Play, Playfulness, and Permission: When and why do we give ourselves a go-ahead to play?

 

Into the play . . . Source: cjuneau via Wikimedia Commons

Is playfulness available on demand?

Suppose that you have just been asked to engage in a small task of some sort – say making some toy animals out of Lego blocks for a new children’s window display in a hospital.  Imagine that you’ve been given several mixed assortments of six Lego bricks, and the coordinator of the display has also made an example of the sort of thing she has in mind:  perhaps a small duck.  She sets the sample toy in front of you, and then gives you some further instructions.

Imagine that she says to you,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do it in a non-playful manner. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels not playful at all.”

How would you feel? What thoughts, images, or feelings would come to mind as you set about making the requested Lego ducks?  Would you start to feel pressured and tense, a bit keyed up, narrowing your focus, giving yourself some “straight talk” about getting down to business (come on… let’s focus now!) or would you begin to wonder: What did she mean about being non-playful?  Am I supposed to be efficient here?  Does she want me to make lots of those same ducks?  Exactly the same?  Just copy them and get on with it?

Now imagine instead that there’s a second coordinator of the new window display.  She comes into the room, just as the first coordinator is leaving, and thinks that maybe you’ve not yet been given any guidance on what the task is.  So, not knowing what you’ve just been told, she walks across to you, smiling, and says,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do this as playfully as you can. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels playful and nothing but playful.”

Imagine that these were the only instructions you had received.  How would you feel?  What thoughts, memories, feelings would spring to mind?  How do you do something playfully? Can we simply be asked to take on a playful approach?

Is playfulness an “experiential stance” that can be called up on demand? 

Setting out to explore these questions, two researchers from Denmark asked 22 young adults to take part in precisely these playful versus nonplayful Lego duck-building exercises. Then, right after they finished making their Lego ducks, the researchers asked each participant to take part in an in-depth video recorded interview in which each duck-builder was asked to freely and fully describe what they had experienced as the exercise unfolded.

Looking through detailed transcriptions of the interviews, the researchers coded if – and also when – each participant spoke of different experiential aspects, such as their perceptions, or their actions, memories, feelings, or changes in the focus of their attention.

Most of the participants spoke about how they consciously asked themselves about the meaningof the task.  In the playful condition, many mentioned that the requirement to be playful meant that they were set free to do whatever they wanted to do.  They had time and space to creatively make something inspired by their own ideas and intuitions, rather than something that was already spelled out for them.

When they actually starting making the ducks, the participants in the playful condition often took a “let’s just mess about with this” sort of attitude, reminding themselves that “it’s not a competition,” fiddling with the pieces to see what might come about, and even sometimes making animals other than ducks. They spoke of how they liked the look and the soft satisfying sound the bricks as they firmly nestled into place, and of feelings of pleasure and surprise when they looked at what they’d made.

The stark opposite was true for the non-playful condition.  Now most participants reported feeling pressed and pressured.  They felt they were pressured by time – they had to be efficient, to work as quickly as possible, often just by repeatedly copying the prototype duck – and also by concerns about evaluation, worrying if they were they making what was expected, in “the right way,” and if they were being sufficiently systematic and focused. They were more likely to notice a feeling of tedium or boredom, of not being asked to use their imagination, and just needing to produce the toys in the same way, so there shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) be any surprises along the way.  They’d even admonish themselves, “Come on… make ducks!”

Overall, 19 of the 22 participants said they were successfully able to take on a playful stance when they were asked to do so.

It seemed that being prompted to play set in motion a positive cycle.  The cycle was kicked off with a feeling of freedom from specific constraints and goals. This brought into a play an exploratory, curious, and open-ended “look-and-see” interactive approach to the materials at hand.  This cycle was both accompanied by, and further activated by, positive feelings of sensory, aesthetic, and reflective pleasure.  In turn, there were feelings of autonomous and intrinsic motivation, that opened the way to unexpected and surprising outcomes.  The unexpected creative outcomes fostered expanding feelings of competence, which “looped back,” sparking further exploration and interactions.

So where does that leave us? It seems, in principle, possible to simply and directly ask ourselves to become more playful, spontaneous, and exploratory.  By prompting ourselves – and giving ourselves permission – we can creatively surprise ourselves.  We can draw upon an untapped resource of playfulness to prompt a self-reinforcing perception-action cycle of making-and-finding.

Intrinsic motivation can emerge from action.
Source: Figure 4.4 from Koutstaal & Binks (2015, p. 152), Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

To think about:

“Come on… make ducks!”

