Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Facing the Christmas Challenge

23 Creative Gift Ideas
© 2007 Gregg Fraley

It’s a challenge we face every year -- what to do about gifts for Christmas. It’s daunting, it’s complex, and something we find hard being inventive about. Panic, procrastination, and yes, fear, get in the way of creative thinking. Some people give up entirely! Don’t buy something awful just to cross someone off your list; there is no heart or creativity in that.

Here’s an approach and some creative ideas to address the Christmas Challenge. It’s not about money, it’s about creative thinking! Many of these suggestions will work for even the most Scroogian of budgets.

First, get out of panic model. Decide to think creatively. Start by writing down some facts and feelings you have about each person on your list. Keep a little notebook for your creative thinking. Jam ideas at every odd moment of the day, look to those facts and feelings for inspiration. If you stay after your personal brainstorming for a few days, you’ll get breakthrough ideas. Finally, take action now on those good ideas and you’ll get through the season without last minute hysteria. Okay, enough with process, here are some gifts for you, 23 creative ideas for gifts, here goes in no particular order:

1. Write Something Personal in a Well-Selected or Hand Made Card. Christmas cards seem to be diminishing as a tradition but why not make a card a very personal and meaningful gift? Don’t just sign your name, write a real note. If you have time, make a card yourself. I have an old friend that makes a simple card every year from plain old white card stock. He hand draws a design in two colored pens -- and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, and I'm charmed by the personal touch. I look forward to seeing his new one every year. In your note be generous with your love, affection, and acknowledge what that person means to you. Share your heart and you’ll touch theirs.

2. Send Pictures. Pictures are personal and make a meaningful gifts. Find, or create, a really good photograph, tailored for your inner circle. I know the web makes it easy to post pictures for sharing, and you can do that (if you do, try www.flickr.com, it’s so easy), but an old-fashioned photograph is something that is treasured. There are a lot of interesting ways to print photographs these days, so print them on canvas or sepia toned paper. It's also easy to get posters, mugs, or blocks made these days. Matting and framing can formalize the gift further.

3. Create a Cool Package of Themed Stuff. Combine several small gifts into a cool package designed around a persons interests. There are some clever combinations out there. For instance, how about a bag of fine coffee beans, ground to your friends’ maker style, with a mug of their favorite sports team (or fine artist, cat, dog, inspirational message…you get the picture) and some chocolates or nuts? Or create a Euro package of olive oils, fancy pasta, and a bottle of good wine. How about a golf package with some balls, tees, and a new glove for your duffer friends? Go back to that facts list in your notebook and create a personalized combination, it shows thoughtfulness, and they’re fun to create and receive.

4. Give Fine Art. Museum Shops are great places to find small gifts with class. Find out the favorite artist of your gifted. A coffee table book or a pack of cool Monet thank you cards are useful and personal gifts. Student art shows are often great places to buy interesting art at low prices. You have to know your target – to some people fine art is what matches their sofa! If that’s the case you need to know the sofa color!

5. Give Art Supplies. An under-rated place to shop for Christmas gifts is a good art supply store. I mean, who couldn’t use a nice fancy pen? For kids there are a lot of new fangled art supplies like Crayola’s Model Magic – a hipper and easier sculpting media than Play Dough. I’ve seen some really cool rubber stamps that are super low price and a lot of fun. For your pilot friend a cool stamp of an old World War I fighter plane is a near perfect small gift. A box of oil pastels and a high quality paper sketchbook with a set of Faber Castell brush style pens (http://www.faber-castell.us/) is an excellent gift for the artist in your life (hear that Mom?).

6. Help Decorate The Tree by buying gifts of Christmas ornaments. It’s rare they come as a gift; people usually get their own. Keep your eye out for ornaments that match the taste of your gifted and you’ll find something very appropriate for the season, and they’ll think of you fondly every year putting them up. Credit my partner Caroline for this one!

7. Christmas Tree Surprise Party, or, Put up a Tree. Wacky idea, but many people don’t have time to do a tree. If you know somebody who would like one but is short on time, sneak into their pad and put one up for them – you might need to be clever to disguise your intent! Get a small tree, a simple set of bulbs, lights, and frosting. Keep it simple and they can add on to your basics, if they get inspired. Imagine finding a tree all done without the hassle. To build on this idea, time it to be there when they arrive so you can have a glass of eggnog or a cocktail. Call it a Christmas Tree Surprise party. My father and I did this once years ago for a friend of the family and they’re still talking about it 40 years later.

8. Make Your Own Ornaments, go back to that art supply or crafts store and pick up some unique supplies and create something highly artistic and individual. Pick up a bunch of used jewelry at a yard sale and bejewel a standard bulb. Pick up pinecones and spray paint em silver! Harvest buckeyes (or conkers) and string them together with fishing line.

9. Donation in Their Name. Many people have everything they need, and in truth, gifts are pouring gravy on potatoes that are already swimming. Charitable Giving in someone’s name is a way to do something meaningful for those who already have a lot. Find out their favorite charity and make a donation in their name. Find or make a nice card and let them know. If you can’t afford to make a donation of money, how about time? Volunteering time to a worthy cause is a double gift – to the charity and to your friend.

10. Create a Quilt for a Sick Child. Another feel good idea that you can do in your own name, or in a friend’s name, is to create and gift a quilt to a child with a life threatening illness. There is an incredibly cool organization called Sewonderful Quilts that will provide you with fabric (very beautiful sample material otherwise destined for the landfill) and instructions. When done, you send the quilt back to Sewonderful who gifts the quilt to a sick child through children’s hospitals. These quilts are deeply appreciated by the children and their families. Go to www.sewonderfulquilts.com for more information.

11. Give Time. Many of our best friends and family pine for our company, and we for theirs. In our fast paced world we rarely spend a generous amount of time with those we love, we parcel it out in small doses and squeeze it between other events in chock-a-block schedules. Why not gift a juicy chunk of time, an afternoon, or a whole day? Wrap up a small box with a clock inside and enclose a note suggesting a day and do something you both like, on you. A ball game, a museum trip, casual shopping, a drive in the country, a long walk or bike trip. Let them decide what and how, or if you’re confident, get it all mapped out and add the element of surprise.

