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Archive for the ‘Defining Creativity’ category

What is Creativity? (perspectives from the Far East)

June 30th, 2012

This week, I begin a relationship with University of International Business & Economics (UIBE), a fast-growing university in Beijing, China that is training MBA-level students, primarily in Asia (Russian, China and Far East).  In our class, we’ll have students from Mainland China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Russia,  Uzbek (and Germany thrown in for good luck!).

Our first class together will explore the nature of creativity on an individual level – what makes a person creative? – as well theories on entrepreneurship and relationship to creativity.  I’ve seen this first hand, working with dozens of Silicon Valley start-ups ,but it’s always interesting to tear it apart and try to explain it to students/practioners who are 9525 kilometers away from the Silicon Valley.

I’m anxious to hear the students’ initial thoughts, from their perches in Asia Major and Minor, as to what their views on Creativity and Innovation are.  Coming into our class, what do they think Creativity is? How is it different from Innovation?

I’ve asked them to respond here to this question…let’s see what they have to say.

The serendipity of TED

March 4th, 2011

I’m at the last day of the TED ’11 conference in Long Beach, CA.  Many friends have asked me about TED over the years: what’s it like? who goes? how do you get in?. This is my fifth – and there are many “TEDsters” here that have come far more times than me.  I find the Serendipity of TED to be an interesting topic…

Gratitude for Wurman and Anderson

I’m grateful for what Richard Saul Wurman created in 1984 – the early TEDs took place in Monterey, in a fairly intimate setting, with just a few hundred people…and equally as grateful to Chris Anderson, who’s non-profit entity acquired TED in 2001 and has turned it into a global media brand.  Grateful for amazing connections, great content, and vibe.  TED now has conferences throughout the year:  the big event in Long Beach (from which I am posting), the TEDGlobal in summer – now moving to Scotland, and over a THOUSAND TEDx events throughout the world – in every imaginable country – over the past few years.  The website is one of the best video content sites on the web, boasting hundreds of high-quality videos of “Ideas Worth Spreading”…

Ideas Worth Spreading

Ideas are just ideas, unless they do spread to the right minds, hearts and activists. And that’s where the magic of TED seems to work and continue to grow.

TED 2011 Main Lobby

Here at the TED conference, I survey the outside hall:  to my left Al Gore is standing and conversing with a group of repeat TEDsters, behind him Vinod Khosla holding court, with daughter (who presented this year at TED) next to him, and behind me Jason Mraz, musician (who was incredible last night on stage) walking by with his friend/partner in trademark fedora.  Beyond them, scores of venture capitalists that I recognize from the Silicon Valley mingle with 20ish looking young men in jeans and sneakers.  Sitting on the stairs, the founder of Amazon, with family in tote.  Chris Anderson, holding hands with wife, Jacqueline Novogratz (CEO of Acumend Funds).  Off in far corners of the room, scores of creative people mingle, talk excitedly about art, science, music, mother-in-laws and raising kids.   This is a typical scene for TED.

This year’s TedEd talks, held on Mon, Tues and Thurs mornings were short 5 min talks – and many were fascinating. The topics went from How to MindMap a TED talk (by Nina Khosla) to genomes on the Internet (by friend, Jim Hornthal) to the Hoax of State Budgets (Bill Gates).  This short-form talks are a great way for a wide variety of TEDsters to show off another unique aspect of TED:  the diversity of participants from teens to baby-boomers, from scientists to musicians.

The scene not only creates viral spread of ideas, but so does the website, which is available for free to anyone in the world? Missed a session? Look it up on TED within 3 months and you’ll likely find it.  In the future, TED will be broadcast in many companies (their latest endeavor) around the world simultaneously to the live event – so thousands of viewers can watch live, even though at a distance.  That creates more spread.

