Category Archives: Innovation

The Improvician

For Rob Poynton, improvisation is not just the preserve of actors and musicians, but rather something we all do everyday. According to Rob, “only the dead don’t improvise”. Learning to improvise better, can help us learn to live better. If I sound slightly evangelical, that’s because I am (who’d have thought playing Slow-mo Samurai could be so, erm, edifying). Rob shares  his insight all over the place, from Oxford University’s Said Business School, to London-based brand gurus Eatbigfish, to the remote Spanish hilltop he calls home. He’s written a book too… Don’t cue the lights, or camera, or action. In fact don’t cue anything… Ladeez & gents, it’s Rob Poynton.

THE LESSON: This came thanks to a complete stranger I met by chance at the Jazz festival in Copenhagen. He was in software and when I mentioned I worked with improvisation he started talking to me about Agile Project Management and SCRUM – two forms of highly flexible working that are used in the software industry (which I had never heard of). This got me very excited and sparked off a whole chain of associations and inquiry.  What I learned was that there many stories of improvisational ways of working (the ones that I am interesting in spreading) already out there, we just tend not to see them. I have since found plenty of other examples. My idea is to collect and compile improvisational ‘case stories’, in order to re-frame how we think about what it takes to be successful in the messy world of everyday reality, not the idealised world of business school post rationalisation.

THE QUESTION: For me, this is the year of hosting. The question I am fascinated by is what it takes to design a rich, learning experience.  This means asking other questions, like –  How much do you need to structure and organise? How much do you leave open?  What kind of stimulus do you need? Of what kind?  And so on.

I am engaged with several experiments in this area.

  •  The Creative Tapas Experiment here in Spain, which is an exploration of the conditions needed for co-creativity with a group of about fifty people.
  • My work with Marshall Young on the design of the Oxford Praxis Forum, another ‘container’ designed to explore how senior leadership practioners can interact with a research University for mutual benefit.
  •  Using the space I have in Arenas to host personalised retreats for individuals, called ‘Parenthesis’.  The idea is to give people time-out to think and reflect deeply on intractable dilemmas, in surroundings that allow them to reconnect with themselves and with nature.

THE INSPIRATION: The Leonardo at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery.  It had everything stacked against it because it was so difficult to get in and so crowded once you did (rather like looking at art on a rush hour tube). Once I got over that, I found it truly inspirational.

For me it was the sketches and drawings combined with the explanations on the audio guide of how Leonardo worked that I found inspirational.  He was incredibly collaborative, would allow ideas to emerge and evolve enormously during the process, and was happy to leave things ‘unfinished’. Here was somebody at the very highest level of creative endeavour, yet he worked in a way that was very adaptive and improvisational.


The design storyteller

Leonora Oppenheim- where to start? She’s one of them with many strings to her bow. One of which is Creative Data, which is all about experiential storytelling. Twang. Another one of which is Elio Studio, a design communications practice. Twang. And then there’s her journalism for Treehugger and Coolhunting. Twang. Twang. Twang. I’ve worked alongside Leonora and love the craft of her storytelling and the way she approaches journalism as design.

THE LESSON: Listening to my instinct without trying to rationalise it. I have a tendency to over analyse questions in both my professional and personal life. Something I’m working on is listening to what kind of feeling I’m getting from a situation. What is my instinct telling me? In the past I have often overridden a sense of unease because I couldn’t translate that feeling clearly in my mind. Now I realise I don’t need to intellectually understand why I do or don’t want to do something. Our instinctive reaction is inherent knowledge, so rather than ignoring it and getting myself into trouble, I’m listening. Basically I’m learning to say no, which is a pretty vital skill if you want to stay sane and healthy.

THE BURNING QUESTION: Scale. How much is enough? There are loud voices in the field of sustainability who are rightly concerned about the speed of change we’re achieving. We need to move faster, they say, to avoid global catastrophe. There is a current obsession with digital because of its ability to scale, but with Creative Data. I am swimming against the tide. Our physical and spatial exhibitions are designed to work at a local level reaching hundreds of people at a time, not millions. I’m pursuing this route in the belief that we need to work with communities to help people emotionally engage with the issues and understand how climate change will directly affect their own lives. My question is: how can Creative Data projects have a large-scale impact while still working on deeper personal engagement in future landscapes? How can the physical and digital work together in this context? Tom Uglow, head of Google Creative Labs EMEA, recently said that the future of digital is physical, which boosted my confidence and made me smile.

THE INSPIRATION: There are so many extraordinarily exciting projects happening out there, I am inspired daily. But with respect to my “burning question” I think a brilliant realisation of local creativity with global reach is the work of French street artist JR. Addressing the theme of identity he uses large-scale photography of local people on an architectural scale in their communities. He works guerilla style, without permissions or corporate sponsorship. It’s fast, radical and provocative spatial intervention which creates powerful emotional reactions and a sense of pride in place.  He won the TED prize this year for his Inside Out  project, which scales up his personal work, allowing anyone in the world to transform their own identity into a community artwork by sending them enormous posters of their own portraits. The quote below is from his TED talk and resonates very clearly with me about the purpose of Creative Data.

“Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world and create an energy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things, makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions and then enables you to change the world. What we see changes who we are. When we act together the whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts.”

The innovation jedi

Tom Farrand is a force of nature. He’s one of the incredible Pipeline Project team who are changing the way the communications industries change the world. I first came across Tom at one of his  Good For Nothing social innovation weekends, but it was on the long train journey west to The Do Lectures that we really got to chat. He was buzzing with his 50/50 project that has taken off like wildfire- 50 projects in 50 days to stop famine in Africa. Also on the conversational table: iron man contests, tarantulas and er, shower gel…

THE LESSON: It’s hard to pick out just one thing as I feel that I learnt more last year than I did in the previous 15 years of my working life. That’s mainly down to us hatching our own social mission called Good for Nothing a year ago and seeing where the energy and community that’s building around it, takes us.  A couple of things stand out – the first is that ‘by doing interesting things, interesting things happen to you’. We’ve deliberately tackled as many different challenges as possible in the shortest space of time and opened everything up to the community on the way. From a 4 hr gig with 50 D&AD students, to creating 50/50, a big global challenge to raise awareness and money for famine aid, to getting purposeful companies doing Good for Nothing, we’ve had a go at lots of stuff. The more we’ve put ourselves out there and tried things, the more new opportunities have opened up. The second big thing we’ve learnt is that ‘a demanding common task builds community’ –  by creating these focused social innovation challenges, and bringing together diverse people to solve them collaboratively, there’s a growing community of like-minded people on a similar mission who are starting to share their skills, time and experience to help each other. This new purposeful energy feels exciting and we hope it could lead to even more good stuff happening over time…

THE QUESTION: The big question that we’re asking ourselves is how to accelerate the pace of change towards a more sustainable way of living in the face of seemingly impossible resource constraints. We’re asking ourselves whether the way in which we work can change for the better to enable this – human energy, collaboration and experimentation, feel like a part of the answer. This is something we’re keen to build on, getting more diverse stakeholders working across siloes to solve the bigger issues in creative ways – with collaboration between business, government, 3rd sector and citizens. Our other burning question is how to build Jedi and rave influences into our new web platform in a meaningful way…..

THE INSPIRATION: The thing I’ve been most inspired by in the last year has been the Masters paper in Sustainability and Responsibility that fellow Jedi Dan Burgess has just finished at Ashridge Business School. It plots his story from being stuck in advertising feeling like there’s nowhere to go, to meeting and starting to work with us, to upping sticks with his young family to live in a treehouse in Costa Rica for a year, to changing the way he lives, works, sees and interacts with the world. The paper is based on the process of action learning which has become central to how we now work as a team. And on route he’s uncovered many amazing bits of wisdom in his reading about how we can be more connected to nature, live more creatively and consciously and learn from natural systems to make collaboration work. There’s an amazing book in the making right there….

The Marketoonist

Tom Fishburne left a dream job to follow his lifelong dream of being a cartoonist. A Harvard Business School grad, it didn’t take him long to realise that the cartooning industry was broken, with thousands of cartoonists clamouring for a tiny number of commissions. Take the New Yorker; apparently to even have your work considered you need to submit one cartoon a day, for a year. Then your submission will be one of 1000 that get considered every week, only 18 are chosen. In response, Tom developed the Marketoonist, a thriving business that develops cartoon-based marketing campaigns. Now he’s on a mission to reform the entire industry, by both developing new markets for cartoons, and by developing tech platforms (cartoon banks) that will enable cartoonists to license their back catalogue.

Tom taught me how to doodle and has seriously transformed my note-taking, but that’s another story. He literally put down his paints to chat on a freezing afternoon.

THE LESSON: The power of the tribe. I spent 10 years building my community. Anyone can build a tribe, even if you don’t think you have a reason for it.

THE QUESTION: Why do so many things launch that are mediocre? How do we close the gap between aims and reality? Why, so often, does the dream becomes watered down into the equivalent of apple sauce?

THE INSPIRATION: The Republic of Tea

%d bloggers like this: