Monday, January 25, 2010

"Flow" at Work

Over the weekend, I read "Authentic Happiness" by Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the field called Positive Psychology.  His work was featured in Time back in 2005, but he's been mentioned in just about every other book I've been reading:

He writes extensively about how we can create "flow" at work, defined by his colleague Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as the experience of total absorption in an activity -- positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

Seligman argues in the book that just about anyone can turn their job into a calling by infusing their signature strengths into their daily routine and thus create more opportunities for flow. 

*Sidenote -- I would highly recommend taking Dr. Seligman's VIA Strengths Survey at his website, to figure out what yours are.

But that got me to thinking -- if one of your signature strengths is "creativity, ingenuity, and originality," but you're working in an environment that doesn't share that value, might you be fighting an uphill battle? 

Unfortunately, the answer happens to be yes.  Seligman says that certain industries (think law and banking) are actually set up to discourage the kind of positive mood that favors creativity.  For instance, in tasks that require critical thinking, like doing your income taxes or deciding whom to fire, Seligman advises readers to "carry these out on rainy days, in straight-backed chairs, and in silent, institutionally painted rooms.  Being uptight, sad, or out of sorts will not impede you; it may even make your decisions more acute."  (I added the bold and underline for emphasis)

"In contrast," -- and this is the part we're concerned about -- "any number of life tasks call for creative, generous, and tolerant thinking:  planning a sales campaign, finding ways to increase the amount of love in your life, pondering a new career field, deciding whether to marry someone, thinking about hobbies and noncompetitive sports, and creative writing.  Carry these out in a setting that will buoy your mood (for example, in a comfortable chair, with suitable music, sun, and fresh air)."

The moral?  Before you decide to enter a career (and Seligman spends an entire chapter discussing why lawyers end up being some of the least happy people around) devoted to "win-lose" scenarios where competition and cut-throat tactics are the norm, it pays to consider what kind of environment you want spend your days in...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More personal thoughts on creativity -- subtracting to add

Creative thinking -- along with a willingness to take risks -- has often been my differentiator in the working world.  But these attributes are much more than factors that might land me a job over a similarly qualified candidate, or help me find a new way of designing a program or project.  They also give me pride, satisfaction, and an overall feeling of well-being and purpose. 

After two years of national service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, I took the risk of leaving the comfy non-profit world (and climate) of San Diego, CA and relocated back east to become a journalist in New York.  The confidence I gained from working hard to become a professional writer for BusinessWeek -- really learning one aspect of the craft of writing -- was something that paved my way to an even more purely creative pursuit:  sculpting (sometimes known as stone carving), something I do for its own sake.

The connection?  Both are "subtractive" for me in a very particular sense.  Here's what I mean (and let me know if you have a similar process):  my method of writing has long been to throw it all into one document – all the data, the quotes, the rambling attempts at annotated biographies – and then proceed to whittle it down. To carve it, you might way. Stone carving, it follows naturally, is also a subtractive art form.  You use a chisel or rasp to help discover the form already hidden within the stone. 

What I've found is that reducing a mass of matter or words can often "add" more nuance and character than actually adding to it, that you can actually complete a creative endeavor by removing or destroying.  And further, the beauty of seeing a work emerge from an otherwise untended, unharnessed, unsmoothed, unpolished mass of rawness can be supremely satisfying.

Here are some photos of my second work of stone carving (I'm definitely a novice so don't judge me too harshly):

The early stage: 

And now: 

I'm sure this is the same in business, especially in web (and probably often in process and product design), where a stripped-down version can actually function much better than its more decked-out counterpart.  A good example that comes to mind is 1) The Google homepage,

when compared with Yahoo:

 Can you think of others?

Also, I'd love to read your thoughts on creativity.  What media do you use to express yourself?  And how do you integrate it into your work life?  It's an endlessly fascinating subject and one I'd love to discuss through comments and further posts.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Journalists as Designers

On this whole topic of design thinking, there seems an obvious affinity between journalists and design.  Which begs the question -- do journalists make good designers? 

My friends from BusinessWeek -- and those folks at the Harvard Business Review and Fast Company  --  would have us believe that they do, or at least that a business magazine editor can be considered an authority on the topic. 

Like many of today's business journalists, BusinessWeek's Bruce Nussbaum and Helen Walters are enamored with design thinking, and in my first post, I linked to one of Helen's recent articles, "Inside the Design Thinking Process"in which she discusses an experience on a multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary team on a design thinking project. 

Given the narrative of her story, it does seem that Helen brings something to the table -- at the very least a dissenting viewpoint that drives the conversation and process forward. 

So, aside from that argumentative ability, what makes journalists a friend to the field of design, and to design thinking as a practice?  This won't be an exhaustive list, but for one, journalists are good at winnowing a topic down to its rawest storyline and delivering it to the reader in the way they can best digest.  Journalists are also good at seeking out the new, or at least mashing up old topics to make something more or less new.  And perhaps above all, journalists are used to conducting interviews and are often talented at connecting with people in a way that solicits novel insights.

