideas. The not-so-great ideas are like kindling that starts a bonfire. If kindling is squelched, the bonfire never gets lit.

2. Don’t Criticize Other People’s Ideas. The moment judgment, a left-brain activity, enters the discussion it shuts down the right brain where great ideas are formed. The only reason for a person to shoot down an idea is to show superiority, which stifles creativity. No creative team has room for a superior being on it. After all, a dominant person in a brainstorming session tries to leverage their ideas instead of finding what’s best for the story.

When someone criticizes an idea, the greatest tool of correction is for the team to immediately use the “bad idea” as a launching point for a diversion into play. Dave Crawford, a Disney Imagineering Principal Mechanical Show/Ride Engineer says, “The most unrealistic options inspire tangent ideas that take you to new places you would have never considered.” By exploring all the possible tangents, not only does the criticizer learn his or her place, but also the team gets to overcome the negative comments with numerous newly inspired ideas.

3. Build on Other People’s Ideas. Some ideas are like taking a thumb out of a dam with a flurry of side or bigger ideas pouring forth. Teams can get on a roll of ideas that build one on top of the other. This sends the team into diverse directions and can shift the focus to address sustainable details. The goal is to capture the best of all the ideas and find an angle on it that will out last the test of time.

In the improv community, who brainstorms live on stage, the process is called, “yes, and.” The yes acknowledges the first person’s comment in a positive light and then adds to it a bigger, tangential or more detailed idea. The add-on is never viewed as being “better,” but instead as being the next step in the developmental process for creating great show or story.

4. Reverse Quality for Quantity. During production or performance everyone focuses on quality. However, in the developmental brainstorming process its mandatory to chase after quantity. It’s impossible to come up with a new invention, show or story without pouring through a gazillion ideas until you find that one new angle, perspective or idea. Whether the goal is to educate or entertain, some form of the idea must be new.

Most pros board their brainstorming activities and later gather the large quantity of ideas based on observable groupings, topic, viewpoint or uniqueness. Screenplay writers group their ideas by set pieces, turning points and entertainment value. Businessmen group their ideas based on presentation, features and benefits. Preachers group their ideas based on scripture, story and application.

5. Play Wildly. This is the most important element and the one few people want to see on the list. The more childlike the approach during the brainstorming process, the more creative the final solution. The play factor instills energy into the developmental process and infuses it with fun-based passion. This activity drives the kind of creativity required for a successful brainstorming session.

Many people define play differently. Some watch a movie in between sessions. Some quip off jokes. The more energetic get into character and role-play various perspectives. Others pull out board games, while still others get into pretend or make-believe worlds. Some even get more elaborate in their play within the worlds of cosplay or steampunk. Any activity works that is immersed in right-brained activity—even scribbling games on a blank sheet of paper.

When the rules of brainstorming are adhered to, all participants gain energy from the experience. When the rules are abused, people feel drained afterwards. This thermometer that tests the flow of creative juices is important to monitor for the sake of future sessions and productivity. Without play, all brainstorming sessions fall a part.

The Toy Story 2 Argument: People vs. Ideas

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Ed Catmull offers business lessons from Pixar and Disney in his book, “Creativity, Inc.” I agreed with his perspective on the value of people over ideas, which runs counterintuitive with the majority of production companies.

Most of his philosophy came about during his work on Toy Story 2, a production that originated as a direct to video release, but took a sharp turn and became one of the most successful theatrical sequels of all time. Unfortunately the success and its lessons came at a great cost that formed Catmull’s philosophy.

The argument comes from the business value that either the people or the ideas are more important. The determination of what a company values most determines the processes that exploits that value. If ideas are more important, then the company churns their employees in search of great ideas, but if the people are more important they see to their needs knowing that they will create great ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up,” says Catmull. “If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Putting a team of the right people with the right chemistry together is the necessary precursor to getting the right ideas. But not everyone agrees with this philosophy. When asked among industry peers the responses to people vs. ideas generate a 50/50 response. This statistically suggests that no one is responding to fact or experience, but rather are all guessing, picking a random answer, as if flipping a coin.

“To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people,” says Catmull. “Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

The key is determining what makes the people the right people for a project. Some would suggest character alone is sufficient, while others state the importance of mastering one’s craft or holding years of experience. I find that what makes for an ideal person to join a team is one who subscribes to a continuous pursuit of knowledge, the endless exploration of their craft, and a willingness to learn from peers.

“In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, ‘A movie about talking toys— what a clever idea!’ But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people,” says Catmull. “The underlying goals remain the same: Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

It’s no wonder that master craftsmen are drawn to others who have mastered their craft. Nor is it strange that excellent creatives gravitate to projects that attract like-minded creatives.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Creating with Opposites

Creating with OppositesI’ve never understood “writers block” or not being able to create something new. Every time I have a slight delay of thought, I change my perspective and I’m flooded with buckets of new ideas. Creativity flows whenever I shift my perspective to something unique.

One change of perspective can come about by considering the opposite. Let’s say I wanted to create a new restaurant or café. The easiest first step is making a list of what restaurants are, such as:

  1. A place with a menu selection of food.
  2. A place to order food.
  3. A place to have food served.

The list could continue, but for this example I’m good with a short list. Now, keep in mind that this list is based on my assumptions of what a restaurant is. It’s possible that not all restaurants have all three. Some places might be more unique, thanks to a creative person who gave input at the onset of the idea. So to pump creativity into my new restaurant idea, I try to list out the opposites:

  1. A place without any form of menu.
  2. A place where food can’t be ordered or bought.
  3. A place where no one serves the food.

This list of opposites opens up the mind and starts my creative process. While the logical person says that’s stupid, the creative soul plays with the ideas. The creative picks a few of the opposites and brainstorms.

What if…

…My restaurant had no menu?

Maybe the chef comes to the table and shares what ingredients and meats he procured that afternoon for the freshest of meals. He shares some ideas with those at the table and based on consensus cooks up a culinary delight. And, sends the family home with the recipe for a future gathering.

…People can’t order food at my restaurant?

Maybe it’s a beautiful setting with privatized ambiance that is rented by the hour and guests bring their own food. Instead of ordering extras that were forgotten by the host, shelves of free supplements are available for use.

…No one serves the food?

Maybe a top chef tosses various plates of food onto a counter for anyone to grab. Each dish is uniquely made from various country recipes and then put on display for anyone to claim. Each presentation perfectly brings out the key elements that make the meal unique to its country.

By using the opposites to brainstorm, several more ideas pop into my head that venture me off in a direction that will make my restaurant unique. Those unordinary possibilities would drive marketing and entice foodies to try something new and refreshing.

Years ago I came up with an idea using opposites and shared it with friends. Everyone was interested in trying my restaurant if I ever got around to making it. Two years later Walt Disney World opened a new restaurant that was so similar that I realized my venture idea could’ve been a success — All due to a creative use of opposites.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers