The secret recipe of creativity…

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Where do ideas and inspiration come from ? This question has been intriguing the humanity since Plato’s times. While providing a comprehensive answer to this golden question is extremely difficult, there are some theories about how to create the right conditions for inspiration to arise and innovation to take place….

Today, I wanted to share Cédric Villani’s “recipe” for creativity. For the ones who don’t know him, Cédric Villani is among others one of the best mathematicians in the world (winner of the Fields Medal in 2010) and a politician in current Emmanuel Macron’s government.

According to Villani, there are 7 elements that are present in any creative process leading to innovation. I will briefly present each of them below including the personal thoughts and examples that come to my mind:

1. Documentation: In scientific research, you need to take into account all the existing works in a concrete field before starting carrying out your own research in order to contribute to the progress of that field. This is the same in innovation. In general, we don’t innovate from scratch, we are actually inspired by previous ideas and inventions in your same field or in different ones, ideas that you revisit, combine, change of context… In my own words, we could say that, without past, innovation has no future! 😊

2. Motivation: I often say to my students that the first step in innovating is willing to innovate. We are speaking about the motivation and the excitement of finding something that no one else has proposed before (at least in that shape or context). Powered by that motivation, ideas will emerge and, with the right implementation, they will become successful innovations. However, if you don’t have this thirst for innovation, it seems unlikely that all this actually happens. According to Villani, motivation in the most mysterious and elusive ingredient of creativity, but also the most important one…

3. Environment: Good ideas don’t arrive to lonely workers but rather to connected people, and that is why the environment is crucial: it is the place were innovators meet and ideas flow. In the past, places like Perspepolis, Paris, Budapest, London or the Silicon Valley have been the reference of wisdom and progress in different periods of history. They all shared the fact that they constituted an eco-system favorable to the birth and growth of ideas. The creativity environment can be a city, a laboratory, an organization, a school, a library, a co-working space, a coffee shop…

4. Communication/exchanges: A critical ingredient of creativity and innovation are the exchanges and conversations that people from different fields have, because sometimes inspiration comes from exploring contexts and fields that are very far away from ours. That is why at Pixar, one of their core creativity principles is that “everyone should be able to talk to anybody”, in order to make the most of their collective intelligence and creativity. That is also why they installed the toilets at the very center of their headquarters…

5. Constraints: it may sound like a contradiction, but actually, creativity would not exist if there were no constraints. Indeed, these limits make arise a creativity that can not be found in normal circumstances. These can be time constraints, such as the time pressure in Design Thinking workshops. But there are other types of amazing constraints, such as the ones that some artists and writers impose to themselves in order to boost their creative capabilities. For example, French writer Georges Perec, wrote his book “la disparition” forcing himself to avoid the use of the letter “e” all along the 300+ pages of the book! That is particularly remarkable if you consider that this the most used letter in French language… 

6. Hard work + illumination: That is, a mix of very hard meticulous work that sometimes allows you to have rare sparks of illumination, leading to what is called « eureka ! » or “aha!” moment. After all, as Thomas Edison said “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. In the artistic field, that same ideas was expressed as follows by Pablo Picasso : “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. 

7. Luck + tenacity: We may have a large amount of ideas, but very few of them will become successful innovations. Indeed, most ideas we have do not actually work; this is why 99% of the patents in the world will never become a profitable invention. That is also why you need 3,000 raw ideas to generate a commercial success (according to researchers Greg Stevens and James Burley, 1997). No one said it was easy, but it is definitely not impossible either, and tenacity is precisely what makes you not to give up and finish up finding that one opportunity to innovate…

Now that you know all the key ingredients to prepare an innovative recipe, what would you like to cook? You may want to apply some of these principles (or all of them!) to a concrete challenge you face… what would that be? Food for thought…

You will find below a very short Villani’s video presenting these ideas with his own words:

 

Sources:

  • Cédric Villani on the 7 ingredients of creativity (youtube video)
  • Catmull, Ed (2014), “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration”, New York: Random House – summary of the 7 core creativity principles from Pixar available here
  • Greg Stevens & James Burley (1997), 3,000 raw ideas = 1 commercial success!, Research Technology Management,, May/June 97, Vol. 40, Issue 3

 

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To innovate, find your own way

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Let me tell you today the story of Carolina, a passionate Spanish girl who decided when she was 8 years old that she would become the best badminton player in the world (by the way, badminton is the second most played sport in the world just behind football-soccer). This is an impressive ambition for a child of this age but, how realistic is this for a person living in Spain, a country with no badminton tradition at all?

