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May 2013

“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Friday, May 31, 2013 
TGIF Music – Benny Goodman 

It started out as a publicity stunt. Wynn Nathanson, publicist to Benny Goodman in 1937, suggested to the popular bandleader and foremost jazz clarinetist that they book Goodman’s band into Carnegie Hall, the American temple of high culture. While Goodman was initially hesitant, he finally agreed to take the risk after the success of the films featuring Goodman’s band, “The Big Broadcast of 1937” and “Hollywood Hotel”. 

Risks were not new to Goodman. His band tried playing it safe during the first set at a new gig in the Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom on August 21, 1935.  After a indifferent reception from the audience, Goodman’s drummer, Gene Krupa, who would become a legend in his own right, told the bandleader, "If we're gonna die, Benny, let's die playing our own thing." Goodman took the advice and went for broke, playing the music that would earn him the title “King of Swing”. The crowd started dancing like crazy and word of this exciting music spread across the country like wildfire. 

The Carnegie Hall concert on January 16, 1938, started much the same way but with an even bigger outcome: It changed the world of music forever. In a hall heretofore reserved for “serious music” the King of Swing got off to a slow start but built the tempo into a rousing finale of one of Goodman’s signature songs, “Sing Sing Sing”. Jazz became mainstream. The album of the concert is one of the leading sellers in music history and has never been out of print. (You can hear the full recording of the concert at this link. Look on the right-hand side of the page when the link opens.) 

Part of Goodman’s success was due to his high standards, standards that would not countenance racial discrimination. He featured great African-American musicians like Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian. Goodman’s view was “If a guy's got it, let him give it. I'm selling music, not prejudice.” But it is important to bear in mind that this was 1930s America, a far less tolerant country than it is today. It took considerable courage on Goodman’s part to take this stance. 

But there was a limit to how far Goodman could go with his creativity. Swing and the Big Bands fell victim to musicians being drafted for World War II and the accompanying gas rationing that limited touring. Goodman tried his hand at bebop, which was based on incorporating advanced ideas from classical music. While initially successful, he later grew disenchanted with the new style as well as with its successor, cool jazz. He spent his final years focusing on classical music, returning to his initial training he had received as a young boy in Chicago, and serving as an ambassador of jazz to the rest of the world. 

Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of Goodman’s birth (May 30, 1909). He died June 13, 1986. 

Quote of the Day: “After you've done all the work and prepared as much as you can, what the hell, you might as well go out and have a good time.” -- Benny Goodman 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Tuesday, May 28, 2013 
The End To “If We Build It They Will Come” Innovation? 

This morning’s news include a sad feature on the liquidation of a Better Place, a once glamorous startup promoting the innovation of swapping out batteries on electric vehicles to move us to a better energy and transportation future. Better Place won’t be leading us to that future. 

Better Place took on entrenched industries that are willing to let the planet warm and the seas rise than change practices. And it did a poor, and ultimately fatal, job of managing its costs. 

Lofty sentiments only get you so far. Imaginative thinking has to be coupled with hardheaded entrepreneurial realism. Better Place is not the first alternative energy-related firm to go out-of-business, and it won’t be the last. But as one commentator states in the podcast version of the story, it may be the end of the “If We Build It They Will Come” syndrome, at least in this particular market segment. 

Read more and listen to the full podcast at the link. 

Quote of the Day: "People mocked flat-screen televisions, right? People mock change. And that's ok, because you know, they're not my first customer." -- Jigar Shah, solar entrepreneur and cleantech investor, of the investment firm Inerjys on the liquidation of Better Place 

“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Monday, May 27, 2013 
“It is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process” 

Great article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review website on how social innovators are starting to sort out what works from what doesn’t. Scholars Christian Seelos & Johanna Mair distill from the academic literature six recommendations for productive innovation in social sector organizations, quoted here at length:

1. Treat innovation as a process, not primarily as an outcome. Efforts to explicitly link the characteristics and dynamics of organizational innovation to its consequences provide valuable evidence for decision making and enable organizations to identify areas for productive support as well as to fine-tune interventions and resource provision strategies.

2. Treat innovation as an independent variable, and reflect on multiple positive and negative outcomes during the innovation process. The focus on innovation within organizations enables an accurate assessment of the internal and external dimension of value created by innovation activities.

3. Recognize that innovation processes integrate different organizational and external factors. These factors include individuals (e.g., idea creation), groups (e.g., idea evaluation), organizations (e.g., resource allocation and formalization of new activities), and contexts (e.g., external power structures or collaboration partners). Evaluating innovation requires consideration of several levels of analysis concurrently.

4. Understand the prevailing cognitive, normative, and political dimensions within organizations to determine how they might enable or stifle innovation. This could allow younger organizations to better monitor and suppress emerging negative innovation factors and increase their learning and innovation capacity. And it could allow more mature organizations to develop more focused organizational redesigns, to rejuvenate processes, and to legitimize tough but necessary decisions.

5. Capture insights from successful and unsuccessful innovations in organizations over time. This approach to social innovation trumps prevailing approaches that generalize innovation factors based on static snapshots across organizations or based on single observations of innovation events. It also tests for the presence or absence of an important enabler of innovation: organizational learning.

Reflect on the differences in innovation processes, influencing factors, and outcomes across different cultures and geographies rather than on general innovation factors. We know very little about such innovation-related factors as creativity, idea evaluation, and learning in organizations as they apply to non-Western settings.

 Quote of the Day: “Every improvement or innovation begins with an idea. But an idea is only a possibility — a small beginning that must be nurtured, developed, engineer, tinkered with, championed, tested, implemented and checked ideas have no value until they are implemented.”– Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Saturday, May 25, 2013 
The Saturday Muse – Ambivalently Celebrating Richard Wagner’s Birthday 

My better half and I attended a fun event this week. The Seattle Opera celebrated Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday anniversary (May 22, 1813) with festivities at the Seattle Center. Among other activities, the celebration featured an amateur Wagner opera singers contest where each participant sang (or at least attempted to sing) the famous Ride theme (“Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiaha!”) from the third act of The Valkyrie, an appropriate (and timely and good marketing) happening since the opestivities at the Seattle Center. Among other activities, the celebration featured an amateur Wagner opera singers contest where each participant sang (or at least attempted to sing) the famous Ride theme (“Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiaha!”) from the third act of The Valkyrie, an appropriate (and timely and good marketing) happening since the opera company is once again staging the entire Ring Cycle this summer. See some entertaining photos of the event at the first link.

But amidst the good-natured fun, let’s not lose sight of Wagner’s creative genius – or his enormous failings -- during this bicentennial. William Berger, author of “Wagner Without Fear,” in a NPR interview reminds us that Wagner is among the most revolutionary of all composers. His originality was due in part to being self-taught, meaning he was never locked into any academic conventions. Wagner’s musical ideas are so pervasive throughout our culture that we barely recognize them today. “His music was ‘cinematic’ before cinema existed; his influence on dramatic film scoring and other theatrical expression becomes evident when we examine his inventive tonal imagery.” 

Berger also notes that Wagner is also one of the most controversial of composers. Some of this controversy is over the music, but more of it is over Wagner’s notorious nationalistic bluster, with its repugnant anti-Semitic ranting. It is never good for one’s legacy to be exalted by Adolf Hitler. 

Let’s put this controversy is some context. As for the nationalism, this is vital to Wagner’s creativity. As critic Daniel Kletke notes, Wagner’s “all-encompassing involvement in his [German medieval myth] sources totally shaped and influenced his creative processes for decades. In fact, Wagner appropriated, altered, modified, adjusted, and revised the chivalric code and the medieval text to serve his new ideology. May it suffice to label this process in Wagner’s own term as an integral part of his Gesamtkunstwerk [universal artwork].” 

The virulent anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are harder to rationalize or excuse. It can certainly be said, though hardly in praise, that Wagner reflected the attitudes of many of his time. Sadly, being creative, even highly creative to the point of genius, doesn’t guarantee good character or good judgment in other aspects of life. 

But, after all, we Americans cut George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers quite a bit of slack over their shortcomings. And as William Berger notes, ironically Wagner’s last opera, “Lohengrin”, inspired both Adolf Hitler’s perverse theories and the formation of the modern state of Israel. 

So enjoy Wagner this weekend, and celebrate his creative genius, perhaps starting with the Ride of the Valkyries. Try your own voice at “Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiaha!” And remember, none of us is perfect. 

Quote of the Day: “Imagination creates reality.” -- Richard Wagner 



“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Friday, May 24, 2013 
TGIF Music – Marvin Gaye’s "What's Going On" 

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album, released this week forty-two years ago (May 21, 1971), is rightly considered to be one of the landmark recordings in pop music history. This concept album is told from the standpoint of a Vietnam War veteran returning stateside after fighting for his country only to find it mired in suffering, hate, and injustice. The album features a unique song cycle, where the words of one song leads into the next, with the first song’s theme being reprised at the end. 

The album evokes more than a little melancholy in me while listening to it all these years later. Appreciate the creativity as you listen to the full album at the link. But also reflect on the sad state of our nation at this time … and how little we seemed to have learned from Marvin Gaye’s genius. 

Quote of the Day: “I hope to refine music, study it, try to find some area that I can unlock. I don't quite know how to explain it but it's there. These can't be the only notes in the world, there's got to be other notes some place, in some dimension, between the cracks on the piano keys.” -- Marvin Gaye 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today – Thursday, May 23, 2013 
CEOs and Innovation: Disillusion or Delusion? 

Bloomberg & BusinessWeek report on a recent study by the consulting firm Accenture that found … 

> Ninety-three percent of CEOs surveyed, out of a sample from 519 companies across twelve industry sectors in the U.S., Britain, and France, believe “the long-term success of their organization’s business strategy depends on their ability to innovate” 

>Half (51percent) of the CEOs had increased investment in innovation 

>Yet “fewer than one in five chief executives believes his strategic investments in innovation are paying off, and that this poor track record is starting to discourage companies from taking risks” 

Wow! There are many bumps (with more to come) along the road to building a more creative society, and here is a huge one. While I believe the randomness of the process for turning creative ideas into useful new products and services (aka innovation) can be managed and thereby reduced, it cannot be eliminated totally. 

Thus, the CEOs’ disillusionment about innovation raises a number of challenging questions. At the top of the list, can people and organizations really change? 

Is the survey just an indicator that the early delusion of romance with innovation has come and gone, replaced by the cold reality that innovation is not a quick-fix gimmick? Or are we looking at the need for an entire generation of older leaders, with habits of mind shaped by the old industrial production culture, needing to die off to make way for a younger generation of leaders with an entirely different set of life and work experiences who feel creativity and innovation in their bones? 

Can we really build organizations that endure through time by adapting to change, meaning they constantly innovate? Or is it inevitable that organizations ossify like people, and have to die off to be replaced by new organizations? 

What if the answer to the latter question is “yes”? Then how do corporate laws and accounting regulations need to change to support this new reality? 

Quote of the Day: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” ― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today – Tuesday, May 21, 2013 
Monopolies Block Innovation 

I might as well have entitled this entry “Dog Bites Man”. The New York Times reported yesterday on Professor Susan Cooper’s one-woman crusade against monopoly control of our digital channels of communication. As the article puts it, “Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.” No kidding. 

Cooper, who teaches at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age”. The book provides the answer to why, as the article puts it, “much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era”. She points to Verizon’s decision to stop building out its fiber optic network, with the capacity to deliver more data more smoothly, in favor of more profitable wireless service as an example of how innovation is being harmed. 

Cooper notes that Comcast and Time Warner provide 50 million American homes with broadband service, essentially giving them a lock on supplying this technology, while Verizon and AT&T own 64 percent of cellphone service. She urges states and local governments take back control of the information infrastructure as the antidote. Yet nineteen states have already acted, at the big companies’ request, to block the type of public-private partnerships Cooper advocates. 

Read more at the link. Needless to say, this is no way to go about building a more creative society. 

Quote of the Day: “A monopoly on the means of communication may define a ruling elite more precisely than the celebrated Marxian formula of monopoly in the means of production.” – Robert Anton Wilson, author and civil liberties advocate 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Saturday, May 18, 2013 
The Saturday Muse – Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” 

“Lincoln Portrait” is one of Aaron Copland's “most beloved and widely performed works” (according to National Public Radio). The composer’s tribute to our 16th, and perhaps greatest, president came about in response to World War II. Conductor Andre Kostelanetz offered commissions to several well-known American composers to write serious music to stir patriotic fervor shortly after the U.S. involvement in the conflict. 

Copland’s initial reaction was to regard the task as impossible. But in seeking inspiration, he thought about basing a symphonic piece on the life and words of a great American, eventually calling this a “portrait”. As Copland later recounted, he chose quotes from Lincoln’s letters and speeches that seemed relevant to the nation as it embarked on another difficult struggle. 

Copland took musical themes from songs popular in Lincoln’s day and wove them into the piece. For example, one can clearly hear the melody of "Camptown Races" in the work. 

Yet as thoroughly American as “Lincoln Portrait” is, the ideas and music in it are universal in appeal. It has been performed in many languages, including French, Spanish, and German. 

I ask you to listen to “Lincoln Portrait” on this the anniversary of its premiere this week back in 1942 (May 14, 1942). Amidst gridlock and scandal in Washington, DC, a failing economy, interminable war, it is easy to become depressed and discouraged about the future of nation. Here is what Lincoln had to say (and what will serve as our Quote of the Day) in the midst of what were undoubtedly even worse times: 

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country." 

In other words, we must be creative and come up with innovative solutions to our current problems. 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Friday, May 17, 2013 
TGIF Music – “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys 

Before there was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” there was “Pet Sounds”. Though critics continue to argue about what is in fact the first true rock “concept album”, there is little doubt that “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, released this week 47 years ago (May 16, 1966), was the first commercially successful one. Paul McCartney gives credit to “Pet Sounds” as the inspiration to the Beatles in crafting their masterpiece. 

The concept in “Pet Sounds” is Beach Boy’s leader Brian Wilson’s state of mind. Brian has suffered from a mental illness for much of his adult life. That said, in a very real sense his songs in the album reflect the profound changes going on in American society at the time. “Pet Sounds” has been called a herald of the psychedelic era with its references to altered states of mind, whether achieved by drugs or by Eastern philosophy. The album also showed innovation through its use of unconventional instrumentation (bicycle bells, a Theremin, and dog whistles, to name a few) in a novel baroque pop style that has been emulated many times since. 

The Times of London and Mojo Magazine have declared “Pet Sounds” the greatest rock album of all time, while the German magazine Spex has called it the greatest rock album of the 20th Century. Interestingly, “Pet Sounds” was more popular overseas than it was in the States. It did not receive “gold” certification from the record association that tracks U.S. sales until 2000, though the album was eligible for the designation by 1967. 

No matter. Today “Pet Sounds” is recognized as an innovation landmark in the evolution of rock music and a great and lasting influence on our culture. Enjoy the entire album at the link. 

Quote of the Day: "Being called a musical genius was a cross to bear. Genius is a big word. But if you have to live up to something, you might as well live up to that.” -- Brian Wilson 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Thursday, May 16, 2013 
Jaron Lanier on "Who Owns the Future?" 

Listening to Jaron Lanier today makes me aware of the fact that I haven’t been thinking carefully enough about what our innovative future may have in store for us. 

The author of “Who Owns the Future” asserts that the sweeping technological innovations overwhelming us for the past thirty years are having even greater impacts on society than most of us have imagined. His thesis is that the geeky folks who make these powerful information-processing machines are massing both phenomenal wealth and phenomenal power -- through the information they are collecting on the rest of us -- that leads to even more wealth and power. Lanier claims the destruction of good jobs and the middle class they support is not such much the result of a reckless casino financial system but the misuse of manipulated information by a new technological elite. 

Yet Lanier’s vision is not unrelentingly bleak. He sees a way for everyone to benefit from the new information-based economy by making sure everyone owns his or her personal information. Whenever a company (say Facebook) uses a person’s information, that individual would be compensated for it. I can’t adequately explain and do justice to his prescription for change here, except by urging you to listen to the interview and read his book. 

Nor can I say I totally buy-in to Lanier’s claims or his vision. But he has helped me understand that my perspective is still much too rooted in the past. It has been based on the belief that the future world will be pretty much the same as the one I have lived in up to now, just with a few more computers. Now I am beginning to see we are in danger of totally destroying the existing order without having given adequate consideration as to what to replace it with. This calls for more innovation, but this time on the social side of things. 

