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Why creativity is like cooking

The power of new combinations

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer is credited with stimulating what is known as New Growth Theory.  It’s a theory of economic growth that emphasizes increasing returns associated with new knowledge.

This is in contrast to traditional economic models which centre on the notion of diminishing returns.  The so-called law of diminishing returns states that we will get less and less extra output when we add additional doses of an input while holding other inputs fixed. In other words, the marginal product of each unit of input will decline as the amount of that input increases holding all other inputs constant.

Precisely because physical capital is ultimately subject to diminishing returns, Romer argues that the classical suggestion that we can grow rich by accumulating more and more pieces of physical capital was wrong. Instead, he argues economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. He has likened production and growth in an economy to cooking. To create valuable final products, we blend inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.

However, growth for him is not simply the result of doing more of the same activity, or of simply scaling the same recipe up. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, Romer argues that we would in time run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance that are the inevitable by-products of cooking in the economy.

Instead, he argues that the lesson of human history is that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking.

Ultimately, all increases in standards of living can be traced to discoveries of more valuable arrangements for the things in the earth’s crust and atmosphere… No amount of savings and investment, no policy of macroeconomic fine-tuning, no set of tax and spending incentives can generate sustained economic growth unless it is accompanied by the countless large and small discoveries that are required to create more value from a fixed set of natural resources. 

It is this combination, this injection of something new that is for Romer the engine of an idea’s value:

When a useful mixture is discovered… The discovery makes possible the creation of economic value. It lets us combine raw materials of low intrinsic value into mixtures that are far more valuable… In this fundamental sense, ideas make growth and development possible.

The plenitude of possibilities

The wonderful thing is that once one recognises the truth about the nature of ideas being new combinations, the resources at our disposal increase exponentially.

To appreciate the potential for discovery, we need only consider the possibility that an extremely small fraction of the vast number of possible mixtures available to us may be valuable.

To get a sense of the possibilities open to us, consider that a mere 10 building blocks or ingredients gives us 1013 combinations.  Twenty building blocks gives us 1,048,555 combinations. Forty gives us 1,099,511,627,735. And of course each of these new combinations in turn expands the number of building blocks to choose from. It really is exponential.

Of course, not all of these combinations will prove to be successful or desirable. Nonetheless as Brian Arthur reminds us, even if the chances are only one in a million that something useful will result, the possibilities still scale as (2N-N-1)/1,000000. Or approximately 2N-20. The possibilities – for newness, improvement, progress, surprise – are truly vast. In the words of Professor Romer, this is “combinatorial explosion.”

Perhaps a more simple example will suffice. All matter in the universe is constructed from just 92 elements.

Staying open

The chefs Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the restaurant The Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, and the writer Harold McGee are all at the forefront of what one might call the science of cooking – understanding the nature of ingredients, their interactions, and how cooking  processes work. In 2006 they put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus is food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity:

We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.

This advocacy of openness to all the world’s resources, methods and traditions and of the drawing upon on all human knowledge is precisely what is at the heart of any creative enterprise, whether in a restaurant, a laboratory, studio, or an advertising agency.

Crucially, we can – whether as individuals or organizations – be purposeful and deliberate in our quest for inspiration, rather than leave it to chance. If we are interested in the broader world around us, if we engage with it actively, if we pursue passions and interests beyond the necessities and demands of the every day, we stand a better chance of developing something new and interesting.

Just as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee advocated an open-ness to all the world’s resources, the adman James Webb Young wrote of this need to be constantly accumulating raw material from the world to bring to bear upon the creation of ideas:

The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope… It has little pieces of coloured glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical patterns. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

Feeding the kaleidoscope, ensuring that we increase the chances of ‘striking combinations’ at every turn is a powerful visualisation of how creativity requires stimulating and sustaining. The more we are open to the raw material that surrounds us, and the new creative possibilities that they carry, the greater the chance of something new arising.

As the organizational and management expert Margaret Wheatley has noted:

To stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balances so that it can change and grow. They participate in an active exchange with their world, using what is there for their renewal. Every organism in nature, including us, behaves this way.

Dynamism and life itself depends on interacting with the outside world. Progress, improvement, and growth – don’t simply come from doing more of exactly the same thing. We must look elsewhere for the resources needed to make this happen.

