Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dance between your ideas

'Usually, I finish a project with much more done on the next one than I thought. That's why I've developed this procedure for having a bunch of notebooks around, so that I can keep my projects straight. Once some music gets started in my head, it's usually very clear what the piece is. I'll take a break from what I'm consciously doing at the moment and write something down in the right notebook.'

John Harbison from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

We seldom think about one thing for very long. We can be distracted from even the most attractive and captivating of ideas by something new, something unexpected, or simply something different.

Throughout our lives we are encouraged to fight distraction: to concentrate upon the task at hand and expel all errant thoughts.

This makes good sense: for driving, operating machinery, passing exams, brain surgery, stuff like that. None of us want to have a car accident or serious injury, or fail an important exam. Most of us most of the time do not wish to hurt anyone!

Our creativity, however, thrives upon distraction: upon the unexpected, upon the novel and the new. Distracted by the thought of a falling man Einstein eventually formulated his General Theory of Relativity. Distracted by a contaminated petri dish Alexander Fleming eventually discovered penicillin. Distracted by the cooking of waffles Bill Bowerman, quite quickly in comparison to the previous examples, invented the waffle trainer.

Distraction, in all its forms, is the life blood of creativity and innovation, so we need to learn how to embrace and use it to our advantage. We need to learn how to dance comfortably and enjoyably between the ideas that compete for our attention.

Dancing is fluid but formal; dancing is changeable but controlled. The best dancing, to my mind, has a simple and immediate effect upon those who dance and those who watch. 

John Harbison's method of capturing and working with his ideas achieves similar things. His notebook system is flexible enough to allow him to move between ideas (like moving between different dancing partners) but formal enough to ensure that he captures and develops his ideas accurately and methodically; his partner ideas may change but the steps of his dance do not. His system is also simple and straightforward, helping him to change the focus of his thoughts quickly: to easily and immediately dance with the distractions of new, unexpected and potentially valuable ideas.

So, when you next need to think creatively, try dancing with your ideas. Create a system similar to John Harbison's and balance the fluidity of distraction with the formality of focus. Then you can welcome distraction with open arms, safe in the knowledge that you will not lose your place within the overall dance of your thoughts.

Friday, 14 November 2014

See it from far away...

'Maybe they're far away, in the act of performing, but I don't hear what they're playing.'

Aaron Jay Kernis from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

One of the ways Aaron Jay Kernis inspires himself to start composing is to bring an image to mind. One of the images he creates with his mind's eye is that of musicians performing from far away, so far away he cannot hear what they are playing.

Imagine you are seeing your problem from far away. You cannot hear the clamour and noise it is making or, if they are involved, what people may be saying to each other.

But you can discern some things.

What glistens or stands out from afar? Which movements or actions catch the eye? What is blurred and difficult to make out?

What, from your perspective, surrounds the problem? Within what landscape is it set? Does it appear small when compared to what surrounds it? Or does it loom large over the landscape, despite how far away it is? 

Or is it not in a landscape at all? Is it in fact enclosed within some larger space? What does this space look like? What is its function? Is it reinforcing the problem? Or is it somehow containing or limiting it?

Is anyone else watching? What are they doing as they watch? Can you even hear a little of what they are saying?

Watch and listen for a while...

How are you seeing things now? What are you beginning to hear?

What do you want to do first? What direction do you want to take? What do you want to look at more closely?

Begin to compose your solution.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Create a memory pop-out book

'I don’t keep a lot of notebooks. I sometimes regret that I haven’t. But I sure have developed a memory notebook -- I have lots of ideas for pieces that I haven’t done yet. One piece I’ve had in mind for fifteen or twenty years is a setting of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” a landmark American poem. I have so many notes for this potential piece interleaved in my copy of "Leaves of Grass" that the book looks like a cabbage in bloom. So in a sense I do have notebooks -- collections of ideas partially worked out, here and there.'

Eric Stokes from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

The above shows how Eric Stokes makes note-taking a valuable and intrinsic part of his creative process.

Making notes at the time of inspiration and physically placing them inside and beside the source that generated them enables Stokes to develop a 3D memory map and timeline of his ideas which steadily grows outwards and along, filling out and continuing the narrative of his creative journey.

He creates a memory 'pop-out' book which quickly captures his ideas, faithfully marks when and where they were first thought of, accurately maps their subsequent development, and easily enables new ideas to be added to and linked with them.

Every time he flicks and thumbs through his memory enriched book he sees his ideas in motion and once again experiences the pace and energy generated by his sparks of inspiration. The book's touch and feel, together with its physical sense of growth and onward movement, invite Stokes to continue his creative journey and associate ever more creative ideas with his initial inspiration.
You can create your own memory notebook. When a book inspires you immediately begin transforming it into a 3D map and timeline that captures your ideas at the place of their birth and faithfully records their progress as they grow, develop, reach out and connect with other inspirational ideas.

Frequently flick and thumb through your budding memories and ideas, adding and adding to them until they bloom into something new.

Stop press!

Isaac Newton used the above approach:

How Isaac Newton remembered everything he read

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Travel back to the 'Going Wrong Point'.

'...the point at which things go wrong may be a new area of exploration that you didn't see initially. You have to keep going back to that point, trying to figure out what to do. Often the problem is that you've just refused to bend the right way.'

Shulamet Ran from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

We do not like making mistakes, causing accidents, getting things wrong. We prefer to distance ourselves from our errors as quickly as possible: get back on track; regain momentum; regain direction. Some of us dislike mistakes so much that we exhort ourselves to do the impossible: 'right first time' after time after time.  

Some of us realise that perfection is impossible, so we commit to learning from our mistakes and moving forward; the two actions merge in our minds: learn move forward.

But what about learning and pausing, learning and changing, learning and going sideways, learning and travelling a less obvious path -- a path perhaps parallel or even opposite to our original intent?

Every going wrong point along our journey towards getting something right is an opportunity to get something right in new, innovative and better ways.

