#521  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 3          March 2001

On Creativity
by William J. Altier, CMC, FIMC

Mr. Altier is president of Princeton Associates in Buckingham, PA(phone 215-794-5626, fax 215-348-4104, princetoninc@compuserve.com. This article is adapted from The Thinking Manager's Toolbox (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999).


Every person, regardless of job, level, training, or background, has the potential to make new and better things happen through their ideas.  Whether ideas are for new and better products, manufacturing processes, marketing approaches, organization structures, people relationships, paperwork processing, janitorial work, or whatever, the potential exists for them to make tomorrow better than yesterday.  

Creativity in the Business World

Today, creativity is discussed as though it's synonymous with entrepreneurship and with high technology.  However, according to Peter Drucker, the majority of entrepreneurial discoveries are actually in low-tech fields.  Drucker further shows that many billion-dollar corporations are just as entrepreneurial, just as creative, as the small startups.

Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence told that 3M comes out with over 100 major new products each year. 3M adds at least one new division every 12 months.  And at least 25% of its sales come from products that didn't exist five years ago.

Kenichi Ohmae’s The Mind of the Strategist reported that, for a decade, Toyota held its work force at about 45,000.  Yet over this same period, it increased its production of automobiles 2.5-fold.  How did the company accomplish this?  It came from creativity; from an average of 20 improvement suggestions per employee per year.  These suggestions produced savings of $230 million a year.

These are examples of creativity in action; they are also examples of the cumulative effect of masses of creative happenings that fit together and build upon each other.

The Trigger Factor

Intermittent windshield wipers for automobiles were invented by a tinkerer.  Collectively, the major auto makers must have thousands of engineers on their payrolls, and it's probably safe to say that most of them drive cars and that they have driven in the rain.  Thus they must have experienced the exasperation of continually having to turn their windshield wipers on and off during a light rainfall. 

Not one of these "experts" saw this situation as a dissatisfier; to them it wasn't a trigger.  Herman Kahn once observed that experts often miss things because they are experts and, as a result, have ironclad perspectives that they cannot see beyond.  He referred to this phenomenon as "educated incapac­ity."

You are exposed to many of these same kinds of triggers, perhaps dozens of them, every day.  If you fail to notice them, or if you accept them as fleeting events, they will not be triggers.  If you pause, think, reflect, question them, you never can tell, one of them just might become a trigger.

Triggers for Creativity

Let's look at some of the triggers history has recorded.  While on vacation, Edwin Land took pictures of his daughter.  She asked why she couldn't see the results right then and there.  She wasn't happy with his response.  That got him thinking about overcoming his daughter's dissatisfaction.  Within an hour, in his mind, he had developed the concept of instant photography.

Art Fry sang in a church choir.  As many choir members did, he put slips of paper in his hymn book to mark each selection so he could find them quickly.  The only problem was the slips of paper often fell out.  Thus, his solution to the problem didn't always work.  Taking his dissatisfaction back to his job and applying some scrounging time and resources to it, he developed what became 3M's Post-it note pads.

Teflon wasn't invented, it was an accident.  However, its subsequent application to a myriad of products happened because a curious chemist didn't throw away the accident; he played with it to learn more about its properties.  He found better satisfactions that it could provide.

Whether it be creative application and better satisfactions, as in the case of Teflon, or creative discovery and overcoming dissatisfactions, as in the case of the Polaroid Land camera and Post-it note pads, the triggers were seem­ingly mundane happenings.  These exact same events probably happened to hundreds of other fathers and choir members and chemists.  The only difference is they were triggers to these three people, and events to be forgotten by the other hundreds.

The Definition of the Problem

It has often been said that "a problem correctly stated is half solved." Edward de Bono talks about a large office building where people were complaining about the length of time they had to wait for the elevators.  In looking at the problem as "How can we speed up the elevators?" the building's owners felt they were up against a brick wall of prohibitive costs.  They couldn't find an acceptable way out of the problem.  In a triumph of lateral thinking, it was suggested that mirrors be placed on the walls around the elevators.  Thus people would spend the time admiring or fixing themselves and would be oblivious to the wait.  It worked.

