Last week, I had the chance to attend the North Carolina Potters Conference.  I was asked to attend to talk about the psychology of creativity and effective thinking.  But, I had the chance to watch demonstrations by master potters, to see a fantastic private pottery collection, and to hear curators of two museums talk about their collections. 

As I reflected on the conference, I realized that the pottery community has a lot to teach entrepreneurs and innovators.

Get up close and personal with your work.  On the last night of the conference, everyone was invited to the home of Dwight Holland, who was one of the original founders of this pottery conference.  His home is home to a part of his massive pottery collection.  Most of his collection has been given to Eastern Carolina University, where students are encouraged to take pieces, and study them carefully.

As I walked through the house with conference attendees, they picked up pieces they liked and looked at them carefully.  It is not enough just to be inspired by what something looks like.  It was crucial to these artists to feel the weight of the pieces and to understand their structure.

We often say that the devil is in the details of the work you do.  In order to really engage with those details, though, it is not enough to hear someone else's experiences.  Too often, companies innovate by having studies commissioned for them and then listening to the conclusions drawn by those people who actually waded through the data.  If you are going to innovate, you need to engage more directly with projects.  Collect data yourself.  Work directly on projects.  Don't just take other people's word for what works or what does not.

Finish Matters.  There was a great presentation by Ulysses Grant Dietz, curator of the Newark Museum.  He gave an overview of the pottery collection from its origins in the early 20th century to the present day. 

An interesting aspect of the collection at the Newark museum is that they have purchased a number of mass-produced inexpensive items that they display.  The point of these items is that they are beautiful, even though they are functional.  Everyone can have some artwork in their home, even if that work has a daily function in their lives.

While watching this talk, I was thinking about how we often pour efforts into making new products and procedures at work functional without thinking about the details of their finish.  Is the product easy to use?  How do people feel when they interact with it?  Is the company providing real satisfaction to its customers? How does employees' work enhance the experience of their lives?

Much of the work that people do each day is functional. But, the areas of the brain that create emotional experiences are still active, even when people are engaging in tasks that aim to get something done.  As an entrepreneur and innovator, you need to be sensitive to those emotional responses, because they affect people's engagement in the work they do.  They affect how likely customers are to repeat their experience with your products and services.  Life should be beautiful, even when you are at work.

Generational Differences Reflect Taste and Life Stage.  It is popular to focus on generational differences these days.  People look for ways to engage with millennials and assume that this rising generation is fundamentally different from the ones that came before.

I was listening to a talk by Garth Johnson, curator of the ceramics collection at Arizona State University.  He spoke about the new generation of potters, whose work is often roughly formed and makes viewers and users aware of the materials and glazes being used.   Over the course of his presentation, he pointed out that over the past 100 years, potters have changed their focus from exploration of beautiful forms with smooth lines and clean finishes to rougher work that highlights the material.

Yet, each generation of artists still made functional objects.  Underneath the exterior finishes were objects that could actually be used as cups, plates, vases, or pitchers.  There was recognizable commonality of form beneath the significant artistic choices that were being made.

That seems to have a significant parallel when thinking about different generations of people in the workplace and the market.  There are some fundamental aesthetic choices that generations make about what they value.  The pendulum swings from a focus on stability to an embrace of experience. 

Beneath these aesthetic choices, though, lie life tasks that people in a generation must complete.  Millenials differ from those in Gen X partly in the values they embrace (to the extent that the values of an entire generation can be seen as the same), but also in their stage of life.  Millenials are trying to establish careers and navigate relationships.  Gen X is grappling with mid-career issues and increasing free time as their families mature.  When trying to generalize about a generation, it is important to separate the aesthetic choices from the functional aspects of being at a particular life stage.

It is often helpful to step into a completely different community in order to get insight into your own.  A few days' immersion in the world of pottery certainly had that effect for me.