The startup boom

For one thing, the cost of startups in the technology sector is dwindling. This means an explosion of new and lucrative and potential risky entrepreneurial activity. To compete in this landscape understanding the value of creativity and innovation in your employees is essential. All businesses should be working on strategies to promote innovation across all levels of their organizations.

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How to lead like James Dyson

James Dyson is the embodiment of determination and dedication, not only to himself, but to his cause. Most entrepreneurs, without financial backing, wouldn’t risk $40,000 on an idea, let alone $4 million, and they wouldn’t have the patience to try 50 different models of a new product, whereas Dyson tried over 5,000. If you glance at the first 40 years of Dyson’s life, you may judge him as a failure, but if you look at his entire 66 years, you might judge him as one of the most innovative and successful businessmen on the planet. However, the most impressive thing about this visionary British business mogul is not the ingenious nature of his designs, but rather the stubborn drive to realize his dreams, no matter what the cost.

He risked his family, his house, his reputation, and his future in order to make his vision into a reality, and for that, he stands above much of the timid and secure leaders of the modern business world. He embraced failure as a learning tool for so many years that it must have become synonymous with going to work. He was ahead of his time with many of his ideas, and as is often the case with visionary thinkers, he was also going against the grain of popular culture and the market of his chosen industry. He wasn’t looking to fall into the rat race of product design; he wanted to create a completely new sport instead.

The new generation of leadership must be confident enough to spread their creativity in all directions, both forward and behind, so long as they don’t become stuck in the present and remain stagnant and comfortable. Labeling something as “good enough” cannot be in the vocabulary of an entrepreneur, innovator, or corporate leader, because that implies being content with something less than perfection. Today, at the Dyson laboratories, more than 600 engineers disassemble and reassemble the products that they have already “perfected”, trying to constantly update and improve the things which hundreds of others may have already overlooked. These might be the most creative minds of the industry, but they have been taught by a master of diligence and detail that nothing can be overlooked, and that perfection is never to be assumed.

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Does your organisation have a thought leader?

All of today’s most successful and innovative companies have an identifiable “idea czar” who leads the creative team into constantly upping their game. Google has Sergey Brin, Apple had Steve Jobs, Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg. This person exists in every company, and it’s your job to find and leverage him or her into the most effective position.

Allow your creative team to flourish independently an encourage them to think freely. The team that created Apple’s Macintosh flew a pirate flag from their workspace, and Steve Jobs loved it. It’s that kind of culture of creative excitement that you want to emulate.

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5 killers of creativity

Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative person (which is nonsense but we’ll get to that shortly), you definitely experienced a state of blockage where you simply sense a lack of ease, efficiency and results in everything you do. Maintaining a creative mojo can indeed be quite challenging even for those who are the most powerful in expressing themselves, their ideas and dreams because even they can get stuck between a stockpile of projects and objectives and the means to carry them out.

However, those who are more likely to overcome these moments or situations and cross the finish line of their own plans are those who learned that no one and nothing can hold you back as “capably” as yourself and when you invest the time to understand this just a bit more specifically, you will discover some of the enemies of creativity you can so easily and inadvertently help. Here we smoked out what we consider to be the worst of these enemies:

1. Overpushing.

This happens when you simply don’t know when to walk away from a task. Just indulge an honest reflection and see if there’s any progress in what you’re doing at that moment or any real probability for it to occur in the near future – if the answer you come up with is negative then it’s time to let go of it for a while. Again is one of those situations when less means actually more. Besides, even if you are not aware of it, your brain is still plugged-in, working on a solution or idea which explains those moments in the morning on waking up when you “just know” what needs to be done, what the solution is. This means that sometimes the wisest thing is to back off a little bit so you don’t scare off your muse a little longer.

2. Overpreparing.

This one follows the pattern – too much of a good thing is a bad thing. While making plans and organizing your stuff is recommended, letting yourself completely absorbed by plans is not and this can be an easy error to fall victim to especially if you decided at one point you wanted to be more productive and add more planning to your life, unhappy with past results. A man with a single plan but the determined to act immediately upon it even if it might not be the perfect plan, versus a man with a dozen plans but the inability to get things started on account of lacking total guarantee of success is a good example of the danger perfectionism poses. Actually, the fear of failure can hide just as much behind an apparently organized person than it does in a total non-doer. Always bear in mind that focusing too much on how things can unfold in the future will prevent you from enjoying them in the present but also from making real progress since all progress happens in real time even if it’s measured over time.

