Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catmull - Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration

Steve Jobs, while making his way through throngs of fans at the 79th Annual Academy Awards that would grant “Cars” its best animated feature film award, turned to colleague Ed Catmull, and remarked “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.” Irreverent, funny (if you forgive Jobs for cultural insensitivity) and more – it was one of those comments that Jobs would say to a loyal colleague like Ed. And it is this kind of perspective taking that made Jobs so brilliant, visionary, and successful and allowed him to see, even at the Academy Awards, the potential for a greater spectacle.

With a new film coming out about Jobs in late October, I can’t imagine better preparation than Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (2014) as a way to get a glimpse of how difficult Jobs could be but also how compassionate, creative, and engaging he could be as well.  Creativity, Inc. isn’t about Jobs but about Pixar, the organization he bought from George Lucas, nurtured through difficult times, and ultimately supported all the way to its great successes with Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and others.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more discerning book on the impact of organization climate on creativity and innovation. With innovation very much on the radar for advanced economies that are shifting their focus to services and quality of life, for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational organizations would do well to pay close attention to the story of Pixar – how it came to be, how its founders established the open culture that would support creativity, and how difficult it was to maintain this culture over the long haul.

Catmull and his colleagues founded Pixar with the goal of producing the first ever digitally animated film, a goal that was far beyond his or anyone else’s capability when they started on their journey. They created an organization that was partially about its physical space, one that eventually was characterized as Steve Jobs’ “movie,” but more importantly it was about how Pixar approached problems. As Catmull said about Pixar, “we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

Pixar had a different vision of itself. The staff “realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.” This culture would be characterized by avoiding confining rules, by candor, by assuming equality among all employees, by recognizing and pushing problems down to places where they can be solved,  and by adopting a framework that supports talent and excellence. And this kind of creative culture would be guided by leaders who were humble, recognized what they didn’t know, welcomed risk,  had the ability to suspend habits and impulses that had the potential to obscure their vision, and cultivated constant learning.

Creativity, Inc. brings great hope to those who seek to innovate by offering many practical examples and tips.  As one who sought to bring innovation to higher education in a number of ways (and I still do), I have frequently felt dismissed for seeing things differently than others. I’ve always understood that innovation by its nature is about change and that there will always be resistance to things that are outside the norm. Looking back on some experiences that I viewed as failures is difficult but Catmull helped me find dignity in striving when he said, “creative people discover and realize visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.” Leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative need to realize that, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

I knew Jake...

The accidental death of 34 year old Jake Brewer seems distant but so very close. I chanced to meet him at a conference 10 years ago, when I was just beginning to share ideas that eventually became the foundation for Deeper Learning in Leadership. In ways characterized by media in covering his life, I have rarely met someone with as much compassion and energy. I didn't know Jake well but connected and followed his meteoric rise to service. He is the personification of DLL and proof that presence, flow, and oscillation are keys to positive leadership.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Chicago - haven for retirement

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial on "Why you shouldn't retire to Chicago" took a humorous approach to pitching why Chicago is exactly the opposite - a great place to retire. As someone who isn't ready to hang it up - physically, intellectually, culturally - I had significant ambivalence about what retirement would look like. Thank goodness we chose to follow our kids to Chicago, wanting to be close to them as they started parenting but also believing that Chicago had the right combination of opportunities to make sure that we maintained an interesting and active life.

With this being the first full summer I've spent in Chicago, it's hard to believe how spectacular the weather has been and how busy we have stayed. Temps have remained at very reasonable levels and periodic rain has freshened the days and kept gardens pristine all summer. This has provided lots of opportunity to exercise outside, go to Lake Michigan beaches, and enjoy picnics at a concert or in our very own backyard. Entertaining Reese (our grand-daughter) is not difficult as you can see from her laughter as Aunt Darbi and Steve (Dad) teach her how to have fun in the water.
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This post is not intended to invite one-upmanship of any type. It is simply to share the advantages of living in a city like Chicago when you have more time and freedom to do things you want to do. The "city" choice is one that many baby-boomers are more often making, evidenced by the many "grey hairs" we see at places we visit or events we attend. Whether it is the incredible museums (Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, Cultural Center), art galleries (Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art), architecture (Chicago Architecture Foundation boat, bus, and walking tours to both 19th/20th century skyscrapers and contemporary buildings), Botanical Gardens, dance (Joffrey Ballet, Auditorium Theater), music (classical, jazz and pop readily available at venues such as Ravinia Festival, Symphony Hall, Pritzker Plaza), cultural neighborhoods or fun and trendy restaurants, there 's more to see in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs than anyone would be able to absorb in a lifetime.

