Wednesday, 18 November 2015

How Creativity Actually Works Best, NOT Via "Every Idea is a Good Idea"!



What I came to understand, and I've seen it pop up over and over, no where more frustratingly than in science where, once a scientist feels she/he is onto something new/breakthrough, it becomes nearly impossible to shift them off of their band wagon [the 'multi-verse' and the pre-Big Bang 'infinitesimal point containing all matter and energy in the cosmos'  are my favourites with 'believers' in the former giving in to our complex human brain's tendency to conjure up titillating explanations for what is currently inexplicable (called 'religious beliefs' in non-scientific circles) and the latter being a similar error in allowing the elegance of mathematics to override common sense].  Like religious converts who shout "YOU'VE OFFENDED MY 'BELIEFS'!  YOU MUST DIE!" (okay, usually without the last bit ;-), these otherwise calm and level-headed scientists -- who otherwise do base their careers on rigorous scientific methodology -- suddenly become extremely heated, defensive and often just a tad irrational (hands clamped tightly over ears while humming loudly) when their 'pet theory' is challenged. 

[Interestingly, despite being two different worlds, what is similar in the individuals who become significant and well-recognized successes (personalities) in academia and new businesses (e.g. Carl Sagan & James Dyson, Richard Dawkins & Richard Branson, etc.) is that the KPI's (key performance indicators) that lead to success are very similar.  It is the same type of high-IQ, cross-specialty expertise/adaptability, articulate, failure-resilient, highly-focused, evangelists for unique-point-of-difference concepts, who tends to rise to the top in both fields.  In both worlds the individual must 'fall in love with' her/his pet theory/new product or service and 'own it' better than any competitor.  The notable differences between the two fields is that, in academia, the new business
requirements for a certain amount of luck, a cut-throat focus on profit and a fair degree of hyperactivity can be exchanged for a diligent, incremental approach to research, analytical thinking and the generation of published works.  Individuals with the OCD/ADHD traits I find most fascinating tend to find more latitude and opportunity in the world of new businesses than academia, but more on them later...]
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
Upton Sinclair, 1933

Oh, I get it.  When you have spent years working on something that your salary, grants and reputation depends upon, it's tough to allow any doubt in the form of well-reasoned criticism creep in and undermine everything you've worked on and now 'believe in,' but some research into the methodology of creativity by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, upon the value of criticism/dissent in the group creative process has demonstrated that what ACTUALLY produces the best results.  This research, used by Matthew Syed in the excerpt from his book (link below) removes the veil from the 'concept generation process' and reveals that the long-held, entrenched conviction we've had that the best way to generate the most creative ideas is to put lots of people from different disciplines/departments in a room (the more the better up to the point that the quantity becomes unmanageable) and 'stay positive!'  Not quite, as it turns out...
"In the 1940s, an advertising executive by the name of Alex Osborn came up with the technique of brainstorming following his frustration at the inability of employees to come up with innovative ideas for advertising campaigns.  His rules:
  1.  Put the emphasis on quantity of ideas (“quantity breeds quality”);
  2.  Hold back criticism or judgment;
  3.  Be open to bizarre/strange ideas;
  4.  Blend ideas to enhance them (1+1=3)."
Over and over again I've seen this time honoured methodology developed by Osborn produce results that suck.  Some of the best ideas I've ended up refining and elaborating upon were the ones that the 'Brainstorm Moderator' tossed aside as they hadn't spurred enough interest (votes) from the group.  These rough gemstones looked like one of the rocks in Charlie Brown's Halloween bag, but properly cleaned, cut and polished emerged from the trash heap as the biggest ideas ever.


So what's the problem with 'brainstorming -- every idea is a good idea' that makes it suck?  Ego.  Like the scientists and entrepreneurs (and religious fanatics) I touched upon above, once our human ego 'falls in love' with an idea, we find it very tough to let go of it.  Those initial campaign ideas might have been the very best the team could ever have come up with, but it wasn't just laziness or our human tendency to be parsimonious with our intellectual energy and 'move on' to another task once we find a solution we judge to be 'good enough' (called "cognitive miserliness" vs. "fully disjunctive reasoning"), I believe that ego presents a significant problem that needs to be muted if the best ideas are going to emerge during the creative/innovation process.

