The Idea EnthusiastThe Idea Enthusiast

Category : 1 Inspiration

By Greg Roth

How TV writers rooms get unstuck

As part of my presentation at the Content Marketing Conference in Boston (May 2018), I dissected team collaboration techniques for creators, using TV writers rooms as a model for how the idea process works.

In particular, I looked at a dozen “behind the scenes” articles to see what the writers say works for them when they get stuck or feel that they’ve hot a creative wall. Here is a partial list of their experiences and suggestions, whether their show is largely drama, comedy, half-hour, hour, cable, or network TV.

 

 

Next time your team seems to be losing creative momentum, I hope some of these suggestions help hit the reboot button.

In no particular order, here are the stories I looked at and used to build this list:

‘Veep,’ ‘Girls,’ ‘Atlanta’ Scribes Reveal Secrets of Their Writers Rooms: “Required” Arguments, “Group Therapy”

By Greg Roth

If you’re using a “content generator”, that’s a bad sign

There is alot of talk about AI and automation these days at conferences, and sadly, that has reached the creative-focused events as well. Marketing conferences are going full into AI area because “it will be here before you know it!”  The National Speakers Association is advertising a session at its Future of Speaking conference* called “Imagine Content Creation in a World with Creative Machines”.

An Entrepreneur magazine article promises that 5 free content generators will change the way you write. I assume they mean that’s good, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a lie.

Every successful business became successful because it first solved a problem, then continued to solve it more artfully. And yet, we are simultaneously talking about do a better job of designing for humans while directing more of our hope towards machines to solve our problems. It’s both nonsensical and dishonest.

Or, to put it more simply:

We have to acknowledge that creating anything, even something as simple and as ultimately fleeting as a blog post — despite the fact that it can live forever on the web — is a flawed, imperfect, messy, and ultimately human process. or, creating anything of value is. There are plenty of blogs, tweets, and videos online with less than 5 views that prove that point.

That brings me back to developing content. I do it, you do, most people or things that want to be noticed these days do it. “Content marketing” was, at the time, just a fancy way of saying “show me don’t tell me”. Somehow, we both in an age when we are fretting over engagement yet we are looking to remove the human element from everything we do.

I keep thinking about a quote from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that isn’t a perfect translation but feels related: In season 7, episode 4, show host Jerry Seinfeld is asking his guest, Garry Shandling, about David Brenner, the prominent 70s comic who had recently passed away:

SEINFELD: Y’know, David Brenner passed away last year. You ever think about all that material?
SHANDLING: [laughs]; So, I’m at a stage on my life when I actually care about the person. Here’s what I thought you were going to say: “Did you ever realize when David Brenner died and Robin [Williams], the actual impermanence of life?” I never thought “there goes alot of material”. That’s hilarious that you think that way.
SEINFELD: All that material. He worked so hard on it. It’s just gone, it doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore. It was so much work to create.
SHANDLING: That material — and your material — was purely a vehicle for you to express your spirit. And your soul. And your being. That’s why you’re fantastic.
SEINFELD: So, it doesn’t have any value beyond that?
SHANDLING: It doesn’t have any value beyond expressing yourself spiritually in a very soulful way! It’s why you’re on the planet!…So when you saw Robin Williams for the first time, you don’t remember everything he said, it was just his presence!

Shandling, sadly, would pass away only weeks after the episode aired, making it his last appearance on film.

Maybe that new piece of content marketing you’re putting out isn’t exactly going to express your inner being or touch someone’s soul, but it is the work of a human trying to reach another human. To start suggesting that jokes will someday be written by computers or that an online content generation tool is going to kickstart your brand identity is to buy into a system in which we ultimately don’t really matter.

Stop chasing shiny objects. Stop looking for cheat sheets. Stop using “content generators” to do what you and you product or service was put on this Earth to do: Listen and respond.

*-Fill disclosure, I applied to speak and my topic “Can We Still Be Funny?” was not accepted. 

By Greg Roth

Finding new wrinkles at Puppy Bowl

My internet friend, Jay Acunzo*, has a saying I’ve seen a bunch lately, in reference to both products and content marketing: “When something works, don’t do more like it. Do more with it.”

I thought of this when I read this behind-the-scene article in the LA Times about Puppy Bowl. Now, in it’s 14th year, the simple idea of pointing a few cameras at dogs all day has become an institution unto itself. It started as a pretty simple idea: “a novelty counter programming experiment” inspired by the annual holiday Yule log that has grown organically over the years.

How? well, a passage in this story eludes to a couple keys: observation and attention to detail.

As the show has grown in popularity and evolved from pop culture curiosity into cherished tradition, producers continue to look for new ways to up the ante. This year’s game will be played in a brand-new “stadium” and include barnyard animal cheerleaders, a sloth referee and a kitty halftime show inspired by Justin Timberlake. The first ever “Dog Bowl,” featuring mature canines in need of homes, will air on Saturday night.

