The Z Axis

Thoughts and musing on a created life


Dave Zaboski

Dr. George Dierberger

Ryan Douglas


In this paper we examine a path for enhancing workplace creativity and collaboration using tools sourced from the historic ateliers of artists and creators with an eye to its usefulness to enterprise innovation. Refined by the high-caliber artists collectively attracted to the 20th century film and animation industry, this system is about creativity and innovation and thus is both art and science. It therefore requires both a commitment to intuitively implement actions and execute disciplined practices. It has been used to develop innovative attributes in the training of the highest order of creatives.

This methodology called, “The Alchemy of Creativity™,” was codified by former Disney Animator and arts scholar, Dave Zaboski, witness to the rise and eventual undoing of a powerful culture of collaboration:

“When I was at Disney Feature Animation, collaborating in service of an idea over one’s own ego was mission critical. Educating talented artists as to how to create powerfully, under intense pressure and collaborate generously was a core tenet. Every few months we’d reserve a room and one of the Senior Animators would give us “The Spiral Lecture.” That lecture on the creative process contained everything we needed to know about working together and succeeding on complex, multidisciplinary, high-stakes projects. We were given methods and systems developed by master creators over the past 70 years designed to get our work done on time, in alignment with mutually established goals and up to the legacy standards of those giants who came before us. Eventually, I was the one giving the younger artists the same lecture. Over time I came to see how the core concepts of the lecture intermingle with a universal natural law of innovation. In the reconnecting of these founding ideas with the nearly flawless execution of the animations industry’s processes and culture, I believe I have found a method to describe and apply the keys to creative mastery (Zaboski, 2014).”


Defining Creativity and Innovation


Creativity is the seemingly magical capacity to imagine the unseen. Innovation is the act of manifesting the creative into the real. It is the birthing of something new in the world. It is turning a thought into a thing. But innovation itself is a moving target. To innovate, the creative process must Creativity is the seemingly magical capacity to imagine the unseen. Innovation is the act of manifesting the creative into the real. It is the birthing of something new in the world. It is turning a thought into a thing. But innovation itself is a moving target. To innovate, the creative process must be constantly revised so that new discoveries move past the border of the known and yet remain relevant. In this way, creativity and innovation are like the study of alchemy -- a blending of disciplines.

     The term alchemy actually refers to “Al Chem” or “coming from the land of Chem.” The word Chem (or Khem meaning rich black soil) is a historic name for Egypt (Loyson, 2011). The study of alchemy goes back thousands of years, finding its roots in Egypt’s ancient teachings. Alchemy is now used to refer to “the transmutation of base metals into gold” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2010). In the Middle Ages, Alchemists were considered magicians. Today, we look upon alchemy as the forerunner of modern chemistry (Cobb & Goldwhite, 1995).

     For our purposes, alchemy is the transformation of ideas into realities, paralleling the concept of the transmutation of matter from base metals to gold. The myth surrounding the image of a secretive cloaked chemist turning lead into gold is simply a coded metaphor. The Alchemist’s intention was never to gain personal riches but to achieve, altruistically and through an enlightened process of creating, a golden soul (Burckhardt, 1971).

     This ancient methodology was a systematic endeavor to use the heart as well as the mind to turn an idea into a reality. Thus, we introduce the Alchemy of Creativity as an operating system for innovation that promotes the growth of an organic culture of collaboration, fueling ongoing, prosperous creation.


The Importance of Creativity and Innovation


“Every foundational crisis throughout the history of life on earth has been solved by acts of profound creativity.”

                                                                                                                                              -Dr. Paul Astin


Creativity and the resulting innovations offer solutions to civilization’s most pressing questions: how to cure disease; how to end war; how to spend our time purposefully in this world. Profound acts of creativity and innovation are answers to the questions posed by history. For businesses, creativity drives not only what an organization will create but who will create it and how it will be created.

     Business products, systems and processes are constantly scrutinized and evaluated for efficiency, productivity and return on investment. Beginning with the industrial revolution, hand-tooled fabrications gave way to the assembly line that was later replaced by automated manufacturing. Over time, systems became more capable and efficient. Right now, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and robotics are converging in a whole new nexus of creativity. Each production innovation accelerates and streamlines turning thoughts into things. Businesses thrive when their systems facilitate a high level of maker to market efficiencies. As a telling indicator of the importance of this topic, in a survey of 1500 CEOs around the world, over 60% said creativity was the single most important quality to be cultivated in their businesses (IBM, 2010). (See Figure 1)

     Innovation must be integral to the organization’s structure and institutionally supported at all levels. At Disney studios in the late nineties, a great oversight was that the artists did not invite management to the Spiral Lectures on collaborative creating, thinking these talks were for artists only. In reality- creativity, innovation and collaboration are everybody’s responsibility. Understanding the nature of creativity becomes the mission and the path to a thriving, innovative culture of cross-functional collaboration.


     The culture must promote innovation and long-term value above irrational development schedules and short-term profits. A company develops unique innovation through its culture, core competencies and knowledge. A creative culture supported by top management translates into higher productivity, greater employee retention and sustainable profits (Davila, 2013).

     When James McNerney became 3M’s CEO in 2000, he introduced two new Six Sigma tools. The first was the more traditional Design, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC) method for systematic problem solving. The second, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), was a linear, step-by-step process (Figure 2) designed to minimize risk by standardizing development. First popularized by General Electric under the leadership of Jack Welch, these systems combined stringent management gate reviews with Six Sigma quantitative methods (Antony & Banuelas, 2002). Creators could not move forward to the next development stage unless approved by the Operating Committee. (See Figure 2.)


The Value of an Organizational Structure for Innovation


Stage gates interrupted the creative process when developers were deep in the messy and often unquantifiable process of creating and evaluating new ideas. At critical junctures, McNerney’s process forced a shift in attention to report writing and presentation before creation could continue. In the end, implementation of Six Sigma almost destroyed innovation at 3M – it rewarded incremental change and drastically curtailed new product development growth. In Business Week, the new CEO, George Buckley lamented DFSS’s negative effect on creativity and innovation (How Six Sigma almost destroyed innovation at 3M, 2007).

     The stage-gate product development process is common in large organizations and when misused encourages incremental versus sweeping change (Rudelius, 2006). The process, improperly implemented, also corrals innovators and incents mediocrity. Control-driven cultures rarely foster true innovation especially when development is not allowed to outpace the understanding of the controlling mechanism. Organizations play not to lose instead of playing to win (Davila, 2013), a conservative approach that results in minor changes to existing products not new ideas.

     The most detrimental effect of the stage-gate process is wide-spread adoption of the paradigm that creativity is linear. When creativity is viewed as linear, creators may often appear to be on the “wrong” path. True innovators rarely align with static process deliverables, making project communication and coordination extremely difficult (Salomo, Weise, & Gemünden, 2007). When creators see their lack of alignment as a failing, they lose inspiration and ultimately disconnect from the organization.

     The disconnect between the conceptual linear development process and the natural way thoughts manifest into things as described by Simonton (1999) creates a pathology that corrodes the basis for collaborative innovation. When a linear, gated approach is applied, the iteration process and interplay between disciplines is slowed and disrupted. It trades the fertility of collaboration for the sterile pursuit of ensuring each project deliverable and its corresponding review is complete at the same moment in time.

     Required effort and pace of development occur asynchronously between disciplines and often do not lend themselves to arriving at a collective “ah-ha” moment. Creators need to iterate and collaborate with others to produce a radical breakthrough (Bougrain & Haudeville, 2002). Without consideration of the natural way humans explore and evaluate ideas, a static, gated process can be so mechanistic as to sabotage the very creativity it was designed to harness.

(See Figures 3 and 4)


The Innovation Process as a Spiral

     At Disney, during the 1990s, to examine creativity was to empower the heart, mind and hands of the artist. To assure that all artists were rising together, revelations on excellence and artistry were shared, discussed, refined and retold in ongoing presentations of the Spiral Lecture (Zaboski, 2014). At its core, the Spiral Lecture was a conversation about context. In other words, it was about how the innovator should think, feel and act about the pursuit of turning a thought into a thing -- rejecting the unwieldy and unworkable linear path and seeing the process in a more holistic and creatively healthy manner. (See Figure 5)

     When the creative process is visualized as a spiral instead of a linear path, it better depicts the true nature of human experience towards creation. The intrinsic development of an idea starts with a feeling or thought followed by intentional cycles of refinement that drive the nascent idea into physical state of being (Kvan, 2000; Wynn, Eckert, & Clarkson, 2007). Within this context the basis is laid for a development process that both fosters innovation and provides the structure necessary for relevant collaboration.

     The illustration of progression as a spiral helps creators visualize a final destination as a series of increasingly focused passes. Each pass requires a particular set of solutions before moving on to the next pass. Determining solutions at the head of each pass establishes the work flow for that pass and manages the expectations of all participants in the development process. Iterations allow for freedom to experiment, question, prototype and discover within a pass while maintaining a consensus trajectory towards completion. Communication is improved because the spiral provides context for each participant to locate themselves and their team members between the start and the finish.

     According to James Baxter, a Walt Disney Feature Films Supervising Animator, “Creation is a universal energy.” He taught that every creative impulse in the world conforms to the same basic structure. “If you can look at your own creative process in this way, you can tap into unlimited creativity. We see our creativity in the same way the Universe does: in a spiral.”

     In Daniel Pink’s seminal work, A Whole New Mind, he argues that an empowered future must reinforce skills, abilities and talents that cannot be easily coded, commoditized, machined or productized (Pink, 2006). Businesses will need these non-linear or right-brain dominant skills to stay competitive in an increasingly innovation-driven market. The creator will need to be cultivated and the environment managed to encourage collaborative innovation for future businesses to thrive in the era of big data and technological convergence.

     While re-emergence of right-brained thinking must be institutionally nurtured to ensure innovation, this in no way implies a retreat of left-brained systems. Powerful creating takes both sides of the brain and flourishes in organized environments in alignment with the inherent human drive to discover and examine.

     The Spiral embodies an effective map for creation. It provides the over-arching structure for an enhanced kind of stage-gating whereby participants track and process their progress with fuller purpose. A spiral-based development system harmonizes the product realization process with the natural order of human creation.

     The Spiral also cultivates the Creative Keys, critical attributes that facilitate prosperous innovation. These fundamental elements of creativity bring together and empower those who follow the spiral path in service of a common idea. Once fully understood, the Creative Keys enhance the culture of innovation and allow participants to work as a fluid team, focused on a collective purpose, minimizing the distraction of individual ego. (See Figure 6)

Introduction to the Creative Keys


 Resolute imagination is the beginning of all magical operations.”



     Very few organizations have lasted as long and been as creative and successful as Walt Disney Studios (Gabler, 2005; Grant, 1991). Through generations of work with a vast array of individuals and an astute examination of the creative process, Walt Disney came to understand that a culture of creativity must align with the experimental process of discovery. Disney and other competitive studios nurtured clarity of vision and supported iteration. He cultivated a culture committed to excellence. This culture encouraged engagement to support participation and mentorship in pursuit of an idea that belonged to the team. That idea was held in reverence and honed to such clarity that it gained a life of its own. Guided by the concept of a spiraling journey of creation and examination while working in service of ideas over ego, generations of artists created powerfully, reaching audiences and acclaim previously unseen in the world.

