Don’t replicate; interpret, iterate and improve

I’m currently pitching for a project that would carry out some research in the UK market that has already occurred in the US.

The easiest thing to do would be to recreate the US study. It makes the data more relevant to the UK market, and would offer an interesting comparison between the two territories.

But that is lazy. And not only is it lazy, it is sub-optimal.

Nothing is perfect. Everything can be improved.

A facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile degrades in quality.

The solution is to identify the strengths of the original. This essence becomes the focus of the new version. The next iteration. The improvement.

Let The Right One InMy favourite example of this is Let The Right One In (or Låt den rätte komma in to Swedish speakers).

The book is pretty good – a Stephen King style page-turner with an interesting take on the vampire mythology.

The film takes the essence of the story but completely alters the tone. Simmering anger becomes languid beauty.

It is completely wonderful – one of my all-time favourite films.

Some might argue that this is dangerous territory. For every successful adaptation, remake or re-envisioning, there is a joyless hack, abject failure or a misguided wreck depressing the success rate.

But if you harbour any doubts over your ability to improve on something, you have to question why someone would want to employ you in the first place.

Beg; steal; borrow. Interpret; iterate; improve.

sk

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Carpe diem

An unwanted corollary of thinking time – the topic of my previous post – is the possibility of feeling unproductive or lazy. There is a distinction between the two – thinking is doing, after all.

And doing is important. We should do stuff. And we all have free time. So we should look to do stuff in our free time (whether it is at work or home). Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Today. Now.

(Incidentally, Clay Shirky’s post on how our social surplus has populated Wikipedia is well worth a (re)read. As fun as drinking gin is, I think crowdsourcing is more worthwhile).

I’m sadly a deadline worker. I get things completed on time, but it usually involves a late night on the eve of submission.

And of course not everything has a deadline. So things slip. And slip. And slip. So I’m instiling self-imposed deadlines on all of my activities. Starting with this blog.

I have several drafts in WordPress filled with a few rambling thoughts – my online  post-it notes, so to speak. Some get written, some don’t. The worst offender is a post on the relationship between music and marketing that has been in my drafts for the best part of a year, and it has been some time since I stopped collecting news stories from Music Ally or Songs for Soap.

So I’m deleting it. I still have the bookmarks if I want to revisit the topic from a different angle, but for all intents and purposes that blog will not see the light of day. The deadline has passed.

Why? Because the quality of an output (whether a blog or otherwise) is a function of its context – its place and time. All the links in that draft are now old. Madonna may still be with Live Nation, but Groove Armada may not be associated with Bacardi for much longer. The interest is drying up, and the trend has passed. So my blog post dies.

If we think we have a good idea, we should execute it while it is still fresh (albeit considered). We shouldn’t save our best ideas, or wait for the “right moment” to come along. We should act. We learn by doing and we become stronger and better for it. New ideas will come. In the same way that saving money is bad for the financial economy, saving ideas is bad for the creative economy. Because not only do we improve from acting, our peers and associates benefit from the (hopefully) positive externalities of our ideas.

Therefore, I am imposing a deadline of Sunday to respond to Charles’ excellent post on cultural bias related to warped percerptions of Microsoft. It’s a cracker and has rattled a few cogs in my brain.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaewalk/

Time to think

The pause between this post and my previous was unexpected, but inevitable given the circumstances. My first two weeks at Essential have been fantastic – involvement in several interesting and diverse projects, and a night out that the K-box may still be recovering from.

My arrival coincided with a particularly busy period of debriefs and pitches. In theory, a nice problem to have but priorities need to be set and resources assigned accordingly.

Businesses should be flexible to adapt when these situations arise, but they should be atypical and not the norm (at Essential, it is not the norm). Organisations shouldn’t overstretch themselves. Short-term revenue gains can be quickly counteracted by a lack of focus, quality and staff morale.

Quite rightly, we regularly talk about a work-life balance being crucial to successful and stable careers and businesses. Each person has their own unique balance – whether sixty hours of work a week or four. But I believe a third dimension should be added to the equation.

Thinking time.