Wilson Greatbatch installed a wrong part into a heart monitoring device. He realised his mistake, but rather than immediately correcting it he was keen to find out how it would affect the device. When he switched the monitor on he heard a regular, heartbeat-like pulse. Intrigued by this effect, Greatbatch altered the direction of his research and became the inventor of the pacemaker.      

Édouard Bénédictus accidently knocked a glass flask off a shelf. Rather than immediately clearing up the mess and continuing his work, he stopped to examine the broken flask. It had not shattered into sharp splinters but had more or less kept its overall shape. Curious, Bénédictus changed the focus of his thinking for a while; he concentrated upon the remains of his accident. He found that the flask had contained a substance which had dried, creating an adhesive layer that stopped the glass shattering. He went on to invent laminated safety glass.    

So, when you realise you've made a mistake (or caused an accident or taken a wrong turn), travel back to your going wrong point. Park yourself there and search for signs and paths you may have missed first time round as you rushed on by.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Cue success!

'I want my things around me (posters from world premieres, published scores, etc.) I like to look at my things and say to myself, "You did this in the past, so maybe you can do what you're about to do now".'

John Corigliano from The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process by Ann McCutchan

Many of us are forced to live in the moment forward.

New pressures, new obstacles, new challenges and opportunities demand that we clear our minds; they demand our undivided attention.

This is only natural, sensible even, but it can also increase our difficulties. Forgotten memories of past success can no longer cradle our confidence and offer us calming reassurances that we had and very likely still have what it takes to get things done: to achieve what we need to achieve.

To help ourselves meet new challenges we need to regain our memories and re-experience our feelings of past success. We need to cue them up around us in object form: letters and notes of thanks; letters of praise; letters of achievement; awards and rewards; and small personal reminders of fond feelings of achievement (that book you wrote; that report; that photo taken at a conference; that name badge; that pen you used to sign the deal; that first invoice).

No object is too small to cue strong feelings of enjoyed success. Place them around you and access their cued up, ready to go memories as and when you need to feel their warm and reassuring glow.

Then face forward and achieve, buoyed by the gift of confidence you have given yourself.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Set yourself some awkward rules

I recently listened to an orchestral piece by Carl Ruggles called ‘Men and Mountains’.

It uses very dissonant harmonies; its two outer movements sound like slowly grinding granite and the middle movement is like experiencing the slowly binding crush of an insidious vine.

I like the piece; I find it immediate and powerful in its emotional impact and even strangely and uniquely beautiful.

Ruggles composed the music according to his own awkward and arbitrary rules. Essentially, these dictate that certain pitches cannot be repeated until a specific number of other pitches have been played.

On the face of it this seems a very cumbersome, unsubtle and counter-intuitive approach to apply to the fluid medium of music and the creative process of composition. Its application, however, created a piece of music that has influenced many composers and is still being performed today, ninety years after its composition. 

Ruggles did not impose the above rules on himself to be rebellious or just plain awkward. He did it to force himself to think differently and find new solutions to new problems.

What awkward rules can you apply to your life and work to make you think and act differently, so enhancing your ability to generate innovative ideas? Here are ten possibilities:
  • You must gain five differing opinions before making decisions and taking action.
  • You must not use the same analysis or problem solving tool more than twice in a row for the same sort of tasks.
  • When studying a subject you must read the work of three authors new to you before revisiting your old favourites. You must incorporate the thinking of at least one of the new authors into your work.
  • When writing you must use no more than a set amount of words per sentence or paragraph and ensure that the document is no more than a set number of pages in length. You must also include a concept or idea you have not used before.
  • You must change your environment or change your activity at set intervals.
  • You must make contact of some kind with a set number of people or organisations each day, before you finish work.
  • You must change your route to or from work every three days and stop at least once along the way, however fleetingly, to explore a neighbourhood or venue new to you. You must tell someone about it during your day.
  • When you give an opinion at a meeting you must wait for three other people to say something before you repeat yourself.
  • You must identify what you like, dislike or find interesting about an idea before you decide to accept or reject it.
  • You must find at least one way to make your least favoured idea or solution viable before you discard it.

Set yourself some awkward rules. Choose from the above or create your own. Like Ruggles, it is best if you create your own. Force yourself to think and act differently, and innovation will likely follow.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Don't tiger ideas

'I say to my students all the time, "you're taking yourself way too seriously. You're thinking only about beautifully sculpted, perfect ideas. Why not look at the dorkiness inside, the clumsiness, and realise that that may be where your real genius lies?" In awkwardness you can find tremendous grace.'

Richard Danielpour 
From 'The Muse that Sings' by Ann McCutchan)

Picture a new born foal. What do you see? What most of us see is the foal's charming awkwardness as it tries to stand. We are also immediately aware of its potential: of how it is going to grow into a strong and graceful horse.

When a tiger sees a foal it sees something clumsy, weak and unable to defend itself: something to be devoured and the remains, if any, discarded.

When I was studying composition, I showed some of my rough sketches to a group of fellow students. They were all over them straight away: tearing into the clumsiness of my infant ideas and devouring my confidence in my creative abilities. 

It was with a great amount of trepidation, and not a small amount of visceral fear, that I showed the same sketches to my composition teacher. He looked through them for a while, nodded to himself, and then (with what seemed to me to be genuine interest) began to ask questions:

'Why this chord? Why that combination of instruments? Why this particular turn of phrase? What was my thinking? What was I trying to express and achieve? How could I make my thinking and intentions clearer? How could I more clearly achieve my goal?'

Together, we stayed with the awkwardness of my initial ideas and gradually (through discussion and exploration) we began to tease the quality out of the clumsiness.

The next time you come across a new idea that is taking its first stumbling steps treat it like a new born foal; enjoy and explore its awkwardness and ask the following questions:

'Why is this part so crucial? Why is it put together like that? Why is it described in that particular way? What is the thinking behind it? What is it seeking to achieve? What is its potential? How could we help it realise its potential and achieve its goal?' 

