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Friday, December 23, 2005

Return of the Land Yacht

Not all ideas make it off the drawing pages. Some remain on napkins, scraps of paper or lost in computer files. But Howard Doss got this dream off the paper and into actual use. A combination of a lot of interesting people, talent and ambition created America’s first production motor home, the Howard Safari. Built by Howard Industries of Saginaw, Michigan, the Safari rolled off the assembly lines from 1953 to 1956. More interesting than that is how the concept began. In an earlier blog entry, I refered to a study which showed how heterogeneous (mixed) teams produce the most creative things. Well, Doss and his team back in the 50's proved this.

Doss had been building trailers since the 1930's. But it was a well know comedian of the time, Herb Shriner who wanted to be able to drive the trailer and not tow it. Doss and his team discussed it, designed it and made it happen. The original self-propelled motor home was a 22 ft. structure set on top a GMC truck chassis. Doss brought in an up-and-coming designer to give the Safari a new look. His name was Albrecht Goertz. A quick Google search showed that this is the same man who went on to design the 240 Z for Datsun. He would also go on to work for BMW.

Apparently, "product placement" is not such a new idea. The original Howard Safari appeared in the movie Ring of Fear. It was also seen on movie reels of the day, and made an appearance on the Today Show with Dave Garroway and Jack Lescoulie.

This next bit has a little to do with genetics and history repeating itself. It’s now fifty years since the last of the Safari’s rolled off the assembly lines and in comes Marcel Berman, grandson of Howard Doss. If everything goes as planned, Berman hopes to return motor home greatness to the streets by way of the Howard Safari X8 Land Yacht (seen above). In fact, it's a completely new concept and if it's produced, it will be the first Super Sport Recreational Vehicle. You could even call it a "hot rod motor home." Whatever the wording, the potential for this vehicle is unlimited. It could be a promo vehicle for a learning or cyber lab… I used to work for ATT’s Cable in the Classroom program, which offered a CyberLab to students, teachers and general public. The idea was to bring the lab or classroom to the people, unload laptops and equipment and set up shop anywhere there was electricity and a DSL or cable connection. Operating out of the X8 Land Yacht would have been far more attractive – had it been available. I can also see this as a PR tool for a company, a mobile unit for police, fire, sportscasting, etc. Does John Madden need a new bus? Let's not forget any number of celebrities, silicon valley executives and movie studio lots too.

I’m thinkng out loud or on paper here, but what about getting noted car collector Jay Leno in on this as a sort of modern Herb Shriner. I think Jay would love driving a finished product. I’m sure Berman would love to provide him one (at a discount) if he were given some time on the show to promote it. There's other possibilities with TV. To generate enthusaism for the unique design and possibly generate some venture capitol, get the folks over at Discovery’s Monster Garage to add the cool factor, and now you’ve got Jessie James and his mechanics working on the next great Land Yacht. Again, just thinking out of the box here, but what about getting a high tech school or community college involved in the design and development. A percentage could go to them by way of scholarship money and the rest to the rightful heir... Howard Doss' inventive grandson.

You can reach the designer, Marcel Berman, personally at

If you’d like to have your idea considered for publication, please send a sample of your work to lchazen@mac.com

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Need for Integrated Thinking – Commentary and Thoughts on " The Creative Generalist"

It's not easy to get through a week without coming in contact with a specialist of some sort. If you're an entrepreneur or work for a large company you might need the help of a web designer or will likely call on an IT person to fix a computer or networking problem. At any given high school, you might see a place divided into departments which specialize in one of the areas of education. M.D's specialize as do some dentists and the pattern extends into the arts as some painters, musicians and writers explore and develop one area to make it theirs.

Expert tutors, history teachers who focus on 18th Century Russia, podiatrists and cosmetic dentistry specialists all provide a valuable service. But, is there an opposite? Is there an area dedicated to the the "space between" or a way to connect otherwise unconnected areas? Is it even important to have someone in between the areas to connect the dots? Is there anything of value in “there” and if so, what would we call this? Author Steve Hardy has a name for it, as well as a website, blog and article recently published on the Changethis.com website. It is called The Creative Generalist.

