Bob Lieberman's Blog

Tools For Initiating and Managing Change

Scenes From The Portland Creative Conference

I'm not sure I've had much worth saying recently. I've been very busy, but I have continued to read my favorite blogs and news sources. In doing so, I noticed that commenting on events in the world gives you a lot fresher material to work with than just thinking stuff up.

So I'm going to portray for you now some scenes from an event I recently participated in – the Portland Creative Conference. This is an annual conference held by and for Portland's creative economy. We had 500 attendees, and guests like Bill Oakley, the executive producer of The Simpsons. I helped out with registration on Saturday morning, and it was really fun. For two hours, I asked people for their name and the name of their business, and I made badges for them.

At most conferences, business names are pretty boring. At this conference, people had businesses named PoopyPals and fix. And every other person's title was Creative Director or Artistic Director, even when they worked for themselves. I found the irreverence, panache, and boldness refreshing.

Later in the day, I heard a sweet and awkward conversation in the men's room. While I was standing in that grand room at Portland's Newmark Theatre, the door opened. A fellow was telling his idol how thrilled he was to see him after being a fan all these years, how rewarding it must be to see his proteges becoming so successful, and so on. The idol was the great animator, Will Vinton, who succeeded in being kind without encouraging further worship from that one fan or the others standing in line. I marveled at his finesse.

This reminded me of the time I sat next to Joe Pass, the great jazz guitarist, at a club in San Francisco. I was in my late 20s, and the house was practically empty for Joe's solo performance. I had sat in the front row for a jaw-dropping hour of virtuoso work. Then, in the break between sets, I saw Joe sitting alone at a table, so I went over and asked if I could join him. He welcomed me, and I proceeded to tell him how great he was and how much I enjoyed his work, repeating myself several times. He was kind to me, and I felt later like I had worn out my welcome. I felt like a fool, actually, and I wonder what the experience must have been like for him. In being kind, both Joe and Will demonstrated a grace that was as much a gift to me as their work.

In contrast to these odds'n'ends of the creative life, I observed some hardcore problem-solving near the end of the day. Registration had gone fairly smoothly, but the line I was serving in the morning had some minor problems that several of us felt could be easily avoided next time. We began to explore what had happened and, surprisingly, there was little creativity in our discussion. We barely took any time to report observations about the facts before we each chimed in with our solution. We had five or more solutions in two minutes, and had moved into a friendly competition over which one was best. I'm sure we'll improve on that process in the days to come, but it did seem so very familiar.

Professional mediators will tell you that parties to a conflict frequently come to mediation actually ready for intellectual combat. As weapons they bring their solutions and supporting logic. It is the special skill of a mediator to bring the discussion down from solutions to areas like issues and values where commonality exists and agreement is actually possible. I can tell you from personal experience that it's not easy.

It turns out that people are just darned uncomfortable with imperfection, subjective as that may be. We run from it fueled by the compulsion to deliver our "pet" remedies, and justify our haste with a story about urgency. It takes a truly creative person to see "what is" when people and their pets are running away as fast as they can.

So, with that in mind and in the creative spirit of the Portland conference, I offer you the following gem of creative wisdom: "Don't just do something – stand there!"

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