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The Unfinished Interview with Dave Gray

Dave Gray is the Founder and Chairman of XPLANE, the visual thinking company. Founded in 1993, XPLANE has grown to be the world’s leading consulting and design firm focused on information-driven communications. Dave’s time is spent researching and writing on visual business, as well as speaking, coaching and delivering workshops to educators, corporate clients and the public.

Dave will be giving the Unfinished Lecture at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) on 22 Sept. 2009. The series is sponsored by Torch Partnership and hosted by Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD.

I interviewed Dave online, Monday 14 Sept, 2009 via a live Google doc.

MICHAEL DILA: Dave, tell me about the new book you are writing. I know you are collaborating with two colleagues, Sunni Brown & James Macanufo. Last time we talked you called it a “playbook”. Can you tell me what you meant by that and what it is a playbook for?

DAVE GRAY: Dan Pink has pointed out that creative work needs a different approach than industrial work. Rewards and incentives work well for manual work, but for creative work they have the opposite effect — creative work is motivated from within; it’s intrinsically motivated. In this book we want to lay out a theory and set of principles for creative work, but at the same time offer practical methods that teams can use to inject more innovation and creativity into their work, in the same way that a team uses a playbook to approach the playing field in a cohesive way.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I know Dan is found of using right-brain, left-brain language, which I personally don’t find that illuminating as a way of thinking about these things, That said, I have more recently become interested in the neuroscience around things like the phenomena of insight and other perceptual and reasoning frameworks that are relevant to creativity and innovation. I know that you, too, have an interest in the brain. Does that figure at all in the thinking of this new book?

DAVE: Brain science is moving so quickly these days — it’s a real renaissance. We are learning so much, so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. At the same time the insights are so revealing that they are impossible to ignore. So yes, brain science definitely figures into the book. One book that offers an excellent synthesis of brain science is John Medina’s Brain Rules, which I am currently reading with great interest. Dan Pink is pretty clear that he uses the right-brain, left-brain dichotomy as a metaphor for creative vs. linear thinking, and he acknowledges that the brain is more complex than that. In our book we are focusing our attention on what Dan Pink calls “r-directed thinking” because we feel that there’s a pretty substantial set of literature and tools for the more linear, sequential aspects of knowledge work. Six Sigma, for example, which came out of Motorola and was popularized by GE, offers a comprehensive set of approaches for thinking about linear processes, manufacturing, efficiency and productivity. It’s a great set of tools, except the fundamental principles that drive Six Sigma simply don’t apply to creative work. These principles are based on manufacturing to a standard. You can measure quality down to the millimeter if you know the specifications you want to meet. You can’t apply these methods to creative work because your goal is different — you are aiming to do something new. You can’t say to Stephen King, “Here are the specifications for your next novel. I need you to meet these quality standards: 3.4 misspellings per million words. I mean, it just won’t get you a quality product.

MICHAEL: OK, well I’m glad that you brought up the word goal. It’s a favorite of our friend Paul Pangaro, who likes to remind us that all intelligent systems have goals. I know it’s difficult to always think of creative work as having a goal or at least a clear goal.

DAVE: One of the challenges creative teams face is that they *can’t* have clear goals. They need to move forward in the face of ambiguity. They have what I like to call fuzzy goals, which are clear enough to understand the target and general direction, but vague enough to account for uncertainty about the way the problem is framed. Pablo Picasso once said “You need to begin with an idea, but it should be a vague idea.” Fuzzy goals are approximate and leave ample room for unexpected, positive results. Thomas Edison once said “Just because something didn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t make it useless.” Xerox PARC is a great example of a creative effort where the company did everything right, except recognize and capitalize on the innovation when it arrived. Xerox was so focused on documents and document management that they dropped the ball on the mouse, ethernet and the graphical user interface.

MICHAEL: I want to come back to a point you made earlier about the motivation behind creative work. I am absolutely with you on the importance of intrinsic motivation. In fact, I just recently wrote a note to myself: “successful innovation lies squarely between intrinsic and instrumental motivations.” Innovation happens where those things are in balance, in other words. That said, what can you say about how people find or fail to find that balance, because there seems a need for a parallel caution to the one you indicated in reference to PARCs failure to capitalize on innovation. There’s always the danger that creativity gets lots in the woods and can’t find its way back to relevance. Maybe someone should write a playbook for creativity & innovation? But, of course, you are writing just such a book. So, please say something about what’s in a playbook. Rules, recipes, puppy dog tails?

DAVE: I am sure I am not the only one who is tired of hearing people diagnose the problem without providing a prescription. “You’re going to die and you have six months” has some value — it helps you know it’s time to get things in order — but I am sure most people would prefer to hear that there’s a cure to what’s ailing them. A playbook isn’t just a diagnosis or description of “the way things are” but a practical manual of ideas and options for making things work. In any game, including the game of life, you will find yourself in predicaments, pickles, problematic dilemmas. A playbook may not have all the answers but it *will* offer examples of what people have done when they faced similar situations in the past. To answer your question, I see rules and recipes, but probably not puppies, dogs, or tails — nor should you expect sugar, spice or any other panaceas. Creativity and innovation don’t get left in your stocking or under the Christmas tree. You have to work for them.

MICHAEL: You’ve been involved in some interesting experiments with writing, your own “unbook” Marks & Meaning which you self-published, along with contributions from others, updates and versions. I know that you and I have also both been interested in our friend Alex Osterwalder’s work on his forthcoming book about business model innovation. Tell me something about your collaboration with James and Sunny on this project. What’s the division of labor? What’s the experience like and does the design of how you are writing the book connect in any way with its content?

DAVE: It’s funny. As you may know, the publisher for this particular book is O’Reilly Media, a publisher that’s known for their technical books. Unlike the kinds of books you see from people like J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, technical books are defined by the subject they are covering more than the creativity of the author’s imagination. So as we approached this book, of course we wanted to apply some of the same innovative techniques we were writing about. This quickly became a problem, because the publisher wanted to see a detailed project plan that we would promise to stick to, and that they could use to hold us accountable. But as you well know, I believe you should practice what you preach, and as I mentioned earlier, truly creative projects require fuzzy goals, not detailed outlines. They squawked a bit at first, but I have to say that I am proud we decided to work with O’Reilly, because at the end of the day they understood very well that true innovation is a moving target and fully endorsed our approach, and it’s paying off.

MICHAEL: What would you say the hardest part about writing and thinking through these things with others has been for you. I know that you are an ace collaborator. I’ve always admired you for the way you work with others. But there must be challenges when you have a string vision or point of view. Have you had disagreements? What kind and how do work them out?

DAVE: So far I call ‘em as I see ‘em. I suppose it helps that I am the alpha dog on the team, so they do what I say. The others probably bitch behind my back, but who cares? Mercifully I am almost completely deaf and due to my age and mental infirmity, most of their jokes go completely over my head.

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