A great advocate and example of this open-minded way working was Louis Pasteur, who made many important discoveries through the practice of diligent observation. In 1851 he famously declared that “in the field of observation, chance only favours the prepared mind.” Indeed accidental discoveries have played a very major role in the search for new drugs,  with no less than 53 serendipitous discoveries having been catalogued in modern drug research.

In an altogether different field, Annie Dillard in her extraordinary book The Writing Life, reminds us that our technical and emotional resources are the limits of what we may accomplish. She cites the painter Paul Klee who maintained that “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.” Says Dillard:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.

We can of course choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations.

Specialising in the investigation of uncertainty and probability, Professor Nassim Taleb has observed that you have to work hard “to let contingency enter your working life”. I’d call it purposeful serendipity.

All that watching of TV, going to the cinema, reading books unrelated to our immediate line enquiry, web surfing, staring out of windows, hanging about drinking tea, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations… all that absorbing, participating and engaging in the outside world has a purpose. Indeed it is a necessity.

The world is open to us, a vast, teeming marketplace filled with a simply bewildering array of ingredients, and we have the freedom to select from it whatever we wish. We just have to be interested, and open our eyes.

As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

The art of cooking

Cooking and the creation of new recipes provide us then with an altogether more helpful, accurate and more economically relevant metaphor for ideas and the creative process than any “thinking outside the box”.

Cooking is all about relationships. Just as in the composition of music, it requires understanding harmonies and juxtapositions. Any fool can put on an apron and mix two random set of ingredients together, but not any fool can cook. Understanding the relationships between the ingredients and their interactions is crucial, as the food writer McGee notes:

To understand what’s happening within food as we cook it, we need to be familiar with the world of invisibly small molecules and their reactions with each other.

Similarly, Tania Sanchez recognizes the fundamental importance of understanding the ampersand for the creator, reminding us that creating a new perfume isn’t simply a question of throwing together random ingredients. The skill and artists of the perfumer – and one of the reasons why it takes many years to become a successful one – lies in understanding the and:

The breathless claims of fragrance marketing to the contrary, it is just not true that fine ingredients guarantee a great perfume. Imagine chucking a fresh Maine lobster, a wheel of top-notch Camembert, and a pound of artisanal Venezuelan chocolate in a kettle and simmering in Chartreuse until Wednesday. Yummy? It doesn’t work for perfume either.

Similarly, for the technology expert James Newcomb for example, providing energy efficiency services requires understanding an enormous number of individual technologies and the ability to successfully combine these technologies. “It’s the skill of a master chef” as he puts it, “Not a grocer’s buyer.”

It’s all very well having ideas, but success requires we have the skills to understand, explore, and imagine the “and”. Because there is an ampersand at the heart of every recipe or idea.

If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder to those untutored in the art and science of cooking, that they should occasionally resist the temptation to meddle. And indeed that they sometimes stay out of the kitchen altogether.

Sources

W. Brian Arthur, The Nature Of Technology: What It Is And How It Works

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

Kevin Kelly, ‘The Economics of Ideas’, Wired online, Issue 4.06, June 1996

Hugo Kubinyi, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind – from serendipity to rational drug design’

Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History, and Culture

Samuelson & Nordhaus, Microeconomics, 17th ed. (McGraw Hill 2001)

Romer, Paul (1992), “Two Strategies for Economic Development: Using Ideas and Producing Ideas, Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics, 1992, IBRD/The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Tania Sanchez, ‘Beauty and the Bees’, in Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide

Tania Sanchez, ‘How to connect your nose to your brain’ in Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable 

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn And Use It For Life

Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership And The New Science: Learning About Organisation From An Orderly Universe 

A planner’s guide to reading

12__Reading_young_man

“You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”

Paul Klee

“What should I read to inform and inspire myself?” I was asked by a planner recently. It’s proven a perennial question, and one I have dodged more often than answered. But I’ve finally given some thought to the kinds of reading we should be doing. For it struck me that if what we read has the capacity to expand our emotional and intellectual resources, then this is a good, necessary, and important question.

The great American writer Annie Dillard was good on the subject of our internal resources. Citing the painter Klee when he said You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox” Dillard observes that:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.

