Tag Archives: creativity

Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation

My wife is taking a course in brainstorming, she told me today.  And I’m sure it will be  useful.  I once took a course in brainstorming and it helped a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes creativity doesn’t need a group or a storm.  It doesn’t need a process or a method.  All it takes is a cat or a cigar.

I ran across this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor and personal hero.  (Fessenden is famous for having applied to work with Edison, remarking, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”  Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.”)

fessenden“An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas, including a version of microfilm, that helped him to keep a compact record of his inventions, projects and patents. He patented the basic ideas leading to reflection seismology, a technique important for its use in exploring for petroleum. In 1915 he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water for a submerged object by means of sound waves, for which he won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929.  Fessenden also received patents for tracer bullets, paging, a television apparatus, turbo electric drive for ships, and more.”

We can’t organize or manage ideas.  We can’t regiment creativity.  But as innovation becomes increasing the first business of business, and the way we hope to survive a turbulent world, we are inclined to force the issue.

Cigars have gone out of fashion.  But are we spending enough time with a cat on our chests?  

The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

Grant McCracken and Bob Scarpelli

Take a look at this recent AT&T ad.  Notice what the actress does at the 16:00 – 17:00 second mark.  That little thing she does with her hand and her eyes.

Here’s a second ad for AT&T from a couple of years ago.  Watch what happens at the very end when the neighborhood woman sends a glance to the neighborhood kid.

Here’s an ad for Volvo.  Listen to what the little girls says.

We know ads are designed to deliver information, the USP, the product proposition, the value claim.  And we can see the bones of these things in a lot of ads, especially in those agonizingly bad ones that are really just someone reading the Unique Selling Proposition.

“This product is good because [insert USP here].  You will like it.  You should buy it.”

But I have long suspected that the informational mechanics and the persuasive objectives of an ad don’t work without the little details we’ve just been looking at.   The little details, the flicker of the hand, the flash of the eyebrow, the little girl chattering on and on.  These are essential to the ad’s ability to make the sale.  I think.  Maybe.

But how?  They are so little.  So minor.  So easy to miss.  It’s a question that has rattled around in my head for a couple of years.  How do tiny details make the ad?

And today, I sat down beside Bob Scarpelli, on a flight from NYC to Chicago.  I know Bob courtesy of Rick Boyko who was kind enough to put us both on Sparkstarters, his enterprise designed to help clients or agencies rekindle their powers of creativity.

Bob and I fell into conversation.  He is one of those guys who is really easy to talk to.  I was busy gabbing about myself when it occurred to me that I really should ask him about what he was working on.  (I do this with great reluctance and some resentment but then I am an anthropologist and really it’s my job to ask people about their lives.)

It turns out that Bob is teaching a course with John Greening at Northwestern’s Medill School called Brand Content in the Social World (aka “What’s the Big Idea?”)  Bob and John spend a lot of time talking about advertising and creativity.

“Great!,” I thought, “someone who might know the answer to the question ‘Why do small gestures matter so much?’”

And hey presto, he did.

“Oh, I call those ‘Magic Moments.’”

And Bob recounted the story of Joe Pytka on the set of an ad yell at his actors, “Stop acting!  Just be yourselves.”  No magic moments come from acting.  Whatever they are, they feel like life.

Bob described a Budweiser ad that shows soldiers in an airport and the people who gather to applaud them.

There is a lot to like about this ad, but Bob says that the “magic moment” comes at the very end when one of the soldiers looks back a little disbelievingly at what just happened.  That is many things about America in the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.  So magic moments are also revelational, suddenly revelational.  The tiny detail delivers a world of meaning.

Bob said that the magic moment is almost impossible to plan.  It is very hard to tell at the moment that strategy and creativity are being formed what the magic moment could be or should be.  Virtually impossible in fact.

You know it when it happens and in some cases not even then.  You have to wait for editing.  And there it is.   A gift from the gods of creativity,  spontaneity and the perfect telling detail.

You could call this a chasm problem.  (I borrow the term from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.)    On the one side, we can have the creativity and strategy, all the work performed by researchers, planners, strategists and creatives of every kind.  And on the other we have the spot which, if the gods of advertising are kind. is blessed with one of these magic moments.

But we can’t see the connection between the two.  We can’t figure out how things get from the left side to the right side.

Ember

So there are two mysteries.  The first is how to make a magic moment.  The second is how the magic moment does what it does.  How does it activate all the planning, strategy and creativity?  Something arcs across the chasm.  We just don’t know what it is or how it works.  How do these “hemispheres” talk to one another.

So things are a little clearer.  I now know what to call that telling detail, but I can’t say exactly what is, where it came from or how it works.  So there is some work to do.  Your comments, please.

More to come.  Watch this space.

Looking for balance in the Morrison Library

tumblr_m9chi4OD1y1rc828jo1_500One of the best places I’ve ever seen is the Morrison Library on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s a reading room outfitted with comfy chairs with books of poetry and travel literature scattered  here and there.

I was on the Berkeley campus as a tourist just nosing around, seeing what I could
 see. And I wandered into this room and thought, “So this is what heaven looks like.” When students are in the stacks, they are retainers in the service of professorial masters. It’s all rigor, discipline and nose to the grindstone. But here in the Morrison, they are free men and women. Now they can let ideas wander.

This is the world the sociologist Mark Granovetter imagined when he discovered that most social networks are redundant, filled with like-minded people. What mattered were the people who traveled between networks allowing them to communicate. The Morrison Library is this kind of conduit, encouraging ideas and students to travel.

It just so happened that I was in Berkeley to visit my girlfriend who just so happened to be staying
 at the Berkeley City Club and I was interested to hear that she was hearing in the club dining room racist language from people eating there, including, without apology – not even a Paula Deen ‘apology’ – the N word. So I couldn’t help look at Berkeley, as I snooped around, not only through the lens of the 1960s radicalism that had made it for me famous, but also through that of an old guard apparently still in place, still active, still nasty as anything ,and for all I knew, waiting for its counter-revolution!

From the point of view of the Berkeley City Club, the Morrison Library must have looked like the kind of place that would encourage loose thinking and dangerous ideas. It turns out these two institutions came into the world at roughly the same time perhaps as antidotes to one another. The Morrison Library was founded in 1928 and the Berkeley City Club in 1927.

But the contrast that really interested me was the one between the stacks and the Morrison. If the stacks represent the old order of intellectual labor and the Morrison the new, the Morrison won. In a postindustrial era and an innovation economy, what we value now 
is less the production of knowledge than the release of creativity. And the Morrison is perfect for exactly that, encouraging us to move the knowledge from one domain to another. To take a John McPhee New Yorker story about Roman numerals and apply it ever so metaphorically to a poem about the Russian steppe. Hey, presto.  A new idea, a better idea, a more creative mind is unleashed.

When the stacks lose, this ends the forced march insisted on by a Soviet professoriate, the one that rewarded those who prepared to make the epidermis of knowledge deeper 
by a cell, the one that rewarded people not for leaping between silos but for taking up residence in one of them and saying, “Shhhh, no talking!”

The Morrison victory was accomplished by revolutionary youth. People like Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand could imagine what would happen in a digital world, and machines that could remember, retrieve, organize and represent learning better than any mortal. Together the old citadels of knowledge fell and those few people who still occupy the ruins, scratching out small understandings, are increasingly bad tempered and alone. They might occupy the Senior Common Room or the Berkeley City Club. They might continue to serve as a petri dish for intellectual provincialism or indeed for racism. But their moment has passed. The academics will soon be removed from the world by a reformation of the university that will make the Henrician transformation of the Catholic church look mere by comparison. The racists, well, I don’t think they are reproducing themselves at anything like the pace they need for survival. Death will take them soon enough.

But it’s too soon to stage a celebration or declare the battle won. We are left with two problems.

1/ Now that we are all about creativity, and the recombination of knowledge, we are less good at mastering any one body of knowledge. Perhaps ‘body’ is something like ‘book.’ It’s an artifact created by the massive inefficiencies of intellectual labor and other problems that no longer matter. So don’t call it a body, call it a mastery. There has to be a place for people who really know village life in 14th century France or economic regulation in mainland China.

