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Dumb Luck: How Happy Accidents Can Spark Creative Genius

Dumb Luck: How Happy Accidents Can Spark Creative Genius

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Published by David Deal
What can we learn from great artists like Paul McCartney and Steven Spielberg who have figured out how to make great art out of trying circumstances and outright failure? This white paper discusses many famous incidents in the realm of art, sports, and technology, in which a limitation has turned out to be a catalyst for success.
What can we learn from great artists like Paul McCartney and Steven Spielberg who have figured out how to make great art out of trying circumstances and outright failure? This white paper discusses many famous incidents in the realm of art, sports, and technology, in which a limitation has turned out to be a catalyst for success.

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Categories:Types, Business/Law
Published by: David Deal on Feb 06, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Dumb Luck

How Happy Accidents Can Spark Creative Genius David Deal, August 2007

About 30 years ago, an unknown movie director named Steven Spielberg was in the throes of despair. He had been entrusted with filming a best selling novel about a shark that terrorizes a town in Martha's Vineyard, and everything was going wrong. The movie was over budget, the on-location shooting was a hassle, and, worst of all, the mechanical shark built expressly for the movie, and crucial to the plot, kept breaking. Faced with the prospect of shutting down production (which would have sabotaged his fledgling career), Spielberg decided to shoot the movie differently. Instead of relying on the presence of the shark to provide shock value, he created tension by suggesting the possibility of the shark’s appearance in many scenes. You know the rest of the story: his project, Jaws, was one of the most commercially successful films of its time, and influenced the future of movies. And critics agree that Jaws was scarier because it only hinted at the shark in most scenes, leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination to construct more terrifying images. Jaws became a better movie as the result of a happy accident. But how do these moments of serendipity come about? Can we actually learn something from them, or is it just a matter of accepting dumb luck? Let’s see what a few great artists and athletes can teach us. When Bad Things Happen to Good People Sometimes, a little conflict and tension can produce brilliant results. We just don’t always know it at the time, as Paul McCartney can attest. In 1973, McCartney’s life was in turmoil. His band, Wings, was falling apart (two band members had resigned suddenly), and recording in Nigeria for his new album was a nightmare. He endured being robbed at knife point -- and losing his master song tapes to the thieves -primitive recording conditions, and oppressive weather. Not only was he forced to re-record songs from memory, he had to scrape together musicians to fill in for his ex-band mates. At one point while recording, driven to the extreme by the Nigerian heat and humidity, he suffered a physical collapse. But, he persevered – and created one of the undeniable masterpieces of his career, Band on the Run, which went multi-platinum and spawned three Top 10 singles. Cary Grant learned the lesson of conflict when filming screwball comedy The Awful Truth in 1937. At the time, his career was in a rut. He consistently chose one-dimensional roles that demanded little of his acting skills and consigned him to minor notice. On top of that, filming