[Showrunner Simon] Morris, who is British and thus not necessarily inclined to watching American football, keeps up with NFL games for creative inspiration. He plots seemingly inconsequential yet critical details — like where to find toys small enough for the littlest puppies to pick up with their mouths. The action is captured by a dozen or so cameras, placed on the end of sticks coated in peanut butter (so-called “lick cams”), underneath glass water bowls and in the end zone to catch every touchdown and field goal.

Notice that Animal Planet hasn’t developed a bunch of similar programs. They’ve left that to Hallmark Channel’s “Kitten Bowl” and Nat Geo Wild’s “Fish Bowl”. Instead they’ve focused on making their flagship event better each time.

Even long after you’ve achieved success, there’s still opportunity to improve. Often, organizations call this innovation, which it isn’t. It’s simply evolution. If you are good at evolution, innovation isn’t as important. You can do more with one great idea than you can with a dozen in-name-only innovations.

Watch and critique. details matter.

*- Jay and I have emailed but not met in person.

By Greg Roth

The rise of the executive “design professional”

We often think of CEOs as a certain ilk, mostly steeped in “non-creative” pursuits like finance, operations, administration, or marketing. But a recent story on CNBC namechecks some bosses with design backgrounds, including Jim Hackett, the new head of Ford and first designer to lead “big auto”. That’s fairly remarkable, when you think about it. Design backgrounds learn the art of subjectivity and exploration in their thinking — a stark contrast to the spreadsheets and quarterly reports of many C-Suiters.

It’s not entirely new phenomenon: Nike’s CEO has a design background and moved into the top seat in 2006. Many notable Fortune 500 companies use some form of design-influenced leadership these days. The difference is, it causes a shift to how teams, especially the product development teams, are expected to solve problems:

designers are problem-solvers, and they are constantly taking in their surroundings. “There’s a lot of observation, listening and research as you are developing products and solutions. … They are more likely to be supportive of innovative efforts, no matter where they come from or who they come from,” she said.

It’s a serious “soft skill” to want to find the “truth” without caring about its’ origin or ownership. Moving in that direction is difficult, as a VP at Whirlpool found out on his first project after joining the company:

When his design team had decided to try a charcoal black interior in their Jenn-Air refrigerator model, the marketing and engineering departments originally said it would be a waste of money — no one would want black.

“The mistake I made was telling people what we were doing,” he said. “Sometimes design just needs to do something we believe in, build it, then bring in people to see it.

After the design team built a prototype, the engineering and marketing teams approved it and the product sold well.

“That started to help us have a little bit of momentum as a design organization, and people began to believe in us a little bit,” said Schiavone. “The next time we came up with something we wanted to show, it was a little easier. … As things started to sell better, we earned that right to be at the table.”

Not much different than sports teams. Small wins pave the way for more wins.

Intuit, who produces TurboTax (everyone getting psched to do their taxes right about now), is even more aggressive:

Soon after being hired, Walecki put 500 people from the TurboTax team onto buses to go across different segments of San Diego and talk to people. They gave out Starbucks gift cards and asked people what was important to them. The very last question was about how people were paying their taxes. Intuit discovered it had “fallen in love with [its] own solution” more than consumers, who expressed a preference for software different from the one the company had been making.

Long before design thinking became a buzzword, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook would wait for people to purchase the software off the shelf in a store. Then he asked customers if he could go home with them as they installed it so he could learn which parts of the process were too complicated and needed correction.

Not sure what I’d do if a senior exec at a major corporation would ask to drop by my place for a software party, but it would probably not being able to use said software in the first place. Hope he or she like saisons and holiday ales.

Finally, and the reason why this is more than a story about corporate executives, is that, like all processes that gain buzz status, teams and orgs that use design thinking need to understand it’s uses and misuses:

Jen argues that design thinking is too often made to fit into a step-by-step diagram for fields outside of design. There is no specified outcome, and criticism is eliminated from the process. Iconic designers like Charles and Ray Eames defined the needs and constraints of all of their projects before they began designing. Steve Jobs used intuition in his way of design thinking as he focused on people’s desires and needs.

Design thinking isn’t linear, Jen said. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, it shouldn’t be a list of steps, and it does require evidence.

Trash the checklists. You have to learn how to experiment, how to be OK with not knowing the answer (yet), and how to talk through ideas and decisions in the middle stages.

As more companies — big and small — have senior leaders who understand how “designing” works, chances are workplaces will be more receptive to different modes of thinking.

By Greg Roth

9 Funny Signs from the Womens’ March 2018

This is not a political post, I just like clever signs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pulled from Buzzfeed

 

By Greg Roth

10 creative lessons from the making of Breaking Bad

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the debut of Breaking Bad, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher with a terminal cancer diagnosis who turns himself into a crystal meth kingpin. The series is widely thought of as one of — of not the best — TV series of all time.

In an oral history published this week by TV Guide, the shows creators reflect on numerous ideas, choices, and stories that shaped the show into a classic. One can extract plenty of creative lessons from the behind-the-scenes account and apply them to any endeavor that is seeking to create something fresh or innovate/redefine the existing norms.

Here are 10 lessons:

#1. Even if the original idea is good, it won’t catch fire right away.

Vince Gilligan (creator/writer/director): What inspired the pilot was a certain amount of desperation on my part. I had been without work for a couple of years when the idea for the pilot hit me. I was about to turn 40 years old, and I was thinking a lot about midlife crises, and was about to embark upon one myself. … Of course, Walter White is having the world’s worst midlife crisis, which in fact turns out to be an end-of-life crisis.

Stew Lyons (unit production manager): It didn’t sound very likely to be a success. It had no eye candy. It was kind of a depressing story about a drug that has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And it was a dark tale. That’s what I thought when it was first pitched to me. And then of course you read the pilot and you begin to see that this is something very, very special.

Gilliagan continues by recounting “One great meeting — which was almost as good as the AMC meeting, even though it was a no — was with TNT. … They said, “We really love this, but at this point in time, if we buy this, we’ll be fired.””

#2. Vince Gilligan had no real directing (ie management?) experience, so he got the best people around him.

Karen Moore (line producer): [My agent] said, “Oh, the script is written by our client Vince Gilligan, and he’s also going to direct it.” I said, “Great. What else has he directed?” And there was this long pause and they went, “Ummm, an episode, maybe two episodes of X-Files.”

Wayne: We were like, if John Toll’s going to be the DP, who cares who the director is? Not literally, but… we knew it was going to look fabulous, and that it was going to be a very high-level production.

#3. AMC used another series (work) to sell Bryan Cranston on taking a part (buy-in) on a network not known for this type of programming.

Cranston: Before I accepted the part, I got Rob’s phone number and called him in New York. I said, “Look, I’m really excited about this but AMC… are you seriously getting behind this?”… And he said, “No, we’re all in on this. … Let me send you something, and then watch it and call me back afterward.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s the first series that we’re doing in this new version of what AMC is now.” He sent me a disc, and it was the pilot and the second episode of Mad Men. … I saw that and I went, oh my god. This is incredible storytelling. So, then from that point on, I was very excited that they knew exactly what they were doing, and they were doing it at a level of quality that was just unmatched from what I was seeing on television. I was all in.

#4. Ideas often come from people in our lives and their struggles and journeys. All it takes to bring these ideas alive is observation.

Mitte: [Walter Jr.] is actually based on a real person, a friend of Vince’s… My character’s actually in remembrance of him.

Gilligan: There was a young man I went to NYU with… and he presented as having really profound CP. He was the greatest guy… just this really courageous guy who became everybody’s friend. We all loved him. And he passed away in his 20s, not too many years after college. Passed away in his sleep. I was thinking of him and his family and all the things they must have gone through and that he went through.

#5. Embracing constraints is a common theme in creative work and in solving problems. You never have all the resources you’d like to have. In this case, AMC and breaking Bad had little in the way of budget. 

Gilligan had originally intended the story to take place in Riverside, California, where a DEA agent he was friends with in real life was based. But the setting of the show was changed to Albuquerque for budgetary reasons, thanks in part to a tax credit that was offered in New Mexico.

Brandt: It would have been a different show [in California]. That was the first of many moves where budget constraints really ended up working out for us.

#6. Still in regard to the budget and new mexico, Gilligan embraced the idea. That is, he spent less time on what he was losing and more time on what he was getting and how it could influence the direction of his vision.

Gilligan: I’m very proud of the fact that I very quickly said yes. I wasn’t overly rigid in my thinking in terms of, it’s got to be this or nothing for artistic reasons. Because it dawned on me that, unfortunately, there’s a meth problem in every state of the union, and I figured, yeah, why not? We’ll set it here. One state’s as good as the other. Of course, the truth is, [New Mexico] is far better than any other state could have been for Breaking Bad, because it allowed our show to become… a contemporary Western, which is not what I was thinking at the time.

Lyons: He completely embraced Albuquerque and New Mexico. It certainly wasn’t the most important decision, but it was a key, critical creative decision that just really made the show stand out as something that people had not seen before. Because we weren’t shooting in the usual places. And the visuals in New Mexico — the light, the way the soil looked, everything just made it something different.

Collier: The color palette of Albuquerque was what [Vince] will call a happy accident, but the exploitation of it… and the way he created not just a color palate, but a shooting style that is cinematic in every way… that has nothing to do with happy accidents. That is talent.

#7. Not everything you’ll need to do will be planned. Sometimes, it’s the result of having unexpected free time. What can you do with that time?

Another, more serious, mishap that occurred in the desert was Vince Gilligan falling ill towards the end of the shoot. But that also ended up being a blessing in disguise of sorts — one that resulted in one of the most classic shots of the whole series and the one that opens the episode: a pair of pants floating through the air against a backdrop of blue desert sky.

Wolynetz: While Vince was sick, John Toll just went out with a crew and just started shooting landscapes, shooting everything all over Albuquerque. And a lot of that footage continued to be used for years. … That was all just John Toll kind of on his own, making beautiful pictures.

