Tag Archives: Twyla Tharp

Where Do You Find The Very, Very Best Idea? – Insight from Steve Jobs, from 2004

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark:  random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head:  “You need an idea.” 
You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit


Steve Jobs is still Chairman, and may still hold more sway at Apple than any of us know.  (I hope so!)

But the compilations of Jobs’ stories and quotes are everywhere, including on this blog (just scroll through yesterday’s posts).  I found this terrific article at the Poynter site, How Steve Jobs has changed (but not saved) journalism by Jeff Sonderman.  The entire article is worth reading, but here is a key quote, from a 2004 Business Week article:

“Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.
And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

So, where does that very best new idea come from? From an environment that is a swirling hotbed of conversations, ongoing, coming up with lots of ideas, and saying no to all of the good ones until you are left with only the very, very best ONE.

About those “Right People on the Bus” – Thoughts on Talent, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Triumph of the “Lesser Names”

As a choreographer, my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day.

Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative HabitLife Lessons for Working Together


It’s a broken record.  Everybody knows it.  If you have the wrong people in your organization, on your team, you are in trouble.  You will not accomplish your goals.  You will not take your organization to the next level.  And I’ve read the books; I’ve quoted the findings, the recommendations.  They all make sense.

Getting the right talent is everything.  “Do you have the right people on the bus?” goes the mantra-like question.


Well, let me put it simply – until you get the perfect person to fill that all-important seat on your bus, that all-important slot on your team, there is a better, more realistic solution, and Twyla Tharp gives us the insight:

my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Twyla Tharp has worked with the very best (Billy Joel and his music; the music of Frank Sinatra; the dancing of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a plethora of others), but she also has worked with many, many dancers who may not reach such heights in the reputation, or talent, department that these superstars represent.  So, what does she do?  She still churns out terrific work, because she views her task as this:

to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Consider the lowly, seemingly lesser names of the Dallas Mavericks.  OK, Dirk Nowitzki is a “superstar,” but his surrounding cast, the other members of the team? – Coach Rick Carlisle simply made the best possible work with the dancers he found in the room on this given day (in this season).  And, lo and behold, they rose to the occasion, and they won it all.  And, by the way, those lesser names – JET (Jason Terry), J. J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, the practically ancient Jason Kidd, and the entire team– they’re not so lesser anymore!

So, fantasize about that perfect team all you want to (while your team fantasizes about that perfect team leader!).  But take a look around you.  There are people with talent – great untapped talent – ready to go to work.  Work with these people.  They are the ones in the room on this given day.  Work with them to do the best this group can do on this day.

Yes, it might be hard work to make this happen.  “The best possible work” is never easy.  But, give it your best shot with the people on your team now.

You might be surprised!

Our Crash Courses are the Way to Go

One of our unique services at Creative Communication Network is our ability to offer training on important topics based upon the information that we derive from books that we present at the First Friday Book Synopsis.

We call these Crash Courses, and you can look for the first offering, focusing upon Change and Innovation very soon.  Don’t miss the opportunity to register for this first course.  We will send an e-mail to you that announces the date, time, location, and method for registraiton.

In these Crash Courses, we take principles from several best-sellers on a particular topic and transform these into skill-based activities, facilitated discussions, assessments, and self-reflection.  You won’t find anything else like them anywhere.  We are putting the final touches on this first course right now.

We have  two major components in our first course on Change and Innovation, with these objectives:

Part One:            Creative Thinking

Objective 1:      Identify strategies to actively seek out and hire people with diverse backgrounds and thinking styles

Objective 2:      Explore steps to effectively manage resistance to novel or experimental proposals

Part Two:             Demonstrate how to develop processes, products, and services.

Objective 1:      Describe how to evaluate new opportunities unconstrained by existing paradigms but keeping an eye towards organizational goals

Objective 2:      Identify and describe steps to maintain the organization’s competitive edge with breakthrough solutions and disciplined risks.

In this Change and Innovation course, we draw upon principles from these books that we have presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis, and others:  

Kelley, T., Littman, J., & Peters, T.  (2001).  The art of innovation (lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm).  New York:  Doubleday.

Kelley, T., & Littman, J.  (2005).  The ten faces of innovation : IDEO’s strategies for defeating the devil’s advocate and driving creativity throughout your organization.   New York:  Currency/Doubleday.

Mauzy, J., & Harriman, R. A.  (2003).  Creativity Inc.: Building an inventive organization. Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Sutton, R. I.  (2002).  Weird ideas that work: 11-1/2 practices for promoting, managing, and sustaining innovation.  New York:  Free Press.

Tharp, T.  (2003).  The creative habit:  Learn it and use it for life.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.

Look for information about this course really soon! 

We hope you make plans to join us.

8 Assumptions and 8 Questions about Innovation

Even the staid British publication The Economist recently claimed, “Innovation is now recognized as the single most important ingredient in any modern economy.” 
(Tom Kelley:  The Ten Faces of Innovation)


For the SMU Cox School of Business – Business Leadership Center, I recently presented my new session on innovation:  Adaptation, Exaptation, Innovation:  Processes and Environments That Invite Successful Innovation.

I quote from many books that discuss creativity and innovation, including books by Tom Kelley, Steven Johnson, Gary Hamel, Twyla Tharp, Bernd Schmitt, and Roger Martin, among others.  As I developed the material, I stole/borrowed/compiled/wrote eight assumptions about our current situation, and asked 8 questions…  Here are the assumptions and questions:

 • 8 Assumptions:

1)    What worked yesterday will not work as well tomorrow
2)    Someone is trying – now! — to leave you in the dust
3)    Everyone; every product; every process…can get better
4)    Creativity, as a habit, can be developed
5)    Innovation, as a practice, can be achieved
6)    It takes time, training, effort to be creative, and to be innovative
7)    It is far better (it works best) to be innovative “together”
8)    Innovation is a habit/a discipline/a routine – in other words, it needs constant attention and focus…  always

• 8 Questions for the Innovator:

1)    What are we doing now that could be done better tomorrow?  (hint – practically everything)
2)    What could we learn from a totally unexpected source/field/discipline?
• how could we take some “field trips” – how could we open our eyes a little wider?
3)    What could we learn from the best within our industry?
4)    What could we learn from the worst in our industry (what should we never do?)
5)    Where are our bottlenecks – how are we killing good ideas?
6)    Where are our records – that is, where are we recording all of our possible good ideas?  (Where are we losing our good ideas?)
7)    Where do people experience hassles, of any kind, in their interactions with us?  How can we get rid of these hassles?
8)    And – what could go wrong?  (Beware of the problem of unintended consequences. – Consider the parable of the “free refill”).

Natalie Portman Reminds Us Well – There Are No Little People

Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made.  Or, to be more precise, built, one day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and, most of all, through habit…  Like creativity, collaboration is a habit – and one I encourage you to develop.
Collaboration guarantees change because it makes us accommodate the reality of our partners – and accept all the ways they’re not like us.  And those differences are important.  The more we can draw upon our partner’s strengths and avoid approving our partner’s weaknesses, the better the partnership will be.
You need a challenging partner.  In a good collaboration, differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.
Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

With God, there are no little people.
Francis Schaeffer

Here’s a snippet of a scene from Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first television series (Sorkin won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay last night for The Social Network. You can read the script of this Sports Night episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,  here). Casey McCall, one of the two fictional Sports Night co-hosts, had appeared on The View in the episode.  A big deal had been made about the color of his tie by the women on The View.    Monica (played by Janel Moloney) came to see him…


Excuse me, Mr. McCall?


I’m sorry, is this a bad time?

For what?

I’d like to ask you a question, but if you’re preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back.

What’s your question?

What’s my name?

(BEAT) What’s your name?


What are we doing right now?

If this is a bad time —

I’m sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names.

Who was the number two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?

It was Ferguson Jenkins.

My name’s Monica. I’m the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen and she’s been working here since the day you started.

I know Maureen.

Can I ask you another question?

I’m sorry I didn’t know your name.

(HOLDING UP A NECKTIE) Do you know what color this is?

It’s grey.

It’s called gun metal. Grey has more ivory in it, gun metal has more blue. Can you tell me which of these shirts you should wear it with?

I don’t know.

You’re not supposed to know what shirt goes with what suit or how a color in a necktie can pick up your eyes. You’re not expected to know what’s going to clash with what Dan’s wearing or what pattern’s gonna bleed when Dave changes the lighting. Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk-show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say “That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen, I wouldn’t know gun metal from a hole in the ground.” Do you have an idea what it would’ve meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would’ve played that tape for her husband and her kids?


