6 posts categorized "People"

October 03, 2010

When A Comet Meets a Tornado – The Power of Creative Partnerships




In a world that seems to crave the solitary archetypes of the lone hero, the rugged individual, the anti-social nerd and the alpha wolf, have we forgotten the magic, mystery and power that can be found in the story of collaborative creativity? How is it that two people or a “small” group, with individuals capable and talented in their own right, can create together what they could not have done on their own?  These are important questions for both the artistic and entertainment community, as well as that of science and commerce – both in search of “that which is the new” and the illusive innovative breakthrough.

Take, for example, the unexpected “love story” between Professors Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli, who together created the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) Entertainment Technology Center in a unique marriage of science and art.



Many have heard of “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Less known is the story of the unique partnership between Pausch and Marinelli (the Associate Head of Drama at CMU),  in the building of the CMU ETC.  Pausch (the comet – an illuminating astral body) and Marinelli (the tornado – a whirlwind of energy and creativity) were two dynamic men who met each other with polar opposite personalities, skills, life experiences and perspectives, but still found a way to powerfully join forces, create something much bigger than themselves, and unexpectedly change each other in the process.  Their premise: that the false divide that often exists between engineering and art could be bridged by showing that the two actually think surprisingly alike and can work together in trusted collaboration without mastery of knowledge in the other’s domain. Their work resulted in the definition of a unique interdisciplinary approach to the creation of technology-driven interactive entertainment founded on premises of team dynamics that provide valuable lessons for individuals and companies far beyond the walls of academia.

 “…while we were both alpha males, we were from vastly different cultures.  The battle for domination was essentially neutralized when we realized it wasn’t about which lion would rule the pride, because we were actually two distinctive breeds sharing the same enclosure.  And that environment was unfamiliar to both of us … “ - Don Marinelli (p. 42)


Defining the Individual

For Pausch and Marinelli, in order to understand and maximize the dynamics of the group, one had to first define two major dimensions of importance of the individual.

(1) Defining the value one uniquely brings to the team : A unique (self-understood) skill set and a predisposition to making others successful (vs just being smart) are paramount.

“Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 33)

“Smart isn’t enough.  The kind of people I want on my research team are those who will help everyone else feel happy to be here.’” Randy Pausch (p. 118)

(2) Acknowledging the value that “the other half” on the team provides: Defining what you don’t know, and that you don’t need to know it because other trusted members of your team have that knowledge.  Admitting the “lack of knowledge” held by “the other half” tends to clear away many of the opportunities for egos and attitude triggered by a fear of comparison.

“When we’re connected to others, we become better people.” - Randy Pausch (p. 176)

" When I collaborate with people, the further apart they are from me, the more I learn.” - Don Marinelli (p. 80)


Defining the Dynamics of the Group

Pausch and Marinelli believed that the best innovative (and inherently risky in terms of predicted outcome) work would be done by groups defined by a significant diversity of skills and experiences among members, mixed with a strong commonality of “teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, and ability to deal with adversity.”

“When we’re connected to others, we become better people.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 176)

"When I collaborate with people, the further apart they are from me, the more I learn.” - Don Marinelli (p. 80)

Married with this philosophy of the creative team, was a set of simple “rules” for optimizing group dynamics:

  • Meet people properly
  • Find things you have in common
  • Try for optimal meeting conditions
  • Let everyone talk
  • Check egos at the door
  • Praise each other
  • Phrase alternatives as questions

Equally important was a set of guidelines for giving and taking feedback.

  • On giving: “Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other.”  - Randy Pausch (p. 151) 
  • On taking: “When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”   - Randy Pausch (p. 37)


New Research and Writings

Beyond the story of Pausch and Marinelli, there is some interesting new research and writing on this topic of “socially powered creativity” that echoes and amplifies their practical lessons from building the ETC.

Writer Joshua Wolf Shenk has begun a series of posts on Slate.com as well as a group page on Facebook to examine the story of “creative pairs”  (he’s limiting his “group size” to the number 2). His premise:

“The stereotypes of miraculous breakthrough moments—and the incessant drive to locate them in the head of epic individuals—are slowly yielding to a portrait of complex, meandering, inherently social paths toward innovation… there’s an experimental foundation now to demonstrate how our cognitive structures morph when we’re very close with other people, so that our ideas of “self” literally expand to include another person.”

