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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Power of Incomplete Microstories

by Matthew E May

If you follow this blog you know I'm a huge fan of "I Wrote this for You." (Iain Thomas contributed a piece for this blog here.) Here's Iain talking at a recent TEDx event is South Africa. It's a heartwarming story about the power of story. It's a must-see, if you want to change the world. And even if you don't.





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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Own Tiger's Tale

by Matthew E May

Tiger Woods - Time Magazine Cover"Tiger-gate" is the media focus of the week. Looks like another one bites the moral dust. Another checkmark in the "how the mighty fall" column. A whole new meaning to Nike's tag line. Skootch over, Kobe. All that.

Be that as it may, I have my own Tiger's tale, and it's one that has stayed with me for the entire eight years since it happened. In fact, I use the story in many of my speeches. (You can view my presentation on YouTube HERE.)

The year was 2001, eight years ago to the week...

I walked into the small workout room of the country club I belong to in southern California, to find none other than Tiger Woods. Each year in December he hosts the last PGA event of the year: a small invitation-only challenge tourney at the course. Proceeds benefit Tiger's educational foundation for disadvantaged youths. (The big news this week, of course, is that he will not be in attendance at his own event). On this particular Monday, the Monday of the tournament week, it was just him and me in the gym. The fact that he was the only golfer in there pumping iron told me something. I guess I was watching him more intently than I realized, because he said "You obviously know who I am. Who are you?" I told him I was just a member, but that I had read an interesting Time magazine cover story on him the previous year, the gist of which was about how he took the biggest risk of his career immediately upon turning pro.

In 1997, with barely seven months under his belt as a professional golfer, 20-year old Tiger stunned the golf world. It wasn't that he had won five PGA Tour tournaments. Or pocketed a $60 million Nike endorsement deal. It wasn't that he had won the 1997 Masters by twelve strokes. It was his decision to reinvent his swing after achieving all that.

Pundits and peers thought he was crazy. Commentators speculated on his early demise. But Tiger knew his swing wasn't as consistent, controlled, or efficient as it could be. It took eighteen months of rewiring, practice, and frustration, during which time he was virtually winless. He knew he was getting better, and was quoted as saying, "Winning is not always the barometer of getting better." Slowly but surely, Tiger's new swing became a deadly controlled substance. With no loss of power, he could hit any type of shot on demand, better and more accurately than ever. The payoff was a record six straight wins starting in late 1999.

He's reengineered his swing now three or four times. Every time he does, he remains winless for a time - but then comes roaring back, usually with a string of wins like the one in 1999.

So I asked him: "What really drives you you to keep breaking what isn't broken?" He said, "The number 18." I immediately thought: "Aha, that's the number of majors Jack Nicklaus won. So that's the goal." I said as much. Tiger said, "That's what people think, and I let them. But 18? That's a perfect golf score."

That says it all right there. The point is this: The pursuit of perfection is not focused on achieving perfection, it's focused on chasing it. Approached as a process, it can drive breakthroughs. Approached as goal, it can actually block innovation. Perfection is unachievable...it'll never happen. Unless you're Buddha I guess. That's what throws people, at least in our Western culture. We've become impatient with mastery. If you can't achieve perfection, why bother pursuing it?

Answer: because you have to. Otherwise you'll always be a follower.

It's how the best get better.

In 2007, Tiger pocketed a cool $11,260,000.00 for taking first in the inaugural FEDEX Cup. He did it again this year. You don't mess with that kind of success, right? WRONG. As he accepted his millions for winning the Tour Championship and the FEDEX Cup, and after dazzling the gallery with one immaculate shot after another, he was asked if we can expect him to ever play any better than he is right now. Instant response: "Yes. I think my game is moving in the right direction."

If only his personal life was following alongside...



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Setting a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG)

Power of Flight
by Matthew E May

Over at the American Express Open Forum Idea Hub, I've posted "How to Set a BHAG." A BHAG is a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal, and it's a term coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.