We can choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

So with that in mind, I’d want to suggest that there are seven kinds of reading we (planners) benefit from:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

I’ve provided below some humble, and largely subjective serving suggestions, based on reading that’s stayed with me, reading I keep returning to, and more recent reading.

Some observations and caveats:

My point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we benefit from, NOT, heaven forbid, to provide a comprehensive reading list.

Non-fiction does not hold the monopoly on truth and wisdom. The absence of fiction (which arguably contains more truth than any non-fiction) from recommended reading lists for planners is utterly baffling.

The fiction titles included are necessarily very personal and subjective choices – we must each work out our own tastes and preferences.

For the most part I have eschewed those breezily written books usually located in the psychology, business, or marketing sections of bookshops. More often than not they are of dubious methodological integrity. And everybody else has read them.

***

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

Because without that we fail.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Fiction teaches us empathy like no other art form.

(These are just some personal and recent favourites).

***

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

Because there are basics to be learnt.

Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

Lawrence Friedman, Strategy: A History

Judie Lannon and Merry Baskin’s (ed.) A Master Class In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters

***

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

Because there are basics to be learnt.

ed., Advertising Works: Cases from the Advertising Effectiveness Awards

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and The Short of it: Balancing Short- and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising

This is the canon. There’s little else to bother with. The rest is just noise.

***

4. That which shines a light on the present state of things

Because insight.

Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology

John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up At Night

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Atticus Lish, Preparation For The Next Life

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist

Zia Haider Rahman, In The Light Of What We Know

Laurence Scott, The Four Dimensional Human: Ways Of Being In The Digital World

Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

etc.

***

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

Because our task is creating new futures for our clients’ businesses.

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Don DeLillo, Zero K

David Eggers, The Circle

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns The Future?

John Markoff, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

***

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

Obviously.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History, and Culture

Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

Sophie Lovell, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible

***

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

Because forward progress depends on convincing others.

All great writing.

***

As I said, my point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we can benefit from, NOT to provide a comprehensive reading list. And when it comes to kinds of reading, I suggest we that range across seven kinds:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

In 2006 the chefs Ferran Adria , Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and the writer Harold McGee put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus was food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity who wishes to nurture and expand their intellectual resources:

We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

Happy reading.

Pausing For Thought

Shuna-Lydon-by-Erin-Gleeson

These words come from Shuna Lydon. She’s been a professional chef for over 16 years. It’s a bit of a ramble. It’s got nothing to do with the silly worlds of adland and marketingland. And yet. Despite being ostensibly about being a professional chef, there’s enough hard-earned wisdom here for everyone. And it’s far too good not to share:

 

A chef I worked with once used to say, “You have to be able to go to bed with yourself at night.” In other words: where is your fucking integrity?

Esteemable acts build self esteem.

Nothing else. No bling, no sex, no person, no awards, no TV spots, no stock options, no trust fund, no purebred dog, no wedding in East Hampton, no name in bright lights, no knives named after you, no resume, nothing else, but your repetition of esteemable acts, will build, nourish and uphold self esteem.

Because when you’re a cook among cooks, it’s a god damned verb. We cook. Action. Active. Constant. Repeat. Craft.

We cooks respect the now. We don’t care where you’ve been, who you’ve fucked, how many hours you worked at your last job, where your scars come from, what the NY Times said about you, what your jacket’s been embroidered with, how much French you speak, how many varietals of mushrooms you know, what you think of sea salt, how many farms you’ve visited, where you started, how long you’ve been doing it. Cooks watch. Cooks listen.

How elegant are you on the line? Is every plate the same? At what point will you break and start cutting corners? Are you cleaner, faster, more efficient than me?

How about your manners? Do you kiss certain people’s ass and talk shit behind another’s? Do you say hello to everyone by name when you walk in the door? Do you shake everyone’s hand regardless of position? Do you wait until someone asks for your help before giving it freely? When your fellows are in the weeds do you jump in to help? Do you know how to listen with more than your ears? Do you thank the people who have helped you? When you give notice are you graceful?

