Monday, September 29, 2014

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders for Fall 2014

Thus far in 2014, we have seen at least two additions to the short bookshelf of essential readings for creative leaders: Pixar CEO Ed Catmull’s account (with Amy Wallace) of building and sustaining a successful creative culture, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration; and Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill’s masterful guide to leading successful innovation across organizations, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (written with Greg Brandeau, Kent Lineback, and Emily Truelove). Other recent highlights included Connected by Design: Seven Principles for Business Transformation through Functional Integration, the outstanding work about new ways to create value through brand ecosystems, by Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman of the legendary creative agency, R/GA; Stanford professors Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao’s major study of how to build up businesses successfully, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less; and Arianna Huffington’s manifesto for re-defining well-being, work and success, revisionist study of talent and creativity, ThriveThe Third Metric and Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

The fall book season is now upon us and promises further new and relevant titles. These will include analyses of marketing, China, and Google, a handful of titles on innovation, ranging from practical implementation guides to a longer history, and, perhaps most far-reaching, reflections on the changes wrought by digital technologies to individuals and society. All contain insights valuable to the work and lives of creative leaders.

1) Ulrich Boser, The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/New Harvest, September 16)
Traveling from rural Rwanda to corporate America, and from paying taxes to using technology, Boser argues that individuals are hard-wired for trust and trustworthiness and that emphasizing and restoring trust can benefit us as humans as well as our institutions and communities.

2) Richard Branson, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership (Penguin/Portfolio, September 9)
The iconic CEO and entrepreneur, already author of a best-selling autobiography and books on business, here describes his key leadership principles like good listening, keeping things simple, remaining iconoclastic, motivating people, and having fun along the way.

3) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton, September 29)
Carr, the consistently trenchant analyst of technological change who wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, here offers a thoughtful and sometimes disturbing account, grounded in science and poetry alike, of the ways that our increasing reliance on technology is affecting our happiness and re-shaping our humanity.

4) Lawrence A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia Business School Publishing, October 21)
An extraordinary portrait of the fifty direct subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway, investment guru Warren Buffett’s $300 billion conglomerate, told through the companies’ distinct stories and the vital values like integrity, autonomy, entrepreneurship and a sense of permanence that they, and Buffett, share.

5) Tom Doctoroff, Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Remastering the Art of Brand Marketing (Palgrave MacMillan, November 11)
The Asia CEO of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Doctoroff uses characteristic wit and decades of experience to take on the twin hypes of digital media and the China market and to offer insightful principles for successful customer engagement and integrated brand marketing.

6) Stewart D. Friedman, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business Review Press, October 7)
Wharton professor Friedman, building on his excellent study, Total Leadership, uses examples ranging from Sheryl Sandberg to Bruce Springsteen to move from familiar calls to balance competing work and life commitments toward taking steps, instead, to integrate our passions and values across the domains of work, home, community, and the private self.

7) Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing the Lean Startup into Your Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, September 9)
How can business leaders better manage the uncertainty intrinsic to prototyping and experimentation? Picking up from Dyer’s bestselling guide to generating ideas, The Innovator’s DNA (written with Hal Gregersen and Clay Christensen), this new volume focuses on proven techniques that allow start-ups and established firms to commercialize ideas successfully.

8) Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, October 7)
Isaacson, the biographer of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and most recently, Steve Jobs, has penned a sweeping history of digital technologies, the computer and internet, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, with Lord Byron’s daughter, and tracing the innovative thinking, creative leadership and energetic collaboration to the present day.  

9) Langdon Morris, Moses Ma and Po Chi Wu, Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity Hardcover (Wiley, September 22)
Two leading innovation thinkers and consultants (Morris and Ma) and an engineering professor (Wu) have written an excellent (and overdue) guide to how agile techniques, like process acceleration, risk management, and fuller team engagement, have fostered successful innovation for leading businesses and can be put into practice elsewhere.

10) Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Wiley, October 20)
Using the same engaging visual approach as their groundbreaking Business Model Generation, which pioneered the business model canvas, Osterwalder et al focus on the most important of the canvas’ building blocks, the value proposition, and enable readers to work through seven key principles for better designing what matters to customers. 

11) Shaun Rein, The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation and Individualism in China (Wiley, October 20)
A leading consultant and commentator on the Chinese society and economy, and the author of The End of Cheap China, Rein analyzes current large-scale shifts in China from investment toward consumption, and from copying to innovation, that require a strategic re-thinking by investors and creative leaders doing (or wanting to do) business there.

12) Paul Roberts, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, September 2)
A troubling, cross-disciplinary account of how individual pursuits of consumption, pleasure, and immediate rewards, advanced by new technologies and compromised ethics, have evolved in a new and pervasive ‘culture of narcissism’ — that journalist Roberts nevertheless closes on a hopeful note of how we can pull back and change.

13) Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, How Google Works (Grand Central/Business Plus, September 23).
Google’s former SVP of Products and ex-CEO reveal how the global tech company has grown by doing things differently, like hiring multitalented ‘smart creatives’ and leading with the recognition that ‘consensus requires dissension,’ in order to continually create new products and serve consumers in a fast-changing environment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dave Trott and the Challenge of Creative Thinking (While Still Learning)

Dave Trott is a British advertising legend.  He’s written two books and keeps a lively and provocative blog.  He also regularly speaks to industry audiences, including a talk to EMBA participants at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership I was privileged to hear.  I am a regular reader and admirer of his work.

Trott’s writings tend to be anecdotal and provocative.  He doesn’t offer recommendation lists or how-to guides for doing better creative work or building creative organizations, preferring to share observations, stories and occasional advice on generating original work in an increasingly fraught brand marketing landscape.  A recurrent priority is celebrating the creative muse while also defending it against the ever-growing onslaught of business demands, formulaic processes, and formal education.

His August 12 blogpost on ‘How “Learnings” Prevents Thinking’ captured this priority nicely.  As the title conveys, the post discusses how learning can impede and constrain creative thinking.  In particular, Trott discusses learning a ‘terminology’, that is, a set of terms that serve as agreed-upon ‘metaphors’ or shorthand for different activities.  The problem with such learning for him is that once learned, the meaning of the terms can become ‘impenetrable’ and ‘accepted as fact’.  Learnings here lead to the adoption of terms and meanings that ‘no one ever questions’.  The result is that the questioning so fundamental to original thinking is foreclosed.

As an educator, I found myself both agreeing with Trott’s pragmatic argument but also being professionally unsettled by it.  After all, I’ve spent years striving to impart or, at least, enable creatives and other leaders to achieve learning in the belief that it will improve them and their creative work.   Pausing over the blogpost, and returning to his two books, Creative Mischief (2011) and Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition (2013), I asked myself whether the education or training or ‘formal’ inputs I provide were possibly hindering the thinking of my creatives and executives.

Trott’s provocation is hardly the first of its kind, of course.  Others have rightly questioned the influence, often negative, of educational processes and systems on creativity and imagination.  Perhaps most familiarly, and cogently, Sir Ken Robinson has called for reforms in education and training to unleash and encourage rather than repress and inhibit imagination and creative thinking. 

While Robinson’s primary focus has been on the schooling of children, his broader insights have great relevance to adults and, particularly, their organizations, like the corporation.  The systems, specializations, and processes that shape and define businesses and many other organizations appear to constrain original thinking and creativity in ways similar to rote learning and memorization in schools.  Longstanding has been the perceived discrepancy between the imperatives of business efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line and the possibilities of more open-ended innovation, risk-taking, and creative thinking.

Recently, however, more and more businesses have begun to recognize that some systems or processes can be necessary and even contribute positively to creative thinking and original outputs.  Adaptable and human-centered approaches, like agile or design thinking, for example, seem to support both organizational and individual needs for sustained performance and growth.  Such processes form less a discordant constraint than a productive tension enabling people to reflect and question as a basis of their own creative work and contribution to a larger, collective endeavor. 

In the words of Trott’s post, the processes allow individuals precisely to question the terminology they use together.  It is worth observing that many of the terms he mentions are trendy and deserve not only to be questioned but potentially cast aside entirely for overuse.  The list is (sadly) long: ‘Brand audit, cluster groups, segmentation, penetration, CRM, SEO, CSR, ROI, KPI, UGC, integrated, transactional, native-advertising, value-added, differentials, core-competency, ideation, hygiene-factors, demographics, psychographics, profile-testing, deliverables, storytelling, narrow-casting, acquisition, content, data-capture, rate card, deep-dive’.

In my own work with creatives and other leaders, a core belief is indeed to question the basic terms of business whose deeper and more complex meanings are discussed too infrequently in individual settings, situations, and contexts.  Among these are talent, business model, strategy, culture, technology, operations, and finance.  Particularly at a time when being successful creatively often means having the capabilities to generate creative business solutions for clients and customers, such fundamental terms should not only be engaged but interrogated as a source of potential advantage.

So perhaps, as an educator, I stand closer to Dave Trott than I had initially imagined upon reading his post.  Rather than simply assigning or parroting fixed meanings, the ‘learning’ we should strive for is open-ended, adaptive, and committed to the ongoing interrogation of ‘terminology’ and the possibilities of any situation.  That process also seems a promising one to encourage more consistently unconstrained creative thinking in business and beyond.