3. Overthinking: the not-good-enough syndrome.

Again, the fear of failure dictates that you’re just not that good to jump at that opportunity. You can easily find examples in all domains of successful people who engaged and committed unreservedly to something without having much idea at first what it was they were getting themselves into and how it was supposed to be done. Enthusiasm, daring and the desire to learn and improve eventually lead them to great accomplishments. If wait until you become a mega-specialist at something before attempting to make your skills available, chances are you will become a mega-specialist at killing your creativity.

4. Overbusyness.

Creative blockage becomes a haunting habit when we, in turn, create the habit of letting stress and busyness taking over our lives. Keeping yourself busy all the time can be a great distraction from acknowledging your real problems and can even be illusively put out as a sign of being extremely creative. Allowing your imagination time to wander, your mind time to rest and lean over non-doing is essential for feeding your creative flow. Being too busy to pursue a hobby or enjoy nature, and gain inner balance is just a poor excuse you’ll be using as long as you can afford self-lying. Slow down to catch up! While it may sound like a line form Captain Planet, the power to control the busyness of your life is yours. Resist being dragged into the sinky sands of excuses of the type: “I would love to read more but I don’t have time”, “I know I haven’t gone for a walk for like decades but I’ll get out more when I have more time to spare”. This sends the “dead end” postcard to your creative thinking. If you like being busy why not being busy with something you like?

5. Overdoubting.

Family, school, society – they can all participate in choking off your creative spark by presenting you with norms and standards and even ways that prove you as being creative; that’s true but eventually you cannot simply settle for the role of the victim. You have power and control over your creativity because, first of all, you are creative. Everyone is. It’s just that we express it within levels and frames that differ. That’s all. So plunge headfirst into your own creative juice and cash in on the amazing resourcefulness hidden inside you, waiting for you signal to come pouring in. That signal is simply believing. Yeah, it’s probably annoying for some, but you still can find too many achievers out there who weren’t also believers. Can you believe that?

Check out my related book:

Go Nuts: The Art of Creativity and Innovation

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Famous failures

When you think of names like Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and Walt Disney, you think of people who were vastly successful by any measure. They weren’t always that way, though.

Although we now think of him as one of the Big Three responsible for winning World War II, Winston Churchill’s road to becoming prime minister was a rather difficult one. Before becoming Britain’s foremost political figure at the age of 62, Churchill was defeated in every attempt he made to run for public office. Earlier in life, he even failed sixth grade.

When he was a school child, one of his teachers told Thomas Edison that he was, “too stupid to learn anything.” Although ultimately he became famous as the inventor of the light bulb, before finding a bulb that would work, he bumbled his way through 100 lighting duds. His reaction? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

When Walt Disney worked for newspapers, one editor fired him because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” His first studio went bankrupt just a year after it was founded and 15 years later he was hovering on the verge of bankruptcy again when the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” became the most successful picture of 1938, earning over $8 million on its initial release.

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The Art of Creativity

The origin of originality

The complexity of human nature is often reduced to a simple dichotomy, nature vs. nurture. Since the 19th century, this exact phrasing has been used to represent the argument between innate ability and the effect of a person’s environment in the resultant personality and “greatness” of an individual. However, this discussion stretches far back into history, and remains one of the seminal mysteries of the human condition. Thinkers, philosophers, writers, poets, politicians, scientists, and a bevy of other well-respected people in wide-ranging fields of study have offered their own interpretation and argument for which is the stronger of the two. Academic and philosophical discourse has come to an impasse, however, and although arguments are perennially offered to strengthen one side against the other, some level of agreement has been reached that in the discussion of individuals, each story of ‘greatness’ has different characteristics and possible causalities that ultimately result in a personality. Extrapolating this into the broader context of our species, we must appreciate that both nature and nurture can influence a person, at any point in their life. Without seeming too antiquated, it seems fitting to summarize this détente of argument with the words of the immortal bard, William Shakespeare; “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

This ultimate struggle between instinct and impact, as well as the effect that those seemingly contrary forces have on the development of an individual is a fascinating field of study, but a proper expansion of the countless theories and arguments could fill a bookshelf, perhaps even a library. For our purposes, their effect on a specific aspect of personality is desired, that of creativity. Obviously, this is far from the first analysis of the nature vs. nurture dilemma in terms of human creativity, but to understand the basic method and means of being creative, an elementary study is required.

At creativity is something that we are born with, evidenced by musical virtuosity in certain children, the untrained ability to paint masterpieces, the profound, yet simplistic problem-solving skills developed by some at a young age, and dozens of other examples of the creative spirit apparently born into a person. Some of the most brilliant and idolized figures in creative history had a seemingly natural penchant for a certain ability, as though their brains had been hard-wired for a certain function, often at the expense of more traditional capacities. Prodigies like Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, Williams Sidis, who lectured on new mathematical theories at Harvard University at the age of nine, and Pablo Picasso, accurately considered a Spanish master by the tender age of fifteen all present powerful arguments for the roots of creativity being inherent, rather than acquired.

However, a rare condition called savant syndrome, which affects some of the most fascinating anomalies of intelligence throughout history would argue a different angle of that theory. Various men and women have been born that can do unbelievable things in their mind, yet they, without exclusion, either suffer from some other debilitating lack of cognitive ability, or suffered a traumatic injury, following which their abilities appeared. These include a boy, Daniel Tammett, who can see numbers as shapes and colors, and has artistically represented what the integer pi (3.14….) actually looks like in his mind. He could also recite the endless integer to more than 22,500 figures by memory. He has a rare form of synesthesia and autism. Stephen Wiltshire does not let his autism stop him from creating photorealistic depictions of entire cities after seeing them a single time; he once drew a 33-ft mural of Tokyo’s layout after a very short helicopter ride. He had never visited Japan before. After a brain injury playing baseball at the age of 10, Orlando Serrell was able to do fascinatingly complex calendar calculations and can describe the weather of every single day since the accident took place. These examples illustrate a different side of the “nature” argument of human creativity and cognition. Some part of the brain can develop in an extraordinary way or be changed in a traumatic way, and the resulting abilities are spectacular and rare.

This begs the question about the malleability of the brain, whether it is derived from cognitive defects/happy miracles, through physical manipulation (i.e. a baseball striking you in the temple), or perhaps through the chemical stimulation of neural receptors that alter the way we act, think, speak, and create. The modern world is loud and proud of its advances in so many fields of study, regarding all aspects of life, and yet the underlying engine behind every step we take and word we speak is still an enigmatic puzzle that continues to ironically mock us with its complexity. The savant syndrome represents a fascinating bridge between the arguments of nature and nurture, because it underlines how incredibly complicated and mysterious the human mind truly is.

When we consider the “nurture” side of the creativity dilemma, there is also an impressive amount of evidence to point towards. The rise of higher education systems throughout the world has coincided with the rapid increase in technological advancement, social order, scientific discovery, and artistic achievement that we have witnessed in the past half millennia; there is very little debate over whether the rate of humanity’s progress has sped up. This embrace of creativity and artistic expression has allowed millions of people around the world to pursue non-traditional careers and passions that would have been forbidden or deemed useless in earlier periods of history. It is much more of stretch to assume that our brains have naturally evolved over a miniscule time period (in terms of evolutionary progress) to spur such advancement and the explosion of creativity that has defined modern times. It is far more likely that given an environment where free thought was allowed and cherished, rather than ostracized, we were able to learn how to be creative, liberated from the traditional demands on our time and energy for survival and reproduction.

Throughout life, the human brain is subject to something called imprinting, and although it slows down considerably as we age, it means that there is some malleability and flexibility of the brain after a person is born. Entire fields of study and commercial industries count on this fact, and urge parents to read to their children, expose them to new languages at a young age, be careful what you say, mind your body language, and show affection. Those are just a few of the thousands of things that could affect the way that a child perceives the world from its nascent steps, but this idea of imprinting is often considered one of the strongest arguments of the “nurture” camp. What if certain brains never stop the imprinting process? What if the process could actually speed up rather than slow down? The mysteries of the brain are such that nothing is inconceivable, and many of the most creative individuals of today often cite their upbringing, education, and childhood passions as the primary motivator for their interest and pursuit of their respective creative outlet.

With the massive leaps forward in technology, stable societal structures, premier educational systems, globalization, and hyper-access to information in the digital age, it seems only natural that the environment around us would be a huge, causative factor in the development of our personality. Without being too reductive, it is a case of “monkey see, monkey do”. Following that line of reasoning, we should be perpetually inspired by others and motivated to do great things, training and developing our own creative spirit because we see that same potential manifested in others. With the right stimuli over the course of our life, our personality should be impressionable, pliable, and able to be sculpted in any number of ways, right?

