Sunday, October 12, 2008

Innovation: How Do You Think Up a Treetop Barbie?

What kind of creative process produces ideas like a Treetop Barbie, a doll that models adventurousness, being outside and active for children? Or a programme like Canopy Confluence that mixes artists with scientists and takes them to the forest canopy to create art (even rap music) that touches people with more than data and diagrams? Or starts a Moss in Prisons project to explore different ways to sustainably grow moss for horticultural use (apparently moss grows very slowly). Or takes policy makers up into the trees with ropes and harnesses to get conservation messages directly to decision-makers in a Legislators Aloft project?

These are all Outreach Projects of the Research Ambassador Programme at Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington, USA). At our World Conservation Congress, we heard Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, from Evergreen, speak about all these ideas in our "Beyond Jargon" workshop. All incredibly creative, what I really wanted to know was - what kind of a creative process produced these ideas?

It is easy to gather explicit knowledge on the internet - a quick google gave me a good description of all these activities and told me more about their goals and outcomes. Tacit knowledge (know how as opposed to know what or know why)- can be an even more valuable source of learning, especially for innovation processes. I was able to ask Nalini Nadkarni about her creative process - what confluence of events, steps or practices produces these incredibly innovative projects? She shared some thoughts on what is working for her and the team at Evergreen, which I synthesized into these three headings:

1. Accept no boundaries (or at least question them relentlessly): This condition may be part DNA and part deliberate. For Nalini growing up in a dual culture home gave her simultaneous insight to two worlds and an innate breadth of perspective. Her choice to be both a dancer and a professor of environmental science again provided multiple reference points and opportunities for bringing together diverse traditions and communities, such as the arts and sciences. Evergreen State College itself is a unique learning environment where professors of different subjects have offices in the same hallway, not departments in different buildings, and this maps over into the interdisciplinary and team-taught nature of its interest-based curriculum. For innovation, breadth of view and perspective seems to foster new ideas. Multi-everything is the word that comes to mind.

2. Find time to listen to the smallest inner voices: In the confluence of stimuli, how do you notice, sort, select and develop the ideas that will become the next great one? Time outdoors alone seems to work for Nalimi, who takes long runs and hikes to tap into what's happening around her, to make connections and meaning from it. It strikes me that there are many ways to undertake this kind of reflective practice, it could be the long run, or 20 minutes on the eliptical trainer, or an off-peak-hour bus ride, or a cat nap in the sunshine, or any other opportunity to quiet your mind and ask yourself to think deeply on some interesting questions.

3. Braving the creative collision space: Once you have the ideas can you let them go so they be developed further by others, formally or informally? In this case, Nalimi has Monday lunches with students and other faculty which provide great opportunities to throw a new notion out and get people's feedback. Ideas build on ideas and quickly you have a better prototype, richer with the inputs of people you trust and respect. This might take a little courage, and a willingness to let go of some of your earlier conceptions in the creative jam around your idea.

These three things seem to be a part of the creative process at Evergreen State University's Forest Canopy Lab - it's definitely working for them. Maybe some sequence like this could or does work for you. Think about your own great ideas. What kind of conditions have been present when you had them? Are there any patterns you can identify? Why not note them down and share them. Learning can happen anywhere, not just from what you accomplished, but how you accomplished it - think about tapping into your own creative process, it's probably quite replicable.

Lesson #4: Put Yourself in Other People's Seats

OK, so you are running your event and you have an audience in front of you - what are they doing? Are they: leaving, sleeping, doing their email, sitting in rapt attention, talking, laughing, voting, writing, singing (well, so far I have not seen any audience singing, but I have seen all the other ones).

So now go and sit in those seats (figuratively at least) and stay there for more than 10 minutes. How does that feel? At the end of your 10 minutes (and remember that ours were 90 min) were you: excited, bored, energised, frustrated, motivated, moved, or a million miles away?

Now make the connection - If you want your audience to feel X (e.g. like running up after the event and asking for your card, or engaging their brains and giving you some excellent ideas on how you could improve your approach, or getting motivated to go home and do something differently, or getting excited and telling other people about what you are doing), then you need to deliberately structure your event to help them get there.

It's a great exercise for a communicator (and if you have an event you are in this role) to put yourself in other people's seats. If you do this upfront "sitting" (and thinking), both you and your audience will get more of what you want.