Category Archives: Workshop Tools

How every StartUp can be creative.

brand creation exercises
brand creation exercises

5 ways for any team to be creative.

I was with the tech guys of a StartUp recently. They retreated into their shells when I started asking about the brand concept. Once I’d got their confidence, the told me they couldn’t do that stuff – they were not creative, they were programmers, they were rational.

There is a mystique about creativity. The creative industry, myself included, often reinforces this, and why not? It is in its commercial interest to do so. But everyone is creative. Including our programmers.

Part of creativity is about seeing patterns and opportunities, about not being intimidated by the weight of a problem. The more experience you have of problem solving the easier it gets. I’m told that’s why at Harvard Business School they make students work through three case studies every day. Repetition gets the brain to see patterns, which creates efficiency and the illusion of excellence, even genius.

Broadly speaking though, most smart people can gain that experience and whilst some will do it better than other, most can do it.

In my experience, most of the people who are called ‘creative’ use reference points. Sometimes, the more remote that reference point is, the more inspired the idea becomes. It was Picasso who said: Good artists copy, great artists steal.

He also said: All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. Kids don’t self-edit. They just say what’s in there.

Clearly, as well as an excellent drawer and colourer-in, Picasso was a veritable quote machine. What I don’t think he talked about is what we might call the politics of creativity. Let me put that into a quote so I too can get onto

Creativity is as much the force of will to convince others to make something, as it is the force of the idea.

It isn’t easy getting an idea made. Good creative people know this. They know the guy on the other side of the table is sometimes intellectually lazy, or worried about his job, or just bitter and will give it two seconds thought before rubbishing the idea. It’s not about the idea, it’s about them. Good creative people have strategies to overcome that. It might be shouting, or belittling, or occasionally patiently explaining, but it always involves being stubborn for weeks and months until the thing is made.

(That doesn’t mean they don’t adapt and listen to other people. Knowing when to listen is key to getting it made, and being able to hear the ideas that will make it better elevates the idea further.)

But the act of coming up with ideas in the first place, I still believe anyone can do.

Our brains are designed to solve problems from birth. I’m involved in a lengthy anthropological study my wife calls fatherhood and anyone who has observed children slowly learn how to solve problems would surely accept the universality of creativity.

The personality traits that drive creativity exist within us all – like curiosity, puzzle solving, being right. They might need fine-tuning and they might need a pat on the back/kick up the arse. But they are there.

Then there are the thinking-structures that come from experience, the ways our brains see patterns. Whoever you are the more your do it, the better you get.

I accept that there will still be degrees of quality. Some people have a better combination of the experience/confidence/conviction thing. But everyone has it to some degree. Given the right framework any team can make a good start to most problems, meaning asking the right questions.

So how can you and your team be creative?

Here are five suggestions to make anyone creative.

1. Do like Picasso and steal. Look for influences and examples you can build on, from anywhere. Business, novels, music, art, science, The Simpsons. The build might not be immediately obvious but if you know why you like that influence you can create parallels that will take you somewhere: they did x so what would our equivalent be? Use anyone or anything that has a distinct way of thinking or doing. What have they done we think is cool? How would they approach our problem? So…how would John Lennon think about sales? As daft as it can sound, it works.

2. Structure. Don’t just dive in. Work out a structure beforehand. Start with the broad, exploratory themes and then get more precise. Get to principals before you get to the detail of execution. Define the headline questions and then figure out which questions need to be answered before you answer the headline ones. Let that shape the conversation.

3. Make sure everyone says something. You want everyone to put it out there. So give everyone space to talk. Get people to write down thoughts so it is not only the loudest voice that gets heard. Or get them to draw it. Whatever makes them comfortable expressing themselves. If some people are not joining in, make them the critics of everyone else’s output to begin with, until they find their positive voice. People find it much easier to criticize than to create so use that to strengthen ideas. Also, have a laugh. People talk more when they are relaxed. Play a game. Get some cookies. People say more with cookies.