Of course, this last item is a double-edged sword.  From my experience, being skilled at the art of the interview can get journalists into trouble sometimes.  All too often we've preemptively decided on the arc of the story we're trying to tell, and THEN seek out sources that validate us.  Furthermore, for us, the interview can often trump the importance of observation, as it relates to individual behavior.  We're good at observing and remarking on trends in the world.  But observing people doing what people do?  Perhaps less so...

Peter Merholz, "a founding partner and president of Adaptive Path, and"... "internationally recognized thought leader on user experience," in this recent blog post on, seems to agree that journalists are well-suited to design thinking.  In fact, he reveals that two of his firms' cofounders are journalists. 

Merholz adds:  "And much of our company's success has been in utilizing journalistic approaches to gathering information, winnowing it down, finding the core narrative, and telling it concisely. So business can definitely benefit from such 'journalism thinking'".

Of course, this is all a thinly-veiled meditation on my own peculiar predicament.  Why, as a writer and a businessperson, do I feel drawn to design and creativity?  Probably because my training, predispositions, and general positive attitudes toward novelty and art deem it so.  I just feel more useful and valuable in the world when I'm helping give birth to something new, whether that be a piece of journalism, or a PowerPoint deck, or an alabaster sculpture.

It makes me wonder what other fields make good designers?  We have a lot of evidence that anthropologists, engineers with open minds, and architects are valued in the field.  Merholz further confides to the reader that, aside from journlists, his firm also employs "librarians, and historians, and fine artists." 

If you're counting at home, we've already compiled a list of at least seven occupational backgrounds that often make for good designers, or at least good additions to a design thinking team.  In last year's "Creative Design for Affordability" class at Cornell, we also encouraged students of sociology, public affairs, education, law, and others to join -- anyone willing to give it a shot.

Who else would you add to the list?  I'm sure there are huge numbers of strategy people, product managers, and others both inside and outside the business school world whose unique sets of skills and abilities would also make them an asset to any design team. 

Next up, I'll further examine some elements of my own creativity and encourage you to do the same.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Who is this guy and why is he qualified to write about design?

I am Jeff Gangemi, and I am a writer.

I admit that it took a long time to convince myself that I had the right to call myself that in the first place. Ironically, now that I’m two and a half years removed from my career as staff writer for BusinessWeek, I can’t make myself stop saying it, even after adding three completely unrelated letters after my name -- MBA.

But now that I write personal essays, blogs, television scripts (for my day job), and a host of other things, I consider myself more of a writer than ever. 

I'm also a design thinker.

As I've already alluded to, I graduated from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University this past May. My biggest achievement while there was co-founding a class on design called “Creative Design for Affordability” with a classmate named Charles Lo. 

Here's a picture of us during the workshop we did with design firm Design Continuum (he's on the right and I'm across in the blue and red shirt:

You can read an interview with us about the class here:

The class is continuing in its second year, and I can say it’s the first thing I’ve ever truly had a hand in designing from the beginning.  I would say "from beginning to end," but I'm happy to report that the class will continue (in an upgraded version) this Spring for a second year and a full semester. 

Much more on the class -- and its continuing evolution -- in future posts...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Design Thinking Comes of Age?

When I wrote this article called “Creativity Comes to B-School” in 2006, I didn’t realize it would be the seminal article for so much of my future work – both in business school and beyond. I’d originally pitched the piece to my editors because the techniques and thinking displayed by the schools and professors were so appealing to me personally. Who would have thought that, since then, the idea of design thinking would be splashed across business publications of all sorts?

Today, this article called "Multicultural Critical Theory.  At Business School?" was published in the New York Times. In a sense, it feels like the ideas I discovered for myself (and hopefully one or two readers) have officially entered the mainstream of business education.  One could easily argue that they did so long ago, but permit me the dramatic entrance, if you will.

Whenever something officially enters the mainstream, a couple of things happen (in my experience, that is):  they occasionally get vastly misinterpreted, and they often get hopelessly watered-down.  Since I -- like many people -- feel some connection to this field for reasons I'll discuss in future posts, I'll attempt to add to the conversation by casting an at-once critical and adoring eye on this field of design thinking, particularly as it relates to business school education. 

In this blogging forum, I plan to examine the design field (firms like IDEO, Ziba Design, Frog Design, and Design Continuum) to determine if the business press is right when it asserts that companies like these "might just help to change the world, community by community."

I’ll take a look at whether the hype around these companies is backed up by commercial successes – or not. I also plan to detail in some small way my own experiences of trying to infuse design thinking into my own life and work.

Since I’m something of a novice in the field, I plan to use this forum for discovery. Along the way, I’m sure I’ll put forth the occasional opinion that would benefit from further pondering, but as they say, that’s what blogs are for (do they say that?). And I hope you’ll chime in with misguided or thoughtful ponderances of your own.

Between now and my second post (when I'll reveal more about me and why I think I'm qualified to write on this topic), here's a video that gets to the heart of where I'm going through this blog: