Archive for the 'Creativity' Category

Pixar: Space as an Instrument for Collaboration

Point: Design physical spaces for unplanned collaborations that spark creativity.

Story: One place to look for advice on designing physical spaces for creativity and collaboration is Stanford’s design school, the birthplace of design thinking as we know it today. (The term dates back to Herbert Simon’s 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial and was further explained by Robert McKim’s book, Experiences in Visual Thinking, but it was Stanford’s Rolf Faste and David Kelley who popularized the term and applied it to business.)

Now, Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, co-directors of the Environments Collaborative at the, have written a book, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration that’s full of advice and case studies of these creative spaces.

David Kelley, founder of IDEO and of the, writes in the book’s forward: “Regardless of whether it’s a classroom or the offices of a billion-dollar company, space is something to think of as an instrument for innovation and collaboration. Space is a valuable tool that can help you create deep and meaningful collaborations in your work and life.”

Example: Pixar
A real-life example of a physical space that encourages creative collaboration is the building that houses Pixar, the computer animation studio that created innovative, Academy-award-winning blockbuster films like Toy Story, Monsters and Finding Nemo.

As Walter Isaacson writes in his biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs designed the Pixar building to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” Jobs said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”  The front doors and main stairs and corridors all lead to a central atrium, where a cafe and employee mailboxes are located as well.

John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, confirmed the success of the building’s layout: “Steve’s theory worked from day one. I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”


  • Create open spaces and natural gathering places that draw people out of their offices and into the collaborative social space.
  • Organize entrances, stairways, and passage ways to intersect in ways that encourage random encounters and mingling (help people congregate rather than segregate).
  • Offer movable walls, whiteboards on wheels, lightweight movable furniture (put things on casters), and other flexible objects to encourage reconfiguration and organic development of the work environment.

3 Comments »Case study, CEO, Creativity, How-to, Innovation

Visualizing Insights

Point: Use visual representations to spur innovative thinking.

Story: Scientific visualization is typically used to communicate data and scientific results, but it can also spark ideas.

Felice Frankel is a scientific photographer who works with scientists across many disciplines — chemistry, biology, oceanography, and so forth. As she sees it, the various disciplines share similar ways to represent data. But, “Unfortunately, you rarely see scientists from different disciplines talking with each other,” she says.

Images can jumpstart communication by creating a common language among different disciplines. What’s more, images can spark new ideas, even if those images are of data which you yourself have been working with for years. Seeing your data presented in a new way can yield new insights. The new depiction gives you a new perspective.

For example, in one project, Frankel was exploring how to show glowing nano-crystals suspended in liquid. She zeroed in on an abstraction that cropped the top and bottom off each glass cuvette of the nano-crystals. The resulting image removed all visual references to the nano-crystals’ containers. After seeing Frankel’s photograph, Moungi Bawendi, an MIT scientist who’d been working with nano-crystals for years, thought of a potentially new application for them because the new image reminded him of a colored bar code. Bar codes are used as a form of labeling. Seeing the nano-crystals arranged like a bar code gave Bawendi the idea to use them as an alternative to fluorescent organic dyes that scientists currently use for labeling, imaging, and monitoring biological systems, particularly in their response to cancer.

In addition, the visual language of pictures and graphics breaks down the barriers of jargon, discipline-related terminology, and language, making it possible for non-experts or non-native speakers to provide input and collaborate. The visual language “allows us to talk to each other about an image, point out parts that are interesting or beautiful, and ask questions without hesitation,” Frankel says.

Similarly, for David Macaulay, drawing is his way to figure things out, to question, clarify and think about things.  Macaulay, bestselling author and illustrator of The Way Things Work and 24 other highly-illustrated books, says: “When you draw something, you really have to look at it. And when you really look at it, you can’t avoid thinking about it.”

Macaulay’s books are primarily images, interspersed with words. “How great is it to have those two languages to work with and pick and choose from?” Macaulay says.

I’m looking forward to meeting Macaulay and Frankel at the Business Innovation Factory’s annual summit on Sept. 19-20, 2012. The summit is almost sold out (it sells out every year), but a few seats remain available as of this posting.


  • Look at images from different disciplines to see new ways to present your data or visualize the problems and solutions that you work on.
  • Create images with different arrangements, even abstractions, of your data or system to reveal new patterns in your data or ideas.
  • Ask people what they see in your images, whether it’s patterns, beauty, or metaphors that can spark new ideas about your area of work.


Felice Frankel’s new website:

Felice Frankel and Angela H. DePace, Visual Strategies, Yale University Press, 2012

Deborah Halber, “Smarter Quantum Dots,MIT Spectrum, Fall 2011.

Tim McIntire, Felice Frankel: Scientific Discovery Through Visualization

Frankel, Felice. “The Power of the ‘Pretty Picture,’” Nature Materials.

No Comments »Creativity, How-to, Innovation

Collaboration in Innovation Competitions

Point: Innovation tournaments can be run either competitively or collaboratively, with each approach yielding better results for different purposes.

Story: In his second book, Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition, (named the 2011 best book on innovation by CEORead) innovation speaker Stephen Shapiro offers 40 tips on how to innovate efficiently.  His tip #11, for example, tackles the topic of innovation competitions and tournaments. The tip focuses on what role, if any, collaboration should play in these bounty-driven events.

Innovation tournaments can be run either competitively or collaboratively, Shapiro says.  In a competitive tournament, such as ones run by Cisco and LG Electronics, no participant can see rivals’ submissions.  In a collaborative tournament, such as GE’s Eco-Imagination challenges, anyone can see a submission and comment on or vote on the entry. The Netflix Prize and X Prize use a hybrid version, running the tournaments as competitions for prizes but allowing for collaboration within each submission.

Which approach generates the best solutions? Collaborative tournaments work best in areas where problems require “cumulative knowledge” or “building on best practices,” Shapiro says, citing research by Kevin Boudreau and Karim Kakhani in the Sloan Management Review. The collaborative approach lets players build on to each other ideas and create more refined ideas based on feedback from other participants.

Competition, in contrast, is most effective when the problem requires broad experimentation with an emphasis on truly new ideas rather than refined ideas  The competitive aspect means that many different ideas are pursued simultaneously. Whereas collaboration enjoys the benefits of players influencing each other, competition enjoys the benefits of players being independent of each other, thereby avoiding problems like groupthink, which might artificially narrow the ideas along the basis of the first idea suggested.  In some cases, a hybrid approach will use competition in phase one of the tournament to gather a lot of ideas and then use collaboration during a second phase to flesh out and refine the most promising ideas.


  • Hold an innovation tournament to access the innovative energies of suppliers, customers, and smart people from around the world.
  • Use a collaborative tournament if you need ideas that are cumulatively built and more carefully refined by the players.
  • Use a competitive tournament if you want a wider range of “left-field” ideas and plan to do your own refinement or hold a two-stage contest in which the second stage refines the ideas of the first.

4 Comments »Creativity, How-to, Innovation, open innovation, Strategy

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