12. Write a poem. A poem about someone you know is a highly personal and special thing, so get out the pen, get reflective, look into your heart and just write it. Don’t worry so much about rhyme schemes, if that works, okay. Do try to avoid clichés. Just be honest about your feelings and you can’t go wrong. One more tip, write about something very specific that you like or find interesting that will focus your poetic efforts. Then, take some care and package your poem well, maybe combine it with candles and a reading by you.

13. Write a List of Acknowledgements. List 10 things you love about somebody. It’s hard to go wrong when you say out loud what you almost never do, but honestly feel. Somebody did this for me 15 years ago and I still have it in my wallet.

14. Gift a Special Meal. And make it special and all about them. Use your imagination and go the distance with favorite types of flowers, wine, deserts, music – everything. Don’t let them lift a finger.

15. Give a Florescent Fish. Many people are really too busy and mobile to enjoy a high maintenance pet like a dog or a cat. On the other hand there are low maintenance pets like goldfish which provide a lot of enjoyment without anywhere near the trouble. Beta fish are beautiful and easy, only need to feed them once a day. Put together a friendly fish package of a small fish bowl, food, fish, and some decorations. For a more interesting bowl, get a really cool modern vase instead of the classic fish bowl. See http://betafacts.com/ for more information.

16. Share Your Favorite Recipes. My mother put together a small booklet last year with her favorite recipes. She used added pictures and stories about our family. It was a lovely gift and I’ve gotten it out several times for the recipes and just to browse through. Put together a faves compilation for a personal gift. You can get as fancy as you want with it, from a stapled sheaf of several you’ve copied or scanned, to a more elaborate booklet like my mother’s. The more love you put into it, the more it will be appreciated.

17. Share Songs. On the low budget end, you could record a song on your computer, using a free audio package like Audacity (see www.audacity.com) and email an MPG file, or, going another way, buy gift certificates to iTunes for your iPod-loving friends and family. iTunes allows you to buy printable gift certificates, which are a great last minute solution. If you’re ahead of the game you can gift either via email or snail mail. The snail mail varieties have those great Apple designs that add some sparkle. See http://www.apple.com/itunes/store/gifts.html. You can even gift a favorite set of songs, a playlist, nice, I’d love to get a cool new playlist for working out, or for long drives. Maybe your loved ones will too.

Or...call a friends voice mail and sing them a special Christmas song. You will be the only one giving that gift this year!

18. Share an Audio book, a Movie, or a Favorite TV Show. Building on the previous idea, iPods playback audio books, movies, and TV shows as well as songs. It’s easy, go to See http://www.apple.com/itunes/store/gifts.html and they’ll tell you specifically how to do it. Amazon is a great alternative as well for books, DVD’s, and other media.

19. Say it with Flowers. We don’t normally think of flowers as a Christmas gift, and yet, why not? There are lots of ways to give flowers, from a hand-cut bouquet from your own garden, or, by ordering from a florist. Poinsettias are always nice at Christmas but don’t rule out a nice potted plant, or even a bonsai. It’s all online, Google flowers and you’ll find all sorts of vendors.

20. Give Fairly. There are several websites out there with unique gifts from craftsman all around the world. They subscribe to basic Fair Trade Practices and provide fair compensation for these creative artisans. Holly Beck at WireTap magazine has 31 Holiday Gift Ideas for the Socially Conscious, including Vegan Watches and Solar-powered lighting. See also these sites: http://www.orenoque.com/handmade-gifts/ and http://www.ourvoicestogether.org

21. Give Your Heritage. For the older folks reading this maybe this is the time to pass along that ring your great grandmother wore to a younger generation, or that hand-carved butcher block your grandfather made himself. You’ll know in your heart if the time is right. The best things to pass on are those that are somewhat symbolic of your family, or have a great story attached to it.

22. Hand Write a Miniature Book. You may have seen those tiny little blank paged notebooks in a stationary or art store. I’ve seen very nice ones sized about two by two inches with a leather cover and a leather tong that wraps around to tie it shut. Buy one, and fill it with whimsical thoughts you are having around the holidays, and thoughts you have about the friendship or love you have with someone. It can be words only, but with some colored pens you can add the occasional page of little drawings of holiday things like trees and stars, hearts, flowers and other fun, loving and gentle images. I have an idea to do one with only one word per page. Just start and let it flow and have fun, use your mistakes and it will be even more charming. I can practically guarantee that you’ll be the first and only giver of a handwritten book.

23. Gift a Historic Tree. Any tree huggers on your list? I ran across a nursery that has trees that are offspring of Apple trees that Johnny Appleseed planted, Oaks from Elvis’s Graceland, or Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, Walt Disney’s boyhood home, Steven Foster, trees from various presidential estates, and a wide sampling of trees with all kinds of history around them. A tree is a gift that keeps giving for generations, providing shade, fresh air, and beauty. Here’s the site address: www.historictrees.org.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Train Innovation Comes In On –

Anyone whose taken brainstorming training knows you don’t critique ideas as-you-go, you “defer judgment.” This allows for a flow of ideas to emerge. A few years ago Sid Parnes went a step further when giving a talk to a group at the Creative Problem Solving Institute. He said to be more creative, you need to defer judgment -- as a way of life. It made sense to me at the time, I thought, getting into the habit of it would make you a better ideator in times of divergence. I still think this is true, but here’s a new insight:

Deferral of judgment has a deeper impact. It unlocks your mind and allows for more intuitive thought.

This occurred to me while reading “Awakening Intuition” by Frances E. Vaughan. Vaughan is associated with the Institute of Transformational Psychology in Palo Alto, CA*. She discussed that awareness of the choices you make every day, moment to moment, is a good starting point for getting in touch with your intuition. Being more aware of alternative choices, or options, puts us into a sort of alert and open state that gives the mind a chance to suggest something that it “knows.” Stated another way, deferral of judgment opens doors to intuitive thought.

So, if you get more intuitive thoughts, and are aware of them, then you are going to have a greater stream of insights and ideas with which to solve your problems. Ultimately these ideas are what innovation is made of – this is the kind of thinking you need to make breakthroughs. I also believe that this idea stream is going to come from a different source within you; intuition is an inner knowing that is quite different than rational/logical thought, it’s non-linear. And again, non-linear thinking is the train innovations come to the station in. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book about intuition, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” you’ll be convinced that while it may be difficult to explain how it happens, it does happen, and the impact can be dramatic on a business.

