The Creative Troublemaker

Adrian Instone Sherburn Village 1980 Durham

The culprit, me aged 10, in late December 1980. Yes, it was a white Christmas that year in Durham.

I was always getting into trouble at school. I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t deliberate. I wasn’t always aware I was doing it. I just wanted to try things out and always got punished for doing so.

Here’s an example. It’s January 1981 and we’re all in assembly at Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors School near Durham in the North-East of England. If it’s your birthday you’re allowed to choose a hymn in assembly. Since my birthday is during the Christmas holidays I never get a chance to choose. If I had I might have chosen one of our favourites, To Be a Pilgrim because it has the line, ‘follow the master’ in it. Since the Master was an evil time lord in Doctor Who me and my friends belt out the amended lyric ‘Follow the Doctor’.

But for some some reason, just after my 9th birthday, they’ve given me a chance to choose a hymn.

“Adrian Instone will chose the next hymn.” says Mrs Lamb.

We’d already done To Be A Pilgrim and Lord of the Dance which would have been my second choice as it has the great bit about it being hard to dance with the devil on your back. A great image that. So I quickly come up with another idea.

“Number seventy-three miss.” I say loud and clear from the centre of the throng.

“Right children, number seventy-three says Mrs Lamb, deputy head.

Fat Mrs Middlemas on the piano flicks through the book. There was a rustling of hymn books. Mrs Middlemas indicated for Mrs Lamb to come over, then with a cross expression on her face, Mrs Lamb walks back to the centre of the front of the hall and looks me in the eyes.

“There are only seventy-two hymns in the book.” she says.

“I know miss” I say.

“You mean to say that you deliberately deceived us?” she barks.

The assembly of kids starts to snigger. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

“Yes miss” I say, without irony or facetiousness.

“How-dare-you. This-is-a-serious-religious-service” she says, staccato, like a Dalek. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“Thought it would be a laff miss” I say.

The next thing I know is that I’m being dragged by the scruff of my shoulder from the crowd, out of the hall and locked in a cupboard room for the rest of the day. I sat there, thinking, mainly about Blake’s 7 that was due to be on that night, wondering if Blake was going to come back and re-join the crew of the Liberator…

So, was I being naughty? Possibly. But wasn’t it just harmless fun? Wasn’t I just testing the boundaries a little bit? Would it have really hurt for the teachers to say, “Nice one, very funny, you had us there, now let’s have Onward Christian Soldiers

How do you react when a maverick in your organisation or team bends the rules or tests the boundaries? How do you react when your child behaves in unexpected ways? Here’s another example.

It’s late autumn 1981. The playground is covered in leaves. The three large oaks are stripped down to their bare branches as if to brace themselves against the forthcoming winter, rolling up their sleeves, ready to sit and fight it out. Some younger kids are laughing and running and kicking the unwanted leaves up. It gives me an idea. I quickly organise a bunch of younger kids to collect all the leaves together into piles. If the trees don’t want them, we don’t want them. I get my troupe to grab handfuls and throw them over the school railings onto the pavement beyond. There’s a flurry of leaves as the wind catches our autumnal plumes and whisks them into the air. In about five minutes we have the area clear. A teacher spots us and shouts from across the playground. It’s clear I’m the foreman of the operation. Instead of the praise for my enterprise that I expected, I’m grabbed by the arm and marched inside and positioned outside Mr Jackson’s office. The headmaster. I’m told that the cane was a certainty for such grave a crime as throwing stones at cars. My protest as the misunderstanding is ignored and I’m left there in at one end of the silent corridor waiting for the inevitable judgement.

As I stand there I notice the bell buzzer on the wall. It’s the button the teachers press to sound the bell ringing that calls us all from work to play and from play to work. As I look at it I wonder how much pressure would be needed for it to make contact, complete the circuit and sound the bell. A voice in my head says ‘press it and see’. There’s about fifteen minutes of lunchtime left to run. I lean back on the wall and accidentally on purpose lean onto the school bell button. Continuous loud bells ring out. People start rushing around like bees, spurred automatically into action as lunchtime is brought to a premature end. Mr Jackson comes out of his office. A get a warm whiff of decades old slate tobacco air.

“What are you doing here?” he looks at his watch and then the bell push. Pushing the button again, the ringing stops, “Well?”

“Mrs Lamb said I was throwing stones at cars but I wasn’t, I was just clearing the leaves from the playground.” I say. I get the feeling that he’d laugh at this and the bell incident if he didn’t have something else more important on his mind. He ushers me into the empty classroom opposite without bothering to turn the lights on.

