Posted by: Liz Massey | October 20, 2009

Surf’s Up: Top Creativity Links for October 20, 2009


Photo courtesy of SXC.

Nurturing the innovation reef

In this interesting post from McKinsey & Company’s What Matters blog, Mario Morino asserts that innovation is like a coral reef, in that marine biologists don’t fully understand what causes reefs to form, but do know that human actions can nurture or harm the process.

He says,

“The same is true for innovation—a natural, chaotic, unpredictable process that is hard, perhaps even impossible, for well-meaning outsiders to foster. If we try to control or micromanage innovation, we risk squeezing out the very life forces that give rise to successful new ideas. Instead, we must focus on finding ways to nurture and accelerate the natural processes of innovation once they’ve begun organically.”

He points to Silicon Valley in California as a prime example of reef “ecology” in action.

“For almost half a century, Silicon Valley has been the most compelling example of a healthy innovation ecosystem in the United States … It’s important to note that Silicon Valley’s remarkable ecosystem was not the result of a grand plan hatched by a civic or political leader. It developed organically, beginning as far back as the Great Depression, when Stanford University students Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett started tinkering in Packard’s Palo Alto garage. It’s also important to note that there has never been a defined, structured way to connect the dots in the valley. Instead, this organic ecosystem, with its interrelated professional and personal networks, has allowed the dots to connect themselves.”

The rest of Morino’s very comprehensive blog post focuses on several actions that could be taken at the national/federal level to build a strategic framework to help these reefs receive more consistent nurturing, and also proposes some interesting experiments, such as a federal innovation stock exchange for encouraging the federal government’s 4.2 million employees to float out-of-the-box solutions for tough societal challenges.

Whatever you may think of Morino’s suggestions, his reef metaphor certainly seems like an apt one for innovative work or creativity in general. Nurture, don’t control!!!

How Simplicity Can Help Creativity, Briefly
I’ve spoken with Leo Babauta several times on this blog, most recently in relation to his book The Power of Less. This recent post on Leo’s Zen Habits blog is a lovely, quite specific articulation of how practicing simplicity can benefit one when attempting to create.

There are three points out of the 11 that Leo makes that I especially love:

Ideas, again. Instead of finding ways to do more than everyone else, find ways to do less. If your competitor has a coffee shop with a wide array of beverages and food items, narrow it down: offer just one kind of coffee, but make it amazing…

When you’re overwhelmed, focus on less. If the project is too big or complicated or just hard, narrow it down. If you must write a book, don’t focus on the whole book, or even a whole chapter. Just write a section — something you can do in a few hours or less. If you’re starting a new business, don’t worry about getting the whole thing up and running — what’s the smallest amount you can offer at first, the smallest unit you can create? Focus on that.

Do just a little each day. If you can write for 20-30 minutes a day, or take a few photos a day, it won’t be long before you’ve created something great. This tip is for those who think they don’t have time to create. It doesn’t have to take all day, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just clear 20 minutes and create — do nothing else during that time.”

All of the points are worth reading, and all are very true. Sometimes, when you’re going to create something meaningful, it’s not bigger and better than comes out on top—it’s simple and focused.

Are You Killing Enough Ideas?
A long post from Strategy + Business that argues that killing some creative ideas is necessary for businesses to capitalize on the truly useful ones.

Authors Zia Khan and Jon Katzenbach argue that truly innovative companies have an optimal balance between the informal part of their organization (the soft, squishy creative part that generates ideas) and the formal part (the project management and hard data side that brings them to market and makes them profitable). If creativity is king, they argue, idea-selection becomes overly political and creative teams are encouraged to chase every idea, no matter how unprofitable. If the formal side of the house rules the roost, nascent ideas that are disruptive innovations (rather than extensions of a company’s existing product set) will not be allowed to see the light of day or receive the support they need to be developed properly.

The part of the post I liked the most concerned the importance of harvesting adequate information from “failed” projects and ideas. The authors assert that having a high number of failed ideas in one’s organizational past, far from being an embarrassment, is actually a sign that the innovation function is being well managed and that workers are learning from their mistakes.

This is how they put it:

“Whether in transforming a company’s innovation practices or in maintaining them over time, one of the most revealing indicators of effectiveness is the number of losing ideas. This may at first seem counter-intuitive, if the goal is to take ideas to market. However, a high number of losing ideas indicates that the informal and formal aspects of innovation are working well together. It shows that the enterprise is creatively generating enough ideas, evaluating them to predict which will be successful, then applying internal discipline to drop support for those that won’t work while shifting time, money, and attention to driving the best into the market.”

This is a long article, and very business focused, but there’s a huge take-away lesson for artists in this, too. Creative people who are able to learn from their failures, and who can quickly determine which ideas are ripe for commercial potential and which are strictly for personal art-making experiments, are often able to make the most use of all of their exploratory work.

Bonus Links!

16 Inventions That Boost Habitats, Humanity, Health and Happiness
From Fast Emily Pilloton is founder of the non-profit Project H Design, where chapters of designers around the world collaborate on products that improve the four H’s: habitats, humanity, health and happiness.

Roadshow and Tell: Fahrenheit 451
Fellow Arizona blogger-artist-writer-coach Quinn McDonald had her altered book, which she developed based on Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel, highlighted on the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read Blog”!

Hitchcock – Mobile storyboarding for your iPhone
Cinemek has created an iPhone app that uses photos instead of hand-drawn sketches for storyboarding and allows filmmakers to storyboard directly from their iPhone.



  1. Thanks for the nod to the book! It was a lot of fun, and I think I have to do another one on my own, without having it go anyplace.

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