Creativity is the ability to find new solutions to a problem or new modes of expression; thus it brings into existence something new to the individual and to the culture. - Dr. Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, describes ten traits of creative people. He writes the fifth one as harboring tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion. Usually we tend to be one or the other. Indeed, in psychological research, extroversion and introversion are normally considered the most stable personality traits. Yet creative people seem to express both traits at the same time. And there are probably a couple of good reasons why.
First, one must be alone to write, paint, or learn music. Studies of young talented people show that part of the reason they become so talented is that they do not mind being alone to develop their skill, such as practicing music or studying math. Normally, only those who can tolerate being alone are able to master the symbolic content of their domain.
Secondly, these same people know the importance of seeing and hearing others, exchanging ideas, and getting to know not only other's creative works, but also their minds. The physicist John Wheeler said, “If you don't kick things around with people, you are out of it. Nobody, I always say, can be anybody without somebody being around.”
The physicist Freeman Dyson wrote that when writing, he closes the door, but when doing science, he leaves it open, because as he once wrote, “up to a point you welcome being interrupted because it is only by interacting with other people that you get anything interesting done.”
For example, Silicon Valley is the hub of computing because of the personal interaction that can take place between the many talented people residing there. Seattle, Silicon Valley, and the Boston area are homes to an abundant number of software companies, while Princeton is home to some of the brightest physicists.
Even though we can transfer information via the internet, books, papers, etc., certain geographic locations remain strong hubs for knowledge domains in that people with the same interests can interact with each other on a face-to-face basis.
While the main catalyst for creativity is mostly face-to-face interactions, other forms, such as video conferences or Skype can closely take its place if used wisely.
C r e a t i v e P r o c e s s
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that the creative process normally takes five steps (Creativity, 1996, p.79):
- Preparation - becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouses curiosity
- Incubation - ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness
- Insight - the “Aha!” moment when the puzzle starts to fall together
- Evaluation - deciding if the insight is valuable and worth pursuing
- Elaboration - translating the insight into its final work
The last step, elaboration, as Thomas Edison noted, is that creativity consists of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. That is, it is often much harder turning a great idea into an actual product or service that people want.
Freeman Dyson wrote two papers that were published in Physical Review in which he brought together Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger's theories of quantum mechanics. After Dyson's papers were published, Feynman and Schwinger's ideas became understandable and thus led to the two being awarded the Noble prize in physics. There is no doubt in most minds that the two would never have been awarded the prize if it was not for Dyson being able to explain their ideas by writing two papers.
Dyson's story is interesting as it fits in with the five steps of creativity:
- Preparation - He goes to Princeton to study under the greats. He gets personally acquainted with the two central figures and then pinpoints the problem that their two theories need to be elaborated upon and connected.
- Incubation - He spends two weeks relaxing and reflecting what he has discovered and then goes through a six-month period of directed preparation.
- Insight - He is hit with the Aha! moment of how to explain and connect the two.
- Evaluation - He spends six months evaluating his findings.
- Elaboration - He elaborates on his work by writing two papers that are accepted by the editors of Physical Review.
For a good reading on the subject, see Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.
L e a r n i n g P r o c e s s
Note that the preparation period requires a good deal of interacting with others. Also, most works of creativity are built upon the ideas of others through knowledge structures. Thus, part of our personal knowledge structures is built through our interactions with others. Reading, seeing, and listening are good methods for absorbing information. However, this information does not instantly become knowledge as we have simply copied the information from one source, such as a book, to a new source—our brain. However, discussing it with others allows us to then reflect upon it, which in turn creates new knowledge.
Learning is closely associated with memory in that they are processes by which we acquire and store information in such a way that it makes it retrievable at a later point in time. Data arrives as electrical impulses into the cerebral cortex through one or more of our senses and then is stored as connections among neurons. Although the electrical impulses die within milliseconds, their initial arrival reinforces a particular set of connections (creates a pattern).
If the pattern is not reinforced, then it simply goes into short-term memory, where it is soon forgotten; however, reinforcing the pattern moves it into permanent long-term memory. Reinforcing these connections create new experiences or context.
Gaining a new knowledge structure or mental schema is an act of having a variety of experiences and them connecting them to a recognizable pattern.