We should be talking about a work-thought-life balance. Thought is the commonality between our work and life personas, and time should be scheduled to improve the quality of both.

Everyone needs breaks. Whether it is stepping back to think more strategically, or searching for outside inspiration to crack a problem, we can all identify multiple benefits of pausing for thought. It could be taking a walk, it could be reading a book, it could be taking a bath to wait for that eureka moment, it could be going to a baseball game as Jon Steel did. Our subconscious can continue to work on the issue, while our conscious mind diverts to not only rest but also to absorb new stimuli.

This is important in all industries (Google giving engineers 20% personal time has led to some enormous successes), but it is absolutely crucial in creative and knowledge industries. Even in research, there is rarely an objective truth easily uncovered, and so time needs to be spent formulating the best approach at each stage of the process.

I am now making a more concerted effort to build in thinking time into both work and life spheres. For me, blogging comes under thinking time. I mull over thoughts and then try to formalise them into a coherent message. This post, for instance, is a synthesis of thoughts jotted onto post-it notes over the past week and additional thoughts that emanated as I deciphered a theme.

I could have punctuated the aforementioned gap between blog posts by quickly writing up one of those thoughts scribbled onto a post-it note. But I chose not to. I don’t post for the sake of it. I write to improve my understanding of matters –  an incremental process that is boosted by the thoughts and posts from others whom I read and interact with.

It is a question of quality vs quantity. Unlike Twitter’s temporary ambiance, I view my blog as a permanent (WordPress permitting) record of my output. I aim to create an evolving, but ultimately a coherent and consistent, body of connected thoughts, ideas and statements – both my own and those of others I intersect with.

I hope my blog achieves this – I don’t want to undersell myself, even with something that could be called a hobby. When I visit someone else’s blog for the first time, I read their previous five posts to see if it is something worth subscribing to. It doesn’t matter if those posts were written in the last 5 hours or 5 months; it is the quality I care about.

A sidenote of interest to me is also the journey one undertakes when they discover a new blog. I see two primary routes – search and social.

A high quantity of posts will influence Google juice and deliver visitors from search. But a high quality of posts that people value leads to social recommendations; attracting people through overlapping spheres of influence. Fred Wilson has noted that he is getting more referrals from social media than Google – I put that down to the consistently high quality of his blog as much as the increasing influence of our online networks.

Furthermore, a recommendation is also more likely to lead to a deeper contact. Search is transactional – I find my answer and move on. Links and retweets are relationship builders. The latter is definitely more valuable.

Anyway, that was quite a large digression. But I’ve finally arrived at the underlying theme linking together my disparate points and post-it notes.

Commoditisation.

By taking our time, by taking a step back, by seeking advice and inspiration, we bring more thought to the process. We ponder, we ruminate, we deliberate, we mull, we muse, we meditate, we even brainstorm and thought-shower.

My contention is that a situation where work-thought-life are in equilibrium will lead to a higher quality of response. Quality is what we should aspire to in order to make ourselves distinctive and unique.

Whether it is research, strategy, marketing, music or blogging, we shouldn’t commoditise our outputs.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharmasphere/

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Sir Ken Robinson on how finding your passion changes everything

I may not be at TED, but in the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of the finest speakers to grace past events lecture in London. Following on from Clay Shirky at POLIS on Tuesday, Sir Ken Robinson spoke at the Royal Society yesterday on the subject of his new book – The Element. The event forms part of the RSA’s excellent series of debates on culture, politics and society that occur every Thursday lunchtime.

The core idea of the book is that most adults have no idea of their true talents, nor what they are capable of achieving. Some people go along in life with no sense of fulfilment, but people tend to do their best when they do something they love.

To be in one’s element, one needs to have a natural aptitude. Robinson provided one of his many great anecdotes to illustrate this – many of which are included in the book as interviews or case studies. Terence Tao, Professor of Maths at UCLA taught himself to read at age 2; passed a college entrance exam aged 8; finished his PhD aged 20 and was awarded the Field Medal (Nobel equivalent) aged 30. Safe to say he has a maths brain.