I'm constantly asked about the challenge of complacency -- you know, things are going well, but there's a comfort setting in, and people are riding a different wave than when things were a struggle. The complaint goes something like this: "We're stuck. Stuck in the old school, stuck in the status quo, stuck in stall mode. We want things done differently, but we can't seem to get there from here. We've lost our edge. The days of rapid innovation are disappearing in the rearview mirror. There's widespread lethargy."

In short, the entrepreneurial spirit is M.I.A. and "How do I create a burning platform for change?" is the question.

G.K. Chesterton once said: "Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame."

In that quote is the answer to the question! You must create limits and constraints to frame the challenge and drive innovative thinking. The best way to do that in the midst of success is to set stretch goals...BHAGs.

You see, the problem is an addiction to abundant resources. And that addiction to resources is blocking innovation. The cry is for more money, people, and space to innovate. But wait a minute! That's probably not how the company started. Somewhere in the company tree is a story of humble beginnings. Maybe it didn't start in the proverbial garage, but it started with little of everything: money, space, labor. But it was those limits that made people more creative and resourceful than they are today. What WAS in abundance: goals, and a passion for reaching them.

So, reset the bar. Get back to the future. Get the band back together. Get back to basics. Get back to blocking and tackling. Return to your roots. And all the other cliches that spring to mind for vanquishing the complacency that comes with success. To recapture the start-up spirit, recreate the kinds of limitations that drive new thinking.

Then trust people to solve the problem.



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Big Box, Little Box

by Matthew E May

Best Buy MobileHave you seen it? Best Buy 2.0, I mean. They're going up everywhere. They're less than 10% of the normal 40,000 square foot big box Best Buy. I'm not talking about the store-within-the-store structure they use for selling cellphones. I'm talking about stand-alones of the same flavor going up in malls and downtown areas.

Best Buy Mobile. Little boxes, just for cellular. Radically original idea? Nah. They bought half of Carphone Warehouse's retail operations to form a joint partnership. Now they offer nearly a hundred phones from nine carriers. And borrowed from Apple: help customers set the darn things up and get them working before leaving the store.

And it comes at a time when a good number of retailers are closing their doors. They've got over 40 already in the U.S. Fourth quarter 2008 sales were nearly double that of the same quarter of 2007. And as everyone knows, fourth quarter 2008 was a retail nightmare.

All in all it's a fairly elegant strategy, if you think about it: expansion through subtraction.



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Can entrepreneurs lead us out of this crisis?

by Matthew E May

EntrepreneursI agree with Tom Hayes and Michael Malone in their belief that "Entrepreneurs Can Lead Us Out of the Crisis." Why? Because entrepreneurs have the agility, flexibility, and grit to make change happen. Innovation is the chief tool of the entrepreneur. Hayes and Malone outline about a half dozen ways the new administration can help them. And those ways are by and large subtractive, a key element of elegance.


1. Kill Sarbanes-Oxley. It's massive, expensive, and sucks needed capital.

2. Remove the shackles on tax-free retirement money, or remove taxes on accounts intended to fund new ventures. (like a 529)

3. Eliminate payroll taxes. It's a burden, and stops the creation of new jobs.

4. Lower capital gains taxes on venture capital investments in early stage startups.

5. Help big business think small to return to an entrepreneurial mindset by providing an incentive to take risk and create new jobs. There's none of that in the stimulus package for large companies.

6. Seduce entrepreneurs. How? A presidential summit like Reagan's in 1982. Obama holds sway...he needs to aim it at small business.



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Alltop.com is Now Even More Elegant

FYI - Both Blogging Innovation and In Pursuit of Elegance can be found on Alltop's Innovation category

by Matthew E May

Alltop, all the top innovation storiesIf you've clued in to how best to use Twitter -- which IMHO is as a broadcast channel more than anything else -- you know that you have to troll the web for value-added "newscasts" for your growing audience. That takes time, or it did, anyway, until AllTop came along and uber-evangelist Guy Kawasaki put together a killer aggregator that is not only customizable, but utterly elegant. It's my go-to site for just about everything, news-wise. 95% of my online time is spent between AllTop and Twitter.

So why is AllTop elegant?

First, the design (or redesign, last year and again this past weekend) by Electric Pulp is clean and intuitive. (If you want to see the difference between AllTop 1.0 and Electric Pulp's 2.0 and most recently 3.0, click on Guy's coverage of it HERE.)

