Jérôme Provensal

Mar 172013

Use a forgotten sleep pattern to tap into your creativity

Credit: http://bit.ly/ZKIEE4

Credit: http://bit.ly/ZKIEE4

It happened again!
Last night, I went to sleep around 10:30 pm and woke up around 2:30 am with my brain completely fired up and intent on keeping me awake. And so I struggled with my mind to find peace and calm to go back to sleep, to no avail. It probably took 1 to 2 hours to fall asleep again.
What’s wrong with me?

According to this fascinating article The myth of the eight-hour sleep, there’s actually nothing wrong with me and in fact my internal sleeping clock might be more in tune with the way humans are supposed to sleep.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

More recently, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. From Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria, the pattern of “first sleep” + waking period + “second sleep” was the norm for thousands of years.
The waking period was a solitary experience and in fact a doctor’s manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labor but “after the first sleep”, when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better”. Oh, the French!

Today’s “8-hour sleep” is indeed a fairly recent concept and came about with the Industrial Revolution and most notably with the advent of street lighting.

Frolic with your muse…

What does this have to do with creativity?
As mentioned in this post, creativity is strongly linked to the presence of alpha-waves in our brain. According to Wikipedia, these waves are mostly present during the relaxed mental state of the wake-sleep cycle, where the subject is at rest with eyes closed, but is not tired or asleep. Ring a bell?
Based on my personal experience, it is often in the middle of the night that I find my best ideas, especially “out of the box” ideas that require to connect completely disjoint bits of ideas.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, between first and second sleep, don’t fight it! Instead see it as an excellent time to frolic with your muse. Keep a notebook (or your smart-phone like I do) to jot down your ideas as they come to you while your mind wanders. When you’ll awake in the morning, you will be amazed by what you and your muse came up with.
Happy frolicking!

PS: Have you experienced this bi-modal sleep pattern? Are you more creative in the middle of the night? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Mar 112013

Psychological Distance:

Brilliantly simple way to boost your creativity

Credit: http://bit.ly/Wj349m

Credit: http://bit.ly/Wj349m

In this fascinating Scientific American article, the authors (Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman) tell us that creativity is not bound by the sole innate characteristics of an individual and can in fact be changed based on situation and context.

Consider this experiment: 2 groups of participants from the Indiana University were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. The first group was told that the task had been developed by Indiana University students studying in Greece and the second group was told instead that the task had been developed by Indiana University students studying in Indiana. The first group was able to generate more numerous and original modes of transportation that the second group.

How can such a minute detail have any significant influence on creativity?!

This phenomenon is referred as “Construal Level Theory (CLT) of Psychological Distance”, i.e. anything that we do not experience as occurring now and here. Attempting to take another person’s perspective or by thinking of a question as if it were unreal and unlikely, also fall in to that category of “psychological distant”.

According to CLT, psychological distance affects how we mentally represent things, where distant things are represented in an abstract way. Once classified as abstract (vs. concrete), it seems that the mind get an extra boost of creativity in solving or manipulating those abstract things.

Studies have also shown that projecting an event into the remote future can enhance creativity. In a series of experiments examining how temporal distance affects performance of insight and creativity tasks, participants were asked to imagine their lives a year later (distant future) or the next day (near future), and then to imagine working on a task on that day in the future. Once again, participants who imagined a distant future were more creative and insightful.

Finally, evidence shows that study participants were more successful at solving problems when they believe that they were unlikely to encounter the full task.

These findings have interesting practical implications. One can take simple steps to increase creativity by:

  • travelling (in person or just thinking about it) to faraway places,
  • envisioning distant future and
  • considering improbable alternatives to reality.

So, next time you are stuck on a problem that requires creativity, just picture yourself in a faraway place, in a far future, dreaming up of unlikely scenarios.

Now, if you do this in a shower, there will be no stopping you!

Questions/Comments? Use the “Enter your comment here…” box below.

