A Frequent Flyer’s Guide to Innovation

I should open by being making clear that this post is not about imaginative ways to secure upgrades or avoid baggage or other fees….  It is, rather, about a range of ideas related to innovation and creativity experienced during a busy recent stretch of flying. Travel, of course, is generally marked by the kinds of situations often embraced by leaders wanting to foster greater creative production or excellence: engagement with unfamiliar situations and people, regular opportunities to make fresh choices and connections, a willingness to explore and uncertainty and the unknown.  During several flights since last month, though, I had various experiences explicitly about innovation, creativity and even leadership that prompted further reflection.
1. Keep Climbing
A current TV commercial for Delta Airlines shown on-board flights opens with black-and-white images of historical aviators and a voiceover declaring the need to celebrate these pioneers not by ‘looking behind’ but, like them, ‘looking beyond.’  This ‘Aviation Leaders’ entry in the ‘Keep Climbing’ campaign was created by award-winning agency Weiden + Kennedy.  Its presentation of the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and first astronauts to walk on the moon is moving and held up as prologue to the continuing and forward-looking innovations of Delta.   Interestingly, as the comments on iSpot make clear, the commercial has been viewed alternately as inspiring but also as offensive to some, who interpret the treatment of these heroes as disrespectful (http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7IKp/delta-airlines-aviation-leaders).
2. Sky Magazine
The traditional communications outlet, creative and otherwise, for airlines is the in-flight magazine.  Delta’s paper offering, Sky, like most of its competitors, is now also available online: http://deltaskymag.delta.com/.  The September 2013 issue is conspicuously focused on creativity and brands.  The covergirl is Heidi Klum and the story of her current projects reveals an obvious focus on (personal) brand communications.  Other content extends this emphasis, for example, an article on ‘channeling American style to Asian markets’ with profiles of brands like Red Wing Shoes and Pendleton clothing.
Several of Sky’s regular features speak to the novelty and encounters with the unfamiliar that can define travel.  The ‘Wheels Up’ section offers a blurb about a cave bar in Croatia and in ‘Creative Commons’ showcases the original graphic design work of Austrian Albert Exergian and Milan’s ‘Couture Culture.’  The ‘1 City/5 Ways’ section, this month about Hong Kong, reminded me of Edward de Bono’s famous six hats approach to creative ideation by looking at the city through the eyes, respectively, of culture vultures, hipsters, people with kids, foodies, and jetsetters.
As it happens, the same issue even has an ‘In-depth Executive Education’ section on ‘The Enlightened Leader’ that uses some of the authentic leadership ideas of Bill George, author of True North, to address the need for effective leaders to identify and use their own values to guide them.  Interestingly, a box in the article featured an interview with Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School faculty member who leads the module there on marketing creative industries.  In Sky, she discusses Lady Gaga, whose case is featured in Elberse’s forthcoming book, Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking and the Business of Entertainment (MacMillan; http://www.amazon.com/Blockbusters-Hit-making-Risk-taking-Business-Entertainment/dp/0805094334).
3. Fashion’s Lessons
Besides movies, TV shows, games and the moving map tracking flight progress, TED Talks are now available as part of Delta’s in-flight entertainment.  Obviously many of these talks, both from TEDGlobal and TEDx local events, address innovative behaviors and ideas.  So it is unsurprising that among Delta’s selections are several that directly address the challenges and opportunities of creativity and creative leadership.  One example is the provocative Johanna Blakley, whose ‘Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture’ from 2010 explores the opportunities of an open creative process and culture: 
Specifically, Blakley uses fashion as a basis for contrasting both the originality and revenues of copyright protected and non-copyright protected industries – and ultimately advocating greater creative collaboration and sharing.
4. Daily Visual Inspiration
A new entertainment offering aboard Delta are brief videos from coolhunting.com, the website that is ‘synonymous with inspiration’ in all things creative: http://www.coolhunting.com/video/.  I already receive Cool Hunting Daily updates and have enjoyed and learned from the many online profiles.  Like TED talks, a selection of the videos are now available on Delta flights.  Among the half-dozen viewable on a recent transcontinental flight were 4-7 minute films of such creatives as decoupage plate designer John Derian, tintype portrait studio Photobooth, custom ski-maker Zai, and Roy Denim’s handmade jeans.  I particularly liked the story of Lisadore, the passionate maker of one-of-a-kind Comme il Faut tango shoes in Buenos Aires.  While delivering something of the promised ‘insider look at their inspiration and process,’ the segments seem more generally to present matter-of-fact summaries of the origins and processes of these artists, designers and true originals.
5. Technology Update
On September 30, Delta announced that they were equipping 11,000 pilots with Microsoft Surface 2 tablets.  The move would replace the paper-based flight kits containing navigational charts and reference materials and carried by the crew and to take a major step toward the goal of a paperless cockpit by the end of 2014.  Trumpeting both the promised increase in efficiency and the environmental benefits of the move, their partners at Microsoft spoke directly about Delta’s ‘absolute commitment to bringing the best in technology innovation into flight operations’ (http://news.delta.com/index.php?s=43&item=2118).  A special ‘Keep Climbing’ segment was created to showcase the upgrade.
So much to consider and be inspired by.  Yet I found myself asking what are passengers to do with all this information and inspiration while at 30,000 feet.  Or to extend that beyond the flight itself, what passengers do once they land and carry on with the rest of their everyday lives.  Put more pointedly, can the insights of the TED talks or Cool Hunting vignettes or even ‘In-depth Executive Education’ offerings be taken off the plane and somehow put into practice on the ground?  Or are they minor and occasionally edifying amusements merely meant to pass time in the stratosphere, little more than an entertaining variation on the experience of a doctor’s office waiting room?
That may be a general issue for anything one does when flying.  However, with so much attention given over to creativity and innovation today, the prevalence of on-board content related to the topics I experienced begs further questioning.  In fact, stepping back from particular flights, and tales of creative daring, we might ask how to avoid merely being along for the ride of others’ creative or innovative work.  Recall the viewers of ‘Aviation Leaders’ offended by what they took to be a lack of respect for early pioneers of flying.  Those commentators raise an essential question: What do we do with our innovation heroes?  Do they stand on their own, largely set apart from our own lives and the present by their historical achievements, or do we actively use their example as motivation for our own original attempts to break free of the past?

This is hardly an either-or question.  We can venerate creative heroes from the past or faraway while also striving to stand on their giant shoulders and climb still higher in the future.  Too often, though, the tendency to romanticize their accomplishments, to dwell in every detail of their journeys, can become an end in itself.  Our challenge accordingly becomes to internalize the inspiration they provide us and to use it to inform and drive forward our own innovative work.  Or as I asked myself at the end of a recent long flight, How do we step away from being passengers on the innovation journeys of others and become better innovators or creative leaders ourselves?

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