     Like any causal relationship, proof of the mechanism of action is to eliminate a key component and observe change. In the late 1990s, pivotal elements of the Disney culture were removed. The result, predictably, was the degradation of the organization’s ability to create resonant projects. During this time, a very few team members came to see themselves as the drivers of the team’s success. It would take years to break the hierarchy of dominant ego-centered contributors and reestablish a renewed culture of collaboration. In the meantime, Disney Feature Animation went a decade without producing a notable hit film.

     Disney’s ideas encouraged universal constructs that have been the basis of organic creation throughout human history (Paulus & Yang, 2000; Sternberg, 2006; Wallace & Gruber, 1989). These concepts empowered great acts of creativity from the transcendent artistry of the Renaissance painters to the seemingly miraculous constructs of engineers and makers of today. At the core, five keys to creativity propel the trajectory of a novel idea into its purposeful realization in the world. (See Figure 7)

     The committed cultivation of the following key attributes along with the spiral structure of innovation prepare the contextual ground and provide the framework for an organization or individual to take their ideas powerfully from mind to market. These keys are:


  • Creators Believe – They know how to hold a thought to through to completion


  • Creators Iterate – They unfold their creation in stages, trusting the process


  • Creators Collaborate – They realize the fastest accelerant is generous co-operation


  • Creators Risk – They learn healthy risk-taking is integral to enlightened solutions


  • Creators Complete – Completing enhances belief in a culture of growth and success




Creators Believe


“I know who I am, and who I may be if I choose.”

                                                                        – Don Quixote, Cervantes


     To believe is to hold a thought. Belief filters the way the world appears and how we act in it (Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Nickerson, 1998; Snyder, 1984; Snyder, 1978). It is the underlying construct of what we feel is true. The creative leader cultivates clarity of intent capable of inspiration and dedication. What we believe about ourselves, our projects and our team filters our worldview and affects our daily choices. Powerful choices come from clear vision. The importance of mindset when facing challenges and obstacles in work or in organizational environments cannot be underestimated (Dweck, 2007). What we believe makes a difference.

     Powerful creation is telling a compelling story. One of Walt Disney’s greatest gifts was that he was an amazing storyteller. He told stories with such conviction that he built an army of artists to spread those stories worldwide. Creators tell not just a story about what the person or company is doing, but the cultural story of the organization -- a story about the creator, team, company culture and its members.

     Companies like Disney or Apple foster a particular institutional belief. For example, Apple is not an electronics device company as many would think from an a priori glance. It actually considers itself more of a lifestyle company (Austin & Matos, 2013). This designation makes much more sense when examining Apple’s offerings and how they approach innovation. Their story infuses a particular belief system both internally for its employees as well as what it projects out into the world.

     In complex systems and corporate environments staying focused and engaged in creation is a function of establishing clarity of intent or cultivating a practice of believing (Dweck, 2007). Given the current entrepreneurial boom, it is more important than ever to tell a good story. Story carries meaning. Meaning engenders feeling, and feelings are contagious. Companies often forget the “why” behind the technology, industrial design, big data parsing and other aspects of growing a start-up or small cap company. Meaning is the beacon that guides businesses through the fog of regulatory constructs and organizational logistics toward a purposeful contribution to the world.

     For creatives, belief is the signal, and everything else is the noise. One practice creatives have is the use of the term signal to noise ratio to describe the mechanism for focus. The signal is an intention tuned to its highest degree. The noise is defined as the everyday distractions, unrealistic deadlines, competing projects, shifting priorities and life. Simply put: the greater the signal, the less noise, the clearer the goal. Practices that turn up the signal and turn down the noise enhance the creative process and ensure a defined path toward the manifestation of the idea. This focus helps an organization, team or individual become more productive and increases quality of life (Grant, 2008).

     Belief is a practice cultivated to balance a passion for the project with its reason for being and is best distributed to the world as a story of commitment and purpose.


Creators Iterate


“Writing is re-writing.”

                                    - Anonymous


     To iterate is to engage in the process of continual refinement. Experienced creatives understand the value in phasing their ideas through a series of ongoing passes from start to finish (Howard, Culley, & Dekoninck, 2008). Each pass naturally builds on the learning of the last and moves the project ever closer to its conclusion. Cultivating the ability to understand and implement systems for progressive refinement is a key attribute of powerful creators and a driver of a creative culture.

     Iterating towards a predetermined end goal allows the innovator to continually refine large scale, complex requirements while focusing on the details in manageable steps. Each pass addresses certain attributes of the design, improving upon lessons learned and drawing the best of the creator and the creation out of the work. Mistakenly seen as the slower or less direct path to completion of a project, iteration is often the fastest path to discovery.   Much of what is learned in a pass can allow for unforeseen advancements, accelerating a product to market and adding features that position the product as a market leader (Pich, Loch, & Meyer, 2002; Smith & Eppinger, 1997).

     In an anecdote told in the book, Art and Fear (Bayles, 1993), a group of students in a ceramics class were divided into two groups. The students in Group One were told their entire grade for the semester would be based on the quality of a single vase. The students were to put all their effort into one perfect creation. In Group Two, the students would be judged entirely on the combined weight of their semester’s work. Those who turned in over 50 pounds of ceramic work would receive an A, over 30 pounds a B and so on. Overwhelmingly, the best vases came from the students in Group Two who had the freedom to make mistakes, challenge conventions, fail and practice creating. By “banking creative capital”, the students got the best results from the cycle of creative action and analysis than from the attempt to get it right the first time.

     In an organizational environment, one significant benefit of evaluating a project in terms of passes is improved communication. As an innovator becomes more familiar with their own process, they can better determine the number of passes necessary to complete a project. As this knowledge accrues, performance predictability increases. This information, shared with cohorts, clients and others, contributes to developing an abiding culture of collaboration and inclusivity, translating into a positive and productive work environment.

