Friday, June 11, 2010

Have the guts to hire someone creative!

Back when I was an advertising creative director, there was a truth that all creative people knew: there just aren't that many good creative people. So we, as creative directors, knew that the only way around that elemental truth was: you find somebody good who fits the culture, you hire them. Fast. Before your very good friend and brother or sister creative director down the street does.

A good friend and writer who used to work with me has been looking for a job in a new town that she and her family have moved to. She had an interview last week with a small ad agency (albeit the biggest one in the town). She wrote me this morning:

so after postponing the interview twice, they emailed me to tell me they hired a guy. then I get a call from a company I had sent a resume to to come in for an interview. which I did. this morning. LOVE my book. want me to come back next week. to take a copy test. it will consist of a 300-500 word press release. a boring question that I need to answer creatively. and a paragraph with grammar errors that I need to correct.
this, after I showed them my book. filled with 25+ year's worth of work. did I mention award-winning. results-driven. compelling. grammatically correct (for the most part. a few sentence fragments and sentences beginning with and and but.)
I wrote back (in part; names changed to protect the guilty, profanity excluded):

Rule Number 1: Don't work for jerks. So the good news here is: now you won't be. Their (large) loss. You wouldn't have liked it there and would've quit anyway. Rule Number 2: When you love somebody, love them. Don't second-guess yourself with CMA stuff. Tell them (and this is true): there is software that will write a 300-500 word press release for you. Software that will create interesting answers to boring questions (I teach a graduate-level course in innovation, remember). And software that will correct grammar.
Either you want a creative person or you don't. If you do, shut up and hire them as fast as you can because there aren't that many of them. If you don't, stop pretending that you do and face up to the fact that you are a loser who doesn't have the balls to take on the personal responsibility of hiring someone. It's one or the other, no in-between. I realize that this doesn't help with the income issue, but no one should have to work in a job they hate. It's bad for global karma.
The point: if you find someone that you think is good, fits with the culture, and will add value, hire them. Period. If you find someone who is actually creative -- who thinks differently, passionately, who thinks beyond solving this little problem or that little problem, hire them fast. Step up. Use your gut. And have the guts.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Consult creatively.

I just started teaching a new course on "Consulting Communications," targeted to students who are sure, pretty sure, or wondering if they want a career in consulting.

I think consulting is a great career for many people, that consultants can provide very real value to many organizations, and that communication -- or more properly, mastery of all aspects of communication -- is one of the three key elements that are critical to being a great consultant.  The other two?  Well the first is easy, and is probably what many or even most people would name first: good critical and analytical thinking skills.  No doubt about it, good consultants are good analysts.  But great consultants are more than that.

Great consultants are expert at using communications tools and techniques to get accuracy and build relationships.  Consulting, to me, is a "social contract:" you haven't promised the organization your terrific analysis, insights, and recommendations as much as you have promised them to a person or team.  And truly great consultants make good on that promise by developing a great relationship, and by not just providing the "deliverable," but by showing how recommendations can be turned into action.

That said, there's still one piece missing.

Hmm.  Good analysis.  Good communication.  What's left?

What's left is the real value-add of consulting: a creative perspective.  An innovative idea or two.  A breakthrough.  And that's tough.  Jeffrey Bernet of Studio B had a great quote this month in a Fast Company video on designing a new chair for B+B Italia: "Different is easy.  Better is hard."  That makes me think of consulting, and of consultants: it's easy to come up with the "usual suspects" solutions.  Any competent firm with competent consultants can do the usual analysis, find the usual insights, make the usual recommendations.  But the better ones, the unexpected ones, the breakthrough ones?  They're hard.  They don't just come from analysis.  They come from creative thinking.  From seeing the world a different way.  From seeing the end point not as it is, but as it could be.

That's what great designers do (by the way, I love the design of Bernett's Tulip Chair).  What great architects do.  What great engineers do.  What great creative people in every discipline do.  And it's what great consultants do, too.

It's one of the fastest ways to go from good to great in consulting, and in every other aspect of your life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Immerse yourself!

How do you get good at anything?  Work hard?  Have natural ability?  Pray to the competence gods?

A strong case can be made for the idea of "immersion:" getting so completely connected, captivated, enveloped, lost in something that you lose track of time, space, and your significant other.

