The fact that von Oech draws heavily upon the “ancient wisdom of Heraclitus” in this book correctly suggests what a creative mind such as von Oech’s can accomplish when seeing direct and useful correlations between an ancient Greek philosopher (other than Plato and Aristotle) and intellectual challenges in the 21st century. Von Oech describes Heraclitus as “the world’s first creative teacher.” He recalls being “infected” (happily) with the Heraclitean “bug” while studying in Germany 30 years ago. Now von Oech has written a book in which he brilliantly and entertainingly examines concepts such as symbol, paradox, and ambiguity in relation to creative thought. He offers 30 “Creative Insights” of Heraclitus which include, for example, these five:
#2. “Expect the unexpected or you won’t find it.”
#4 “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
#12 “Many fail to grasp what’s right in the palm of their hand.”
#26 “Donkeys prefer garbage to gold.”
#29 “Your character is your destiny.”
Individually and even when clustered with the other 25, these “Creative Insights” may incorrectly seem unworthy of careful consideration. In fact, von Oech provides a brief but insightful analysis of each which effectively demonstrates the wisdom of #12. Truly creative thinkers are always alert to what I call “the invisibility of the obvious.” They are not threatened by or even uncomfortable with symbol, paradox, and ambiguity. On the contrary, their minds are stimulated by them.
Throughout his book, von Oech inserts a number of brief puzzles for the reader to solve. (The correct answers are included and explained within the “Final Thoughts” section.) These puzzles are fun to grapple with, of course, and presumably most readers will solve them of them. My point is, the answers to the unsolved puzzles are no less obvious than the answers to the others, no matter which specific puzzles the reader is unable to solve.
Frankly, when I began to read this book, I really did not know what to expect. What of value could I possibly learn from a relatively obscure Greek philosopher? However, von Oech had already convinced me of the value of an occasional “whack on the side of the head” and “kick in the seat of the pants” so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. (See #12.) As always, von Oech is immensely entertaining. He has superb writing skills. And of course, he is an immensely creative thinker in his own right. I strongly recommend this little (in length) book to literally anyone who wants to put white caps on her or his gray matter. Those who share my high regard for this book are strongly urged to read all of von Oech’s previous books as well as those written by Guy Claxton, Edward de Bono, Lynne Levesque, and Michael Michalko.
* * *
Roger von Oech is the founder and president of Creative Think, a California-based consulting firm that specializes in stimulating creativity and innovation. He has given seminars and presentations to corporations worldwide, including Coca-Cola, GE, Disney, Intel, MTV, Microsoft, NASA, Apple, Citigroup, and the United States Olympic Committee. He is the author of two previous creative-thinking books, A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, as well as the popular Creative Whack Pack card deck. He lives with his wife and children in Atherton, California.
A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative
Roger von Oech
Business Plus, 25th Anniversary Edition (2008)
Note: When preparing for some interviews, I re-read several books on the creative process and remain convinced that all are still among the best. This one is indeed a business classic.
This book should be read in combination with A Kick in the Seat of the Pants…and preferably read first. Just a suggestion. Von Oech demonstrates in his thinking and in his writing the same principles he advocates so eloquently. In Whack, first published in 1983, he identifies ten “locks” which that (if not preclude) creative thinking:
• The Right Answer
• That’s Not Logical
• Follow the Rules • Be Practical
• Play Is Frivolous
• That’s Not My Area
• Avoid Ambiguity
• Don’t Be Foolish
• To Err Is Wrong
• I’m Not Creative
How does each limit (if not preclude) creative thinking? How can each be “unlocked”? To what extent are these barriers interdependent? Von Oech devotes a separate chapter to each of the ten, answering these and other questions while providing various exercises in support of his explanations.
Whack will be immensely valuable to executives in any organization which needs a culture within which to generate and then nourish fresh ideas and new perspectives. The same is true of all self-employed people (especially independent consultants) whose customers or clients expect them to address the same need. Finally, I think that school, college, and university classroom teachers can devise all manner of appropriate applications of von Oech’s ideas. When you listen to Richard Feyman’s lectures on physics (now available on CDs and videos), you suspect that he has read all of von Oech’s books. He probably didn’t. Nonetheless, he and von Oech are kindred spirits.
In addition to von Oech’s A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, there are other excellent books also worthy of your consideration. They include those written by Edward De Bono, Guy Claxton, Michael Michalko, and Joey Reiman.
* * *
Roger von Oech is the founder and president of Creative Think, a California-based consulting firm that specializes in stimulating creativity and innovation. He has given seminars and presentations to corporations worldwide, including Coca-Cola, GE, Disney, Intel, MTV, Microsoft, NASA, Apple, Citigroup, and the United States Olympic Committee. As indicated, he is the author of A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, as well as the popular Creative Whack Pack card deck. He lives with his wife and children in Atherton, California.
Note: When preparing for some interviews, I recently re-read several books on the creative process and remain convinced that all are still among the best. Case in point….
