#529  Innovative Leader   Volume 10, Number 5          May 2001

Missed Opportunities Right Under Our Noses
by Peter de Jager

Mr. de Jager, from Brampton, Ontario, consults and speaks on change and creativity.  He can be reached by phone 905-792-8706 or pdejager@technobility.com; website www.technobility.com.

It's never a question of whether or not we can teach creativity. It's much more: whether or not we can reinforce the habit of seizing creative opportunities as they present themselves.

I deliberately used the word 'reinforce' rather than 'create.' I don't believe people are non-creative. Creativity is always there within us, but it is well hidden, even suppressed. The 'teaching' of Creativity, therefore, becomes a process of awakening people to that which sleeps within.

Each opportunity to present a workshop on creativity becomes an exploration, not of teaching, but in how people act upon their unsummoned ideas. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to bring the full classroom experience into an article, we'll see what happens in the next few paragraphs.

Game Playing

Each class starts out the same. I arrive early and set out my supplies and props. Flip charts, huge thick markers, this and that, and a pile of paraphernalia all heaped on my desk at the front. This done, I then crisscross the room, placing paper, pens on everyone's desk.  I also place on each desk a thin 7-inch rusty piece of springy metal with one end upturned and obviously broken off.

Thus prepared, I wait for the rush to coffee, before they take their seats.

One of the exercises involves the playing of an unfamiliar game with the numbers 1 through 9, and devising a strategy which will guarantee a win, or a draw, for the first player. They're given about 30 minutes for this, and while they're working on the problem, I'm wandering around the room, listening in on their deliberations and taking notes.

From time to time, someone says, "This is just like tic-tac-toe!" which elicits nods in agreement.

When the time is up, we do a post mortem on their discussions. The key learning I attempt to bring out of this exercise, is the following. In the vast majority of groups, from one workshop to another, someone mentions to their teammates that there is a connection between what they're attempting to do, and the well-known game of tic-tac-toe. Nearly 100% of the participants will confirm that even if they didn't voice their recognition of the 'pattern,' they did think about it.

Here is what is disappointing. Very, very seldom, (less than 1 in 200 participants) does anyone act upon their hunch. If they did, they would quickly arrive at a simple mapping of the exercise onto the game of tic-tac-toe. Their 'hunch' is giving them the solution, if only they'd pay attention.

There are two things going on here. First, 'the hunch' is generated by the subconscious recognition of a pattern. The 'pattern' of exchanges when playing with the number game is exactly like the exchanges when playing the game of tic-tac-toe. There is a repetition of phrases similar to "if my opponent does this, then I must do this. So to block her, I must do this first." These phrases are the same as those generated by the strategic thinking in tic-tac-toe. This recognition results in the observation, "This is like tic-tac-toe!"

Where we fail, is that we don't follow up on the "Aha!" We don't ask the question "How can I use this similarity?" The creativity is there in the form of the hunch, but we ignore it.

What’s This?

The rest of the day is taken up with other exercises. As the day ends, I ask, if there are any more questions before we pack up. There may be some questions, but rarely the one I'm hoping for. Asking one last time, I wait a few minutes. Then I ask them a question... I hold up that object I placed on their desk, and ask them if they're curious as to what it is.  All of them usually indicate some level of curiosity. I then declare they've all failed the workshop.

Throughout the entire day, they've been playing with this 'thing' I placed on their desk before they arrived. They've been bending it, twirling it in their fingers, puzzling over it, looking at other people's desks to see if they also got one, but never asking out loud, "What is this?"

Why? Why don't we ask these questions? For many reasons. We assume that the answer isn't important. We assume that if it were important, someone would tell us. We assume that it's there for a good reason, even if that reason is unknown to us. We assume that such a question would come under the heading of “stupid” questions.

This focus on the 'Lost Question' isn't a big thing. It doesn't take a huge amount of effort, certainly no great expense, to start creating an environment that encourages the asking of questions. Especially of the obvious. The payback could be huge.

P.S. The object is the bristle of a motorized street sweeper. I can find 10-20 of these in about a 10-minute walk in any city.

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