Brandon's Notepad

September 6, 2017

Creativity Deconstructed

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2FT


Before you can effectively and consistently boost creativity, you must first understand what creativity really is. As I always say, words are important, and the study of words can reveal some truly amazing things. In this case, creativity appears to be a fairly simple etymological study.


The root word of creativity is obviously create, so it is not surprising that most English dictionaries define the word as the ability to create. Personally, I don’t find that definition very satisfying, because when we talk about creativity or when we describe someone as being very creative, we typically have something much greater in mind than the simple ability to make something. Some dictionaries extend this definition to include the ability to think new things. The Oxford dictionary explicitly ties the act of creation in this context to the use of the imagination and notes that the resultant thing or idea is original. The Cambridge definition goes even further to suggest that the ideas produced also possess the property of being unusual. I prefer the word unique over unusual, but the latter does connote that the thing or idea is not only one-of-a-kind, but also out-of-the-ordinary.

One must be careful throwing a word like create around too loosely, however. All too often, people equate it with the word make, as in, “let’s go make some art”. This seldom works in reverse, because you never hear things like, “I’ll create the coffee in the morning”. The word make has other meanings that are also incompatible; for example, phrases like “please create your bed before leaving for school” and “I hope you can create it home in time for dinner” make no sense at all!

The same problem is inherent with the word produce (the verb, not the lettuce). Does an artist produce great works of art in the same way a manufacturing plant produces widgets? Obviously not. In Latin, we can distinguish the verb creo from produco, facio, and fabrico (think produce, manufacture, and fabricate respectively). Things can be made (produced/manufactured/fabricated) according to a design, but the creative act must, by definition, occur before or coincident with the design. This ties in well with the notion of originality: a new creation’s origin is an outcome of the creative act.

I am rather partial to the definition of creativity that I first heard in a Lynda.com training course titled “Creativity Bootcamp”. In that course, author and instructor Stefan Mumaw explains that “creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty.” Relevance is a binary property: a proposed solution either solves a problem or it doesn’t. Novelty (i.e. “newness”) is where originality comes in. Why does Mumaw include these two properties in his definition? Because he wants to emphasize that creativity is not the same thing as artistry. An art (from the Latin ars) is a skill that one learns through practice. So, while a very skilled artist can, say, paint impressive landscapes, there may be little or no creativity in his work, because he is not solving the problem — capturing and expressing the essence of the place — in a new way.

So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the nature of creativity? More importantly, does this understanding bring us any closer to learning how to consistently deliver creative solutions? At a minimum, it helps us define our boundaries. If a problem truly calls for a creative solution, it is either because the problem itself is new or all previous solutions have proven to be ineffective or suboptimal. Also, we can recognize that looking for ideas (e.g. Pinterest) is the antithesis of being creative, and may in fact hinder our own creativity in most cases. Instead, we should focus on analyzing and solving the problem outright, and then researching to see if our “best” solution has already been attempted by someone else. Finally, we can completely dismiss the notion that creativity is inextricably linked to artistic talent. In fact, scientific discovery and invention are predicated on creative thinking. Thus, creativity is not so much about the solution, but about how we, as creative beings, approach the problem.


Advertisements

August 29, 2017

Creativity: A Study

Filed under: Art,Productivity,Psychology,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 8:50 am
Tags: , ,

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2FL


I consider myself to be a fairly creative person. I grew up in a household that encouraged self-expression and experimentation on many levels, including the arts. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed writing, sketching, painting, and playing music, even at times when I felt like I wasn’t very good at them at all. And like most people, I too have periods in which I lack inspiration and need a little boost to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, finding myself in a creative slump is exactly what prompted me to start studying the nature of creativity.


Below are a set of questions I set out to answer in the course of this study:

  • What is creativity really?
  • Is being creative the same as being artistic?
  • What is a creative process?
  • Can creativity be measured?
  • How do I find inspiration?

As my study progresses, I will post my findings here. If you would like updates on my progress, please follow me on Twitter.