A creative generalist might be a blog writer, author, teacher, business consultant or, more importantly, someone who is not easily described or categorized. People in such positions should take note because this is now one of several articles and books on the importance of conceptual thinking and the need for people with this skill. One can abstract from Hardy’s writing that a creative generalist has the ability to see a larger picture, one that niche specialists may be missing. And it is in this broad area in between specialties where, according to Hardy, we get some of our best ideas. Such ideas, he says, “are the product of divergent thinking, lateral steps and questions dealing with completely unrelated notions. They “come from a kaleidoscopic grab bag of other ideas – whether ancient, recent, calculated or silly.”

Broad and specialized thinking are both important and should exist and inhabit the same organizations. What I think articles like this promote, though, is a meeting place between the two camps – a place where ideas, people and projects can take new shape and direction. In other words, thoughts, ideas, departments and specialties are great in and of themselves, but are greater and offer more potential if someone were there, maybe as a conduit to join things together. If this movement continues, it may not be unusual to see more conduit-like positions opening up in companies and organizations.

The need for interconnectedness stretches across many professions. Hardy mentions urban design, marketing campaigns, environmental policy and disaster response as areas where integrated thinking is needed. The 911 Commission Report and commentary on the U.S. Government’s response (at all levels) to Hurricane Katrina all seem to say something about a general lack of integration in our thinking.

At the micro level, one might consider the architecture of a school – how some teachers and departments feel alienated. A creative generalist might think to put the theater, music, media or library at the center of a building as these are important centers of creative energy – necessary to sustaining an optimistic mood for learning. People having to pass by books, magazines, multi-media displays or vibrant music will help carry the curious or creative energy outward, easily creating a theme or fabric for the school. By not paying attention to subtle matters as teacher placement or building design, an otherwise great, energetic teacher could end up on the outskirts of a structure where they struggle to be heard. If you’re interested in the importance of building design in thinking, read Sylvia Nassar’s account of the Rand Corporate building and its importance to creative thinking and problem solving – in the book A Beautiful Mind. I also recommend reading about “connectors” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.

As a test, let’s apply these concepts to something outside the typical business or organization – to the production of a musical. I recently played in the pit orchestra for Beauty and the Beast and had the opportunity to make some observations. Like a technician in a company, the musician executes their part according to the specific instruction of the composer and under the guidance of the conductor. He or she follows an unwritten code of conduct - communicating sometimes with the section leader but rarely (especially if one is not the section leader) interacting directly with the conductor, and almost never with the composer. The composer runs a dialogue in his or her head, but rarely communicates his or her ideas with the technician. I guess that would depend on the creative preference of the composer. Sometimes, self-absorption and inner-dialogue work best for the creative person, so you can’t really blame the composer.

Most would agree that the hierarchy of musical performance is important to delivering the intent of the composer …. but what if we were to open this up a bit? Author and consultant Peter Drucker observed the dangers of the assembly line worker more than 50 years ago, noting that it was important to keep control of the organization by following objectives, but to allow creative latitude by the employees (see the November 19th issue of the Economist). Reduce someone to the role of assembly line worker, without the opportunity to add their thoughts or creativity, and one has a recipe for fatigue and burn out.

In the case of the musical, to play the notes without interaction with the actors, composer, or writer is frustrating to a conceptual thinker. It would seem strange to set up meetings so that all these folks could communicate at some level, but think of all the possibilities! Players communicating with their section leaders, section leaders meeting with other section leaders, conductors meeting with producers and the occasional actor conversing with the orchestra might just lead to a great, energetic merger of all things creative and lead to a dynamic, finely tuned production! This is probably happening in many places but I have to wonder about of all these minds and talent operating in isolation and what comes to mind is the problem of autocratic rule. The trains run on time, but what do you really have?

A debate about this concept, according to Hardy, is now going on in the business community – between a general and specialized approach. The answer calls for conceptual thinkers who can see the value in both sides and ways they can integrate.

Here’s how that might work. Some individuals specialize in their departments to refine or explore something. They deliver their information to a “hub” where it is mixed and molded with what other specialists have discovered. Proximity, architecture and flow of information are all important here. The generalists work in the hub to mix, create new ideas and move the company or organization forward.

Writers and comedians have been successfully using this methodology for centuries, merging ideas to form larger concepts. Who hasn’t heard a joke starting out something like “a Priest, Rabbi and farmer walk into a bar.” The listener is already smiling because he or she can’t wait to see the result of this weird combination. Politics (avoiding polarization), system design, attitudes and architecture all play key parts in keeping ideas headed towards the hub. And, if allowed to take root, this movement could have major implications. By being aware of the phenomenon and respecting people with a “creative generalist” talent to see the method through, real change can happen.