Fostering Creativity

Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions” And I find in most organizations people are running around spending sixty minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.”

~ Stephen Shapiro

What do scotch tape, sand paper, golf clubs, and smart phones have in common? That is the challenge I presented to you in the last post. Did you figure it out? No? Okay, if you really are keen to know, then you must read the book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. Oh, not up for more reading? Then follow along with me and I will explain a bit about how creativity works according to Mr. Lehrer.  While doing this I will also give you the answer to why these seemingly disconnected items are really connected and a bit about where the very ideas for them came from.

Last week I spoke about the need to stay focused, but this week I’m going to talk about why it might be good at times to be more “defocused.”  In the book Lehrer cites many studies done by psychologists at leading universities into the way the brain works. What was found is that those sparks of creativity happen most often after periods of intense focus and then when frustration ensues this is the moment when the left brain gets tired and the right brain takes over. He explains that this mental shift often works because the struggle forces us to try something new. “Because we feel frustrated, we start to look at problems from a new perspective. You’ll see people bolt up in their chair and their eyes go all wide….Sometimes, they even say “Aha!”  before they blurt out the answer.”  This is the time when our brain gets a bit “defocused” and shifts the activity to the other side, to explore a more unexpected set of associations.

In the book, Lehrer talks about the ability to make separate ideas coexist in the mind and that this is a crucial creative tool. It is termed “conceptual blending.” This act of recombination was a key to Gutenberg transforming his knowledge of the winepress into an idea for a printing machine, the Wright brothers’ knowledge of bicycles into inventing the airplane, and Dick Drew’s invention of masking tape from his knowledge of sand paper and low sticking factor glue.  Drew was not just a “one hit wonder” he went from being a sandpaper salesman to being a full-time researcher. From his interaction with a colleague who told him about a new packing material called cellophane he connected his knowledge of glue to create what we know today as Scotch tape.

This brings me to my challenge from last week, this process of conceptual blending has been repeated again and again at 3M (yes, Dee you were correct in part with your comment last week). The adhesive used in industrial-strength masking tape gave rise to sound-dampening panels used in Boeing aircraft. Those panels in turn gave rise to the adhesive foam used in golf clubs, and the concept of Scotch tape inspired another 3M engineer to invent the touch-screen technology used in smartphones. There are many more examples in the book, but this should give you enough to understand the importance of conceptual blending.

At 3M, this is taken so seriously that they regularly rotate engineers from division to division to keep the good ideas circulating. In the software development camp, the new “open cubicle” concept and SCRUM teams help foster interaction across disciplines. This is part of building an environment that encourages creativity and should also make conceptual blending possible. There are other interesting approaches that they take at 3M to foster creativity and I am thinking hard about how we might apply some of them in our Software Engineering organizations. These alone have made this book interesting reading. I just need to get past all of the drug induced inspiration of poets and the alcoholic haze of musical lyrics to pull out the creative environmental opportunities that might apply to our work environment.

As for setting up conditions to support creativity, research has shown that the color blue automatically triggers associations with the sky and the ocean bringing with it a mental relaxation that makes it easier to daydream and pay attention to insights where we are less focused on what is in front of us and more aware of the possibilities in our imaginations. Other research has shown that creativity at times is inspired by other people or in other words a collaborative process. I call this “getting together to paint the restrooms blue.” How many of us have had ideas spawned by casual interactions with others as we head to the restroom at work? Well I would suggest that if we had only one central bathroom location in the building that this would force these interactions and if we could paint all of our bathrooms blue, well that would be creative nirvana.

Please excuse the brevity of this post. I need to send an email to our facilities management to request closure of the upstairs restrooms and volunteer to paint the downstairs restroom blue. Do you think they will approve my request?

To read more from the author of Imagine, below is a link to Jonah Lehrer’s blog. http://bigthink.com/humanizing-technology/undisciplined-the-creative-insight-of-the-outsider?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=695f3944b5-The_Creative_Insight_of_the_Outsider5_4_2012&utm_medium=email

Here is link to an interesting post on problem solving with a reference to the Einstein quote. http://litemind.com/problem-definition/

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