When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
– Paul, Corinthians, 13, verse 11-12
Part 1 – The creative process
When we think of creativity, we often think of scientific discoveries or works of art. But creativity is not only for artists and scientists. We need creativity to solve countless problems we encounter in our workplace and in daily life. In almost all situations, a creative mind brings better results.
Where do new ideas come from? One answer is that new ideas are just old ideas combined in new ways. A mobile phone is an old landline phone without the wire. A smart phone is a mobile phone with powerful computer functions.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is a creative masterpiece, but what makes it unique is the arrangement of the musical notes, not the individual notes that all composers know. An engine powered car is not much different in function or purpose from horse powered chariots from the time of the Roman empire. In some sense then, it is true that there is nothing new under the sun.
The observation that new ideas comes from old ones is of practical importance, because it tells us that creativity requires knowledge. Creativity does not happen without prior understanding of what existed before as our imagination depends on what we already know. If you know very little you can only recombine a few ideas to get new ones. When you know more, the combination of new ideas you can come up with increases exponentially.
We often forget that creative achievements are built on past successes by other people. It is not surprising that creative people are eager to learn and often read a lot of everything. I remember when I was a teenager, when I and my childhood friends competed to borrow all books we could in the high school library, read them and made quiz games for each other to answer during our breaks. Back in the 1970s this did not seem useful to our parents who preferred us to focus on studying what we were told by our teachers, but it has been immensely useful ever since that I over a period of some years read all I could find by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Dickens, Verne, Asimov, Van Vogt, Gibbon, Tolstoy, Tuchman, and so on.
This brings us to the important role of critical thinking and identifying the limits to a problem. Actual creative process involves trial and error. We might have to fail many times before we find the best solution. Good critical thinking enables us to learn from our mistakes and solve our problems more efficiently.
In business, a distinction is often made between a creative idea and an innovation. An idea becomes an innovation when it is implemented and brings about substantial commercial success or important other impact The crucial process of creating a practical impact also requires good critical thinking.
It is often said that critical thinking is bad for creativity because critical thinking kills off new ideas before they are fully developed. However this is a misconception. Critical thinking does not tell us to reject ideas before they are fully tested. Instead it helps the creative process by ideally introducing sound judgment.
Although there is no algorithm for generating new and useful ideas, there is actually much we can do to become more creative. Creative people are often diligent, disciplined and highly focused. Many have a daily work routine which they follow. The work ethic is motivated and sustained by a passion about their work.
Part 2 – Origins – Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction
in 1939, Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter published his book Business Cycles, which outlines a theory of the economic process of “creative destruction.” Schumpeter argues that entrepreneurs play a critical role in capitalist economies, stimulating business through financial investment and innovation. This creative activity destroys outmoded technologies and business practices.
Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) spent most of his career at Harvard University, where he theorized that capitalist economic systems depend on the creativity of entrepreneurs. He achieved prominence for his theories about the vital importance of the entrepreneur in business, emphasizing the entrepreneur’s role in stimulating investment and innovation, thereby causing “creative destruction.” Creative destruction occurs when innovation makes old ideas and technologies obsolete.
A variety of explanations have been offered for business cycles. Schumpeter related upswings in the business cycle to new inventions, which stimulate investment in capital-goods industries. Because new inventions develop unevenly, business conditions alternate between expansion and contraction, according to Schumpeter’s theory.
Part 3 – Implications for the modern business world
Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft, has said “You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them“.
Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple, has said about creative people: “They were able to connect experiences they have had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they have had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have. Unfortunately, that is too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry have not had very diverse experiences. They do not have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one has understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”
Most jobs in the modern world requires creativity in order to perform well. What if you find this difficult to achieve? Well, there are only two options then.
Work harder to avoid failure. Rather allow yourself to fail in private and learn from the mistakes so it is less likely for you to fail in public and look foolish. Learn from being brutally honest to yourself and listen to feedback from people you can trust, even if you do not like what they have to say.
Work smarter. Remember that a new idea is made up of old ideas combined in a new way. The simplest ways to do this is by adding, replacing or subtracting ideas, or combining old ideas in a new way. It is actually quite easy to do.
When we face a difficult problem, it is often useful to compare it to similar problems which we were able to solve earlier. Creativity is not always a matter of waiting for inspiration. it sometimes requires going through possible solutions patiently. The Nobel prize winner and physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) has even suggested that this is one way to become a genius.
You have to keep dozens of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius”!”