August 15, 2017

Great Leaders GROW

Filed under: Book Reviews,Business & Economics,Management,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 4:52 pm

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2F2


This is a short review of “Great Leaders GROW: Becoming a Leader for Life” by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller.

The story is straightforward. Blake Brown loses his father, a successful business executive, just as he is about to complete his college degree. He reaches out to Debbie Brewster, a long-time associate of his father, seeking career advice. In a series of one-on-one coaching sessions, she shares with Blake what his father had taught her both by word and example over many years. Meanwhile, Blake lands a job at one of his preferred potential employers, Dynastar, but is assigned to a cold, heartless boss with impossible expectations. With Debbie’s advice as a guide, Blake manages to lead the company out of a bad business position and helps the boss confront a difficult personal situation to boot.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, “GROW” (rendered in the title in capital letters) is a mnemonic device. It represents four activities that help people become good leaders. Each activity focuses on an area of continuous improvement. They are revealed by Debbie as the story progresses, and while I would love to provide a summary, I feel like I would be taking away the whole purpose of reading the story. If you really must get to the point without taking the time to read, there is a very concise summary of the activities at the end of the book. Also, Blanchard himself gave away the first three (G, R and O) in this 2012 interview with Forbes, and covers all four in a series of ‘blog posts about the book made just prior to its release.

Was it a good read? Yes. As I said, the story was straightforward and easy to follow. The plot and character development was sufficient for a work of this length. In my mind, it played out like a drama-comedy show (sometimes called a dramedy), despite the seriousness of some of the scenes. I mentally cast a young Jason Bateman in the role of Blake (think The Hogan Family, not Horrible Bosses), a conservative Jack Black as Sam, his ne’er-do-well coworker at Dynastar, and Ellen Barkin (Animal Kingdom) as Debbie Brewster. Ms. Barnwell, the impossible boss, was played by one of my former coworkers (who shall remain nameless), but Michelle Monaghan (Made of Honor) or Liv Tyler would be a close visual approximation. Cinematography akin to that used in shows like The Office or Boston Legal accommodated the serious bits, yet allowed for humor, sarcasm, and plenty of those sideways ‘whatever’ glances. I felt that picturing the books’ scenes in this “format” was appropriate given its length; after all, isn’t that what sitcoms are all about? All problems solved in thirty minutes or less?

One side note, many of the summaries, commentaries, and reviews of this book (e.g. Washington Post) contain the same line, stating that Great Leaders GROW “is an instructive fable”. This line is so prolific that I imagine it must come from the authors themselves, in the promotional materials perhaps. It’s a bit of a peeve, but this story is not a fable! There are no talking animals at all in this book! It may be better described as a parable, because, like a fable, there is a lesson to the story — a ‘takeaway’ to use contemporary office vernacular — that can be summed up in the pithy phrase that gives the book its title: Great Leaders GROW.


February 17, 2017

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX)

ShortURL http://wp.me/pb7U7-28b


I was first introduced to The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) by a colleague at work. Our training department provides the opportunity for employees to host book reviews as part of our continuing education, and since my colleague found this book very useful in setting and attaining his own professional goals, he shared his experiences with the rest of the company and continues to advocate the adoption of 4DX by other teams. I too have found it useful; thus, I am sharing it with you.


Summary

The 4 Disciplines of Execution is the title of a book by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, published in 2012 by Free Press. In it, the authors propose a new strategy for accomplishing new goals and producing better results. The problem with any initiative aimed at improvement is that it must give way to the day’s business, what the authors call the “whirlwind.” To use an age-old analogy, they simmer on the back burner while the pot in the front is watched to make sure it doesn’t boil over, and when mealtime approaches, the food in the back is often either burnt to a crisp in an attempt to make up for lost cooking time or never finished at all. How can one manage to maintain steady progress toward attaining their goals without these risks?

The 4 Disciplines themselves are covered in detail in the first section of the book. In a nutshell, they are as follows:

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important
The first discipline is all about setting goals. The key is set just a few of them, only one or two if possible. If you have too many goals, it is impossible to focus on them all and nothing gets done. Having only one or two will help ensure that you can stay aware of what they are.

