When global business leaders need a strategic understanding of the evolving technological landscape, they turn to Jordan Ayan. He is the President of an international consulting firm based in Chicago and a highly acclaimed speaker and author. His expertise in assisting companies to innovate by merging the intersecting fields of technology and human creativity has empowered a variety of organizations including Coca-Cola, Andersen Consulting, NASA, Harley Davidson and Lucent Technologies. His consulting firm is engaged by a variety of leading firms to help develop cutting-edge strategies using the web to profitably grow their business.
Jordan was previously a senior manager with a Dun and Bradstreet company where he was responsible for developing a leading online business service. This service creatively leveraged technology that paved the way for a variety of well-known Internet services.
He is the author of two popular books, including the best-selling book on creative thinking, titled Aha!—10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas (currently available in five languages) and Ignite Your Creative Spark. His firm also operates several successful dot-com start-ups in the business-to-business arena.
tompeters.com asks ...
Why did you write this book?
JA: I got the idea to write the book when I was in the corporate world. I used to work as a sales person for Donnelley Marketing, which was a division of Dun & Bradstreet. During the time that I was selling, I came up with an idea for a new product. And I had a very cool boss at the time, who said if you can figure out how to do it without it costing any money, go for it.
I got a group of people together, and as a team we figured out a very creative way to build a new business for the company.
It was the process of getting that team together and taking a byproduct that the company had and turning it into an extremely profitable product, and ultimately a division for them that I ran for a couple of years; that showed me the power behind the creative mind.
I've dealt with creativity all my life, but that experience showed me how powerful it is when you can take your ideas, mix them up with other people, and come out with something that is extremely profitable. It was that creativity and that team process that really was the ignition point for writing the book.
Had you not thought of yourself as a creative person before that?
JA: I think I have always thought of myself as a creative person. The experience at D&B helped me gain a tangible understanding of the things that had fueled my creativity. I was very creative in the way that I sold, and I've been pretty creative throughout my life. But that experience showed me that there were creative techniques that had worked in my life, that I had mastered, and other techniques that I had never experienced before.
So you did a lot of research to put that new idea into place and a lot of that research then became the foundation for this book?
JA: Yes. I had done a huge amount of reading during the time that we were going through developing the business, because we were on to a very unique idea, and we had limited resources. To be successful at it, we had to become creative in the way that we approached that business opportunity.
I started reading and researching everything I could find out about getting this team to work together more creatively, putting their ideas into action quickly, and taking those ideas to market quickly.
And that resulted in creating a division called FastData. What was that?
JA: It was actually the first on-line product that our division had. It was a precursor to many of the directory-type Internet services that are out there today. It was a system by which companies could look up names, addresses, and telephone numbers of individuals on-line. In those days, the only way you could do that was to pick up a phone book or call the operator.
And so you sold that, and then you began consulting on your own?
JA: Right. This was about eight years ago. Dun & Bradstreet sold that division. And after they sold that, my passion had become the process of the creative mind, and especially how that creative mind can be applied to technological ideas.
The idea that we developed at Dun & Bradstreet was basically harnessing technology in a new and creative way, so that became my passion, and I turned it into a business.
There are a lot of books on creativity in the marketplace. Why was yours needed?
JA: There are a lot of books on creative thinking that take different approaches. I'm a firm believer that there is no one approach that works best. I think everything on creativity that is written fuels somebody's idea in some way.
My perspective was different than some of them, in that a lot of them share with you techniques, tools, things that you can do. I realized through my life experience that there was a holistic approach to creativity that was missing in the literature. And I think that's where I jumped in in terms of my book and said, "I think there is a life experience component that really fuels innovation and ideas in individuals." And if you can take a step back from the tools and techniques and understand what that fuel is, that may help you to understand how you can always be operating in a creative way.
Certainly I have shared some tools and techniques in the book that can help you brainstorm or generate ideas more effectively, but the focus of the books is on how do you live a life that's going to fuel your creative inspiration in the future.
So it's not focusing on sitting down and solving a particular problem tomorrow where you need to get creative, but your idea here was to lay down a general foundation where you are creative on a regular and daily basis, and in fact, it's not a big deal if you just get yourself in the right place. Is that right?
JA: Exactly. And I think certainly there is one section of the book that addresses tools and techniques. Because I think tools and techniques are one of those things that can help make that connection, that connecting point between a thought going on in your mind, and a new idea.
But the book really focuses most of its energy on this concept of how do you live your life so that you're getting the inputs that at the point in time that you need an idea, you've got lots of inspiration to draw from.
So who's reading this book? Who is your audience?
JA: Well, certainly there is a very large business population that's reading the book, and all of our consulting work is based in the business arena. A huge amount of that business comes in as a result of companies, organizations, CEOs having read the book.
I get a lot of letters from writers and artists who have read the book. But I would say the primary focus or the primary audience for it is business people.
There are a fairly large number of schools that are now using it as a textbook in advertising and marketing courses, which I find very encouraging.