Mar 102013

A very creative way to promote ideas within a group:
Mutual Fun

In the following video, Professor Hayagreeva Rao from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, delivers the message that killing ideas is way more important that collecting ideas.

Now, there’s the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it.

In most companies, the decision of promoting or killing ideas is left in the hands of a small committee  referred as the “Murder Board” by Professor Rao. According to Professor Rao, the murder board ‘s decisions may come across as arbitrary and in the worst cases subject those proposing the ideas to ridicule, humiliation and rejection, thereby killing their initiative. As a result, people watching those actions will become reluctant to suggest ideas in the future. The end result is that the smart people who were hired by those same companies become “dumb” or rather mute/silent.

To me the most interesting idea brought up by the video is the case-study of the company Rite Solutions. Their brilliant idea is to organize all the company’s idea into a “Stock Market for Collective Genius” that they call: Mutual Fun (no “d”).


3 principles behind mutual fun

In a nutshell, the concept behind Mutual Fun is organized around these 3 principles:

  • Every employee is given $10,000 of “opinion money” to buy savings bonds and stocks
  • Originators of ideas (either conservative or far-out ideas) are encouraged to develop “expect-us” (prospectus) and get “prophets” to get stock listed
  • Others can buy stocks, offer suggestions, and volunteer time.

Low-quality ideas don’t find “prophets” or are quickly eliminated for lack of support. However, since those ideas have been viewed by many employees, they may become the material for new ideas which might get more traction.

Anybody can suggest ideas and Professor Rao recalls that the receptionist of the company for example had 2 ideas in the Mutual Fun.

Rite Solutions developed some pretty sophisticated tools to show the “stocks” and stock activity in the Mutual Fun with charts, news stories, levels of funding, etc… to help stock owners to manage their stock portfolio.

So, instead of solely relying on the opinion of a few individual (the murder board), Rise Solutions was able to tap into the wisdom of the company as a whole by looking at the ideas that rise to the top of the Mutual Fun market. Those ideas then get fully funded with real money (called “adventure capital”, cute) to implement the ideas contained in those stocks.

I wish such a tool existed as Open Source for other companies like mine to use.

Maybe something for me to work on…

Mar 082013
Credit: http://bit.ly/10hhAP1

Credit: http://bit.ly/10hhAP1

No, this issue is not about the (mostly) undeserved reputation some office dwellers have with poor hygiene. And BTW, the irony of a Frenchman talking about poor hygiene is not lost on me.

This post is about creativity and a very simple way to make you more creative,

In his recent book about creativity (Imagine, how creativity works) Jonah Lehrer introduces us to the work of Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. Bhattacharya uses EEGs to study how people come up with insight. He claims that the brain’s right hemisphere starts producing “alpha waves”. Amazingly, Bhattacharya has found that it’s possible to predict that a person will solve an insight puzzle up to eight seconds before the insight actually arrives and even before the person is even aware of the answer.
He even goes on to say that subjects with insufficient alpha-wave activity are unable to solve insight puzzles such as:

  • A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive and none of them are divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?
  • Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father, yet they are not twins. How is that possible?

How can you trigger those magic alpha waves, you wonder? They are in fact closely associated with relaxing activities – such as taking the aforementioned warm shower. A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative thinking because that’s when our brain directs the spotlight of attention inward, toward the right hemisphere, the champion of remote associations.
In contrast, when focusing too much on a problem the attention tends to be directed outward, triggering the analytical mind which actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.

For many people, the shower is the most relaxing part of the day. It’s when you are gently massaging your scalp with shampoo (as directed on the bottle), unable to check your email, that you finally hear the quiet voices in the back of your heads whispering to you insights and great new innovative ideas.
Of course, taking a shower is not the only way to trigger that the state of relaxation with its associated alpha waves. Wallace J. Nichols, also a scientist, claims in an article (Get your blue mind on) that the sight and proximity of the ocean and its blue, relaxing vastness will also bring out that dose of relaxation.