“You mustn’t throw stones at cars.” he says almost absent mindedly, “Write that out ten thousand times, ‘I must not throw stones at cars’”. With that, he returns to his office. I pick up a pencil and some paper and write out ten thousand times, ‘I did not throw stones at cars’.

At this point in my life I hadn’t yet learned to ‘play it safe’ when it came to experimentation within the structure of school. A few more incidents like this (there were plenty more) and I started to keep my head down and do things to please just like everyone else.

In business (and in family life) we’re often too busy to spend time to figure out why people do what they do and reward or punish on the result. We applaud success (even if success was arrived at with no skill or effort) and we despise failure (even when failure is often a brave step in a new direction). This is an arbitrary way to behave that reduces experimentation and creativity that can lead to better ways of doing things. It’s an especially mean way to behave towards children who only learn that ‘failure is bad’ from us and then stop trying.

Keep an open mind with mavericks. They could be experimenting in ways others never could. With a child, disruptive behavior is the tip of an unknown iceberg that could be a bigger problem potential talent trying to get through. In business, the green light for innovation and the chance to try and fail could be just what you need to open your organisation to new opportunities you couldn’t have guess existed.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

The Thinking Cap Experiment(This is an adapted extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Thinking Cap Experiment’)

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Brain over capacity (Another reason people don’t innovate)

If you’re a regular user of Twitter you’ll have noticed that occasionally you get met with an error message that says ‘Twitter over capacity’. It means that too many users are trying upload too much data in too shorter time.

I think this has happened to my brain.

If you’re interested in things it’s worse. I’m interested in lots of things. I used to have to go searching for information on my interests. Now, the universe seems to just serve it up daily. I used to hunt down the next great book to read, now they’re stockpiled on my shelves along with unwatched DVDs and four months worth of Doctor Who Magazines to catch up on (I’ve never missed an issue since issue 1 in October 1979).

I’ve got dozens of links to websites and YouTube videos that would be interesting but I just don’t seem to have the time.

But when it comes to procedural, administrative and systematic tasks, time is found and the tasks are done. It’s the creative tasks that get left out. They have one thing in common; they are all big picture holistic ‘right brain’ tasks. And the one that matters most to us in our businesses right now is: innovation.

So what’s going on and what can we do about it?

The new world of instant gratification has turned us all into brilliant multitaskers, living in a heightened state of alert. We used to get on with a job and stopped when it was finished. Now we get distracted, bored and restless if the results and rewards take more than a few seconds to arrive. If we do have to wait for anything, we don’t stop to think, we whip out our dumbphone like some sort of pacifier to give our brains something to fiddle with lest it have time to pause.

For millions of years humans got on with a task such as making a tool or building a dwelling or stone circle. Then something that might distract them came along, like a storm, a wild animal or an invasion from another tribe. So the task would be paused and the new threat dealt with.

Now, we swim in an endless sea of data which appears to our minds to be just as important as the storm, the sabre-toothed tiger or the invaders. We haven’t evolved an ‘off switch’ or an information priority filter, so we deal with and process the incoming news with as much attention as everything else, giving those interrupts a level of attention far beyond what they deserve. We can’t help it. Emails, phones ringing, text messages and Friendface alerts all shout ‘emergency! emergency!’ and switch us into our ancient flight or fight behaviour.

Is it any wonder so many of us are on edge, stresses or tired out?

We’re suffering from a condition that has only recently come to light, where we feel we have to respond to interrupts and take action on everything: Attention Reductive Systematic Execution.

There is only one cure, and it’s a paradox and counter intuitive as it uses up the one commodity that we feel we need more of: time.
“If only had a bit more time” we all say. But that would never work. If we had more time, we’d just surf the internet more, watch more inane telly and mess about on Friendface.

What we need to do is to take a certain amount of time, build a fence around it and only let in ourselves and one task. It could be a certain evening or a certain day. It could be every morning before 9am. Whatever it is, it needs to be a regular time so it gets catalogued as a procedural, administrative and systematic task by our brain, to sneak past our multitasking brainfever mode.

When you’ve created your protected ring-fenced timeplace, free from mobile phones, emails and tweets, you can then use it to work on just the creative, right-brain activity that has been squeezed out of your daily or weekly routine: innovation. (Innovation by the way, is how to make things better or do better things.)

I use Thursdays. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written this. I’d be too busy answering emails and making jokes up on Twitter complaining that I don’t seem to have any time.

Get Ayd to come into your business to run a masterclass on innovation.