#8. “That’s what we do” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it” are never good reasons for creating something fresh, new, and interesting.

Wayne: The [first] cut was amazing. We didn’t change much in the cut at all. But [Vince] had put wall to wall music. And it was terrible.

Gilligan: Christina said, “What is with all the music?” And I said, “Well, that’s what we do in television, Christina!”

Wayne: We were like, “Turn that f—ing music off!” … And he was not happy about that.

Gilligan: I got a little on my high horse. I got a little offended… but then we stripped out the music, and lo and behold, she was right. … [That was] the single best note any executive ever gave me on Breaking Bad.

Wayne: I think the fact that people can realize when they make a mistake is always great. And Vince and I from that moment on were super close and worked great together.

#9. Anyone you deliver creative work to may not understand it. Which means, they won’t appreciate it. Which means they might just say “no thanks”. AMC’s parent company, Cablevision, was not initially excited about airing the show.

Wolynetz: Remember, they’re a cable operator from Long Island. … [They] were very nervous about that kind of expenditure and those kind of risks.

Collier: You’re asking really smart people to part with tens of millions of dollars, prior to spending many millions more in marketing it… [And] you had to explain that you wanted to bet on a series where a chemistry teacher who almost won the Nobel Prize cooks meth with a former student … It was very much placing bets that all look easy in the rearview, but were really big at the time, and not obvious.

Tom Rutledge (former COO, Cablevision): A terminally ill school teacher selling drugs isn’t a typical all-American success story.

#10. The creators never apologized for what the show was, but they found a way to talk about it so anyone who listened to them would understand.

Wayne: The main question at AMC was around marketing and PR because of the drug-selling aspect of it.

Collier: I remember countless conversations about how we would create the elevator pitch… trying to explain what the title meant, explain that this was actually a story about evolution and change and a person who, as Vince so famously said, is going to transform from Mr. Chips into Scarface, and say it in a way that your bosses, or an advertiser, or your partners would relish. … It didn’t seem possible in a story about a chemistry teacher who makes meth with his former student, all with a backdrop of a pilot episode cancer diagnosis.

Rutledge: We all had high hopes for our original content strategy and confidence in our company. I really liked Breaking Bad personally… We had to swing for the fences.

This all adds up to one pretty simple bit of advice, from Gilligan: “You don’t set out to make a classic of anything…We can only try to do our best to tell the story and let it go.”

 

By Greg Roth

Matt Dunne demonstrates that Ira Glass was right

Matt Dunne, a graphic artist in the Denver area, decided to invent a challenge for himself in 2017: he went out to the movies once a week and then made an animated GIF representing the theme of each movie. It’s an interesting creative exercise that requires commitment and focus. It’s also a grind that I know all too well.

He would share them each week via his Instagram account, but on his website, he’s posted once 2 minute video of all of them, embeded here:

In a short interview with Westworld, Matt shares thoughts on his process and what it took to sustain his effort level. In particular, I liked this answer to the question of how a rigorous schedule affects creative output:

What I liked about it was I always had something I was working on. The restrictions on it at times were frustrating because I had to make something. There were times where I thought, I shouldn’t even finish this, especially once we got to that June point where I said, I could at least say I did six months and be done with it. But it got to the point where I was like, well, I want to keep doing this.

Trying to do something so quickly, I didn’t want to be so much of a perfectionist about it, where I had to spend days working on it. I wanted to sketch something out and make it simple, so the idea could come across about what was happening in the movie but still make the GIF enjoyable to watch. I tried to make them no longer than five seconds; I wanted them to be easy to grasp. It was good for me to get practice on how to develop concepts quickly and deliver on that…to make something that people can react to.

Very reminiscent of Ira Glass’s fairly well-known quote about what it takes to be a creative professional and to get good at it.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Whether you are the creative person, or the person who works with the creative person, remember this: there are no shortcuts. You have to do the work.

 

By Greg Roth

3 Creative Lessons from a Theme Song

As a sometimes musician and songwriter, I look to stories behind songs for inspiration and lessons in patience. Sometimes, we hear about hit songs that were written in 30 minutes, but often they take time to come together. Like writing of any kind, the quality is in the revision.

This NY Times article on the campy-yet-cool theme song commissioned by the team in the mid-70s serves as an interesting origin story for how the song came together and illustrates three lessons when making something.

Lesson #1: Work on a quality first draft, but remember it’s a draft.

At the time of the song’s creation, Childress was doing odd jobs for the 76ers while he finished his degree at Temple. He recalled that he once earned $500 for dressing up as a turkey at a game before Thanksgiving. A pair of female ushers, clad in pilgrim costumes, led him around.

“I did all sorts of stupid stuff,” he said.

As for the team itself, the 76ers were on the rise after years of yawn-inducing mediocrity. But Pat Williams, then the general manager, understood the 76ers needed to add some pep to the game-day experience if they were to draw larger crowds to the Spectrum, the team’s arena at the time.