Above all, do not tiger it; do not tear into its clumsiness; do not devour it and discard its hollowed out remains before it finds its legs.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Disarm! Putting guns to better use

Here is a great example of vision, determination, effort, skill, expertise, teamwork, collaboration and creativity all combining to deliver an immediate and powerful message,

and a much better use for guns.

I will let it speak (and sing) for itself:


Thursday, 17 July 2014

No one can make music

Composers write music, but they do not know how to make it. Instrumentalists play music, but they do not know how to make it. Singers sing music, but they do not know how to make it. Conductors conduct music, but they do not know how to make it. It is only together, by sharing and combining their ideas, knowledge, experience and skills, that composers, instrumentalists, singers and conductors can make music.

But wait a moment; this last statement is untrue! Can players make the instruments upon which they play? Do singers spring singing from the womb? Can composers design the computer software many of them use when composing? Can conductors build the concert halls within which they conduct their performances?

There are many, many people, some I have not mentioned or even thought of, who need to come together and share their diverse ideas, perspectives, knowledge and skills to make the making of music an audible reality, and unsurprisingly this is not an easy process.

Composers know best about the structure and fabric of their music. Software designers know best about the programming, structure and layout of the software tools composers use to write and record their music. Instrumentalists and singers know best how to play or sing the music. Teachers know best how to teach the skills it needs. Conductors know best how to interpret and direct it. Instrument makers know best how the instruments they make can be adapted to the music's demands. Architects know best how to manage the acoustics of the concert halls they build, so helping the music to sound its best.   

In short, everyone knows best but in different ways, which is a basis for conflict and tension if ever there was one!

How can this conflict and tension be managed? We need to practise the following four things:

Adopt a curiosity mind set

We need to hold our certainties lightly and develop an eager curiosity about the ideas, views and insights of others, readily exploring how they can be adopted and adapted to enhance the overall quality of the music and its performance. Composers need to be curious about the views and opinions of conductors and players. Players and singers need to be curious about the thinking and perspectives of conductors and composers. Software designers need to be curious about the needs and opinions of their client composers. Teachers need to be curious about the ideas and perspectives of not only their students but also the people who will employ their students. Architects need to be curious about the people who will occupy and use the spaces they build. Conductors need to be curious about everyone and everything.  

Essentially, we need to ask more questions and make less statements of certainty.

Allow others to play

We need to encourage and allow others to play with our knowledge, skills and ideas. Those of us that compose need to realise that our music, once written, will have a life of its own that will be shaped by those that take it up, rehearse, play with, interpret and perform it. Those of us that are players and singers need to expose our instruments and voices to new techniques and ways of creating sound, allowing the composer to play around and experiment within the personal, sometimes intimate space of our playing and singing techniques. Those of us that build instruments need to allow others to play with their shape and form. Those of us who build concert halls need to allow others to own and play with the space, adapting it to their needs and preferences. Those of us who are software designers need to allow others to modify it and adapt it to their needs. Those of us who teach need to allow others to play and experiment.        

We need to allow and permit rather than disallow and prohibit.     

Let go of ego and status 

To be comfortable with allowing others to play with our knowledge, skills and ideas, we need to work hard at letting go of the ego and hard won status derived from our respective roles: composers need to let go of the ego and status derived from  being 'the creator'; conductors need to let go of the ego and status derived from being 'the interpreter'; players and singers need to let go of the ego and status derived from being 'the performer'; instrument makers and architects need to let go of the ego and status derived from being 'the makers and builders'. Software designers need to let go of the ego and status derived from being 'the technical or IT expert'; teachers need to let go of the ego and status derived from being 'the recognised source of wisdom and knowledge'. 

We need to let go of individual ego and instead share in the raised status derived from an enhanced performance that relies upon and assimilates everyone's diverse knowledge, skills and talents. 

Collaborate to achieve excellence 

We need to collaborate to achieve excellence rather than compromise to achieve mediocrity. This involves searching out and embracing conflicts and tensions, being curious about them, eagerly exploring them and seeking out the novel and innovative insights that lie hidden within their dynamic interactions. It means resisting the temptation to take the easy, non-confrontational route, the route that offers the immediate satisfaction of a seemingly smooth solution that, because it has not been adequately hardened and tempered within the heat of conflict, will lose its shape and shatter under the intense pressures of performance.

We need to welcome and embrace conflict and use its heat to mould innovative, insightful and superior performances.

And what if I am not a musician?

You can apply the above principles elsewhere in your life and work. It is up to you to find out where and how.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A goal effectively achieved is the culmination of a journey fully experienced

"When I was small, I was told a story about a garden of treasure with a secret entrance. Everyone searched and searched for this garden until, after a very long time, the door finally opened itself and there was no treasure. In the end, maybe the purpose of the search is the search itself, through which we learn about composing." 

The composer Bright Sheng, from "The Muse that Sings" by Ann McCutchen

The above quotation contains an important truth about the creative process: many insights and other things of value are stumbled upon as we pursue our goals rather than when we attain them.

Many of us, however, can be so goal focused, so focused upon finding our very own garden of treasure, holy grail, magic bullet, theory of everything, money making opportunity, whatever we choose to call it, that we treat the things we stumble upon as inconvenient and sometimes painful obstacles along our path (rather than welcoming them as potentially valuable sources of unexpected knowledge and insight).

We would not voluntarily wear blinkers as we take a walk through the countryside to our favourite pub or café; we would miss the sights along the way and any stumbling would certainly tend to be painful rather than enlightening. But when we are at work we readily allow ourselves to become blinkered: our focus quickly narrowing towards the achievement of organisational goals, sometimes at the expense of pretty much everything else.

We often assume that the most efficient, cleanest and uncluttered path towards our targets is also the most effective. We are then surprised when, having so efficiently achieved our goals, our blinkers fall away and we see the upset caused to our surroundings, others and ourselves by our single-minded directness. We also, belatedly, comprehend the actual significance of our achievements which, when viewed within their true landscape, diminish and perhaps even disappear; having entered our secret garden we find little or no treasure.  

