Dilemmas of leadership: Test your judgement on creative leadership

June 5, 2014

Dilemmas of Leadership 2nd EdnTest your judgement on this five minute quiz on creative leadership. The questions are based on the chapter on creative leadership in the textbook Dilemmas of Leadership.

The challenge

A sample of students helped ‘test the test’ and scored around 60% (3-10 range).

Click this link to find the quiz


Richard Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

July 23, 2013

by John Keane

Just for hits

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning

What lies at the core of this eight minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose, they survive and spread. He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread.

I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the way it is applied to explain just about observable aspect of biology (including leadership).

Many years ago, before I heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to understanding the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton . Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker on the act of creation. He offered the metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. [Another of Koestler's classic books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’.]

Acknowledgement

To Guardian journalist Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ ‘meaningless meme’.

[Dr John Keane writes on matters relating to leadership and the history of science. He teaches and researches at The University of Urmston.]


Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

June 25, 2013

Reviewed by John Keane

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning and the hint of tautology in that logic

What lies at the core of this eight-minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose they survive and spread.

He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread. I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that the concept captured as blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the concept of natural selection. I struggle with the argument that ‘success’ in evolutionary terms arises because the successful are more equipped to succeed.
Many years ago, before I had heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply-embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response. Their purpose is to exist.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton. Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker about the act of creation. He offered the wonderful metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. Another of his books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’

Acknowledgement

To Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ meaningless meme.


American Giant and the greatest Hoodie ever made

March 14, 2013

American Giant HoodieAmerican Giant was founded by entrepreneur Bayard Winthrop on a simple idea, to create the greatest Hoodie ever made. The product was so successful it almost bust the company in its start-up year

This is how the story hit the headlines this week [Match 2013]:

After only eight months in business, everything at online fashion company American Giant was going according to plan last year. The San Francisco-based business was enjoying “slow but steady growth”, says founder Bayard Winthrop. Then American Giant got the type of positive publicity many companies can only dream off. Orders rocketed, and the firm was sent into emergency mode. “Four days later we had nothing left,” says Mr Winthrop. “We were down to the sticks in our warehouse.”

Since it is an online-only retailer, customers cannot try on the clothing before buying. And reliant upon word-of-mouth marketing, Mr Winthrop estimated it would take two years for American Giant to really take off. Then the online magazine Slate ran an article that named American Giant’s hooded sweatshirt “the greatest Hoodie ever made”. It triggered half a million dollars of new orders in less than two days, clearing out American Giant’s inventory.

The nature of web-based success

We have become accustomed to the unpredictable explosion of growth as a business idea goes viral. Typically, a simple concept captures the imagination and attracts the attention of millions of people often in the time cycle of twenty four hours as the news spreads around the world.

The precise ingredients for success remain unclear. A few years ago Facebook and then Twitter burst on the scene. Twitter had two factors going for it. It’s brilliant idea was easy to explain: Anything worth saying can be captured in 140 characters or less. The second element was the speed of take up of the idea which becomes part of its success. In other words Twitter became famous for becoming famous.

The New Darwinism of the Web

In the New Darwinism of the Web, there is room for only one species at the top of the food chain. This not a new idea, but it certainly applies in web-based markets, where dominance by one ‘species’ is common.

Which brings us back to American Giant

The story is a sure-fire candidate for study as a Business School case. If it isn’t already, [March 2013] it’s because case writers can’t be as agile as their business heroes.

The greatest Hoodie in the world

The idea of producing the greatest Hoodie in the world has another old-fashioned virtue, the wow factor, which is often accompanied by the famous words “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Not such a simple idea

Part of the answer to the question is that the monstrously successful business idea has to be ‘financialized’. Sometimes deliberately with foresight, sometimes by ‘stumbling upon it, the entrepreneur had to see not just what such a product might look like, but how the idea could be protected and commercialized.

A leadership challenge

If you haven’t come across the history of American Giant, here’s my challenge. If you had the idea of “the greatest Hoodie in the world” how would you turn it into a world-beater.

I’ll offer a few ideas, but you will need to keep a look out for them in future amendments to this post. And I’ll welcome suggestions from LWD subscribers.

To be continued…


The Woolworth’s choir: Tragedy as art remembered

December 4, 2012

Woolworth's fireThe 2012 Turner Prize was won by Elizabeth Price for a 20 minute video which transforms tragedy to art and back again. It even defies the conventions of Artspeak

Elizabeth Price, the winner of the Turner Prize [December 3rd, 2012] was considered an outsider. As is often the case, her creative work of art is now ‘obviously’ great . It has been discovered in a kind of Emperor’s new clothes moment of cultural insight.

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 refers to a fire that resulted in ten fatalities in a Woolworth’s Store in central Manchester. [The site is by coincidence close to that of the IRA bomb explosion which wrecked Manchester's sity centre many years later]. The work was part of a solo exhibition by Price at the Baltic in Gateshead.

The artist’s style was described by the Telegraph:

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 [is] a 20-minute film that begins with drawings of Gothic architecture and ends with footage of a Manchester department store fire in which 10 people died. The judges praised “the seductive and immersive qualities of Price’s video installations, which reflected the ambition that has characterised her work in recent years”.

Artspeak

The subject matter was of personal interest. It helped me recall the fire and the dreadful lack of fire-proofing of the furnishings. So I started reading reviews of this year’s Turner prize before the result was announced.

Price was seen as an outsider, and the nature of her work mostly damned with faint praise. But the more favoured works attracted a lot of what might unkindly be called Artspeak, the peculiar dialect through which critics attempt to capture the essential message within works of art. The other short-listed works were each given the Artspeak treatment, not intentionally intended to belittle the works, but risking accusations of pseudery.

Beyond Artspeak

The Woolworth’s Choir was described in terms which were almost absent of Artspeak. That set me thinking. For some reason, great art defies attempts to reduce it. Maybe it deals with life first and art second. In comparison, novelty and the shock of the new are at best of transient worth.

Note

The image is from archival materials of the Manchester fire in 1979, and is not part of the Turner prize-winning entry.


The Genius in my Basement

February 3, 2012

Not a review, by Tudor Rickards

The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters had been squirreled away for Christmas reading. The book is about the author’s relationship with mathematician and child prodigy, Simon Norton.

I found Alexander Masters’ book humorous, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable. But don’t expect to learn much about those most elusive of phenomena childhood genius, and unfulfilled personal potential.

The story line

The story line broadly is

‘would-be author becomes fascinated by Simon Norton, the person occupying the basement of a Cambridge house. Simon is known as a mathematical prodigy who sparkled as a schoolboy at Eton and then at Cambridge before becoming increasingly reclusive and distracted by obsessive attention to bus routes and the evils of car ownership. Author hopes to discover how a great mind works, and maybe explore the tale of unfulfilled genius’.

Norton and his mathematics

The author grapples with the mysteries of finite group theory to which Norton had made important contributions. Fortunately, the reader can skip the tricky bits and still be left with an enjoyable read.

Feel good

It works very well at a feel-good level , yet there is much more than feel-good to the book. I found it a personal remedy to over-exposure to the Ricky Gervase school of humour and its treatment of the sociological ‘Other’.

If a lion could speak …

There was an obligatory reference to Wittgenstein’s struggles with reality. His point (as I understand it) is that even of a lion could speak, humans would not understand what it was saying. Masters reached a similar conclusion about communicating with Simon Norton.

The communication gap

The communication gap between author and subject, and how it was addressed, is one of the themes of the book. Simon was all too prepared to supply extensive feedback on Masters’s drafts and to insist on more being added about bus schedules, but about mathematical creatiion, Simon choose to remain silent.

This called for ingenuity often found in attempts by journalists attempting to extract the ‘real’ story behind the myth. As in: “we didn’t get the promised interview with Fidel Castro, but our taxi-driver took us to his old school teacher, still living in a remote village…” or, [from this week’s TV documentary] “I didn’t actually get to interview Sarah Palin, but the inhabitants of her home town of Wasilla painted a fascinating picture … ”. One ingenious approach was to suggest what Simon might have said during a disjointed exchange between the two.

What worked for me

What worked for me was a focus on the quirky relationship between the author and subject. He is sensitive to the dangers of stereotyping Simon Norton as a clinically disturbed idiot savant. Simon’s lack of social niceties is presented with absence of psychiatric terminology.

There was something engaging about much of Simon’s behaviour which some features also to be found in individuals occupying senior common rooms, computer cafes and chess clubs.

Was there a ‘critical incident’?