Pass the Idea
I presume to suggest that you read this book before you read De Bono’s Six Action Shoes and strongly urge you to read both. As he explains in Chapter 6, “The first value of the six thinking hats is that of defined role-playing…[the second] is that of attention directing…[the third] is that of convenience…[and the fourth] is the possible basis in brain chemistry” which De Bono outlines in the previous chapter.
What about the hats? The conceit is brilliant. Each hat is of a different color: white, red, black, yellow, green, and blue. De Bono assigns to each a quite specific combination of qualities and characteristics. Since childhood, my favorite color has always been green. Here is what de Bono says about it: “Green is grass, vegetation, and abundant., fertile growth. The green hat indicates creativity and new ideas.” De Bono also briefly characterizes the other colors and then devotes an entire chapter to discussing each of them in depth.
According to the subtitle, De Bono provides “an essential approach to business management.” That is true. He helps his reader to increase various reasoning skills through carefully defined and structured role-playing, and, by directing and then focusing attention where it is needed most. How? By understanding and then developing entirely different perspectives that the various hats represent: White (neutral and objective), Red (powerful emotions), Black (gloomy and negative), Yellow (sunny and positive), Green (fertile and creative), and Blue (logical and in control). You get the idea. De Bono urges his reader to SEE all of the hats while associating with each its own defining qualities and characteristics.
Here’s an exercise (inspired by De Bono’s ideas) that will work very well with those who have been required to read Six Thinking Hats prior to getting together to brainstorm. Buy several of those delightful Dr. Seuss hats (at least one of each of the six different colors, more if needed) and keep the hats out of sight until everyone is seated. Review the agenda. Review what de Bono says about what each color represents. Then distribute the Dr. Seuss hats, making certain that someone is wearing a hat of each color. Proceed with the discussion, chaired by a person wearing a Blue or White hat. It is imperative that whoever wears a Black hat, for example, be consistently negative and argumentative whereas whoever wears a Yellow must be consistently positive and supportive. After about 15-20 minutes, have each person change to a different colored hat. Resume discussion. Thanks to de Bono and (yes) to Dr. Seuss, you can expect to have an especially enjoyable as well as productive session.
In addition to De Bono’s Six Action Shoes, there are other excellent books also worthy of your consideration. They include those written by Guy Claxton, Michael Michalko, Joey Reiman, and Roger von Oech.
Here is my take on what Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson learned during a lengthy and probing study of the Pixar culture:
1. Celebrate failure with the same intensity as you celebrate success. View each setback as a precious learning opportunity.
2. Become a “prototype junky.” There is no project too big [or too small] to conduct a real-world test of it within a few weeks.
3. Develop your own “skunk works” within the organization. [click here.], At least form a small group and enable it to meet regularly to brainstorm how best to answer questions, solve problems, and respond to unmet needs…especially those identified by past and current customers.
4. Dream BIG. Ask team members to think of ten over-the-top, outlandish, eccentric, far-out, wacky, unheard-of, unorthodox ideas for a project.
Note: In the most innovative organizations (such as IDEO, Nike, Apple, and yes, Pixar), two quite different approaches are taken: generate lots of what Jobs calls “an insanely great idea” and then decide what to do with them, or, tackle an especially serious problem with a totally open mind.
5. Don’t cry poor. The best new ideas tend to be produced by groups whose members are world-class scroungers. External limits and constraints tend to inspire original thinking and below-the-radar initiatives.
6. Planning is OK but do not allow the process to be a distraction from achieving the desired objective. Beware of meetings and considerations devoted to “planning to plan.” General George Patton once said, “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan next week.”
7. Each project is a “work in progress” so establish a planning center (perhaps online) where evidence of progress is on display. Grab low-hanging fruit” ASAP and celebrate completion of “baby steps” to reassure everyone that progress really is being made.
8. Forget about lengthy meetings, reports, analyses, etc. What’s happening NOW? Why is it happening? What more needs to be done? Who will do it? Everyone involved must have a sense of urgency. John Wooden said it best: “Be quick but don’t rush.”
9. Assume authority and do whatever must be done and done NOW. If appropriate, ask for forgiveness later. That said, be sure to do your homework, consider all the possible implications and consequences, and be prepared to explain later why the initiative you took had risks but the decision to make it was rigorously thought-through and prudent. Also be fully prepared to explained what of value was learned, especially if action was unsuccessful.
I highly recommend Capodagli and Jackson’s Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground, published by McGraw-Hill (2010).
The best books on brainstorming, idea generation, etc.? Check out these two:
The Idea of Innovation
The Ten Faces of Innovation
If you need additional assistance:
A Knock on the Side of the Head
A Kick in the Seat of the Pants
Roger Von Oech
Thinkertoys (Second Edition)
Jump Start Your Brain
Six Thinking Hats
Edward De Bono
I recently re-read two books written by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman, this one and The Art of Innovation. In both, Kelley provides a wealth of information and counsel which can help any decision-maker to “drive creativity” through her or his organization but only if initiatives are (a) a collaboration which receives the support and encouragement of senior management (especially of the CEO) and (b) sufficient time is allowed for those initiatives to have a measurable impact. There is a distressing tendency throughout most organizations to rip out “seedlings” to see how well they are “growing.” Six Sigma programs offer a compelling example. Most are abandoned within a month or two. Why? Unrealistic expectations, cultural barriers (what Jim O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom”), internal politics, and especially impatience are among the usual suspects. That said, I agree with countless others (notably Teresa Amabile, Clayton Christensen, Guy Claxton, Edward de Bono, Peter Drucker, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Michael Michalko, Michael Ray, and Roger von Oech) that innovation is now the single most decisive competitive advantage. How to establish and then sustain that advantage?
In an earlier work, The Art of Innovation, Kelley shares IDEO’s five-step methodology: Understand the market, the client, the technology, and the perceived constraints on the given problem; observe real people in real-life situations; literally visualize new-to-the-world concepts AND the customers who will use them; evaluate and refine the prototypes in a series of quick iterations; and finally, implement the new concept for commercialization. With regard to the last “step”, as Warren Bennis Patricia and Ward Biederman explain in Organizing Genius, Apple executives immediately recognized the commercial opportunities for PARC’s technology. Larry Tesler (who later left PARC for Apple) noted that Jobs and colleagues (especially Wozniak) “wanted to get it out to the world.” But first, obviously, the challenge was to create that “it” which they then did.
In this volume, as Kelley explains, his book is “about innovation with a human face. [Actually, at least ten...hence its title.] It’s about the individuals and teams that fuel innovation inside great organizations. Because all great movements are human-powered.” He goes on to suggest that all good working definitions of innovation pair ideas with action, “the spark with fire. Innovators don’t just have their heads in the clouds. They also have their feet on the ground.” Kelley cites and then examines several exemplary (“great”) organizations that include Google, W.L. Gore & Associates, the Gillette Company, and German retailer Tchibo. I especially appreciate the fact that Kelley focuses on the almost unlimited potential for creativity of individuals and the roles which they can play, “the hats they can put on, the personas they can adopt…[albeit] unsung heroes who work on the front lines of entrepreneurship in action, the countless people and teams who make innovation happen day in and day out.”
Because organizations need individuals who are savvy about the counterintuitive process of how to move ideas forward, Kelley recommends three “Organizing Personas”: The Hurdler, The Collaborator, and The Director.
Because organizations also need individuals and teams who apply insights from the learning roles and channel the empowerment from the organizing roles to make innovation happen, Kelley recommends four “Building personas”: The Experience Architect, The Set Designer, The Caregiver, and The Storyteller. Note both the sequence, interrelatedness and, indeed, the interdependence of these ten “personas.”
What Kelley achieves in this volume is to develop in much greater depth than do von Oech and de Bono what are essentially ten different perspectives. He does so, brilliantly, by focussing the bulk of his attention of those who, for example, seek and explore new opportunities to reveal breakthrough insights…and while doing so wear (at least metaphorically) one of de Bono’s hats (probably the green one). Kelley devotes a separate chapter to each of the ten “personas,” including real-world examples of various “unsung heroes who work on the front lines of entrepreneurship in action, the countless people and teams who make innovation happen day in and day out.”
In this series, Bob Morris poses a key question and then responds to it with material from one or more of the business books he has reviewed for Amazon and Borders.
Predictably, opinions vary about the process but all experts agree that there must be a lot of ideas to get a few good ideas and a lot of good ideas to get a few excellent ideas and then (you guessed it) a lot of excellent ideas to get one or (maybe) two “insanely great ideas” as Steve Jobs characterizes them. I’ve just read a book by Gerald Sindell, The Genius Machine: The 11 Steps That Turn Raw Ideas into Brilliance, that may be of interest and value. He shares his insights about thinking “that is directed toward improving an existing idea, thinking through a complete issue, or creating something new.” The eleven “steps” to which the subtitle refers are in a sequence devised by Sindell. He devotes a separate chapter to each. They are: Distinctions, Identity, Implications, Testing, Precedent, Need, Foundation, Completion, Connecting, Impact, and Advocacy. Obviously, the sequence suggests a specific process by which to subject an existing idea to rigorous and relentless pressure, to a “crucible” of scrutiny and evaluation.
So, the best way to generate great ideas is to generate lots of ideas, then lots of good ideas, and then lots of excellent ideas (subjecting each to a process such as the one Sindell advocates) and hope that eventually one or two great ideas survive that process. There are other sources worth checking out, notably Tom Kelley’s two books (The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation) in which he explains the brainstorming process at IDEO, a design and innovation firm based in Palo Alto that he and his brother David founded in 1991. With regard to generation of ideas, I also recommend Tim Hurson’s Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking and Making Innovation Work: How to Manage It, Measure It, and Profit from It co-authored by Tony Davila, Marc J. Epstein, and Robert Shelton.
It is important for everyone involved to remember, including CEOs and other senior managers, is that the process of generating and evaluating ideas, and then (perhaps) producing one or two great ideas inevitably involves lots of failure, is messy and frustrating, takes time, and requires sustained support. Potentially great ideas are like seedlings. They do not respond well to being pulled out of the ground to see how well they’re doing.
Comments, questions, requests, or suggestions? Please share them. They will be most welcome and I thank you for them. Best regards, Bob