The journey towards and achievement of our goals can be damaging. This is especially the case when our goals are associated with financial rewards or performance assessments: think about the damage caused by the bonus culture within the financial sector, where huge individual performance bonuses encouraged high risk investments; consider the perverse incentives created by target-setting in the UK health service, which led to patients being placed in corridors or kept in ambulances to achieve waiting time targets set for A&E; reflect upon the obsessive compulsive preoccupation with maximising sales, again within the finance industry, which led to the widespread miss-selling of payment protection insurance.   

So, to be creative and innovative in the achievement of your goals, and to ensure their relevance, usefulness and benevolence, keep them in your mind but not always to the very front of it. Do not allow them, and the rewards and incentives associated with them, to pull you by the nose and stop you looking up, down and from side to side, and if you stumble, look mindfully at what caused you to stumble rather than absent-mindedly kicking it aside. You will then pick up glistening handfuls of unexpected insights shot through with multifaceted learning that will help you journey towards your goals: goals that can only be effectively achieved when perceived as the sum of the parts and the culminations of journeys fully experienced. 

You may also find that the insights, wisdom and experience you gain along the way enable you to travel past your goal and achieve much more than you originally thought possible.       

Develop the habits of:

Welcoming and exploring surprises, apparent wrong turns and unexpected paths that open up before you. Ask what insights you can gain from them.

Looking for ways to link unexpected insights with the goal you have in mind.

Being open to the possibility that unexpected insights, wrong turns and the occasional stumble may help you transform your goal into something even more useful than originally conceived.

Taking time to stop and reflect upon where you have been, where you are and where you are going.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Explore and experience your ideas in 3D and maximise their chances of success

"I realized that for me, a piece has to make sense in many different ways at once. I want it to flow sensuously, intellectually, emotionally."

Lois V. Vierk 
From 'The Muse that Sings', by Ann McCutchan.

The above quotation from the composer Lois V. Vierk emphasises a simple but much overlooked truth: useful, effective and truly attractive ideas must not only exist intellectually within our heads (and look good upon computer screens) but also live within our lives and feel good physically and emotionally.

The logical design of the London Millennium Footbridge looked good upon the computer screen but when tested by the reality of large numbers of pedestrians walking - and swaying - across it in unison, it provided an experience which felt physically and emotionally bad. (The bridge was closed for nearly two years whilst it underwent expensive modifications to reduce its side-to-side sway. Londoners still call it the 'Wobbly Bridge'!)

Give your ideas the best start in life by developing and testing them in three dimensions: the physical, the logical, the emotional.

Ask the following simple questions:
  1. Can you create a physical model of your idea that people can experience and interact with? Can you make your idea tangible to others? Can you gain a sense of its look and feel within people's lives?
  2. Can you describe your idea logically? Can you clearly articulate its rationale, its reason for being? Can you list its strengths and weaknesses and how the former can be maximised and the latter minimised?
  3. What are people's gut reactions to your idea? What do people love or hate about your idea? How can you help people love your idea more? How can you help people hate your idea less?
Explore and experience your ideas in 3D and maximise their chances of success.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

National Youth Orchestra of Iraq: the adventure continues in the USA!

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, the creation of which is an inspirational story, is shortly to tour the USA.

Click on the following link to find out more about the orchestra and how you can get involved: 

To find out more about the orchestra's conductor and the story he tells about its creation click here:

Friday, 11 April 2014

Work hard at getting a second performance

"Getting a second production is about as difficult as getting it done first time."

Eric Stokes (composer)
(From 'The Muse that Sings' by Ann McCutchan)

This is a common problem for contemporary composers: a piece is commissioned, written, performed, and then all too easily forgotten. The energy and enthusiasm everybody feels for their 'bright new piece' dissipates in inverse proportion to the amount of time that passes after its first, sparkling performance.

Eric Stokes's short but telling statement also hints at an under-rated characteristic of successful creators and innovators: the ability to recognise the importance (and difficulty) of continuing the work beyond the successful introduction of an idea. Successful creators and innovators stay with an idea as it journeys into the world. They invest effort in maintaining, supporting, polishing and publicising it in readiness and expectation of its next outing and eventual acceptance into the repertoire of how things are thought about and done.


Those involved in the ground-breaking world of collaborative working, which brings separate organisations together to find new and innovative solutions to complex and difficult problems, need to work hard at gaining a second hearing or 'performance'.

Many of the bright new ideas and approaches identified and implemented by collaborative projects are generously applauded by those who commission and/or use them. Once the project's work is done, however, once the curtain has fallen on its premiere performance, the bright new ideas can easily become faded memories of sound and shadow, rather than influential instruments of ongoing change and innovation.

"That new youth centred approach to providing services to young people; that simple yet innovative way of helping the unemployed into work; that novel way of building health and social services around the needs of older people - what were they again? I think they were good. Why is no one using them now?"

The answer is not simply that the initiatives finished (or the money ran out), but that no one pushed for those second performances; no one worked to gain the interest of additional people or organisations who were willing and able to provide repeat performances which would help embed the ideas within the main stream repertoire of thinking and practice.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Take a walk

Beethoven frequently took an afternoon walk in the countryside, note book at the ready to capture ideas that occurred to him. Tchaikovsky was obsessive about taking a two-hour walk each day - not a minute more and not a minute less. Eric Satie, during his long nightly walks home through the suburbs of Paris, would frequently stop under a street light to note down ideas that came to him. (His musical output dropped during the first world war. Perhaps this was because the street lights were switched off during the blackout.)