Beyond face-to-face creative collaboration, some like Steven Johnson are writing about the amplification that the Internet provides in its role as a connector of diverse and remote relationships.

And others, like Daniel Pink in “Drive” are writing about what motivates us – and surprise – it’s not about “carrots and sticks”, but about mastery and purpose, something that Pausch and Marinelli learned early on in the forming of ETC.


Lesson Learned

So what happens when a comet meets a tornado – when the creative state successfully moves from the solitary to the collaborative?  In his relationship with Pausch, Marinelli observed that:

 “… (there is an) importance of being attuned to more than one’s personal desires and ambitions.  If you truly believe the answer is blowing in the wind, then you need to go outside to feel it.  I stepped outside my previous existence and, in doing so, discovered an alluring vortex.  The funnel-cloud of creativity would soon develop into a veritable tornado of innovation.”

When it comes to creative endeavors, we should all hope for this kind of “stormy weather.”  Favicon





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April 28, 2009

What Predicts The Ability To Innovate? : Some Perspectives From Pixar


NASA had a problem.  What's the screening criteria for a job that's never been done before - like going to the moon? Namely how do you find those guys (and it was guys then) who have the highest predictive chance of success at something that has never been done before?  They found test/fighter pilots.  But in more general terms, they found a talent pool of people who had failed and recovered.  (It's rather apparent what happened to those who had failed and NOT recovered.)  The generalized criteria:  Error recovery (meaning resiliency and adaptability) and NOT failure avoidance. 

Now think about this same question in terms of today's media or technology companies - whether at the business or individual level. If innovation is determined as a key to differentiation and success, and innovation means doing something that has never been done before - then how do you define the talent criteria and what are the predictors?  Where and how do you find your version of "test pilots cum astronauts?"

Randy Nelson of Pixar provides an interesting take on this question, essentially breaking it down into four criteria.  The video and some key takeaways:

  • Depth: How do you find the "parallel predictor" of someone who will succeed at something new? Look at what else in life they have mastered on a personal or business level. "Mastery in anything is a good predictor in mastering the thing you want done."
  • Breath Breadth: Narrowness is sometimes the thing you get with depth and this needs to be balanced by breath.  You don't want a repetitive one trick pony again if the challenge is going to be to innovate.  You want "someone who is more interested than interesting."   This is indicative of a problem solver; someone who will lean into the problem not just acknowledge its existence.
  • Communication: "Communication is a destination, not a source." It is not something that the "emitter" can measure, although plenty of times we get that judgment.  Only the receiver of communication can measure it.  The listener is the one who can say they get it. 
  • Collaboration: "Collaboration is not a synonym for cooperation; it is not cooperation on steroids."  Innovation requires many people working together; it's not a one person job.  So you need a system or protocol that allows people not to get in each other's way and enables them to amplify what each is doing.

Lesson?  In the innovation economy, stop looking for someone who has done it before. Look for someone who has done something else amazing before (and not necessarily in the same business.)   Egv_tiny_blogicon




(Note: Thanks to Edward Boches, Chief Creative Officer of Mullen, for initially sharing this video via Twitter.) 




November 15, 2008

Tribes - Choose to Lead Rather Than Wait to Be Chosen


Image from the inside jacket of "Tribes" by Seth Godin

Oh you modern city dweller - you think you don't belong to a tribe?  Guess again. If a tribe is defined as a group of people who are connected to each other, to a leader,  to an idea AND they have a way to communicate about a shared interest -  then we are all probably members of multiple tribes. 

The connective power of the Internet and its social media tools has nearly eliminated the barriers of geography, money and time that in the past were powerful definers of the boundaries of tribes and the selection of their leaders.  But technology is just that - technology.  It doesn't have a heart.  It doesn't have ideas.  It doesn't have passion.  That's where leaders come in.

