Category Archives: Creativity

Medici, Goa and a bit of Chindogu!

Last weekend, I was at The Goa Project, an annual pilgrimage for some 240+ oddballs from all over India, and some even taking a long-haul flight to get to Goa. Yes…“oddballs”…that’s the best I can describe a bunch of super enthusiastic, high-energy, talented, multi-faceted, young at heart and spirit (both, literally and metaphorically!), and daring and raring to go folks who all descended at Bay15 – after all, you have to be an oddball to spend your time, effort and money to come all the way to Goa and not spend the time at the beach or going to Tito’s, but talking to people who are equally unique, and probably as crazy as you!

You can’t be at TGP with any expectations! You can’t possibly anticipate who you are gonna meet – someone blending poetry with analytics, or someone installing solar panels in high mountains up in the Himalayas, someone directing theatre, or someone talking about the BDSM scene in India (ok, now I really have your attention J), someone telling about learning from the Gita or someone telling about stained glass, and so on… You name it, and it’s all there. Even Milind Soman for a keynote! So, if you seek knowledge about diverse topics, and are comfortable being a crossover artist or geek or entrepreneur or just someone who likes to be a sponge soaking up in the spirit of meeting such amazing folks and learning from them, then you should definitely have TGP on your annual itinerary!

Yes, and don’t worry about not having an idea what are you gonna do over there. Most people don’t have a clue either 🙂

I Have No Idea!

The Goa Project, as TGP as it is fondly known as, is now in 4th year. I was there for the last year (and conducted a workshop on change and habits “Why we do what we do, and how to do what we really want to do!”), and while I was a bit unsure last time whether I liked it or not, and whether I would go again this year or not, I ended up putting in three proposals, and the awesome organizing team selected two of my proposals. So, there was no way I was getting out of it.

I liken TGP to India’s very own “Medici Effect”, or at least a 2-day mini-Medici, if you will. I don’t know of any other place or event in India where people form literally all walks of life come together and exchange thoughts with each other on different, complementary and often conflicting points of views. Given the increasingly complex interdisciplinary nature of problem-solving, I think there is a dire need for such conversations and help people build a better thinking and problem-solving framework. Of course, the ambience of Goa’s very own sun and sand makes it compelling enough. And the beer does help :)… 

One of my talks was on the book I wrote recently “Agile Product Development”. It was nice to share my journey how I was lucky to get a great break, and what did I go through as I wrote the book last year, and so on. The best think I liked about delivering a talk at TGP was that I could actually deliver a talk wearing sunglasses, shorts and slippers!

 

However, the more interesting session that I want to talk about in this blog post was a workshop on “Chindogu” – the Japanese art of creating “unuseless” inventions. Unuseless because while the problems a chindogu tries to solve are real, and to that end, the solution is “useful” but the way it it is designed makes it so clumsy or difficult, no one actually uses it. And hence the term “un-useless”. Created by the crazy Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami, this is a great exercise in creativity. For example, do you know that the original selfie stick was originally “invented” in 80s? You can sample some of these at Ripley’s, Pinterest, and several other sites all over the net. OR, you can straight go for one of the books – “101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions”, “The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions” or “99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu”. Now before you get carried away and discard it as a mindless activity, Chindogu comes with its own ten tenets. Not just about anything will qualify as a Chindogu!

Having read all this, I was naturally curious to experiment. I didn’t find any reference to any Chindogu happening in India, so I felt even more determined to do this crazy stuff. I boldly proposed the session “Let’s build something “unuseless”” to conduct a Chindogu workshop!

My session was on Day 1 evening, and there were some major sessions competing for the audience (guess what sessions I am talking about 😉 ). Still, I was thrilled when some ~10 participants showed up. They made some interesting that blew us away. Here’s a sampling of the pics and the video from the session:

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and finally, this is the video of the participants proudly presenting their chindogus:

 

Aren’t they nice 🙂 

I would encourage you to conduct Chindogu workshops in whatever setting you are: a Montessori, a team building and even en executive retreat! There is a great subtlety that Chindogu session hides in a very innocuous manner – and that is the freedom to experiment and the liberty to fail. No amount of formal communication can convince people to get out of their comfort zone and experiment without worrying about the results better than a Chindogu session.