If the experiences are the same (repetition), you gain information or facts, such as 2+2=4 or being able to name the fifty States of the USA.
If you vary the experiences, you gain context, which gives you knowledge—e.g., I know all of the five different forklifts we use in our warehouse and I have used all of them (context and experience), thus I know exactly which one will allow me to lift and place a load in an environment that has very little room to maneuver (knowledge).
A n a l o g i e s
Andrew Hargadon wrote (How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate):
“The raw materials for breakthrough technologies will come in unexpected forms—the people, the ideas, and the objects will come dressed in other uses, other meanings, and other relationships.”
“Untangling these existing resources from their current context and putting them together in new ways requires thinking by analogy. It means constantly asking how things are the same. It's easy to point out how things are different; we do it every day in order to decide where to focus our attention and energy.”
Fred Stratton (CEO of Briggs & Stratton) once said that genius lay in the ability to see how two things that nobody else sees as related are indeed related. This ability to make distant analogies unlocks a world of potential.
Thus, a creative idea is based upon having knowledge, with plenty of context (and a lot of this context is acquired by interacting with others), and then adding one or more pieces of context that no one else is able to see. This is what Dyson did with his papers—he was able to discover the analogies between Feynman and Schwinger's theories and then explain the pathway that unites them.
So creativity is simply the next step in the learning process—one builds a variety of experience to build knowledge and then takes it to the next level—creating a context that no one has built before. And the way to build enough context that allows a person to create a new context is by interacting or teaming with others to expand the knowledge base.
T h e A b i l e n e P a r a d o x
In the Abilene Paradox, Dr. Harvey uses a parable to illustrate what he believes is a major symptom of organizational group-think—a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis to describe a process by which a group often makes bad or irrational decisions.
The story of the Abilene Paradox starts in Coleman, Texas with four adults: a married couple and the wife's parents. The foursome are sitting on the porch in 104-degree heat, drinking lemonade, making idle chat, and occasionally playing a game of dominoes. To make small talk, the wife's father suggests they drive to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria. While everyone thinks that it is a really bad idea, none of them want to upset the others, so they all in turn go along with the plan. They load up in their un-air-conditioned Buick and drive through a dust storm to Abilene, some 53 miles away. They eat a mediocre lunch and then return home exhausted, hot, and unhappy with the experience. It is not until they return home that they discover that not a one of them really wanted to go to Abilene...they were just going along because they thought all the others might be eager to do so.
When we fail to engage in deep inquiry and in self-disclosure, we tend to agree with others, no matter if it is the best way to do so or not. Our interests tend to become too similar, thus radical and truthful discourse fails to take place.
C o n n e c t i n g t h e D o t s
Innovation sometimes happens by accident:
“If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this”—Spencer Silver on his discovery that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M's Post-it Notepads.
However, most innovation takes place through detailed knowledge:
“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” - a 1921 New York Times' editorial about Robert Goddard's pioneering work by launching the space age with a 10-ft. rocket in a New England cabbage field.
The Times was quite off target, in fact, the reason Goddard was able to achieve such revolutionary work was that he had a deeper understanding of the structural features of his knowledge domain than most others. The Times simply looked at the surface features of action and reaction; while Goddard dove straight into the heart of action and reaction.
Thus, creativity normally comes not by looking at the surface features of problems, but by going much deeper—being able to connect ALL the dots.
Genrich Altshuller created a theory on inventive problem solving called TRIZ (pronounced trees - the Russian acronym equivalent). His assertion is that innovation follows a finite set of patterns, thus he changes creativity from right-brain thinking to a engineering discipline of left-brain thinking.
Altshuller discovered that over 90% of the problems engineers face has been solved by someone before them. Thus, problem-solving could best be achieved by following a path to an ideal solution. The path starts at the lowest level—their personal knowledge and experience; and then works it their way to the higher levels: knowledge within the company, knowledge within the industry, knowledge within another industry, and finally all that is knowable.
The term brainstorming was originated in the advertising world by Alex Osborn in his seminal work, Applied Imagination. He postulated that creative ideas are trapped in our minds because of the fear of rejection. Thus, creativity is encouraged by not allowing ideas to be evaluated or discussed until after the brainstorming session has run dry. In this fashion, all ideas are considered legitimate, in addition, the most far-fetched ideas are often the most fertile. Brainstorming allows taps the human brain's capacity for lateral thinking and free association. Osborn applied four basic rules:
- Criticism is ruled out. Judgment of ideas is withheld until after the session.
