Serious Creativity

October 4, 2011

One of my most profound and enjoyable memories was being taught by Edward De Bono.

Edward is regarded by many to be the leading authority in the world in the field of creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill. I first met Edward in Chicago in April 1993 when I became a certified Six Thinking Hats instructor. A year later I received my trainer certification in Lateral Thinking. When Edward visited Vancouver, a bunch of us would gather to have dinner with him and catch up on his latest exploits. On one occasion shown in the picture, we celebrated his birthday on a ship cursing the Vancouver harbour.

From his”>website:
Edward de Bono’s special contribution has been to take the mystical subject of creativity and, for the first time in history, to put the subject on a solid basis. He has shown that creativity was a necessary behaviour in a self-organising information system. His key book, ‘The Mechanism of Mind’ was published in 1969. In it he showed how the nerve networks in the brain formed asymmetric patterns as the basis of perception. The leading physicist in the world, Professor Murray Gell Mann, said of this book that it was ten years ahead of mathematicians dealing with chaos theory, non-linear and self-organising systems.

The Lateral Thinking course I taught was entitled “Serious Creativity”. The course begins with a brief introduction on how the brain works.

* The brain is not meant to be creative.
* In fact, the brain would be useless if it was designed to be creative.
* The excellence of the brain arises directly from its ability to make patterns, to use these patterns, and to reject deviations from these patterns.We have another word for these patterns: paradigms.
* It’s the brain’s ability to create and use patterns that distinguishes it from computers.

Imagine if the brain wanted to always create alternatives. Getting up in the morning and getting dressed would be extremely difficult and time consuming. If you have 11 items of clothing, which order do you put them on? There are 39 millions ways but only 5,237 are feasible or fashionable. Thank goodness the brain remembers what worked well in the past and can perform a repeatable process. We call them Habits.

Brain 101 continues with a short explanation of information systems.

* New information can be stored in an Passive or an Active system.
* A computer uses a Passive system because information stored on its hard drive doesn’t move around. It is indexed for fast retrieval and kept independent of other data bits.
* The brain uses an Active system. As new information arrives, it interacts with existing information and self-organizes into patterns.

To illustrate the above, envision a pan of green jelly (your brain.) Now pour some hot blue ink into the pan. What happens? The heat upon contact melts the jelly and forms a small stream of hot ink making its way down the pan. The ink disperses and finally stops when it the heat dissipates and a steady state condition is reached. The final result is a blue ink well surrounded by green jelly. Now pour hot red ink on a pristine area in the pan. Similar behaviour occurs and another ink well pattern is formed. The two wells may even end up connecting and forming one pool of mixed coloured ink.
The equivalent for an Active system would be pouring ink on a blotter. The ink would spread a little as it is absorbed but basically remain where it initially made contact on the surface. If other blotches are added, there is little or no blending of ink.
As hot ink is poured, it flows in one direction as per the law of gravity. This is the concept of Asymmetry de Bono wrote about in his book. We call the brain’s ability to look in one direction: Foresight. And in extreme cases: Tunnel Vision.

If the brain is so entrenched with patterns, how does one generate new ideas?

* To discover new ideas, we need a way to move out of these main tracks or habits
* Brainstorming is a weak attempt to force one off a main track onto a “side track” to discover new ideas.
* We need a stronger, more deliberate method to move sideways or “laterally” (this is why we call it Lateral Thinking).
* The method involves introducing a stimulant, a provocation, to shake things up and force us out of a main track.
* Once free, the mind wanders around until it finds another track. If this particular side track is connected to another main track (i.e., meeting up with another ink well), a new idea is created.

Once discovered, this new idea typically makes a whole lot of sense. When people exclaim: “How come we couldn’t see that before?”, you can now tell them. It’s due to the brain forming asymmetrical patterns.
We call the ability to look in other directions: Creativity. When we later look at the newly formed connections that make sense: Hindsight.
Humour demonstrates perfectly how the brain works. Last week I presented the following joke:
Question: What is a paradigm worth?
Answer: 20 cents

Did you get it? If yes, good for you! Your mind was able to escape a main track, wander around until it found another track that contained the information “a pair of dimes = 20 cents”. A connection was made between “paradigm” and “pair of dimes” and you smiled (or groaned) because it made cents, err, sense (hah! that’s another double meaning joke).

Humour comes in different flavours but as all great comedians know, they all work on the same brain principles. Here’s one more from Steven Wright : Last week my buddy said he heading off to visit a friend who lived in a cul-de-sac with a one- way street. I haven’t seen him since…

What does all this mean to CE practitioners? What are some implications and ensuing strategies and tactics? Here are a few from me and perhaps you can add more.

Choosing Safe-fail experiment probes
In the Complex Domain, we probe, sense, and respond. It’s paramount that a probe be strong enough to shake up the brain patterns of the people who work or play in the system being explored. We literally want people’s minds to start wandering, finding sides tracks and making new connections outwardly displayed as different behaviours. I personally like probes that appear to be “off the wall” or have a good chance of failing. In the Serious Creativity course, we call these Provocations and offer several types. My favourite is the Reverse Provocation. For example, we decide when it’s time to service a piece of equipment. A Reserve Provocation is: the piece of equipment tells us when it’s time for maintenance. Some solutions that have emanated are Reliability-based maintenance (vs Time-based), RFIDs, smart devices.

Let the system find solutions for the intractable problem
Why rely on the brain patterns of a few when we can leverage everyone in the system? It’s the Wisdom of crowds again – increasing the number of main tracks available to find a solution. Empowering people. Unleashing talent. Leaders doing more with less.

Collecting stories
Those who have facilitated or participated in an Anecdotal Circle know how hearing a story prompts a listener to tell another story: “That reminds me of the time when…” This is the Active information system at work.
We also want each story to stand on its own as a data fragment; that is, we also need a Passive system to store stories. A well-constructed metadata form attempts to fulfil that need.

Increasing Tracks in your Brain
If you didn’t get the paradigm joke initially, it’s because your brain couldn’t find the track with the 20 cents information. Hindsight says the track was there; you just couldn’t locate it quickly.
Reading is exercise for the brain. Question: What is the current book you are reading? Is it something outside your regular field of study or expertise? If not, I suggest it should be in order to build more patterns in your brain and increase your ability to make connections. There are many innovation examples where an existing idea in one industry applied in a different industry has lead to a significant paradigm shift. When a risk-adverse utility company initiates a customer service “best practices” investigation, I urge them to put a non-utility organization like Nordstrom’s or the Fairmont Hotel on their list of visits.

The Importance of Focus
When you’re not focusing on and actively thinking about the specific problem, chances are you will miss the big opportunity when a stimulant comes along. The thing is, you never know when a stimulant pops up. There’s a famous story about Henry Ford. What kept him awake at night was how could he increase the production of cars to meet the rising demand. His unexpected stimulant came from visiting a local abattoir. If he hadn’t been thinking about building cars faster and cheaper, he would have missed connecting the slaughterhouse assembly line process with his manufacturing operations. His brain was able to reverse the process and challenge: What if I put together a car the same away the butchers are taking apart a cow? This was his “ah hah!” moment and he implemented the Division of Labour paradigm to the emerging automative industry.

I’ll end today’s posting with a few quotes from Edward:

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”
“Removing the faults in a stage-coach may produce a perfect stage-coach, but it is unlikely to produce the first motor car.”
“Most executives, many scientists, and almost all business school graduates believe that if you analyze data, this will give you new ideas. Unfortunately, this belief is totally wrong. The mind can only see what it is prepared to see.”
“The notion that information is enough, that more-and-more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information – gets very dangerous.”
“Social media causes laziness – that we just feel we’ll just get more information and we don’t need to have ideas ourselves – we’ll get ideas from someone else, we don’t need to look at the data we’ll just see what someone else has said and so on.”

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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