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Dumb Luck


The Awful Truth was a nightmare because Grant clashed with the director, Leo McCarey. Grant wanted to work from a finished script; McCarey used an improvisational style. Grant wanted to portray his character with sensitivity and subtlety; McCarey demanded a more physical type of humor appropriate for a screwball comedy. Eventually, Grant tried to quit the film. The studio told him to stop whining and get back to work. The result? In the words of Grant biographer Marc Eliot, “the performance McCarey got from Grant was nothing short of astonishing.” As it turns out, Grant’s performance somehow meshed his understated style with McCarey’s physical approach to create a leading man who possessed both physical grace and emotional depth. And, some of his improvised lines, which Grant loathed, turned out to be the best in the movie. The Awful Truth, a critical and financial smash, galvanized Grant’s career. As Eliot points out, the tension and conflict he experienced while making the movie contributed to Grant’s portrayal of a more fully realized leading man. This is not to suggest that you should encourage dissension and conflict when you’re at work trying to develop a website or strategize on a new digital marketing campaign. But, on the other hand, don’t be afraid of tension if it arises. In fact, there may be a way to make tension work for you instead of against you. Disagreements over ideas and approaches can be good. Tension produces friction, which can ignite a firestorm of creativity. The Razorfish Corporate Marketing team has certainly learned this lesson first hand helping executives develop thought leadership and presentations over the past several years. Invariably the most inspiring presentations have challenged the collaborators to reach beyond our comfort zones and ask thorny questions for which we don’t always have answers. Although challenging our own ideas can lead to an inspiring outcome, the journey is not always enjoyable. Why? Because pushing our boundaries sometimes creates tension and disagreement. But, the tension produces the progress. Take It to the Limit Johnny Cash taught us that a limitation can set you free. In 1955, Cash was an appliance salesman recording music in his spare time with a guitarist named Luther Perkins and bass player named Marshall Grant. Together, they recorded a song, “Hey Porter,” which combined a forceful bass, a jangling lead guitar, and heartfelt vocal that launched one of the most storied careers in modern music. And yet, the song almost never made it out of the studio. As Grant relates in Johnny Cash: The Biography, all three musicians tried to add more polish and sophistication to the basic track. But they lacked the skills to do so – fortunately for Cash, because the enduring power of “Hey Porter” remains its spare guitar sound and power of Cash’s voice, which complicated overdubs would have destroyed. As Grant says to author Michael Streissguth, “We couldn’t change it. And I’m just damn lucky and thankful that we couldn’t. We weren’t musicians. We were just two mechanics and an appliance salesman.” Limitations can take many forms, such as a limited budget. Great designers figure out how to use the limitations to their advantage, as Joe Crump can attest. Crump, a Razorfish executive creative director, remembers the time when his team was working under a tight deadline to launch a website and online advertisements for a consumer products company. With the

Dumb Luck


deadline looming, the client was falling behind in the production of TV spots and photos of models required for the online imagery. As Crump puts it, “We had a big fat lemon, and we had to make lemonade.” The solution: create the website and campaign using striking silhouettes of the models, which formed the basis of a viral campaign that actually worked better with the flat images. The result: the most successful product launch in the client’s history. Vice President and Technology Lead Ray Velez knows something about making lemonade out of a lemon. Many years ago, his team was designing a website with complicated content management requirements. Everything was moving along fine until the client moved up the deadline to a date that seemed impossible to meet. Velez remembers everyone on the team swallowing hard – and then trying an experiment. The team did away with the traditional approach to Web site application development, which is to have programmers wait for completed functionality and wireframe specifications before designing code. Instead, to speed up the process, programmers quickly created "rough drafts" of the final design and then constantly revised the drafts as the development progressed. The team didn’t know it at the time, but they were tapping into an emerging style of web development known as agile programming, which has since become a web design best practice for projects that require rapid completion. Since then, Razorfish has applied agile programming for many clients over the years, including major brands like FranklinCovey. And publications ranging from Forbes to InformationWeek have highlighted the growth of this industry-wide phenomenon. So what are we suggesting here – that our clients should slash our budgets and accelerate deadlines to spark ingenuity? Hardly. Great work comes at a price. But if an unavoidable setback happens, get ready to improvise. Kick your imagination into overdrive. A Massive Screw-up October 12, 1971: the Pittsburgh Pirates were battling the Baltimore Orioles in the bottom of the 7th inning of pivotal World Series Game 3. Two superb teams stocked with future Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. Pirate First Baseman Bob Robertson was at the plate against Oriole Ace Mike Cuellar with two men on base and the Pirates clinging to a 2-1 lead. Third base coach Fank Oceak signaled for Robertson to bunt. But Robertson didn’t recognize the sign, and instead he swung away at the next Cuellar pitch – for a three-run home run that gave the Pirates the game. The miscommunication between Oceak and Robertson was a massive screw-up in the midst of a do-or-die situation – and were the Pirates ever glad. Aided by Robertson’s home run, the Pirates went on to win the World Series. But was it simply dumb luck that Robertson's mistake turned into a home run? No. Talented teams, whether in sports or business, turn screw-ups into success routinely because more often than not, their mistakes are just the flip side of smart risk taking, regularly performed with the encouragement of a progressive coach. Companies like 3M encourage risk taking and accept mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes turn into incredible innovations, the most famous being the creation of the Post-It Note, which resulted from a botched glue job. At Razorfish, we’re