Sweet Serendipity

What makes this all worthwhile for these folks to shell out $7500 (plus hotel, flights, food) each year?  Serendipity, most likely. At TED, one sets oneself up for that serendipitous moment…a “TEDEd lecture earlier this week by author John Hagel emphasized that serendipity can actually be encouraged, planned for and enhanced.  TED is the ultimate example of this.  The serendipitous moments come when you sit down in the 2000-person auditorium next to the founder of Twitter (as I did yesterday),  or grab coffee and run into someone you’ve followed on Twitter (@aplusk) for a pleasant conversation on the state of Angel Investing…

But, here at TED, serendipity doesn’t seem to be simple luck.  Although the event has reaching proportions that sometimes make you feel like you are at a large trade show party (last night’s party for example, featured a 30-foot puppet and hanging gymnists), the event is set up to allow for interactions, exchanges, and lots of causual “bumping into”.  The five days quickly blend into a blur of great conversations with highly creative people, people who are here to learn and to meet others, many who come with open minds.

At the Intersection

I think what TED represents best is an “intersection” of creative thinking from around the world.  Movie stars, venture capitalists, engineers, singers, adventurers, scientists, mathematicians, CEOs – all in one place – all with expertise in some area, but open  mind to BLEND their expertise with other “ideas worth spreading”.  This is very much like the

Musician & friend, Jason Mraz on stage, Thurs

experience that the Medici Family created in 15th century Florence when they brought together groups of this nature.  So, think of TED as the traveling/virtual equivalent of Firenze.

TED has been a great experience for me over the years…nearly each time I have come, I’ve developed relationships that have been long-lasting, career-changing.  Two of my greatest triumphs and failures have come from relationships with well-known TED speakers that were made here at the conference:  one led to the biggest return in the history of my venture work, another led to less-than-successful (nonetheless interesting) start-up which caused me to question who I really am.  That’s the thing about TED, the serendipitous moments that are created by the intersection of so many wonder-filled people,

Evolution and Innovation – where do Ideas come from?

September 17th, 2010

I’ve recently been giving thought to the evolution of  ideas …and how they lead to innovation.

Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, points to 7 “sources” of  organizational innovation – seven PLACEs where organizational ideas come from:

1) Unexpected consequences - there are many examples of this through history, but one well-known example was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 is a classic.

2) Incongruities – Drucker points out that whenever an industry has a steadily growing market, but falling profit margins for its participants an “incongruity” exits – and some company will eventually exploit this incongruity by inventing a lower cost or more efficient way to compete – for example, process innovations in the steel industry.

3) Process needs -the excample of the Guttenberg press, is to me a major change in process.  It was borne out of the need for mass-producing the Bible and other valued writings, and it allowed for a major shift in the process of putting these writings to paper.

4) Industry & market changes – often innovation is born out of competitive necessity – your company either comes up with a more innovative business model, product, marketing campaign…or you die.  A great example of this is Salesforce.com – its cloud-based SaaS business model was more efficient for many customers than the competitors and it stole customers away from other players as it grew.

5) Demographic changes – in the mid 1990′s many first-time users were coming onto the web, causing a demographic shift to the Internet, which companies like Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista and Google created innovations around

6) Changes in Perception – we are living through a period in time right now, best described by Richard Florida as The Great Reset, in which Americans and Europeans are dramatically changing their perceptions of spending, real estate ownership, needs vs wants – and there are a variety of innovations that will likely be born out of this shift.

7) New Knowledge – many an invention has come from new knowledge of the materials, processes, or changing needs of the customer. For example, the computer chip invented by   Walk through the Computer History Museum in Santa Clara, CA and you can see many, many examples of how technology has progressed over the past 60 years as new knowledge of tubes, transistors, microprocessor became available through research labs.

One of the students in my UC Berkeley class claims an 8th source might be “male hormones” or pro-creation as he pointed out that the male species can be extremely CREATIVE in ways of approaching the opposite sex.

While this one seems a bit far-fetched to me, I personally believe that the Collective Conscience could be considered an 8th source of Innovation.  Jung first coined this term in pychoanalysis to refer to conscious thoughts and ideas that are not personal, but are a shared part of our culture or of being human. He called common ideas shared by humans “archetypes” and he claimed to find examples in his psychoanalysis of behaviors resulting from the “collective conscience” (a form of sub-conscience).   Ever wonder why several scientists seem to simultaneously come to a similar conclusion; or several entrepreneurs are working on a similar new product/service at the same moment in time?  My guess is that there is an element of our genetic make-up, that is embedded in the connections in our brains,  which is triggered by external/environmental factors.  When some change in our world occurs, or some challenge presents itself to the human species, a pre-destined response is elicited and the result is that a sort of “collective conscious” is released – several people in the right time, at the right place have the same epiphany.

