The Creation of Office Supplies

I loved James Ward’s review of the book The Perfection of the Paper Clip. The book describes the invention histories of common office items like the pencil, the ballpoint pen, and the paper clip. Here’s Ward’s conclusion:

Ideas, it turns out, are the easy bit. Making a prototype that works, honing the technology so that it performs every time, working out a way to mass-produce a high-quality product at an affordable price–those are the hard bits. The invention of the ballpoint pen  by Laszlo Biro in the late 1930s is a pointed example. (I apologize for this pun…)

This is completely consistent with my own studies of the creative process; it’s rarely about the brilliant idea–instead, it’s about successfully pursuing the iterative, zigzagging process.

How To Foster Faculty Entrepreneurship

I just led a four-day intensive workshop for university professors, here at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. We grouped professors in teams, and guided them through the entrepreneurship process in just four days! It’s so intense that it’s known as the “boot camp.”

The workshop was created in 2009, by Professor Holden Thorp. At that time he led the university as the Chancellor, so he was in a position to make something happen. The workshop was inspired by research Thorp did for his 2010 book Engines of Innovation. His research showed that universities drive economic growth; they’re hotbeds of new ideas and research. But the research also showed that the full potential of university research wasn’t being realized, because so many researchers don’t know how to develop their ideas into real businesses.

  • They don’t know how to think about customer needs, or about how to create value for customers.
  • They don’t know how to think about strategy, competition, and market advantage.
  • They don’t know how to leverage partnerships, or to develop new relationships with non-academics who have important skills they’ll need to be successful.

In short, university professors don’t know how to think like entrepreneurs. And that’s where our workshop comes in: to help professors develop the entrepreneurial mindset. We’re blessed to have the strong support and commitment of Chancellor Carol Folt, and that’s why the workshop was officially called “The Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Boot Camp.”

We organized the workshop around six key skills associated with successful entrepreneurs:

  • Innovate: How to generate good new ideas and identify promising challenges and problems
  • Listen: How to understand customers and how they perceive value
  • Plan: How to think strategically, to spot unique opportunities and potential competition and challenges
  • Clarify: How to think in detail about the value being created for customers, and how to communicate that quickly in a pitch
  • Support: How to develop networks and relationships to move your idea along
  • Iterate: Using the lean process, with frequent pivots and zigzags, to build your business

We had participants from 14 of the 17 UNC system campuses, a full range of institutional types: art schools, engineering schools, medical schools, HBCUs. We even had a participant from the system’s residential high school for high-talent science and math students.

The average participant evaluation was 4.8 out of 5.0, so we know the participating faculty got a lot out of the workshop. And, it proves that our core lessons apply not just to flagship research universities, like UNC Chapel Hill, but to all higher education. Next year, I think we’re ready to open this up to universities around the country. What do you think?

The Pixar Film “Inside Out”: The Zigzag Creative Process Succeeds Again!

Pixar’s creative process has always followed a zig-zagging, improvisational process–one that’s perfectly aligned with the lessons emerging from creativity research. All of the research is showing that effective creativity, and exceptional creators, all follow an improvisational process: you don’t know where you’re going to end up, or when you’ll get there. It takes a while (and a few successes) to learn to trust in a process It’s because at first, it can feel like aimless failure.

Pixar, the animated movie powerhouse, has stayed true to the zigzag process, because they know their successes emerged from it. From their first hit, Toy Story (with its many twists and turns documented in the book The Pixar Touch), all the way through Frozen, creative success has emerged from this unpredictable, wandering process.

Pixar’s latest movie, arriving in theaters June 19, is Inside Out, and it’s been in process since 2010. It started with the thinnest of premises: we’ll go inside of a pre-adolescent girl’s head, and we’ll personify each of the emotions she feels every day, showing Sadness and Joy (for example) as cartoon characters. Think about that very simple idea, and ask yourself: How would you make a movie out of that? What happens at Pixar is that they start without knowing how it’s going to end. They start working it out, and then expect frequent changes to happen along the way.

