George Kembel

August 16, 2009

I’ve finally found time to post some comments about the talk that George Kembel made on Friday morning at Chautauqua, entitled “Awakening Creativity.” I was blown away by it. I may just become the first-ever-George-Kemble-senior-citizen groupie. His presentation was just about perfect in my estimation. It was like a feast of ideas, all of which support and nurture creativity.

Kembel capably serves the role of liaison between his university program and the public at large. He handled himself with confidence, and with an obvious respect for the Chautauqua audience. The d-school design thinking method is built on empathy, and Kembel showed it for the audience. Empathy writ large. Hmmm… We’ve heard a lot during Week 7 about empathy and compassion.

Another feature of design thinking is story-telling. Again, Kembel soared. His whole talk was a series of stories of the challenges and successes of … the school?? … no, the successes of his students at providing life-enhancing contributions to our larger society, in locations as different from each other as a NY City radio news station and a remote village in the mountains of Nepal.

His first story began after we had a chance to demonstrate that perfect pitch is pretty rare in an English speaking population. Some in the audience did have it, but that wasn’t the point. He said that this special talent is found in only about 1 in 10,000 people of an average population of English speakers. He cited studies by Diana Deutsch, who showed that speakers of Mandarin (a tonal language) had much higher levels of this ability to identify particular tones than are found among most English speakers. Why? Because they need this special skill to manage their communication in an environment where the meanings of three different concepts may be represented by a nuanced verbal differentiation based on one’s tonal levels in speaking.

He asked and answered three questions about awakening creativity. I’ll paraphrase them: Is creativity normally distributed? ie. Can everyone be creative? He says, and we agree, that much creativity lies latent because we misunderstand what it is, educate our children out of it, and misunderstand its nature, not believing that “creativity thrives on constraints.”

His second question was to wonder whether or not this latent creativity can be awakened when it is nurtured? and the answer was “yes.” Here he stressed the value of the design thinking process and noted that it is important to use the process on as many real projects as possible so that the learner can begin to trust the process, while tolerating the times of deep uncertainty and ambiguity.

The third question Kembel explored was about how an individual’s transformation to more creative behavior can scale to the larger level of the work-team or the organization. He stated that it is possible to extend this improved creative performance, but that it is necessary to train for the skills of group process and to find like-minded individuals to work with in an organization that may not seem initially to offer many creative opportunities.

Throughout the talk Kembel frequently showed and discussed his concept of reiterative “low resolution” prototypes. These “quick and dirty” prototypes are used to help think through the problem, and to communicate one’s understanding of it at any given time. Although these low-res prototypes are not intended to be successful on the first go-around, he commented about how much courage it takes to put out your design for testing because we are trained to believe that unfinished work reflects poorly on our ability.

The truth is that it will take many design iterations, and much empathetic testing to thoroughly solve the problem. Here he stated that “the crummier the prototype, the better” because the stakeholders will feel so sorry for you that they’ll want to help you improve it through their own empathetic evaluation.

Because they allowed for this vulnerability, and other reasons, I was so pleased with the work of Martha and Robin who, in one short week, explored their product idea, put a low-res prototype together, tested it, and got feedback on it. This week’s work was only an approximation of design thinking, but it clearly demonstrated the principles that we heard discussed in the Amphitheater on Friday morning.

If you missed it, or would like to review it, go to for the archived video.

Imagine that …