Of course, you can always call an expert to lead this session 😉

Time to throw away your Talent Pyramid

Ask any HR Manager on talent profile for their organization and you will get a ‘talent pyramid’ – an odd-looking ‘pyramid’ that is supposed to reflect the talent profile of the organization. Ask them further – what is the measure of ‘talent’ in this pyramid, and chances are 9 on 10 that the answer will be ‘experience’. This experience is typically the number of years of (supposedly relevant) experience in the workforce, and pretty much determines how roles, and consequently the compensation are derived out of it. Question is – is that the right measure of talent?

I was in an interesting industry-level peer discussion a few weeks back where we debated on the utility (or, rather futility, at least in my opinion) of talent pyramid for R&D organizations. A conventional view is that talent pyramid helps us understand the operational costs better and hence it makes sense. Unfortunately, it ends up creating linearity between experience, role and eventually the compensation. So, while we might talk a lot about being a meritocratic organization, in the end, we are just paying lip service to those tenets.

Another interesting point was that while talent pyramid makes sense for software service companies because they get billed slab-wise (and hence, there is a business case to inflate roles and titles disproportionate to the real capabilities), it is really an anti-thesis to product development where talent has no linearity with experience, at least not in the classical way it is ‘measured’. Some of the most compelling and life-altering products in recent times have come from folks who were still in college, or had no ‘talent’ when they hit upon the next big idea. By all conventional yardsticks, they would never get a second chance. What, then, should be the best, or at least better way to measure talent?

So, here is my take on new-age talent metrics that makes much better sense than the traditional ones:

Democratization of Innovation Index

In the old economy, innovation was essentially limited to the large organizations because if often needed huge capex (and opex) to build and run large R&D facilities. With the advent of globalization and Internet, the entry-level costs of innovation have irreversibly deflated, and one can pretty much source ideas from anywhere in the world. Companies that continue to take a narrow view of the ‘thoroughbred’ innovation will eventually find themselves at the short end of the stick that deprives them of the wisdom of crowdsourcing ideas from just about anywhere in the world – including their own companies. In this fiercely fast-paced and ruthlessly ultra-flat world, it is hypercritical to be able to harness the power of ideas coming from just about anywhere in the organization. If you don’t create avenues to your employees to take their ideas further, they will take it to just about anyone who is willing to listen to them. Worse, they will create their own company around it. And we have seen it happening for a long time – Xerox, KFC, FedEx, and scores of companies are prime examples of what happens when ideas are rejected but their creators continue to pursue them with dogged determination.

P&G owes a lot of its recent success to its so-called Connect+Develop program has established over 1,000 active agreements with innovation partners – worldwide! They have clearly embraced open innovation as a much more effective and viable alternative to yesteryears’s internal R&D capabilities alone. The question that you need to asking in your organization is how much (rather, how well) are we learning and borrowing from other adjoining, or even remote, areas.

How many of your new product ideas are coming from top-down PRDs created by product managers and how many are coming from bottom-up ideas from engineers and customer support folks?

Intellectual Property Creation and Adoption

What is most important for your R&D organization – managing within some arbitrary budgets or coming up with futuristic cash flow ideas? Costs must be managed, but after a point, we must remember that cost is there to serve us and not the other way round! The larger aim is to eventually create a great workplace where creative individuals and teams can fire their imagination and come out with supercool innovative ideas that create intellectual property and competitive advantage for the organization. How about measuring the IP Density as the total number of IP ideas filed per unit employee? Much like the sales productivity? This number by itself is meaningless, but a trend over a reasonable period of time will help us understand if the company as a whole is moving towards the right direction. Similarly, IP Quality is the measure of how many of these ideas get converted into public filings? To me, these two measures are a great indicator of the real R&D happening in a team, center or a company.

These are more like the entry-level metrics, but one might eventually move up to things like IP Adoption – how many of the ideas are really used as opposed to just being filed, and actually create future cash flow? Or, generate royalty by protecting the entire marketplace?

Cross-pollination of Ideas

Success in the past depended on narrow and deep specialization in a given domain. However, as we have come to learn from the brilliant ‘Medici Effect’, it is anything but true in today’s complex world where there are too many lookalikes a dime a dozen. If we continue benchmarking against today’s competition, we will only end up doing more of same. How many of your people are willing to tear-down functional and political boundaries of the organization to create better products and services that delight customers as opposed to simply complying with some silly organizational diktat? How many products are coming out of efforts that systemically break down ‘associative barriers’ that stop people from learning ideas from even more remotely unrelated areas? Long back I worked at a large company where I was surprised to find that we had three versions of basically same products competing against each other. Years later, when I worked at a small company, I was shocked to discover that we had something like 5 products essentially trying to compete with each other on product features. Why? Because not only were the ideas not cross-pollinated but the product managers were all trying to outcompete with each other – rather than the competition.

