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.