Adopt, adapt and improve: What I learned from Lord Alan Sugar

The star of TV’s The Apprentice opened the second day of the National Achievers Congress to an audience of 7500 at London’s Excel conference centre. Along with Richard Branson who would speak the following day, Sugar was interviewed by Michael Buerk. It was the first time the two had met and would probably be the last if Sugar’s response to Buerk’s questions was anything to go by.

Sugar felt a bit affronted by what he considered to be simplistic, inane or irrelevant questions. He correctly surmised that we wanted to know his business thinking, how and why he did what he did. We were less interested his so-called ‘rags to riches’ backstory (which turns out not to be quite true anyway). When asked what one piece of advice Lord Sugar to give to the audience he refused to answer, saying how could he cater for all the different kinds of people in the audience with one stock answer. This gave us an insight into the real Alan Sugar. And guess what, despite what he says, it’s very much the same as the belligerent boss we see on the telly.

The questions I would have loved to know the answer to were things like why did he sell of his manufacturing business when he places such importance on making things? Especially when his definition of a proper business is “you have an idea, you make it and you sell it.” He attacked those who made their money on the stock markets, “making money from other people’s misfortune” and yet there he is now, effectively a property mogul. Not too dissimilar.

He also critised big internet business such as Facebook, citing it as a waste of time. He couldn’t see “where the money is” in such businesses and made reference to ITV losing money of Friends Reunited and the crash of 2000. Both of those examples are as irrelevant as saying there’s no money in computers because Apricot* went bust. Sugar fails to understand what has become known as ‘the New Economy’. The ‘money’ in Facebook is not extracted from traditional methods but from the value in the network and the targeted way people can be reached. Money these days is not made by shouting but by going where the eyeballs go.

Sugar’s main belief still does stand true and offers us all a sober lesson. He believes that a business should start from the ground up, work hard and make money and profit. He pointed out that many young people have been given the erroneous impression that it is all too easy and that it is their ‘right’ to be able to do it and to get loans from banks without taking on board the risk. Sugar had got into trouble at a college, where he was asked to give a talk, for responding in his down to earth way. He critisised a student who thought it was outrageous that the bank wouldn’t lend him hundreds of thousands of pounds without putting his house on the line. “You have to show the bank you are willing to take a risk. If you don’t, why should they” Sugar said.

He gave a great example of this when he wanted to borrow some money for his fledgling computer business in the early 1980s. The bank asked him what assets he had. He listed the components and half-built computers he had in stock. The bank valued all that at zero. They told him that if he went bust, what would they do with a load of components and screws? This is a good lesson for us to hear as we often think in business that we have value in assets which in fact are liabilities (there may be assets we do have, that we don’t value as much as we should, such as intellectual property).

What Sugar was good at, was seeing an opportunity to sell someone something they wanted. His early examples were when he was employed to sell tape recorders. Instead of hauling round every small independent shop that might buy two units, he went to the then new bigger chains such as Currys, Rumbellows, Comet and Dixons and got them to buy hundreds or even thousands.

All his type of innovative ideas take the same kind of route: he modifies something that already exists to make it more attractive. Think about his most famous business, for which he is still known for today, home computers. The market was dominated by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Acorn BBC. Sugar had previously been making bundled hi-fi equipment. Up to that point, all hi-fi equipment was sold as separate units made by different specialist manufacturers. You bought a record player, a tape player, a radio and an amplifier and you ‘stacked’ them on top of each other and plugged speakers in. His model was to use cheap Japanese electronics and put the record player, tape cassette player and radio all in the same box. At the time this was a revelation and it opened the way for the stereos and ‘ghetto blasters’ that defined the 1980s. Lifting the lid of a rival’s computer he saw that inside there was no magic, it was just silicone chips, resistors and circuit boards, just as in his hi-fis. He applied the same idea he had done to his hi-fi business. Let’s have a closer look.

Sugar four things that made his business a success, these four simple innovations:

  1. He built in the datasette (the cassette tape recorder that the computer programs were stored on) into the keyboard.
  1. He bundled a cheap monitor so that the kids wouldn’t have to plug their computer into the family television.
  1. He used MSX BASIC as the operating software. This was a new variant of Microsoft’s BASIC programming language that was already being used on most of the computers of the time. The difference was that each of the different companies used a different version of BASIC so a program written on one make wouldn’t run on another. MSX was a new standard that was being adopted by a host of other computers meaning that software for the new Amstrad computer had more games being written faster.
  1. He made it really cheap, and sold it really cheap.

Many would argue that the Amstrad home computers (as well as his stereos) were cheap, cheerful and lacked style and class. They didn’t attract the wider appeal, kudos and cult following of the classic home computers like the ZX81, Spectrum, VIC20, Commodore 64 and BBC B. But they did make Sugar a lot of money.