How do Ideas Come About?
Whereas Drucker answes the question “From Where do Ideas Arise?,” he  does not quite answer the question of HOW ideas arise.  For example, one common view of new ideas is that they come about by some  sort of epiphany, stroke of luck, or being in the “right place at the right time.”  Newton was hit on the head with an Apple, Archimedes sat in his bathtub noticing how it overflowed, and the Reeses Peanut-butter cup came together when two people holding chocolate and peanut-butter collided :)

Perhaps it’s more Evolutionary than we think?

The invention of the world wide web is a good example to look at:  Tim Berners-Lee is credited with the creation of the world-wide web, and the general public views this as a major break-through innovation of the 20th Century.  But Berners-Lee seem to me to be the final/missing piece of a mosaic that included many other prior smaller discoveries. For example, the notion of “hyperlinking to other locations” had already been explored by teams at Apple, and researchers (Andy Van Dam and Norman Meyrowitz) at Brown University, well before it became a component of the WWW.  And the internet under-structure behind the WWW was long in place an used by ARPA and universities before it was exploited by Berners-Lee. The initial prototype website in 1991 and  The standards proposed by Berners-Lee in 1994 and beyond where the missing piece to the puzzle or mosaic of inventions that allowed for this “innovation” to take off.

And, all this was incremental and evolutionary.

Many major innovations in history seem to take this evolutionary path: electricity, the light-bulb, radio, television, the micro-computer, the Internet – all seem evolutionary and a product of several great minds.  There were a set of small discoveries made over time until such point that all the key pieces were in place for an “innovation” to occur.  A good example I like to use at UC Berkeley is the emergence of the PDA .

Many prior innovations added up to the innovation of hand-held devices or PDAs.  The Apple Newton device with its hand-writing recognition, the EO device (a start-up by industry veterans), and early prototypes at Xerox Parc.  But it was Jeff Hawkins and his team at Palm who put the final pieces of the puzzle together – using unique (Graffiti) software and the right combination of features – that lit the consumer market on fire with a new “innovation.”  Lots of smaller discoveries led to the success/launch of the PDA market.

I’d like to hear from others whether they believe innovation comes from serendipity, from epiphany, or from some series of evolutionary discoveries…

What, really, is Creativity?

August 10th, 2010

Every year the students at UC Berkeley challenge me to identify some elements around Creativity. What is it? How can managers harness it within their organizations? What is the nature of great ideas – where do they come from? Is Creativity the same as Innovation?

A simple definition:

…if it’s useful, novel and not previously thought of, call it creative. This applies to works of art, businesses, events, etc.   If it’s a new idea that is put to some practical purpose for the first time anywhere, it’s an innovation. It’s possible to be highly creative but not very innovative. However, it would be hard to be innovative, without having gone through the creative process.


I’d like to challenge my readers – do you agree/disagree with the above? How do YOU define creativity? What is the difference between Creativity and Innovation?

(After hearing from several of you, I’ll post discussion by 8-9 entrepreneurs that I’ve interviewed recently on their thoughts on creativity and innovation.)

The History of Innovation…and where ideas come from

March 30th, 2010

Once in a while, I like to get an historical perspective on Creativity and Innovation.  I found four websites that are very helpful in doing this:

1) my favorite site is The Great Idea Finder - this site looks like it was created in 1996 and in serious need of  a web 2.0 programmer, but it’s full of great research, ideas and history.  Check out It’s About Time for a day-by-day history timeline, or Invention and Inventor Lists for interesting lists of patents, inventors, entrepreneurs and more.