"Tribes" will make you think about leadership in a new way.  Don't wait for leadership to be conferred on you.  Define it for yourself. And there are some sketches of others who have followed this premise and become leaders in tribes as diverse as wine-making, social entrepreneurship, political activism, religion and the Forune 500.

A great evening or afternoon read designed for inspiration.  It is NOT a "how to" blueprint book.  For example, from p.84:

"It's easy to get caught up in the foibles of a corporate culture and the systems that have been built over time, but they have nothing at all to do with the faith that built the system in the first place."

Rating: 47 of 151 pages tabbed/annotated in my copy of "Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us."

September 10, 2007

What Brands Can Learn from Dane Cook

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: This is not a post about whether comedian/actor Dane Cook is funny or not, whether he “steals” other comedian’s material, or if he answers his own emails on his website.  Rather it’s about what brands can learn from the role the digital world plays in the rise of Dane’s popularity and career - about the power of audience and influencer engagement fueled by access and the provision of content that is directly and personally relevant to them.

Danecooksufi_2 According to Wikipedia and his own website, Cook pooled $30k of his own money in 2000 and launched the site which now receives 500,000 hits per month. He also was one of the first celebrities to make extensive use of MySpace, where his profile page currently states that he has over 2 million friends. (Again, it doesn’t matter here if he personally or automatically adds friends’ requests). 

In what may seem like common digital strategy knowledge now, but is often not well practiced, Cook and team provides easy access to his content leveraging platforms and audiences that others have created and audiences they have aggregated, as well as his own branded space, with content including:

  • Video bits from his movie and TV appearances – with the ability to share with friends or embed in your own web pages
  • Digital downloads of songs and comedic bits
  • Podcast (the DANEcast)
  • E-cards and wallpaper
  • Links to articles aimed at different psychodemographics (from Men’s Fitness to The New York Times)
  • Links to ticket sales for his films as well as special offers for his comedy tour tickets

And with his creation of the “SuperFinger” or “SuFi” gesture, he has established a unique platform for consumer generated media - a visual metaphor or hook for fans to create and share their own homages and interpretations.  And he provides the space and platform for their posting and sharing where we can see the recreation of the gesture in everything from M&Ms to peanuts to body paint to carvings in a Halloween pumpkin.

In her September 2006 Salon.com article, “Overcooked,” Heather Havrilesky writes:

“The SuFi, in fact, embodies the appeal of Dane Cook. Short for "Superfinger," it arose from a skit about Cook's quest for an upgraded version of giving someone the finger -- with the thumb, middle finger and ring finger extended. The emptiness of the gesture sums up the frat-boy camaraderie among Cook's fans, and his popularity among college students. In college, after all, jokes aren't really jokes at all, they're just code words for shared experiences. It's considered funny to refer to Burger King as "The BK Lounge" or to refer to a sandwich as a "sangwich"  …..  Such multipurpose phrases are always vague, always applicable to almost any situation and always easy to understand when you're falling-down drunk. The content, in other words, is secondary to the fact that it's shared ... Pretty much everything that goes on between Cook and the audience is just another way of saying, "I hear ya, bro!" Far from banal, this for Cook constitutes "a holy shit moment," as he puts it on his Web site. He and his crew are quite obviously aware of the appeal of such code words…”

(Note: the emphasis in the above quote is mine.)

Currently on his MySpace page, Cook is in fact soliciting and promoting fans interpretations and photos of “SuFi”  and is encouraging them not only to send them to him, but also to make it the default photo on the fan’s MySpace profile page –talk about exponential distribution opportunity of a brand mark without DRM. Clearly he knows that people are as, if not more, interested in sharing what they create with their friends than in sharing that which is professionally created.

From Cook’s MySpace page:

“IMPORTANT NOTE: I really want to have an all NEW TOP 24 in the next weeks. Take a killer high quality photo and make it your default. It could be ANYTHING as long as the SU-FI is in there. If it's really inventive or sexy or just represents me and my stuff in a cool way I will randomly pick some people and get you some swag!

Take a HIGH QUALITY / ORIGINAL SUperFInger photo and make it your default pic on your MySpace page.