During our own time the inspirational powers of the walk have not diminished. For contemporary composer Bright Sheng, taking walks is an integral part of his compositional process:

'My normal composing process is this: I think about a new piece first while taking walks. I start to hear sounds and I process them. I pick the music that excites me. It could be an interesting beginning for a piece, or a middle section, or an ending. As I take more walks, I hear more. Each time, I hear more details.' (From 'The Muse that Sings' by Ann McCutchan) 

The brain boosting effects of taking a walk, especially before or between bouts of mentally challenging activity, are now supported by scientific research:

Perhaps most importantly, we know from our own experience that doing something physical and relatively mindless can not only be predictably therapeutic but also unexpectedly inspiring: that great idea that occurs to us as we do the shopping, do the gardening, take a shower, take a walk.

So, if your thinking gets stuck in a rut resist the temptation of just sitting there, trying to think harder and harder. The evidence shows that the longer you just sit there, trying to think harder and harder, the longer you will just sit there, trying to think harder and harder.

Take a walk between thinking, and energise not only your body but also your mind.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Capture and combine butterfly ideas

'I'll put thirty ideas together, and that will be 1 piece'

John Zorn
From 'The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process', by Ann McCutchan

One of the ways the composer John Zorn creates his music is by combining small, simple ideas.

Combining ideas is a widely used creative problem solving technique, but the importance of combining small, simple, seemingly insignificant ideas is not always emphasised as much as it could be.

A simple suggestion or passing comment can float by during a conversation, catching our attention like the occasional summer butterfly, but then, also like the butterfly, be quickly forgotten.

Develop the habit of netting the butterfly ideas that flutter around you: make an instant note of them; pin them into your mind; collect them.

Then review your collection. What interesting patterns do the butterfly ideas reveal? How do they complement and support each other? How could they be combined in useful and attractive ways? 

By the way, this is a butterfly idea for your collection...

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Use a changebox to identify the best way to implement your solutions

When John Adams is composing he makes use of what he calls his 'Earbox'. This is a software module that contains a great many modes and scales. Adams can input a passage he has written and the box will rework it into any of the modes and scales it contains. 

This enables Adams to explore how a passage sounds within the context of a particular mode or scale, or combination of such. He can then choose a version of the passage that best meets his expressive needs.

By using non-musical rather than musical modes, we can apply the concept of the Earbox more widely; we can apply it to the solution selection phase of the creative problem solving process.

The Earbox would become a 'Changebox', be conceptual rather than computerised and work as follows:

  1. You identify the solution you want to put into the Changebox.
  2. You create possible modes that your solution could be implemented within. Possible modes are: personal and individual; team and group; organisational; wider sector; public or private; social or commercial; economy or deluxe (plus any others you consider relevant).
  3. You turn a room into your Changebox by covering its walls with flipchart and allocating wall space to each mode.
  4. You introduce your solution to the Changebox. You consider each mode and use an OWNORS Analysis to identify the implications of implementing your solution within it. OWNORS stands for Opportunities, Weaknesses, Novelties, Obstacles, Risks and Strengths. What are the opportunities presented by each mode? What are the weaknesses of each mode? What is novel or unique about each mode? What obstacles does each mode present? What risks are associated with each mode? What are the strengths of each mode?  
  5. You identify how the opportunities, novelties and strengths can be maximised or exploited to good effect and how the weaknesses, obstacles and risks can be minimised.
  6. You identify the modes that best meet your needs and purpose.
  7. You create an action plan that will enable you to implement your solution effectively within the selected modes.                   

For example:

Let us assume you have identified offering more information and services online as a solution that will enhance user and customer service and improve efficiency. 

Possible modes that this solution could be implemented within are: personal; customer grouping or demographic; wider public (potential customers/users); basic or 'upgraded' mode; free for the social good or chargeable for profit.

You would create a Changebox by covering the walls of a room with flipchart and allocating wall space to some or all of the modes mentioned above, plus to others you think relevant.

Then you would transpose your solution into the various modes contained within the Changebox. You would do this by applying an OWNORS analysis to each possible mode of your solution.

So, if the online solution was being implemented at the individual or personal level (each customer or user being contacted and personally introduced to the system and encouraged to use it):

  • A possible opportunity could be the chance to create closer relationships with key customers/users.
  • A possible weakness could be its high cost and resource intensiveness.
  • A possible novelty, something unique to this mode of solution, could arguably be the more equal and enhanced two-way communication between individual customers and the organisation, which could lead to new insights about customer needs and preferences.
  • A possible obstacle could be lack of customer availability and engagement with the process.
  • A possible risk could be customers becoming alienated and irritated by the high degree of targeted interest and attention they experience.
  • A possible strength could be customers having their needs met more quickly through the use of less resources.

You would identify additional aspects under each section of the OWNORS analysis and, as mentioned above, your OWNORS analysis would be applied to each mode of solution within the Changebox.

Once you completed the above process, you would identify how to maximise or exploit the positive aspects of each mode and minimise the negative ones. For example, you could positively exploit the unique richness of the two-way communication offered by the personal mode of the online solution by arranging real-time Internet discussions with individual customers. To minimise the possibility of alienation of customers you could do some research into the times of day, month or year customers would be most willing and able to engage with the process.

Next, you would consider the results of all your OWNORS analyses and select the modes of solution best suited to your needs and purposes. To  help your decision-making you could create a Decision Grid or Matrix and use it to rate the suitability of each mode of solution.

Finally, you would create an action plan for implementing the selected modes of solution effectively. This would need to specify what needed to be done, by when and by whom. It may also need to specify the type of resources and support needed for effective implementation.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Create a window for inspiration

"You can cultivate inspiration by creating a window for it. I tell my students to practice being inspired in various ways. For example, to look out the window as a composer. To look out the window as a painter. To look out the window as a writer, a novelist, and ask 'What are the things that you notice from these various perspectives?'. They’re states of mind. If you look out the window as a novelist, you might think of stories about people on the street. If you look out the window as a poet, you might try to capture a particular moment. As a composer it might be the rhythm or the patterns that inspire you. I do that exercise myself."

Bruce Adolphe - Composer
(from "The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process" by Ann McCutchan)

Whilst reading Ann McCutchan's  book (referred to above), I was struck by the simplicity and power of Bruce Adolphe's 'looking out the window' exercise.