Unfortunately, the argument for nurture too often comes through a double negative assertion, which isn’t as effective, and tends to sway many people to assume that creativity and genius are ultimately natural gifts that can only be emulated and aspired to, rather than achieved. This double negative approach can be heard in every person that points to a negative aspect of society and tries to explain their behavior due to the environment they grow up in, the influences that they have been under since childhood, or the lack of direction that person or group of people was given by teachers, parents, community members, and role models. That double negative says that when bad nurturing takes place, then bad results are often the outcome. Obviously, I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush in any of these arguments, and there are certainly miraculous stories of bad nurturing resulting in wonderfully uplifting conclusions, but they are the unfortunate and dramatic minority. In general, it is better to argue for one side of a dilemma with positive claims, rather than double negatives, which claim an ipso facto proof about the positive side of the argument. Before we delve any further into intricate discussions of rhetoric, perhaps we should move on.

Despite the vast accessibility of information, knowledge, and inspiration in the world today, we are equally distracted and restricted by societal expectations, responsibilities, and the rat race of becoming “successful”, that shadowy, undefined state of being that urges many to abandon their creative passions in exchange for something more “stable”. Although this is not as bad as having negative role models or a damaging upbringing, it can still work as an environmental factor in a negative way, encouraging the mindset that changing the world should be best left to other people. If every person in the world decided to leave the massive power of creativity in the hands of others, our world would indeed be in a sorry state. Only one question remains; if the nature vs. nurture arguments cannot stand alone as the fundamental cause of personality and creativity, then what balance must be struck between the two?

It should be clear by this point in history that the debate between the two sides will never be settled, but some sort of balance must be struck. The most likely explanation is that the human brain has a nearly limitless capacity for creativity, but there is a key that unlocks that treasure trove of possibility. For some, like the savants and the prodigies of the world, it could be the first time that an infant’s ears hear Beethoven’s 9th or their eyes see a skyscraper rising outside the window of their nursery. For others, it requires a gradual, creative exposure through their environment, upbringing, and education for the tinder of genius to be sparked. For some, their potential might never be unlocked, or it will be manifested in a way that isn’t traditionally viewed as creative, and they will live in relative anonymity by the world at large as an untapped well of unrealized possibility.

It is from this equilibrium point in the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture that we explore the modern application and existence of creativity. The impact that creativity still has in our daily lives and in the inexorable progress of humanity is an essential area of study, particularly for those who want to similarly express themselves or find the key to their own vault of creativity. The figures that we examine in this series of articles are those that have achieved the label of “creative” in a number of diverse ways, and have used their gifts in a myriad number of industries. They have effectively changed the world we live in, and each case study is important to understand within the larger discussion of what creativity really is, what impact it has on all of our lives, and the continuing role it will play in the world, if we can only find a way to release it from the tangled mystery of our minds.

Check out my related book:

Go Nuts: The Art of Creativity and Innovation

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Netflix business strategy: the belief system of Reed Hastings

In 1997, after the technological advancement of DVDs changed both the film and information storage industries, a new company emerged in the movie rental scene. Netflix took advantage of the emergence of DVDs and found a way to make seeing your favorite films even easier than renting it for a few days from a chain store. Netflix spanned the innovations of the Internet and DVDs perfectly, and their appeal was almost immediate.

Not only could you choose hundreds of DVDs on a “To-Watch List” for lack of a better word, you could also keep the movies for as long as you wanted, without the fear of steep late fees and the pressure of watching a film in 24 or 48 hours like many of the other rental companies. Netflix gained popularity almost immediately, because it changed the way that business was done, and offered a modern option for those individuals who saw the writing on the wall in regards to the massive presence that the Internet would soon have on our lives.

Companies like Blockbuster made another mistake: underestimating the dynamism of technology. The way that information was recorded had already been a rather dynamic area of study and design, yet the huge investment in resources and money that Blockbuster put towards its rental service meant that it would be far too large and narrowly focused to ever effectively “switch gears” should the time ever come. In effect, traditional movie rental companies failed to account for the inevitable changes that would occur, hoping that they could find success and manage to maintain it despite the ever-changing world. Fortunately for Netflix, its co-founder recognized how quickly the world was changing, and didn’t want to get caught into a strict infrastructure that would eventually result in them becoming obsolete. Reed Hastings is the visionary CEO of Netflix, and he adopted a belief system at the start that would guarantee the survival of the company for more than 15 years now. Basically, as has been said a number of times, “It foresaw its possible demise at the moment of its own creation.”

