#22 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 1          January 1993

A Process For Creativity
by William J. Altier

Mr. Altier is a certified management consultant and president of Princeton Associates Inc., a management consulting firm in Buckingham, Pennsylvania.

Every manufacturing process has a sequence.  While the sequence may be flexible, based on variations in the inputs or the desired output, the fundamental point remains:  Effective results require an effective sequence.  The same is true of creating ideas; an effective sequence for thinking goes a long way toward raising the odds of achieving effective results. 

But the creative process does not start until it is first triggered.  The triggers—the seemingly innocuous events that lead people to say "aha"—are everywhere.  They are present in the events of the day, in everyday dissatisfactions, and in everyday searches for satisfaction.  They are present in thoughts like "Wouldn't it be nice if…?"

On vacation, Edwin Land took some pictures of his daughter.  She asked why she couldn't see the results right then and there, so he started thinking about overcoming his daughter's dissatisfaction.  Within an hour he had developed the concept of instant photography, and you know the rest of the story.

Like many church choir singers, Art Fry put slips of paper in his hymn book so he could find selections quickly, but the slips sometimes fell out.  Taking his dissatisfaction back to his job, he developed 3M's Post-it notes.

Teflon wasn't invented, it was an accident.  However, its application to myriad products was possible because a curious chemist didn't throw away the accident but rather played with it to learn more about its properties, and discovered it could solve certain problems better than any other substance.

Whether it be creative application and better satisfactions, as with Teflon, or creative discovery and overcoming dissatisfactions, as with the Polaroid-Land camera and Post-it notes, the triggers were seemingly mundane happenings.  These same types of events undoubtedly happened to hundreds of other fathers and choir members and chemists.  But they apparently did not pursue them.

You may be exposed to these same kinds of triggers dozens of times every day, but if you don't notice them, or you accept them as fleeting events, they will not be triggers.  If you pause, think, reflect and question, one just might become a trigger.

Defining the Problem

It has been said that "a problem correctly stated is half solved."  If we accept this maxim, then the obvious question is:  "How do I state the problem correctly?"   Simply by recognizing the "true choice" being faced, then stating it at its most simple and elementary.

In one of his books on lateral thinking, Edward de Bono talks about an office building where occupants complained about the wait for elevators.  By viewing the problem as "How can we speed up the elevators?" the landlords felt they were up against a brick wall of prohibitive costs.  In a triumph of lateral thinking, someone suggested placing mirrors on the walls near the elevators, allowing people to spend the time admiring or fixing themselves and ignoring the wait. It worked.

However, suppose the problem had originally been stated in terms of the true choice: "How can we eliminate complaints about the elevators?"  Then the possible solutions might have included faster elevators, or mounting television sets or mirrors nearby.

Another important point is hidden in this elevator example.  The problem was first viewed in terms of the need to change the performance of the product itself (the elevator), when the problem was actually solved by creating change in the product's environment.

Barriers to Creativity

One of the most important steps in developing creative abilities is recognizing and owning up to the obstacles to devising creative ideas.  The foremost barrier, curiously, is experience.  Although experience is often valuable, it can be a liability if in a search for creative ideas.  Herman Kahn called experience "educated incapacity," which helps explain why many breakthrough ideas come from outsiders who aren't encumbered by their experience.

Kenneth Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., relied on his experience in computers when he told the World Future Society's convention in 1977:  "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."  That's exactly when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were starting Apple Computer in their garage!

Assumptions can be another barrier to creativity.  For years the greeting card companies labored under the assumption that their competition was other greeting card companies.  No doubt this affected—and constrained—their creative efforts.  However, the unexpected popularity of sending flowers and plants with just a telephone call (e.g. Florists Telegraph Delivery—FTD) became significant competition.

Judgments are another barrier. When was the last time you quickly responded to an idea with "It will never work," or "We tried that before," or "They'll never buy it"?  Think about judgments you've laughed at:  "He'll fall off the end of the earth" (about Christopher Columbus), or "They'll never replace horses" (said about automobiles), or "Birds were made to fly, not man" (said about airplanes).

What about the judgments that are now accepted as valid?  What about Einstein's Theory of Relativity?  Might it be superseded in the future, and could today's acceptance inhibit creativity?

Unfortunately, a common barrier to creativity, the "right answer" syndrome, is locked into people's brains shortly after they start school, with the get-the-right-answer focus typical of our educational system.  Most school systems are better at turning out automatons who can memorize and parrot the right answer; they are not so expert at turning out people who can think and invent new answers.

The last major barrier to creativity is fear of failure.  Failure is actually a great contributor to creativity; it's a tremendous learning tool.  Although too many graduates of the right-answer school are oblivious to the value of failure, Thomas Edison was not.  When a friend suggested that his attempts to develop an electric storage battery were a failure since he had tried thousands of materials without success, Edison replied:  "Why, man, I've got a lot of results!  I know several thousand things that won't work."

Approaches to Creativity

I feel it's important to have a scheme to help people be more creative.  In helping clients create ideas, I've noticed three brightly illuminated signs on the path to creativity:

1. Forget everything you know!
(the relationships)

2. Remember everything you know!
(the pieces)

3. Rearrange everything you know!
(same pieces, new relationships)

            Forget everything you know!

The key here comes from Pablo Picasso:  "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."  Answers come from arrangements of information, but virtually all the information in your memory bank is tied together in relationships.  Roger von Oech succinctly expressed the problem:  "As people grow older, they become prisoners of familiarity" (of relationships).  

The first step in attempting to create ideas is to destroy the familiarity, the relationships, of everything you know about the problem.  Before Edwin Land invented instant photography, everyone was aware that seeing the results of a picture-taking session was related to developing the film, which was related to a place called a darkroom, which was related to their local drugstore.  Everybody was a prisoner of that familiarity.  So was Land, until he broke its shackles, until he let his mind destroy those relationships.

            Remember everything you know!

After this act of destruction, you are left with a rich reservoir of bits and pieces of information, a vast storehouse of unconnected facts and fantasies, thoughts and ideas.  Just like the words in a dictionary, they do nothing until you select and assemble them into a coherent whole.

The value of these pieces was expressed by Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi:  "Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different."  More than likely, the pieces of a problem you're looking at are the same pieces that others are looking at.  The pieces are the means to the end, but they are valueless as they stand.  Thus the key to a better idea, "thinking something different," takes us to the last step.

            Rearrange everything you know!

Now look for for new relationships among the pieces, new ways of assembling them.  Edwin Land made a new combination of his images of camera and darkroom.  Art Fry saw a new connection between an adhesives technology owned by his employer and his falling slips of paper.

New answers come from new arrangements of information.  With all the possible combinations of information, it would be presumptuous to say your answer to a problem is the right one.  You might say it's one good answer, or better than existing answers, but to unequivocally call it "best" shows more ignorance than judgment.

When you're trying to solve a problem, to create ideas, or just to do your job, the last thing you should do is to try to invent one perfect idea.  Instead, develop as many ideas as you can, then pick and choose among them. 

While creativity can be simple, that doesn't mean it's painless.  Nobody said it would be easy.  After all, if the next idea your employer needed was so obvious, why would you have a job?

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