     Iteration is the fuel for creativity and the path to innovation. Mindful additive efforts in pursuit of lofty goals often give rise to exponential discovery.


Creators Collaborate

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”                                                                                                                                              –Margaret Mead


     To collaborate is to operate collectively in pursuit of a common goal. Any grand pursuit will need a team to bring it to fruition (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006), and how that team operates in concert is critical for its success. In an ideal innovative environment, the fastest accelerant to personal excellence will be generous collaboration (Lunsford, 1991).

     At studios like Disney, artists who created Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, Jungle Book and other classics passed their institutional knowledge to the younger artists regarding the subtleties of art and story telling that made a great film. Their willingness to share their knowledge led to better animated films (Jackson, 1998).

     The core concept of collaboration at Walt Disney Animation Studios was that every contribution was meant to be constructive. The monumental task of creating a feature length film by drawing every single frame by hand made it vital to the health of the project that all contributions be additive. In other words, each collaborator would act as a plus sign in the total equation of making a masterpiece. This concept became known at the studio as “plussing,” a term coined by Walt Disney himself. Plussing was a key word used by artists at every level of the studio to describe how they would work together. “Can you plus this?” was an oft heard question around the halls and cubicles of Disney artists. Plussing became defined as creative choices being made in service to the trajectory of an idea.

     For many years a rich collaborative culture of plussing thrived at Disney and traveled with many of the animators as they migrated to Pixar, Dreamworks and other studios during the expansion into digital films in the late 1990s. Teams well-versed in plussing were responsible for Disney’s successes like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Some moved to Dreamworks and brought a culture of plussing to create Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Plussing could be found at Pixar with Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Up and other classic productions. The concept of plussing contributed to one of the most creative and lucrative stretches in cinematic history.

     When innovators operate from a concern for an idea’s trajectory, rather than the egos involved, they communicate from a productive, forward moving place. The conversation around trajectory is simple and involves three questions:


  1. What choices have already been made? (The Past)
  2. What is the plan to implement the idea? (The Future)
  3. Are you open to suggestions? (Permission for productivity in the Present.)


     A note on permissions: Where a culture of collaboration exists, requests for permission are implied, and do not need to be established. When the culture of collaboration is new or trust is fragile, establishing permissions is essential. Actions without acknowledgement or uninvited advice often cause disruptions in the culture of collaboration.

     An organization can encourage plussing by celebrating team members who reach out for collaboration. All too often in a myopic corporate environment, only those who directly lead or build on a project are seen as contributors. This view undervalues team members who seek the best results over their own advancement. Failing to elevate the originator of the collaboration risks perpetuating a closed culture, where information is used as power and siloed to benefit the individual instead of the organization.

     With plussing, all contributions are part of the process as the project spirals toward completion. Suggestions are viewed in a positive light and are not seen as criticism of the individual because each critique is in support of the idea’s on-going iteration toward completion. The innovator remains committed to a great final product and its shared success. Collaboration enhances products and the teams who work in service of an idea to create them. As skills and knowledge are shared, the team members are individually valued for what they know, what they can teach and what they can contribute.

     Rising complexity requires a greater commitment to collaboration. Solutions will come from convergence of knowledge and technologies, making solo operations nearly extinct in innovative environments.   The ability to bring people and technologies together in pursuit of a common goal will be the core competency necessary to produce meaningful solutions to difficult problems.

     The end result of collaboration is a culture of trust and respect as well as growth of a team of innovators driven by the success of their mutual accomplishments.


Creators Risk

“Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

                                                -Louis Pasteur


     To risk is to take a calculated action without the guarantee of a predictable result. In creative endeavors risk is inevitable (Sternberg, 1988). Yet when risk is accepted and met as a normal part of making a thought into a thing, then the outcomes are evaluated differently. An unexpected result becomes a learning experience. Risk is approached as an opportunity for non-linear advancement and a testing ground for theories and abilities. Seasoned creators learn to cultivate a healthy relationship with risk, developing an ability to make a sober analysis in the unavoidable face of an obstacle. Creativity and risk-taking go hand in hand. Leaders who foster risk-taking at the grass roots level know it just comes with the territory of creating (BlessingWhite, 2008).

     Healthy risk incrementally builds trust in process, team, experience and the organization’s ability to assess opportunity. With success, an innovator gains insight and experience extending boundaries and enhancing Belief. With a miss, experience still accrues and knowledge is banked for the next leap. Honest assessment of risks ensure the organization has the resources and knowledge necessary to navigate the unknowns of the developmental process to completion (Boehm, 1991).

     The creative leap of faith should not be a blind jump into the abyss but an educated exploration of possibilities within a defined space. Innovators are most willing to take risks when the stakes are reasonable and institutionally supported (Kahneman & Lovallo, 1993). Maintaining a steady, educated risk taking approach to development protects an organization from needing to gamble everything to regain a financially critical market (Memili, Eddleston, Kellermanns, Zellwegger, & Barnett, 2010; Zahra, 2005). Too often, organizations that have developed a profit center with predictable operations settle into a conservative risk-averse approach to business that leaves them open to competition and ultimately loss (Hitt, Hoskissen, & Harrison, 1991).

     Business savvy leaders of development teams take the time to gather information in the lower cost scoping phase of development to assess risk vs. reward when determining if a project is worthy of the organization’s resources. Innovation should never be used as an excuse to blindly forge into uncharted waters, seek thrills or gain glory without regard for the impact to the organization or the team members. Nor should the innovation process be used to attempt to validate personal beliefs, drive undue risk into a project through vanity and ego or squander innovation capital with an unnecessarily high risk quotient.

