Why your creative culture needs a few kooks and spoon benders

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with a person steeped in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, and they made a profound observation: every creative culture needs a few kooks and spoon benders.

I thought about it and agreed, but it didn’t really click until I witnessed the following rendition of My Way.  I’ll explain why this is so after you watch a few minutes of this video (be sure to watch through to the part with the drummer…):

Watching this, your reaction may fall into one of two categories.  Or you may start in the first camp and transition to the second, as I did:

  1. This drummer’s demeanor is annoying! He is an insecure, narcissistic, attention-seeker.  Were he a teenager, he’d be sporting blue hair.  Who does he think he is?  Why is he distracting from the nice vocals of the woman upfront?  And please stop with the twirling-drumstick trick, and what’s up with that stand-up cymbal?  Above all, get him away from me, and please don’t make me be in a band with him.
  2. This guy’s energy is inspiring, infectious, and makes me want to get out there and embrace my unique creative ability to make things happen!  In his stick twirls, manic expressiveness, and unabashed joy in banging on drums, I see myself on a great day, when the muse has arrived, I’m in flow, and creating like nobody’s business.  Give me more of this—let me watch that video again.  Oh, and I want a white tux jacket.

Here’s the deal: This drummer is a spoon-bender, he’s definitely kooky in mannerism and presence.  He’s deviant.  He’s not afraid to be what he is, no matter whether it’s a fit to his immediate social context.  We think spoon-benders are kooks and weirdos because doing something out of the ordinary is pretty strange, when you stop and think about it.  But since having the courage to do so publicly and risk criticism, embarrassment, and failure is the price of entry when it comes to innovating, shouldn’t more of us be taking cues from the kooks?

I’m not saying that you should literally go out and hire a spoon-bender (though it would be cool if you did).  But I do think that a high-functioning creative culture is populated by a subset of individuals who can’t help but be who they are, and what they are is someone put on Earth to do remarkable things.  These are your kooks.  Their unrelenting confidence in their own unique mode of creative expression—even if it be the transmogrification of metallic feeding tools—helps everyone else have the courage to go after things in a big way, too.  If you don’t have them, you won’t have any good examples of what extreme passion of expression looks like.

Have a few kooks in your organization, shine a light on their creative behaviors, and watch the positive effects ripple through your culture.

Entrepreneurship is a Mindset

If you’re seeking wisdom on the nature of entrepreneurship, look to art, literature, and popular culture. For example, in my experience the best guide to the nature of vision and leadership is that seminal fictional character Don Quixote. His story epitomizes how courage and clarity of vision can win the hearts and minds of others. And who hasn’t learned the brass tacks of power and influence by watching Tony Soprano in action?

If you’re open to it, there’s a wealth of inspiration and insight to be had out in the world, like this fabulous profile of entrepreneur and racer Dave Marcis:


Whether or not you’re interested in racing, if you want to know what it’s like to think like an entrepreneur, it’s well worth its seven minutes of run time.

I particularly love the segment that starts at the 3:28 mark, where Marcis talks about how running a small business on a shoestring budget taught him to be scrappier than scrappy. What caught my eye was this slogan hanging on the wall of his shop, pictured above:

“We have done so much, with so little, for so long, that we can now do anything
with nothing.”

This deceptively simple phrase captures the essence of entrepreneurship—that with enough persistence, optimism, and confidence, no challenge is too big. It reminded me of my favorite quote by Professor Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School:

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources
currently controlled.”

When Dave Marcis talks about what he’s accomplished and how he’s done it, it becomes clear that his frame of mind was key to his success. Likewise, mindset is what enabled Elon Musk to go build rockets and cars, or Richard Turere to make peace with lions. It’s not about being in high tech, or living in Silicon Valley, or having access to a network of venture capitalists. It’s about what you tell yourself in your head: that you can build something new for the world, no matter what seems possible or reasonable.

Entrepreneurship is a mindset, one that allows you to do anything with nothing. When you decide to relentlessly pursue a dream no matter how little you’ve got, you’ve already taken the biggest step on that journey.

Failing. And dealing with it.

A few of my Principles for Innovating are more popular than others.

When I give a talk on those principles, the first six are received with a lot of enthusiasm, which is to be expected, because they’re all about design thinking, always an empowering subject. People who get excited about principles seven through twelve tend to be in management positions, because that collection deals with innovating from a manager’s point of view. Principles fifteen through eighteen make organizational design aficionados salivate, and nineteen and twenty always make me want to cheer when I talk through them. I love nineteen and twenty.

Principles thirteen and fourteen are really bummers. I hate talking about them. They suck the energy out of the room. In fact, when it comes to that contagious buzz and energy you get when things are going well in a talk (for both presenter and audience), Principle 13 is nothing if not a black hole. “You will fail,” it says.

There’s a reason it’s sitting at that number.

You will fail. That’s the reality of trying to bring new things to life. You will fail, and may fail over and over and over. You may never suceed, actually. But, some folks are able to take that failure and get to the mantra of Principle 14, which is Failure Sucks, But Instructs. Today’s New York Times has a wonderful article titled “Following Your Bliss, Right Off the Cliff“, which examines the failures and recoveries of several entrepreneurs, including my friend and d.school colleague Michael Dearing.

Here’s an excerpt from the article. It talks about Michael’s experience with a shoe retailing startup which ended up going out of business:

He struggled to keep the business afloat because, he said, it felt dishonorable to let it go. “I personalized the outcome to a degree that it was unhealthy,” he said. “I thought failure was total and permanent — and success stamped me as a worthwhile business person.”

…Mr. Dearing liquidated his business in what he called an “excruciating” time. He turned to eBay to sell shoes, cash registers, delivery trucks and warehouse equipment to repay creditors and pay his employees’ severance. “I was dead broke,” he said. “This was probably one of the hardest times, deciding whether I was going to buy food for my animals or dinner for me.”

…“I thought I had one shot to be successful,” he said. “I had no idea that my career — or anybody’s career — is actually a multiround process and that you had many, many at-bats.”

…Mr. Dearing would approve. He tells his students that the “suffering comes from being attached to the outcomes.”

As paradoxical as it sounds, he said, “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”

Let’s read that last one again: “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”

What a profound statement from Michael, and it works on so many levels. When you stop worrying about the outcome, you let go of the fear of ultimate, soul-crushing failure, which in turn allows you to focus on the here and now. Being in the moment is what allows you to see and hear clearly to what life is telling you. That feedback helps you understand the true nature of what is going on with your new venture, and leads to better decision making. Being freed from fear not only adds a few points of IQ to your total, but it gives you the courage to run that test, to build that prototype — today. Taking action now and failing on a smaller level each day, while listening to the resulting feedback coming your way, ends up giving you a much better chance of succeeding in the end than if you ignore those small doses of daily feeback.

Michael’s advice is a very Obi-Wan Kenobi feel-the-force-flow-through-you-Luke kind of thing, but it really does work. It’s also the hardest thing for would-be innovators to do. In my experience, you learn how to stop worrying about the outcomes by building up the mileage that only comes by shipping stuff. The more you ship, the better you get, and the better the odds become of the outcome being great.

Wise words from a five-year-old

This isn’t one of those posts where a parent brags about their kid. I do think she’s pretty special, but I’m not going to go there today. However, my daughter said something this morning which I think really nails an elemental truth about what it means to go through life with an open mind, hungry to grow and learn.

This morning my daughter and I arrived a little early at her nursery school, so we sat down together on the floor of its library and read a book together while we waited for her classroom to be ready for a new day of play and learning. Being there with her is always a highlight of my day.

We selected a picture book told in the voice of a grandmother telling her grandchild about what the child’s father was like as a baby and young child. Some of the illustrations showed a kid being happy, some frustrated, some sad, some hungry, and one was about being afraid.

Upon seeing that last one, my daughter said, “It’s okay to be a little afraid, it just means you’re about to learn something.” I teared up there for a second or two. And then I thought about Czikszentmihalyi and flow theory and what it means to live a life of meaning: if we’re engaging with things a little beyond our current abilities, we’re learning and growing.

It’s okay to be a little afraid. I think she’s right, no?


Allan Savory, innovating from first principles

How do you recover from failure, if at all?  Two of my principles for innovating deal directly with the reality of failing:

If you’re trying to push for a better world, you will fail.  The question is, how do you learn from it?  At a personal level?  As an organization?  As a society?

Allan Savory gave a stunning talk earlier this month at TED where he described his personal quest to build success on top of a monumental failure he experienced relatively early in his life.  Here’s an explanation of of that failure, in his own words:

When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner — this was in the 1950s — and no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals, then the land began to deteriorate, as you see in this park that we formed. Now, no livestock were involved, but suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain.

Now, that was a terrible decision for me to have to make, and it was political dynamite, frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did. They agreed with me, and over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better.

Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave. One good thing did come out of it. It made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.

I’ll leave it to you to listen to the way that Allan Savory learned from his failure and created long-term success from what he learned.

I can see several of my principles for innovating at work in Savory’s work.  First, he is a keen observer of landscapes through time.  He learns by doing, and finds inspiration in facts experienced in the first person.  That is Principle One at work.

Second, he understands that you can learn your biggest life lessons when things go horribly wrong.  This is Raney’s Corollary at work, that you only learn when things start breaking.  Avoiding failure at all costs leads to paralysis and nothing ever ventured, but ignoring failures when they happen leads to self-deception and ventures attenuated.  You’ll never really reach remarkable if you ignore negative data flowing your way — listening to negative feedback is what gives you the basis for a smart pivot.  As you can hear above, Savory has fully embraced the hard lessons of a decisions which resulted in the needless destruction of thousands of elephants.  He now uses the wisdom gained to drive his quest to find out the root causal mechanisms behind desertification.

Third, Savory’s story is that of an innovator who understands the power of going back to first principles.  As any physicist or mathematician knows, when you go back and look — really look — at the immutable contraints and rivers behind a situation, you are apt to make connections about true causality which are impossible to reach for folks dealing only at a symptomatic layer of information.  Being able to step back and look deeply at a situation in order to perceive its essence is a core talent of great innovators.  And it can be cultivated, I believe.  It’s what kids do quite naturally.  A return to beginner’s mind is what helped Allan Savory create this remarkable process innovation, which I hope will save not just many elephants through time, but entire ecosystems.

Being honest the Harry Weathersby Stamps way


Never underestimate the value of being honest — deeply honest — when you’re working as part of a team.

Learning to express what you’re thinking in a truthful but respectful way is a foundational skill for people who work with others to bring cool stuff to life.  Which I believe means pretty much all of us.  Too little honesty and you’ll have a pleasant working atmosphere but end up shipping something mediocre or just plain wrong; too much honesty and you won’t ship anything at all, because the team will dissolve before your very eyes.  Being honest without coming across as a blunt jerk will win you friends, help you ship amazing things, and probably get you promoted, too.  We can all get better at this — it’s a life journey kind of thing.

How dear to my heart, then, is this amazingly disarming statement coined by the late Harry Weathersby Stamps, who was a professor at Gulf Coast Community College.  It’s meant to be lobbed when you need your audience to be absolutely clear that you are about to speak from the heart:

“I am not running for political office or trying to get married”

Is that amazing, or what?  Try it out in your next project status review session, and let me know how it goes.

Harry Weathersby Stamps, pictured above, passed away this past Saturday.  It’s well worth your while to read his charming obituary, which is American prose at its best.

Read more here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sunherald/obituary.aspx?n=harry-stamps&pid=163538353#storylink=cpy