It looks like the zigzag process has worked yet again: The bittersweet movie got a huge positive response from critics at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s expected to make $250 million just in the USA, and it’s already being discussed as an Oscar contender.

John Lasseter, in an article in today’s New York Times, says “We’re always tearing up work and starting over. At Pixar, we trust our process.” The article mentions several zigzags: for example, they were going to have the girl’s character go into a deep depression, but as they worked this idea out, they realized “that was not appropriate” says Pete Doctor, the director of the new movie (and also of the Oscar-winning “Up”). Another zigzag: One version of the script had Joy and Fear getting together. They worked for months, but couldn’t quite make this plot work. Eventually, they decided to turn to Sadness and give her a key role, when everyone had previously been leaving Sadness to be a peripheral character. This unexpected zigzag turned out to work surprisingly well.

Not many movie studios can afford, or can trust, a director to take four or five years to go through the zigzags that the creative process requires. But there aren’t any shortcuts; this is how you get surprisingly original creativity.

The Secret of Good Writing

Perfect advice by William Zinsser:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I agree completely. I have one quibble: Zinsser should have taken his own advice and replaced “adulterants” with a shorter word. But Zinsser saved me just now: In that previous sentence, I was going to say “I have one minor quibble.” But a quibble is minor, by definition. So let’s add a rule to his list: never use an adjective whose meaning is already embedded in the definition of the noun.

Zinsser follows the above quotation by writing:

And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s taking a dig at pompous over-educated intellectuals. But this hasn’t been my experience; I’ve edited early drafts of my senior colleagues, and I’ve read countless undergraduate class papers. Everyone makes the same mistakes; I don’t think they increase with stature.

*From “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. Excerpted in today’s Wall Street Journal here.

Rodeo Clowns

You’ll be more creative if you learn about more stuff.

And especially, if you learn about randomly different kinds of stuff.

That’s why I’m writing about rodeo clowns: because I’m guessing you don’t know anything about them. And research shows that if you learn just a tiny bit about rodeo clowns (or anything else that you know nothing about) it can enhance your creativity.

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about rodeo clown Justin Rumford, and it was fascinating. I’ve never gone to a rodeo, and I probably never will. But it was fascinating to learn what a “barrel man” is. Be honest, don’t you want to know? And trust me, you really want to know Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname. Click on the link to read the article. The first person to put Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname in a comment gets a shout out! And, please suggest your own randomly different stuff we should learn about, just a tiny bit.

To learn more about how creativity research can help you be more creative, check out my creativity advice book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Learning about rodeo clowns is a technique I call “Be a Dilettante” and it’s on page 69.

The Zig-Zag Invention of the Dyson Airblade

Check out this story about how an invention emerged from an improvisational, wandering, zig-zag process, as James Dyson tells us about the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, in a letter to the editor in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. is bold when it comes to invention. In 2014 there were more patents granted in the U.S. than in any other country, but there is a global competition to develop the best technology. The U.S. government isn’t alone in wanting to attract highly inventive companies to develop intellectual property on its shores (“Tax Writers Favor Breaks for Patents,” Business & Tech., May 6).

Research and development is a risky business; there are no eureka moments and no certainty of success. Often the biggest breakthroughs are the ones you least expect. The Dyson Airblade hand dryer, for example, was a rather fortuitous result of a failed experiment. The technology we were originally working on is still in the labs, but the unexpected result is in washrooms around the world.

You can’t predict the outcome of R&D, and often it ends in failure—albeit failures that teach you valuable lessons and spur on future advances. But by encouraging companies to invest in R&D, you also create a highly skilled, highly paid workforce and boost exports in the process, as other countries demand the high technology that results.

The patent box has proved itself to be a very effective way of encouraging investment into R&D in the U.K. However, to be most effective, it must focus on the development of genuine technologies that improve our lives. So embrace the incentives—keep tinkering, keep researching and keep inventing!

James Dyson

Malmesbury, England