Category Archives: Creativity

Is Originality Overrated? The Race for Second Place

In the quest for competitive advantages, we often strive to find the novel idea that will set us apart, thus propelling us to the top of the food chain. While this is a worthy endeavor, is success bequeathed upon innovators? Internality it may feel rewarding to create something new, but is originality actually rewarded?

Last week, Facebook announced a new function, Facebook Camera. This “innovative” feature will allow users to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. Users will also have the ability to add filters and fun overlays to the pics. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Facebook introduced something similar on Facebook Messenger (Messenger Day), WhatsApp (Status), and Instagram (Stories), not to mention there’s another social networking site, Snapchat, which does exactly what these four Facebook-owned products do. In fact, Mike Murray, a reporter at Quartz, points out that Facebook’s five most recent product announcements are eerily similar to designs from other companies.

  • Facebook Camera = Snapchat
  • “Live location” in Messenger = “Sharing your location” in Apple’s Messages
  • Reactions and Mentions in Messenger = Reactions and @-mentions on Slack
  • Streaming videogames live = Twitch
  • Messenger Day = Snapchat

We can judge Facebook for repackaging past ideas, but considering they have two billion monthly users and generated $9 billion in revenue last quarter, maybe we need to judge ourselves for being so reliant on uniqueness. Just look at the movie industry.

Movie studios have grown resistant to new concepts that require a large investment. Instead, they are opting for sequels, remakes, and reboots that already have brand recognition. Why gamble with unknown actors playing unknown characters in an unknown story when you can develop a live action Beauty and the Beast, a re-imagined Spider-Man, or a continuation of Pitch Perfect (all of which I intend to see).

The plethora of movie sequels clogging the multiplex can make you feel as though your life were stuck on spin cycle. But if the movies don’t change, we do, and that’s a blessing.—Joshua David Stein

It’s a simple sales theory: Selling something original is much more difficult than selling something that’s familiar. Different, in itself, is not a selling point. People need to be able to relate what you are peddling to what they already know; otherwise you are in the defensive position of convincing, not promoting.

As much as we need new ideas, in Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen makes note that the “new and exciting” companies that disrupt their industry are founded by ex-employees of the “traditional” companies. These individuals did not attain success by creating something from scratch; their “originality” emerged from the idea that they could do it better, not brand new. They did the groundwork at the previous company—experiencing the necessary trial and error, thought experiments, and systems planning—and were able to implement in the new environment.

We all want to be innovators, and I’m not suggesting we abandon this endeavor. However, innovation does not require re-invention. There is something to be said for not consistently creating the wheel. It’s why we study best practices and scrutinize over our competition’s lessons learned. Plus, it lowers risk and is cheaper than paying for mistakes. Let others discover the potholes; we can follow their lead, enhance it, and make it our own.

In the end, there may be self-satisfaction in saying we thought of it first, but think of how self-satisfied you can feel by thinking of it second while enjoying the riches of victory? After all, you are trying to lead your team to long-term success, not win a first-place ribbon.

Weekender: Veronica Roth on Strategically Organizing Your Thoughts

veronica-roth-2Welcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a faction of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one faction? Because it’s the weekend!

When I take on a new project, my initial reaction is to jump into it…and by “jump” I mean headfirst without examining the depth or temperature of the water. I hear an idea that excites me and it takes all of my willpower to slow down, assess the situation, and develop a plan. It turns out that author Veronica Roth has experienced the same thing.

A few years ago, some friends suggested I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. The premise had me by the end of the first chapter—a post-apocalyptic Chicago where citizens are segregated into one of five factions as defined by personality traits. With the complex plot and growing cast of characters, it can get difficult to keep track of everything going on. Apparently, this is true for both the reader and the author. In a recent interview, Roth said:

I learned a lot from writing the Divergent books, like ‘plan ahead,’ and ‘keep track.’ I loved writing those books, but by the time I got to Allegiant [the third book in the series], I was like, ‘I have set myself up with some very difficult rules because I didn’t think this through.’ I was definitely a little bit more flying by the seat of my pants with the Divergent books. This time [with my new series Carve the Mark], I was like, ‘No, you’re going to think through these planets, how they work, what they look like, what they’re called, how these languages work, all of these things. Figure it out.’

We could discuss the need for a solid implementation plan via project management practices, but knowledge of the project specifics is only a piece of the preparation process. Time must be set aside to organize your thoughts.

Some people organize their thoughts through spreadsheets; others (like myself) plot it out in charts and diagrams. Some start at the beginning; others work backwards. Some involve people from the onset; others wait until they have a skeleton of a plan. The point is to be methodical and purposeful. Think it through, consider consequences, and have the details in order before it’s time to launch.

Three Leadership Lessons from Samantha Bee

samantha-bee-bannerIt’s always fascinating to hear novice leaders discuss what they’ve learned in their short stint in the leadership seat. Some reflect on all they have observed from past bosses and mentors; others take a more “big picture” approach where progressive ideas overshadow the ways of the past. I’d put Samantha Bee in the latter camp.

When Samantha Bee began her wildly successful late night show, Full Frontal, becoming a leader was not her primary motivation. She was simply a comedian trying to develop a smart show.

I didn’t actually expect to have to think so much about leadership… and I never thought before this show about having to manage people. We started very small. At the very beginning, it was just me and [former Daily Show colleagues] Jo Miller and Miles Kahn. And it was just three of us in a room and we would laugh and send each other crazy emails, and for a long time it was just that. But then we got offices and we had to hire people.—Samantha Bee

Once Bee had to get a staff together, the realities of being the leader began to set in. She spoke about this at Fast Company’s recent Innovation Festival. A few themes stuck out that are applicable to all of us.

Blind Hiring

One of Bee’s initial concerns was how to select the right people for her writing staff. She wanted diversity, but this was not going to supersede the need to hire the best people. To avoid any bias (unconscious or otherwise), the management team established a policy where submission packets did not reference gender, race, or previous work experience. In the end, Bee’s focus on quality delivered one of the most diverse writer’s rooms in late night television.

Promoting Passion

As the mouthpiece for her team, Bee’s passion is evident whenever she’s discussing a topic. This fervor is internally based but where does it start? It may be contagious, transmitted from someone on her team. When choosing what stories to focus on, Bee has a simple litmus test: whoever is bringing her the idea must exude the excitement they feel for it.

One thing that we really encourage people to do—it’s the imperative of the show—is if you pitch a story, we want it to really mean something to you… If people have a particular story they’re passionate about, they need to find a way to pitch it to us that communicates that passion, and then we’ll be attracted to it.—Samantha Bee

Empowerment Through Self-Direction

Part of promoting passion is giving people leeway for self-directed activities. Bee may assign topics, but she also encourages her staff to research and pitch ideas that are important to them. These activities empower the employee to focus on areas that both keep them engaged and are beneficial to the organization.

Letting people explore things they’re truly interested in has been extremely fruitful for us. I think you feel that on the show.—Samantha Bee

Whether she is simply creating comedy or aspiring to enlighten the populace, Bee’s attitudes towards leadership provide the competitive advantage needed in the challenging late night landscape. These three lessons, amongst many others, demonstrate a leader trying to foster a culture of innovation, growth, and substance. It just goes to show what a little respect and fairness can get you.

Candy Corn’s Leadership Lessons

Holidays are often associated with a particular candy. Christmas has candy canes, Valentine’s Day has those little heart candies, Easter has Cadbury Creme Eggs, and Halloween has candy corn. These yellow, orange, and white striped, corn-kernel-shaped treats were popularized in the 1880s. Today, more than 35 million pounds (or 9 billion pieces) of candy corn are produced each year.

There aren’t many products with the staying power to get more popular over the course of 140 years. So when we find them, there’s surely a leadership lesson to be learned. Here are a few:

The recipe has not changed

Candy corn is basically the same as it was since the turn of the century. With the exception of a few minor ingredients, what we are eating today is the same as the cowboys of the Old West, the soldiers of World War I, and our great, great grandparents.

In today’s business climate, “old” is often considered to be a bad thing. We see this whenever a political candidate peddles change or a new leader joins a company tasked with creating an agenda of transformative initiatives. While necessary, there is value in maintaining the core beliefs of the organization. We can taut branding and re-branding efforts, but don’t lose sight that these are ways to package the company, not make widespread modifications to your principles, i.e. your original recipe.

Candy corn is the only candy in the history of America that’s never been advertised. And there’s a reason — all of the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1911.—Lewis Black

Don’t stop rebranding

While it’s important to maintain your core essence, this does not mean you should remain stagnant. At one time, candy corn was sold as “Chicken Feed.” Changing the name to candy corn did not change its quintessence, it only made it more appetizing.

Additionally, remaining true to its tri-color design (which was considered revolutionary for its time) and shape (which was originally intended to entice the agrarian population of the early 1900’s) has led to an expansion of the product. You can now purchase “Reindeer Corn” (red/green) for Christmas, “Cupid Corn” (red/pink) for Valentine’s Day, and “Freedom Corn” (red/white/blue) for July 4th.