The trouble is we overcorrected. Now that we are all Granovetterians, skipping from silo to silo, the silos are in jeopardy. Again, there is a lot that is wrong about the way they are organized and still more that’s wrong with the organizers still in place. But we still need them. Perhaps less as silos and more as watch towers or light- houses. But we still need those solitary figures who live to make a single body of knowledge.

Maybe we should ask everyone to cultivate a specialty. There are people who can name all the alternative bands that played in Walla Walla in the late 1980s. That’s a specialty. Or we could ask people to master village
 life of the 14th century. Whatever else we know, whatever else we think about, we should know about something very particular.

And this can be our balance. We have the big picture. And we have a small one. I am thinking that the possession of a big picture will make us better at seeing the larger significance of our small study of a French medieval village. And that will be a big improvement on the present occupants of the Ivory tower who often don’t know or care less.

2/ We need to develop our idea of the Granovetterian – who and what we are when we take up the liberty and inducement of
the Morrison Library and combine knowledge in new and explosive ways. As it stands, there’s lots of brave talk about “failing fast” and “being wrong early and often.” In the worst of these clichés, we are urged to “think outside the box.” This language has been around for awhile. Take the phrase “stop making sense.” I believe this is an idea from the 19th century avant-garde that found its way into popular culture (and an album title from the Talking Heads) and the idea is now everywhere. In a time that prizes creativity and innovation, everyone is urged to go the edge of what we know and see what we can harvest from the new and strange possibilities.

What’s missing are methodologists who think about how we think outside the box. We don’t have enough skate parks or abandoned swimming pools, where the intellectual agile can assemble and wow one another with one stunt after another, pushing the envelope of possibility. This is what has always happened at certain universities and yeshivas. Kids talk and the implicit challenge is always, “Check this out. You couldn’t try. You wouldn’t dare!” And thus do the smart get smarter, and when they return to the civilian world, it’s like everyone 
is a victim of gravity untouched by any knowledge of escape artistry.

The balance here is how to combine our free flights of creativity with a clear idea of how
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Living in the Morrison we occupy a world filled with facts and half facts and possible facts. We address them with this interpretive frame and then that interpretive frame. We embrace an idea that is entirely emergent and have to decide is this something or merely an artifact of my thinking process. And then eventually we have to assemble facts, frames, ideas and illuminations into a something like a compre- hensive view. We need to tidy up. All of us need to be methodologists, paying attention to the way we extract order out of chaos and some of us ought to serve as methodologists who specialize in how this works.

Two balances, then. One between the global view encouraged by our Morrison liberty and the specialized knowledge of the old regime; and one between the great leaps of intuition with which we know order, the opportunities of Morrison enquiry and a new set of methods that improves our chances of ‘sticking the landing’ with leaping with Granovetter hither and yon.

This post originally appeared in MISC in the Winter Issue.

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

Inspiration

SPRING-SHOWERWhere does inspiration happen? For lots of people, it happens in the shower. Yes, it’s soapy and sensual. Yes, it’s a break from the pressure of the day. But the real reason the shower is inspirational is all that water and all that sound.

The shower gives us a screen, a medium that’s message free, a perfect place on which to project and discover the ideas in our heads. Brainstorm? Sometimes a shower is plenty!

For the rest of this post, please go to MISC magazine.

Thanks to King and Blade for the image (see bottom of image for full details.)

Witness De-Relocation, a new game for summer.

Here’s a game that will give you hours of fun.

Play it with friends and family!  At the beach!

Three steps:

1. Assume everyone you meet is in witness relocation. Everyone.

2. Come up with the “real story” for each of them.

An example: My wife and I recently decided that our new neighbor was caught in the Bernie Madoff scandal, having served as one of Bernie’s assistants. In exchange for testimony, she was renamed and relocated. (As far as we know, this is completely untrue.)

Here’s how our “de-relocation” continued:

Life with Bernie was an odd outcome for someone raised by a woman who was raised on the commune founded by D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe in the Southwest many, many years ago, someone who had, as it happens, done time of her own for breaking into the Santa Fe institute and stealing top secret plans for complexity theory.