So people, try this on for size – walk through each day being very conscious of the judgment choices you are making. Make an effort to hold off, to defer, and allow your mind to suggest creative alternatives. Defer about everything! Give it a week and let us know what happened.

* For more about this cutting-edge psychology school, see http://www.itp.edu

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The One Apple Apple Tree

I live in a new country home in Michigan. I have 10 acres of mature trees and I've made a game out of identifying them. I'm not bad -- I can get 9 out of 10, but one tall slender tree in a thicket near the house was throwing me. I went through the books and based on the leaves, bark, etc. I came up with a Tupelo.

Well, I was wrong. My arborist Chris came by and I pointed out my Tupelo. He smiled and said, "creative identification" which was political correct speak for mistake! Chris told me it was actually an Apple tree. He took a long look upwards and pointed his finger. I looked up and saw a lone apple about 40 feet up. We looked everywhere and it was the only piece of fruit on the tree, but, it was a perfect apple. I still can't believe it's an apple tree! I never figured it for a fruit tree in among all the hardwoods, and the shape was so tall and thin, very unapple. I skipped that part of the book entirely when looking for matches!

So, as always, I ask myself "what does this mean?" What's the link to innovation?

What comes to me is that it's a bit like a problem employee, or a difficult partner. They have a role but there is conflict and they don't seem to fit. You can't figure out what they have to offer, and so we tend to slap a label on them and stop listening. And yet, even the worst employee, even the most difficult partner, often has one good insight or idea -- one good piece of fruit. The problem is we have preconcieved notions about who they are and what they know, so we don't hear it.

Years ago I was told by an employee of one of my software companies that one of our managers was "losing it." I discounted the comment as this employee was an oddball and an introvert. He was a good programmer, but I gave him no credit whatsoever for insight into anything more, particularly people. Well, he was right and it was tough sledding handling someone who was having a mental breakdown. The company and that employee would have been far better off if I had been really listening, we might have prevented a real disaster.

So here's the lesson: Listen to everybody. Somewhere way up in the leaves is a piece of perfect fruit. It might be a good product idea, a way to cut expenses, a way to boost morale. If you listen, an apple may fall right into your lap.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The "CAM Factor" -- Consumer Anger Motivates (C.A.M.)

I've coined a new term today -- CAM, an acronym for Consumer Anger Motivates. If the CAM Factor is high, you buy something else! Let me explain...

Everybody has consumer nightmare stories. Told afterwards they are often pretty funny. The old adage of "big problems make good stories" does apply. It's not too funny when it's happening though! I've suffered through a horrendous customer service experience with AT&T in the last few days, including several very frustrating phone calls, long delays on hold, hang-ups by the automated system, multiple transfers within the organization, frustrating attempts to do it myself on the web, and after all that -- still not the desired result. A comedy of errors and it really made me mad.

Saturday Night Life or Second City could really have fun with this!

I was simply trying to terminate service on my old phone, having transferred service to a new location with them. I'd been told the old number could be terminated as part of the transfer. However, it didn't -- and I continue to get bills on my old number. They've clipped me for a nice chunk of dough, in spite of many attempts to resolve the matter. AT&T now has a very high CAM Factor for me!

It has wasted so much of my time I had to think of something positive and creative in order to compensate. Okay -- I'll do a blog entry! Here's my takeaway from the experience, a simple consumer buying insight: customer service problems make people ANGRY and inspire new buying behavior. How high is your anger on a 10 oint scale? That's your CAM! My CAM with AT&T is 10!

As of today, September 8, 2007, I am officially motivated to find an alternative phone service. I will find something and I will switch and I'll do it even if it's a bit more expensive, and if it takes time to get it done. I might even go so far as to go totally portable and not have a standard phone line. If I can do it practically I will.

CAM -- you read it here first folks.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Twenty Three Creative Ideas for Job Finding

Twenty Three Creative Ideas for Job Finding
In the order I wrote them down!

1. Always have a business card. Even when you are out of work having a card is the cheapest and easiest way to advertise yourself and have people contact you. If you are computer savvy, then make your own. Use the “clean edge” stock Avery makes, you can buy at Office Depot (or Staples etc.) Change your card as often as you want. Don’t think of a business card as a static thing, it’s more like a little billboard where you can personalize a message about yourself. And give them to everybody you see. Put them on bulletin boards. Carry cards everywhere you go and don't miss a chance to give it to somebody.

2. Go to every public event, meeting, lecture, gathering you can. And while there, talk to as many people as you can, when job seeking you need to get out there and expose yourself (not that way!) and talk, talk, talk to folks who might know somebody who can give you the job of your dreams. It's called Networking and it works.

3. Read the papers! Especially the local sections and local papers. You often get wind of new business developments that might give you some ideas. For example I read in a neighborhood paper that a health club was switching over to medical related rehab, new ownership etc. For someone looking for work in that area you can then be first in line talking to the new owners about jobs. Read and Think about how it relates to you. You’ll get some ideas if you do.

4. Reverse interviews. The typical model of job finding is to ask for work and hope to get an interview. Turn the tables and call companies you are interested in and ask to interview them. Call it an “informational interview” or “fact finding”. Be super courteous and charming and ask 20 questions about the company. Ask for the person in charge of the department you’d like to work for, or failing that, human resources, or public relations. You’ll be surprised how willing folks are to talk about things. You learn a lot, and, sometimes they get interested in you. When you do get a real interview you’ll be ready.

5. Propose a Job. You may have a great idea of how you can help a company. Write it down and send it to them, propose an idea of what you might do. Load it with ideas and enthusiasm. All they can do is say no right? And they just might say yes.

6. Pay to be Heard. Wacky idea but if you really feel like you have something special to offer a company and can’t get your message across, call them and tell them you’ll pay them $100 for ten minutes of their time. This works best when you have a specific person who can make a decision, and, when you Really do have something unique to offer. This technique works – you’ll get the meeting – but be totally prepared and don’t waste their time, get to the point with the bottom line benefits. What happens, often, is they don’t take the money, and you get more than ten minutes.

7. Know Exactly What You Want. Goofy idea but how do you get what you want if you don’t know what it is? Write down what the perfect situation would be and don’t spare on the detail. Revisit it, change it, improve it and keep thinking about it. If it evolves, fine, it just means you are clarifying your personal vision. If you know what you want you’ll be in a better position to find it.