Discipline 2: Act on Lead Measures
Most people focus on outcomes, but if you want to drive progress toward achieving a goal, it is much more effective to measure the inputs. A textbook example used by the authors (and everyone else; the “Hello World” of productivity) is weight loss. Don’t measure the pounds. Measure caloric intake and hours of exercise. Outcomes are typically predictable if the right inputs are identifiable, measurable, and controllable.

Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
If you are serious about achieving a goal, you must know where you stand at all times. A compelling scoreboard that is easy to update and understand improves motivation. The scoreboard must have both form and function.

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
Holding yourself accountable usually means communicating progress to another person or group, preferably on a frequent basis. If there are no consequences for performance (or lack thereof) then the goal becomes meaningless and forgettable.

The authors go into much more detail and cover some important tips and pitfalls, some of which are not obvious or intuitive. After all, if the process was just this simple, it wouldn’t have taken eighty-two pages to describe it. The second section provides practical advice on how to install the Four Disciplines in a team setting, and third on how to roll them out to an entire organization. The latter part of the book contains interesting case studies and answers to some frequently asked questions.

Observations

It stands to reason that people and organizations that perform repetitive tasks have a lot to gain from this approach. Take sales for example: the number of customer contacts made in a period of time may be a good lead measure that can predict sales outcomes. Changes in process can then be focused on improving the lead measures first and foremost, and only when the point of diminishing returns is reached should focus be changed to a less-impactful measure.

This does not mean that the approach is limited to granular homogeneous tasks only. One team at my office — the team my colleague is in — is already building the 4 Disciplines into their departmental operations this year. Their work is analytical and more-or-less project-based. There is not a lot of granular work as you would find in, say, a factory or call center; however, they do gather a variety of metrics and are always looking for ways to streamline their procedures. Their first step is to identify which procedures have the biggest impact on their workload and then to figure out how to identify and manipulate the lead measures to produce a positive outcome, to shorten total project time for example.

It seems quite incidental that my company is also changing its approach to employee development, and that while it is not based specifically on 4DX, the two seem to fit hand-in-glove with one another. In fact, I’ve already decided to manage the progress of my own training and performance goals this year using the 4DX methodology.

I have experimented some with 4DX on a completely personal level, mainly to get a feel for the nuts and bolts of it. In my opinion, one of the toughest parts of the process is identifying the lead measures — which are not always obvious. It’s a matter of finding the input(s) that have the highest correlation coefficient to the desired output, to borrow some terms from statistics. Also, it is important to recognize that outputs aren’t always singular, and that optimizing one output may have a devastating effect on another. Going back to the weight loss example, consuming minimal calories may do wonders for reaching the desired weight, but at the risk of suffering malnutrition.

Recommendation

I definitely recommend this book, and to be honest, I can’t wait to start using the methodology in a more professional capacity. The funny thing is that, as I sat here in our corporate library editing and polishing this post today, another colleague came in looking for a book. She asked if I had read any of them and if I had any suggestions. I immediately recommended the 4DX book, as there are still several copies left on the shelf. I told her that it would be instantly applicable to her work and relayed to her that I was planning on using it for managing my performance goals. She walked away with a copy in hand and a smile on her face. I will have to follow up with her in a few days to see what she thinks.


August 9, 2016

The Energy Bus

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-1Ue


The Energy Bus This is a short review of The Energy Bus, written by Jon Gordon.

The Energy Bus is a fictional story about a man named George whose life seems to be coming apart at the seams. His performance is being scrutinized at work, his wife is disenchanted with him as a husband, and to top it off, he leaves for work one morning only to find that his car has a flat tire. With no spare and no ride, George is forced to take the bus. This is perhaps the best thing to ever happen to him, for on the bus he meets Joy, the bus driver, and her band of merry passengers who present to George a new perspective on life. George undergoes a miraculous transformation and gets his life back on track.