“We were trying to create the kind of atmosphere where it was a fun place to come,” he said in a telephone interview.

So when Williams learned that Childress was in a rock band, he had an idea: Perhaps the 76ers needed their own theme song.

Armed with a new assignment, Childress invited Rocap and a third bandmate named Joe Sherwood to his small apartment, where he had a four-track machine. They hammered out a demo, the original beat set by the steady dribble of a basketball.

“Boink, boink, boink, boink,” Childress said.

In the Lean Startup world, this would be called minimum viable product. Also, as a side point, very clever using the pace of a bouncing basketball as both the tempo of the song and the foundation of the demo itself. You don’t need fancy tools. Work with what you have to finish the initial idea faithfully.

Lesson #2: Observe the “everyday world” around you for inspiration

One morning, after watching “Sesame Street” with his 7-year-old daughter, Rocap arrived with lyrics:

One, two, three-four-five, Sixers!

Ten, nine, eight, 76ers!

“And we’re going, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Childress said. “So that’s where the initial burst came from, and then we built the whole song around it.”

You could also say that this is providing space for magic to happen. Or to be OK with not having all the answers initially. These guys were trying to write a catchy song. Along the way, they realized that kids music — insanely catchy and these days a huge market — provided a simple, demonstrable way to

Lesson #3: Work with people you trust and allow them the chance to make specific choices

The band, known as Fresh Aire, wrote the song in E major, a key at the top of the vocal range for most male tenors. By pushing that range, Sherwood said, the song created energy. And in hopes of protecting its shelf life, over the years the band kept the lyrics free of references to specific players on the team — even the illustrious Julius Erving.

On the track, the band harmonizes to an accompaniment that includes guitars, piano, bass and drums. Sherwood’s brother Richard gave the song some soul by jamming out on a Hohner Clavinet, a keyboard instrument at the height of cool in the 1970s thanks to Stevie Wonder.

“My brother added a little riff,” said Joe Sherwood, 70, who began singing:

“Here they come! Deedley deedley deeeee!”

The band made specific choice to the music in order to achieve its original goal — the be an upbeat theme song that everyone would enjoy. The point about resisting the urge to just start name-checking players is interesting. Through the idea-development process, there will be hundreds of choices and it’s difficult to know what the right choice is in many cases. This type of long-term thinking isn’t fool-proof, but the fact that it was something the writers considered means they were thinking critically about what they created.

Of course, I’m biased because the Sixers are my favorite team and, oh by the way, the song was the last one played at our wedding reception.

By Greg Roth

My Cousin’s Reading List from 2017

My cousin Tim is an association CEO, leadership consultant, and a pretty serious reader: here is his list of books read in 2017. He shared this list on Facebook, so I’m re-posting here so I can share. I don’t read this much nor do I read this widely, so it’s a fascinating list to me from someone whom I know, trust, and admire as a thoughtful leader.

Books read in 2017

(Best two overall: Alexander Hamilton, and The Invention of Wings)

1. * Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A devout Muslim encounters Christianity, by Nabeel Qureshi
2. The Road to Little Dibbling, by Bill Bryson
3. The Complete Far Side, Vol. 2, by Gary Larson
4. The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks
5. I Still Dream about You, by Fannie Flagg
6. * The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson
7. * In the Kingdom of Ice: The grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides
8. As You Wish: Inconceivable tales from the making of The Princess Bride, by Carey Elwes
9. The Complete Far Side, Vol. 1, by Gary Larson
10. Accused, by Lisa Scottoline
11. The Real Rain Man, by Fran Peek
12. Presence, by Amy Cuddy
13. Terminal Freeze, by Lincoln Child
14. Compelling People: the hidden qualities that make us influential, by John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut
15. Betrayed, by Lisa Scottoline
16. Think Twice, by Lisa Scottoline
17. Courting Trouble, by Lisa Scottoline
18. Wounded Tiger, by T. Martin Bennett
19. The Case for Easter, by Lee Strobel
20. Dirty Blonde, by Lisa Scottoline
21. The Complete Far Side, Vol. 3, by Gary Larson
22. Airframe, by Michael Crichton
23. All Work & No Say… ho hum another day, by Jody Urquhart
24. Lucille: the life of Lucille Ball, by Kathleen Brady
25. * Double Cross: the true story of the D-Day spies, by Ben Macintyre
26. Don’t Go, by Lisa Scottoline
27. Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment, Vol. 1, by Dan Fisher
28. * Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
29. * George Washington’s Secret Six: the spy ring that saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager
30. * George Washington, by Ron Chernow
31. The Field Guide for Parks and Creative Placemaking, by Matthew Clarke
32. * John Adams, by David McCullough
33. * When I was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection
34. Look Again, by Lisa Scottoline
35. * Connective Leadership, by Jean Lipman-Blumen
36. * The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time (in two lines or less), edited by John Shanahan
37. Daddy’s Girl, by Lisa Scottoline
38. The Board and the CEO: 7 practices to protect your organization’s most important relationship, by Peter Greer and David Weekley
39. * Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson
40. * Faithful Servant of God: Moses, by Stephen J. Lennox
41. * The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
42. Hunch: turn your everyday thoughts into the next big thing, by Bernadette Jiwa
43. Keep Quiet, by Lisa Scottoline
44. A Time to Grieve: Journeying through Grief, Book One, by Kenneth Haugk
45. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
46. * Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn
47. The Miracle of Dunkirk, by Walter Lord
48. * The Weather Experiment: the pioneers who sought to see the future, by Peter Moore

*those that have impacted my thinking the most or have been the most entertaining in 2017.