  • What voice in your own head is ordering you to just make ducks? Is it a voice that you’ve chosen for yourself?
  • Or is it an inner voice that just autocratically takes over, and automatically plays and re-plays itself at different times?
  • If the voice isn’t yours, or isn’t fully yours, or plays through your mind unbidden at times you wish it wouldn’t, how could you counter that voice?
  • What other voices could you imagine to give yourself the space – and the time and the permission – to be more playful?

 

References

Heimann, K. S., & Roepstorff, A. (2018).  How playfulness motivates: Putative looping effects of autonomy and surprise revealed by micro-phenomenological investigations.  Frontiers in Psychology, 9,Article 1704, 1–15.

Koutstaal, W. & Binks J (2015). Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

—> Also posted at “Our Innovating Minds” Psychology Today.

 

Are we hard-wired to be curious?

Source: Nilay pati via Wikimedia Commons

 

Resolving our curiosity is both something we’re willing to pay a cost for and that has a clear and understandable signature in the brain.

Curiosity has been said to be a form of intrinsically motivated search for information or knowledge. But how could we test this out?

What if you were shown a brief preview of an upcoming event, and you couldn’t in any way influence the outcome: would you be curious to know what happened? Would you be more curious if the preview was more ambiguous?

Five cognitive neuroscientists recently teamed up to tackle this question. The approach they used was at once surprisingly simple, and surprisingly elegant.

The preview image that the researchers used was a picture of a “lottery vase.” For example:

Source: W. Koutstaal based on van Lieshout et al, 2018

—> For more please see Wilma’s: “Why do you ask?”

 

What makes for good creative feedback?

Pliable Feedback?  Source: Tequask via Wikimedia Commons

 

We’ve all been there.  Imagine it with me now.  You’ve been working and thinking hard, and now that first version of your latest work or creative effort is done.  Now it’s time to put it out there to show it to your coworkers, or to your friends, or to the rest of your team.  It’s time for someone else to comment on your work, giving their impressions on what you’ve done.  It’s time to ask for feedback.

How does the process of asking for feedback on our drafts and our emergent ideas shape our creative process?  And what, exactly, makes for “good” feedback?

—> For more see: “Are You Using Open Questions as Springboards to Creativity?”

Chasing creativity in the workplace –– what’s ambiguity got to do with it?

Source: Loliloli via Wikimedia Commons

 

Creative ideas sometimes emerge because someone directly and explicitly asks us to come up with a new idea. It could be we’re asked to help solve a pesky problem, or to generate suggestions for how to make the most of a recently discovered opportunity. At other times, creative ideas have a more spontaneous birth –– they emerge impromptu and are freely volunteered, though no one explicitly called for them.

Creativity of the first “directly requested” kind reflects what a researcher, back in 2001, called “responsive creativity.” This occurs when people are directly challenged, required, or otherwise externally tasked with coming up with ideas to address the requirements of a situation. For example, an organized focus group or a planned brainstorming session would mostly lead to responsive creativity.

Creativity of the second kind reflects a more “proactive creativity.” This could be when suggestions for an innovative process or a new procedure are volunteered, from someone’s own internal initiative and observations, without any direct external prompting.

Two kinds of creativity — at work

Responsive and proactive creativity can strongly shape our own and our collective welfare, whether it be at home, at play, or at work. But what factors foster and fuel each of them?

—> For more, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post here: Ambiguity at Work: Friend, Foe, or a Bit of Both?

What helps us to recognize good novel ideas?

Source:Flickr: Smelling the Roses via Wikimedia Commons

 

Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why?

Read more at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201712/seeing-the-creative-value-in-new-good-idea-isnt-easy

What’s Your Innovation Mindset? Gaining new creative traction through changing how we think

Market vendors in Niamtougou, Togo
Source: Grete Howard via Wikimedia Commons

 

Are there different routes to learning how to be more innovative and entrepreneurial?  And, which might you expect would work best:

  1. teaching good business skills, such as accounting and marketing, or
  2. being taught to adopt an adaptively flexible, opportunity-seeking mindset?

To answer these questions, an international team of researchers from the U.S. World Bank and universities in Singapore and Germany compared the effects of two different multi-week training interventions on the business performance of some 1500 small business enterprises in Togo, West Africa.

—> For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post.

Where is your sweet spot for coming up with good creative ideas?

Finding your creativity sweet spot. Source: W. Koutstaal

 

Imagine that you have just been invited to take part in an online experiment in which you will be asked to generate as many creative ideas as possible.

Imagine, too, that you are given the opportunity to first read the instructions for the creative challenge you will be set, and that you can choose between one of two sets of instructions, A or B.

Both versions outline your responsibilities.  Version A says you’ll be asked to take part in “an idea-generating task involving various commonly found household items” such as “a 14-inch nonstick-cooking pan or wooden door stoppers.”  Version B is slightly more general, saying that you’ll be asked to take part in “an idea-generating task involving household items” such as “cooking pans and door stoppers.”

You are also told that exactly 25% of the responses will be reviewed (Version A) or, instead, that some –– no percentage specified –– will be reviewed (Version B).  Additionally, you are told “You will receive your compensation within 48 hours of completing this task, in your PayPal account” (Version A) or “You will receive your compensation within 2 days” (Version B).

Which of the two versions of the instructions do you prefer:  Version A or Version B?  Do you think you’d be likely to come up with more creative ideas if given Version A or if given Version B?  Why?

On testing it out see: “Finding and Making Sweet Spots in your Creative Process.”

 

How’s your robot feeling today?

Two poses of the robot Nao.

 

Soon social and assistive robots will become ever more a part of our lives. They could be in our homes, our hospitals, and our schools, helping us with childcare, elderly care, in rehabilitation from injury or disease, and as social and assistive aids in all sorts of capacities.

But how much do we know about the psychology of our interactions with robots? What should any one social or assistive robot look like? How should it move and react to us –– and to what sorts of information? Should it appear to show “emotions” and be responsive to our own emotions? How much like a person should an assistive robot be? How innovative can we be in designing robots to be responsive assistants and sure supports including in times of stress or in tension-fraught situations?

Let’s take a look at two different recent research studies that explore how we understand and respond to expressions of emotion in robots. . . .

—> See: How do we Read Emotions in Robots: Of social robots, innovation spaces, and creatively finding things out.

Are inquiring minds creative minds? Does curiosity catalyze creativity?

Source:Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons

 

We all have likely seen them, at one time or another:  the job advertisements calling for curiosity as part of the desired “package of qualities” of the successful applicant.  The ways in which curiosity is described might differ.  But the message is much the same:  what is needed is (choose the one that most resonates with your past encounters) –– a passion for learning; a thirst for knowledge; an inquiring mind; hands-on curiosity –– paired with innovative and creative thinking, and an ability to think “outside the box.”

The connection between curiosity and creativity seems so clear and obvious, that we scarcely notice that these two different qualities have been linked together.  But what is the empirical evidence for their association?  How closely connected are they, really?  And, if they are associated, what is the direction of their connection:  Does curiosity fuel creativity?  Or does having a creative cast of mind catalyze curiosity?

Despite our intuitive sense that there should be a strong association between curiosity and creativity, only recently has the nature of the connection between them begun to be systematically probed.

For more see: Creativity –– What’s Curiosity Got to Do with It?

Making creative headway through attentive looking

Source: smerikal via Wikimedia Commons

Suppose you are searching for a new approach to a pesky but important creative problem.  You’re casting about for any sort of hint, or even the whisper of a hint, as to what you might do.

Scrounging about on the internet one morning you come across an unfamiliar but somehow arresting abstract line-drawing.  Intently looking at the strange drawing, and not even sure of what the image means, you suddenly decide to copy it.  With pencil in hand, you set to work, looking up and back at the unfamiliar drawing again and again, trying your best to faithfully and accurately reproduce the image on the sketching paper in front of you.

Would this intense copying exercise help you with your creative problem?  Or would it, instead, get in the way, obstructing you from making any creative headway?  Could copying an unfamiliar drawing help your own subsequent creative generation?  Or might it, instead, dampen your creative insight and expressiveness?

Tackling just this question, two researchers at the University of Tokyo recently found that copying an unfamiliar art work significantly enhanced the subsequent independent creative drawing of participants.

—> For more see: Speeding Up Your Creativity by Slowing Down: How to use examples for creative inspiration

Hang in there! Creative persistence pays off big!

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

How do you feel during those moments when you are being most creative?  Do you confidently and surely know, in the moment, that creative ideas are emerging and forming in your mind?  Is there a smooth, easy, and ready flow of your ideas?  Or is your creative process rather more bumpy and uneven?  Is it more akin to moving –– in small stuttering spurts and starts –– down a pot-hole filled country lane than to gracefully gliding along in a canoe?

What are your assumptions about how the creative idea generation process “should” feel?  How do you know if you should persist in your search for inspiration, or if you’d best turn your mind and efforts to other things?

For recent recent research seeking to answer these questions, see WK’s Psychology Today post, “The Under-Recognized Inspirational Value of Persistence.”

What helps us as inspiration seekers?

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikipedia

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia

Notice the intense look of quietly attentive search on the upturned faces of the boy and of the man in the photo above.  What are they looking for?  Do they know — exactly — what they are attempting to see, or to learn?  Or are they — at least in part — discovering what it is that they are seeking through their looking itself?

Searching for information, or seeking for ideas, can often be like this.  We may have a sense of the general direction in which we should be looking, yet not quite know exactly what it is we seek.

For more see —>  Seeking Idea Sparks: Understanding where and how we seek for inspiration.

When to detail step? Learning from young minds making things

Source: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

 

At any time that we’re making something, there are the big picture goals of where we’re trying to get to and the smaller detailed “how-tos” of actually getting there.

But if we’re helping someone who is creatively learning, which of these (larger goals or how-to details?) should we emphasize? And how much should we directly spell out? What sorts of things might people best learn in the thick of action itself — based on their own observations or noticings of what helps them sidestep snags and stumbling blocks?

Here’s a compelling example of when to stand back and let incidental learning take the reins. It’s an excerpt from a blog post by Kartik Agaram about teaching computer programming to a young student:

“As the exercises he worked on became longer than a screen or two, though, he started noticing for himself that there was a problem: he was having a hard time explaining his solutions to me, or getting help when he got stuck. I’d often ask, “where is the matching counterpart to this bracket?” Or, “where does this loop begin?” Often he wouldn’t know either, and more than once figuring out the answer would also help figure out why his program wasn’t working. One fine day last week I showed up to a lesson and found him imitating my indentation.

I continued to ignore this and focus on the specific problem we were working on, but I’ve been finding myself increasingly reflecting on this one seemingly trivial evolution. Did the fact that he picked up indentation automatically suggest that it was in fact more important than I think? On reflection, I think the lesson is something else: my student magically managed to learn how to indent code, without learning a bunch of undesirable habits and heuristics:

That indentation is more than an incidental detail.

That good programming is about following a set of rules.

That aesthetics matter in code beyond the behavior being implemented.

Basically, my student now indents just like any other programmer (to the extent that anybody should care about it) but knows why he does so, the concrete benefit he derives from it. He is open to changing his habits in the face of changing circumstances. Most important, he doesn’t dwell overly on minor local details compared to the prize: understanding what this program does.”

To think about:

  • What are the parallels to “indentation rules” in your making universe?
  • How do you and your team foster and respond to incidental learning?
  • Are there ways for you to better structure your thinking/playing spaces to take advantage of affordances, and so sidestep things that get in the way?
  • How can you introduce more vicarious learning into your creative worlds?

Play, Newness, and You: How our environments help sustain – or squelch – innovation

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

What leads us to try new things? Although there are clear individual differences in our openness to novel experiences, an often overlooked factor that shapes –– and either propels or stalls ­­–– our readiness to explore and to innovate is our day-to-day environment. 

The powerful ways in which daily environments can shape responses to newness and innovative behavior are strikingly revealed in the contrasting behaviors of animals living in the wild compared to their zoo-living peers.

—> For more, and some questions for you to think about, see Wilma’s full Psychology Today blog post here.

Our ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction: ways to use — and not use — abstraction

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely via Wikimedia Commons

Lifting and moving 100-pound sacks of coffee beans is back-breaking work.  Repeatedly grasping, hoisting, and piling the sacks ­­— heavy and awkward with their shifting contents — is a significant health issue for workers.  How might the unloading of these and similar sorts of cargo be made automatic, and ease the burden on workers lugging such heavy loads?

Joining up with a colleague in an interdepartmental research center, researchers in civil and industrial engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy decided to take up this challenging problem.  Specifically, they set themselves the task of developing a “gripper” that could grasp coffee sacks made of a porous material (jute), ranging in weight from 50 pounds to 170 pounds.  The gripper needed to work quickly (grasping or releasing in less than 3 seconds), and without excessively tearing or damaging the jute material.

But the enterprising researchers weren’t just on the quest of a new gripper:  they were using this challenge to test-drive a new “creativity support” method they were developing.  Meant to help designers reach into unexplored idea territory, the multi-step method provides a structured guide for using abstraction and analogy to more effectively generate innovative design concepts.

—> For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post.

How You Think of Creativity Matters! — What are your creativity assumptions?

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

What sorts of moves are possible when catching a Frisbee?   And how might our beliefs about flexibility and improvisation limit what we see as attainable?

Beliefs are powerful shapers of who we are, and of the aims, small or big, that we strive to realize in our lives.

Some of our beliefs are familiar to us: they are clear, we know we have them, they come readily to mind, and are easily expressed. But not all of our beliefs are so familiar. Some of our beliefs have a more implicit existence. They are intricately interwoven with our experiences and what we have inferred or assumed, sometimes with little or no conscious awareness.

Where do our beliefs about creativity and the creative process reside on this continuum of explicit versus implicit beliefs? What do we hold to be true about how new insights and new ways of acting come to be? Do we think of creativity as something that is fixed and stable and “trait-like” — such that we either have it, or we don’t? Or do we see creativity as something that can be learned, developed, and improved with practice, guidance, or experience?