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Carolina trained very hard from the beginning and when she was 14 she did something that changed her life forever: she proposed to a young sport teacher called Fernando Rivas to become her coach and she shared with him her dream of becoming the number 1 badminton player. Fernando was very impressed by her determination, as well as by her playing style and personality. He accepted this proposal and started coaching her right away.

Fernando had developed his expertise not only in Spain, but also in England, France, Germany and The Netherlands. He had also explored a wide range of fields and disciplines: ”I liked sitting for classes at University and listening to teachers speak. I picked notes from science, history, architecture that could help me in sport. Later I specialized in physiology, psychology, bio mechanics”. All this led him to acquire a very rich and diverse experience and, over time, develop a different and innovative way of understanding badminton. His radically new method includes among others original ways to approach physical and mental preparation, game visualization, studying the opponents, moving differently on the court and using science. In Carolina’s own words, “Fernando is very innovative, he likes always creating new things, be different. We can’t be like Asian players because otherwise we would never win”.

Fernando has developed a revolutionary method already known as “the Spanish method” or “the Rivas method” in the badminton world. And it works. This new approach allowed Carolina to become world champion in 2014 and 2015 as well as winning the badminton Olympic gold medal in 2016, becoming the first non-Asian athlete in history to achieve this feat.

But what interesfrts us today is not the detailed content of “the Rivas method”, but rather the MINDSET that allowed a humble coach to develop a brand-new approach to his sport that made him become the best badminton coach in the world. This achievement is particularly extraordinary considering there is no badminton tradition in Spain, especially compared with other countries: currently there are around 2,000 licensed badminton players in Spain versus for example 100 million players in China! However, Fernando managed to upturn the 100-year Chinese tradition of badminton by challenging status quo: “I’ve never accepted what’s taken for granted. China were the best at badminton. Ok. So what”, and mixing science, creative thinking and a lot of hard work: “It’s about studying, innovation, studying more”.

What made Fernando become a man of genius lies in the fact that he managed to transform a strong weakness in a unique strength… if you come from a country with no tradition in a specific sport, why not seize the opportunity to rethink it totally from scratch? This is what Fernando did, was this is his philosophy in his own words: “because we did not have any badminton tradition in Spain, we had to implement a different method based on things that are not done in other places precisely because tradition impedes them”. “Badminton is very new in Spain but very developed in Asia. If we do exactly the same thing they are doing, we would be at the tail end. If I don’t create new knowledge, a new method, and I explore other ways, I will lag far behind”.

Fernando’s key lesson here is that in order to innovate with success, even with unbelievable success as he did, you need to find your own path: you better do things your way, think differently, experiment, take risks… than doing things exactly like everyone else. This will only lead you, after a lot of hard work, to eventually become what we could call “the worst of the good”.

There is a Spanish saying that goes like this: “más vale ser cabeza de ratón, que cola de léon”, which means literally “better be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion”. There are other versions in the world such as “better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion” and several others including -believe it or not- chicken, oxes, lizards, pikes, cats, foxes and even sturgeons… I let you chose the animal you prefer, but you get the idea: It is better to be able to lead a small humble project or adventure your way being free (and innovative!) than to be obliged to follow and stick to the norm in bigger ones…

This was the story of Carolina Marín and specially of Fernando Rivas; I hope you enjoyed it. Coming back to you now… In which subject can you innovate and find a unique way that will bring brand-new results and value? Or in other words, what lion can you stop following to start leading innovation as a small mouse full of potential? Food for thought…

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Sources:

Informe Robinson: El Milagro de Carolina Marín (video, 2016, in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ28tm5S5HI

Enfoque TVE – Fernando Rivas (video, 2016, in Spanish):                 http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/enfoque/enfoque-fernando-rivas-badminton/3769088/

How to tame a dragon: Coaches are overcoming the dominant Chinese badminton world (The Indian Express, 2016): http://indianexpress.com/sports/rio-2016-olympics/caroline-marin-saina-nehwal-badminton-fernando-rivas-2932058/

What if organizations started proposing “double part-time” jobs?