Though a bit longer than the traditional fable, this story was written to teach a series of lessons about personal happiness, effectiveness, and success. Through the character of George, the reader is reminded that he is the driver of his own bus and is in full control of powering and steering the vehicle, as well as being responsible for the passengers he brings on board. The rules of the bus, established by Joy, provide the basis for having a fun and meaningful ride. The bus, of course, is a metaphor for one’s life. The Ten Rules for the Ride of Your Life can easily be found online, and are even provided in printable poster format by the publisher.

I was introduced to this book as part of a corporate seminar led by ethics expert and motivational speaker, Dr. Paul Voss. The seminar focused on lessons from this and about four other books. From the title, I was concerned that the book was steeped in New Age teachings on how to channel psychic energy in the workplace. Dr. Voss reassured us that the book was not about that at all, just about how our attitudes heavily influence our performance within our work community, so I went along with it. While Voss’ interpretation was certainly valid and my fear was more amplified than what the text warranted, the book did make at least one explicit mention of the Law of Attraction, a pinnacle of New Age ideas prevalent in works such as A Course in Miracles. The author didn’t harp on this much at all, so if you discount the New Age concept of energy and want to read in the context of simply having a positive attitude (as Dr. Voss advocated), the story still works.

The book definitely made an impression on my colleagues, some more than others. Rule #6, “No Energy Vampires Allowed” has been particularly popular around the office. In addition to hiring Dr. Voss to discuss the text to us, the company also purchased some promotional materials for the employees, including some postcard-size versions of the poster linked above, and some smaller cards (approx. 2″x3″) that we were invited to hand out to others or to post in our cubicles as reminders of the lessons contained in the book. In all, as a source of workplace motivation, the seminar and the book were quite successful.


December 9, 2013

The Spiraldex

Filed under: Productivity,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 6:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Home > My Research > Improvement > The Spiraldex


Last year, I discovered The Scription Chronodex, a visual, non-linear method created by Patrick Ng for recording a day’s activities, either for planning purposes or as a record of what has already happened (or both). Here are my notes on its new cousin, the Spiraldex, by Kent from Oz.


Etymology

Like the Chronodex, the Spiraldex takes its suffix from the Latin word for forefinger, indicating that this method will involve pointing to something. The prefix “spiral” simply refers to the shape of the figure used.

Usage

Spiraldex in FilofaxThe Spiraldex figure has a lot in common with the Chronodex. Both mimic the orientation of the clock face, with twelve at the top and six at the bottom, both effectively begin the day at six o’clock in the morning and end at midnight, and both have the date affixed clearly in the center of the figure. However, whereas the Chronodex presents the first three hours of the day inscribed in the inner circle (the morning routine: breakfast, commute, etc.) and the last three are presented on a dashed line (time to wind down, watch television), all of the hours on the Spiraldex are marked incrementally around the curve of the spiral with tick marks dividing each hour into quarters. The general usage is the same: shade, color, or hash blocks of time within the spiral to represent appointents or events, and use callouts if space is limited.

Design Critique

Like its cousin, the Spiraldex is quite visually appealing. It looks especially pretty on the pages of a bound journal or day planner. Many of its fans state their preference over the Chronodex, claiming that the spiral design is much easier to understand and less jarring. I for one disagree. It was the awkwardness of the form that first drew me to the Chronodex. What’s more, the Spiraldex has what I consider a functional flaw. The hours of 9AM to Noon have no exposure to the exterior space to allow for note taking, but is completely obscured by the 9PM to Midnight segment; thus, lines to callouts must cross over the later hours. The dashed line on the Chronodex is there for a reason. So, not only does the Spiraldex not add anything new, it takes away a small bit of usability.

References


June 15, 2012

The Scription Chronodex

Home > My Research > Improvement > The Scription Chronodex


The Scription Chronodex is a visual, non-linear method for representing a day. It can be used as a daily planner or a diary. The intention is to spawn creative thinking by breaking out of the traditional “grid” of the typical daily planner. Days and times of the days are not created equal, and the important ones should be given their due.


Scription

Scription is a ‘blog containing “thoughts on stationary and beyond”, the work of Patrick Ng. The photography is stunning. It’s wood, paper, leather, and ink. It’s “Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Rick Blaine walk into a scrapbooking store”. Patrick created the Chronodex as a planner and diary tool. He’s provided a free 2012 Chronodex planner (PDF & JPG) with a request for prayers for his ill father and caring mother.

Etymology

The word index comes from the Latin word for the forefinger, indicis, which is the finger used most often to point to things. Pointing to something is a nonverbal way to indicate, indicare, some specific thing. Have you ever searched the index of a book by running your forefinger down the page? In 1958, the world was introduced to the Rolodex, a “rolling index” of address cards. Likewise, prepending the Greek word khronos-, the Chronodex is a printed device used to indicate times of the day.

Usage

The Chronodex is a radial representation of a day, and though Ng claims that it is a “free” system with no particular constraints on usage, there seems to be two prevailing elements: zones and pin-points.

Chronodex in Traveler's Notebook formatBasic Figure. The Chronodex begins with a circle. The date is in the center of the circle, and the times are laid out in three layers of concentric bands. The format mirrors a clock face with 12 on top, 6 on bottom, etc.; however, the hours are labelled such that the bulk of the daylight hours, from 9AM to 9PM, are represented by twelve one-hour slices protruding from the circle’s edge. The slices “stair-step” in four sets of three, the 9AM, 12PM, 3PM, and 6PM slices being the shortest, the next hour later being longer, and the next hour after that being the longest. Whereas these slices circumscribe the circle, slices for 6AM through the 8 o’clock hour are in a quarter band inscribed in the circle. The hours between 9PM through the 5AM hour are not labelled explicitly; however, there are small circles on the outermost corners of the longest slices and a dashed, quarter-circle line between the small circles at 9 and 12, implying that anything to note can be added in this third band.

Zones. To represent blocks of time, areas within the slices of the Chronodex can be bordered and shaded. The instructions call this “zoning”. Depending on the size of the printed figure, pen tip size, and penmanship, it is possible to title/label, these areas, though most annotation is made outside the figure.

Pin-Points. Ng promotes “radial thinking”, a term closely associated with mind maps, in which a core idea is located in a center figure and related ideas branch out in a radial network. Notes can be arranged in freeform on the page, and lines drawn to connect the notes with specific times or areas on the Chronodex. Other systems call these “callouts”, but the Chronodex instructions call it “pin-pointing”.

Diary/Planner. Even though the Chronodex is radial, time is still linear for all practical purposes. We are limited (by design?) to recording time-based data from a single perspective: now. We can record what has happened in the past and we can plan what we wish to see happen in the future. The Chronodex can be used to record either, and if one were crafty, perhaps to record both in a single figure.

Design & Extrapolations

Certainly, the figure is designed to be beautiful and inspiring without losing functionality. The stairstep layout of the zones is visual appealing, true, but the arrangement may make the page look less busy, less cluttered, especially when many lines are drawn between the figure and the notes that surround it. Here are some other observations:

A Clock Would Do. There is nothing magic about the figure. It’s cool because it looks like something one might see on a console screen in the Death Star. Really, a generic clock face would do, and there are may clipart clock faces without hands available online. The best choice would have two circles surrounding the face, because the inner circle could be used for AM and the outer one for PM or vise versa. It’s easy to mark points in these circles or to trace them with colored markers to create zones, and many of the available clipart images have these circles, probably because they represent the frame of the clock.

Zone Sizes. One might postulate that the shortest slices represent the hours in which the least activity occurs. This is something I noticed empirically, based in part on my normal workday and the schedules of my coworkers. Everyone is “getting started” at 9AM, meetings start happening around 10AM, and everyone scrambles to get something productive done from 11AM to noon. Likewise, lunch is typically at noon and productivity increases until 3PM, when everyone is ready for a break (or a nap). Antoher wave of productivity leads to scrambling before the end of the work day at around 6PM. The commute home, dinner, and then family time or other entertainment rounds out the last quarter of zones.

References

Below are other resources and commentaries on the Scription Chronodex:


Blog at WordPress.com.