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.