That is interesting. The basis for your whole exploration of creativity, revolves around this concept you call the core, which is C-O-R-E, which I think stands for Curiosity, Openness, Risk, and Energy. How did you come to that acronym?
JA: There were a couple of things that led me to come across that acronym and those components as being the core essence, if you will, of what inspires people. As I was writing this, I looked back at all of the creative points that I had in the course of my life. Then I talked to other people who had really creative, innovative things that they were responsible for, and asked them what fed that moment of inspiration.
Then I also did a lot of reading on people who had these great moments of inspiration.
And a lot of times what fueled that were two things: the framework with which they were able to look at opportunity when it came to them, and what I'll call their cultural software, the way that they viewed the world.
And if I started to try to take that apart, I asked, "What is it that builds the framework? What is it that gives you the framework or the glasses through which you view the world?" And it took me back to this concept of curiosity as one of the steppingstones, because your curiosity constantly feeds your mind with new information.
Now, if you have what we call a low "C" score, you're not real curious. What you miss oftentimes are the inputs of opportunity, or ideas, or concepts that you may use 25 years down the road. But if you don't have that curiosity to start, you're not going to absorb that information that 25 years down the road may pop into your framework as you're facing a problem, an opportunity, or a situation where you're required to draw on your ideas.
So I think the first component, your "C" score, is critical. Unless we work very hard to maintain our "C" score, it diminishes over time. A perfect illustration: The last time I flew, I sat next to a seven-year-old. And before I had sat in the seat he had asked me who I was, where I was going, why I was going there. Did I have any kids, what did I do for a living. Fifty questions.
And I realized how often I get on an airplane and I can fly from Chicago all the way to Paris and sit next to an adult who never talks with me unless I instigate the conversation.
What I realized is that the child really had something that was fueling his future ability to make judgments, to learn things, by simply asking some fairly simple and fundamental questions.
The "O" concept stands for openness. When I was growing up I traveled extensively because of my father's career. And we lived overseas for quite a few years and in several countries, as well as in several states in the United States.
If you haven't had the exposure to different perspectives, different ways of looking at the world or the diversity of the world, if you will, you tend to be easily caught up in a very myopic way of viewing the world.
It's this openness to other people when they bring you their ideas that I think is very critical to the process of being able to move your ideas forward. Because it happens on two levels. On one level, people will bring ideas to you and share those ideas. If you're not open to those ideas, you're shutting them down quickly, and you're shutting off the flow of other ideas that people are going to bring to you.
But also, if you're not open in sharing your ideas, if you tend to hold your cards real close to your vest, you're not getting the input of other people into those ideas. So my experience of living in many different places, and traveling, allowed me to see that there are different ways to view the world, and that my ability to be open with other people about the way that I see the world is oftentimes what is going to fuel, again, a source of inspiration or a different way of looking at a problem.
And the R in core stands for?
JA: Risk, and the willingness to take risk. And again, I think that's one of the things that I found is the common denominator in most people that are creative and successful. There is a difference between being creative and successfully creative. You've got to be willing to step off into the darkness and know that you don't know how it's all going to turn out. You don't know what the end product is really going to be.
The end product may be nothing like your original concept and idea, but it's that willingness to take that risk that oftentimes is what is really required to power the ideas and make them happen.
I know of people out there who are what I would call true creatives, but don't necessarily have the willingness to take the risk. And as a result of that, their creativity has been, I won't say it's stifled, but their success with their ideas has been reduced. So that's where the risk component comes in.
And then E is for energy.
JA: Energy. Energy is really the fuel that moves you forward. You know, again, it's great to have good ideas, but an idea without action is just a thought. If we don't have the action component, which is going to come from our energy, we're never going to move our ideas forward.
And this also relates to the passion that you bring to the idea itself. There are a lot of people out there that have an idea, but don't have the passion about that idea, so it just sits there and does nothing. If I look back at the points in my own life, and the lives of people I know who have been successful with their ideas, they have a real drive, and almost a frenetic energy that was behind helping them to make that happen.
JA: So those are the four components that I say make up your box. In the book we have that test you can take to assess your C.O.R.E. You chart out the scores and it forms a box. What I hope the book does is show people how to explore beyond their current "box," which is what is often called out-of-the-box thinking Anything inside of that box is the current level of creative freedom that you give yourself. It's your ability to increase that box over time that is going to really fuel your ability to come up with great ideas. And I think you can always be pushing out those four components, no matter where you are. You can always take a little more risk, ask a few more questions, be a little more curious.
You've got a huge number of 'Further Readings' at the end of each chapter. How long have you been compiling that list of books and resources?
JA: It probably goes way back. I still have the first two books on creativity that I ever got. I bought them at the same time because I had this interest. One was Roger Van Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head. The other was Applied Imagination by Alex Osborn. He is the granddaddy of brainstorming. He came out of the advertising business and he really wrote what over time has become the definitive academic/business text. A Whack on the Side of the Head is much more accessible and fun. Those two books were the first things that I read specifically on creative thinking.
What do you do in your consulting work?