Creativity is key

candycorncocktailBesides renovating your product or service to expand your offerings, there are a number of instances where you can repurpose into completely different markets. Did you know you can order a Candy Corn Cordial cocktail made with vodka, orange liqueur, and floating candy corn for garnish? What about a Candy Corn Bagel topped with a marshmallow chocolate chip spread?

Candy corn is a staple for Halloween and the fall season. Whether or not you like it, it’s been around for a long time and has no foreseeable decline. Embrace it’s tri-color leadership lessons. Retain consistency while constantly renovating. Explore innovative ways to grow your base through tweaks and reimagined uses. And always strive to be the candy pumpkin in the bag of candy corn…you know it’s the best.

James Corden and the Three Ways to Be a Larger-Than-Life Leader

james-cordenWhen people think about the “ultimate leader,” there is a tendency to consider the larger-than-life individuals who invigorate a room with their charisma, omnipotence, and swagger. While these people exist, they are extremely uncommon. Many managers try to emulate these characteristics only to find that they are unable to sustain the energy required to constantly be “on.” That’s why I like the distinction made by James Corden.

In a recent interview with James Corden, the Tony award winning host of The Late Late Show, he discussed his theory that there are two categories of actors. As he describes it:

There are two types of actors—aliens and humans. And neither is better. Genuinely, there is no better. We just watch them in different ways. So your aliens are Daniel Day Lewis, Mark Rylance, Ray Fiennes where you look and say, ‘I don’t know how they are doing that, that’s amazing.’ You look at them on a pedestal and go, ‘this is astonishing to me. I don’t know how they are doing that.’ And then there are actors where whoever they are playing and whatever they’re doing, are representing us, the audience. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of someone who is astonishing and amazing and yet finds a humanity which is always representing you.

You can watch Mark Rylance or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet and then you can watch one of my favorite actors in the world, Simon Russell Beale, with the text and one you are watching saying, ‘I don’t know how this is happening’ and the other you’re going, ‘whoa, that’s me up there.’

Aliens and humans. That is how we classify ourselves. In the leadership realm, aliens include such luminary favorites as tech maven Elon Musk, sports legend Phil Jackson, media icon Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban. The rest of us are humans.

There is nothing wrong with being a human. As Corden said, these are the people who we can see in ourselves. There may not be much hero worship, but their draw is in their relatability. “Human” leaders inspire because they can connect on a personal level. They are less intimidating, more approachable, and more replicable.

There are plenty of humans who would like to become aliens. Unfortunately, the ways aliens practice leadership are aspirational, yet ultimately unattainable. There’s no harm in trying (depending on your level of authenticity), however a more realistic goal is to incorporate their habits in a seamless, natural manner that matches your style and the culture of your organization. Try a few of these tips:

Aliens are vision-oriented. An alien leader is renowned for their focus in a particular area. They have a clear, uncompromising vision and use it to set expectations for their team. With this understanding, employees are largely empowered to complete initiatives on their own. The leader remains involved to the degree needed and, so long as the vision remains intact, they can cede control knowing that the direction of the organization is in good hands.

Aliens innovate. Those who have risen to the alien-level of leadership did so by transcending the status quo. They are obsessed with finding new, inventive solutions and surround themselves with self-motivated people who are also willing to take bold risks.

To be more alien, you must increase your team’s threshold for taking chances. While your inner monologue may be conservative, to build a culture of creativity, others need to feel free to take calculated risks without fear of reprisal. To demonstrate how to fail, admit your failed attempts, including what you learned and how you will avoid making the mistakes next time. When someone else fails, use it as an opportunity to laud their risk taking. And, if you are feeling especially generous, incentivize failed attempts to motivate others to make their own ambitious attempts.

Aliens are involved. Whether they are interacting with employees, investors, or vendors, alien leaders are engaged and hands-on. They seek chances to network and are committed to learn as much as they can from others. Aliens also prioritize development opportunities where they can coach, mentor, and provide feedback. They handpick protégés and remain acutely aware of their responsibilities, challenges, and progress.

Attaining an alien’s level of involvement is a practice that all leaders (humans included) can easily grasp. Carve out time in each day to remain connected. Regular contact with employees positions you to be in-tune with the culture, the personalities, and the quality of work. You will also be more aware of the decisions being made and you’ll be able to enforce accountability in real time.

If you are torn between whether you’re an alien or human, just assume you fall in the later camp. After all, an alien is probably too removed to even consider this question. Once this reality sets in, it’s time to elevate the leadership of your mere humanness through alien-approved best practices. Set your vision, embrace innovation, and get involved. This may feel foreign at first, but by creating these preconditions for trust (a great term from HBR’s Sydney Finkelstein), you never know who will look to you as an alien.