When Steve Jobs wanted to design the chassis for mac laptops, he saw how industrial designer used brushed aluminium. George de Mestrel got inspiration to design velcro from burrs of burdock. August Kekule reportedly saw a snake catch its tail in his dream and got the inspiration to design Benzene formula.

So, there you go. Are you still measuring your talent pyramid by the number of software engineers or number of people in 5-7 years experience band? Do yourself a favor – throwaway your talent pyramid.

Initiative + Continuous Improvement => Superior Performance

Disclaimer: I got this in an email. This is not written by me, and is not my intellectual property. If you know the original source to it, I will be happy to link to it, and if it is copyrighted, I will be happy to seek permission to repost on my site, or take it off, as the case might be. I am sharing it here because I think there is good value in this illustration that everyone can learn from. I enjoyed reading it, and hope you enjoy too 🙂

Every company has a performance appraisal system in place to measure the effectiveness of its employees. Employees are normally rated in most of the companies in the Good, Very Good, Excellent, Outstanding categories. Apart from the above, non performance category is also there, which is not depicted here). Needless to say everyone wants to be rated Outstanding.

What is the yard stick and how do you measure these aspects?  

  • Employee “A” in a company walked up to his manager and asked what my job is for the day?
  • The manager took “A” to the bank of a river and asked him to cross the river and reach the other side of the bank.
  • “A” completed this task successfully and reported back to the manager about the completion of the task assigned. The manager smiled and said “GOOD JOB”

Next day Employee “B” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task as above to this person also. 

  • The Employee “B’ before starting the task saw Employee “C” struggling in the river to reach the other side of the bank. He realized “C” has the same task.
  • Now “B” not only crossed the river but also helped “C” to cross the river.
  • “B” reported back to the manager and the manager smiled and said “VERY GOOD JOB

The following day Employee “Q” reported to the same manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

  • Employee “Q” before starting the work did some home work and realized “A”, “B” & “C” all has done this task before. He met them and understood how they performed.
  • He realized that there is a need for a guide and training for doing this task.
  • He sat first and wrote down the procedure for crossing the river, he documented the common mistakes people made, and tricks to do the task efficiently and effortlessly.
  • Using the methodology he had written down he crossed the river and reported back to the manager along with documented procedure and training material.
  • The manger said “Q” you have done an “EXCELLENT JOB”.

The following day Employee “O’ reported to the manager and asked him the job for the day. The manager assigned the same task again.

“O” studied the procedure written down by “Q” and sat and thought about the whole task. He realized company is spending lot of money in getting this task completed. He decided not to cross the river, but sat and designed and implemented a bridge across the river and went back to his manager and said, “You no longer need to assign this task to any one”.
The manager smiled and said “Outstanding job ‘O’. I am very proud of you.”

What is the difference between A, B, Q & O????????
Many a times in life we get tasks to be done at home, at office, at play.
Most of us end up doing what is expected out of us. Do we feel happy? Most probably yes. We would be often disappointed when the recognition is not meeting our expectation.

Let us compare ourselves with “B”. Helping some one else the problem often improves our own skills. There is an old proverb (I do not know the author) “learn to teach and teach to learn”. From a company point of view “B” has demonstrated much better skills than “A” since one more task for the company is completed.

“Q” created knowledge base for the team. More often than not, we do the task assigned to us without checking history. Learning from other’s mistake is the best way to improve efficiency. This knowledge creation for the team is of immense help. Re-usability reduces cost there by increases productivity of the team. “Q” demonstrated good “team-player” skills,

Now to the outstanding person, “O” made the task irrelevant; he created a Permanent Asset to the team. If you notice B, Q and O all have demonstrated “team performance” over an above individual performance; also they have demonstrated a very invaluable characteristic known as “INITIATIVE”.

Initiative pays of every where whether at work or at personal life. If you put initiative you will succeed. Initiative is a continual process and it never ends. This is because this year’s achievement is next year’s task. You cannot use the same success story every year.