Kitchens are old school. They’re not necessarily democracies, even if the government they’ve grown up in is. The manners chefs in most kitchens expect might be considered ‘old fashioned.’ I say it’s better to err on old fashioned. few people will fault you for saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘Yes, Chef.’ Most chefs don’t want to hear what you think or even have time for a discussion when they’re correcting or talking to you. If you think you know better, do better. If you think you can do better, what the fuck are you waiting for? If you made a mistake, be grateful your chef noticed, take [immediate!] heed, move on. If you’re sure you know better than your chef, you’re in the wrong fucking kitchen – leave and go where the chef knows more than you or become a sous chef so you can feel the pleasure of constantly being wedged between a rock and a harder place.

Even if you’re front of house. Especially if you’re front of house. The chefs are considered the parents of the house, even if they don’t pay the mortgage.

These words: Reliability. Accountability. Cleanliness. Humility. Manners. Efficiency. They apply to waiters, bussers, back waiters, captains, baristas, runners, bartenders and everyone in between.

You think that when you become a chef it will be all about cooking. All about baking. All about food. You and the meditation of kitchen. But once you become someone responsible for humans and not just carrots, the game changes forever. carrots don’t braise themselves. Cakes don’t rise because you hope they will. All those burgers don’t get to temp at the wave of your expert hand.

People. People are the machine that run the ship. People. And people need encouragement, admonishing,teaching, inspiring, guiding, pushing, critiquing, listening to, growing, forcing, nudging, laughing with, watching, learning, mentoring, following, yelling, training, fighting, wrestling, forging, molding, and setting free.

And it’s not just chefs who are ‘in charge of’ cooks. Cooks need to be in charge of themselves. They need to go to bed with themselves at night. Cooks need to rely on one another. Cooks need to speak to and with one another. They need to watch and listen and learn who are the good ones amongst them all. Stick with the winners is what I say. Cooks need to work next to, with, alongside their prep staff. A chef du partie is only as good as her commis. A commis is only as good as his chef du partie.

Because what you learn in the kitchen, what you learn on the floor: When that person who has been around your block a few more times than you, takes the time to pass on their experience, pass on a few words of encouragement/critique/acknowledgement/compliment/admonishment, they’re doing it for the you of you, not merely the you of the numbers on your paycheck.

Listen and use these words, these exercises, these lessons, these challenges/growing opportunities to water your integrity, to nourish your self esteem, to honor humility, to pay homage to your craft. Use these exercises, these lessons, these challenges/growing opportunities to the betterment of your kitchen, you, your goals, and whomever you choose to pass them onto next.

For these are not merely kitchen lessons, these are life lessons.

Keep them as clean and as sharp as your knives, and they will never steer you wrong.

 

 

 

Source

http://www.eggbeater.typepad.com/

Thanks to Keith White for sharing this gold dust.

 

Outsights And The Pursuit of Serendipity

 

Disappearing.013.001The shape of ideas
James Webb Young was a copywriter at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in the USA. Beginning in 1912, he was in and out of the agency for 52 years, and was a major intellectual influence on it. In 1940 he published a refreshingly slim book (weighing in at a mere 50 pages) entitled A Technique For Producing Ideas. Given the extent of its rhetoric around anything to do with ideas, it remains bizarrely neglected by the advertising industry yet in its pages we find some of the wisest, and crucially the most useful, writing on the subject of ideas:

"An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events"

Young’s specific focus of interest was of course the development of advertising ideas. Yet amidst the rhetoric and jargon we so often get from ad agencies, marketing and brand consultants, this is a practical and probably blindingly obvious definition that we can work with. 

This notion of the combining of different worlds or spheres of knowledge has been echoed more recently in the work of the psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his analysis of the creative process and individual, Csikszentmihalyi saw creativity as drawing from what he termed ‘domains’ . These were self-contained man-made patterns and categories of order and knowledge. Each one of these multitude of domains – whether it is for example, flower arranging, risk management, aerodynamics, bricklaying, software programming, or photography – represents a coherent body or reservoir of powers and possibilities. And we can in turn think of creativity as being the act of drawing from and combining these different domains and their constellations of methods, devices, understandings and practices. 

The trap of narrowness
If we depend on the outside world for ideas, then we should be cautious of too much focus and narrowness.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former chief technology officer of Cicso Systems Judy Estrin has recently warned of the damage that narrowing horizons, over-focusing on short-term rewards and an aversion towards risk-taking has done to the long-term competitiveness of the USA in the global economy.