I was in Seattle last week and stopped by the Experience Music Project which, if you haven't been there, is worth the stop every time.  Filling most of the Frank Gehry-designed building in which it sits in Seattle Center (the Science Fiction Museum is there too, but seems more like a room in Paul Allen's house that his wife told him to clean out), the Project is an "immersive"experience to begin with, but no part more so than the "oral histories" part.

The EMPSFM, as it's called (rolls off the tongue) has done a great job of capturing short autobiographies of a huge range of musical, film, and other artists "in their own words:" you get to listen to recordings of the artists and hear their thoughts, their motivation, and their passion.  It is, in a word, immersive.  You could spend days there, just listening to how connected (immersed) they are to their work.

That's also the thing, though, about all the creative people I've known: they immersive themselves in what they do.  But even more important, they manage to also immerse themselves creatively in every moment: they don't look for the creative muse, they allow her to find them.

 To live a creative life, that's a habit we should all adopt.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Make Time or Make Action.

I read Seth Godin's blog post today about "I need more time," and remembered something I read recently about a team that took 20 minutes and made an important decision because "that's all the time we had."  So Seth's blog post resonated.  In fact, I remember reading, many years ago, an article by Reva Korda (who later became Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy & Mather) that put forth the proposition that creative people couldn't work without deadlines (I know, in any event, that I can't).  We need them for focus, for a sense of urgency, and to stop the creative process and "let go."

I haven't actually found anything in the scholarly literature about the impact of time on decision-making (still looking), but anecdotally most of the people I know believe that few of  their important decisions (barring, perhaps, marriage) would have been affected greatly with substantially more time to think about them.

Innovation is driven by time constraints: if you need to come up with something, you generally do.  The stories (successful stories, anyway) become legend: Apollo 13, Lockheed's Skunk Works, and many equally-impressive others tell of  deadline-driven innovation.  And while there are certainly cases of things being done too quickly (certain operating systems and cellular phone models come to mind) the push of a deadline might just be the push that leads to a more innovative solution.

So get in the habit: take the time you need, but don't waste a second more.  There are other things to be done.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Do lunch.

I'm having lunch tomorrow with one of the most passionately creative people I know, Abu Noaman, CEO of Elliance.  He's coming in to guest lecture my Innovation + Technology class on how to integrate innovative ideas, processes, and thinking into the fabric of the organization, and afterwards, we'll grab a quick bite, since I'm then guest lecturing somewhere else at 1:00.

I always love having lunch with Abu because he has great stories, great observations, and a great and wide-ranging passion for creativity in everything from architecture to web design and all the letters in the middle.  Like me, he's promiscuous (no, the second, third and fourth definitions) about art, design, writing, business, organizations, processes...and that fuels a great lunch, even when it's a short one.   

Now, I haven't read the book, Never Eat Alone, and the reviews at Amazon are not especially complimentary, but I (and everyone, these days) get the point that building relationships is critically important to your career.  The thing is, don't just think about your career.  Think about, well, your soul, and feeding it.  Its food pyramid suggests that you have many servings of creativity throughout the day, and a good time to get some is lunchtime.

So don't think about just who you can connect with at lunch.  Think about who you can create with.  Have lunch with interesting, passionate, wild-eyed, thoughtful, wacky, challenging creative people, at least once in while.

Innovation rarely comes from solitary people brooding behind (mentally and physically) closed doors.  Nor does it come from making relationships for the sole purpose of making relationships.  It comes, mostly, from people who push you, pull you, jostle you, whip you into a creative frenzy and then allow and encourage you to do the same for them.  Ideas beget ideas.

So by all means have lunch with someone.  Just make it someone interesting.

(Disclaimer: I'm on Elliance's Advisory Board.  I don't know why that should make any difference vis-a-vis the above, but I thought I should tell you.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Live A Creative Life.

One of history's most creative people was Leonardo da Vinci.  He observed, drew, took notes, and was thoughtful about pretty much everything, and logged pretty much everything in his notebooks.  There are about 8,000 notebook pages that still exist.  We think that's about half of them.

One of Leonardo's great strengths was his ability to look at the ordinary -- the routine -- and see possibility.  (Another was his posture: his posture was said to be so great that people actually went out to watch him walk down the street.  Think about that: this guy was such an inspiration that people just wanted to watch him walk.)

In his excellent book (and companion workbook), "How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci," author Michael Gelb breaks the Leonardo approach into seven "mandates" that form a pretty valid way to approach living a life creatively.  This is a much-abridged version, and I hope Mr. Gelb will forgive me.  For a much more descriptive look, get the book.

So here are the seven steps to living a creative life, ala Leonardo:

1.  Be curious.  About everything.  Ask a lot of questions, of yourself and others, and keep a journal to record your observations.  Then thumb through it to look for connections, patterns, new thoughts.

2.  Test what you know.  Be your own Devil's Advocate.  Search for all the ways your conclusion can be wrong to better help it be right.  Be willing to accept new information even if it isn't what you want to hear.

3.  Trust your senses.  Leonardo felt that people should trust their senses as much as their intellect.  He especially seemed to like sight, and even talked of "knowing how to see."  The implication: immerse yourself in the complete experience: see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it.

4.  Love a good mystery.  Like Leonardo, cultivate the ability to hold many conflicting thoughts in your head rather than jump to a conclusion, however sound it seems initially.  Have internal argument.  The right answer will work itself out.

5.  Balance art and science.  Neither the left brain nor the right brain is the best brain.  The whole brain is.  In my past life as an advertising creative director, my colleagues and I would debate: is marketing an art or a science?  The answer, of course, is both.  Smart marketers know this.  Dumb ones have no balance.

6.  Love your body.  No, not in the "Oh yeah, I look good" way (although that's OK too).  Leonardo was a big believer in grace, dexterity and being fit.  Remember, people just liked to watch the man walk.  The implication: be healthy, be physical, have good balance, focus on well-being.

7.  See the web.  Mufasa (Lion King?  Simba's dad?  Remember the Disney movie?) was right: "All things are connected, in the great Circle of Life." (It sounds better when James Earl Jones says it).  Look for the connections between everything and everything else.

Go out and try just one of those tomorrow.  Or right now.  Your life just got more creative.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Be Neotenous.

Many years ago, when I was a creative director at Ketchum Advertising, I was taught Storyboarding The Disney Way by a gentleman named Gerry McNellis (who now uses it as foundation for what he calls "compression planning."  Check it - and him - out at  Gerry was taught by Mike Vance (, who was Disney's "Director of Idea and People Development," (which has to be one of the coolest job titles of all time) and is kind of the guru of Storyboarding (now that Da Vinci, who is credited with pioneering the technique, is dead).

Gerry had a favorite word -- neoteny -- that he used constantly.  To Gerry it meant, "the ability to retain a sense of childlike wonder," and it made such an impact on me that I've kept it in my head and used it shamelessly for years.   I thought then that he'd made the word up, but now thanks to Google I see that there are 116,000 or so references.  While Merriam-Webster defines it as the biological "retention of some larval or immature characters in adulthood," Wikipedia has much more fun, defining it as "juvenilization," but still relegates it to developmental biology.

Thought about in more human terms, in creative terms, the idea of neoteny is elemental to the idea of living a creative life (hence the connection to this blog).  My 8-year-old son looks at everything with a sense of its possibility.  He doesn't seem to see anything just as it is, but as it could be.  Which is great.

To me, that's what living a creative life is all about: seeing all things, including yourself, as they could be.  A creative eye, head, heart, and soul doesn't just see possibility, it expects possibility and is relentless in the search.  While I'm not suggesting that you don't appreciate things as they are (a beautiful sunset is a beautiful sunset), I am suggesting that you never stop exploring, thinking, tinkering, learning, poking, failing, and pushing.  That's what creative people do.  And we are every one of us, creative people.

A note on this blog:  I started this blog as a companion to a course I teach at Carnegie Mellon University called "Innovation + Technology."  I call the blog "Creative Habits" for two reasons.  One, I want my students (and everyone kind enough to read this blog) to quite literally get into the "habit" of thinking creatively, non-linearly, innovatively, with possibility.  And two, because I'm such a fan of Leo Babauta's Zen Habits blog ( and hope he won't mind my borrowing the "habits" idea.