Let’s start with the obvious.  The Academy Awards gives out Oscars for a number of different categories – all of which point to the obvious truth there is no such thing as a good movie that is not a team project – a true collaborative product.  It takes a lot of people working together, with great and diverse skills, to make an Oscar-worthy movie.  So there is no best actor, best director, best actress, without a really good cinematographer, or screen writer, or make-up artist, or, composer, or…you get the idea.  And the Oscar telecast is filled with such reminders, as every winner thanks people who helped him or her win this coveted award.

But, within each category there is excellence all the way down to the smallest behind-the-scenes bit-part.  And it was this truth that Natalie Portman so eloquently stated.  Even though one winner (Randy Newman) reminded the audience that reading off a list of names is “not good television,” Portman’s list reminded us that people — real people, behind every name in such a list of “thank-yous” —  are the reason a movie is made well to begin with.

Ms. Portman thanked many people, but near the end of her acceptance speech, she added this (from transcript, here):

And also there are people on films who no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day. Margie and Geordie who did my hair and makeup, Nicci, who dressed me, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed the beautiful ballet costumes, Joe Reidy, our incredible AD, first AD, and our camera operators J.C. and Steve who gave me so much soul behind the camera everyday, you gave me all of your energy.

Here is the business lesson (and yes, movies are big business).  It takes a team — a diverse team, made up of people with a life-time of carefully honed skills (the 10,000 hour rule!) to make a world-class movie.  Collaboration, with gifted, skilled, trained, people, at every level of the organization, produces excellence – even magic.  And shoddiness, anywhere on the team, can lower the quality all the way through the endeavor.

And for every leader (or, those with “leading roles”), take a lesson from Natalie Portman.  Don’t forget to include, and thank, the “little people.”

Before Creativity, Before Innovation, You Need An Idea

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark:  random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head:  “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit


I was just revisiting my handout from the book Where Good Ideas Come From.  Steven Johnson argues that a lot goes into the discovery of those really good ideas.  To get to “good idea, “ you have to:  go with the “flow;” you have to have, and then jettison, a bunch of bad ideas; you have to learn to rely on hunches much more than those fast/sudden/amazing eureka moments (which, really, is not the secret sauce behind most good ideas); you have to come to realize that good hunches are slow in coming – -they are “slow hunches.”

You have to build, and take advantage of, an environment that nurtures  good ideas:

This is a book about the space of innovation.  Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.

Good ideas come from many places:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and occasionally, contracts) over time.
A good idea is a network…  an idea is not a single thing.  It is more like a swarm.

Good ideas come from people – notice that that is “people” (plural!):

The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.

And, remember, that creativity, and then innovation, are the result of good ideas.  Johnson’s decision to talk about good ideas was significant:

I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing – good ideas – to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy.

So…pretend that you have a group of people who have nurtured the idea generation skill that is needed.  You come together to work on generating new, good, usable ideas.

What do you do?

You have some brainstorming sessions. And then, you have the chance of sparking/catching those good ideas.  You are looking for that someone in that crowd that can help you come up with just the right next new idea:

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd.  It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

So, what do you in this brainstorming session?  You brainstorm.  But, we all know, brainstorming done poorly does not work.

Here is some genuinely important “how to brainstorm well” counsel from The Art of Innovation  (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm) by Tom Kelley.

• Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming…

1)  Sharpen the focus.

2)    Playful Rules. (e.g. – at IDEO:     Go for quantity. Encourage wild ideas. Be visual).


1.              Number your ideas.  (it creates quantity – it makes it easier to refer to specific ideas…)
2.              Build and Jump.
3.              The Space Remembers.
4.              Stretch your mental muscles.
5.              Get physical. (including:  big blocks; competitors products; use the body itself!)

• Six ways to kill a brainstormer
The boss gets to speak first (the boss gets to speak!)
Everybody gets a turn.
Experts only please.
Do it off-site.
No silly stuff.
Write down everything.

And, like with every other skill that you develop, you’ll have to do it a bunch — practice brainstorming, that is.  Remember the tried and true adage: “perfect practice makes perfect.”