The story provides an instance of performance, where as measurement needs to be spread across at least 6-12 months. Consequently performance should be consistent and evenly spread.
Out-of-Box thinkers are always premium and that is what every one constantly looks out for. Initiative, Out-of-Box thinking and commitment are the stepping stone to success. Initiative should be life long. Think of out of the box.
 

This is a nice illustration that the ‘performance bar’ keeps getting higher and higher as the time goes by, and doing something the same way won’t count as equally good performance as the last time. We all must constantly look for ways to improve the way of working. People who don’t take initiative and continue the routine way of doing things will soon find themselves out of place, literally ! The best performers in any team can be spotted by the way they go about the initiative they take to approach a problem. These is a clear linkage between initiative and performance. In another blog, I will explore a model to measure initiative that was handed over to me by a senior HR professional while working at Philips, and I have used it for last ten years and found great value in using it.  

This illustration also brings out a rather unfortunate fact of life: that life as a pioneer is not always kind. Perhaps the challenges (and odds) in doing something for the first time are far greater than subsequently improving upon it (well, mostly, I think), but we tend to short memories about initial contributions. I don’t have a good answer for it, except that I feel this is little unfortunate. I guess the only thing one can takeaway from this is not to sit on one’s laurels far too long, but get going as soon as the party is over !

Are you helping your competitors succeed ?

I just read a nice story on the home page of Luke Watson, and was struck by its ‘simple power’. It goes like this:

A few years ago, there was story going around about a farmer who won a particular category in the Nebraska State Fair four years in a row, which is unheard of there. The local newspaper sent a reporter to interview the farmer to find out what he did to achieve such a feat.

The reporter asked, “What’s your secret? Do you have any special corn seed?”
The farmer replied, “Absolutely, I develop my very own corn seed.”
The reporter said, “Okay, so that’s your secret – you developed your very own corn seed.”
And the farmer said, “No, not particularly.”
The reporter exclaimed, “I don’t understand. What’s your secret, then?”
The farmer said, “Well, I’ll tell you. I develop my own seed, and then I give it to my neighbors.”
The reporter said, “Huh? You develop your own seed and then give it to your neighbors? Why would you do that?” The reporter was incredulous – why would anyone in his right mind develop his own award-winning seed and then just give it away??
The farmer said, “You don’t understand how corn is pollinated. It’s pollinated from neighboring fields, and if you have fields around you that don’t have top-quality corn, then your own fields are not going to grow top-quality corn. But if my neighbors’ fields have strong corn, then I’ll have awesome corn! That’s how I won the Nebraska State Fair four times in a row.”

(Adapted from “Success From Home” magazine, Vol.4, Issue 10, Oct 2008, p109, Plus Publishing)

Is this open-source competition, open-source innovation, open-source collaboration or what ???

Hats off to the farmer in the story who exhibited such an unconventional and long-haul thinking. How many of us would be willing to apply such a bold thought in our business ? I find this a brand new approach to innovation – one that is really deep-rooted in helping others succeed because that is the only way to bring one’s own success. Even though our farmer is still winning hands-down in the competition, his neighbors are clearly happy using his high-quality corn (otherwise they would not use those corns) and despite the fact our farmer always wins, they don’t seem to mind his success – because his style of innovation is helping them all improve their own respective yield. Without their support, he can’t succeed, and he won’t get their support it they themselves are not succeeding. So, first he must help them succeed so that they, in turn, could bring him bigger success ! wow !

I am trying to think of companies that flourish using such a model of innovation…could not think of one, but there must be some. Write back if you know of some such company.

…but, are you helping your competitors succeed ? maybe, that’s the key to your own success !

Creativity at Workplace ???

Most of us have been told in our appraisal discussions to be more creative, and many of us have, in turn, told our team members to be more creative. Sadly, most of us have no clue what is really means to be creative at the workplace. We normally associate creativity with creative or performing arts – things that we did long back as kids but feel we can’t apply those principles at workplace.

Is creativity limited to dressing informally, or calling people by nicknames, or is it installing the coolest screensaver, painting the walls blue, wearing pink socks or something else ? Definitely, some of them might be every creative efforts, but how do we channelize those creative energies and urges to solving little more meaningfull business problems ? As a manager, is ‘creativity’ available to me as a resource ? Would it conflict with ‘compliance’ in my job ?

Let us explore this subject in more details in the coming weeks.