8. Apply, Apply, Apply. When I was a youth I made a job application at a TV station and in my naiveté thought that they would put them in the order they got them – the job queue. Much to my surprise a friend applied a few weeks later and got an immediate call. We had similar credentials. It wasn’t a case of preferential treatment, it was simply he was at the top of the stack! If you are really set on a particular company or job, re-apply frequently. By doing so you are increasing your odds of a good accident happening. People admire persistence, it shows real desire, so don’t worry about being a pest. Be a pest.

9. Give Ideas Away. Nothing like giving somebody or an organization something for nothing. If you have a business idea of any kind for a company – give them a call or write them a letter and tell them about it. Say you are giving it with no strings attached. Use it as a way to start a dialog, and it’s okay to mention, yes, you are looking for a position. It just might get you identified as someone who can really help.

10. Stay Positive and Hopeful. It’s so obvious and so hard to do sometimes. But you have to. Believe in yourself -- because if you don’t nobody else will.

11. Make 10 Calls a Day. Get on the phone and start dialing for dollars. Who to call? Anybody who might be able to help you, call companies, friends, whoever might be able to hire you, or help you get hired. Not only do you feel like you are doing something, it creates an energy that extends beyond yourself. Yeah, it’s a bit touchy-feely, but do it anyway.

12. Show Up. This is the job finding equivalent of a cold call. Show up at the site you are interested in. Ask if there is anybody you can talk to. Say you want to introduce yourself, or borrowing from number 9 above, say you have an idea you want to give them (have an idea). If no, then do some information gathering. Pick up free brochures or company newsletters left in the lobby. See who’s going in and out. You never know when you might show up on the perfect day, or when you might learn something essential that will give you an edge.

13. Research Your Target. If you are after being hired by a publicly traded company, they are required to provide investor information to anybody who asks. Just call and ask for their investor relations department and ask for their annual report and 10-K. Annual reports can give you a great sense of what the company’s goals are – and you can tailor your message when the time comes to fit with Their Program.

14. Hand Write a Letter. Hand written notes are powerful simply because so few people do them anymore. Write to someone who can hire you and tell him or her why you’d be a good fit in authentic terms. Hand write thank you notes and inquiries – you will stand out.

15. Get Trained. It’s amazing how we often stand pat on what we know when you can boost your hire-ability quickly by taking some training. Get trained in something that makes sense for your goals. It never hurts to know how to use software packages better as an example. Learn Excel. Learn Photoshop. Learn some basic design or drafting skills. Become a notary public. Every skill you learn boosts your hire-ability, and you can pick up some new skills quickly and cheaply if you look around.

16. Read. If you haven’t read the essential books in your field you’re ill equipped to impress anybody in an interview, or add value to an organization. You should read current and popular business books to give yourself perspective on what’s going on and how managers think. A guy named ML Jenson wrote an article called “The Seven Essential Popular Business Books” it’s a great start, see: http://www.agora-business-center.com/1005bbooks.html. Oh yeah, Jack’s Notebook is a great book as well – it teaches a skill you can use the rest of your life, in any job you might have, creative problem solving. The author is one heck of a brilliant and good-looking man!

17. Rehearse. I’ve done role-playing with job seekers and it’s scary how poorly folks present themselves. Alternatively unprepared, too chatty, unconfident, or overconfident, nervous but not energetic, it’s all a result of not preparing to interview well. The solution to these problems is to script your answers and rehearse your delivery of them. Get your friends involved and role-play questions and answers. Have them throw surprises at you. Rehearsal will go a long way to prepare you to shine when your moment comes. So rehearse already!

18. Be Bold, Start a Business. Okay, so you’re out of work. Why not just go nuts and start a business? If you have a skill you can sell, then sell it. It may be impractical, but then again it might be the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself. Dip your toe in the water, if you can generate some sales and get a bit of momentum going, you may never look back.

19. Advertise. A person can buy cheap ads in the classified sections of any newspaper. Church bulletins are a tremendous value. Tell the world what you are looking for. Websites like www.craigslist.org are great sources for both listing jobs and services you have to offer. Exposure is one way to find the situation you’re looking for.

20. Sell Something. Sales are a tried and true path to success and financial independence. Many of us avoid it because of a fear of rejection. Get over it. Find a product or set of products and start selling. You may be surprised at your success. Companies like Amway and Herbalife have given many people a start. Real estate is another field where hard work and chutzpah can take you to the Promised Land. You can start on some selling jobs part time. So Sell Something!

21. Make Something. Here’s a crazy idea – develop a product and sell it. There are more stories of this kind of success than you can imagine. What have you got to lose? Do you have an idea for a product? Keep in mind you can sometimes sell it before it exists, sell it, and then deliver it. Michael Dell of Dell computer started building computers for his friends in college. He’d take orders, get a deposit, buy parts, and then deliver. Look where he is now…

22. Track Your Efforts. Charles Deming is the manufacturing process guru who reinvented methods. One thing he said is that which is not measured does not improve. So start measuring your efforts. Keep a scorecard in a notebook or on your computer. What you’ll notice over time is if you made six calls one day, you’ll want to best yourself, and you’ll do seven the next. It will also show you when you are being lazy, or when you should pat yourself on the back for your good efforts. And do declare some small victories now and then. Every rejection you get in one step closer to a YES.

23. Get Creative. Creativity is the secret weapon in your search for a new job. I’m not talking about artsy stuff, I’m talking about Ideas. Make a list of ideas about how you’ll get the job you want. Keep a notebook, work the list, and keep adding on. Keep trying to think of ideas to solve your job hunt challenge. If you want to know how to have more ideas all the time and how to “process” them, then read my book about creative process, Jack’s Notebook. I promise you this, if you read the first chapter you won’t put it down, and once you read it you’ll use the skills the novel teaches the rest of your life. Good luck!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Cincinnati Innovation -- an Oxymoron?

I don’t mean to be overly provocative with my title. I do mean to raise the question “What is the Innovation culture, if any, of my beloved hometown of Cincinnati?” Let me say how much I love Cincy to start with here. I don’t think there is a more beautiful city in the Midwest, and it’s hard to beat Cincinnatians for being friendly. I spent many good years living in Cincinnati and I often wish to return to Mooney Avenue in Hyde Park and spend some time reading novels under a giant oak tree.