Secondly, and I think most importantly, the great form follows a most elegant function. I love the whole "create your own AllTop page." (Here's my AllTop page, so you can see where I draw my info from.) It's subtractive, because I select from the universe of blogs. It's sustainable, because it's the bloggers continuous ideas that supply the ongoing content. It's symmetrical (something is symmetrical if you can do something to it so that after you've finished doing it, it looks the same) because I select my topics, create my own magazine rack, as it were, yet the AllTop site remains unchanged. It's seductive because you don't get the whole blog from your AllTop page, just a snippet in the form of a rollover, which whets your appetite for the whole sushi roll.

Finally, AllTop has something missing: push, with a capital P. Content-wise, my.alltop.com is what I'd call as close as you get to a "full pull" site. Contrast that to a newspaper whose editorial staffs decides what you'll get, or even the much bally-hooed Yahoo! redesign, which looks a little better than it did before, but they don't get it! They're still deciding for you what you should be paying attention to. And that simply flies in the face of where social media is flowing. (Does Alltop push? Yep. But really only what you want pushed. You pick and pull what you want form the vast selection, THEN they push. And if you don't see what you're looking for, you can suggest new listing heads.

And in the name of continuous improvement, the AllTop Blog has just been given a new facelift by a web firm called Out:Think.(See before and after below).

SO...head to AllTop and create your own magazine rack of the world's best blogs! Here's how.

Alltop Facelift



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Art of Whitespace

by Matthew E May

Matthew E May DrawingBeing a sometime pencil sketcher, I've been a fan of the Wall Street Journal pen and ink stipple portraits, also known as a hedcut (that's not a typo) since I started reading the journal in 1982. I love the fact that the portraits are most whitespace with artfully placed dots and dashes -- pure black and white -- and the brain fills in the rest and essentially creates the gray tones. I've tried the technique myself, and it ain't easy. Much easier is pencil shading.

I decided to track down the originator, Kevin Sprouls. You can find his work at Sprouls.com. You can read about the evolution of his technique and how he creates each sketch on his "Ink Rhythm" blogsite. And if, like me, you doubt the Wall Street Journal will ever do a feature article on you worthy of a hedcut, you can hire Kevin to do it for you for a few hundred dollars. Which is exactly what I did.

Not only is the art terrific -- I sent him the blog photo to the right so you can compare -- but the service he provides is outstanding. I sent him a request, he responded promptly, I emailed him the photo, and in two days received an overnight delivery (included in the cost) with the finished portrait along with a digital file, also included in the cost.

Make no mistake, you cannot replicate this technique with Photoshop masks and filters. I know because I've tried all the tricks available online. It's gotta be done old school by hand. And that makes it all the more special, somehow. I can even see small whiteouts here and there on the bristol board where a dot was not to his liking.

Over the years Kevin's mastery has enabled him to crank one of these out in a few hours. He emailed me four hours after I sent him the photo telling me he was done. To me, that's an amazing talent and skill.

Based on the experience and outcome, I intend to have Kevin do portraits of my family members (including the dog) as holiday gifts.



Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Design Thinking For Your Writing

by Matthew E May

Design Thinking and WritingWilliam Bostick over at Core77 wrote a terrific post called "How (Not) To Write Like a Designer." Design thinking is how I prefer to think about my style of problem solving. I'm not alone...IDEO and Stanford's D School coined the term, and Tim Brown's blog is all about it. But what I liked about this particular post was that it talked about writing as design. In other words, writing as designer thinking and problem solving. And anything that reads, "...you work with contraints to find elegant solutions to complex problems..." is sure to catch my eye.

I put William's five points to the test in reflecting on my process in writing In Pursuit of Elegance, and in the eventual work product.

1. Use Your Skills
  • Bostick says ask: Who's this for? What's the big idea? What are the pieces I'm using? In developing the proposal for the book, all of those questions were asked and answered. Check!

2. Kill Jargon
  • Stay away from buzzwords, acronyms, cliches, formulas, steps, etc. Check!

3. Tell a Story
  • The point here is to think less about "what it is" and focus more on "what is happening." People want stories, want to know what what's happening before they want to know what it means. Good news: the book is nothing BUT stories. Check!

