Who Dares, Succeeds: Fighting Fear and Finding Creativity

Adam Montandon is a British digital futurist based in Denmark who first began designing cyborg (part-man and part machine) projects in 2004. He’s also the E-Concept Associate Professor at Lillebaelt Academy of Professional Higher Learning, in Denmark and a specialist consultant for innovative businesses. He co-founded the digital production agency HMC Interactive in 2003. In 2005 Adam Montandon founded the HMC MediaLab Organisation, a future-focused digital-arts community. In just two years, HMC was named as one of the top ten showcase technology companies in the Best of British award. In 2007, his company was acquired by Twofour group.

In 2010, Montandon left HMC Interactive and Twofour to become an independent specialist. His newest book, The Awesome Department, was published in December, and is available in digital format online. He spoke with Arabic Knowledge @Wharton about creativity and finding the courage to take risks.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You recommend that people do something terrifying for their creativity. Can you elaborate on that?

Adam Montandon: I have this concept that you can make any workplace more creative. The book is called The Awesome Department. This idea of creativity has to do with a lot of people are frightened about creativity, frightened about the ideas. They say they like new ideas but really they want the same old idea in a new way. You can terrify a lot of people and as soon as you terrify a lot of people, you end up falling back on the old ways, the safe, trusted things.

What I do is create a series of creativity spikes. A creativity spike is something where it seems really, really dangerous but it’s not dangerous at all. It’s something that seems edgy but it’s not really. When people work in that area, they find they embrace that danger and there are no bad side effects at all.

One of the things I do is I found you can do is buy huge, huge inflatable balls online that are two to three meters tall. If you inflate a giant ball in the middle of your office or your classroom, people will walk in and they’ll see this giant ball taking up half your space. It’s so crazy. They have to ask you, "What’s the deal with this huge ball?" You have to say, "Before we have this meeting, you have to jump on top of this ball and stay on top of it for 10 seconds. It takes a lot of determination. You have to take off your shoes. You have to turn, run and jump and hold on. And once you’re busy holding onto the ball, I will film it and put it on YouTube.

When you stay on top of the ball for so long, you feel a sense of success. So my team and I decided to create a Ball of Fame and you can sign your name on the ball. It built up with more and more names until it was filled up. When you are brutally serious that you have to jump on the ball before you can have a meeting – even if you’re a lawyer, accountant, if you’re in the most uncreative job ever – instantly you’re having fun. You’re doing something a little bit dangerous, a little unusual and all of a sudden you realize that if I can do that, I can do anything. It changes the dynamics of the meeting. It changes the dynamics of the space. If whenever you’re doing something a little unusual, seemingly a little dangerous, but it’s fun – that’s a creative spike. You can be creative in a number of ways. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Creative spikes can come from rock-climbing or skydiving, and people might say "Oh, I don’t have time." But what you’re saying is that if you do something creative, it might make you more productive?

Montandon: Well, it just changes your mindset. If you think differently, even for a little while, it’ll help you even in the short term. If you’re approaching the same thing, the same way every time, you get the same results every time. I like to mix things up.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: The values of your book The Awesome Department are quite inspirational. Things like "Awesome means different things to different people" or "Awesome starts small." What made you decide to come up with that list?

Montandon: I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now, testing out all of the different ideas. Because I do hundreds of different lectures all around the world for many kinds of different people, instead of doing the same one, I always change it for the audience. I want the audience to create something new.

Some people say, "You should never do the same thing twice" but I think, "You should never do the same thing once." You should always be editing and changing and trying new things to see how it improves.

I like to set this challenge: Think about everything you did at work today. Did you do the same sort of thing last week? How about last month? How about last year? If you did exactly the same sort of stuff today that you did a year ago, that’s the reason why you’re not moving forward.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people from the smallest companies to the biggest companies. From little independent eco-friendly surfing schools right up to huge global companies and everybody in between to find out what they said. The same sorts of topics came up every time. Also, the same sort of problems students have came up. I’m not saying it’s the proper way. It’s just our way. You can try it or ignore it, which is fine. I’ll admit it is weird to say you write a book and then say, "Oh you can just ignore it. You’ll probably be just as successful if you don’t do anything in the book. If you do, that’s excellent too."

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are the usual reasons stopping people from doing cool stuff?

Montandon: Everybody wants to do cool stuff but there is a lot of fear because once people realize that they can do cool stuff, it’s this sudden realization, "Oh no, now I know I can do cool stuff, I have to actually do it." People invent a lot of excuses that are convenient because sometimes you want to do cool stuff, it’s easier not to. It takes just as much effort to do something boring as it is to do something cool. There are only so many hours in the day to get on with your stuff. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do something amazing. But it’s difficult. And often people who care about you are scared [for you]. Every entrepreneur, every innovator has been told their idea won’t work by millions of people. Most of their ideas won’t work. So it’s perfectly good advice. But if you start thinking your idea won’t work, you’ll never know. If you never get to make it into reality, you’ll never know if it’ll be a spectacular failure or not. It’s a lot better to know you’re going to have a spectacular failure than to think you might not have one.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So people may block their creativity by never trying. And you also mention on your web site that you spent three years researching what really blocks creativity in businesses. So what are some of those things? How do people get over this hump that you’re talking about?