But I digress, this is not a love letter, it’s about an honest look at the state of innovation in Cincy. I return to my hometown May 21 for a 7:00 pm appearance at Joseph-Beth in Hyde Park to sign copies of Jack’s Notebook. Come visit with me! My visit prompted my thinking about my Hometown.

Historically, Cincinnati is darn innovative. Jet engines were first developed at GE in Evandale. Proctor and Gamble, the giant that looms large in this cities corporate profile, certainly has innovated like crazy over the years and continues to do so. P&G strategy over the last few years has been nothing short of brilliant. Kroger’s continues to grow by being very smart, and yes, innovative. Tom Nies and Cincom was a pioneer in the software business (disclaimer, I worked for Cincom for 4 years in the 80’s). Once upon a time Cincinnati was one of the most admirably balanced economic cities in the world, with all kinds of thriving companies. It was the world capital of precision machine tools at one point, and not so long ago. So, okay, Innovation and Cincinnati do belong in the same sentence.

However, Cincinnati is no longer as well balanced as it once was. The big companies continue to do well, but with some rare exceptions it’s hard to find the gleaming and exciting light of new business formation and innovation. Opportunity, or rather the lack of it, is at the heart of Cincinnati’s racial disquiet. No hope means despair, and desperate people do drastic things. I spoke with a real gentlemen named Jim Clingman, Jr. (http://www.blackonomics.com/) yesterday and he confirmed what I thought was true 20 years ago. It’s not a level playing field in Cincy for the young business person coming up. Jim is a UC professor and an advocate for economic empowerment. He says that the investment funds that were supposed to help small businesses (one of the responses to the racial problems that occurred) only go to companies with more than a million in revenues. And there doesn’t appear to be any micro loan programs in Cincinnati – and that’s hard to believe given the need and they’re proven effectiveness for bootstrapping. Jim is one of the driving forces behind Entrepreneur High School, an educational program located within Woodward High, to create new players on the field. It’s a modest success, having survived within CPS for 5 years now and graduating it’s first class. They’ve won national awards for business plan development. If only this program were more widespread…it should be an option in every public high school. Especially in Cincinnati.

And having said all the above, Cincinnati is still a force -- at this time home to 10 Fortune 500 companies and 18 Fortune 1000 companies. These companies do well in a low cost of living city like Cincinnati, drawing on its educated population, and on a solid mid-western work ethic. These companies long ago carved out their niches and are, mostly, content to do incremental innovation to maintain their market shares. One bit of good news -- as some of these bigger organizations downsize and send talented and experienced baby boomers off to retirement, those folks refuse to go quietly and often go out and start ventures. This is a real engine for small business growth and Cincinnati would do well to aid and abet this trend. Enquirer columnist John Eckberg, author of The Success Effect, made me aware of this. He cited as an example the story of the founding of Lenscrafter. Dean Butler, a retired P&G executive noticed that there was no good reason glasses had to take two weeks to come back from the grinder. He put the lens makers in the back of the store, delivered glasses in one hour, and the rest was history. A seasoned veteran is the kind of person who not only has that kind of business insight, but also has the experience to grow a company.

And Cincinnati has some stars -- Doug Hall at Eureka Ranch is arguably the leading innovation consultant in the USA. While I don’t agree with all his methods, you can’t argue with his results, which keep customers from all over the world coming back to Newtown for his services.

Let me get personal here. I left Cincinnati in the mid 80’s to pursue a software career in a bigger market, Chicago. It was a good move for me. I worked for several companies in Chicago and then started my own, with partners, in the early 90’s and prospered. That would never have happened for me in Cincinnati (you can’t get a cup of coffee in Chicago without running into somebody with a new business idea). New business requires capital and mentorship. It requires a culture that supports risk taking. Here’s my opinion: Cincinnati is a risk-averse city. The statistic I found on Wikipedia -- that it is #16 in the USA for entrepreneurship (not bad) and #1 in failure rates -- is interesting. It means only “sure things” are being tried. The downside to having a good batting average is you give up the long ball, the home run. The Big Red Machine didn’t operate that way! You need good bets and you need to bet on a long shot once in a while because they have the biggest payoff.

Let’s look at technology. There needs to be a culture that develops new technologies and nurtures them into new businesses. I don’t see that going on in Cincinnati. Okay, the University of Cincinnati does some good work in engineering research and development (check out the interesting work being done at Extreme Photonics http://www.uc.edu/news/steckl.htm) – but unlike Stanford or Harvard – where are all the start-ups taking that stuff to the next level? And creating jobs? It’s really not happening in Cincinnati.

Until Cincinnati starts supporting technological development and start-ups, and until it does the hard work of creating more empowerment for small business from the ground up with micro loan programs, and better entrepreneurial education, it will remain what it is today, a good town content to follow, and not a great town leading innovation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

CREA 2007 – The fifth Annual Creativity European Association conference

I spent the last week in Sestri Levante, Italy at the fifth annual CREA conference. I’ve only missed one CREA -- and the reason is because it’s a remarkable conference. Here’s what’s remarkable about CREA:

• Attending are a diverse international group of creativity and/or innovation practitioners, facilitators, and motivated-to-learn participants. The participants are people from many different countries, 23 in all this year. Some are from big corporations, but there are entrepreneur’s, consultants, and governmental types as well.
• People talk – there are a lot of friendships made at CREA, and a lot of informal business being done. It would be hard to imagine a better place to find the perfect creativity or innovation consultant for yourself or your organization. Also hard to imagine a better conference to learn more for yourself. CREA’s only real competition is the CPSI conference (www.cpsiconference.com), which is larger and older, and also a great conference, but I’d have to say less intimate. Former CPSI participants who wanted to recreate the experience with a European flavor organized CREA; I’d say they have succeeded.
• Longer format immersion courses (16 hours spread over four days) offer an opportunity to really learn and integrate creative process and technique. We’re talking Deep Learning, the kind that becomes a part of your life. These sessions go way beyond typical conference overview fare. There are some short sessions as well, which they call Expo’s, and while shorter, these are also highly experiential and impactful.
• Hats off to the conference organizers on many aspects of the conference. First and foremost is a dedication to quality programming. Their Discovery course of creative problem solving is the only public offering of the new Thinking Skills model articulated by Gerard Puccio, Mary Murdock, and Marie Mance in their seminal book Creative Leadership. I’d call that cutting edge. Fair to mention here I was one of the instructors of Discovery English, so I’m biased. On the other hand I have no vested interest in the conference, I am a volunteer – and yes, I do it for free. Why? I wouldn’t miss being with this community. I wouldn’t miss my own chance to learn.
• Sessions are held in Italian, French, and English. The facilitators are a mixed lot from all over Europe, the USA and South America. They are some of the world’s most successful consultants and practitioners in creativity or innovation.
• Sestri Levante, Italy is a delightful place. Located about an hour’s drive south of Genoa on the Mediterranean coast, the conference is spread over four hotels and two meeting facilities, all short walks from each other. The views are fabulous, the kind that scream for a painter to come and capture in watercolors or oils. Sestri has two small bays nestled into the rocky and hilly coastline of Italy and the old world ambience of the village. The local people are friendly, you can walk, or even swim at the pristine beach -- the whole place exudes authentic charm.
• Did I mention the food is fantastic? It’s buffet eating and it’s marvelous. Lots of seafood and unique Italian specialties, local breads and cheeses. And wine with both lunch and dinner. Again, not your typical conference.
• You’ve missed the 2007 conference but consider attending in 2008. The conference maxes out at about 300, so I would suggest you check into their website often and register at the first opportunity. For more information: http://www.creaconference.org/

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Seven Crazy Ideas

It occurred to me that I don’t often share my very different thinking and frankly wacky ideas. I have a lot of ideas – I get paid to have them for my clients – and because they are in the corporate for-profit context I’m not able to talk about them. However, I have ideas about a lot of things, products, the environment, government, services that just come to me from out of the blue. Here are a few I’ve been thinking about lately in no particular order. Feel free to send me “builds” -- that’s what blogs are for.

1. Create a Great American Car

I heard Bill O’Rielly on the radio a couple days ago and he was talking about his personal dilemma of finding a good mileage, decent sized (for a tall man) American car. He said he couldn’t find one. Bill and I agree on this! There aren’t great options out there when you want to buy American. My idea is a simple one and not a new one, but why doesn’t Detroit build a Really Stylish, Great on Mileage (like better than ever before) car. I’m talking about one that gets like 50 MPG and has a Wow appearance. Something like this could turn that whole industry around. Tell me we don’t have the solution to a breakthrough in mileage and I’ll tell you we haven’t tried hard enough. It’s possible and if we do it we lead the world in a new technology, lower our dependence on foreign oil, and do the earth a good turn as well. While I’m at it why don’t I just state for the record that I think the assumption that we can’t manufacture anything here competitively is a load of crap. We can, it’s just a lot harder. Let’s invent a new way to manufacture cars and other heavy equipment. Decentralize? Massive automation? Both?

2. Plant a Billion Trees in 2009

We hear about the deforestation of the Amazon jungle and Madagascar. We hear about global warming and how trees can help offset carbon dioxide pollution. So, let’s do something really good for the earth and plant a billion trees a year. Arbor Day is celebrated in the USA and around the world in various forms but it’s a less-than well coordinated effort. Let’s do something on a much larger scale, which the USA, or some big company could facilitate. Could the UN take this on? I hear the skeptics chirping already, but hey, who could argue that trees are not a good thing? Perhaps we pilot the idea in 2008 in the USA and do a full-world massive planting in 2009. We might couple it with the Olympics or some other event that the world shares. Everybody benefits with more trees on this earth.

3. Thousand Dollar ($1000) “No Car” Tax Credit

There are too many cars on the road. They pollute, they cost a lot to buy and maintain, there’s no place to park, or it costs a bundle. For many people, owning a car is a complete nuisance. How about if we motivate people to use public transportation and walk or bike to work? What I propose is a hefty tax credit for people who don’t own or use a car. Maybe allow a yearly “vacation” exception. To get the credit you’d have to document selling or donating your car to charity. Then you get a $1,000 deduction. It’s good for the environment, it decongests our highways, and it rewards a healthy behavior.

4. Fund a Desalination Breakthrough with a NASA-like Program

Taking the salt out of seawater or brackish water is something we human beings should be getting better at. Why not focus our scientific resources on creating a breakthrough in this area. Do we need to spend all that money getting to Mars? Let’s do something more practical. Right now desalination is expensive, mainly because of the power required to run the pumps in a plant. So, what if we harness wind or solar power and dramatically reduce the cost? In the USA we could solve a very big problem -- the western states are running out of water fast, and need more fresh water. We need a breakthrough, and if we can put a person on the moon why can’t we desalinate seawater cheaply? Really, we need to do this now in order to stay ahead of the fresh water challenge. Many futurists and scientists are predicting drastic fresh water shortages in the next 50 years. Not to give the Saudi’s a great idea, but who has more power, more salt water, and more money? Shouldn’t they go nuts and develop this technology for their own future?

5. The Vagabonds, the Roving Football Team

Nearly all sports team are rooted to a city. The Harlem Globetrotters are the one exception and even they have a spiritual home in, well, Harlem. Many cities and towns don’t have a major sports team as there are only so many franchises and those have homes in top 25 markets. Many teams have tried to lay claim to being “America’s Team” -- what I propose is a Real America’s Team, a team with no permanent home, but would move from small city to small city every year. I’m talking football here, but it could just as easily be basketball, hockey, or baseball. The Vagabonds (my name) would all ride Harley’s into town and set up shop at a local college or municipal stadium for a season. I’m thinking cities like Dayton, Ohio, Austin, Texas, Des Moines, etc would be candidates to host the team. The city doesn’t need to go crazy building a new stadium or any of that expensive big city stuff, they would shoe horn the Vagabonds into existing facilities. The Vags would be low overhead and possibly more profitable due to that and more television exposure (all their games would be on satellite).