We all get into the habit of looking out at life from the same angle each day: our experiences, education, preoccupations and passions (and other such attributes) focusing our attention upon those things we believe are significant and important. After a while we do not even think to question or test our view of the world; our response to what we see becomes automatic, almost subconscious.

Most of the time this suits us well. It helps us deal with the routine of our day-to-day lives and make quick, common-sense assumptions and judgements that keep us safe, keep us in work, and keep us sane!

However, if we need to be creative our habitual view of things, our preferred window on the world, can cause us problems. It can restrict our view of what is happening in front of us. It can bring the shutters down, limiting the angles from which we can view things and blanking out new areas of interest upon which we could focus.

Using Bruce Adolphe's 'looking out the window' exercise can help us develop a more flexible, multi-angled and multi-focused view of the world. It can provide a cord with which we can pull the shutters from our thinking.

Get into the habit of creating a window for inspiration by, quite literally, looking out your home or office window from someone else's perspective. Use the perspectives mentioned above or choose others: your customers, your boss, a young unemployed person, a retired person, a homeless person, an environmentalist, a gardener, a cyclist, a pedestrian, a blogger, anyone you can think of, anyone who can help.

Pull the cord; raise the shutters and begin to notice what you begin to notice. How do the new things you see change your view? How could they help you? How could they help you do things differently?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Make time for playtime!

For many composers improvising at the piano provides the spark that ignites their creativity.

Firstly, they will improvise to identify promising ideas.

Next, and this is important, they will continue to improvise. They will play with the ideas in various ways: placing and replacing them, linking them, combining them, separating them, stretching them, shortening them, augmenting them, decorating them, speeding them up, slowing them down, enriching them and stripping them. 

They will subject their ideas to all sorts of weird, wonderful and exciting treatments. They will enjoy this process; they will do it for some considerable time.

Then, once they have exhausted all the possibilities they can think of (and probably themselves), they will, quite possibly after a short break (or in some cases even after a nap), begin to compose.

They will turn from the piano toward the manuscript (or computer screen) and begin the structured, logical, iterative process of selecting and refining the ideas and approaches they are going to use, and then writing them down for others to play.

The above process provides an important lesson for any of us involved in creative problem solving: it emphasises the importance of 'playtime'.

Many brainstorming sessions are very effective at generating a great many ideas; with a little thought and care, this is not difficult to achieve. Quite commonly, however, they fail to acknowledge the importance of playing with ideas before evaluating, selecting and implementing them. Perhaps this is because the concepts of play and work do not sit easily together within the 'time is money' cultures of many organisations and businesses.

But playing with ideas, piling them together, chopping and changing them and throwing them into different contexts, just for the hell of it and to see what happens, is not just about wasting time and having a bit of fun.

Making time for playtime adds great value to the creative problem solving process by enriching the quality of ideas and providing additional options for how they can be used and presented. In fact, encouraging playtime with ideas can make the difference between effective and ineffective creative problem solving.

So, the next time you are creative problem solving make time for playtime. Once you have generated your ideas play with them for a while: combine them in different and unexpected ways; add new facets to them; take things away from them; make different assumptions about them; use them for different things; put them into different situations; even place them within unbelievable, fantastic scenarios (or even boring ones); and see what develops.

Above all have fun with your ideas; try things out for the hell of it, just to see what happens. It may prove much more useful than you expect.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Keep yourself open for business

The composer Bright Sheng uses the analogy of being an antique shop owner to describe the process of composition and becoming inspired:

"I often think writing music is like having, for example, an antique shop. You have to keep the shop open every day. Some days nobody comes, but you still have to be there. Once in a while somebody comes in and purchases a precious object for a large amount of money. If you are not there that day, you will not make the sale. It's very important to be mentally ready to receive when the inspiration comes."

Bright Sheng is emphasising the importance of developing regular habits that will help you keep your mind open to the possibility of inspiration. 

Doing one or two of the following things each day can help you achieve this:

  • Make it attractive and easy for others to approach you with their ideas and opinions. (For example, make it clear when and where you are 'open for ideas' and what the benefits of sharing them will be. Be willing to give people credit for their ideas.)  
  • Actively welcome the perspectives of others into your thinking; be open to the possibility of doing things differently. (Once you have attracted people's ideas you need to show that you truly value them. You do this by not only welcoming ideas but also showing you are responding to and acting upon them.)  
  • Build-up and create an inventory of stock, in the form of a wide range of interesting and intriguing ideas, that can be transformed into inspirational profit as and when an opportunity appears. (For example, a surprise problem may appear for which an idea from your store can provide an innovative and timely solution.)     
  • Brush the dust of time away from old items of stock (interesting and intriguing ideas you collected a while ago) to remind yourself of them and reassess their value. (Ask yourself if a change in the situation or context has made an idea more relevant and potentially useful.)
  • Be patient and remain open for 'the business of inspiration'. Give your intuition the time it needs to 'window-shop' through your mind and eventually settle upon a specific problem or topic. (Apparently irrelevant ideas can sometimes stick in the mind for no apparent reason. Rather than immediately dismissing them, allow them some time and space to develop, roam and perhaps connect with the issues and problems you need to solve.)

The above quotation is from "The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process" by Ann McCutchan.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Set yourself a one-day challenge

The composer John Zorn described his group Naked City as 'a compositional workshop for pieces I could write in a day'.

By setting himself the constraint of writing a piece in one day, Zorn forced his creative processes down avenues he would not have explored otherwise and succeeded in creating short songs packed with immense energy and variation.

Only once (and more modestly) have I experienced a similar type of process. A friend of mine knocked on my door one Saturday morning and said, 'You know that gig this evening? We are going to arrange and rehearse a piece to play during it!'

I thought he was joking, but it soon became evident that he was not. Half an hour later I found myself in a rehearsal room transcribing my trumpet part from a recording and working with three other musicians to mesh everything together and make something playable and enjoyable for an audience to hear.