When the home computer market ran out of steam (the home computer gold rush only lasted from 1980 to 1984) he switched his attention to a computer that would only have one function: a word processor. This is perhaps Sugar’s finest hour. He got into that gap in the market at exactly the right time. With subsequent innovations such as his hand-held personal organiser and video phone, he was too early. In fact it seems, with the possible exception of his BSkyB equipment and petrol station advertising screens, that consumer product magical innovation skill has eluded him since the mid 1980s.

But perhaps that too is a lesson for all of us. Our businesses may be lucky enough to make money from something that becomes iconic, or maybe we’ll have to be happy with making money from something that goes unseen and unsung by the general public but is successful nonetheless. We need to make sure we are working hard to make profit, not glory as the two seldom go together.

One thing is clear from what Lord Sugar had to say. If you want to start a business and be successful in it you must chose something that you have some knowledge in. It must be something that you have experience in, and it must be something you have a passion for. So many people, he pointed out, have made the mistake of trying to jump on what they think is a get rich quick bandwagon of what appears to be a good idea but is outside those key areas of their knowledge, experience and passion. The secret to a successful business is simple, obviously simple, but it’s not easy: hard work, determination, innovation and an eye always open for opportunities.

Just look at what happened in the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice. Sugar changed the rules. He wasn’t looking for another employee this time. He didn’t need another salesman. That’s why Tom the inventor won. He was really the only suitable candidate. The rest were old school sales employees. Sugar valued the approach and ideas that Tom had and saw the value in his already substantial achievements with his curved nail file invention. Who knows what he’d come up with next.

This shows that Sugar still has some interesting business mileage in him, unlike Donald Trump who’s tv series has descended into celebrity game show farce.

Lord Sugar may not be held in the same high esteem as Richard Branson or James Dyson and his companies may not be regarded as cool as Innocent or Apple. he may be out of touch with some of the newer methods of doing business such as the increased emphasis on networking (although he does tweet every day) but his knowledge of the principles of starting, innovating and selling to make a profit are universal and give us sobering lessons we can all apply.

*Apricot was a British PC manufacturer in the 1980s who could have rivaled IBM and Apple, but didn’t.

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Think big, think bigger: What I learnt from Richard Branson

Richard Branson at NAC, Excel, LondonI was fortunate enough to see Richard Branson speak at the close of a three day event at the London Excel conference centre last week. There were reportedly 7500 people in attendance. He was interviewed by Michael Burke, and quite nervous.

“Create something that makes a difference to people’s lives”

That was his overall message, and he felt, the secret to his business success. In a way we could call that the blueprint for the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. You can probably make a million by ripping people off, many do. But to make a billion, you have to provide something useful and be liked, you have to get on with people. Branson was clear on making peace with his enemies such as the chief executive of BA who pulled a dirty tricks campaign on Virgin Atlantic to try to bring the airline down. Branson took him out for lunch to shake hands. When asked if he had the same kind of “you’re fired!” attitude to Sir Alan Sugar, Branson replied that he would never aim to fire someone. If they’re not performing well he’ll try to find out why, perhaps they need to be moved to a different position. If the person is still disruptive and nothing can be done then obviously they’d have to move on, but that would be a last resort. Branson was keen to see Virgin as a family. A family that invites in the right people in the first place.

This is what Branson would have seen from the stage

“You wouldn’t fire your son or daughter from your family” he said. His opinion on companies and their relationship to their employees was important to him.

“A good leader will promote well above what people will expect. (We need to) …ask companies to think about much more flexibility about how their people work. As a leader, you’ve got to be a great listener.”

When 9/11 happened Virgin lost £300 million in a week. He had to make drastic decisions to save the business and that meant offering voluntary redundancies. He told the employees that they would be first back in when conditions were back to normal. He kept to that and within 12 months everyone who had left was back again. He was sad he’s had to sell some of the companies assets – some property and the music business, but that had been necessary to keep the main businesses going.

The most exciting, and moving, part of the interview was his description of the Virgin Galactic space programme. We’ve got to bare in mind that after this month, NASA won’t have an active space programme – but Branson will. You can just imagine him trying to convince his shareholders, not to mention his engineers that they were going to be the first private company to offer space tourism!

What became powerfully clear was that he was deadly serious. This was no hot-air ballon trip. For $200k you can book a seat into space. Branson thinks he can get the price down to $50k in the near future. But why do it? He pointed out that everyone who has ever gone into space has been transformed by the experience. He wants to offer that experience to as many people as possible. When you think that big, other ideas and opportunities spring off it. He said that a spin off from Virgin Galactic will be that in the future you’ll be able to fly from the US to Australia in around 2 hours. With the cost of space travel coming down so low, he imagines schools and universities being able to create satellites that Virgin Galactic will be able to launch into orbit. This is momentous stuff when you consider that passage on the Russian Mir spacecraft is currently in the realm of $100 million.

Not my helicopter, it was Richard’s…

Although he grew up in a middle class, well off family and attended public school, he felt that his success came from his ability to be self-sufficient from an early age. At one point his mother turned him out of the car and told him to make his own way to Grandma’s house. (“Today she’d be arrested” he said).

His opinion is that “Schools are almost there to make people conform” and that “we have to find our own way, to stand out and stand up for ourselves”.

So what was Branson’s secret? How did he do it?

“If I see something that’s not being done very well, I’ll try to do it better. Go for quality. Be the best at whatever you do. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it”

He was also flexible and creative when it came to coping with problems. He was not ashamed to talk about his mistakes and his failures. When his newly launched Virgin Music mail order company was launched he was faced with an elongated postal strike. He changed his plans to accommodate the new environment and instead opened his first retail store.

Finally he was asked what advice he could give to the audience (the question that Sir Alan Sugar had refused to answer the previous day).

He paused, smiled and then said his now famous catchphrase:

“Screw it, just do it!”

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Are you a creative perfectionist procrastinator too?

The Last Edition, TLE, Oxford Brookes Students Union Magazine 1993-1995

My TLE magazines, 1993-95

Have you got something creative that you should be getting on with but are putting it off?

It was when I was running the student magazine, The Last Edition (or TLE for short) at Oxford Brookes University that I first found myself operating at a wholly different type of time and project management level.

And not because I wanted to.

There was simply too much to do and way too much information to take in. I had to learn to speed read and speed act to get everything done. I realised that I could no longer be a perfectionist, or more to the point, I could no longer be a creative perfectionist procrastinator.

Being a creative perfectionist procrastinator is a really unproductive position to be in. Most creative people fall into one or more of its three traps at some point. It’s a situation of inaction categorised by ‘not being ready to act’ due to these damning conditions:

  • Not wanting to begin a task right now because you know it will take more time to complete, or at least to get stuck in to, than the time you think you have available now. What’s frightening about this is that sometimes we can write of whole days due to this feeling and yet each day has the same number of maximum hours.
  • Not wanting to begin the task because you don’t feel like it at the moment. The conditions don’t feel right, you’re too tired or not motivated. We try to convince ourselves that we might feel like it later on in the day, or that evening, or after a cup of coffee or after some other postponing condition.
  • Not wanting to begin the task now because you don’t have all the information, skill or equipment to get going with. This often leads into some irrelevant research which, although useful, isn’t good for motivation because at the end of the day nothing appears to have been achieved. This feeling is also a great trigger for spending both money and time looking for and buying extra resources and equipment in a vain hope that the new inventory will feel like progress has been made. It never does.

What happened when I was working on the magazine meant that I could no longer indulge in the luxury of those feelings.

When you have a task that is not creative such as physical jobs like digging a hole or administration tasks like tidying up, filing, reading emails, watching tv or surfing the internet, you don’t have to make qualitative decisions. Any decision that you may need to make with be fairly didactic, yes or no, stop or go etc. That’s why these tasks can still be performed when you’re mentally tired. Sometimes we call them ‘mindless’ tasks which is a bit erroneous but in a sense sets them as the opposite to mind-full tasks that require a different level of concentration and consciousness. Writing, drawing and designing require this different level of mindfulness. It’s a state of mind we don’t often find ourselves in so we treat it as special and feel it requires special conditions (cue the three traps described above).

So when it came to designing the cover for the magazine, writing the editorial or doing some illustrations for it I wanted, really wanted, to evoke those three excuses. But I couldn’t. The time pressures of print deadlines meant that if I waited until conditions were ready and right, there would be no magazine. Instead I had to allocate time to each task and get to it and get on with it. Oh how I longed to do more research, more practice, more considered effort. How I longed to re-do the illustrations or re-write the articles. But there just wasn’t time.

The result was a four-weekly 38 page magazine that I edited for two years and 19 issues.

If I had not managed to use the time I had, to do the tasks whether the conditions felt perfect or not, to write whether I felt like it or not, there would not have been a single issue.

If you want the result, whatever the creative project you are embarking upon, make sure that any delay is based on real tangible problems that need to be solved, and not one or more of the three creative perfectionist procrastinations that we can all to easily fall for.

The best advice is a cliché: Do it now. Do it to the best of your ability, but do it now.

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