     Creating is inherently a process of constant growth. Powerful creators know risk is an integral part of the process and they develop an expectation that in due time, a great risk will be necessary to cause a quantum leap in the project or business (Davila, 2013). Nothing is ever a complete failure if some creative capital can be salvaged from the wreckage. Understanding this gives creatives some comfort as they proceed further around the spiral. With each faithful act, the company’s evolution becomes part of the story. In concert with the other Creative Keys, it is an act of building trust.

       With the Creative Keys in balance, risk becomes another opportunity to know oneself, evaluate limitations and proceed with a response worthy of greatness.


Creators Complete


“It takes two people to finish a painting; the painter and someone to tell him when to stop.”



     To complete is to finish what was started. It is the thought finally turned into a thing. Completion writes the next chapter in an organization’s story. The team gains understanding of their competencies and areas for improvement, bringing confidence and ultimately a deeper belief in the their abilities. This understanding also fuels a more lucid assessment of each member’s contributions, driving greater levels of collaboration and mentorship. Well managed, the team hones its proven strengths and works on its collective weaknesses, growing in its ability to efficiently iterate and innovate together.

     Only once development is completed and the product commercialized can an organization definitively get a true sense of its accomplishment, measure and celebrate its success and calculate the value of its creative capital. Post-market surveillance provides undeniable feedback to the team’s assumptions on everything from consumer satisfaction to product safety. The lessons learned in the comprehensive study of a complete project can often be more valuable than the product itself (Schindler & Eppler, 2003). Once a product is in the field, an organization learns how well it assessed the market, managed risk, translated the assessment into requirements and manifested the requirements into a final tangible product. The quality of the product is essentially an artifact of the process. An increasingly successful process yields increasingly successful products. So important is the act of powerful completion it not only impacts future innovation but helps the organization determine which products in its current portfolio are most likely to succeed or have potential for failure.

     Without cultivating a relationship with completion, none of these valuable lessons or growth in abilities and culture can take place. For this reason alone, the organization must have a firm commitment to finish projects and not squander its creative capital on something that it does not have the will or resources to complete.

     Many institutionally ingrained factors can contribute to an organization’s failure to complete and these organizational pathologies quickly degrade the culture. Consequences multiply as team members are unable to identify tangible results of their work or attach value or consequence to their contributions (Gray, 2001). The drive to complete is exponentially reduced with each major shift in priorities, causing more internal noise and diminishing the company’s “signal” to the point where the most driven and talented innovators, those who live to create, are pushed further away from the process until eventually innovation grinds to a full and sometimes irreversible halt.

     To complete powerfully, the team must soberly gauge how they bridged the gap between idea and reality, assessing qualitative attributes and quantifiable parameters relative to their expectations. The organization must acknowledge the qualities and contributions of individual participants, and the team must commemorate the creative journey through celebration. We too often move on from one project to the next without evaluating lessons, thanking our colleagues or celebrating victories. Cultivating an understanding of what constitutes completion builds true collaboration as the team works to determine where to strike the balance between perfect and done (Baccarini, 1999).

     Intentional completion grants the freedom to move forward with those new possibilities so the organization can tell its next story to the world.




“As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward.”

            -Vincent van Gogh


     We create because we must; we create to solve the challenges posed by history. It is what makes us tick. Our present is the realization of our past imaginings and our future will depend on the stories we tell and the commitments we make today. In this time of exponential growth our mounting challenges will require enlightened solutions. What we believe and how we innovate today will endow our world for tomorrow.

     During the classical era, artists developed systems for turning a beautiful thought into a perfected thing. After the Industrial Revolution manufacturing systems diffused into every facet of how things were made. Eventually these systems were applied to movie making and brought mass production back into the hands of the original manufacturers: artists. These more contemporary masters examined, dissected and rebuilt the creative process, marrying art and industry and producing extraordinary results.

     We find that the contextual structure of the spiral and the five Creative Keys remain as relevant today as centuries ago. This system for collaboration and enhanced innovation provides makers a natural process of creation grounded in deep historical precedents and yet perfectly applicable to our current demanding business climate.

     When the creative process is visualized as a spiral instead of a linear path, it better depicts the true nature of human thought and action towards creation. It harmonizes the product realization process with this miraculous human operating system.

     The Spiral also provides a structure for the Creative Keys – Belief, Iteration, Collaboration, Risk and Completion – critical attributes that facilitate prosperous innovation. These fundamental elements of creativity unite and empower those who follow the spiral path in service of a common idea. Once fully understood, the Creative Keys allow participants to work as a fluid team, focused resolutely on a collective purpose.

     In design, engineering and manufacturing, this system leads to explosive innovation through plussing and greater self-expression. These environments increase engagement, raise productivity and improve retention. Ultimately, organizations leverage the benefits of a successful relationship with creation into purposeful contributions to the world.

     Management of innovation has been described as unquantifiable by those who create and unmanageable by those who seek to quantify. The authors submit that neither statement is accurate. By visualizing innovation in its natural form, all parties are free to create and revise in a format that encourages open communication and accurate measurement.

     The five Creative Keys guide the development process to a culture of collaborative innovation capable of efficiently addressing complex problems. Through clarified vision, lucid process, teamwork, healthy risk taking and a drive to completion, the organization provides the world with much needed solutions and receives invaluable feedback to build the next chapter of its story. With each cycle, it becomes clear that the organization itself is on a spiral journey to excellence, fueled by the very culture it has created and poised to take on the next greater challenge of turning a thought into a thing.