Was there a ‘critical incident’ which tipped Simon over from a highly promising mathematician to Cambridge recluse?. The book suggests it was his finding a treasure trove of bus time-tables. This was one of points I felt needed a little more development and reflection from the author.

Design issues

Maybe Masters was too easily influenced by the ‘creative’ suggestions of the support team involved in the production of the book. The author, who does a nice line in self-deprecation anyway, defended its ‘outrageous yellow’ colour of the cover. He took a similar line on some illustrations, which may stand for what popular creative writing used to describe as ‘right brain thinking’. These are minor points and may be part of a calculated marketing strategy.

Overall, this was one of the successes of my Christmas reading. Well worth a browse. You can’t miss that banana-coloured cover.


An Idiot Abroad 2 and Life’s Too Short: ‘No better than a Victorian freak show?’

December 6, 2011

Terence Blacker in The Independent described the BBC comedy Life’s Too Short as “Comedy no better than a Victorian freak show”. The story raises questions about creativity, culture, social identity and thought leadership

Tudor Rickards

I had already written a Not a Review for An Idiot Abroad 2 which is reissued below. My post explored the emerging themes within the comedy of Ricky Gervase and Stephen Merchant. Blacker’s article suggests that its discussion points remain pertinent to their subsequent series Life’s Too Short.

It was hard to avoid information about An Idiot Abroad (second series) showing on Sky2. The programme had received extensive advance advertising on Sky as innovative comedy within a travel-show format. Its co-founder Ricky Gervase had been tireless in his enthusiastic plugging of it on the chat show circuit, supported by. At the time, Gervase and Merchant had become internationally acclaimed for their achievements first in the cultish British TV series The Office, and later in American media ventures of varying degrees of success.

The big idea

The big idea in the Sky programme was that Gervase and his creative partner Steve Merchant had stumbled upon a remarkable non-celebrity whose gnomic observations blew their minds. Said non-celebrity became a challenge, a project to bring to the attention of a wider audience who would share their delight in getting to know him. The title may have been inspired by Mark Twain’s once-famous book An Innocent Abroad which also had its share of disingenuousness built in to its humour.

Or as Sky puts it

The man with the spherical head is back! An Idiot Abroad returns this autumn as Karl attempts to tick things off his bucket list [unfulfilled dreams]…. Having struggled to find much to do since returning from 2010’s adventure – as he likes to put it, “when you’ve been in a programme called An Idiot Abroad, other job offers aren’t going to be flying in, are they?” intrepid misanthrope Karl Pilkington sets off for a second time in September.

As usual, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant pull the strings from the comfort of their office, as Karl journeys further from his comfort zone and
encounters more confused locals and cultural differences.

Karl’s adventures

The result is part travel show, part improvisational art. Carl gets to visit touristy places and comment in ways which are more touristy than the accepted tourist show genre. Individual scenes make great U-tube materials: Carl on a camel; Carl and the not so great wall of China; Carl reacting to the non- Mancunian cultures of a tribe whose members worship Prince Philip; Carl in space. [Only one of the above is made up by me].

Carl Pilkington and the making of celebrity

Carl Pilkington was taken up by Gervase and Merchant after working together on a professional assignment. They related to him as a person of unusual quirky personality and saw the potential for celebrity-making. Their undoubted creative talents, so acclaimed in The Office, are evident in the structuring of this project. It shares part of its success with that of celebrity shows and the complex dynamics of social identity including vicarious enjoyment in both the success and the humiliation of ordinary people.

Carl Pilkington is presented as someone who has celebrity thrust upon him. It the background, the programme supplies the ingredients of humiliation and bullying of an ordinary bloke. The structure is neatly summed up in the blurb above. There’s a big brother somewhere operating in comfort as fools and horses prance for their entertainment.

Creativity trumps cruelty

Creativity trumps cruelty. There are various psychological defences to protect social identity. It is uncool to object to a bit of light-hearted fun. The charge of political correctness gone mad can be wheeled out. And Ricky Gervais can continue to plug this and his next project which involves yet more light-hearted fun involving a gifted artist, Warwick Davies, who becomes the chosen one to benefit from the Gervase treatment. The focal characteristic of the artist in question is indicated in the title “Life’s too short”

Footnote

The issue is far from unambiguous, but you would not think so from the maedia treatment. Warwick Davis makes the ethical case for the programme by noting that critics of the programmes “just don’t get it”.


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