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Justin is a Creativity Cultivator. His work has appeared in national publications, newspapers and he has contributed to best selling author, Matthew E. May’s work. He speaks to and works with organizations on creativity, founded the Iowa Creativity Summit and lives in Des Moines, where he owns Test of Time Design. Engage with him on twitter at @JustinBrady

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Curious Similarity Between Women Shoe Shoppers and Innovation.

Throughout the years, one of my more interesting jobs was when I sold women's shoes in a Minneapolis suburb. It was a typical low-paying retail job, but the store was near my apartment, I loved the people I worked with and I actually learned a few great lessons, the most important of which: how women shoe shop and it's application to creative problem solving.

If you ever want a great collection of women's shoes, go to the Roseville, Herberger's. Their monstrous collection takes up almost one entire side of the store. One particular winter day, I was helping three women simultaneously with shoes, all considering multiple styles and sizes, totaling around 20 boxes. On top of that it was winter, meaning boot season in Minnesota. These big heavy boots were nearly impossible to retrieve, occasionally falling off the shelves, out of their boxes, “kicking” me in the face. That day as inspiration literally struck me, I noticed a fundamental difference in the way men and women shoe shop. 

The majority of men are simple creatures when it comes to shoe shopping: they decide if they need a black, brown or athletic shoe and go looking. Nine times out of ten, if they find a shoe that fits and the price is right, it gets tossed into the back of their car within moments. With a woman however there is a whole art to this matter. Before she goes out shopping and even before looking on the web, she goes through thoughtful mental preparation. She thinks about outfits to match, comfort, how it will elongate her legs and friends potential reactions. She imagines what this perfect shoe will look like, where the stitching will be, what color, and how it will look in the dim light of a lunar eclipse.

Only after this process she embarks on her quest to seek out that perfect shoe — the one she crafted in her mind. There’s only one problem, that shoe doesn't exist. Despite this, she will search, trying on shoe after shoe, pushing through exhaustion, diminishing options and sales reps who are minutes away from certain death. Through all doubt and reason though, something miraculous happens: she finds a shoe that somehow meets or even exceeds her unreasonable expectations, it’s a euphoric experience. 

Could the only thing holding back your team be the right pair of shoes? As much as my wife would like to think so, there's a bigger lesson here. Like a woman's shoe shopping process, the best creative ideas start out with unreasonable expectations. On a recent web project, my developer told me our early concepts weren't achievable. Instead of being reasonable however, I replied "JP, I know deep down this can be done, and I know you can do it. Tell me what I can do to get us there." Less than a week later (and 12 additional project hours) he blew my unreasonable expectations out of the water! 

Even the most amazing teams can't see past the limitations they've put on themselves, we're all guilty. Even well known product design firm, IDEO states “Encourage Wild Ideas.” The wild ideas are easy, but no one in their right mind, wants to encourage them. That’s difficult! Wild ideas are, by their very nature, unreasonable and this is where most leaders stop. 

You will ask yourself if you expect too much, especially if you care about your team, but remember: Only when you have unreasonable expectations are you met with unbelievable results.

This piece originally appeared on The Creativity Post on March 30th, 2014. http://www.creativitypost.com/create/women_shoe_shoppers_and_innovation_what_do_they_have_in_common

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Will Target's Casual Dress Code Weave A Successful Culture or Unravel Entirely?

Experts in every field use a specific set of tools to get their job done. The right tool is critical for success and each year newer, better, more helpful advancements become available. A mechanic uses plenty of tools to do a faster, more efficient job on your car. Some are for cranking, others for prying, others for lifting. A law enforcement official has around 10 pounds or more of tools strapped around his waste, some to diffuse hostile situations, some to help the injured. Carpenters use hand tools, business execs use data driven tools, and even your friendly neighborhood dentist uses a wide array of tools to lessen discomfort or better protect your teeth. Without their set of specific tools, workers would all be severely limited in performing their duty, perhaps even not able at all.

It’s somewhat obvious, tools are useful and necessary to perform various industry specific tasks, but what of the tool itself? Is it able to perform the task for which it was created? Of course not, only in the hands of a worker does that tool become something more. No one would argue the tool itself is flawed, it’s simply ineffective without the proper nurturing and training. The same dental tools that bring comfort to some, would be purposeless in my hands.