About the Authors


David Zaboski is a classically trained artist having worked as a Senior Animator at Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. during the Second Golden Age of Animation. He has contributed his talents to such movies as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Fantasia 2000, and others. He has illustrated several acclaimed children’s books, including titles for Dr. Ken Dychtwald, Dr. Deepak Chopra and actor Paul Michael Glaser and others. Dave has created concept art for film and television, shown his fine art internationally, been the expedition artist in search of a lost temple in the Andes and painted for the Dalai Lama. Along with teaching programs at Summit, Esalen Institute, UCLA, Art Center, The Animation Workshop and Rancho La Puerta, Dave is the Track Chair of Lucid University’s CreativeWorks Program. Dave has been on the faculty of Singularity University and guides entrepreneurs, makers and organizations in creativity, innovation and collaboration. Dave lives with his wife, Robin, daughter, Grace and a small menagerie on a ranchette in Southern California.



Dr. George Dierberger is a management professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He spent 25 years at 3M in a variety of leadership roles and helped start 5 businesses over a ten year period. He was the only business person ever nominated for the prestigious “Innovation” award. He consults for a variety of businesses in the consumer electronics, office, pet and outdoor markets.


Ryan Douglas is co-founder and leader of Nextern Incorporated (Nextern Manufacturing Solutions – USA, and Nextern Technologies- China), a vertically integrated design and global manufacturing company. He has over 16 years of experience and participated in the design and development of over 100 products and assemblies in sectors ranging from agriculture, consumer electronics, education, healthcare, lighting, medical devices, public safety, robotics and wellness. He holds six patents with seven patents pending.




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When I was in college many years ago my best friend and I were watching some educational programming to enhance our collegiate experience. Okay- it was Sesame Street- and in this particular vignette, Jack Be Nimble was about to execute a perilous jump over a flaming object. With much fanfare, just before he took off, a square jawed reporter asked Jack if he had any last words. He cried out enthusiastically, “Everything is everything!”

Mitch and I looked at each other with the deep realization that we had just been gifted the secret to the Universe.

Maybe we had.

Philosophies of interconnectedness are a fundamental precept of ancient wisdom societies around the globe and across time. Just about every indigenous culture on earth subscribes to what John Muir put so eloquently when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Well, we used to be hitched to everything. Until sometime shortly after the Industrial Revolution, that is. We’ve been coming slowly unglued ever since.

As I described in my last missive, the stories we tell help to form our perception of the world. For millennia our models of reality included an unknowable force, a kind of inscrutable presence or intelligence that colored causality and contributed to our particular logic about how the world worked. Carl Jung wrote that the archaic man did not see himself as separate from Nature, but inexorably intertwined with it. In Greek times the philosopher Old Democritus used the term “spiritus insertus atomis,” which means the spirit inserted in atoms. As if matter itself might just contain consciousness.

As progress churned inexorably onward and we got more deft at turning a handful of dirt into complex objects, our models for the universe shifted. With Newton’s theories about the primacy of force (wherein consciousness or intention was irrelevant) along with Des Cartes and his heartless insistence on the world as machine, the die was cast. When tinkerers began to construct intricate contraptions that could capture time and multiply human effort, we developed philosophies that became more mechanistic to reflect our evolving understanding of Nature, but more and more as a thing we were above and separate from: the Cosmos as a great clockwork. The Deus had left the Machina.


Man had become unhitched from the Everything. We had separated consciousness from science and forgotten utterly that it takes consciousness to do the math.

With each successive advancement in technology we refined our mechanistic explanation of how the universe works. With the advent of the steam engine we evolved our description from clockwork to motor. As engines became more sophisticated we modified our models. Forever adding layers of complexity upon our mechanical metaphor of how things work.

When the computer came along we quickly adopted the new model. A thinking machine! It must be like a brain! This new metaphor of computer-as-brain has become so ingrained in our culture that we have practically mistaken the metaphor for the real thing. The thinking goes that a computer is such a perfect metaphor for our brain that the greatest minds among us believe that when we can make a computer equal to a brain, we will bear witness to the next great evolution of sentience on earth. Something, the theory pre-supposes, will finally be smarter than man. Ahoy the Singularity! That moment when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence as the highest intelligence on earth.

I’m no Luddite, but maybe I do long for those distant days of wine and roses, that time of spiritus insertus atomis when spirit and matter were wed and we were part of Nature. Our brains now rule the roost. So much so that a few years ago Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, believed he had proven the non-existence of god by dissecting a giraffe and showing how it’s vagus nerve traveled from it’s brain all the way down it’s long neck, looped around it’s heart and back up to end at it’s vocal chords. Dawkins argument was that no intelligent designer in his right mind would make such a grievous mistake. That if there were a god, he never would have gone to all that trouble to run a line so far out of the way only to come back up to the vocal chords of an animal that doesn’t even speak. This very nerve in a fish makes so much more sense, he concluded, as it is a direct line to a useful end. Not a meandering wander to parts unknown. So this strange nerve just uselessly kept getting left in successive evolutions like some sort of forgotten code from fish to amphibian to mammal until it became a total absurdity in the long neck of the giraffe.

Oh the humanity.

I mean really. What a hubristic and anthropocentric view. First to assume that evolution is incompatible with an intelligent influence of anatomy (which is a topic for another day) and secondly to think he has a total grasp of what intelligent design is. No human does. I mean, sheesh, intelligent designers left the pockets off women’s skinny jeans. Men’s skinny jeans have pockets. Why not women’s? Unexplainable design is everywhere. It doesn’t mean the universe is soulless.

I told the story of Richard Dawkin’s giraffe dissection to a bunch of birds and they just shook their little heads. I mean, it really ruffled their feathers. But that’s because they speak bird language. You did, too, once upon a time. Archaic man and indigenous peoples use it to this day to find prey and not get eaten by lions. Learning bird language is making a well deserved comeback in Nature Connection Schools and communities where indigenous wisdom is respected. The alchemists call it “la langue des oiseaux.” It is the ability to be connected to the greater field of information around you, to be able to read the wind and listen as if you were a part of it. As if you were a part of Nature.

When did you start believing you weren’t?