Still skeptical? Why don’t you test yourself against these well-known RATS (Remote Associates Test) in various states of relaxation?

Once you have that great insight in the shower remembers Nolan Bushnell’s quote:

Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.

PS: After unsuccessfully trying to hyperlink Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine” book (mentioned earlier) with Amazon, I realized that Amazon pulled the book off its (virtual) shelves. And here’s the reason why.
That said, this post still stands because I’ve experienced the creative powers of a warm shower myself. So, even if some of Lehrer’s quotes were fabricated, I would still like to believe that the rest of the book is not a complete fabrication.
If you want to read the book, it’s still for sale just not with Amazon.

Mar 062013

Credit: zazzle.com

I have been working for the same company for many, many years. When I talk to my friends from college, they ask me how could I be working for the same company for so long? I tell them I’m still having fun and still doing things that interest me. In asking them why they have hopped from one company to another, I often come to the realization that it’s not the company they dislike, but it’s their job. Digging some more, it’s clear that regardless of the company, they will very likely always end up disliking their job.

Why? Because, they are missing one important ingredient, passion. For me, tinkering with computer “stuff” is something I’ve always loved. And it’s that passion that lead me to buy my first computer and made me sign up for my first Computer Science 101 class. That love is still there. Yes, I was and am still a proud nerd.

Many people start just like me, though that passion erodes over time partially because of the jobs they end up taking but mostly because they decide that they are no longer happy and don’t make room in their daily job for things they do enjoy. This recent article in Inc. brings up a similar point: they complain about their job but don’t do anything about it.

Maybe I have been lucky to have managers who have allowed me some wiggle room to explore new technologies, new ideas, and new methods to keep that passion alive.

Example 1: back in the mid-90s, we used to create bug reports using a home grown app (there was no Bugzilla back then)  running on an xterm-type of terminal. The Internet just started to emerge with technology like Apache and CGI. I pushed to start using it as a new front-end for the bugs system , and people are still using today. Though phased out for the RallyDev  tool, it was fun to develop and watch it grow to 150,000+ logged bugs.

Example 2: when I became a manager in early 2000, I realized that I wasn’t very good at the tedious job of keeping track of my team’s many tasks. Hence, I created “Tasks!”, a tool that allowed me to assign tasks to people, keep track of changes/updates (with email automatically sent to assignee and assignor), and monitor progress during the development and QA. At the end of the week, when meeting with my product manager, I had a nicely formatted report to share with him and talk about the week’s progress. I loved the tool because it took care of the things I didn’t like to do.

I could provide other examples, but you get the point.

Did my company breathe that passion into me? No.

Would I be as passionate at another firm? Probably. At least, I would hope so.

Did my company do something right to keep and nurture the passion alive instead of snuffing it? Yes!

Do I have a point here? Yes! My point is actually two-fold:

  • If you are a nerd like me,  a jock or just an average Joe with a passion for computers, find a way to remain passionate about it and share that passion with your co-workers and managers. If you’ve found something new that you are excited about, find some time to explore it (at work or home) and share your findings/excitement with the other nerds around you.
  • If you are a manager (or a company), please do allow your employees to spend an hour here and there to explore next technologies and share it with the rest of the group. Google has it right allowing its employees to spend 20% of their time on things that interest them.

Bottom-line: Stay passionate and keep “it” alive!

Mar 042013


OK, you’ve set your mind to be more creative/innovative, but where do you start?

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “everyone’s a critic”. It describes the (good? bad?) habit people have of critiquing things that they find faulty or not up to their expectation.

The next time you find yourself in that situation, do 2 things:


Being creative/innovative doesn’t solely mean finding the next great business idea to displace Facebook.

You can apply your creative skills to something small yet meaningful in your private or business life.

I’ll give you a personal example which I think illustrates my point.