It’s nonsense then, to enrich team members or employees with only a new set of tools to a complete a job. Giving tools without training is backward, but tragically, this is exactly how some companies try to flip the switch on creativity or innovation. Attempting to spark a creative culture, they copy the tricks of startups and creative companies. Just last week I was reminded how easy it is for corporations to fall into this trap when The Star Tribune announced a brand new initiative by Target Corp, dubbed “Dress For Your Day.” A Target spokeswoman said to the Tribune, “people want to express themselves and show some creativity and make those decisions themselves.”

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with letting employees dress the way they want to, but to announce such efforts with fanfare and even a clever headline to boot is suspect in my book. Is this a tactic to squeeze more productivity and creativity from their staff? Is this a PR stunt designed to distract watching eyes from the recent giant security debacle? Maybe or Maybe not.

What I do know is that too many companies as of late are getting stuck rolling out initiatives they think will help make their company creative. They implement casual dress then suffer problems with sloppy looking employees. They engage flexible work hours, then get concerned with employees not working enough. They create a free service, and suffer when it gets abused. This happens because, while they are implementing new and excited tools on the surface, they aren’t correcting the toxic employee environment festering underneath, therefore people don’t use the tools properly.

Creative tools make their way naturally into the company culture over time without a second thought. They are a result of positive nurturing and training. The same creative tools that bring comfort to workers in other companies, may be purposeless in yours, so focus your energy creating a nurturing environment where any potential creative tools are only an afterthought. Only then, can you engineer incredible results.


Photo credit: William Christiansen

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Washington Post

I've starting writing in the Washington Post / Innovation section. In case you missed them, here are the two most recent pieces. Please read, share and comment. 

The Air Force General Who Channels A Mellow CEO's Leadership Style (March 4)

How To Embrace Rejection and Unlock Your Creative Potential (February 20th)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What is technology?

"What is technology? What can it do?"
This is the key phrase in the newest Microsoft commercial. The heartwarming commercial shows extraordinary inventions that have significantly changed people's lives all around the world. It tugs at your heart strings for sure, but did anyone stop to actually ask themselves those questions?

I read articles, blog posts, listen to speakers and company marketing propaganda preaching how we should embrace technology to keep ahead of the curve. Others go as far to say their adoption of new technology is what makes them different. But what is their definition of technology?

Technology isn't a hot new thing. The wheel and hammer were all considered technology at one point. Both were considered revolutionary, but no contractors or builders are marketing those tools as their competitive edge today. That would be ridiculous, right? Yet, leadership and companies do this every single day. The time table is just a bit different.

Our view of technology is part of the problem. Technology is being presented as an upgrade or something you can simply install into your company. The conversation as of late has revolved around tools and trends instead of a making a culture that listens as a way to continually refine and improve.

Your technological edge does not come from the tools you choose to use or the price you pay for them. These are easy to implement and something concrete your CEO can talk about, but in the end it does nothing. Your technological edge comes from people who are free to experiment and learn without fear of leadership.

So, what is technology? Technology is people that are empowered to create without fear.

Photo Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Ram-Man

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why the future may not look so... futuristic.

As younger generations consider bigger purchases, companies are preparing by designing creative new products that will appeal to millennials and younger audiences. As they are integrating fancy screens into car glass, putting the web on refrigerators and producing products for the connected home, we can't possibly imagine what's on the horizon. GE however is taking a guess and it's probably not what you'd expect.

GE is preparing for the new cash millenials will bring to the mature product market and one such area they are focusing on is appliances. It seems natural that the high tech millennial audience would want web connected appliances sporting high tech LCD screens with sophisticated interfaces that set to the recipe you found on Pinterest. Or a washer that analyses the fabric of your clothes, automatically selecting the correct wash cycles and suggesting outfit combinations, but GE doesn't see it that way. Instead, GE has time warped it's product back to a post-war era design, by all appearances giving grandma an epic comeback. Their appliances, dubbed the "Artistry Series" are about as simple as it gets: no screens and no fancy features. Simplicity, elegance and easy controls are the main features. It even has an analog clock on top. Have they finally lost it or do they know something we don't?