Nobody is just a head.




In 1996, Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University founded a new field of medicine called neurogastroenterology. It’s the study of the neuronal connections in what is now called the enteric brain. Turns out there’s a significant and complicated set of nerve cells operating around your stomach. It is integrally linked to your brain and all other bodily systems in a billion different ways. When you get a gut feeling about something, this is where it comes from. How is enteric thought coded? Is it a language of feelings? How does this fit into the model of the computer? What’s the stomach of a computer? The model of the brain as computer is good, it’s just not complete.

And what about the heart? Research in the new science of neurocardiology shows clear indications that the heart itself has what science would call a brain. Couple that along with the fact that it’s electromagnetic pulses are 500 times greater than the pulses coming from the cerebellum and we have an information system carried on waves of electromagnetism that we have not even begun to understand. Does the heart have it’s own intelligence? Can we include these intelligences into our model of reality?

The metaphor is not the thing itself. Have we become so focused on replicating the model that we can’t see when new information emerges? Maybe this is why love and consciousness have been left out of all our calculations. Do I need to remind you that we are mind, body and spirit? As I write this, I am aware of my thoughts being transcribed by these symbols I learned as I scratch them with my pen on paper. That awareness must count for something. I feel like I am more than a clock. I admit that I am matter. But more than that, I also matter. Clearly, I am more than the sum of my parts.

How much more?

Am I the Deus in the Machina?

Technology is a spectacular multiplier and we have used it to great effect to multiply our strength and our intellect. Can you see why? Because multiplying these attributes conforms to the story we have told about how reality is constructed. First gears, then circuitry. “Artificial Intelligence” (as if anything from earth can really be artificial. I believe it’s more appropriate to call it Machine Intelligence) now dominates in games of chess and Go and recently beat our top gun pilot in a series of dogfights. A computer beat the best human contestants in Jeopardy! (Btw, the exclamation point is part of the game show’s name, not an indication of my enthusiasm for that achievement.)

These are excellent milestones in the advancement of technology. Still, they are mostly games of war.

I wonder if it’s possible to reframe our modeling. If man is the measure of all things it is also true that there’s more to heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies (Horatio). Could our models bring the heart into play? Could we use technology to multiply compassion? Even empathy?

Wouldn’t that be a neat trick?

What is it going to take to reconnect us to Nature? Our disconnection, a function of our story of reality, has led to a serious and perhaps terminal spiral of environmental, societal and personal degradation. This brain only model has us sleepwalking toward a great fall. It’s time to reconnect to Nature and wake up to a new model with a more inclusive story. I am not asking you to believe in god. I’m asking you to remember that you are part of Nature.


Technology conforms to one rule: Progress. But progress has an insatiable appetite. We are burning the world down due to our appetite for progress. We are ignorant that appetite is tempered by an awareness of our condition. Around the time Newton was espousing his Laws of Nature a mathematician by the name of Leibnitz was concocting another theory that included the attributes of condition and appetite as inherent in matter. The smallest particle was called a monad and its fundamental programming was to oscillate between those two properties. Condition and appetite.

The accumulation of monads aggregates the impulse to balance the condition and appetite and as complexities ensue, the need to become more and more aware of condition and appetite increase. This may require the form of matter to look for other cooperative forms thus creating ever more complex nested systems. The more complex systems require more complex solutions to solve for either condition or appetite. Along the way the aggregations of monads would lead to something akin to consciousness or sentience or some form of self-awareness. In other words, enough monads and the thing wakes up. This is called an emergent property. An emergent property is something that is greater that the sum of it’s parts or an unpredictable result of a combination of seemingly unrelated elements. For example, an emergent property happens when two hydrogen atoms combine with an oxygen atom. Looking at these elements separately, no one could have predicted wetness. Is it possible for a new model of reality to imagine that matter itself contains the seed of consciousness like in Leibnitz’ monad? 

This would make it possible for multiple kinds of complex awarenesses to emerge and propagate. Nested systems combining would ongoingly form emergent properties from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Intelligence would not necessarily mean you got a big brain.

And if a particular consciousness does not conform to the standard model we currently use to tell the story of reality, well maybe we need to tell a new story. The earth doesn’t appear to have a nervous system. No ganglia are visible that are obvious lines of communication around the earth. Perhaps mycelia, but the verdict is still out on those as the world’s neural network (again, an anthropomorphized expectation of conforming to a model of reality that may not be accurate). Does the lack of an apparent system that mimics our assumed model mean it’s not an intelligence? The earth responds in extremely complex ways to unimaginable problems. Like for example, the sun’s temperature has increased about 40% in the last 3 billion or so years. And yet the earth has not burned to a crisp. In fact, its temperature over that time is remarkably stable. The earth’s atmosphere is filled with volatile chemistry. Gases like oxygen and methane bond easily with other elements and need to be constantly replenished. Too much oxygen in the atmosphere and fires will burn everything to ash, too little and no mammals would survive. Who exactly is working that equation out constantly, everyday for a few billion years?

Maybe not god, but it’s certainly some kind of intelligence greater than yours or mine.

To conclude, we need a new story of how reality is constructed and it needs to include you. All of you. Not just your brain or your muscles. It needs to include your heart, your gut, your consciousness, your spirit and everything else that makes you, you. You are more than the sum of your parts and the nested systems that make up you need to connect to the nested systems that make up me and begin our kindred quest toward a renewed connection to Nature. Let us acknowledge the spiritus insertus atomis until we become an emergent property. Let us cultivate a new understanding of both our condition and our appetite along with a hearty commitment to find technologies that multiply what has so far been underserved by a brain based model: compassion.

The time is now to take that perilous leap. To go out yonder and breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air. To let yourself be re-inhabited by the wild you once had in you. Go and dance with your own divinity to the music of the dawn chorus. Listen to the language of the birds. They will remind you of what you already know:

Everything is everything.