For more on creativity beliefs, including some research findings see Wilma’s July Psychology Today post.

Step this way — innovating with virtual reality

Sometimes the concepts of detail stepping and goal synergy can seem somewhat abstract. We thought we’d try to make them concrete through a recent example.

You’ve decided you’d like to check out and test drive the latest Cadillac. So you head to your local Cadillac dealer. Except, that when you get to the lot, there’s no car there and you’re asked to take a seat and don a virtual reality headset. The dealer walks you through virtual options as you vividly explore now one interior/exterior and now another.

So goes a new retail strategy soon to be rolled out in some Cadillac dealerships. Dealers will have the option of one of 5 levels of “reality”— spanning from fully real-world on the lot inventory to entirely virtual vehicles (except for test-drive and service-loaner cars).

This goal synergistic approach doesn’t undermine existing advantages of Cadillac’s many dealerships situated in larger towns and cities. There’s less need for excessive inventory management and logistics. Car buying becomes a more customized, flexible, individual experience, especially suitable to luxury brands.

To think about:

  • Something that seems like a roadblock—could it be a stepping stone?
  • Might you mix and match possibilities—blend the real and virtual where appropriate?
  • Why not pilot test—try out on a smaller scale first?
  • Can this invoke a mutually reinforcing innovation cycle where using virtual reality in one context spurs new innovations in virtual reality itself?

When to go with the tried & true and when to reach out for something new?

Our Innovating Minds Mar 1

Congratulations!  You’ve just won a prize: $2,000 to go on a weekend trip for two. There is a catch, though.  You need to decide where you want to go, and who would go with you, in just one hour.

A simple answer might be to travel to the place you went last year for a short time.  You know a perfect spot to stay, you know your way around well, and the scenery, climate, and the food were superb.

But wait!  This is an unprecedented opportunity for you to take a leap in a different, never-before-explored direction.  It beckons you with unexpected and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and sensations.

What to do?

Should we “dwell” or should we “roam”?

Even though you’ve never previously faced this particular — and imaginary — scenario, you’ve encountered many like it in different guises.  We face this dilemma all of the time.  We regularly have to “scout out” different options, within time and financial or other limits, choosing whether to delve more deeply into what we already know or instead to jump across into unfamiliar territory.

—>For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today post “When to go and when to stay: Creativity needs both ‘novel reachings’ and ‘wise repeatings.’

“Let’s find our own thing”

cafe

A recent interview with the award-winning chef and restaurateur Alex Roberts was rich in wisdom on the creative process. The long-time owner of Twin Cities-based Restaurant Alma and Brasa and the forthcoming Café Alma spoke with the Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson.

Here we interweave some of Alex Roberts’s thoughts (in bold italics) with a few of our own (in regular text).

“I’m trying to create a new definition of what a cafe is.”

A café is a category of possible things, and like all categories somewhat pliable. Categories aren’t completely rigid, so that’s our invitation to play with them and give them new slants of meaning. And the categories we use to think about objects, places, and events can go through cycles of re-envisioning and revisiting, based on meldings of other — real and imagined — times and places.

“. . . that’s one of my disciplines, to choose the thought that’s more about the possibility.”

Even though there’s nearly always a more conventional or negative interpretation available to us, we’re not compelled to choose that interpretation. We can choose to give optimism a place to grow and thrive.

“The relevancy and resiliency combination are maybe the biggest challenge for restaurants.”

How do restaurants stay relevant — across the entire day and throughout the year? And how do they, at the same time, maintain their resilience across setbacks, recessions, shifting demographics, or fluctuating trends? Staying both relevant and resilient is a large part of an organization’s so-called absorptive capacity.

Whether large or small, organizations need to be receptive to changes and emerging new knowledge and capabilities around them in order to stay relevant. By constantly learning, an organization stays resilient, bouncing back better from setbacks, and turning what would otherwise be liabilities into assets.

“To be honest, the constraints around the [small kitchen] space have forced us to be creative and collaborative to make it work.”

Constraints and creativity go hand in hand. Indeed, one group of neuroscientists recently defined creativity as “novel generation fitted to the constraints of a particular task.”

“The good stuff in life comes from between the lines. It’s about enjoying the process and not just the end result. That’s what we try to foster here, otherwise you’re always living in the future, and not in the moment.”

So wise! We can always ask “so what?” but very often much of the true meaning of our projects and endeavors is in the concrete doing and making itself.

“I was looking for inspiration, but I realized that I was losing this thread that was running through me. That is, my own vision. For better, or worse. So I started sitting down with a blank piece of paper — or an old menu, since they reflect our past — and try to create from there.”

What’s being described here is, in part, what the pioneering dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.” Others call it searching or scouting. Whichever term you prefer, it’s important to experiment to uncover those methods of search that best work for you — more often leading you to high caliber ideas.