How would someone like this find her way to New York City and into the employ of Bernie Madoff, you ask? Well, because she had a heart murmur, a speech impediment, a lust for life, and/or served briefly as the President of Columbia University and, yes, Columbia Records, it just so happened… [Off you go.]

3. When you are introduced to the person in question, be sure to murmur, “Yeah, right” when given the “cover story,” and be sure to use broad winks and rolled eyes to let them (and your significant other) know “you’re not falling for it.”

Rinse and repeat.

Reenchanting the world, one green hand at a time

See the green hand? It’s there in the foreground of the photo, in the middle of an intersection in my little town.

It stopped me in my tracks this morning. It reminded me of discussions I had this summer with Peter Spear and Rainer Judd.

We were working on a project designed to stage dramatic and the counter-expectational outbreaks in a couple of towns on the eastern seaboard. (It does sound a little pretentious phrased this way, I know. Believe me when I say we were serious, sincere and not in any way carrying on or showing off.)

Our working idea: that all the creativity nurtured by and staged in the digital world in the last couple of decades is now prepared to bust out into the world. This meant specifically, that outbreaks of reckless creativity should now be able to happen anywhere, even in a small town on the eastern seaboard.

We had a measure of success. If we succeeded, we would have increased the possibility that any time a town member subsequently encountered something lingering at the edge of consciousness, something “odd, accidental, and ‘nothing, probably,’” they would be more inclined to treat it as “something, possibly,” and to attend to it.

If our project succeeded, we would have expanded the realm of the possible in this little town. This is in and off itself a good thing but we also believed that making the odd and accidental more interesting, we would also have struck a blow for what Max Weber called the “reenchantment of the world.”

It is our belief that a lot of creativity starts as a stray signal on the edge of work-a-day reality and ordinary thought. It is when we credit these stray signals and declare them worthy objects of our curiosity, that good things happen. Creativity becomes more possible. Innovation easier.

Indeed, that “box” everyone is always talking about gets easier “to get out of.” This might indeed be the very thing a small town on the eastern seaboard, especially if it finds itself captive of the rust belt and in need of recuperation.


Anyhow, you can’t work on a project like this and not remark upon a green hand when it appears in the middle of an intersection in your home town.  If it was a green hand.  
 
If it was a green hand, where was it pointing?  What was it saying? I thought I might be able to use the Google image search function.  And here’s what I got.  
 
Nothing helpful, I don’t think, unless I am failing to read one of these images as the next link in a series of images that must eventually reveal the significance of the green hand.  
 
Everytime I say “the green hand” I hear, in my mind’s ear, the sound of a church organ being used to exclamation effect, you know the kind of thing they do on a soap opera.  (I think these are called “suspense chords.”)  And this made me wonder if there was some connection between the green hand (suspense chord!) and the fact that the house in town once occupied by the man who wrote the Shadow was just knocked down.  I mean, like Thursday of last week.  On the other hand, there’s a remote possibility I’m over-thinking this.  
 
Wikipedia has three “takes” on the Green Hand.
 
A green hand may refer to:
  • a term for an inexperienced crew member of a 19th-century whaler on his first voyage, and who would typically have the smallest “lay”, or share, in the profits.

All of these are appealing, but being an anthropologist I am obliged to put my money on the middle one, the family of hobbits.  And this would tell us, I guess, that the hand in the intersection marks the spot where, were one to dig, there would be revealed a place containing hobbits.  And that would be great.  Because our town doesn’t have enough hobbits.  Actually, I don’t believe we have any hobbits.  

I will close with another stray signal that appeared some months ago in Rowayton. It appears to be a panda.  It is tiny, obscurely located, and repeated no where else in town.  I puzzle over it every time I pass it on Sammis Street.  Now of course I know there’s a pretty good chance it’s the work of hobbits.  But if anyone else has another explanation, please sing out.  It’s a very fine piece of work, not just a panda, but a panda descending as if from on high, luminous, with a choir singing richly.  (You know, one of those revelation chords!)