4. Don't Be Afraid to Put Yourself Into Your Writing
  • In other words, use first person. Check!

5. Finally, And Most Importantly, Don't Say Too Much.
  • Funny, that's my entire premise. Any book on elegance better be simple yet powerful. No fat, no fluff. It better have some pieces missing. Check!

So, tell a story, put yourself in it, use real words, and don't write too much. How elegant.



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Elegance of My Father

by Matthew E May

My father's 78th birthday would have been this year, had he lived to see the day. It's been ten years since his passing from complications arising from a rather rare blood disorder called polycythemia...too much blood. In honor of the decade without him, I thought I'd post part of my book that did not make the final edit. I'll reprint it here as it would have appeared...the final story in the book.

I will bring the search for elegance to a close with a story my father told me many years ago during a rather uncomfortable drive home from college for winter break my freshman year. For the entire semester I had been wracking my brain, stymied by a particular physics concept that I just could not for the life of me wrap my brain around. With physics in general, I was struggling. My father had been a physics major, but rather than deliver immediate relief in the form of the answer to the particular riddle I was wrangling with, he told me a fable about a simple farmer who comes across an immense boulder when clearing his fields.

Now, no matter how hard he tried, no matter what he did, the farmer could not push the massive stone off the field. Repeated attempts to do so only stole his energy and enthusiasm. The rock remained, however, and he could not plant his crops with it in the way. The farmer was at a loss, mourning his predicament, and paralyzed by the thought of his imminent misfortune. He fretted to the point of becoming desperate. Throwing his hands up in surrender at his fruitless efforts, he walked away and went to the well for a cool drink of water. As he peered into the dark hole, inspiration hit: a hole!

The farmer raced to his shed, grabbed a shovel and a lever, and returned to the field. He dug a broad and deep hole around, under and in front of the rock and used the lever to tip the boulder into the hole. He then covered it with dirt. From that day on, the farmer stood each day on the spot where he'd buried the boulder. What had been his biggest barrier had now become part of his very foundation.

If you think about it, that's a fairly elegant solution, because symmetry (the boulder remains the same), seduction (filling in of a gap), subtraction (removal of dirt) and sustainability (problem solved without causing others) all play a part.

This was my father's way of telling me something, and it was up to me to figure it out. Knowing my dad, I knew his message wouldn't be something as obvious as "keep at it and it'll come to you." That would have been too easy, and not nearly thought-provoking enough. As we pulled into the driveway, he made an offhand comment: "The break will do you good." I nodded, then stopped short. That's it! His message about the farmer was to take a break, get away from it. Do nothing about it, give it a rest. My father was looking over at me, and seeing that I "got it," played coy with one of those nonchalant shrugs: "What?"

Sometime during my two-week winter break, under the questionable tutelage of some of my newfound college chums, I learned to ski. Or, more accurately, fall down a mountain wearing ski equipment. It was on the slopes, on my back looking up at the worried faces of a few mates, my ears ringing from the rather whippy whack I took on my noggin, that I finally had the flash of insight about the physics principle. Perhaps a bit of a bang on the head was what it took for me to realize that all I needed to do to get this elegant concept was to stop and think, or maybe think and stop.

I'm not exactly sure if the ringing was of the immortal variety Donald Knuth spoke of when referring to that most famous of Einstein's equations, but it was most certainly E=mc2 that I finally understood.




Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Color Yellow Could Have Created a Billionaire

by Matthew E May

One month ago today, the legendary master potter Otto Heino passed away at age 94. You'd probably have to be a ceramics aficionado to appreciate his art and recognize his name. I know of him only because he lived and worked in Ojai, not far from where I live in southern California, and where my family loves to visit and camp. Otto was of Finnish descent, and the first thing you'd notice when you met him was his incredibly smooth skin, the result of two decades of applying his own porcelain slip (the liquid porcelain before it's been cast) as a mud mask to his face, 20 minutes per day.