By Greg Roth

Idea Books Reading List for 2018

While others like to publish a list of books they read in the previous year, here are some to-be-released “idea” books that I may (no promises) get to in 2018. Let me know along the way if you read them as well.

January

9: Powerful (Patty McCord)
I would love to think I’ll get to this book, by a former Netflix exec, but there’s chance I don’t. I tend to shy away from execs writing primarily about their companies. Call it the Google Complex.

16: Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need (Todd Henry)
Overly cute title aside (not sure creative people are always tigers), I discovered his work as I was just getting started and he’s staying about 8 years ahead of me. I’ve watched a bunch of his keynotes to get a feel for business creativity plays in keynote form.

16: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (John Brockman)
“The latest volume in the bestselling series from Edge.org—dubbed “the world’s smartest website” by The Guardian—brings together 206 of the world’s most innovative thinkers to discuss the scientific concepts that everyone should know.” Could be cool, could be dry.

23: Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (Emma Byrne)
I detest the word “amazing” in titles (I’ll be the judge of what I find amazing), but I’m intersted enough to give this one a chance. Not sure how she’ll get 240 pages out it.

30: The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle)
The author of The Talent Code changes a word and applies his thinking to teams. Audiobook candidate.

 

February

6: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Annie Duke)
I love everything about this book, from the description referencing Pete Carroll’s decision to pass the ball at the end of Super Bowl XLIX to the author being a former poker champion. Def thinking audio book for this one.

6: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley (Emily Chang)
Billed as an expose by a Bloomberg TV journalist, which sounds just a shade on the tabloid side, it’s an interesting subject that hopefully gets a good treatment.

13: Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness (Melissa Dahl)
One of the endorsement quotes is from Adam Grant, my informal mentor (he doesn’t know this), so I’m interested.

13: The Sociopath’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Tips for the Dark Art of Manipulation (PT Elliott)
“A practical satire that holds a funhouse mirror to American business and political culture. It is the first book to call out the new, “scientifically” grounded insights of social psychology for what they are: tips for the dark art of manipulation.” Funny how this and Cringeworthy come out on the same day.

 

March

6: 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise (Zack O’Malley Greenburg)
“Based on a decade of reporting, and interviews with more than 100 sources”. Even if that’s less than an interview a month, I’m looking forward to it.

20: In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (Charlan Nemeth)
“An eminent psychologist explains why dissent should be cherished, not feared”. The why is good, hope it has some how also.

27: Alive at Work (Dan Cable). I am thinking this book could be kind of boring (I would read a book called Dead at Work). But, it’s trendy to include the word “neuroscience” in your title and one of the examples cited in the book is “How Italian factory workers reduced their anxiety about a new process by playing with Legos”. OK, you got me, I’ll at least thumb through.

 

No release date

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (Joel Simon)
Light reading! I’ve always been fascinated my media studies. This is technically a reprint, but I’ve been reading the Columbia Journalism review on and off since I moved to DC in 2000. Will be interesting how my spokesperson training workshops changes after reading this.

I’m sure there will be other along the way, especially since I can’t find any slate for after the first quarter of the year. so check back and I may update this list.

 

By Greg Roth

The Accidental Viral Success

We’ve all been there – You have an idea, you get people involved, you make plans, you come up with a schedule. All that’s left to do is hit the start button. Or, so you thought. Instead, something goes wrong. Or everything does. So, you cancel. Teams do it with meetings. Companies do it with products. Bands do it with tours. You make a quick calculation that moving forward under less-than-ideal circumstances would be worse than not moving at all.

Is that always the right approach?

In September 2015, my friend Robbie Chernow (he acted in a TMZ parody video I directed a few years back) flew to Chicago for a bachelor party, only to find out the whole thing was off. Turns out everyone else’s flights never made it.

Instead of giving up on the idea, Robbie decided to make the most of the his weekend and started posting on Instagram under the #ChicagoForOne hashtag. Within hours, media outlets started noticing and by the end of the weekend, his misadventures had been covered in over 100 media outlets, including E!Mashable, Buzzfeed,, MTV, Cosmopolitan, and others.

I reached out to Robbie through IM to learn more about how this whole strange weekend took shape.