If we remain too near the centre of things or never move from it, we will never be able to see the edge – never mind what lies on the other side. 

There’s an old advertising agency gag – when people talk to themselves, we call it madness. When businesses talk to themselves we call it marketing. The industry of ‘consumer insight’ (conveniently invented by the market research industry) seemingly compels business and organizations to devolve ever deeper into the behaviours and attitudes of people.  The language surrounding the exercise speaks of ‘drilling’, ‘uncovering’ and ‘revealing’ those precious gems of understanding that qualify as ‘insight’. Whatever that might be.  

There is of course nothing inherently wrong with this – as long as it is just one perspective that the organization takes. On it its own however, and without a broader sense of context, it invariably leads to an ever greater narrowing of focus and understanding. Revolving in ever tighter, ever decreasing circles, in the end the business sees only ‘consumers’, not people. And it sees only moments of purchase and consumption, not broader lives, interests and preoccupations. As Judy Estrin has argued: “It’s hard to think broadly and go beyond incremental improvement when the mantra of the organisation is focus, focus, focus.”

The problem with much so-called insight is that it is fundamentally introverted, and condemns a business or organization to being divorced from the very stuff of ideas, cut off frommaterial from the outside. This trap is one that P&G recognized they had fallen into. As  the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble A.G. Lafley and the management consultant Ram Charam openly confess in The Game-Changer:

“P&G needed to look at consumer more broadly.  It tended to narrow in on only one aspect of the consumer–for example, their mouth for oral-care products, their hair for shampoo, their loads of dirty clothes and their washing machines for laundry detergents.  P&G had essentially extracted the consumer out of her own life (and, at times, a particular body part as well!) and myopically focused on what was most important to the company – the product or the technology.”

In other words, taking a broader perspective on people liberated the company to find new and meaningful opportunities for innovation. Lafley and Charan go on to note that P&G has since learned to go beyond the ‘consumer‘ and their interaction with their brand or product – and to develop an appreciation and understanding of them as a real, three-dimensional human beings – their lives, responsibilities, family relationships, and aspirations and dreams for themselves and their family.

So if we embrace the immutable truth that ideas are new combinations, combinations of previously unrelated fields, and if we are to encourage broader perspectives, new frames of reference and new sources of inspiration, we should probably start encouraging the pursuit of outsights, rather than insights.

Staying alive
The quest for dynamism and growth compels us to be connected and participating in the outside world. 

Thermodynamics refers to what it calls ‘closed systems’. These are systems that are isolated and closed off from their surrounding environments. The Second Law of thermodynamics describes the tendency of these closed systems to ultimately reach an end state of equilibrium. This is the point at which the system has worn down, done its work, and has exhausted all its capacity for change and dynamism. 

The most obvious exception to this law is life itself. Living systems are open systems that are active partners with their environments. Their systems stay open to, interact with, and adapt to their surrounding environment. They’re open to outside stimuli. And it is this open-ness that provides them with the ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. 

The organizational expert Margaret Wheatley has applied this knowledge of how the natural world organises itself to thinking about how businesses and organizations remain vital and dynamic: 

“To stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balances so that it can change and grow. They participate in an active exchange with their world, using what is there for their renewal. Every organism in nature, including us, behaves this way.”

We can think of language as a living thing, an open system. This is why the English language operates in a state of constant flux and innovation. The Global Language Monitor (GLM), a San Diego-based linguistic consultancy, reckoned that on 21 March 2006 there were about 988,968 words in the language, "plus or minus a handful".  And so “to Google” now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The necessity of open-ness has relevance to how businesses organize themselvess too. Cass R. Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago concludes that: “Organizations  and nations are far more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness.” Organisations  – and individuals – then, must find ways of staying porous, of accessing the outside world, letting it into their hallways, offices, and conversations.

And the truth of the matter is that it is easier than it ever has been in our history – provided one has the will and desire – to open ourselves up and let the world in. Whatever the pitfalls and potential shortcomings, technology now makes available to us more data, information, knowledge, images, ideas, points of view than our parents could ever have dreamt of accessing. We can search purposefully. Or we can wander and browse aimlessly. Once upon a time one might have had some half decent excuses for not being open. The outside world was a long way away. It took a long time to get there, or for it to come to us. It was expensive and the province of the privileged. Today however, we click, and the outside world floods onto our screens. There is no longer any excuse for not being open.