These videos provide just a sampling of the musical life we've enjoyed this summer. The first is a Big Band performance at the Chicago Botanical Gardens:
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Then there was the Ravinia Festival; we saw everything from Lady Gaga to the Chicago Symphony to the Piano Guys:
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And the Chicago Jazz Festival at Grant Park (where we also saw a number of other performances) introduced us to a variety of jazz styles that helped us expand our musical horizon:
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And, the last of the summer season outdoor concerts for us... Stars of Lyric Opera at Grant Park - here in the duet from Verdi's La Traviata:
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Besides partaking of a vibrant and active city's cultural scene, Chicago offers reality. There are certainly issues of marginalized groups, poverty, or sub-standard housing that any city has. The thing that retirement allows us to do is to actually engage in trying to make a difference on these issues. The church we've joined is actively involved in children's and adult ministries, music, food pantry for those in need, and many other service/philanthropy initiatives. It's such a privilege to benefit from where you live while giving back at a time in life when we actually have the freedom to enjoy it.

The summer is coming to an end but the fall and winter will be easy to endure while remembering what a great summer we've had in our new home town. The fireworks began our summer and end this post - let there be more!
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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zakaria - In Defense of a Liberal Education

One of the ongoing debates in higher education is whether or not liberal education is relevant in the modern day. Part of the problem is that liberal education comes with the baggage of privilege; one of the hallmarks of elite education in the 19th and early 20th century (which is maintained today) is that liberal learning was essential for those who came from privileged families where practical competencies and skills were not required in order to have a life of gainful employment and purpose.

Coming from an unexpected place, a young man who came to the U.S.A. as an international student from India where practical education (i.e. engineering, medicine, business) is the compelling (and sometimes only) goal of families, Fareed Zakaria provides the background of how his family came to accept his older brother’s study at Harvard and Fareed’s at Yale. Not only were Fareed and his brother bucking the family expectation of lucrative career preparation, they were pursuing education in America where, from an Indian family perspective, youth became disrespectful and disconnected as a result of the liberality of their learning and living environment.

Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) provided some background about liberal education over time and in the U.S.A., making the particular point that liberal education is both practical and philosophical. He also made the point that liberal education is often coupled with other experiences that take learning outside of the classroom. He quoted Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard historian, who wrote, “Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.” This mouthful, while antiquated in terminology, is hard to beat in terms of describing the holistic learning environment that research has found to be most powerful and that student development educators work so hard to create.

The challenge that Zakaria ultimately addresses by example is the perception among many that liberal education is just for elite, privileged individuals who have the luxury to study subjects that cannot possibly be relevant to most hard-working middle class students who attend mainstream public higher education  institutions. He challenges this perception with the example of the liberal arts and sciences model established in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Zakaria characterizes the plan as radical and innovative in restoring “sciences to its fundamental place in an undergraduate’s education. It abolishes departments, seeing them as silos that inhibit cross-fertilization, interdisciplinary works, and synergy.” Like the Harvard curriculum idealized by Morison, the Yale-NUS liberal arts and sciences model includes “projects outside the classroom, in the belief that a ‘work’ component teaches valuable lessons that learning from a book cannot” and it adds to the body of knowledge that has been at the core of U.S.A. liberal education by restoring science to its proper place, combining core with open exploration, and incorporating knowledge of new countries and cultures as a central, rather than a peripheral, component of education.

I genuinely got excited about the type of learning advocated by Zakaria and hope that the 2011 Yale-NUS model of liberal arts and sciences takes off in Singapore and in other areas of the world where new ways of learning are being explored. This new kind of learning will be transformative in the way it combines various aspects of the student experience with math, science, and other subjects at the same time it focuses on the ultimate objective of fostering creativity, imagination, and innovation.