But being naturally good at something is not enough; someone also has to love it. If I’m good at maths but don’t like it, I shouldn’t continue just to meet people’s expectations. I should take part in what resonates with me most fully.

So rather than being about creativity, the book is about celebrating the diversity and multiplicity of talent. Sir Ken then reiterated the nebulous effect of the education system on encouraging this diversity. He believes – and I agree – that the distinction between academic and vocational education is a dreadful mistake. A story about a fireman who at school had been told he wouldn’t amount to anything then saving the life of that teacher proved this point quite nicely.

One of the arguments running through the book is that this “element” is necessary for human fulfilment as it is an essential part of knowing who we are. Bart Conner – the most decorated athlete in US gymnastic history – and his wife Nadia Comaneci now devote their lives to developing gymnasts in the Special Olympics, for instance. Conner’s mother encouraged his talents; and his talents then created opportunities. This is because our lives are not linear but organic. Education, on the other hand, is predicated on linearity. Robinson highlighted a recent LA policy paper “College begins at Kindergarten” to back up this point. Education should not be a mechanistic process but about creating a success that is synergistic with the environment.

He also pointed out several similarities in the “critical and severe” crises in both natural resources and human resources. Both line industry, serve massive commercial interests (e.g. the “false epidemic” of ADHD) and are often buried deep. Given that the old economic model has failed, now would appear an excellent time to instil community development based on diversity and not conformity.

The lecture closed with Sir Ken saying that at a basic level, education is about personal growth, it is part of the culture (and therefore needs cultural development) and is about economics. The book is a different conception of human possibility and an appeal to aim high.

After the speech (which was excellent), Matthew Taylor asked a couple of questions – one pertaining to the role that ethics and responsibility play in creativity. Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that create value”. He re-iterated that it is a process and not a random act of inspiration, and that it needs to prove its worth. The financial crisis was not due to creativity but because people were not being critical and evaluating the usefulness of their ideas. He also pointed out that creativity isn’t the opposite to formality – instead a mixture of discipline and space to innovate are required (e.g. you have to learn an instrument before you can become creative).

Another question went back to the academic and vocational divide. Unfortunately people default to the way that they were educated – it may have worked for them because they are now in a position to make decisions, but it didn’t necessarily work for others. It is not just enough to know the discipline (and some policymakers may not even get that far) but about understanding the environment – great education needs great teachers. A video promo for The Blue School – set up by the Blue Man Group – was then played to show how learning and creativity can be encouraged within school.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/

Koyaanisqatsi and different perspectives

Last night I finally got around to watching Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s classic collaboration with the master of the recursive composition, Philip Glass. It is the first part of a trilogy, with Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi succeeding.

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word that means (in one translation) “Life Out of Balance”. The central message of the film is fairly simplistic – nature is wondrous and man is destructive – but even the depictions of destruction display a certain beauty and nobility.

What makes it such a classic (and a film I would wholeheartedly recommend) is the cumulative effect that the time-lapse, slow motion and recursive/minimalist soundtrack have on the senses. One can become hypnotised by things we didn’t realise existed. Some of the iconic shots sound simplistic (and stock footage is heavily used) but the excellence is in the execution (as Bret Hart used to say)

  • Cloud movement sped up to resemble waves
  • An atomic bomb exploding in slow motion
  • Video still-life portraits
  • The moon passing behind a skyscraper
  • Nighttime traffic sped up to resemble waves of electricity
  • Flaming debris from the Atlas Rocket circling in the sky

The techniques utilised have been transferred to the world of advertising to great effect. Three examples from music, video games and consumer goods are:

GTA: IV

Ray of Light by Madonna

Dove’s Onslaught


Watching the film has re-iterated a very simple instruction that I try to follow, but invariably don’t.

Look around.

Rather than walk around London with my head down and earphones in, look up. Stop from time to time. Observe. That way I will see something I have never previously noticed.

New observations lead to new ideas. These don’t have to be revolutionary. They do need to display understanding and insight. That requires attention.

One section (movement?) of Koyaanisqatsi focuses on the everyday urban life. Yet it finds beauty through a whole new perspective.

Yesterday, Dave Trott wrote about radical common sense – creative but simple ideas.