When did it occur to you that this was something you were just going to plow ahead with? 
After the flight with the bachelor got canceled, I was pretty bummed and wasn’t sure what to do and then literally 20 minutes later the flight with everyone else got canceled and it dawned on me that I was the sole participant and I couldn’t help but laughing. Voltaire has a quote, “G-d is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh” and when all of that happened I couldn’t help but just laugh and decide to make the most of it. It sure beat trying to find a new flight home or just sitting alone in my hotel room moping.

When did you realize this was a viral sensation?
The viral aspect happened very quickly.  I knew it got some buzz but didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I got a call from my parents saying Fox News was looking for me to chat, that I realized thing had escalated beyond just a joke.

What were the “creative moments” that occurred to you as  started to realize this social media campaign could be anything you wanted it to be.
I think a lot of the best creative moments came from me following what I thought was fun and being as present as possible. Everything from a sign to an open field became an opportunity for a photoshoot and if I wasn’t paying attention I would miss it all. I also think so much of the creative success came because I was doing this for no one but myself at first. My posts were all originally private before Elite Daily reached out.  I was doing this creatively for myself to have fun without much pressure, so the juices could flow freely.

What stuff have you tried to do that didn’t happened?
The only thing I tried to do that didn’t happen was go to the top of the Willis Tower. After spending 2 days barely seeing any people, I went to go to the observatory there and I was met by a 2-hour wait. I have a picture of me sad in front of the crazy line, but didn’t think it read well, so held off posting it.

You’ve got a background in improv, which is typically a group activity, or at least thought of that way. How did all your improv training/performing influence you through this solo experience?
This trip would not have happened had I not had a background in improv. It was a complete “yes and” to the hand I had been dealt.  In the back of my mind the entire trip I kept replaying a quote from my first (and best) improv teacher, Shawn Westfall.  After every class he would tell us, “if you’re not having fun…(and then insert some weird thing we should do instead)”.  You just have to “yes and” life.  Be in the moment and always follow your own fun.  That’s when your creativity will be at it’s best.

Sometimes, moving ahead in spite of the original plan is the best decision you can make. The two questions I take away from Robbie’s experience are:

How do you handle cancellation?
What do you do creativity just for yourself?

By Greg Roth

How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record

How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record

I started my career in a newsroom and I remember very vividly it was not a place for innovative thinking. Other than a clever headline or turn of phrase in a story, the culture of news has long been about facts, credibility, and deadlines. Free thinking was usually reserved for the bar after those deadline.

So, you could imagine that I read with interest, WIRED’s March 2017 cover story on the newspaper’s effort to reinvent itself, “How The New York Times Is Clawing Its Way Into the Future”. Sprinkled through the story are some choice nuggets about the internal struggle between new ideas and traditional ways of thinking, not to mention the strategy to harness those ideas. (Emphasis here, and throughout this post, will be mine):

Over the next few years, finding new digital revenue became the Times’ top business priority, and in 2014, Sulzberger, by then an editor on the metro desk, was tasked with overseeing an internal assessment of the paper’s digital efforts to date. The result was a 97-page document known as the Innovation Report, which found that editors too often said no to programmers and product designers from the technology group. “The newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes,” read the report, “prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’

Not to get off on a sidetrack,  but if the report has just stopped with it’s intended audience — senior staff and leadership, it might have gotten buried. However, that wasn’t to be the case. The report as leaked to Buzzfeed and published, minus a few pages, in May of 2014. Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab felt compelled to write about it because “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.”

You could certainly stop here and read the entire Innovation Report — it is a case study in dysfunctional culture. The Nieman Lab piece linked above highlights some of the juiciest takeaways. But, for now, let’s go back to the WIRED piece, because it has the benefit of almost three years of hindsight at this point.

The privileging of print journalism over the web, the sclerotic approach to change, the lack of coordination between the growing number of digital disciplines and specialists—Sulzberger and his team laid it all bare, lighting a digital-first fuse that still burns today. “It’s not like I’m the first person who came into this newsroom and said, ‘Social media is something that needs to be accounted for in our future,’” Sulzberger says. “But it wasn’t until the Innovation Report that those points really landed.”

All in all, the leak is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Times. It established accountability or at least the appearance of outside pressure to change it’s business and it’s treatment of employees and ideas. So, how has that gone?

THE TIMES IS a big organization, with about 1,300 journalists, and management has created a number of task forces to workshop new approaches to reporting and story­telling. One committee, the 2020 Group, studied the newsroom for a year, and its report, published in January, detailed how Times journalism should evolve over the next three years. (Among the recommendations: Greater emphasis on visuals, greater variety of formats and voices. They also announced that the Times would be introducing an alternative metric to pageviews that would “measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers.”)

Visuals, variety, and value. Ever notice how often innovation strategy produces considerations like these? Especially when done by committee.

Another division, Story[X], was created last spring to experiment with emerging technology like machine learning and translation.

Can’t believe that’s actually its name, but there you go. Sadly, this is the only reference to Story[X] in the WIRED piece, but I did find, from a Politico piece, that it’s really just a rebranding of The Times’ former R&D Lab, but with a great focus on VR initially. They hired a new chief in September 2016.