A basic problem of human nature (it evolved to give us resilience and fortitude in trying new things) is our tendency to reassure ourselves that whatever idea we've come up with is the right one.  This same tendency leads us to believe we are great at things we actually suck at (click to read: "Why You Think You're Wonderful").  In traditional brainstorming sessions we erect a significant barrier to rejecting ideas that suck ASAP when we don't allow criticism from the outset, and that is what Nemeth's research has proven to be the case.  Random groups that were encouraged to be critical (not mean-spirited, just realistic) versus 'staying positive' about all ideas were consistently the most creative at problem solving and generating viable ideas.

So often I felt we could have come up with better concepts than the one that the creative team had locked onto (again, ESPECIALLY so once they'd spent a lot of time mocking it up to look near-finished), but once their egos had become deeply vested, it was very tough to shake them off short of putting the concepts into testing (and having proven that 'their baby' was a dud in consumer research was akin to getting them through the death of their first born in order to start again).  A partial solution was to insist that they NEVER present any concepts to me in anything more elaborate than 'cocktail napkin sketch' form, AND that they showed me every idea they'd come up with, even the ones they'd immediately rejected/abandoned.  However the ego problem still rears its ugly head, and I believe this is the problem with brainstorming and it has become even more problematic with the new 'entitled generation' who have been assured since day one that all of their opinions and notions are sprinkled with fairy dust.

What I've witnessed, time and again, in brainstorming sessions where criticism is verboten, is that telltale 'smug look' that comes over the faces of many participants after they've come up with an idea they think is brilliant.  At that point many of them lose interest in the session.  Why?  Because they feel their brilliance has done its job and they're free to 'zone out' and think about things that matter to them more, like the work waiting on their desk or what they'll do after work.  Even for those who stay engaged, the fact that no criticism is allowed means that their bad ideas are still 'in play' despite having no legs.  Sure, they'll get voted on in the next democratic 'no outright criticism' phase, but often times this means that concepts that were never appropriately challenged and evolved get rejected out of hand.

This excerpt post from Syed's book makes a simple, but relatively revolutionary point about how to approach the process of creative concept generation.  It's well worth the read about Dyson's vacuum breakthrough and more:

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.


Note:  Dyson's name is on his company's  shingle because it was him, alone, who both was frustrated by the problem of standard vacuum cleaners bag blockage issue (worried about effective vacuuming in his mid-20's, no less!) AND kept this problem in the back of his mind, spinning now and then, over and over through possible and improbable solutions until seeing a cyclonic dust collector at a wood mill and making 1+1=3 (the "EUREKA!" moment).   In this age of "There's no 'I' in team!" it bears pointing out that most of the major innovations of the world have been made by very clever, usually obsessive-cumpulsive/ADHD individuals who study a wide and diverse network of interests and bring together 'threads' between previously unconnected things that others just don't see, even though after the fact everyone says it was so simple that they could have come up with it.

I believe that we are witnessing a similar confluence of aptitudes and predilections, a convergence of high or low end of various spectrums (see my article linked below regarding the labeling of personality types), in individuals who each bring the rest of us new insights into how we can better interpret fellow humans and enjoy the world we live in through new products and services.  These individuals show up in all aspects of our lives and, when you stop to think on it, are remarkably similar personalities and brain types.  The best comedians we all know are all near the highest end of the IQ (and "GI" - 'general intelligence') curve and are all hyper-active and obsessed with generating new material.  The so-called 'new atheists all share these traits (e.g. Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), as do the journalist/academic authors/bloggers like Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and so many others.  The same is true of the always hard-charging inventors of new business models and products/services like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, James Dyson and the multitude of others in the past and coming soon.

While these examples are famous, in large part, due to the fact they all also share the trait of wanting and/or being comfortable in the limelight, for each of them there are ten others who are just as OCD/ADHD and brilliant, but miss that extrovert/articulate/socially-engaging aptitude.  Too often I see brilliant individuals in businesses, many of whom are socially awkward and easily crushed, being largely ignored by their team members in favour of the 'natural leaders' (or the ever-crowing wannabes).  The challenge for management is to identify and empower/encourage these rough gemstones and let them, like the young Dyson, work on their own (Dan Pinks: "Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose") to generate breakthroughs.  Yes, it's nice to build a strong team and there's an emotional boost that comes after hosting a successful team-building work session, but at the end of the day, the biggest breakthroughs have always come from the very bright bulbs all on their own (though perhaps the brainstorming session helped to 'frame' the problem for them).  Be sure to be listening when they try to explain (they're not always good at simple explanations) what they've come up with.

"Labeling" is an Issue, not Just with Products, but People.

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