4. Time. Spend a decent amount of time on it…and let people know how long you’ll spend doing it. People relax more over time. Be clear they are in there for a while: even the most reticent will say something eventually. If you are running the session, go silent. It’s amazing how others will want to fill that quiet.

5. Figure out how to agree as a group. Any suggestion is a worthwhile suggestion but you’re going to have to come to a precise agreement at some point. Fudging the solution is worse than having no solution at all. So before you start, spend quality time discussing what you are trying to achieve in the session and then agree the judgment criteria. If some criteria are more important than others, weight them. Use this to score ideas 1-5. Many people don’t like scoring ideas but the way it works best is to use that score to prompt a debate, not to give you the answer.

So having said all that, if there’s one take-away for any StartUp it is: if you want to get creative, get some cookies.

A System For Everything


Can brand creation be systematized for a StartUp?

In his recent Reith lectures, Atul Gawande’s anecdote rich narrative tells us how failures in health care are more often than not the result of failures in systems. People say it’s the failures between people (partners) that kill StartUps but I suspect it is often the failures in StartUp systems that drive this.

One of the big tech developments in healthcare was the shift at the start of the 20th century from home care to hospital care and, with this, the rise of professional doctors, nurses, operating theatres and so on. Death in childbirth had been common beforehand. Did the shift to all this professionalism and expertise lead to a reduction in deaths in childbirth? No, it did not. The reason being that there was not enough ‘Infection Control Procedures’, like sterlising equipment or a room properly…or even doctors washing their hands properly.

One might think this problem has gone away. It has not. We are told that there are six million infections caught each year by people whilst being cared for in western hospitals. Less than 5% of all health professionals wash their hands properly in Indian hospitals. The spread of Ebola is a failure of a sanitization and protection process, as the virus creeps into those tiny gaps in clothing and finds its host.

Gawande believes that the problem is that we have more knowledge and expertise than we know what to do with. We’ve created a world of over-complexity. We’ve got too smart for our own good.

But the avuncularly cozy and positive Gawande is confident was can improve things.

We cannot leave it to individuals. Individuals cannot cope with such complexity. We need to create a system that connects and manages us.

This is not only about inventing and building the system but also about executing and managing them ruthlessly. He doesn’t say this but in effect he is suggesting we use this uber-system to create a hive mind, in which the individual operates under the collective. Like the Borg. Only collective effort will allow us to deal with over-complexity.

Now are we in a position to do this though. Technology, data, knowledge give us greater tools than ever before. This is the Age of the System, he declares.

Anyone in StartUp will recognize this over-complexity. Gawande’s belief though is that not only can super-charged systems cope with over-complexity, than can accommodate even more pressure. By introducing aggressive systemization, we can do much more than we thought possible.

The specifics seem prosaic. Make behaviours the norm. Create check-lists. Identify defaults. Introduce feedback loops. He also makes two interesting cultural suggestions. One, the participants need to be managed so they have the humility to accept that even the best (the experts & bosses) fail. Two, in one very successful system the checklist was managed by the person with least power, the telephone operator, I assume, so they would not question it (unlike, let’s be honest, gobby senior staffers).
I’d be more skeptical of his specific suggestions if it were not for the fact that across the 8 major hospitals involved in the trial there was an average reduction in complications of 35%, and an average reduction in death of 47%.

So imagine the impact of strong systems in the chaotic, over-stretched, under-experienced environment of a typical StartUp. Imagine getting your UX to work with PM and producers on every type of process and workflow in the business.
Can a creative process be systematized? I’m interested in brand creation…can that be systematized?

A brand is structured. That structure, at its simplest, covers 5 things.
1. As precise a target as possible.
2. A position within the context of a marketplace.
3. The overall purpose that’s going to own that position.
4. The behaviours, personality and identity that going to execute this.
5. The traction plan that will impact the market in the strongest possible way.