Many years ago (10+?), I saw the way my wife (Teri) was keeping track of people’s vacation days, using a combination of email and Excel. When an employee wanted to request a day of vacation, (s)he would send an email to his/her manager and cc Teri. The manager would then approve (or not) the vacation and Teri would faithfully record the day in Excel. When either the manager or the employee wanted to know the numbers of days the employee had taken or had left, they would contact Teri, who would pull out Excel and provide them with an answer.

Tedious, right? And I won’t even mention what Teri had to do to produce a report to HR for ALL employees.

I thought to myself: there’s gotta be a better way!

So instead of criticizing the way Teri was keeping track of days (well, maybe I did), the software engineer in me thought “I can come up with something better”. And so, I created “Days!”; the days-off requesting/tracking system that is not only used in my wife’s department but practically in the whole firm, worldwide!

Teri no longer had to update her spreadsheet. Employees can now request days electronically using a simple web form and their managers can easily approve/deny the request directly from Outlook. Both managers and employees can now see how many days they have taken and are left.  And for Teri, creating a nicely formatted report to HR is a simple click away

Sure, the solution I came up with might not be the best solution, there’s no integration with Outlook for example (it wasn’t available back then). But the point is that there was something quite inefficient and I did something about it.

Along the same lines, why waste your energy griping about something that constantly bugs you, while you could use that energy looking into a creative solution to the problem?

So, next time you see something that is within your power to fix/improve, don’t complain but use your creativity do something about it!

Mar 042013

Innovation doesn’t always come from experts.
Beware of the “curse of knowledge”

Credits://www.barbie.com/It’s the early 1950s.

Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors as they found it silly. Little girls didn’t want to play with grownups! Besides, what did Ruth know about the toy business? She was just an outsider!

During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children, Ruth Handler noticed a strange-looking doll in the window of a cigarette shop in Germany. The doll was eleven inches tall and had platinum-blond hair, long legs, and an ample bosom. Her name was Bild Lilli. What Ruth didn’t know, because she was an outsider and she didn’t know the language and local culture, is that the doll was actually a “sex symbol”, sold mainly to middle-aged men.

When the family returned home, Handler continued to lobby her husband to build an Americanized version of the Bild Lilli. She eventually succeeded but it took 3 years to convince Mattel’s executives to build it and for the first Barbie to be released.
Before long, the plastic toy became the cultural icon that we know today. Mattel and its reluctant executives have sold over 1 billion Barbies in 150 countries.

The outsider’s point of view

The moral of the story is that Ruth Handler was an outsider. She was an outsider to the German culture which made her fail to grasp the bawdy back-story of Bild Lilli; if she had, she would have certainly not bought it for her daughter.
She was also an outsider to the toy industry which provided her with a fresh pair of eyes. She wasn’t suffering from what’s sometime known as “the curse of knowledge” where being an expert in a field prevents one from coming up with novel/radical ideas.
It’s difficult to escape the “curse of knowledge”. However, there are techniques and approaches that I will describe in future posts that can help.
That said, there is one thing that is easy to do… don’t be afraid to seek outsiders for your problems/projects.

Seek a “fresh pair of eyes”

Like most managers who have been working on a project for awhile, I know mine pretty well but I might know very little about other projects done in my company. We all have a good understanding of the industry in which we are revolving but I still remain an outsider to those other projects. Would I mind, if every so often they invited me to one of their brainstorming sessions to get a fresh perspective on their work? Absolutely not!
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way and other people will jump at the chance to be the “fresh pair of eyes”, no?
Another good source of “fresh pair of eyes” that might be easily discarded by seasoned managers are: interns and new grads. That’s a mistake to me. Give them a chance to absorb enough knowledge so that they understand the subject matter. But also elicit their feedback, ideas, comments and opinions, early and often. Be open-minded and listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, between the two of you, you might come up with the next Barbie…

(The main inspiration for this post came from a story told by Jonah Lehrer in his book: Imagine: How Creativity Works)

[Image credits: http://www.barbie.com]

Mar 032013


A lot of people don’t consider themselves very creative or innovative and yet they can be excellent photographers

Now, you may ask: what does being a photographer have to do with being an innovator?