Why is he legendary? Because the Chinese government once offered him a billion dollars for what he knew about color yellow. Not only that, but in 1978 when Pablo Picasso wanted to know who the best potter in the world was, he sent out a request to the ceramics world to help him figure it out. Picasso invited 50 countries to participate in a contest. It was Otto who won the grand prize with a 24 inch pot with two birds on it. His entry remains in Picasso's museum.

Otto's most elegant solution was a highly sought after shade of yellow. As the story goes, Otto went to a ceramics conference in Japan in 1980, where he met a Chinese monk who wanted European and American potters to work on a certain lost color. The monk was looking for a high-temperature yellow glaze popular during China's Chin Dynasty (A.D. 265 to 420). It was the color of a Buddhist monk's robe. What intrigued Otto, and what started a 15-year pursuit, was that the formula for mixing the color had been lost centuries ago. Said Otto in an interview with a local magazine two years ago: "I found an old book in a library that said the original Chinese artist had burned the formula because he didn't want it to be put onto cheap pots. So my wife [fellow potter Vivika] and I decided to work on it."

Two months after the sad passing of Vivika in 1995, Otto got it. "I knew it right away. I opened a bottle of champagne. I celebrated all day. I called China."

As journalist Anthony Head put it, "the ceramics world descended on Ojai. They came in droves. Japan and other countries sent official delegates to scrutinize the color and the ability to fire the glaze at high temperatures. Once they confirmed that the secret of this precious color had indeed revealed itself to Otto, they spent a lot of money obtaining his pottery created with this newly uncovered treasure."

The FBI didn't like it. After Otto cashed a seven figure cashier's check, they ransacked his shop and home. It took him three days to clean the mess up. Said Otto, "They came at seven in the morning, three with rifles, two with pistols. I thought all along the guy was going to shoot me. They said no potter could make that much money. They accused me of being in the drug business because I was on the phone talking about 'shipping yellow.'"

Otto's peaceful life in Ojai changed with the color yellow. What didn't change was his work ethic. He was up every day at 4 AM to start work. What didn't change were his principles--he turned down China's billion-dollar offer for the yellow glaze formula! Of course, he enjoyed depositing $600,000 cashier's checks for his wares. One of his uniquely shaped teardrop pots would easily go for $35,000.

As for Otto's elegant solution, it passed away along with him. He would not sell the formula. He would not reveal it to anyone. "When I die," he said, "then it goes with me. It isn't the money. It's the ethics. I don't want anyone to put this yellow glaze on bad pots. It is the most important part of my legacy."

Like his predecessor before him centuries earlier, Otto believed in creative integrity. He was a consummate artist to the end.

Otto Heino, rest in peace.



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Art of Seduction


by Matthew E May

Just a quick weekend note.

The idea behind the elegance element of seduction is very simple: limiting information creates intrigue and engagement. Why? Because not having the whole story leaves us without the symmetry we naturally seek. So our curiosity is piqued and our imaginations sparked, and off we go to chase closure.

My friend Iain Thomas of my favorite blog I WROTE THIS FOR YOU put it very elegantly in a recent note he wrote me, sharing with me of the story he heard designer Alexander Gelman tell. Says Iain:

"Alexander used the metaphor of a door. If a door is completely closed, no one wants to go inside the room because they assume that it's closed for a reason. If a door is completely open, there's no need to go inside the room because you can see what's in it already. But if you leave the door slightly ajar, you create intrigue and interest and they want to go into the room. People actually enjoy doing a bit of work now and again."

Exactly right!



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Toyota and Innovation by Design

Scion Exile Concept Sketch


by Matthew E May

I'm fortunate enough to count car designer Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota's CALTY Design Research, among my board of muses. CALTY (California+Toyota) is one of Toyota's most influential design centers, located in Newport Beach, CA.

CALTY is involved in nearly all of Toyota's major vehicle design programs. According to Kevin, Toyota wants constant movement forward, and design plays an enormous role in that effort. Design is the face of innovation. He has a few rules for the road warriors in his company that have now become mantra.