However, suppose the problem had originally been stated in terms of the True Choice: "How can we eliminate the complaints about the elevators?"  Speeding them up would have been an idea; mirrors might have been recognized as an idea, as well as mounting television sets on the wall, piping in news broadcasts, etc.  The problem was first looked at in terms of the need to create change in the performance of the product (the elevators) itself.  The problem was solved by creating change in how the product was perceived, by creating change in the product's environment.

Barriers to Creativity

One of the most important steps in developing your creative abilities is to first recognize and own up to the things that stand in the way of coming up with creative ideas.  The first and foremost of these barriers is your experience.  David Ogilvy made the case very bluntly when he said: "The majority of businessmen are incapable of original thought because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason."

Perhaps that's the reason why many breakthrough ideas are developed by people distant from the field in which the idea is created.  They aren't encumbered by experience in the field.  After all, Kenneth Olson, the founder of Digital Equipment, relied on his extensive experience in computers when he told attendees at the World Future Society's 1977 Convention: "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

The assumptions you make 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 directed--and constrained--their creative efforts.  However, the assumption was subsequently found to be way off base; the telephone company, Florists Telegraph Delivery, and the like were significant competition.

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

Your thinking patterns can be another barrier to creativity.  However, while thinking patterns can seriously inhibit creativity, you couldn't survive without them.  Like your experience, they can be both an asset and a liability.  The key lies in knowing when to depend on them and when to lock them in a closet.

If you're driving down a highway and you hear a siren, a stored thinking pattern immediately takes over.  It tells you to locate the source and, if it's in your line of travel, pull over to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle--or to receive your speeding ticket.

A fifth barrier to creativity is what's known as the right answer syndrome.  Unfortunately, this syndrome is locked into most people's brains shortly after they start school.  It's locked in because of the left-brained, get-the-right-answer construct of educational systems.  Most school systems are superior at turning out automatons who can memorize and parrot back the right answer; they are inferior at turning out people who can think and create.

The last barrier to creativity is fear of failure.  Failure is actually a great contributor to creativity; it's a tremendous learning tool.  Unfortunately, too many managers are graduates of the right-answer school and are oblivious to the value of failure.

Perhaps the epitome of this perspective was expressed by Thomas Edison.  When a friend suggested that Edison's attempts to develop an electric storage battery were obviously 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."

An Approach to Creativity

The path to creative ideas has three brightly-illuminated signs on it.  Their messages are:

            1.         Forget everything you know!  (the relationships)

            2.         Remember everything you know!  (the pieces)

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

The first step in attempting to create ideas is to destroy the familiarity, the relationships of everything you know about the problem.

Back in the 1940s before Edwin Land invented instant photography, every consumer knew 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 as its contact point.  Everybody was a prisoner of that familiarity, including Edwin Land, until he broke its shackles, until he let his mind destroy those relationships.

Once this act of destruction has been made to happen, you are left with a rich reservoir of bits and pieces of information, a vast storehouse of unconnected facts and fantasies, thoughts and ideas.  However, just like the words in a dictionary, they do nothing until they are selected and assembled to become a coherent sum.  The value possessed by these pieces is summed up by the late Nobel prize-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who said: "Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen--and thinking what nobody thought."

The final step is to look for new ways of assembling, for new relationships, among the pieces.  The value and simplicity of this step was succinctly described by Sir Joshua Reynolds:  "Invention is little more than new combinations of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory."

Edwin Land made a new combination of his images of a camera and a darkroom.  Art Fry saw a new connection between the adhesives technology possessed by his employer and his falling slips of paper.

In Summary

Here's a simple summation of the fundamental steps to developing your creative thinking capabilities:

              Recognize the triggers you're exposed to every day.

              Define the problem in terms of the True Choice.

              Recognize your barriers and overcome them.

              Forget everything you know (the relationships).

              Remember everything you know (the pieces).

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

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