6. National Dog Doo System

Okay, this is a gross idea, but let’s do something with all that dog poop. It’s a complete nuisance isn’t it? And it’s an environmental nightmare as well, we bag it up in something that doesn’t biodegrade and it ends up entombed for eternity in a landfill. It’s stupid because it’s actually useful stuff. The idea here is to use all the poo for various things, energy for one, and fertilizer for another. There’s a group in San Francisco already trying this out to create energy (http://abcnews.go.com/US/TenWays/story?id=2128437&page=1) and why does that not surprise me? Fertilizer is a bit trickier as composting dog poop must be done carefully to avoid pathogens, but with the right science it’s totally doable. Somebody could make a lot of money doing this very nasty and disgusting, but smart thing. I for one would pay somebody to take the stuff off my hands – it would be a profit center even before it was converted to energy or fertilizer.

7. Personality Bar/Club

Have you ever noticed that great conversations are not all that easy to come by? We’ve all heard of speed dating and we are all aware of web-based matchmaking. Why not extend matchmaking and good old fashion companionship and conversation to a place where it’s likely to really work out? How about a public venue, a bar or a restaurant, where it’s organized around personality preferences? Where you would be directed towards people with who you are likely to communicate well? When you arrive for the first time you take a standard assessment using a touch screen; then you receive a card with a bar code that contains information about you and your personality type. This could be done with a personality preference measure like the MBTI (otherwise known as “Meyers Briggs” see http://www.myersbriggs.org/ ) . Various assessments could be used. Matches could be set up right away or you could elect to do your own mixing. When you meet someone you could use a tabletop tool and your bar codes to suggest areas of common interest and what might be fun to talk about. There could be a low stimulus introverts room. The club could organize speed dates or mixers of people who are likely to get along.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Ann Coulter - Not a Commentator, a Comedian

The recent flap over the offensive language Ann Coulter used in a speech to a Republican group (specifically the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC) highlights once again just how goofed up the world of news and reporting in the media is. I think the media has got her story wrong from the get go. The problem is they actually take her seriously, that's the mistake. I must admit, I used to get pretty wound up about the obnoxious things this woman says. She's so black and white, so extreme, so mis-informed, that I struggled to deal with her, she was just that offensive. When I listen to John McCain or Mitt Romney I may not agree with all they say, but there is much I do agree with. Not so with Ann, she just seemed so darn unreasonable.

Until now.

Watching the video of her calling John Edwards a "faggot" I had a flash of insight which explains it all for me. The insight: she's not a serious political commentator at all, she's a comedian. Okay, she's not very funny but she's doing what most blue comics do, they use language to shock and surprise. Shock and surprise is what Ann Coulter needs to remain a media figure and get her desired end result -- selling books and more speeches. I must admit this is a very creative woman, she has a strategy, she sticks to it, and it works.

Does Ann Coulter really believe the wacky things she says? Only her hair dresser knows for sure. Given the conviction with which she tells her stories I'd have to guess she is not play acting very much. Her inability to see gray areas serves her comedic persona, it shows her in sharp relief. As soon as Ann starts being reasonable she's not a story anymore. I do know that when she makes a comment like the John Edwards one it is in fact a straight ahead joke. The only difference between her and Jon Stewart and Bill Maher is her political persuasion. Her genius -- I get it now -- is she's found the comic-on-the-far-right niche and not even told anybody she's a comic.

Once we start viewing Ann as a comedian we can really enjoy her, we can celebrate her free speech and not cringe. I'm really looking forward to her next appearance on Hardball! If we could only convince her to go another level over the top it would be clear to everyone.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Secret, a big YES + AND

The Secret – Yes, And, you need more to achieve your dreams
Than the Law of Attraction

The Secret is a book written by Rhonda Byrne. It’s a media darling of the moment having just been featured on Oprah, with a follow up planned. The book is stacked to the ceilings at bookstores around the country; it’s going to be a best seller. The Secret is about the Law of Attraction, and the book, mostly, is anecdotes about how well this Law of the Universe works, with some guiding principles. It’s an inspiring book. And it is not always enough, you need more than the Law of Attraction to achieve your hopes and dreams.

I believe in the Law of Attraction -- I think that this book is “true.” And I don’t want to pour cold water on people’s dreams, far from it, my dream is one of empowerment as well and I wish The Secret and it’s readers’ big success.

I fear, however, that The Secret does not go far enough with empowerment tools. It doesn’t tell you How, specifically, to achieve your dreams. It says, mostly, that you only need to wish for it, think about it, and visualize it. Wishing and visualization are good -- and the Law of Attraction is so powerful that sometimes people achieve results just by “putting it out there.” But for every success story of the boy who wished for no lines at Disney world and the dream came true, there are 500 other little boys who wished the same thing and it Did Not come true. The Secret only tells us the good things that happen and doesn’t say that a person can wish for something with all their heart and soul and still have that dream remain unfulfilled. What, they weren’t doing it right?

The Secret can lead to heartbreak -- the exact opposite intention of what Rhonda Byrne wishes for. People need more than The Secret, they need specific tools and techniques for achieving their dreams, they need Deliberate Creativity.

I think people should go ahead and read The Secret. Then they should also learn deliberate creative process, including these three key techniques:

1. How to Explore dreams with more than just visualizations and wishes. It’s a great start, but dreams and wishes become reality not just by the magic of “the universe” but also by good old-fashioned research. Some really wonderful magic happens when you pick up a book, do a Google search, or, God forbid, pick up the phone and make some phone calls. Further, people need to be really clear what it is they are after doing, they need to Frame the Challenge. A vague wish or dream is hard to achieve isn’t it? A specific one brings a wish into the world of reality.
2. How to Generate hundreds of ideas that solve problems and achieve wishes and dreams -- and not just wait for magic to happen. Magic happens when you use the Law of Attraction to Have A Lot of Ideas. The first idea that pops into your head is rarely the best one for what you are after doing. The best ideas, the breakthrough ones, happen when you keep asking your mind to give you answers. Eventually the right on will come, but only if you keep after it and make a long list. The Law of Attraction is best coupled with the principle of Quantity of Ideas. Together, they are powerful.
3. How to Take Action Steps that are exciting to you and others. Some of our best ideas for achieving our dreams and wishes are stopped cold by the response they get from other people. Or, from our own lack of action. The Secret only works when people DO SOMETHING.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Creativity and Love

I've been reading a business fable by Steve Farber lately, it's called the The Radical Leap, a personal lesson in extreme leadership. It's an interesting book and what resonates with me in particular is the whole idea of love being a central aspect of effective leadership. It's been politically incorrect to talk about love in a business context as far back as I can remember and I really admire Steve for making the case for it. I believe, as Steve does, that love is essential to leadership, and that it helps create transcendent businesses.

I want to take the case for love into the world of creative thinking. I want to state for the record the simple idea that love enables creativity. It enables it in yourself and it enables it in others.

If you want innovation, you need creativity. If you want to stimulate creativity, in yourself and in others, you need love.

Here's my logic to support the statement. Creative thought happens best when we are feeling light hearted, curious, and when we have an open mind to possibilities and options. Brain research indicates that creative thought is a higher order of thinking than logical/rational thought.

That space, that state of mind where wonderful ideas happen, is not such an easy place to get to. The harder we try the more elusive it becomes, when faced with the fear of a difficult challenge, it often feels impossible to get into that creative head-space.

DeBono says we cannot come up with a fresh idea through logic alone. A challenge is in our head, and then a solution spontaneously occurs to us. When we think more about it the logic becomes apparent. It's logical in retrospect.

As an improvisor I know that when I "think" in a scene all is lost. The scene has already gone by me and what I think of as clever comes across as inauthentic to the audience. On the other hand, when I simply "do" and react to others in a scene without thinking, spontaneous things happen. I'm with the flow of the scene and ideas just pop out.

Okay, here's the love connection.

When we experience love, from others, or even better, within ourself, it can put us into a secure place. It's a thinking step up from fear and panic. From that secure place we can in a relaxed way ask our mind for ideas to answer the challenge or problem in front of us. We begin to play with ideas. So, from love we remove fear and reduce anxiety, we step up into a higher order of thinking about everything, we open the doors to allow our subconscious to suggest ideas to us. With love in our hearts and love for what we are thinking about we're motivated, we're unblocked and good ideas are likely to happen for us.

The Beatles were right. All we need is love.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Assessing the Creative Candidate...a daunting task

It's two years until the US Presidential election and already we have 16 candidates out there beating the bushes for money and primary votes. As a Creativity and Innovation expert I've tried to look at the race and figure out which is the most "creative" candidate. I've even thought of doing a rating system, something like movie reviews.

The more I think about rating candidates creativity the more difficult the idea seems.

First of all you'd have to define what you'd measure, things like quality and quantity of ideas, and type of ideas. Right away I'm in trouble because this is information that isn't really shared. Oh, we know what a candidate has chosen to reveal, but that's the tip of the iceberg. Some have written books, so you could search for clues there, but it's still a very incomplete picture.

I'm aware of Audacity of Hope by Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village. Do the other candidates have books out? I'll research this and post more later.

You'd also want to measure implementation skill. All the great ideas in the world don't mean a thing if you don't have the ability to get them passed as laws or as initiatives. Great ideas don't make a great leader. You can look at track records for elected officials, but some of the best leaders we've ever had were not active lawmakers, or had limited experience. Abe Lincoln for example -- he only served two years in Congress before being elected President.

It would also be nice to know "level" or raw intelligence. This kind of talent really matters doesn't it?
Let's face it - the most ingenious ideas usually come from very bright people. Same with creative decision-making -- analysis and synthesis of vast amounts of data requires a powerful engine under the hood. Personally I want a lot of horsepower in the President's brain. You can guess IQ in several ways, not the least of which is simply the words people use. But again, you've not got an exact measure here.

I wonder if SAT scores and IQ tests of Presidential candidates are in the public record. They don't tell you eveything, but they tell you something important.

Beyond IQ, education and experience matter in creative effectiveness. They allow you to draw from a deeper and wider database of things to combine into creative solutions. To some degree you could assess educational level, at least formal education. However, it is very difficult to assess life experience. Personally, I learned a great deal about people and life being a bartender, and how could you ever include that kind of world wisdom in an assessment of candidates? You could look at their history I suppose and get a sense of the breadth of their experience. Again, this is highly subjective.

And this doesn't even begin to address the fact that the system doesn't reward candidates for risk taking or for being truly innovative. Truly innovative ideas are not usually accepted easily or quickly, so it is a disincentive for candidates to share those kinds of ideas -- if they even have some. Incremental ideas, that is "in-the-box" ideas are much more likely to get public acceptance. On the other hand they aren't terribly exciting are they? I don't envy these candidates!

The good news, in my opinion, is that the field is large and that increases the chance that among them is a truly creative candidate. As successful people they are creative -- they wouldn't be where they are if they weren't creative to some degree. Raising money and getting elected are extremely challenging and complex. The thing is the creative skills that get you in a position to run and win may not be the creative skills necessary to do a good job as President.

A person who is great at analysis and getting the one right answer is not necessarily the person who has the imagination and vision to lead.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Creativity & Innovation Industry

This is my first blog and I've decided to talk about the Creativity & Innovation Industry.

It's a shame that this group doesn't have more cohesion but in my view it is indeed an "industry." It consists of a wide range of people and companies. It encompasses everything from venture capitalists to new age aura readers. In the middle of that spectrum are qualitative researchers who provide "ideation" services, companies like What If and Ideas to Go, and a goodly number of single shingle consultants who offer some form of innovation consulting. I've heard of Creativity Coaches, one here in Chicago I know, Brendan Sullivan, is getting all the work he can handle. There are also the high-priced marquee types like Doug Hall (and nice work on the TV show American Inventor Mr. Eureka Ranch, well done), Clotaire "Gil" Rapaille, and Larry "PR" Keeley of the Doblin Group. Don't take offense Larry, its only jealousy speaking, I am amazed at the good press you generate and the intelligent things you say.

I recently got a resume from a former television anchor -- someone you would know and recognize -- that wants to market herself as a "trained brain." Trained brain is a buzzword for a professional ideator, a paid idea person. Nice work if you can get it! I thought it was a good idea but couldn't tell her much about how to put her skills in front of this wide-ranging and ill-connected group. Herding this group of creative cats is quite a challenge, and nobody is doing it. Wouldn't it be nice if there were an industry wide association? And wouldn't it be nice if it were international?

I believe an international association for creativity and innovation practitioners would help expand the market for our collective offerings by creating greater awareness.

Someday we'll see an ad campaign or some sort of virtual marketing effort for this industry, ala Got Milk.

Got Creativity?