The work was intense but also fun. The challenge of the timescale and the fact that we were going to perform the piece that evening (my friend had already promised it would be on the programme) not only focused our energies but also stimulated our creativity. I found myself listening more keenly, communicating more directly and improvising more readily. We succeeded in making a quirky arrangement of a well-known jazz song (which had a bit of an Arabic twist) for the unusual combination of bassoon, trumpet, snare drum and miscellaneous percussion instruments. Basically, we used the musicians and instruments we had to hand.

We got it all together for the evening performance and it went off well. What I remember most is the immediacy and simplicity of the music, the fun we had in putting it together and performing it, and the audience's enthusiastic reaction to our playing. If we had been given longer to think about and work on things perhaps the results would not have been as good as they turned out.

When finding solutions to problems, especially those needed within a business or organisational environment, we often make the assumption that the process will take much longer than one day. Even when we seek to identify 'quick wins' we tend to think about actions we can implement in two or three weeks, or even two or three months. There is something about the world of business and work that demands we spend a long time on the identification and implementation of solutions: that insists we are seen to provide value for money through the significant investment of time.

Now, it is certainly true that, owing to their complexity, many business and organisational problems do take a long time to sort out. But is this always the case? What if we occasionally questioned this assumption? What if we were to call a 'One-Day Challenge Workshop' at which people would be encouraged to identify solutions they could implement that day?

Such a workshop would certainly generate a lot of energy and encourage people to share a wide range of ideas. Also, it would probably generate a fair number of solutions innovative for their simplicity and the immediacy of their application.

Try it; see what happens.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Be purposeful

The famous conductor Valery Gergiev was staying at a seaside resort in Israel whilst undertaking a concert tour with his orchestra. His friend had just gone scuba diving and Gergiev asked him about it. His friend explained, “You put on tanks, breathing apparatus, you go underwater.”
“And?” Gergiev asked.
This snippet of conversation is very revealing about Gergiev’s perception of and approach to life. Life needs to have a purpose: a specific and clear end result.
Not unsurprisingly, this way of thinking is central to his music making as well. The way he leads and directs his orchestra is very purposeful and his musical intentions, what he is trying to achieve whilst conducting, are very clear.
Having this clear purpose in mind helps to make his overall interpretation of a piece of music coherent and consistent. For example, if he feels that a piece of music possesses an underlying mournfulness or sadness he will bring out its dark orchestral textures and slightly accentuate or linger upon certain phrases to realise their emotional potential. Thus the audience will quickly begin to perceive Gergiev’s overall purpose and how it is informing the growth and development of the music.
When you are preparing for a task think carefully about your purpose: what it is you need to achieve. Keep your purpose in mind as you prepare for and undertake the task. Concentrate upon those aspects and details of the task that will help you achieve your purpose. This will not only enhance the clarity and direction of your thinking but also enable others to understand and appreciate your intentions.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Capture the essence

Graham Fitkin is a composer who frequently gives his works one word titles. The words he selects for his titles get straight to the heart of what the music is about. For example, three of his pieces are called ‘Sinew’, ‘Granite’ and ‘Metal’. Each word makes its own unique impression upon an audience, readying them for the music’s timbres and textures and creating an overall sense of expectation and anticipation.

Capturing the essence of what an issue or problem is about is central to solving it. The next time you have a complex problem to solve start by challenging yourself to think about it simply. Ask yourself the following question:

‘What is the one word, phrase, analogy or metaphor that best describes the essence of the problem?’

Find the essential heart of your problem and your mind will become primed, ready and even eager to solve it.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Access all areas

When Beethoven composed his Septet in E flat major it quickly became very popular with amateur musicians across Europe.

Given that the piece needed quite large forces and called for instruments not easily to hand, Beethoven decided to create some arrangements for fewer instruments. He wrote one arrangement for clarinet, piano and cello and another for violin, piano and cello. Doing this not only increased the number of people who could enjoy his music but also helped Beethoven enhance his profile and increase his income.

How could you enhance the accessibility of your ideas and raise your profile? How could you make it easier for people to directly access and experience your ideas? What types of media are most convenient and economic for people to access and how could your ideas be adapted to them effectively? Can you tailor your ideas to the differing needs and resources of the various people who are interested in or affected by them? How can you make your ideas less expensive to implement whilst at the same time maintaining and perhaps even enhancing their quality?

Monday, 3 March 2014

7 principles of engagement and creative collaboration

Here is a great example, from Annemarie Borg and the Antara Project, of how software can help you engage and connect with people:

There a six key principles at work here:

  1. It is easy for people to make comments (they can do so as they listen).
  2. People can post comments individually and without interruption.
  3. All comments, however brief, are acknowledged and visible.
  4. The maker of the content is open to and welcoming of all comments.
  5. It is easy to share the content and the comments.
  6. The content (in this case the music) has an overall vision or message that is appealing to listeners and which encourages them to make comments.    

Making participation easy, providing individual space for people to consider and make their contributions, being transparent, welcoming all comments, making it easy to spread the message and providing an inspiring vision are all essential for effectively engaging with people and encouraging them to participate. This is true for not only software but also face-to-face and other means of interaction.

To progress from engagement to creative collaboration it would be conceivable to add a 7th key principle: that of widened ownership. Visitors to the above website could be invited to 'play'  with the music, to rearrange and remix it in all manner of creative and surprising ways. People could then make comments on these new versions in the same way as for the original. 

This process would get complicated, with many 'owners' of many versions (true collaboration is always complicated in one way or another), but it would also lead to the generation of a great many rich and diverse ideas, none of which would be lost and all of which could be learnt from and built upon.

As with the first six principles, widened ownership can be applied through not only software but also face-to-face and other means of interaction (e.g., by inviting people to play with and modify our ideas during a workshop or strategy meeting). It is, however, the most challenging principle to apply; it is counter to the prevailing human culture of ownership and our deeply ingrained, almost instinctive need to possess things.