Turning to an old printed menu or two from the restaurant, is also, in part, what we in Innovating Minds call “wise repeating.” The best ideas are not always completely new but can be variations on, or contain traces of, your own earlier tried and true ideas.

“I’m trying not to be so inward that I’m stuck in my own world, but you want to have this authentic process. Let’s find our own thing.”

Yes, yes, “let’s find our own thing” and our own “authentic process(es)” for getting there. . . .

 

Salt and sharing

Situated on the Lower Manhattan waterfront, near Hudson River Park, the new Spring Street Salt Shed can hold up to 5,000 tons of de-icing road salt.

But it’s no ordinary “shed.”

Taking inspiration from the crystalline form of salt itself, the 69-foot tall building evokes other analogies. As David W. Dunlap of The New York Times describes it: “Folded, creased, dimpled and chamfered, its windowless, enigmatic facade is like a monumental work of origami.”

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

And it doesn’t stand alone.

Partnered with a five-story, 425,000-square-foot New York City Department of Sanitation garage, also designed by Dattner Architects with WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the two buildings share more than proximity.

The buildings share a palpable sense of responsibility for their role in their neighborhoods. Let us count (some of) the ways:

  • the garage has a sound-blocking curtain wall for noise reduction
  • to stay in tune with surrounding buildings, the garage’s height was kept low, retaining the character of the neighborhood
  • topped with a “green roof” the LEED-certified garage offers, along with energy and environmental benefits, visual pleasure for those who overlook it from nearby buildings
  • along the street, the Salt Shed’s walls gently taper in, providing ample pedestrian space
  • inside, too, there’s consideration for multiple stakeholders as the garage includes a gym for employees and a central staircase invites them to opt to take the stairs rather than energy-intensive elevators (it’s part of the NYC Active Design program)
  • from a broader perspective, the integration of important utility buildings throughout the city reduces undue burdens on any one area, while also minimizing vehicle miles, with corresponding improvements in air quality

Similarly, how could your next creative project synergistically incorporate the values of “sharing” across a range of dimensions and constraints: aesthetics, sustainability, health and well-being, efficiency, collective responsibility and “neighborliness”? . . .

Creative change in a century-old company: A video case study

We invite you to watch an insightful 60-minute video of Stanford professor Haim Mendelson talking with Dr. Leonard Lane of the Fung Group. The Fung Group traces its origins back more than 100 years, and has successfully embraced changes of many shapes and kinds.

As you listen to their conversation on business model innovations across time, consider how these three concepts might work in tandem:

(1) Aims in view/goal tuning (Innovating Minds, pages 212 – 231).

How does the Fung Group’s three-year (non-rolling) plan allow for a longer-term view and provide for crucial “temporal slack,” with room to experiment and gather feedback?

(2) Motivating exploration and purposefully learning to vary (Innovating Minds, pages 146 – 159).

How does the Fung Group’s new “Explorium” facilitate prototyping and making/finding?

(3) Absorptive capacity (Innovating Minds, pages 181 – 188).

How does the Fung Group’s “70/30 rule” have implications for learning, experimentation, and how they extend what they know—and can do?

Keep Moving . . .

Asked to conjure up a mental image of someone who is thinking, many of us will envision a seated figure.  Perhaps we imagine something like Auguste Rodin’s famous statue of “The Thinker” — he leans over, resting his chin on his hand, still, silently lost in thought.

But opposing this sedentary image there may be other images or recollections that come to mind instead.  Prompted by our associations, we may bring to mind, instead, the prodigious walking habits of such diverse thinker/creators as Charles Darwin, Ludwig van Beethoven, or more recently, the intense walking-meetings of the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs.

. . . For more on “tracking down how and why physical activity boosts creative thinking” see Wilma’s Psychology Today post here.

Guinness beer, “absorptive capacity,” and innovation

In its everyday sense, to absorb something refers to our ability to take it in or soak it up or learn it well. But how do organizations absorb new knowledge or skills?

In Innovating Minds (p. 183), we explore what has been called the “absorptive capacity” of an organization. Absorptive capacity refers to:

“the ways in which teams and organizations evaluate, receive, and integrate new ‘external knowledge.’ [It] depends on their dynamic ability to recognize the value of new external information, assimilate it, and apply it. This capacity of an organization to productively absorb new information . . . applies not only to concepts but also to skills and meta-skills or ‘skills of skills,’ such as learning to learn. Appreciating the potential value of new information is something that may not come easily or automatically and needs to be fostered.”

So what’s this all got to do with Guinness beer and innovation?

Let’s travel back in time—to October 1899—in Dublin Ireland. The Guinness Brewery has just hired the young William Gosset, fresh out of New College, Oxford. Gosset’s stellar academic performance in math and chemistry has brought him to the attention of the company and he is recruited as a junior brewer. He will be joining four other recent recruits—all selected to spearhead a newly launched “scientific” approach to brewing.

Gossett soon is confronted with the very practical problem of what to make of the results of their many experiments with samples of malt and hops and plots of barley. Because of financial and other constraints, all of their experiments are based on very small sample sizes. It’s difficult to reach firm conclusions with such small samples because the numbers bounce around so much from one sample to the next.

He begins to see that standard practices won’t work and writes an internal company report suggesting a way forward. The report is well received.

But he and the company’s leadership realize that they need greater expertise and exposure to the very latest statistical methodology—that is only available outside the company. With this in mind, the company grants Gosset a one-year leave to go to England to study at University College London (UCL) with the pioneering statistician Karl Pearson.

Once at UCL, and working collaboratively with Pearson, Gosset recognizes that his small sample problems will require their own unique approach. This heralds the development of foundational insights that allow sound inferences to be drawn even from small sample sizes and a publication leading to what is now known as Student’s t-test. (If you have ever encountered this statistical test to compare two means, “Student” is a pseudonym adopted by William Gosset—see below.)

The fact that the company directly encouraged Gosset to leave Dublin to acquire deeper knowledge underscores that the organization understood the value of purposefully “absorbing” new knowledge and meta-skills into their idea landscapes. The company realized it needed to reach beyond its considerable internal expertise to draw on the insights and novel methods of others—extending its absorptive capacity.

Gosset_paper_1908

—> For further background see:

Phillip J. Boland (2011). William Sealy Gosset — An Inspiring ‘Student’,’ Proceedings of the 58th World Statistical Congress (Session STS028), pages 2650-2655.

Cycling Change

According to a recent article in The Guardian, more than one-quarter of trips in the Netherlands are made by bicycle (this rises to 38% in Amsterdam) versus only 2% in the UK. Yet, this wasn’t always so in Holland, especially in the 1970s—how did such a change come about?

As we read the article, we learn that the change was driven and carried by both bottom up and top down factors. Parents in neighborhoods were galvanized into action by the large number of child injuries and deaths caused by the influx, increasing dominance, and unquestioned prerogative of car traffic. The introduction of car-free Sundays in Amsterdam (a form of experiential variation) concretely reminded residents of what it had been like before the reign of the car.

Some obstacles to promoting the use of bicycles on city streets were not as unbudgeable as expected (e.g., even early on there was police receptivity and cooperation). External events and circumstances also played along, including steeply rising gas prices during the 1970s energy crisis. There was, too, a prescient recognition of the cumulative adverse health effects of air pollution from automobiles.

City-wide experimentation yielded new insights and provided crucial data. A pioneer city in the Netherlands tested the idea of a single bike route coursing through the city. Disappointing results from this approach prompted another city to successfully explore a more varied and networked multiple set of bike paths.

Even once new bicycle paths and infrastructure for cyclists were successfully implemented, change called for other changes—how to find spaces to park so many bicycles, the need for wider lanes to accommodate the increased number of cyclists, etc.

Change takes many forms. Sometimes we edge forward, sometimes we leap forward and at other times we need to step back. As we observe in Innovating Minds (page 171), “Change in organizations [and society] may concurrently arise from multiple sources, ranging from the planned to the emergent and from the internally to the externally driven: ‘In most organizations, transformations will occur through a variety of logics.’ ”

—> The quotation on the many logics of change is found on page 67 of: Orlikowski, W. J. (1996). Improvising organizational transformation over time: A situated change perspective. Information Systems Research, 7, 63–92.

Dynamic brains & dynamic environments for creativity: How so?

Everyone today is telling us that we need to regularly “exercise” our brain. But what does mental exercise mean for creativity? When we regularly workout “mentally” what is really changing in our brain?

By mental exercise, we mean engaging in challenging activities that require us to pay close attention and learn new things and make novel, often subtle, distinctions between similar-appearing things. The distinctions could be sensory-perceptual, or about meaning, or about action. Our brains are continually learning and forming predictions based on the environments we choose and make for ourselves. Environments matter.

Our brain—in response to our environments—changes continually, in multiple ways, and across multiple timescales. Both the structure of the brain (that is, how it is built) and the function (that is, the ways it processes information) may change in the face of experience. At the structural level, stimulating mental exercise may lead to the formation of new synaptic connections between neurons (that is, changing “gray matter”). It may also lead to more efficient connections between neurons and neuronal ensembles at long distances through changing what is known as “white matter” or axons. Greater white and gray matter connectivity may enable us to process and understand information more quickly and efficiently.