Dirt is Gooddespite a backlash – is often held up as a good example of a straightforward yet revolutionary insight.

Ethnography and anthropology are increasingly being used in research to great effect. Just seeing how people live and operate can make a huge difference. Grant McCracken and Jan Chipchase both produce fascinating essays and insights in their respective fields, to give just two examples.

Whether it is swimming in data or sitting in the village of Nyamikamba (as Stuart did recently), there is always a new observation to be found.

We just have to look for it.

sk

Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business

The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New BusinessI’ve recently been re-reading my notes from Jon Steel’s book Perfect Pitch and am reminded of what a great resource it is (incidentally, Seth Godin has some typically insightful tips on getting the most out of business books).

The central argument of the book is an obvious but often overlooked one – using your content to engage with the audience. The book is written in a compelling manner with some fantastic examples. For me, the litmus test of a good business book is whether it provokes me into not only considering or approaching an issue differently, but implementing the tips. This book passes the test with flying colours. I would highly recommend it.

Jon works in fives (as another sidenote, the book I am currently reading would have a theory on that). He sees a pitch constituting five jobs – those of researcher, writer, producer, director and performer – and there being five distinct stages

  1. Grazing, and gathering raw materials. We should combine research, general knowledge and learned knowledge. He uses a Post-it note for every bit of relevant information and then re-organise it into themes.
  2. Looking for meaning. Drawing everything together and looking for connections
  3. Dropping it. Rather than working 24/7, we can let our subconscious work on the problem while we take our conscious mind off it by doing other things
  4. Adapting and distilling. There should have a central theme that could be repeated in 2 minutes. With the full presentation, each part should engage and surprise. It can be broken down into an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution
  5. Writing the presentation. Jon believes the script should be written down to the last apostrophe. It gives control – both in terms of content and timing. If you know the content inside out, you can deviate from it if necessary

And adapting Jon’s method, here are five elements to his thesis, with five nuggets under each heading

1. Prepare

  • People work better on one task than several at once
  • Work in a small, tight, committed team
  • Take control. Taking control means keeping work and social life separate, not allowing interruptions, having space for thinking, treating others as you would like to be treated and looking after your brain
  • Start quickly and devote equal time to each aspect
  • Practice makes perfect

2. Recognise the competition

  • The focus should be on beating the competition and not finding the perfect answer
  • Belief has to be turned into action – this is done by persuading that your idea is the best
  • Save energy for the big issues rather than proving the obvious
  • Either say something different or say the same thing better
  • But a USP of some description is needed to stand out and plant doubt in the competition

3. Ensure a narrative

  • The best speeches are done using the simplest language
  • Presentations should tell stories
  • A good presentation has a start, a middle and an end
  • A few well chosen questions can be a powerful tool
  • Use minimal slides with a prose leave-behind

4. Keep the tone engaging

  • The five key elements are truth, beauty, excitement, significance and persuasion
  • Communicate; don’t lecture. The best presentations are question marks; not full stops
  • Communicate one idea at a time
  • Be inclusive as the audience doesn’t listen to what you say but what it means to them
  • Passion breeds success. When you believe, giving ground is tantamount to failure

5. Connect with the audience

  • Own the room
  • Minimise space between the presenter and the audience
  • Give a sense of what it would be like to work with you
  • If one answer is given, don’t give a second if it involves repetition
  • Keep consistency of message and openness of mind and manner

The above is just a small extract of the wisdom encapsulated in 288 pages. I would recommend reading every last page.

sk

Bitstrips

Bitstrips is awesome. Very straightforward to use and incredibly customisable. Perfect for people like myself with no artistic ability to create a passable strip. And while it is still in beta, there are already some nice features set up within it. With the art sorted, I just need to work on improving the text.

'The Big Still'

The reason this looks a bit wrong is that I’ve had to adjust the dimensions to fit in the layout

Incidentally, I am referring to this story. The latest in a spate of accusations of visual plagiarism. Can artists assert their intellectual rights? With the difficulties in proving the originality of ideas or concepts, it looks like a row that will long continue. Plenty of time for me to hone my comic strip skills then.

sk