Quote of the Day: “We're creating a theatrical illusion in which we're pretending that value doesn't come from people in order to support the fantasy of artificial intelligence on a network, doing work which is not real at all.” – Jaron Lanier 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 

The Power of Metaphor in Sustaining an Innovative Enterprise 

This is a follow-up story to one posted many months ago about the late Paul MacCready, the inventor of the Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft.

MacCready founded his company, AeroVironment, back in the 1971 in order to fulfill his passion for the love of flight, inspired by his love of birds.  But like every other enterprise in our capitalist society, MacCready needed to figure out exactly how AeroVironment could make a buck and stay in business.  This is when MacCready decided to enter an international contest with large cash prize intended to promote innovation in human-powered flight … and the rest, as they say, is history, as recounted in the earlier blog post.

The cash prize gave MacCready and his company some breathing room, but the problem about how to make money remained, since the market for human-powered aircraft is rather small.  But the core innovations of the Gossamer Condor have provided AeroVironment with a solid foundation of technologies to build a successful business.  This led the company to make solar-powered planes, which led to solar-powered cars, which led to solar battery packs. Today the company specializes in two major product lines, military drones and electrical charging stations for electric vehicles.

Moral qualms about drones aside, it is fascinating to see how the company has continued to evolve through innovation and to remain in business even after the passing of its founder in 2007.  Paul MacCready found his dreams in air, a most solid platform on which to build a legacy.  Read more at the link. 

Quote of the Day: “In other words, the spark of creativity can be smothered or fanned into flame. The potential is genetic and we all have it; its nurturing determines its strength.” – Paul MacCready (from his 1995 keynote presentation at the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation)


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Monday, May 13, 2013 

Ken Robinson: Three Principles to Improve U.S. Education 

Our good friend from Down Under, Ralph Kerle, brings to our attention the latest TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, delivered last month. Sir Ken uses the metaphor of Death Valley to explain how America has created an educational system that is failing our children and failing our society. Our mechanistic approach to learning, with its overreliance on testing, has destroyed teaching professionalism and created a climate in too many of schools that turns kids off to their natural love of learning. 

The antidote is to embrace three principles that recognize what people are really made of: diversity, curiosity, and creativity. 

Listen to Sir Ken’s message … and then join others to harness creativity and energy to help America drastically change course and lead us out of the Valley of the Shadow of (Learning) Death. 

Quote of the Day: “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” ― Sir Ken Robinson 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today - Friday, May 10, 2013 

TGIF Music – Bob Seger 

Bob Segar, whose birthday (May 6, 1945) we celebrate this week, has long been one of my favorite rock-and-rollers. His style of heartland rock recalls greats like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, with straightforward tales of blue-collar life told authentically with very little adornment, just good music on overdrive. These qualities have sustained him over his five decade career and earned him induction into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame. 

Enjoy your Friday with Bob’s “Roll Me Away”. 

Quote of the Day: “Every now and then you'll nail one that's really, really special. And that's what you live for.” --Bob Seger 


“Building a more creative society” 
Creativity Today – Monday, May 6, 2013 
The Curse of Knowledge

The Innovation Network brings to our attention a post by Andy Zynga on cognitive bias called "The Innovator Who Knew Too Much".   

"Cognitive biases are very human and arise from our need to make sense of a situation before deciding on a course of action. As we acquire, retain, and process relevant information, we filter it through the context of our own past experience, likes, and dislikes."

"This is part of why open innovation is so powerful. By definition, it sources valuable ideas and inventions from outside the walls of an organization. That not only brings more brainpower to bear on a problem to be solved, it brings minds that are not constrained by industry conventions."

And yet, “I regularly see companies' open innovation efforts being undermined by the curse of knowledge. They write detailed specifications for the technology they are seeking based on what they have seen work in the past. They draw up exclusion lists that automatically remove certain companies or industries, and the science they have mastered, from their consideration. Without even recognizing that they are making assumptions, they contract their universe and discourage viable submissions.”

“In our role as innovation facilitators, we have to remember that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing — and a lot of knowledge can be a curse.”

Read the entire post at the link.

Quote of the Day: “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs. Self-conceit often regards it as a sign of weakness to admit that a belief to which we have once committed ourselves is wrong. We get so identified with an idea that it is literally a ‘pet’ notion and we rise to its defense and stop our eyes and ears to anything different.” -- John Dewey