- Free-wheeling is welcomed. The crazier the idea, the better as it is easier to tame-down than to think-up.
- Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood that a useful one will be generated.
- Combination and improvement are sought. Suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas or how two or more ideas can be joined.
Altshuller approached problem solving from an engineer's viewpoint of it being processed driven, whereas Osborn approaches it from being a creative spark that is generated from within the individual. However, note that in both approaches the focus is upon solving a problem by going straight into the structural features of the problem.
Note that even Silver was diving into the deeper structural features of his knowledge base or schema when he invented Post-its.
In addition, neither Osborn nor Altshuller saw a need to warm-up the mind. Thus, creativity is achieved not from a game to spark the creative process, but rather by ensuing that the participants have their minds focused on the deeper issues and roadblocks are removed.
C o n n e c t i o n s
The April edition of Wired lists the 2004 Wired Rave Awards. What is quite interesting are the connections or patterns:
- Peter Jackson: The trilogy of the Rings connects with visual effects technology
- Steve Jobs: Piracy (The iPod: Rip, Mix & Burn.) connects with paying for legal downloads (iTunes).
- Rebecca Solnit: Biography connects with meditative essay
- David Byrne: PowerPoint connects with visual art.
- Jeff Bezos: Selling the new connects with selling the old.
- Joe Trippi and Scott Heiferman: Political fund raising connects with the internet.
- Industrial Design
- Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa: Kiosks connects with art.
- The Flaming Lips: Rock music connects with Technicolor.
- Zaha Hadid: Space connects with jigsaw.
- Bram Cohen: File sharing connects with distribution.
- Richard Marks: Motion detector connects with game controller.
- Mike Lazzo: Cartoons connects with adult programming.
- Joseph DeRisi: Computer array connects with DNA
- Public Library of Science: Open access connects with peer reviewed research
Thus, most innovations are not new, but rather connecting two existing ideas to form a new pattern.
A H A ! E x p e r i e n c e
Of all of Intel's employees, the engineers are the most vocal in demanding classroom instruction, rather than elearning, because they place a high value on social learning. This is because creativity is often an interaction (Training Magazine, Sep 2003, p.32).
In 1916 John Dewey wrote Democracy and Education. In it, he discusses that the function of knowledge is to make one experience freely available to other experiences. That is, we do not take isolated events or experiences as disconnected singular events, but rather we comprehend their connections with other events.
For example, when entering a showroom full of different chairs, our past experiences will help us to choose a chair that best suits us. And the more experience we have with various chairs, the better prepared we will be for selecting the correct one. However, while knowledge provides the means of understanding, its most important aspect is as a reference—being future based in order to make new connections.
Everything we know about chairs comes from connections that we have created in the past, such as comfort, firmness, softness, color, and form. These connections form the content of our knowledge about chairs. And all of our connections or content allow us to form a new connection for choosing the one perfect chair that will best suit our needs.
“We respond to its connections and not simply to the immediate occurrence. Thus our attitude to it is much freer. We may approach it, so to speak, from any one of the angles provided by its connections. We can bring into play, as we deem wise, any one of the habits appropriate to any one of the connected objects. Thus, we get at a new event indirectly instead of immediately—by invention, ingenuity, resourcefulness. An ideally perfect knowledge would represent such a network of interconnections that any past experience would offer a point of advantage from which to get at the problem presented in a new experience.” - In Democracy and Education by John Dewey
While Dewey is speaking of our personal knowledge bases; Intel's engineers are speaking more of Vygotsky's (1978) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)—knowledge (new connections) are products of the activities practiced in a social environment.
ZPD allows a number of people, each who has a network of connections, to intermingle, while a single person (one network of connections) can only intermingle with a small number of connections, such as book. And since these networks of connections (people) have intelligence, they can create stories, metaphors, etc. on the fly for helping another person to make a new connection.
Schema: A mental model of a person, object or situation. Schema include cognitive maps (mental representations of familiar parts of one's world), images, concept schema (categories of objects, events, or ideas with common properties), event scripts (schema about familiar sequences of events or activities) and mental models (clusters of relationships between objects or processes). Return
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.