Montandon: Basically, there are hundreds and hundreds of different ways to boost your creativity and to change it. There are lots of books and websites that tell you, "Go and have a walk. Or look outside the box and all these clichés." But the truth is you can do an audit where you look at absolutely everything. Every tiny thing – it could be your company, your environment or your school – you can absolutely look at everything and ask yourself exactly what it is and what it means. Just ask yourself, "Can I make it just a bit more creative?" I’m not talking about radically changing it but just a little tweak for every single thing that you do. If you do it in an interesting way or if you do it enough, you start to spread stories.

Storytelling is really a benefit of a creative company. What happens is if you meet the company and you come home and sit around the dinner table and tell your family what you did today. "Well, actually, I went to this place and jumped on this great big ball. And then I saw this and then I saw that. You know what happened to me?" And then it becomes a really interesting story. So the more stories you can make, the better.

A really good example of that is that for the past three weeks, I’ve been giving out business cards. Everyone gives out business cards. And everybody’s business card has their name, address and phone number and that’s what you’re supposed to have on your business card. I thought, "If I do that, is there something I can do that will be more creative?" There are a million different designs of business cards. I didn’t put my name or my address or my phone number. I just put "This card is worth one favor. It can be redeemed at any time."

Instead of business cards, it’s a favor. I’ll help you with a favor. If you want me to come give a lecture at your school or help you move furniture or look after your kids or whatever you need, I’ll do the favor. The only problem is you’ll have to find me. You’ll have to remember me. You’ll have to track me down. But once I give them a card, they never forget me. That’s one of the ways I’ve been able to travel around the world, giving lectures and all sorts of cool things. They’ll say, "Adam, I need a favor. Can you come out and do this? And of course I’ll say "yes" because I owe them a favor. It’s a phenomenally creative thing to do and it costs exactly the same to print a creative business card as it is to print a normal business card. It’s no cost to business. But the results are fantastic. Those are all sorts of different creative things to do and that’s just one thing that can be done really cheaply.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How should people cultivate a creative relationship with a mentor?

Montandon: I talk a lot about mentors. I came up with this idea and it’s called "hoarders or ignorers." It’s two different ways you can work with a mentor. You can pick one of the two. It’s really fun. With a hoarder, you grab everything you possibly can from a mentor, every bit of inspiration. Read every word. Whatever they tell you to do, you do it. The opposite of that is the ignorer. You listen to a mentor and whatever they tell you, you do the exact opposite. Forget you ever heard it and do something completely different. Now, one way is not better than another. They’re just completely different. People grow in different ways. Sometimes, it can be interesting to have a mentor you can use as an ignorer instead of a hoarder. Sometimes you can have superfans that are hoarders. Ignorers can be useful in a different way. It can be really useful to have that.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It sounds like what you were referring to in other writings when you say, "You should just listen to yourself." When you’re "ignoring" someone, you’re encouraging them to listen to their own intuition about what’s a creative solution.

Montandon: Yes, that’s right. Sometimes, what happens in education is things are really well paced. You have a timetable and plan. You have different lessons on certain days and it’s designed the same year after year. But the real world is not really like that. You have big periods where nothing happens and you have big periods where everything happens all at once. You’ve got a thousand presentations. You might say you don’t have time for research and you need to be confident to make a decision. It doesn’t have to be the right decision but sometimes it has to be a fast decision.

I do this experiment with my students, which can sometimes be quite dangerous. We have computer labs with big huge brand new Apple Macintoshes. I might take a basketball into the classroom. I might ask the question and throw a basketball at the same time. And see who it hits. I think I’ve broken three or four Macintoshes this way. But I’m basically throwing the basketball very quickly. It’s not "what is the answer" but "what is the answer now."

The problem you have on a Monday morning may be different than one you have on a Friday night. How you approach things is important. It’s not what the right answer is but what the answer is now, in general. It’s doesn’t work for all subjects. You can’t do that for algebra because you can’t change the answer just because it’s Friday.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: The idea that you have to give an answer now sounds almost like advising people not to procrastinate or hang on to their creative hurdles.

Montandon: If you do stuff fast and you know it’ll be a disaster, then at least you’ll know if it’s a disaster fast. You won’t worry whether or not it’ll be a disaster. Then you can improve on it. This stuff doesn’t work for everybody. It can help if you ever feel stuck. You can give it a shot. If you’re stuck, then you’re doing nothing. You may still be doing nothing but at least you’re having fun doing it.

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