Category Archives: Crumbs!

Not trying too hard

Jocelyn Glei writes about What we can learn from babies. She talks about the kind of meditative state in which a particular kind of creative thinking can happen. Edison allegedly trained himself to spend time in the twilight zone between waking and sleeping. As she writes

These a-ha moments spring not from concerted effort but rather from deep relaxation and fully open outlook that is unconscious of “adult” workaday concerns such as: timelines cost constraints, client expectations, or any other kind of conventional or orthodox thinking. When insight does strike, it’s usually because we’ve been able to somehow shut out all of these petty concerns – by running, meditating, napping, etc. Once we are able to forget the anticipated outcome, we are freed up to explore the full range of creative solutions.

Makes sense to me. A lot of efforts at creative thinking seem to involve getting adrenalised, overstimulated and trying too hard.

Hat tip: tweet from eaonp

Willpower and its limits

Nice report on research from Scientific American: Setting your mind on a goal may be counterproductive. Instead think of the future as an open question. They split people into two groups for a series of experiments. One group was primed for willpower (eg by having to write out the phrase “I will” multiple times); the other for curiosity (eg writing “Will I?”). The groups primed for curiosity went on to significantly outperform the wilful group. There’s a lesson there for control freaks of all stripes. As the post says

It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. They were looking for a positive inspiration from within rather than attempting to hold themselves to a rigid standard. Those asserting will lacked this internal inspiration which explains in part their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery and self-improvement in general, those who were asserting their willpower were in effect closing their minds and narrowing their view of their future.

Hat tip: Tweet from Bruce Lewin

The power of touch

I’ve long thought that a clipboard was a powerful prop. I only have to hold one and I start to feel more officious.

So it’s good to see this research reported by Ed Yong that goes further suggesting that the weight of the clipboard has a significant impact on our thinking:

Ackerman showed that holding a light or heavy clipboard can affect a person’s decision-making. In a study of 54 volunteers, those who clutched the heavier board rated a job candidate more highly based on their resume, and thought that they displayed a more serious interest in the job. They even rated their own assessments as being more important! However, the boards didn’t affect the recruits’ judgments on areas unrelated to importance, such as the candidate’s ability to get along with others.

It continues:

In a second test with 43 volunteers, those who held the heavier boards were more likely to call for government funds to be spent on serious social matters like setting air pollution standards, over more trivial affairs like public toilet regulations. Again, the mere feeling of weight appears to influence the importance we give to matters.

In fact all sorts of tactile experiences appear to change the way we judge the world. I suspect that in our wordy culture we easily lose sight of this. And more evidence of the extraordinary number of variables that no management model can ever hope to pin down in accounting for the success or failure of a system.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Empathy and innovation

Tim Kastelle has a good post about Empathy and Innovation. I’m fond of talking about “relationships before ideas” and Tim seems to be in similar territory.

One of the supposed challenges of innovation is getting ideas to spread and Tim argues that empathy is pretty key to that especially if you’re into Mark’s Herd worldview.

He also points out that not all innovation is good. This shouldn’t need saying but innovation-bores often seem to separate innovation out as inherently wonderful and detached from the rest of life. Empathy might have some part to play in separating good from bad – and in connecting innovation to our lives and purposes.

Tim links empathic innovation to the blurring of boundaries between companies and their customers, another good point.

I think if we had more conversations about what we really care about, we might find innovation happens pretty much spontaneously.

Re-examining the familiar

I reread something I wrote back in 2006 about Ellen Langer’s work on mindful learning. She makes this point:

When people overlearn a task so that they can perform it by rote the individual steps that make up the skill come together into larger and larger units. As a consequence, the smaller components of the activity are essentially lost, yet it is by adjusting and varying these pieces that we can improve our performance.

It’s not just rote learning that’s to blame here: I think any task with which become familiar tends to get chunked by the brain for perfectly understandable reasons. And it’s sometimes really good to give fresh attention to the smaller components if we’re looking for change.

As I said back then, it’s one reason I get wary of the cult of big ideas. It’s also one of the reasons I created the Crumbs! workshop: trying to find the new in the detail of the familiar is an under-rated behaviour; we don’t always need high-octane “brainstorming” to improve our world.

Hat tip to David Gurteen’s newsletter for prompting me to revisit Ellen Langer. (Noticing and following breadcrumb trails is another aspect of creativity…)

Innovation theatre: empty rituals

(This is the second in a series of somewhat ranty posts I started the other day. General theme: is a lot of the fuss and bother about innovation more hat than cattle?)

by CoCreatr on flickrAs a child I was made to go to church where my father would lend me his wristwatch. This was so I could watch the second hand go round to keep me occupied, the tired and repeated rituals of the CofE service being so utterly boring to a kid. In the end, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at home in a brave and successful piece of direct action to break this tedious pattern. So as a grown up, one of my favourites sayings is this

God created the truth. The Devil took a look at it and said, “That’s great, I shall organise that and call it… religion.”

In this post, I submit that the Devil has in recent years got excited about creativity, and decided to call in innovation.

As a case in point, take our Government’s new innovation website. I’m sure there is much to commend it, but I turned to the section on thinking differently and found it rather dispiriting. For example, take this advice

the process of rising out of and exploring mental valleys to get more ideas for second-order change relies on three deliberate mental activities: Attention, Escape, and Movement. Thinking differently involves managing these three mental processes.

by mrmanc on flickrI think perhaps the author needs to take some serious mind-expanding drugs. Firstly, to cheer themselves up, and secondly to realise that rising out of mental valleys does not require that much management. Just because you can analyse creativity into three little segments does not mean that’s the essence of it.

Sadly, unaided by good quality drugs, the site goes on to explain how you can do each in turn, which appears to involve someone posing challenges like “Let’s try to generate at least seven ideas for ways to manage patient arrivals in the A&E without a receptionist and a desk”. As I read this I feel my soul being quietly sucked out of me, as the natural process of having ideas is turned into a laborious ritual.


It goes on to recommend the principles of brainstorming.

Brainstorming originated in an advertising agency, specialists in the dressing up of mutton as lamb. Much of their output is the specious glamorisation of the mundane and I fear the same may be true for the magic rules of brainstorms.

The site makes no reference to the arguments that these are not actually very productive. For example the principle of “One conversation at a time – This way all ideas can be heard and built upon.” leads to production blocking – you have a roomful of brains and you try to limit them to only pursuing one thread. Keith Sawyer points to research suggesting you get much better output if you let people work individually rather than in a group. (More here)

I think it’s desperately dull to have a room full of diverse brains and force them all to think in the same way at the same time. Our intelligence is spectacularly non-linear and trying to make it follow a set of rules starts to really interfere with its natural way of working.

A few years ago I blogged Jeff Conklin’s work showing how in the real world, designers working together on a problem follow quite varied paths of thinking and don’t need to be in sync with each other in that very simplistic way.

Post Its instead of Passion

I’m also very sceptical of the reductionism in which having ideas (“ideation”) is separated from whether we actually care about them and want to action them. Time and again I’ve been to meetings in which loads of flip charts are produced with lots of ideas that no one really wants to own. The productivity goal of having lots of ideas has been met, but nobody actually wants to do anything with them.

What I feel we have here is something rich and complex, the process of creativity, rendered merely complicated.

Hat tip Dominic Campbell’s delicious feed

Photo credits: Watch by CoCreatr; Kangaroo snort by mrmanc on flickr

Innovation, or just innovation theatre?

Photo by scooter.john on flickrA while ago I wrote about action theatre. It was inspired by Bruce Schneier’s term security theatre, to describe tiresome security measures at airports etc that might create a sense of security but don’t actually work.