JA: We do two things. We have a component of our business that focuses on just this concept of how to tap your creativeness in a business situation where we take people through the more advanced idea-generation techniques, and help them either problem solve, or develop new ideas, depending on their need.
A big portion of that these days has focused on what we call strategic technology consulting. We help companies develop new ideas related to the use of technology to create strategic opportunities for themselves using the Web. Although we don't limit ourselves to that, that tends to be where most of the opportunity is in helping companies try to think creatively. So a lot of our business focuses on helping firms really master the power and the strategic direction that their company can take in a real creative way around using the Web.
You mentioned Paul Simon a couple of times in this book. At one point you're talking about music and how you use music to get yourself charged up. What does Paul Simon represent for you?
JA: First of all, I love his music. And he's one of those guys that must have an extremely strong R and C and O score. Because if you look at his music over the decades, he has always pushed the envelope. He has always gone in a different direction, tried something new, experimented.
He's used African music. He's used Brazilian music, and Latin American rhythms. He has combined and fused all kinds of different genres together to create his own sound. And most people would probably put him in the Pop realm. But I think he has been able to use his creative energy in a way that has drawn inspiration from many, many different sources.
One time you mention him in the context of drumming music and drumming is something special for you. Can you talk about how you use music to put yourself in a productive frame of mind?
JA: I have to back up a bit to answer this one. There is a program in Buffalo called CPSI, Creative Problem Solving Institute. It is a quasi-academic gathering at which people try to get a better understanding of what creativity is and how to take it to a higher level.
I went through a workshop where the leader was using neuro-linguistic programming to help you understand what the sources of your inspiration were.
One of the things that became clear was that there was some power in my mind associated with drumming. One thing I realized in that workshop was that whenever I'm trying to think creatively, I will start tapping with a pencil, and there is some fuel that comes to me from drumming.
As a result of that exercise and the recommendations of the person that conducted that workshop, I went out and I bought a group of CDs that had lots of drumming in them. And when I started listening to the CDs I already had in my collection, one of the ones that really had a lot of beat to it was Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints."
What I found when I was writing the book was that drum music helped me to become extremely focused on the thought process that required me to do a lot of mental gymnastics to try to understand the concepts that I wanted to put on paper.
So you don't only do this beforehand? You actually leave this music playing while you're doing your work?
JA: Not only leave it playing, but leave it playing loud, which is the exact opposite of what you might think. But it also helps me get into a real rhythm with the work.
Now, is that going to work for everybody? I don't think so.
You talk about synchronicity. There's something about it that's important and meaningful for you. Would just talk about what that means for you, the synchronicity in our lives.
JA: So often we put ourselves on a specific path. We go out and we go to school and we think we know what we're going to do, and we get on this path going in a direction. We can get on that path and put ourselves in autopilot mode, not really focusing on what's going on around us, but focusing on our end goal.
And oftentimes it's not the end goal of the path that you put yourself on that's important, it's what is going to happen on that path that may take you in different directions that is important.
When I look at my own life—and again, I'm just using myself as an example, but I know a lot of other people that have had similar experiences—and I follow that path of where I set my goal coming out of high school and going into college, what I realize in looking back is that the real opportunities have come when I got off the path because of something that I bumped into along the way.
For me, synchronicity is those chance encounters that seem to come out of nowhere that oftentimes lead creative people in the direction that they really should be going.
And you never know where they're going to come from. You can't anticipate them. The only thing you can be is open to them.
I think any individual can look back and see where their life took certain turns. It's oftentimes associated with a person that has taught them something or led them in a different direction than they were going.
It seems one of the hugest hurdles to creativity is our own selves, that internal critic that prevents us from doing something because it's outside the realm of the acceptable. How do we quiet that internal critic who says "This isn't good enough" or "That's a stupid idea. I don't want to mention that to anybody." How do we first get beyond that?
JA: I don't know if you can ever really silence the inner critic. I think they are always there. But I think what you can do is learn how to have a discussion with it. Focus on really assessing what that inner critic says. Realize that the inner critic has one role, and it is to be the critic. And what you have to be as a person is the balance to that inner critic. Certainly that inner critic may take you on a fairly lengthy discussion as to why you shouldn't do something, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have to listen to it. You have to hear it, but you don't have to follow what it says.
Then I think some of that comes with life experience. As you start to experience more creative opportunities that lead to creative successes, you start to realize if you go back and listen to what the inner critic said at the time, you probably wouldn't have done it. But the series of successful opportunities that you haven't listened to, that if you look back on them you may say "I don't need to listen as much as I'm listening."
Favorite web sites?
JA: My favorite Web sites are the search engines, particularly Google and Ask.com. I love the search engines because they have this way of taking you to serendipitous and synchronistic opportunities you would never have come across before the digital world started to exist.
JA: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer. It really talks about the issue of synchronicity and it's probably one of my favorite all-time books.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an excellent book. It's not an easy read, but the author delves deeply into the theories of creativity.
Other books mentioned in the interview:
A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger Van Oech
Applied Imagination by Alex Osborn