Thursday, March 20, 2008

AC Clarke, Sci Fi Writer, Creative Visionary

A brief post to honor and celebrate the life of the late, great, and highly creative, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke died yesterday, March 19, 2008 at the age of 90.  
He is best known for his science fiction writing, specifically the short story, The Sentinel, that led to the seminal film "2001:A Space Odyssey." It is not widely known that Clarke was something of an inventor/technologist having articulated the idea that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays -- in 1945. To say that this was a good idea -- as it lead to them actually being used in that fashion and also set up the conduit used by cable television services like HBO to distribute content all over the world. Another prediction he made is the building of a space elevator, which he believed will make space shuttles obsolete. Clarke wrote about 34 novels, over 12 short story collections numerous non-fiction articles, and worked on several notable television programs.

"The only way to find the limits of the possible is by going beyond them to the impossible."

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gordon Ramsay, Creative Hero

Just watched another episode of Gordon Ramsay's television show, Kitchen Nightmares. It's a show where celebrity chef Gordon visits a restaurant in trouble and puts things in order. I get a huge kick out of this show! It's entertaining, and, a real example of creative problem solving.

For those who are unfamiliar with Gordon, he's quite a character. A huge success as a restaurateur in the UK, he was once a promising soccer (football) player whose career ended early due to injuries. After years of kitchen dues paying he became a great chef. It's quite a story. He's quite blunt at times, and uses bad language frequently. I suspect he's accentuating these traits at times to make the show more entertaining, and I also suspect that it's not so far afield from who he really is. Gordon Ramsay is incredibly creative, not just as a chef, for which he is well known, but also as a business person and a creative problem solver. If you are not a "foodie" and don't watch shows related to cooking and such, I would ask you to defer judgement and watch Kitchen Nightmares, it is a wonderful and entertaining example of practical creativity at work.

Each show is really a case study in using creativity to turn a failing business around. The show I just saw is the episode focused around a restaurant in Tuckahoe, New York State, the Olde Stone Mill. The owner, Dean Marrazzo had renovated and converted -- with his own hands -- an actual mill and made it into his dream restaurant. Of course, he sunk every last dime he had into it, and bet his families future on it. Real life drama! Due to a number of challenges within the restaurant he was on the brink of disaster when Gordon showed up on his motorcycle to help turn things around.

Gordon first meets the people at the restaurant and then goes into assessment mode, in creative process parlance, he does a lot of fact finding. He tastes the food, looks around the restaurant, asks questions, even researches the local area to get a sense of market conditions. Well, the food was crap for one, but the bigger problem was that the Olde Stone Mill, essentially, was burdened by the owners ego and fear. Reality shows often bore me but even though you have to suspect staging in Kitchen Nightmares, the tension, anxiety, fear, and desperation was well communicated -- it would have been hard to fake! My hat's off to Mr. Marrazzo for having the guts to bring in Gordon Ramsay. Clearly, it wasn't easy for him!

So Gordon springs into action. He finds a local supplier of meat that is really excellent and having surveyed the area -- overloaded with Italian food -- decides that Olde Stone Mill should reopen as a steak house. It's a bold move, but an informed and creative one (it would be nice to know what else he considered, I'd love to have more detail on how this guy thinks). He works with the chef and gets the kitchen in order. Then he turns his attention to the real problem which is the owners inability to get out of his own way. He confronts him in a very direct way, which in my view is another very creative act. The two men had a brutally honest interaction and it showed both of them to be vulnerable, as Gordon confessed that he'd lost a restaurant himself and knew what failure was like as well as success. The confrontation led to the breakthrough the restaurant needed to change, survive, and thrive.

Many people think creativity is all about being nice, and forget that creativity is problem solving. And problems sometimes need to be confronted. Without making this owner face his fears and over-controlling ego the Olde Stone Mill was doomed. Sometimes, often really, creativity and innovation happen in a cauldron of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Gordon Ramsay is one of those people, apparently, who are not afraid to break a few plates in the process of making their creative point. What we can learn from my new creative hero is when you have a creative answer, don't be afraid to confront a problem head on, stick to your guns (or your egg beater), make your point, and push for the change you seek.

The happy ending of the show has Dean the owner saved from himself and the restaurant back on track as a steak house. Gordon and Dean hug before he rides off on his bike into the sunset. Nothing like success to mend the fences of confrontation!

For more on Gordon and Kitchen Nightmares, see If you are anywhere near Tuckahoe, stop into the Olde Stone Mill for a steak -- they are still in business a year later, and apparently doing well -- if you can believe the New York Times.