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Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”


A moment of homage to the hand. My hand. Your hand.

I started the morning reading about the relationship between a person’s problem solving skills and their ability to work with his or her hands. The correlation is significant enough that some recruiters look for cerebral problem solving candidates with car repair experience on their resume (if only!) In a stimulating post about work and play by the author of Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds has assembled a good selection of videos about how important play is in every aspect of our lives. Tim Brown (from IDEO) gave a TED talk in 2008 that is worth watching, particularly to see how he engages playfully with his audience (walking the talk in a particularly refreshing way.) Also worth a watch is another TED talk (gotta live TED!) by Dr. Stuart Brown who states his point of view quite directly: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

There’s some definite playfulness in another book I’m reading, Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals. Their blog, Signal vs Noise, is a lively and interesting place to visit as well.

And thanks to my Tweeter buddy James Burke for alerting me to Reynolds’ site. It’s a steady flow of stimulating stuff.

Innovation. It is the subject of IBM ads that air during football games as well as a constant issue for anyone who is a maker of poems, paintings, music, theatre.

A recent article in the New York Times captured some of the occupational hazards encountered by those who have to deal daily with what does not yet exist. Although the article is primarily geared for innovation issues within a corporate setting, it raises relevant concerns for the soloist as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge…means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path…

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems…”

Here is Rabe’s advice for how to find zero-gravity thinkers:

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

That’s what the poets in my life are–my very own zero-gravity thinkers. They work in a related area but not in my specific field. They force me to look at the world differently.

Now the question I have is this: Can a visual artist do the same for them?