Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In the Mood

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song?”
- William Miller [played by Patrick Fugit] interviewing Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond [played by Billy Crudup] from the Cameron Crowe written and directed film Almost Famous

Among musicians and other artists, the notion that mood and attitude can have an affect on one’s creative output is a generally accepted truism.

Picasso’s “Blue” period.

Alanis Morisette’s album Jagged Little Pill.

Virtually every poem written by Emily Dickinson.

Countless other examples.

All were affected by mood, attitude, and intellectual dissonance.

These are the elements that fuel art.

A number of years ago a relatively obscure musical duo called Billy Pilgrim (who got some radio play with their song Sweet Louisiana Sound and whom I always referred to as the Indigo Guys because of their sound similarities to the Indigo Girls) put out an even more obscure album entitled Billy In The Time Machine. (For all those closet music genealogists out there, Billy Pilgrim was comprised of Kristian Bush, now one half of the mega country duo Sugarland, and Andrew Hyra, brother of actress Meg Ryan). The album was a limited success, yet was particularly interesting to me because of the approach taken by the group during its recording. Billy Pilgrim decided they would only work on the recording if all participants were in good spirits. Only good moods were allowed. If anyone had a bummer of a day, was a bit gloomy, or otherwise mentally preoccupied with something other than sunny days, they’d avoid the recording studio. As you might expect, the album took a long time to complete. Years.

(As an aside - because of its delay, I can’t help wonder whether Axl Rose set down some variation of these parameters while working on the Guns ‘N’ Roses release Chinese Democracy.)

Moods, good and bad, affect art.

But what of innovation?

From what well do good ideas spring?

And under what mental circumstances should we evaluate our ideas?

Common sense (as well as research) suggests positive moods promote creativity, flexibility, and cooperation - all the workings of a solid idea development system. And although negative moods, as is the case in the world of art, can produce inspired innovative works, we generally equate positive demeanor with creativity and innovation.

But innovation is a process. And at various points along its arc, a little negativity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recent research by psychology professor Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales suggests negative moods might have intellectual benefit. The study, published under the title Think Negative! in the November/December edition of Australasian Science journal, showed that people in a negative mood were often more critical of, and paid more attention to, their surroundings than happier people. Happier people were more likely to believe anything they were told. “Negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention to the external world,” Forgas wrote.

But why might this matter for innovation?

Although perhaps counterintuitive, because no one wants to promote cantankerous attitudes at the office or be around generally grumpy people, the study suggests to me that perhaps we should use good moods to generate innovative ideas, yet harness bad moods to evaluate them.

How many times have you emerged from a Stage-Gate® meeting (or some other project evaluation session) aggravated and cranky? How often do your meetings get prolonged and increasingly unproductive because decisions go unmade? I can’t imagine you went into the meeting with such a bad attitude. There’s typically a certain level of excitement and optimism before most meetings. Hope springs eternal. Today, you think, will be the day you give the green light to your next great innovation.

But…

“Positive mood is not universally desirable: people in negative mood are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions and are better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages,” Forgas wrote.

So consider this. The next time you go into a Stage-Gate® meeting, go in already cranky and frustrated. Perhaps you'll make better decisions and the meeting will be a bit more productive. Perhaps you’ll emerge a much happier person.

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