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How to lead like Mark Zuckerberg

Changing the world is often the lofty goal of business leaders, yet in the past, it was the exception rather than the rule. Fortunately for the world, and for those living in this modern generation, that sad fact of stagnant business procedures and snail’s-pace change is being eliminated. Innovation and progress are the cornerstones of cool leadership and the new age of business theory. As a leader of today, innovation should be a major goal in the complex structure of your company vision. Even in the past decade, the world has watched as companies have experienced meteoric rises on the back of great ideas, while others have plummeted to bankruptcy and obsolescence because they simply can’t keep up with the rate of change.

A strong leader that wants to keep his company relevant and in the public eye of consumers needs to push the envelope and think outside the box as a rule, not the exception. That complete shift from the old way of thinking may be frightening, and the inherent risks are enough to dissuade plenty of leaders from going down that ambitious path, but if you take a hard look at those leaders who are legitimately changing the world, they are doing it through constant progress and a tireless effort to think in new ways. A simple example is the proliferation of social media platforms, and how many of the early websites and programs are now barely a memory because they established their style and stuck to it, unwilling or unable to keep up with the changing demands that seem to shift every month or quarter in the market. Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, however, manages to stay relevant and successful because it is a company that operates in flux, trying new things, analyzing their success and readjusting, only to begin the process all over again.

That exhausting, but worthwhile, dedication to change and progress is what will keep your business moving forward, and help it keep pace with the other companies that are doing the same thing. A common phrase in the past was to call an idea “ahead of its time”, but that span of time may have been years, or even decades. In today’s transient and fickle global marketplace, being “ahead of its time” may mean an idea gained a few months on the competition, so there is barely time for celebration before something new must be developed and launched. It is a fast-paced world, but the key is to inspire your workers with your own ideas, capitalize on your innovative employees, and construct a culture of advancement that seeps into every corner of your business. There is no time for standing around and congratulating one another on staying in business for another year; the only direction to move is forward, the only time to relax is once perfection has been reached. That being said, the smartest leaders know that perfection can’t be reached, only reached for.

Being innovative is integral to success, but there are many other qualities that modern leaders must possess and employ in order to find and maintain excellence in their industry.

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Lessons from Lego and FullContact

Last year, the employees at FullContact, a Denver-based software company were told to go on vacation. Their contract already stipulates a certain amount of paid vacation days, but Bart Lorang, the CEO, didn’t want to stop at that standard level of contractual compensation. He gave each of his employees an additional $7,500 to spend on their vacation however they wanted. He also forbade them from working while they were gone. No e-mails, no brainstorming, and no calling into the office.

The workers at Lego Headquarters in Denmark are finishing up work for the day. They retrieve the boxes so they can put away the thousands of miniature blocks for further inspiration tomorrow. They turn off the lights of their workspace, where the floors look like freshly mown grass, and the walls are painted to look like a partly cloudy day. They may have spent their day designing new products for the world-famous toy company, or perhaps playing with Legos in the social spaces, waiting for the next big idea to click into place.

As strange as these scenarios may seem, the tides of the modern world are turning to make working conditions like these the rule, rather than the exception. Not every company is giving away massive vacation bonuses, or allowing their workers to build castles out of children’s toys, but the important point is the underlying principle behind those innovative or unusual business practices.

The world of business is changing, and in order to survive and flourish in the new environment of modern business, old ways of thinking must evolve. We have entered the generation of cool, the era of the alternative, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the further outside the box a business is willing to think, the more success they are bound to find. The old traditions of three piece suits, business luncheons, time cards and cubicles are going the way of the fax machine. In this age of instantaneous communication and a globalized economy of knowledge where innovation is king, it is only natural that the principles of business and leadership will require a fundamental overhaul to stay relevant and practical.

It is no longer enough to smugly hold the title of CEO while watching your workers scurry around the office like mindless drones in an ant farm. The new generation of leaders who are running the most successful, significant, and profitable businesses on the planet are not simply figureheads or empty suits. They have taken the traditional role of business leadership and turned it on its’ head, blazing trails rather than directing others to do it for them. These are men and women who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, or to swallow their pride when one of their risky ventures flops. They don’t stand on the shoulders of their workers, glorifying their own wisdom and foresight, but rather give credit where credit is due, rewarding and celebrating the brilliant minds that have brought their companies such widespread success.

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Do you remember cassettes, VHS, CD-Walkmen, or pagers?

Consider what was the height of technology when you were a teenager: perhaps cassettes, VHS, CD-Walkmen, or pagers. What about when your parents or grandparents were the same age? They were likely astounded by the introduction of colour TV, escalators, phones, fridges and Radios. At any given time in the past, people were unable to accurately envisage all that lay ahead. The technological advances at the time seemed like the be-all and end-all. (more…)

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