Please note that the search technique need not be a random process, trying out whatever pops into your mind one at a time. An efficient search process often involves a systematic classification of the different types of solutions, followed by an analysis of their features, so that a more efficient solution search strategy can be devised.
Some go further than others. For example, the consultants at McKinsey are experts on the problem-solving process, which begins with the use of structured frameworks to generate fact-based hypotheses followed by data gathering and analysis to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
For McKinsey, defining a hypothesis greatly speeds up the quest for a solution by sketching out a road map for research and analyses that will guide their work throughout the problem-solving process, all the way to the presentation of a solution.
Although McKinsey often uses the term fact-based to describe it, the McKinsey problem-solving process begins not with facts but with structure. Structure can refer to particular problem-solving frameworks or more generally to defining the boundaries of a problem and then breaking down the facts into its component elements.
However as the conclusions this process can reach are rigorously fact based, the process can lead to the current best practice, but it less often leads to what would be really useful for the client, new and creative results and solutions beyond best practice.
At Bearing we are careful to employ senior consultants in all our projects, who have the knowledge and experience to combine existing elements in new ways. Thus for us, when it comes to creativity in solving problems, generation of new ideas and careful analysis often go hand in hand in order to create innovative solutions for our clients.
This structured approach described in this section illustrates how we consultants often work. We thrive on encountering and solving our clients challenges by employing structure and methodology in the problem solving and implementation planning and execution processes.
For example, when experienced consultants help a client to plan a project, we first coach our client to carefully think through both the projects objectives and the desired effect of reaching the objectives. Then we look upon the constraints and clarify what it is we are not required to achieve and what dependencies we have outside the project. Thus we create the projects boundaries. Once this is done, planning deadlines, milestones, deliverables, requirement in resources and budget will all fit together as a routine optimization exercise.
To take another business example, to formulate an investment strategy, we can start with an overview o the different type of investment classes: real estate, commodities, equities, bonds, currency and so on. after deciding what to invest in, we can do a more detailed search within the selected classes to identify the best investment opportunities.
Part 4 – Perspectives
The perspective, or angle, we use to approach a challenge often has a profound effect on the kind of creative solution we come up with. This is why it is important to examine a problem from multiple perspectives. We get a more comprehensive picture and might come up with better ideas.
When we are dealing with challenges, sometimes what is needed is not an alternative solution but a different attitude. Here, a change of perspective can have a profound effect on the way we react emotionally to our challenges.
There is a saying that given the same glass of water, an optimist is someone who sees a glass that is half-full, whereas a pessimist grumbles that the glass is half-empty. When we are struggling with a challenge and there is nothing much more we can do, we feel better if we think about the positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Usually this helps us to be more creative and actually find solutions.
Part 5 – Why and when teams are better
The creative individual is not always the lone inventor. Many creative people were nurtured by supportive family or a mentor, or they might collaborate in teams with their colleagues, going beyond what they could create individually.
Developing a successful idea often requires teamwork from people with different areas of specialized knowledge. Promoting and managing group creativity is therefore an increasingly important task.
Unstructured brainstorming is unlikely to enhance creativity, although it may be useful when pooling peoples knowledge together for problem solving.
Organised teamwork which follows a structured process, as described above, and involves experienced people is often most effective to improve the creative results.
Part 6 – Personalities
Not only experience explains peoples creative behavior. It is also important to consider the influence of personalities. According to Tom Kelley of IDEO there are 10 different personas who in combination will help to bring innovation and creativity into the organization.
The theory of the ten personas was presented in Tom Kelley’s book The ten faces of innovation – IDEO´s Strategies for Beating the Devil´s Advocate & Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization (2005).
These ten personas can be be categorized into three groups; three learning personas, three organizing personas and four building personas. If you have all 10 personas on your side, you can drive creativity and build a unique culture of innovation.
Part 7 – The innovative company
How then, do the truths and experiences of creative individuals with complementary personas fit together? Would it be enough to assemble them in one company to develop innovation capabilities beyond their competition?
To make up a truly innovative company there is a need for a focused innovation strategy, a winning overall business strategy, deep customer insight, great talent, and the right set of capabilities to achieve successful execution.
More important than any of the individual elements, however, is the role played by corporate culture — the organization’s self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing — in tying them all together.
Yet according to the results of this year’s Global Innovation 1000 study, only about half of all companies say their corporate culture robustly supports their innovation strategy. Moreover, about the same proportion say their innovation strategy is inadequately aligned with their overall corporate strategy.
This disconnect is both a problem and an opportunity. More about this in following blog entries.