Action theatre is what happens in organisations where there are lots of rituals to do with action happening, and lots of posturing about not being a talking shop. Innovation theatre is… well you get the idea, right?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong good theatre, if that’s what we’re paying to see. Trouble is, most of innovation theatre is pretty poor stuff.

So I’m going to start throwing out ideas on why, in this post and others to follow.


I’m not the first person to suggest that the idea of an “innovation process” is an oxymoron. Michael Schrage has a good post at HBR – The Delicate Art of Unauthorized Innovation.

Because innovation is often messy, unplanned, and serendipitous, companies should be careful about how much order, discipline, and oversight to impose on individuals who bring urgency and initiative.

And Robert Brook has a good take on this too:

So. Innovation. We should have an innovation unit, shouldn’t we? We could do that. We could totally do that! We could innovate until the cows come home. We could innovate until our ears bleed! Most likely, we’ll innovate until the innovation budget runs out…Oh, sorry – didn’t I say? Ah, yes, innovation has a budget. And a timescale. And a board – you know, just to check that we’re innovating in the right way. Nothing too … er … innovative.

Keith Sawyer has a few good suggestions in his book, Group Genius, about the dangers of creating skunkworks that get separated off from the organisation, rather than having a steady churn of people passing through and keeping it real.

Photo by Thomsas Shahan on flickrPolitics

In organisations, innovation is bound up with politics. In my experience, nothing is more toxic to innovation than hierarchy. Or to be a little more precise, the reverence for hierarchy. Some blogs ostensibly about innovation seem mostly to be about getting management buy-in, “talking the language of the boardroom” – you know the kind of thing. This is a sell out. Institutions almost inevitably become about the preservation of the status quo and if you’re not willing to disrupt it, you’re probably not going to make much difference.

Trouble is, there’s more job security selling ointment than in being a fly.

Or as the consummate politician, Machiavelli put it

… nothing is more difficult than to introduce a new order. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new…

superhero by adaction on flickrThere’s a flip side to this as well. Because some of the biggest tubthumpers for innovation are just bullies who use disruptive thinking as a cover story. Styling themselves as challengers of complacency, they crash about the organisation cultivating the image of superhero.

I like the metaphor of the fly because flies are small creatures that mostly get overlooked, and more often swatted when they’re actually noticed.

If you have innovation in your job title, or style yourself as an innovation champion, you may already have deterred people with ideas from approaching you. And be tempted into grandiose projects to try to prove your worth.

More to follow…

Photo credits:Panto dame by scooter.jon; Fly by Thomas Shahan; Superhero by adactio – all on flickr


Dan Pallotta makes a lot of sense to me.

More often than not we see life through a barely translucent movie screen in our minds that is running nine shows at once. These inputs deafen and blind us to reality. It is a testament to our capacity for unconsciousness that we hefted luggage around airports for decades before anyone thought to put wheels on the suitcases. We literally couldn’t see that they didn’t have them…You have to ponder the reality of a thing before you can ponder a new vision for that thing. Before it can occur to you that there could be two different flush volumes for a toilet it has to occur to you that there is presently only one… No presence in the moment no innovation. No now, no new. This is not taught in B-school. In fact, the B-school culture encourages the opposite of it… The truth is, our time is too valuable not to be present. The opportunity cost of worry, anxiety, stress, and incessant activity in terms of unmanifested innovation alone is inestimable.

Last year I ran some workshops with my good friend Kay Scorah with the title “Notice more, change less” in this spirit. This year, they are mutating into something I’m calling Crumbs!

Crumbs! will be (amongst other things) about the power of tiny moments, small connections and the surprises to be found in the ordinary. It’s a kind of antidote to brainstorming and much of the effortful discourse that seems to surround creativity and innovation. The first outing will be in Sydney on 13 May,courtesy of my evil twin brother, Matt. I’ll be co-hosting with Viv.

And there’ll be another iteration in Copenhagen, pencilled in for June 1st – more on that later.