To me the thought process is the same.

You weren’t born a photographer but at some point you made a conscious choice to buy a camera, read the manual (yeah right…), take some classes (maybe), buy some books on the topic and most importantly get out there and take pictures!

When you go out with your camera, something happens in your mind: you become more sensitive to your surroundings as you constantly look for something interesting to shoot. You suddenly see things that go completely unnoticed by everyone else: the shadow cast by an old lamp post, the glorious light on a smiling child’s face, the graceful motion of a ballerina, or the intricate details of a flower. You are constantly ready to be intrigued, compelled, amused.

Those stolen moments make you richer, more curious and certainly more intellectually aware.

Being an innovator is very much the same thing!

YOU decide that from now on, you are going to be an innovator. That decision opens up a brand new world because you start seeing things differently, coming up with solutions to problems that you never thought of before, becoming aware of new opportunities because you started to pay attention, having ideas popping up in your head where you would have drawn a blank before.

Just like photography, you won’t be good at it overnight. It takes time to develop these skills and upcoming LBBs and innovation/creativity initiatives will help you hone these skills and give you a chance to apply them.

ANYBODY can become an innovator and you will become one if you decide to turn on your innovator’s mind.

Mar 012013
Creative Type


Let me start with this a true, personal anecdote…

Many years ago, I was at a party chitchatting with a young lady, when the inevitable “what do you do for a living” question came up.

The following ensued (with some embellishments):

  • Her: what do you do for a living?
  • Me: why don’t you guess? (I was so cool, back then)
  • Her: Are you a chef?
  • Me: Non. (keeping it cool but seriously thinking, can you be any more cliché!?)
  • Her: A musician maybe?
  • Me: No. (I had longish hair then)
  • Her: do you work in the clothing industry?
  • Me: no (back to the French theme)
  • Her: The movie industry?! As a director or writer maybe?
  • Me: Nope
  • Her: alright, I give up.
  • Me: Ok, I’m a software engineer.
  • Her (barely masking her disappointment): REALLY!? I thought that you were more of the “creative type”! (She probably did the air-quotes with her fingers)
  • Me (Trying to ignore her disappointment): Why would you think that I can’t be both a software engineer and also creative?!

And this is really what’s at the heart of this post: Can one really be a software engineer and be creative too?

Can one really be a software engineer and be creative too?

Talking on behalf of my software development  brethren, my answer is a resounding, heck yes!

Of course,  for the uninitiated eye (like the person in the dialog above), software engineering/development might look more clerical than intellectual, and more structured than imaginative. But for anyone who’s worked in the field, it should be apparent that our work is more governed by ideas and possibilities than the monotony and tedium of routine tasks.

Surely in recent years, the hundreds of companies and thousands of applications (for iOS/Android) created by software engineers are a very clear and visible testimony that software engineers are a creative bunch.

One might say that the coding, the testing, the debugging are probably not what comes at the top of the list of exciting things to do. But can’t they? Who among us never felt the touch of divine inspiration when coming up with a genius way of coding or testing something? That “aha” moment when the idea that makes all the difference comes to you.

How about “being in the zone” when the code seems to write itself and designs, made of one clever idea after another, comes alive before your very eyes.

To me (and I’m not a musician), it seems very much like what composers must experience when they create music: breathing life out of nothing (bytes vs. notes)

As a software engineer, if you don’t feel that you are creative, maybe you never tried to picture yourself as a creative person and maybe it’s time to come out of the “creative closet”.

On the other hand, if you feel that you are actually very creative and full of ideas but your creativity and ideas haven’t been acknowledged by your peers, by your boss and by your company in general, then you need to wake them up.

I could go on but hopefully you get idea.

So, you the teacher, the QA analyst, the engineer, the equity trader, and you who’s always been labeled as “non creative”, do feel that you are the “creative type”?

Share you thoughts/frustrations/inspirations in the comment section below.

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