29 Apr Scarlet Thinkers: Paul Birch
An interview with Paul Birch of Vision Juice
For a long time I’ve been thinking of running series of interviews with people who think differently and Paul Birch is an example of that. I met Paul when he was giving a lecture at The Association of Business Psychologists. His topic was creative thinking, and whilst I enjoyed the exercises we did during the workshop, I was blown away by the results I got when I applied them to some of my own work on the tube on the way home.
Paul runs a company called www.visionjuice.com, where he and his colleagues concentrate on facilitating and helping teams to think differently. You may also have heard of Paul as the Corporate Jester for BA, an example of Scarlet Thinking if there ever was one.
Over to Paul…
Paul, I know your work is all about getting people to think differently. What do you mean by that?
I mean a whole range of things. When I left the corporate world to set up my business the focus was on creativity – primarily problem solving. The creativity morphed into all aspects of creativity – having ideas, solving problems, inventing things, naming things, design, art – a whole range. Over time my focus has broadened to include a couple of other areas that I’ve always been fascinated by; leadership and change. So, thinking differently still means creativity but it also includes facilitating groups through change, working with leadership teams to help them to become more effective, working with individuals to change their lives – sometimes in small ways and sometimes profoundly – and a whole range of other things. My belief is that if you can find ways to think differently about an issue, a problem or an obstacle then you are already well on your way to surmounting it.
What are some easy ways that people can practise thinking differently on a daily basis?
I guess, at the most fundamental level, I would start with the old computer adage, “Garbage in, garbage out”. What you put into your brain is a key part of what you’re able to get out of your brain. If you always put the same things in you will, predictably, continue thinking in the same ways. If you work to vary the inputs you will stimulate new ways of seeing the world and, inevitably, new ways of thinking. So, read different newspapers, read a range of bloggers with a wide range of views, watch varied TV programmes, read a wide range of magazines, read a book that isn’t your style, go to see shows that wouldn’t immediately appeal, go to galleries, shop in a different shop or area, do whatever you can think of to vary the inputs. Life gets to be more fun this way as well as stimulating more varied thoughts. I once ran a multi-day session with a group of people at their corporate headquarters. I asked them to come into work the following day by a different route to their normal one. When we started the second day, not a single person had remembered to do this because as soon as they’d left home they’d been on auto-pilot. We live a large part of our lives not thinking about what we do. Varying the inputs makes this auto-pilot less likely. Do allow yourself times when you’ll curl up with comfort and relax though, that’s also good.
Wanting instant results. Allocate time to thinking of any sort. What would this killer idea or this problem solution be worth to you? How much time would you be happy to allocate to it to have great ideas? I’d suggest you allocate less than the full amount because developing ideas takes more time than having them. Thinking in this way means that you are likely to allow far more time to having ideas than you would normally. When you do allocate time make sure that you don’t just sit in front of a blank piece of paper; have some forms of stimulation to help your thinking. www.visionjuice.com/tools has a few ways of stimulating thinking that might help.
Thinking creatively is one thing but having the confidence to put your original ideas forward is another. Do you have any advice around this?
My immediate thought in response to the question was, “JFDI”. Thinking more seriously, I can see that, for some people, this would be a hard step. Think about your preferred styles of interaction. If you are someone who loves to be on show and in the limelight then create a show, put yourself on stage. If you are someone who prefers to share at a distance then write it down in a compelling way. Remember also that what’s compelling for you might not be compelling for the person you’re pitching to. What is their preferred style? If they are the sort who want you to be quick, to be interesting and be gone then keep it really brief yet convincing.
Any tips for facilitators or team leaders who want to encourage creative and original thinking in their team?
I think that one of the first steps would be to think about what might be getting in the way of creative and original thinking. How about holding your own creativity session where you write for yourself as many ways as you can think of that you could stop or undermine creative and original thought in your team. Having done this look at how many of them are already reflected in the reality of the team. These ones could then be removed or lessened in some way. Now you could take the rest of the list, the ones that don’t currently exist for your team and reverse them in some way to generate whole new ways of working that will genuinely encourage and support creative and original thought. In my experience the big things that get in the way are:
- Risk aversion – there are industries where safety is of crucial importance. This leads to risk aversion in the safety critical areas, and quite rightly so, but also extends the risk aversion to areas of the business that need not be so cautious. The other important thing about risk is that ideas are not risky. It is things that you implement that have risk. Be as risky as you like with ideas and then, for those that have risk attached, find ways of mitigating this.
- Judgement – ideas almost always get subjected to evaluation before anyone has had a chance to make them make sense. Find ways to hold back judgement until the idea has been filled out and developed a little.
- Embarrassment – in some environments, original thinking can feel risky in itself. Develop ways to make sure that ideas are welcomed. One easy way is to insist on absurdity in the initial ideas. It is easier to make absurd, appealing ideas creative and workable than it is to develop unoriginal ideas into something original.
Who do you see as some of the most inspired and original thinkers today?
The arts world is a good place to look. Those who are writing or presenting work that doesn’t land comfortably with everyone or comedians whose appeal is outside of the mainstream. Technology is an obvious place to look. Those firms or individuals who are questioning the world that we take for granted. TED Talks used to be a viewport into this world but in recent times their appeal has widened and you get fewer inspired, original geeks and more polished performances. Which is not to say that there are not inspired and original thinkers giving TED Talks, far from it. It’s just harder to sift them out. Then there is the area of social change. Finding individuals who are passionate about making positive change in the world. Obviously some are misguided and some are true visionaries. It’s largely your own beliefs that will determine which are which.
Any great books that you would recommend on the subject?
Lots. There are more great books out there than you will ever read in your lifetime and, since I said early on in this that you should be varying the inputs you seek, it is not only books on creativity, original thought or inspiration that I could recommend here. Mind you, since that’s really what you’re asking let’s give it a try. These are in no particular order:
• Michael J. Gelb – How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci
• Rod Judkins – The Art of Creative Thinking
• Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way
• Michael Michalko – Thinkertoys
• Roger von Oech – A Whack On The Side Of The Head
• Jonah Lehrer – Imagine
• Wikipedia – Creativity – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creativity
• Wilkipedia – Creativity Techniques – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creativity_techniques
• A Fast Company article on Teresa Amabile overturning some myths of creativity – http://www.fastcompany.com/51559/6-myths-creativity
• Arthur van Gundy, Structuring the Fuzz – http://www.cul.co.uk/structuringthefuzz.html
• A Q&A session with Jonah Lehrer, Author of Imagine – http://mashable.com/2012/04/02/creativity-jonah-lehrer-imagine/
• Baroness Susan Greenfield speaking on the neuroscience of creativity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuTyaBxkWW8
• Using the SCAMPER technique to generate ideas – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4jMend3u1U
• David Kelley talking about creative confidence – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16p9YRF0l-g
• Interview with Prof. Vincent Walch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyU-AbYiEd0
• Talk by Prof. Vincent Walch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfMvqkrQkYQ
To look at those that are not about creativity try:
http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/69635.100_Books_to_Read_in_a_Lifetime_Readers_Picks – these are certainly not all books that I’d recommend but it’s a great place to start