(I know, it’s that simple!…Can you believe there’s whole industry based on that…;-))

To populate that structure, a series of strategic issues need to be considered. Or put in plain English, a list of precise questions need answering intelligently. It’s probably quite a long list but it’s not too long.

Answering intelligently clearly depends on the quality of the people who are answering but what matters more is the quality of the hive.

You clearly want people who are smart and, although not necessarily experts, understand and are interested in the basics. They’ve thought about brands, which ones they love, which ones they respect and why. The hive must know how to work together. To discuss. To debate. To conclude. To let it go and move on.

Coding has a system but is also creative. I think we can look at a brand in the same way. We don’t because it undermines our creative egos. But I actually like the intelligence and creativity of the system.

So if you can figure out what the precise questions are and work them through, I think any StartUp can systematize their brand creation and execution.

Or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds you haven’t got to a brand consultancy…

What StartUps can learn from modern art.

The Best Naming Tool for StartUps

There are two broad ways of naming your brand: literal naming or imagery naming.

The literal describes literally (not surprisingly) what you do or offer: Salesforce and Compare the market – and at the slightly more imaginative end: Band-aid and Rubbermaid. For that reason it can also be called descriptive naming. But this group can also include eponymous naming ie. after a person, usually the founder; so would include Levi’s, John Lewis, Bloomberg, Marks & Spencer. You could claim some of these actually fall into our second group and I think that’s especially fair for a name like adidas, which although short for the founder Adi Dassler is so meaningless on its own, we can call it an imagery name.

Imagery naming is a much broader and more abstract group. It would include metaphorical naming, which has an actual meaning even if it’s hidden away – like Monopoly, Shell, Land Rover. There’s subset of this group: the mythical. So Prudential, Nike, Ariel. Or there are those with no meaning but are suggestive- like Aviva and Google (although tells me it was ‘introduced by U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner (1878-1955), whose nine-year-old nephew allegedly invented it’.)

There are those names that sit somewhere in the middle, other than the adidas type of name. I’d put Pinterest in this middle space although it clearly has a literal, descriptive element. You pin your interest. But they didn’t call it Pin Your Interest, they deliberately removed meaning by crunching the words together like a crisp sandwich. LinkedIn also sits in the middle. Instagram too but I think it is closer to Imagery with a dash of literal (or you could argue it’s metaphorical I guess?).

So there’s a spectrum. Which do you choose?

I’m not going to get into the relative merits of these two directions right now. But there are a host of things to think about and work through. That’s for another time. You might already know which type you want to build upon. My point here is: you don’t need to know before you start generating names if you have the right tool.

And here’s the right tool.

new business naming, entrepreneur naming

This is The Great Bear, by Simon Patterson, which I saw at The Tate Modern, I think in 2001. In his excellent piece, each underground (or metro as they say elsewhere) line is built around a theme, usually a profession – philosophers, musicians, film stars, engineers – but sometimes not – planets. What you need to do is this. Take the same logic and start generating names. Meaning, instead of a profession, you might start with user benefit and create an underground/metro line of names around user benefit. As you move along to the suburbs, stretch the meaning and exaggerate, more and more. So just as suburbs have exaggerated names like Sunshine Gardens, you might have turned a humble user benefit into World Changer. Unlike the real world, the suburbs might end up being the more interesting place.

Then develop another theme. Like user description. Or technology involved. Or product description. The point is to have as many underground lines as you can think of.

Of course, because you can use any type of theme for a line, you can mix both literal naming with imagery naming. You’ll have lines that cross, and nodes that start new themes and therefore new lines. Clearly it won’t actually look like the London Underground but it will have lots of names, good bad and many completely daft. But that’s creativity. Write everything down.

Do as many as you can. Go back to it a day later and go again. See if there are any new lines. And maybe go back the next day. Until you’re done.

Sleep on it. Then evaluate. And we’ll talk about evaluation tools some other time.