As I See It: The Many Faces Of Creativity
November 12, 2012 Victor Rozek
One of the challenges of writing a bi-monthly column is continually coming up with interesting ideas. In the Internet age, it is humbling to discover that hundreds of writers have already explored a particular topic I believed was original. For that matter, just finding a fresh take on a subject like computing–which returns 375 million Google hits–is about as tricky as electing a third-party candidate. Which is why, I suppose, there is a truism among writers: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
Software development is a lot like writing, only it often requires mastery of multiple languages. And given the number of intellectual property lawsuits, it is safe to say there are a lot of “great” programmers out there.
Creative larceny, of course, was not invented with the Internet. The same quote, with slight variations, was purportedly uttered by such creative notables as Oscar Wilde, Picasso, and T.S. Eliot. Aaron Sorkin used the identical line in a West Wing episode. The implication is that pure creativity is as rare as a unicorn. It is swaddled in context, and fed by the collective imaginations of people who came before. No less a creative giant than Albert Einstein said: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
So much for the spontaneous insight, the grand idea, the light bulb igniting an otherwise dim mental landscape. Not that great ideas don’t sprout like crabgrass, they do. But at least according to Einstein–arguably responsible for one of the grandest ideas of all time–they spring from the compost left behind by prior thinkers.
People who study the creative process call it Analogical Thinking, “the transfer of an idea from one context to a new one.” That definition is provided courtesy of Dr. Gary Davis, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of the buoyantly-titled Creativity is Forever. Davis contends that Analogical Thinking accounts for about 80 percent of creative ideas, and is evident in every field of human endeavor.
“You may know,” says Davis, “that the U.S. national anthem, Star Spangled Banner, originated as an English drinking song.” Actually, I didn’t know that, but if the nation’s early elections even remotely resembled our own, it makes perfect sense. After months of vacuous speeches, infomercial debates, empty promises, and negative ad wars, heavy drinking may be the patriot’s only recourse.
Analogical Thinking (otherwise known as borrowing) has led to both artistic and industrial breakthroughs. Aaron Copeland ripped off the Quakers’ Simple Gifts to write his classic Appalachian Spring. “Gutenberg’s printing press was a combination of the stamper used for minting coins and a wine press.” Gutenberg might have agreed with Steve Jobs who said that “creativity is just connecting things.” But connecting things using other people’s software is another matter. As far as IT is concerned, intellectual property rights trump Analogical Thinking. In the recent Oracle v. Google wrestling match, Oracle alleged that when Google was creating Android, it copied more than 37 Java application programming interfaces and 11 lines of Java source code. And although the initial ruling favored Google, appeals may grind on until the second coming.
More elegant than improving on an existing idea is the ability to see with fresh eyes, to create new relationships where none existed before. Eli Whitney was inspired to invent the cotton gin “after watching a cat pluck at a chicken through a fence.” A pawful of feathers resembling a clump of cotton fibers was enough to inspire Whitney. He had the rare ability to look at what everyone else was seeing, and see something else entirely.
Davis notes that a creative burst can also be sparked by asking how nature solved a similar problem. Velcro was inspired by the spiney stick-to-your-clothes cocklebur. Pringles potato chips “were conceived via the analogy of wet leaves which stack compactly and do not destroy themselves.” OK, as innovations go, Pringles don’t stack up to, say, penicillin, but I guess you have to take your inspiration where you find it.
The very act of forming questions, argues Davis, turns Analogical Thinking into a conscious process and creativity into a less mysterious one. Useful inquiries include:
In fact, modification, in its many nuances, remains the classic innovators’ tool. Art Fry, for example, modified the little pieces of paper he used to mark selections in his hymn book because they kept falling out. The results are Post-its.
Seventy years ago, advertising executive Alex Osborn developed a checklist that is still used to kick-start creativity. The list relies entirely on modification. Looking at an existing product or service Osborn asks how can it be adapted to other uses? Can it be magnified (more features, more storage); or conversely, can it be miniaturized? Can components be added, or rearranged, or combined with other components to create new products?
But the most important question, according to William Altier, management consultant and president of Princeton Associates, is how a problem is defined. “A problem correctly stated is half solved,” says Altier. And conversely, a misstated problem will grow in cost and complexity. Altier uses the example of an office building whose workers complained about the slowness of the elevators. A reflexive framing of the problem would ask: “How can we make the elevators go faster?” But that was the wrong question, and answering it turned out to be prohibitively costly. A better question was: “How can we get people to quit complaining about the elevators?” That question had a surprisingly simple and inexpensive answer: install mirrors. Giving people something to do–gaze at themselves, adjust the tie, fluff the hair–sped up waiting time and complaints diminished.
The enemy of creativity, oddly enough, is experience. There are often more possibilities in the mind of a novice than the mind of an expert. Altier quotes Roger von Oech who observed: “As people grow older they become prisoners of familiarity.” The truth of that statement was memorably illustrated by Kenneth Olson, founder of midrange pioneer Digital Equipment Corp. His extensive familiarity with large systems led to his now-famous declaration: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” That was in 1977, about the same time novices Jobs and Wozniak were growing Apples in their garage.
Other creative buzz-kills are assumptions, judgments, and fear of failure. Assumptions are junior judgments, presumptions that go unexamined. Examples include: “Everyone wants to be part of this team.” “Quiet means uninterested.” “Americans will never elect a Black president (again).” But if assumptions can lead us in the wrong direction, judgments stop movement altogether. Valuable ideas routinely die from premature verdicts: “that will never work,” “we tried that before.” All creativity involves some risk. You won’t know if you’ll fall off the edge of the world until you sail past the horizon.
Like judgment, fear of making mistakes is also paralyzing, and it starts very early in our development. Altier notes that the entire school system is based on parroting back the “right” answer. Finding alternate answers is less valued and frequently penalized. But few innovators survive long without befriending failure.
Finally, no less an expert on corporate culture than Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon everyman Dilbert, observed: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Indeed, success can occasionally be snatched from the jaws of blunder. Coke was the result of a pharmacist trying to prepare a headache cure. Inkjet printers were invented by a Cannon engineer who rested his hot iron on his pen which promptly squirted ink. Pacemakers, microwaves, and potato chips were all discovered by mistake. Luckily for humankind, creativity, whether borrowed, sourced from nature, generated from obscure connections, or salvaged from unrelated failures, always finds a voice.
George Bernard Shaw thought that a life spent making mistakes was more honorable, and more useful, than a life spent doing nothing. Of course he never met the U.S. Congress. But on behalf of my fellow creative mistake makers, we’re sure glad to hear that.