Rule #1: Balance Today and Tomorrow. "People can't tell you what they want in the future," says Kevin. "But they know what they want now. You have to balance creativity with market acceptability. You have to push the envelope and be progressive, but you can't get too far out there, because customers won't understand. Your design has to evoke something familiar or emotional while at the same time offering something new and unfamiliar." He adds, "You have to avoid a strict design bias and remember who you're designing for. You can't be selfish, you must focus outward, and on the problem you're trying to solve for customers."

Rule #2: Keep it Real and Resonant. Kevin will tell you that "there's a sense of urgency to make design count, to resonate with the buyer." He believes you can never stand still. The customer is always moving, changing, and if you're not out there all the time trying to understand the functional and emotional needs of consumers, your design will simply fall flat.

Rule #3: Blend Creativity and Competition. "We take creative contribution very seriously," Kevin notes. "It's part of every performance review and looked at closely from an evaluation perspective. We work as team, but it's always overlaid with intense competition for the winning ideas. For every design, we have a number of smaller teams in the hunt. To make creativity flow and give people the freedom to think, we've removed much of the layering that other organizations have. Hierarchy stifles innovation, and we need open and honest disagreement about every idea. Every idea counts!" In fact, all of Toyota's studios compete against each other to win the business; in other words, complacency is minimized by treating internal design centers as arms-length vendor-partners.

Here's a thought: send a link to this blog to the folks at the United States of General Motors. I think they need the insight.



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

The Quiet Mind and Innovation

Executives at GE, 3M, Google, Bloomberg Media, and Salesforce.com do it.

Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto.

Phil Jackson, Tiger Woods, and Italy's 2006 World Cup champion soccer team all do it.

The "it" is designating daily time to calm and quiet the mind using techniques like meditation and neurofeedback.

The question of course, is why? The short answer is that 'break' is a big part of breakthrough - literally, figuratively, and scientifically.

Researchers looking into how the human brain actually solves problems now confirm what many artists and scientists have instinctively known about the process of idea incubation: that seemingly unproductive times are a key ingredient of immensely productive and creative ones.

We've all heard of apparently serendipitous occurrences - Archimedes' ("Eureka!") flash of insight regarding displacement occurring during a bath, and Einstein's theory of relativity coming to him in a daydream.

Neuroscientists now believe that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things, and a key ingredient is time away from the problem. Experiments show that creative revelations come when the mind is engaged in an activity unrelated to the issue being addressed, and that pressure is not conducive to creative thought. Recent research demonstrates that the ultimate break - sleep - actually changes our mind's perspective unconsciously. Information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus during sleep, enabling the brain to effectively clear itself and reboot, all the while forming new connections and associations. The result is new insight and the aha! feeling of the Eureka moment.

The catch is obvious: if the neural workings of the brain are hidden from our awareness, we can't speed them up or artificially influence them to work harder or more intensely. We can only let go. Ironically, when we do - when we stop thinking and escape either physically or mentally, we actually speed up the transformational processes.

But here's the thing: we're reticent to take those breaks. Certainly we don't include them or build them in as a formal part of our problem-solving efforts. The question is why we don't, when without the break, there may just be no breakthrough.

Enter the irrational fear of failure.

Backing off is counterintuitive. It somehow feels wrong, like preemptive surrender. It's scary to ease up, because we may lose our steam, or we may abandon hope. We get anxious when the answers aren't so forthcoming, and we begin to doubt our creativity, abilities and intelligence, fearing that if we take our eye off the problem even for a moment, we may lose the energy we've invested.

The key is a quiet mind. We need to learn to rid ourselves from the potentially destructive negative self-talk: inevitable thoughts of failure, inner voices of self-criticism and judgment, and the ever-present temptations to compare ourselves to others whose circumstances have little to do with ours.

High performers know that the line between failure and success is very often drawn on the mental field of play. The good news is that turning down the chatterbox brain is something that can be learned.

Some prefer simply taking downtime to reflect and think, (or not think as the case may be). 'Think Week' is the now-legendary solitary sabbatical taken twice yearly by Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates. In his tiny lakeside cottage hideaway, he ponders the past, present and future of his company, of technology, and of his industry. He takes long walks along the lake shore in contemplation to quiet his mind.

Others take a more technological approach. Neurofeedback training is becoming popular with athletes and executives. The aforementioned Italian soccer team regularly unwound before matches in the ultra-secretive Mind Room, a facility wired for the technique, which involves zero-gravity recliners, stereo headphones, and tiny electrodes placed on the player's scalp that are linked to computers displaying various types of brainwave activity. Trainers monitor feedback and response to various stimuli, searching for unique triggers that improve the level of sensorimotor response (SMR) brainwaves that create the feeling of suspended focus athletes refer to as "the zone." Neurofeedback centers are popping up everywhere.

Finally, meditation may be the most powerful tool known.

Neuroscientists have since the 1990s been studying Tibetan monks in the hills above Dharamsala to understand how meditation affects brain activity. In the most experienced Buddhist practitioners, researchers using electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have discovered abnormally high levels of gamma brainwaves, which are believed to be associated with the brain's ability to synthesize disparate bits of data, solve problems, heighten perception, and boost consciousness.

Scientists have now concluded that mental training of this sort can create an enduring brain trait. That means we may actually be able to rewire our brains to adopt different thinking circuits. In fact, in a reversal of conventional medical wisdom, which holds that mental experiences result from physical goings-on in the brain, startling new evidence suggests the reverse may also be true - that our mental machinations may actually alter the physical structure of our grey matter. Neuroscientists call the phenomenon neuroplasticity.

In other words, when you quiet your mind, you change your brain, thereby setting the stage for breakthrough ideas. And that leaves a whole new world of opportunity for the innovator.

Excerpt of Matthew E May's portion of an article originally featured on CNBC (excerpt re-printed with author permission).



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Part 2 - The Power of the Question (Rx for Deadly Mistakes)


You may or may not know this: Art has its foundations in utility.

Great works of earlier centuries were never meant to hang in museums and adorn private collections any more than elegant Egyptian hieroglyphics were meant to simply beautify crypts, wooden totem poles to garnish the forest, or coarse images of the hunter's kill to decorate the walls of a cave. Rather, they were intended for a very specific purpose or to signify a specific event, judged first and foremost by function and usefulness, and by the ability to meet the requirements of the commissioner. They were made by people, for people.

Deborah Adler knows it, though. She was a design student when her grandma Helen took grandpa Herman's prescription medication Amoxicillin by mistake in 2001, and it was a clarion call for Deborah to apply her skills and make sure such a thing never happened again. Coming from a family of doctors, the world of medicine was a familiar one. When the unfortunate accident occurred, it became clear to Deborah that she had an opportunity to develop an idea that both hit close to home and satisfied her need to help others.

A single question drove her pursuit of a new design: How can I make medicine bottles more safe and user-friendly?

She immersed herself in the problem, exploiting her own need for an MFA thesis project at New York's School of Visual Arts. She discovered that people take medication incorrectly 60% of the time. Grandma Helen's problem was almost universal.

Medication bottles hadn't changed much in 60 years. Sure, there was child-proofing in the 1970s. But simple observation told a story of deadly complexity: Inconsistent labeling, confusing numbers, poor color combinations, hard-to-read shape, and tiny type, (except for the drugstore's name and logo).

Her goals? Clarity. Visibility. Intuitiveness. Personalization.

The new design included turning the bottle upside down and flattening it, so the label doesn't wrap out of view. The prescription information is delivered in a hierarchy of priority, starting with the medication in big bold letters. Back label directions (e.g. "Take with food") are standardized and icon-based. Information cards tuck neatly into the back of the bottle label. Color-coded rings make it hard to take the wrong medication, because every family member has their own designated color.

Target liked it so much that they bought up her patent rights and fast-tracked the design to all 1000-plus Target pharmacies nationwide, dubbing it Clear Rx.

The Clear Rx design is a true work of art. So much so that the New York Museum of Modern Art put it on display in the autumn of 2005.



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Part 1 - The Power of the Question (Shanghai)


Lots of bad stuff happening in China right now. So let's talk about some good stuff. Like the design coming out of Shanghai.

Innovation, no matter where it occurs, always begins with a burning question (or questions), centered around "Is there a better way?" Artist-turned-designer Lu Kun has almost single-handedly put Shanghai on the international fashion map by pursuing three such questions:

Why doesn't China's clothing industry pay attention to detail? Why is it so cheap and uninspired? Why can't we do it differently?

Tired of his country being perceived as one big factory, Kun is on a mission to demonstrate that creativity and innovation are alive and well in China. His bold designs are doing just that. Drawing his inspiration from what he knows best - the streets of Shanghai - Kun's original creations are being hailed as elegant and imaginative, yet at the same time distinctly Shanghainese.

Undaunted by China's lack of a financial backing system for developing promising fashion designers, Kun has broken new ground. Until the arrival of Mr. Lu, no Chinese designer had achieved a presence on the international catwalk.

Kun did it in less than five years. How?

It's as if Mr. Lu took the advice of Sakichi Toyoda, who said: "Never try to design something without first gaining at least three years hands-on experience."


Kun's six-step path to innovation:

  1. Learning the basics of fashion design in a vocational high school.

  2. One year of cutting and sewing at a Shanghai tailor shop.

  3. One year at a startup Hong Kong label.

  4. One year teaching sewing technique and production design at LaSalle International Fashion School in Shanghai.

  5. Then out on his own as a personal fashion designer for wealthy individuals.

  6. And finally the design of an entire line of special occasion and upscale casual wear.

As with all great innovators, it's the power of the question that drives Kun's artistry.



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Do Rewards Kill Innovation and Creativity?

I am constantly asked how to best structure a financial reward system in an effort to motivate people to contribute ideas and improvements. My answer: Just say no.

Combined research from the Employee Involvement Association and Japan Human Relations Association reveals that the average number of ideas submitted per employee annually is 100 times greater in Japanese companies than in U.S. companies. Why? For one thing, we reward the wrong thing in the wrong way. The average reward in Japanese companies is 100 times less than the average U.S. reward of nearly $500. We have it backwards!

In a nutshell: payment for ideas can defeat the purpose.

The situation brings to mind one of my favorite parables:

An old woman lived alone on a street where boys played noisily every afternoon. One day, the din became too much, and she called the boys into her house. She told them she liked to listen to them play, but her hearing was failing and she could no longer hear their games. She asked them to come around each day and play noisily in front of her house. If they did, she would give them each a quarter. The youngsters raced back the following day, and they made a tremendous racket playing happily in front of the house. The old woman paid and asked them to return the next day. Again they played and made noise, and again she paid them for it. But this time she gave each boy only 20 cents, explaining that she was running out of money. On the following day, they got only 15 cents each. Furthermore, the old woman told them she would have to reduce the fee to a nickel on the fourth day. The boys then became angry and said they would not be back. It was not worth the effort, they said, to play for only a nickel a day.


Sound familiar? The old woman's scheme effectively stole from the boys the very thing they loved most to do, what they were in fact doing for free. The moral of the story is pretty clear. If we're not careful, we can replace a natural motivation with a synthetic one. We can rob creative power from people by attaching a financial reward to ideas.

The story repeats itself all the time. Companies treat employees like a rat in a maze after cheese, by paying for approved ideas and accepted suggestions. They then wonder why they get such low participation. They give no thought to the notion that in order to get a good idea, you need a lot of ideas.

Teachers at my daughter's school are notorious for the practice, and I take them to task regularly. They want students to read more books, so they reward the completion of books. Maybe with a homework exemption. Or extra credit. Or even vouchers to the local Taco Bell. So the quick and easy books get read. The superficial books get read. Even the good readers, the ones who love to read, get swept up in the program. They stop reading the classics, turning to the quick reads to score points. Then the program is discontinued, and everyone stops reading. Even the best readers lose their love of words. And that's a true shame.

Is there a solution? I think so: mandatory kaizen, aka continuous improvement. Yep, good old Yankee born and bred incremental innovation, circa World War II, courtesy of Training Within Industry under the auspices of Roosevelt's Emergency Services. Make it part of the daily work. Make it the daily work. Kaizen aims to draw out the natural curiosity and creativity within people and guide it toward adding value for customers.

Kaizen does not attempt to light a fire under people. It lights the fire within them.

Related Article: Importance of Recognition to Innovation Success



Matthew E. May is the author of "IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are 'elegant' - a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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