There are many businesses out there in the world that are exactly what they profess – they are “consumer/customer- focused”. These are often precisely the same businesses that  – for all their focus on the customer – may one day find themselves woefully out of step with the times, out-manoeuvred by more agile organizations, or repositioned and rendered redundant by competition from completely outside their immediate category and reference points. A focus solely on Inside knowledge ultimately commits an organization – and individual for that matter – to being a closed, not open system, to the eventual fate of equilibrium, not dynamism.

Purposeful serendipity
The world teems with ingredients and possibilities. Crucially, we can – whether as individuals or organizations – be purposeful and deliberate in our quest for inspiration, rather than leave it to chance. If we are interested in the broader world around us, if we engage with it actively, if we pursue passions and interests beyond the necessities and demands of the every day, we stand a better chance of developing something new and interesting.

The chefs Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the restaurant The Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, and the writer Harold McGee are all at the forefront of what one might call the science of cooking – understanding the nature of ingredients, their interactions, and how cooking  processes work. In 2006 they put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus is food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity:

“We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet's ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

This advocacy of openness to all the world’s resources, methods and traditions and of the drawing upon on all human knowledge is precisely what is at the heart of any creative enterprise, whether in a restaurant, a laboratory, studio, or an advertising agency.  Ideas are born of combinations, of bringing together hitherto unrelated domains, so and interest in and engagement with the broader world is fundamental to creativity and successful idea creation.

Just as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee advocated an open-ness to all the world’s resources, the adman James Webb Young wrote of this need to be constantly accumulating raw material from the world to bring to bear upon the creation of ideas:

“The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope… It has little pieces of coloured glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical patterns. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.”

Feeding the kaleidoscope, ensuring that we increase the chances of ‘striking combinations’ at every turn is a powerful visualisation of how creativity requires stimulating and sustaining. The more we are open to the raw material that surrounds us, and the new creative possibilities that they carry, the greater the chance of something new arising. 

A great advocate and example of this open-minded way working was Louis Pasteur, who made many important discoveries through the practice of diligent observation. In 1851 he famously declared that “in the field of observation, chance only favours the prepared mind.” Indeed accidental discoveries have played a very major role in the search for new drugs,  with no less than 53 serendipitous discoveries having been catalogued in modern drug research.

In an altogether different field, Annie Dillard in her extraordinary book The Writing Life, reminds us that our technical and emotional resources are the limits of what we may accomplish. She cites the painter Paul Klee who maintained that “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.” Says Dillard:

“The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”

We can of course choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. 

Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. 

The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. 

Specialising in the investigation of uncertainty and probability, Professor Nassim Taleb has observed that you have to work hard “to let contingency enter your working life”. I call it purposeful serendipity. All that watching of TV, going to the cinema, reading books unrelated to our immediate line enquiry, web surfing, staring out of windows, hanging about drinking tea, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations… all that absorbing, participating and engaging in the outside world has a purpose. Indeed it is a necessity. 

The world is open to us, a vast, teeming marketplace filled with a simply bewildering array of ingredients, and we have the freedom to select from it whatever we wish. We just have to be interested, and open our eyes. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

Journeying to the edge
If ideas represent the import of new material from outside domains, then the implications for both individuals and organisations in the pursuit of creativity of all kinds should be obvious.  Like the medieval missionary in the so-called Flammarion woodcut who found the point where the sky and the Earth touched, we must organise ourselves to travel to the edges and explore new domains. We must train and cultivate minds that have an interest in the outside world. 

Because if our source of inspiration is only ever limited to the output of our peers and competitors, with their awards and case studies, and if we only ever focus inwards, on ‘consumers’, industry-defined categories and frames of reference we’ll eventually land up firmly in a place where the sun doesn’t shine.  

 

 

Sources

Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Judy Estrin, Closing The Innovation Gap: Reigniting The Spark of Creativity In A Global Economy, 2009

Hugo Kubinyi, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind – from serendipity to rational drug design’

Lafley, A.G. and Ram Charan. 2008.  The Game-Changer

Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Lafley, A.G. and Ram Charan. 2008.  The Game-Changer

Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership And The New Science: Learning About Organisation From An Orderly Universe