In the longer-term, our increased active grappling with novelty might lead to the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in regions of the brain such as the hippocampus, important in memory and in making connections between our experiences. Challenging mental exercise may make it more likely that new neurons that are born throughout our lifespan actually survive and become meaningfully connected to our existing memory and experience networks. New, effortful, and successful learning is the ticket to the survival and integration of many newly generated neurons. This could allow us to develop an increasingly deeper and richer wellspring of knowledge to draw upon in our discoveries and problem solving.

We should also consider the conjoined benefits of mental with physical exercise. Putting the two together may yield benefits that are more than the sum of their parts.

So what works best? Particularly potent are activities that involve naturally occurring combinations of mental and physical actions and that call on fine-grained multimodal coordination in time and space, such as various forms of dance, theater, filmmaking, musical performance, or real-world making and shaping. Dislodging old unproductive habits, deliberately varying, and paying attention in the moment all help our brains to dynamically develop brand new neural connections. We should choose and nurture activities that offer us long-term challenges with ever-unfolding possibilities.

As we observe in Part 1 of our book, Innovating Minds:

“We cannot understand creativity, or identify potential barriers to the generation of novel and innovative ideas and methods, if we isolate our mind or brain from our environments.  Our minds, brains, and environments are in perpetual interplay.  It is at their intersections that new ideas emerge and can be realized.”

 

–>For some empirical research on our dynamic brains and environments see:

Newly learning to juggle is a stimulus to brain plasticity. Juggling changes the brain’s gray matter. And juggling changes the brain’s white matter.

How stimulating environments “makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive.”

Learning to vary: An overlooked avenue to mental flexibility and innovation

It’s easy to repeat. But, we can also ask ourselves to not repeat––and reward ourselves for deliberately varying. Although little recognized, rewarding variability is a powerful shaper of creativity and innovation.

As we will see in Part 4 of our book Innovating Minds:

“Deliberately varying our actions helps to bring different sets of thoughts and procedures close together in time and space within our individual and group idea landscapes. This, in turn, allows us to combine and reconfigure aspects of ideas and ways of doing things to make novel combinations. . . . It is not always an entirely new approach that is needed. Sometimes “repeating with a difference” frees us to see new options.”

Whether shy or bold, lab animals that were rewarded for interacting in different ways with new objects later explored more widely. Trained dolphins, too, that were rewarded for varying showed newly emerging novel behaviors that had never before been seen in dolphins.

In our own creative endeavors we can also prompt ourselves to do things differently within constraints. Some questions we can ask:

How can we better learn to (appropriately) “reinforce variability” in ourselves, and in others?

How might we structure our physical, symbolic, and technological environments to better support “useful” experimentation and variation?

Do we too strongly emphasize minor variability in what we already know and do well, with mostly “known” but smaller rewards (sometimes called “exploitation”)? Do our attempts at minor variations come at the cost of more far-afield, novel, and bold exploration that is more risky and uncertain––but also potentially yields much larger rewards and creative breakthroughs?

What might be some of the cognitive processes that underlie the demonstrated benefits of reinforcing variability? That is: What’s being learned when variability is reinforced? What cognitive and perceptual processes (besides motivational ones) might contribute to the observed effects?

 

–>To further explore routes to greater creative/productive variability in behavior see:

Wilma Koutstaal (2012) The Agile Mind [Learning to vary versus learning to repeat, in chapter 5]  (New York, NY: Oxford University Press) pp. 220-233.

Patricia Stokes (2001). Variability, constraints, and creativity: Shedding light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist, 56 pp. 355-359.

Alison Weiss & Allen Neuringer (2012). Reinforced variability enhances object exploration in shy and bold rats. Physiology & Behavior, 107 pp. 451–457.

So what’s a robot for?

Most of us have encountered the notion of “functional fixedness” – our tendency to yoke a particular use or function on to objects. For example, we might assume that a spoon is for scooping or a chair is for sitting, but less readily recognize that a spoon might serve as a lever or a chair might act as a doorstop.

So what’s a robot for?

Cirque du Soleil, partnering with ETH Zurich’s Flying Machine Arena, sought to creatively call upon precision aerial robots as collaborative dance performers. They experimented with sundry semblances and scenarios but discovered that the quadrocopters truly came into their own as…. lampshades. The lampshades each can sport multicolor designs and textures, tassels and various appendages, and convincingly assume idiosyncratic roles and personalities.

In the words of the actor Nicolas Leresche, who fluidly interplayed with the flying machines:

“Actors think they are the ones who make objects move. I think that, on the contrary, it’s the objects that make us move. In the case of drones, even more so! They are companions (in an etymological sense), confrères, brothers.”

–> Here’s the quote and a video tracking parts of the team’s creative process.