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I came up with this idea during one of the last HR innovation workshops I run… what if, instead of proposing classic full-time positions to employees, organizations started proposing also two “part-time jobs”, or, if you prefer, two half positions to some of its staff? I proposed that idea to a working group during that workshop and they included it in their HR innovation action plan; maybe it was not this bad.

To give some concrete examples about what this idea would mean in Human Resource jobs, a person could be in charge of internal talent identification half of the week, and the rest of it design talent development programmes within the company’s Corporate University, which is not the case it big groups nowadays. An employee could manage workforce planning in the mornings and work as a campus manager in the afternoons, and an HRBP could spend half of its time as internal HR consultant; all of them would suppose original job combinations creating synergies among these activities. You may have noticed I did not mention C&B in my examples because these people often work 150% and maths would work with the rest of jobs!

Taking it further, what if only one of the two “part-time jobs” was in HR and not the other? An employee could work for example as HR Business Partner in the IT division part of its time and as IT project manager too. Also, a same person could work in business strategy and in workforce planning too. Even a common theme could connect both jobs: for example, concerning the subject of change management, an employee could work both as team leader managing change, for example in operations or in finance, and also work part-time as training officer in charge of change management trainings.

I see several benefits to this “double part-time approach” that could suppose a competitive advantage to companies proposing it. First of all, it would be highly appealing to fresh graduates willing to discover several positions and businesses in the organization they join, something they ask more and more often to their employers. Second, this could also contribute to reinforce staff engagement, as it strengthens employability, skill development, transversal competencies, and job/assignments diversity, some of the aspects often mentioned in engagement surveys. In both benefits mentioned, this could be a powerful weapon in the war for talent all organizations face. Third, this approach would allow organizations to establish new value-creating synergies among jobs and businesses (such as the ones mentioned earlier) and also reinforce cooperation between the departments involved: going back to the IT example I mentioned before, probably an employee would be more partnership-oriented with his HR colleagues if that HR team was his own team 50% of the time, right? Finally, this idea would also reinforce team spirit in organizations, because 50% of the success of your job would depend on a colleague of yours!

Several conditions would nevertheless be necessary for this approach to work. First, it should of course concern jobs requiring similar skills, otherwise, the benefits just mentioned would not be possible. The easiest way of launching such and initiative would be, at least at the beginning, that two employees switch 50% of their job with each other, therefore becoming some kind of “part-time buddies”. A second condition would therefore be that these “buddies” establish a very clear and formalized working functioning including dedicated information sharing and briefing moments to avoid any possible operational risks in their sharing of responsibilities. The managers of both buddies would of course need to be aware of this functioning process, or even have to approve it before it is actually implemented. More generally, companies should probably need to accompany the employees in this new way of working through training, an advisor or an informal community of exchange gathering all staff concerned. A third condition would be that a very clear communication towards internal and external partners is established for them to understand the benefits of this innovation so that they also see it as value-creating for them. The working dynamics between the employees involved and their partners would also change, and “buddies” should therefore also make sure they onboard all stakeholders in this new working and collaboration style. Finally, jobs involved should have a certain degree of link or connection in terms of contents or business area, otherwise people concerned would probably feel too “lost in translation” on day-to-day activities and the synergies mentioned would not actually happen.

This approach would of course have an impact on some organizational aspects that companies should anticipate and manage, such as team management and dynamics, appraisal and remuneration, or legal and social relations among others. However, if the people and the jobs are well chosen and accompanied, and if all stakeholders are also well informed, this idea has a lot of potential to me taking into account the benefits presented. Launching such an initiative would of course involve some risk taking, but hey, innovation is about taking some risks before your competitors, when you consider it is worth it!

A good way to test such an innovation would be via a POC (proof of concept) with some “part-time buddies” the organization would identify and train. You could even do some communication about it within the firm and propose that staff interested in taking part in the POC are in charge of finding their “buddy” and propose some kind of roadmap presenting the way in which they would work and the synergies and benefits expected. An internal committee could then rate the proposals and approve the ones that make the most sense concerning the strategy of the organization.

In a world in which companies trust almost blindly on digital as their main source or reinvention, what if such an “old school” innovation could be an unexpected source of competitive advantage and contribute to shape the future of work?