Dave Zaboski is a professional artist, storyteller and consultant, training creators and companies from all disciplines to more perfectly turn their thoughts into things. Contact him at or book him for speaking engagements at 818-445-8500.

(All images Copyright Dave Zaboski 2016)


I recently attended a couple of technology conferences and listened to Luminaries of Exponentiality speak enthusiastically of the idea of uploading our cerebral cortex to the cloud. They spoke at length and with glib confidence about the coming Singularity and the inevitability of Artificial Intelligence. They casually anagrammed the mythology liberally using the term AI as if it was already among us and we could call it by it’s nickname. It was as if we were all standing on the edge of the next great evolution of humanity.

As I sat listening to the fait accompli insouciance of these optimists and futurists something struck me as not quite right- like a too old child ordering “pasghetti.” It’s cute, but wrong. And it should eventually be corrected.

What’s in a name? Where’s the harm of calling it what it is? Except that the stories we tell create the filter we use to test and describe reality. How we language our present is a pathway to create our future. In that regard, I'm not convinced we're using the right words.

The very term Artificial Intelligence prejudices a present and breaks a future. It presupposes that there are only two possible intelligences: my human intelligence and the inevitable emulation of a human brain in some digital or synthetic form. We anticipate with glee something that is wholly artificial. As if artificial intelligence is the only other legitimate option. I sigh because this woefully anthropocentric view is ether tragically naïve or dangerously hubristic. Either way, this less-than-conscious use of the term artificial intelligence effectively negates the existence of other kinds of intelligences.

I believe it is more accurate to call it Machine Intelligence. Now, I’m no Luddite. I’m not running from the coming digital tide. I believe in the inevitability of Machine Intelligence. In using that term I also recognize and acknowledge that this planet is filled with a stunning variety of intelligences.

Did you know that the very act of digging your hands in the earth connects your skin to the mycelia network of fungus just below the surface. This connection causes your skin to release serotonin into your body. Serotonin makes you feel good. This is a terrestrial ploy to make you happy when you put your hands in the earth and plant your garden so you can feed yourself. Who figured that one out? How about the very fact that the sun is 40% hotter than it was 3.5 billion years ago? We have life sustaining volatile gasses in stable amounts on this planet. Oxygen binds to everything, oxidizing it. This oxygen has to be constantly replenished to create an atmosphere that if it were too rich it would all catch on fire and too lean all the large mammals would die. Who's monitoring the thermostat for the planet? Why haven't we burnt to a crisp? This planet creates at an astonishing rate. 90% of all of the animals that have ever lived on this planet are now extinct. So who keeps making this shit up? Who tells the bees to pollinate or the ants to pick up your picnic crumbs? We must, if we are to fully embrace life, recognize and acknowledge myriad intelligences abounding.

We humans, with all our brains and bluster, are really just a small part of something larger. We are a nested system inside of other nested systems. The emergence of our consciousness impels us to create as an emulation of the greater system that made us. It goes like this: An intelligence (Some SOMETHING out there) made an intelligence (humans) who made an intelligence (machine).

Yes, it’s grandiose that we can manipulate dirt and turn it into a Tesla. And I can see why the technologists get all heady and think they are somehow emulating god. Because, in a way, they are. In a very, very small way. “Look mommy! Look what I made!”

"Artificial Intelligence" is something Mother Earth would tape up on her fridge.

Calling it Artificial Intelligence is like naming the creation after yourself and expecting it to act just like you. It is not going to be a chip off the old block. No wonder we have a plethora of negative fantasies of robots rebelling and running amok in a dystopian future. We intuitively know that we are creating false expectations in how we hold that future. Artificial Intelligence is an offspring that is going to need some serious therapy one day. Imagine naming your kid “Fake Human.” If she’s truly intelligent, it’s going to fuck her up. We’re creating a future that’s going to resent us. She'll act out, pout and when we give her Skynet to show we really trust her... well, you know how that'll work out.

I am not disinviting the future. On the contrary, I’m inviting a richer future than the one painted by the term Artificial Intelligence. Machine Intelligence has a kind of permission to blossom into its own full expression. With freedom and guidance it can be possible that Machine Intelligence emulates some of the other intelligences that exist out there. Intelligence of the heart. Intelligence of humor, capacity to see the big picture. There’s a whole world of biomimicry out there to explore. We can begin to listen for system intelligences that allow for MI to learn and grow in its own way. Not necessarily a tacit emulation of the processes of human thought and form. I mean, c'mon, it doesn't have to look like a hot chick.

 I welcome the blossoming of Machine Intelligence. The truth is, it is not really artificial at all. It’s part of the intelligence garden constantly flourishing on this planet. The earth is a mind-bogglingly complex interplay of nested systems in nested systems- an intelligence creation machine. The emergent properties of these collaborations engender magnificent creative solutions to the ongoing turbulent challenges of a cause and effect reality. There is no such thing as an artificial intelligence. It’s just intelligence. How we hold it, the stories we tell and the language we use for it - well, that's something we can evolve.


Dave Zaboski is a professional artist, storyteller and consultant, training creators and companies from all disciplines to more perfectly turn their thoughts into things. Contact him at or book him for speaking engagements at 818-445-8500.

(All images Copyright Dave Zaboski 2016)



The world seems sometimes to be going to hell in a hand basket and reading the news makes me so lonely. While there's clearly no hope, there is something you can do right now. Read More

I do.

July 11, 2015


abundance   heart   light   love   marraige   vows  

I have always thought of love as an outward facing action. A giving projection of that sweet heartlight shining upon the world. But what about the love I hold for myself? Read More
This blog is about life at depth. A good artist can draw in 2d, here we explore the z axis. Read More