#9/10 Crucial Survival Skills for the 21st Century CIO - Creativity

This is the ninth article in the series of 10 Crucial Survival Skills for the 21st Century CIO. If you haven't read the earlier postings, start your journey here.

"Some men see things as they are and say "why?" 
I dream things that never were and say "why not?"
— Robert F. Kennedy

Margaret Atwood
Image: Wikipedia
In my file drawer I have a letter from Margaret Atwood.

If you are not from Canada, you may not have been made to read her books in high school not have an appreciation for her proclivity to produce best selling novels or books of poetry, or her passionate stance on social and environmental issues. Check out the Wikipedia page here. You will be impressed.

Margaret has been creative in the writing space for a long time. But that's not why I'm highlighting her in this post on creativity, or why I have a letter from her in my file.

One of the banes (or joys) of being a best selling author is the 'book tour'. Since Margaret had so many best selling books, she had a lot of touring to do.  For those of you who spend much time on the road living out of a suitcase, you know that the 'exotic' part of travel disappears rather quickly and being at home eating a peanut butter sandwich is about the best place in the world you can think of.

The story goes (and I believe it since I heard it directly from Margaret's son Matthew Gibson) that one day the courier stopped at Margaret's house to deliver a package.  Instead of a clipboard, he handed her his handheld device to sign.  The idea of signing something electronically and still having it be a valid, legal signature impressed Margaret. But here's where the story gets interesting and may get Matthew in trouble since I'm not sure how many people have heard this version.

Margaret is brilliant at a lot of things, but as with many of her generation, the workings of technology was not one of them.  In her mind she could envision a robotic hand with a pen, somewhere deep in the courier company that was mimicking her actions so that it could produce a valid, legal signature.  How silly is that?

She told her son about her thoughts, and Matthew chuckled because he knew technology and knew there wasn't a robotic hand...  To which Margaret replied; "Why not?  If I had a robotic hand that could sign books in a different city, then I wouldn't have to travel as much."

Matthew knew his mother and such, knew she wouldn't give up on this idea.  So he had to build it. And so, LongPen(TM) was conceived.  

He gathered some bright minds and put together a working model of a system that used video conferencing to allow authors to speak to book buyers, and haptic technology that allowed the author to hold a pen and a corresponding device would mimic the motions and pressure of the authors movements - producing a signature on a book.  

At the time I was CIO at Sheridan College and we were just fine tuning the infrastructure we had put in place to support high end videoconferencing, and needed a real life situation to case harden our environment.  We were approached by Tandberg (now Cisco) to see if we could help set up a multipoint video link between 3 countries on 2 continents with multiple locations (but we had to do it in a matter of hours).  We pulled it off, and so a brief partnership with Matthew Gibson and LongPen was established. (That's why I have a letter from Margaret).

This long story gets to the essence of this posting's critical skill - Creativity.

Margaret was unbound by the constraints of her education, knowledge or experience and as such, applied the power of creativity to envision a solution that didn't exist before to a real problem - which is the core of innovation.


There are significant resources available on the topic of creativity and I'll present some of my favorites in a future post, but the essence of some great thinkers is that we are all born with copious amounts of ability to be creative.  We then beat it out of our kids in school by forcing them into linear thinking, memorizing of facts without application, and pressuring them to conform to an image that may be foreign to how the student is wired.  If you are a parent of a normal, active child you can identify with how difficult it is for them to sit through a class designed for quiet, compliant people.

The good news?  You can resurrect your creativity.  And you need to if you are going to be an effective 21st Century IT leader.

The competency of 'Creativity' in practice looks like this:

  • You have trained yourself to be unconstrained by your education, previous experiences and biases to come up with new and novel ideas.  You know not every idea will fly, but you have a lot of good material to work with.
  • You know that creativity is not an individual sport. You surround yourself with, and engage with other creative people.
  • You know who Sir Ken Robinson is and have watched his TedTalk video on how schools kill creativity, or have read one of his books.
  • You use visual and non-linear methods to develop new ideas:
  • You interact with people who don't think like you do. You read op/ed articles with opposing viewpoints, you expose yourself to ideas from people from other political parties, religions and (gasp!) even users of other operating systems (Android, Mac, Win...)
  • You have defined creative spaces that work for you... your home office, the park by the lake, the Tim Horton's or Starbucks.  You know you have to get out of the "normal" to stimulate creative ideas.

Revitalizing your creativity competency is perhaps the most crucial of the skills you need to develop.  It both leverages and empowers all the other competencies.

Creativity unleashed produces passion. Creativity channeled produces innovation.

PS. If by some miracle Margaret Atwood happens to read this... Please do not judge me on my grammatical skills.

How would you describe 'creativity' in action?

I'll be presenting one competency per posting over the next while, and compile them into one big, long post when complete.

Next posting: Copious, Continuous, Infectious Passion


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