Dumb Luck


learning how to make mistakes that yield surprises – and good ones. For instance, we’ve developed innovation labs where we test different ways that consumers interact with emerging media, based on experiences working with consumers to observe their behavior as part of client work. As Account Planner Andy Pimentel can attest, those client experiences don’t always turn out how you expect. Pimentel recalls a time when he was reviewing alternative web page designs for a new online social media Web site with a test group of target end users, in this case, teenaged girls. “We were reviewing rough layouts that contained simulated content and banner ads,” Pimental says. “All we wanted to know was whether the design was attractive. One girl thought the placeholder ads were unattractive. I pointed out they were dummy ads that really had no meaning because we wanted her to focus on the layout and content. I casually asked her what kind of ads she would have chosen, meaning which type of ads she’d prefer. Well, she perked up. “’You mean I get to choose my own advertising on this site?’ she asked, astonished. A significant portion of the focus group after that was spent exploring how the idea of choosing your own ad might work and what it would mean. We could tell from the animated discussion that we had an idea with legs.” As it turned out, the client, who was observing the miscommunication, was struck by the notion of consumers choosing their own ads. It was an idea that had been discussed but not implemented due to the difficulties posed. How would such ads be served? How would the client charge for them? But seeing the excitement of the respondents firsthand put the idea back on the client’s agenda. It made the client willing to create the infrastructure and sales capability to offer such a novel approach. So, the media site today indeed allows teen girls to select ads that appear on their personal pages. All because of one casual miscommunication. The experience goes to show that even the sterile, mistake-laden world of the focus group facility can yield happy mistakes if you are willing to work with them. The next time you’re in New York, check out our Living Lab, where we’re learning how to test ideas like how the digital living room is evolving. We are about to conduct a TV-deprivation study in the Living Lab to see how people might act in a living room equipped with only the internet for stimulus. We hope to make some amazing mistakes – the kind that will spark ideas. Some of those ideas will lead to inspired client work. We will make plenty of mistakes along the way. And, hopefully, we’ll experience a little dumb luck of our own.

Dumb Luck


About the Author David Deal is the vice president of marketing for Razorfish, where his responsibilities include leading the marketing team and collaborating with the agency’s social media experts to help Razorfish embrace Social Influence Marketing. David also writes a blog about marketing and pop culture, Superhypeblog.com. Before joining Razorfish, David was a marketing executive at internet services firm Lante, and before that he founded Andersen Consulting’s global industry analyst program. David also worked as an editor in the book publishing industry and helped develop a book about rock singer Jim Morrison. David’s personal passions are his family and teaching at his church. He holds a bachelor of science in journalism from the University of Illinois. For More Information: David Deal Razorfish 600 W. Fulton Street Chicago, Illinois 60661 David.deal@razorfish.com http://www.twitter.com/davidjdeal About Razorfish™ Razorfish, formerly Avenue A | Razorfish, is one of the largest interactive marketing and technology companies in the world, and is also one of the largest buyers of digital advertising space. With a demonstrated commitment to innovation, Razorfish counsels its clients on how to leverage digital channels such as the Web, mobile devices, in-store technologies and other emerging media to engage people, build brand loyalty and provide excellent customer service. The company is increasingly advising marketers on Social Influence Marketing™, its approach for employing social media and social influencers to achieve the marketing and business needs of an organization. Its award-winning client teams provide solutions through their strategic counsel, digital advertising and content creation, media buying, analytics, technology and user experience. Razorfish has offices in markets across the United States, and in Australia, China, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. Clients include Carnival Cruise Lines, MillerCoors, Levi's, McDonald's and Starwood Hotels. Visit www.razorfish.com for more information. Razorfish 821 2nd Avenue, Suite 1800 Seattle, WA 98104 Phone: 206.816.8800 Fax: 206.816.8808

Dumb Luck


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