GE, like other savvy companies, is betting on the real reason Millenials buy: Simplicity and Ease of use. Most tech innovations as of late, while successful at creating buzz, aren't so successful at simplifying our lives. To an older market that remembers life before the tech of today, these advances are amazing in and of themselves, so the excitement is enough to sell product. Millennials however won't take it. They grew up with these innovations and it doesn't impress them. They don't care how ground-breaking it is, they will judge products by one simple question. Does it simplify my life? Unlike other major companies, GE hasn't stereotyped the market. They haven't made snap judgements or assumptions. They have taken a few steps back to listen and have put full trust in a 27 year old designer, Tomas DeLuna. I'm betting it will pay off handsomely for them. 

If you think Tomas and GE are off base, consider Millennials current rejection of tech in another area. Despite new advanced e-readers, millennials (and much younger) prefer to read printed books, even more so than older generations. Keep in mind, these devices are arguably more convenient! This doesn't mean they will continue consuming content this way, but their rejection of tech based on simple ease of use principals should send a strong message: solve problems first, use new tech when absolutely necessary. 

As odd as this may seem, the future of technology isn't likely to be adorned with interactive walls, LCD screens on your fridge, heads up data and a general Star Trek-esq aesthetic. Heck, people have been predicting that for generations. The innovations of the future will be adopted based on their ability to get out of our way, not in our face. The future of technology will be it's invisibility.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Do you have a "Me-Too" culture?

One of the things than can obliterate creativity in any culture is "me-too" thinking. Me-too thinking happens when leaders don't know who they are, or simply aren't comfortable with their own skin. Me-too thinking can cause leaders to invest in someone else's band wagon because they perceive it's more popular or successful. Me-too cultures become fixated on others ideas and seek to copy them instead of stopping to reflect on the true value those ideas may bring (or may not bring) to the table. Me-too cultures are like that brilliant outcast in school, who became too focused on trying to become one of the popular kids. Sometimes the student discovers their own true talent, other times they just walk through life never fully realizing their potential.

Everyone and every culture is susceptible to me-too thinking. It could be a company, an organization or even a country. I'll use an example that's close to home. I live in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa is an outstanding place to live, work, and have fun. The cost of living is low, cities are clean, our crime is almost nonexistent, we have a low unemployment rate, complete strangers will help you in times of need, we have a surplus in our state budget, we have some great entertainment venues, a downtown sculpture park that is second to none, we have demonstrated economic stability throughout the ages, our people are kind, hard working, we feed the world, and you can get just about anywhere even in our biggest metro area in less than 20 minutes no matter what time it is. When you visit, it becomes obvious, Iowa is a great place to be and the many decisions we've made in the past have led to incredible success. Could we be at risk for turning into a "me-too" culture?

One topic has dominated the conversation as of late and this topic has caused me to fear our state is getting caught in a me-too scenario: that topic is technology. That may sound odd, but I'm not addressing technology that is simply a fact of modern day business or even technology that is driving new products. I'm pointing to web based startups glamorized by "The Social Network." A recent Facebook data center project was even dubbed by the Des Moines Register as the biggest Iowa news story of 2013 even though it isn't Iowan. Many state and local leaders are bursting with excitement over this project and some have even said this project positions us as the tech hub of the midwest! It's important to note, the data center received 18 million dollars of state incentives to create only 30 jobs. You have to ask, did this create real value for our state or is this a me-too decision?

Tech companies aren't bad, of course. The concern is when the focus is on tech in and of itself apart from the value it brings. My gut says the money our state invested in this project and a few other startup-esque projects like it, were investments into a trendy Silicon Valley image that may be nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. I hope I'm wrong. (Isn't California in debt by the way?)

I've learned a lesson however and I'm confident our state will too. You may be looking at competitors, other companies or even other states in an attempt to copy their models. You may be holding your own team accountable to results you've already seen somewhere else, but it's important to understand me-too thinking isn't for leaders, it's for followers and followers are always one step behind.

Focus on the value you bring to the table and never apologize for your unique focus. Don't let "me-too" thinking obliterate your creativity.

Image Slastic (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons