#417  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 8          August 1999

We're Finally Seeing the Whole Elephant!
by Anne Durrum Robinson

Ms. Robinson is a human resource consultant in Austin, Texas (phone 512-472-4412), helping organizations implement creativity. www.io.com/~stellar/adr/anne.html

We’re all familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant.  Each man held a different part of the beast.  Each was convinced that the part he explored was a key to the total animal. Their individual descriptions of the elephant were as far apart as the poles.

Our personal or corporate experiences with creativity have been almost that diverse.  I have spent the greater part of my 86 years cognizant of its existence. My own creativity first expressed itself in writing, where I won prizes in poetry, play and song writing.  For many years, I found my creative outlet in radio and television, where I even had my own programs.

At the age of sixty, I entered the training-development field.  By that time, excellent books and articles occasionally appeared, extolling the value of creative thinking.  But, like the blind men, some emphasized one approach or facet; some, another.  For instance, one view held that creative thinking is enhanced by a playful approach; but others felt it should be handled in a more cerebral way.

I never achieved the surety of the misguided blind men.  I stayed perpetually on the fence.  More recent books on creativity, however, have been helping me see the “elephant” as a whole.

When I read The Creative Edge (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1987) by William C. Miller, I felt that I could truly sense more of the amazing creature we were attempting to capture and tame.  He lists seven types of creativity:

              Thinking up new ideas
              Making something tangible
              Organizing people or projects
              Doing something spontaneous
              Event creativity
              Building relationships
              Changing your “inner self”

Miller urges his readers to become more:


In Breakthrough Thinking (Prima, Rocklin, California, 1994), Gerald Nadler and Shozo Hibino explain why (even in a creative effort) we should formulate principles of action and stick to them.  Those principles include:

              The Uniqueness Principle.  Each problem is unique and may require a unique solution.
              The Purposes Principle.  Focusing on and expanding purposes help strip away nonessential aspects of a problem.
              The Solution-After-Next Principle:  Having a target solution in the future gives direction to near-term solutions and infuses them with larger purposes.
              The Systems Principle.  Every problem is part of a larger system of problems, and solving one problem inevitably leads to another.  Having a clear framework of what elements and dimensions comprise a solution ensures its workability and implementation.
              The Limited Information Collection Principle:  Excessive data gathering may create an expert in the problem area, but knowing too much about it will probably prevent the discovery of some excellent alternatives.
              The People Design Principle:  Those who will carry out and use the solution should be intimately and continuously involved with its development.  Also, in designing for other people, the solution should include only the critical details to allow some flexibility to those who must apply the solution.
              The Betterment Timeline Principle:  The only way to preserve the vitality of a solution is to build in, and then monitor, a program of continual change.  The sequence of breakthroughs then becomes a bridge to a better future.

The eyes.  The trunk.  Slowly, our “mystery animal” is becoming more visible.

In Flow and Creativity (Harper Perennial, New York, 1997), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gives us a picture of the habitat in which our blurred beast functions best.  Says he, “There is no way to know whether a thought is new except with reference to some standards, and there is no way to tell whether it is valuable until it passes social evaluation. Therefore, creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and sociocultural context.  It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon….”  He believes that, for a creative idea, product or discovery to take place there must be “…the interaction of a system composed of three elements:  a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation….”

But don’t be too hasty in forming our collective opinions, warn Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern in Corporate Creativity (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1997).  They contend that the “most creative acts are unexpected.  This is the true nature of corporate creativity and it is where a company’s creative potential really lies….  A company is creative when its employees do something new and potentially useful without being directly shown or taught.  The results of creativity in companies are improvements (changes to what is already done) and innovation (entirely new activities for the company).”

They define six elements which play a role in every creative act and are the key to increasing corporate creativity:

              Self-initiated activity
              Unofficial activity
              Diverse stimuli
              Within-company communication

So we get another piece of the pachyderm.  This one, obviously, is different from the others, but it seems to simply be a varied glimpse of the same intriguing animal.

Michael Michalko, in Cracking Creativity (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1998), says “Genius is not about scoring 1600 on the SATs, mastering ten languages at the age of seven, finishing the New York Times crossword in record time, having an extraordinarily high IQ, or even about being smart.  Michalko writes, “Typically we think reproductively, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past….  In contrast, geniuses think productively….  When confronted with a problem, they ask themselves how many different ways they can look at the same problem, how they can rethink it, and how many different ways they can solve it, instead of how they have been taught to solve it….”

In Total Creativity in Business and Industry (Advanced Practical Thinking Training, Des Moines, Iowa, 1997), David Tanner brings our curious creature more clearly into focus.  He describes a total-creativity initiative and maps the building of a more innovative organization through attention to six discrete dimensions:

              Learning and applying creativity techniques
              Valuing diversity in thinking
              Engaging the organization
              Structuring for creativity and innovation
              Recognizing emerging champions and supports
              Taking ideas to market

Ned Herrmann’s The Whole Brain Business Book (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996) seeks to unlock the power of whole-brain thinking.  He feels that teams can “maximize results through mental diversity,” with different individuals having different thinking strengths.

Joyce Wycoff and Tim Richardson (Transformation Thinking, Berkeley Books, New York, 1995) prove that even our seemingly ungainly beast can move with lightning speed.  They offer various ways to stimulate creative thought.  They term our proclivity to judge an entire animal by one part of its anatomy “assumption blindness.”

Each of the creativity gurus has added clearer brush strokes to our elephant picture.  And one last “painting” takes us full circle to William C. Miller (Flash of Brilliance, Perseus Books, Reading, Massachusetts, 1999).  He acknowledges that the field of creativity and innovation has greatly matured, and cites these proofs:

              The quality movement asked for creative ideas from every employee, and we saw that everyone had creative ideas to offer.
              Courses on creativity and innovation have sprouted everywhere.
              Groups, rather than the individual, became the locus of creativity.
              Product and process teams now look for “product champions” within the company, the intrapreneurs.
              From quantum physics, chaos theory, biology and the Internet, we understand more about how self-organizing systems work.

He states that, “around the world, I have observed first hand that four new business phenomena are taking us even further beyond the creative edge:

            • Relationships based on authenticity and caring have become the fundamental basis for sustainable advantage….
            • Intellectual capital has become the fundamental measure of future corporate performance….
              Complex systems and chaos theory have become the metaphors for creating and sustaining the living organisms we call companies….
              Spirituality in business is becoming the fundamental next step for tapping the full potential and motivation of each human being….”

So, I feel, we are finally beginning to see the whole elephant.  And it, as we may have suspected, is a truly magnificent animal!  Working closely with it, we’ll continue to experience it more clearly.

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