And then there is the Beta Group, the experimental arm of NYT whose first effort, developing a paywall, was called a success and not a success. But, what about Beta?

Central to Perpich’s original vision was having Beta’s product people work alongside designers, developers, and—most radically for the Times—editors. No one on Beta has an office; instead, each product is assigned its own conference room lined with whiteboards covered in colorful diagrams, design mock-ups, and Post-it notes where members of the team immerse themselves in what they are trying to build.

Sounds a bit like a permanent design thinking lab. Except the results sound alot like the Times’ versions of things that already exist.

In addition to Cooking and Crosswords—two of the original Beta apps—the group is now working on Real Estate, an app for home listings; Well, a health and fitness blog the group wants to turn into a suite of personalized training and advice services; and Watching, a vertical dedicated to TV and movie recommendations. The newest addition to Beta was an acquisition: In October, The New York Times paid $30 million for the Wirecutter, a gadget review site.

What this all comes down to, however, isn’t ideas, it’s language. What was holding the Times back from trying new ideas wasn’t the ideas themselves, it ewas the Tower of Babel effect among staff.

“Working hour by hour, day by day, with software developers and designers and product managers—to me that was a real revolution, a kind of epiphany,” says Clifford Levy, who won two Pulitzers at the Times before being promoted to the assistant managing editor overseeing digital platforms. “This is standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley, but it was radical here.”

And the radical shift was felt, and heard, throughout the newsroom. “It is not incorrect for me to say that I had no idea what people were talking about in my first couple months,” says Sam Sifton, the Times’ food editor, who started working with the Beta Group to launch the Cooking app back in 2013. “‘We can iterate on that.’ What? We spoke different languages, different cultures.” Still, Sifton has embraced his new digital mission, agreeing this past November to host a text message experiment called “Turkey Talk” to help cooks with their Thanksgiving dinners.

Still, there is a fight of the old guard vs. the new thinkers still going on. Common language is a problem because there isn’t a common set of values. There’s an ongoing clash of what it means to be “Timesian”:

Which is to say, a “Timesian” way, a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s defining it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t.

It’s been Dolnick’s mission to drum up enthusiasm in the newsroom for testing out new applications, from VR to livestreaming, without worrying too much about the Timesian thing.

Dolnick appears to be a bit of a tech convert, going from reporter jobs to headed up some of NYT’s digital efforts, including a successful meme the NYT pushed out based on the Olympics. Not very Timesian, right?

But, it’s not all full speed ahead, of course.

Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some at the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at these endless waves of experimentation. “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep,” says one editor who asked to remain anonymous. “Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re flat-out exhausted.”

Facebook Live has been particularly vexing for NYT journalists. (I’m also not quite sure what the point is, other than to somehow integrate the brief, happy life of Vine.)

Over the next few months, the Live team recruited more than 300 Times journalists to livestream anything and everything: press conferences, protests, political conventions. It was too much for some, and the public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, said as much in a column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon.” Spayd complained that some of the videos were “plagued by technical malfunctions, feel contrived, drone on too long … or are simply boring.” She urged editors to slow down, regroup, and wait until the Times could stay true to its past model of “innovating at a thoughtful, measured pace, but with quality worthy of its name.” (Timesian!)

Well, time may not be on some folks’ side.

The alternative is stark. For most of the last year, the Times offered buyouts to employees, in part to make room for new, digitally focused journalists. As one editor (fearful of being quoted by name) put it: “The dinosaurs are being culled.”

Final Thoughts

The story, and others related to it, provide a fascinating glimpse into a global, respected brand fighting for its future, despite have a mostly sterling name and reputation to trade on. As we see over and over, companies choose to house innovative thinking inside newly-christened departments, special initiatives, or projects that may or may not have the goal being legitimate, sustainable “things” on their own.

The case of the Times is such an interesting confluence of factors: social media and technology tools, the democratization of news and how citizens consume (or contribute to it), nserious concerns about the financial model and viability of the entire industry, and a culture chasm bot just between journalists and developers building tools, but journalists and digital experts, journalists and executives, and journalists and journalists themselves.

Thanks to the Pew Research Center, we know that increasing numbers of citizens want to digitally their news visually (almost half). So, to the extent that NYT can continue to experiment with ideas around news and content being more visual and more virtual, it will be interesting to see how a stalwart can harness their ideas while trying to shape the culture among professionals whop have been told the industry is dying for the better part of the last two decades.

How TV writers rooms get unstuck
If you’re using a “content generator”, that’s a bad sign
Finding new wrinkles at Puppy Bowl
The rise of the executive “design professional”
9 Funny Signs from the Womens’ March 2018
10 creative lessons from the making of Breaking Bad
Matt Dunne demonstrates that Ira Glass was right
3 Creative Lessons from a Theme Song
My Cousin’s Reading List from 2017
Idea Books Reading List for 2018
The Accidental Viral Success
How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record