But if we can be patient, dampen down our egos and recognise that anything we create has a life of its own (a life that others will seek to share and influence), we will likely be delighted by the rich diversity of ideas that emerge, ideas from which the many rather than the few will profit.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Introduce freshness

There is a very simple musical form called ‘ Rondo Form’ which captures the essence of this principle. In France during the Baroque period (1600 --1750) a type of harpsichord music evolved that used a simple chain-like structure. The music would start with an opening theme. Then another theme would be played after it, and then the original theme would be played again. This was followed by yet another new theme. Then the original theme would be played again, to be followed by the second theme heard. The piece would then finish with a final restatement of the opening theme. Sometimes the order would be slightly different to this, with the theme played once occurring nearer to the end, but in essence there was always one idea that was introduced in the middle, or sometimes towards the end, that was new and added freshness and interest to the musical form.

This simple, effective form was a favourite not only of Baroque composers but also of the Classical period composers who followed them. If you listen to symphonies by Mozart and Haydn you will often hear a lively, bright and fresh last movement that adds a new musical idea, or a new reworking of a previously heard one, somewhere between its middle and end.

This musical devise was very useful to classical composers, as it enabled them to keep a trick or two up their sleeves for later in their works, keeping their audiences (who were very knowledgeable and aware of the nuances of musical form) interested and attentive. Haydn was especially well-known for the musical jokes and surprises he would include in his symphonies, especially during their last movements.

The principle at work here is one of introducing new ideas into a pre-existing structure, and it is easily applicable to non-musical situations and problems.

Useful questions to ask when applying this principle are:
  • What new, apparently unrelated ideas have we not considered so far when thinking about the issue or problem?
  • What are we not seeing, appreciating or using and how can we start doing so?
  • When was the last time we considered something new? (If it was some time ago do we need an injection of freshness? Do we need to bring in someone new or create some new roles and responsibilities, etc.?)
  • Can we look at old ideas in new ways? Can we develop them in innovative ways?

Lastly, the Rondo Form gives us guidance about when new ideas are most likely to be needed and appreciated. This is somewhere between the middle and end of a task or project (or if a long project somewhere between the middle and end of its significant stages).

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Create and contextualise virtuoso teams

The Concerto Grosso was a very popular form of music during the Baroque period (1600 – 1750). It contrasted a small group of instruments with a larger group. Corelli’s Twelve Concerti Grossi Op.6 are a good example.

Each of the instruments within the small group played very complex and demanding music and the interplay between them could be fascinating and immensely stimulating, the overall effect amounting to very much more than the sum of the parts.

The small virtuoso group also presented new and creative ideas as the music progressed, whilst the larger group interjected regularly by repeating the same memorable idea each time. Thus new ideas were introduced and developed within the context of a coherent and re – assuring structure: the repeated theme acting as a milestone or landmark that ensured the music did not lose direction and become confused.

It is a fact that most great innovations and breakthroughs are seldom the work of one person. It is teamwork that put a man on the moon and it is collaboration between expert or ‘virtuoso’ individuals that will help us address the complex issues and problems that lie closer to home.

And it is those virtuoso teams that work within a reassuringly coherent framework that will maintain their focus upon what is important and generate the most valuable ideas.

The next time you are presented with a tricky or challenging problem assemble a virtuoso team of players that possesses the wide range of skills needed to address it effectively. Allow each team member to play their part in tackling the problem and encourage them to interweave their ideas with those of others.

Remember to set the team’s work within a recognisable context or structure. Identify the constant and significant refrain that the team’s work needs to be set against and judged by, and make sure that it plays a sufficient part within the team’s overall performance. Your team will then invent not only fascinating ideas but also attractive, feasible and effective ones.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Tap into the unusual

The scientist and composer Dr Alan Lamb has found music in one of the most unexpected of places. Back in 1976 he embarked upon a long car trip across Australia. After many hours of travelling he felt tired, so he parked his car and after resting for a while he fell asleep. Sometime later he was woken by a strange sound he had never heard before. The wind was playing through the telegraph wires that were immediately above his car, causing them to vibrate and emit hauntingly beautiful, almost musical tones. Dr Lamb was intrigued by these sounds, both as a scientist and as a musician. He has subsequently devoted a significant part of his life to investigating how they are created and to finding ways of incorporating them into musical compositions.

Over the last thirty-five years Dr Lamb and his colleagues have recorded and manipulated sounds from ‘the wires’, even creating their own wire installations or ‘wind organs’ from which they can harvest the auditory raw materials for ever more interesting and unique musical compositions. These wind organs have been given names and have become works of art in their own right. They have been installed and listened to at festivals and other events throughout Australia and beyond. A particularly note-worthy commission came from the Japanese Government, which asked for a wind organ installation to be built as part of the celebrations marking the opening of a major research facility, the ‘SPring8 Electron Synchrotron’. The music has also found its way into the mainstream of film sound tracks, being used in films such as ‘Wolf Creek’ and ‘Little Fish’. The sounds created by Dr Lamb’s wind organs were also the inspiration behind the laser gun effects used in the Star Wars films.

Some of the compositions created from the sounds emitted by wind organs have even become a national music of protest, giving voice to the strong feelings of anger many people feel about the damage large scale mining operations are causing to the ancient Australian landscape.

Opening the mind to the possibilities of the unusual and exploring them with enthusiasm is one of the major traits of creative people. The next time you come across something unusual, or someone presents an idea or point of view that seems eccentric or surprising, suppress your judgement and your urge to criticise or even dismiss it. Give it time and open your mind to its possibilities. Tap into the enthusiasm of the person presenting the idea and do your best to feel the resonance it has for them. Try to perceive it through their eyes and ears.

As you begin to tap into the resonating wires of their thoughts you may begin to hear the music of their inspiration for yourself. You may even find yourself, as Dr Alan Lamb did, embarking upon a journey that becomes ever more intriguing the further you travel and the more you pause to explore the landscape you encounter.