I get hundreds of these photographs every week. Here are some of the best SUperFInger pics. Enjoy these and check out my website for MANY MORE! Or you can email your own high quality SU-FI shot. Info on how to do that is at the bottom of this page.”

So What’s The Lesson? 

As a brand, what can you create that generates relevant and emotional engagement with your audience, and with baseline content provided by you,  inspires them to create and share experiences and personal interpretations with their friends in a non-walled garden environment?

August 10, 2007

Robert Sutton and “The No Asshole Rule”

So what’s more taboo, the word or the behavior?

Bobsuttonphoto_4 High tech, digital media, the entertainment industry, and startup environments seem to have their fair share of assholes –bullies in the form of bosses who manage by fear or employees who step on or over their colleagues. Many have even held the belief that those who consistently exhibit that behavior, but are seen as “extraordinarily talented or big winners,” are tolerated and even pampered.  But Robert Sutton, a management science and engineering professor at Stanford University, makes a powerful argument that they stifle the performance of others and the organization as a whole, and are usually (he doesn’t believe in absolutes) successful despite of, rather than because of, their behavior.

“Even organizations that seem to glorify arrogant jerks, like sports teams, can reach a breaking point where superstar coaches or players are so destructive that they are punished and kicked out,” writes Sutton.

Does Coach Bobby Knight come to mind, for example?

Sutton’s book, "The No Asshole Rule," doesn’t suggest that we all sit around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya.”  But he does provide powerful data from other researchers that quantify the impact of assholes on the workplace around them, and the business reasons for mitigating their proliferation.

  • Negative interactions had a fivefold stronger effect on mood in the workplace than positive interactions
  • 25% of bullied victims and 20% of witnesses of bullying quit their jobs.
  • Studies and organizations have actually calculated the TCA – total costs of assholes – for various individuals, and it can be in the $100,000s

At 186 pages, the book is a great 3 hour read - perfect for that San Francisco to Los Angeles business flight.  And an airport is a great place to observe the behavior and make sure you don’t unintentionally embrace it yourself.

So how do you know if you have an asshole in your midst or work for one? You probably already know it in your gut, but Sutton has created the “The Dirty Dozen” - Common  Everyday Actions That Assholes Use. A quick look at the list below. (You’ll have to read the book to get the details.)

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

Along with the handy ID points above, there are also some great guidelines to consider if you want to cultivate an “asshole free” environment, rather than just complain about it:

  1. Say the rule, write it down, and act on it
  2. Assholes will hire other assholes - so don’t let them be part of the hiring process
  3. Get rid of assholes fast - don’t take so long that you find yourself asking “Why did we wait so long?”
  4. Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees – even if they fall into the superstar or “extraordinarily well” category
  5. Power breeds nastiness – remember a little power can be a dangerous thing
  6. Embrace the power-performance paradox – note the reality of a pecking order at work or on the team, but downplay
  7. Manage moments – not just practices, policies and systems; change the little things and something big will likely follow
  8. Model and teach constructive confrontation – use constructive arguments to voice opinions vs. nasty personal ones
  9. Adopt the one asshole rule – the token jerk as the reverse role model can be a useful practice
  10. The bottom line: link big policies to small decencies

Finally, since “asshole poisoning” can be highly contagious, there’s a fun self test (in the book and online) you can take to see if you are safe or on the verge of becoming “one of them” on a permanent or even temporary basis.

To keep the conversation going, send Sutton an email about your experiences and support the concept that civilized workplaces and teams are not pipe dreams. You can also can check out his writing on The Huffington Post where he is a contributor or on the his Harvard Business School blog “The Working Life.”

June 13, 2007

What Brands Can Learn from Ze Frank

The Show with Ze Frank began on March 17, 2006 and ended exactly one year later. You can watch Ze's Zefranktitle sportracers (aka his viewers) giving their "I'll be seeing you's" in a compilation video with many homages to the past year of shows. Ze provided an easy way for fans to upload their videos  and see those from others. Don't miss Ze's final show.

Now imagine a brand creating a way in which it can engage its customers and influencers in as interesting and honest a way.


Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.