2) About.com Inventors - this community is full of great insights on the history of inventors (a subset of creators and innovators in my mind).  Wonderful information on the history of many famous inventions and inventors -or search by your favorite invention

–> an added bonus to the site is “Today in History” - pick any date and the site has a wiki-list of famous inventions, patent filings, and note-worthy “aha-moments” that occurred on that date.   For example, this day, on March 30th, the following happened: “1956 Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted.” Click on “Birthdays” and you find:

  • 1842 – Dr. Crawford Long was the first physician to use ether as anesthetic
  • 1865 – German physicist, Heinrich Rubens
  • 1876 – Clifford Whittingham Beers was a mental hygiene pioneer
  • 1892 – Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach
  • 1894 – Russian airplane builder, Sergei Ilyushin
  • 1912 – Andrew Rodger Waterson was a noted naturalist

3) the Inventors Timeline – takes you back to the Paleolithic Era then forward to present time, identifying all key inventions known to the world…a very interesting way to see how the pace of technology is quickening.  

4) the Timeline Index – a nice visual timelime of Inventors through the recent ages – also an interesting timeline for other areas such as artists, philosophers, actors, etc).  Click on any person’s name and it gives you a detailed page on their biography, related links, etc.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The big question that people often ask me about my work with entrepreneurs and innovators is “So, where do ideas come from? Conventional wisdom is that ideas come from an “AHA” moment that an inventor has – for example, the moment that Art Fry at 3M Corp realized he had inadvertently created a sticky substance that could be used on paper to create the “post-it” note,  or the moment that Archimedes sat in his bath tub and realized that the water he had displaced held an important clue to measuring density of matter.
But in looking HISTORICALLY at actual inventions that have made produced the most profound changes in human history —   the wheel, electricity, the automobile, the light bulb, the small-pox vaccination, the computer chip, the television,  the Worldwide Web — we find that there was no “AHA” moment…there were a myriad of smaller progressive discoveries leading to a key discover from one person or group that seems to solidify

I was speaking at the Computer History Museum this past week and arriving early, took the time to look at the work of Charles Babbage, who is regarded as the “Father of Computing.”  In 1822 he created an entirely mechanical “Difference Engine” (see photo I took to right, owned by Nathan Myrvold) which was meant to calculate mathematics (polynomials) and he later created a “Analytics Engine” that used punch cards. Babbage’s inventions resulted from a hundreds of years of European discoveries of how machines work, including work dating back to the time of Leonardo Davinci and the abacus dating back to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.  It was Babbage who lived in a time where the “technology” (small metal parts) and mathematical understanding enabled him to implement the first working prototype.  Babbage worked through his lifetime to complete these designs.  The engine was a creation born from a series of historical baby steps.

Take a more recent invention – the PDA…Palm gets much of the credit for it, but its birth was due to a number of companies all working the overall product from various angles.   Psion, Apple,Xerox, others …a visit to the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale shows the tale. There was no “aha” moment of innovation in the discovery of the PDA – it too seems to be more Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, author/entrepreneur/blogger/professor Scott Berkun makes a pretty good case for the fact that innovations never seem to evolve in a straight line.  Ideas are formed, tested out, failures occur, competitors emerge in an area of great “hope” and eventually some lucky company emerges as the one to popularize the new innovation.

According to Berkun, ideas come from either hard work in a specific direction, or the combination of two or more (heretofore separate) ideas, or curiosity, or wealth, or necessity or luck — or some combination of all of these.

In his book The Medici Effect, my friend Frans Johansson points out that some of the most prolific bursts of new ideas (such as those found in 15th Century Italy, banked by the Medici Family in Florence) come from a confluence of different disciplines or cultures, combined in new and unusual ways.  Johansson delineates “directional” and “intersectional” innovation.  Directional innovation – like the light bulb which  Thomas Edison found through years of testing, is evolutionary with a focused linear path.  Intersectional innovation – for example the Googles combination of new search algorithms with an approach to listing advertising as words -  is ALSO evolutionary.  The research the Google founders did at Stanford was  descendant  from previous work at Yahoo and Infoseek, and the advertising approach they used was borrowed from goto.com (later became Overture).  It was the fortuitous combination of these two ideas (intersection) that led to the most innovative company of all time.   Serendipity certainly played a role for both Edison and Google founders – more on that in a future blog post.

I’m challenged to think of an example of innovation which was not in some way evolutionary – building upon prior ideas, research or thought.

I’m curious if any of my readers can think of examples…