Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why?
Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why?
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?
Sometimes in trying to understand creativity and emotion we draw hard and fast rules. We are quick to see the potential of positive moods for creativity and for helping us see the big picture. But we underplay the role of negative moods — seeing them as leading us to narrowly focus on the trees, and miss the forest.
Can it be that the human mind, and the human mind when it meets with the messy complexities of emotion, is altogether that simple and tidy? What might happen if (for whatever reason) our thinking processes were predominantly detail-focused and our mood was quite positive? Or if our thinking processes were broad and abstract but our mood was somewhat sad?
—> For more, check out our latest Psychology Today post: “When Emotion Meets Thinking.”
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.
Asked where does thinking take place, maybe we’d answer “in our heads” –– within the internal reaches of our minds.
But is this the full and true story? Or does it perhaps give too much credit to our mental prowess and powers? And too little acknowledgment of the many sorts of concrete support that our thinking gets from our physical environment and our ability to physically move and tinker with things?
Does thinking depend not just on how we play with ideas, or thoughts, but also on how we interplay with physical objects — concrete tangible things — existing out there in the world?
What pacing best allows your creative process the space and freedom it needs?
What is the pace of your creative projects? When starting a new project, do you dive in right from the start, intensively working on it? Is there a steep climb in your efforts followed by a lull, during which you direct your efforts elsewhere? Then is it back uphill again as the next project milestone approaches? Or do you take a slow-but-steady approach, regularly working on the project until it’s done and the deadline arrives?
What might be some of the benefits of an intense start, followed by a lull, when working on a creative project?
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 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.
All of us have deadlines and limitations on how much money, time, and other resources we have for our creative projects.
We can see these constraints as irksome or anxiety provoking, and this they sometimes are! But is this our only option?
In the words of musician Joe Henry: “You don’t have endless resources and endless time. I don’t see that as an obstruction. Instead, I see it as something else that’s guiding us.”
Sometimes what we see as blocking our way can be just what we need to creatively guide us forward. . .
For how constraints can be both guides and goads, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: Corner Flags, Constraints, and Creativity.
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. . . .
Beginnings are tough. But if we’d only get started, our marks and words on the page can bootstrap our next moves. Marks and words on the page feed what in neuroscience is called our brain’s “perception-action” cycle. Through this biologically fundamental mechanism, we repeatedly act on the world, and then look to see what our actions have wrought in the world. The world talks back to us, telling us how close we are, or how far we are, from what we’d hoped to achieve (our goals).
Once the words are on the page or on the screen, they’re physical objects (out there in the environment) that we can see and move. Now we’ve embarked on a three-way conversation of mind-brain-environment. We’re in a making-finding cycle, in which we are partnered with the world, rather than being isolated in our own head.
Continue reading WK’s OUP blog post for the 7 pointers here
How can we creatively enhance our musical experiences? Are there ways we can make spaces for more intimate close listening—benefiting both performers and audiences?
One new worldwide movement is known as Sofar (Songs From A Room) Sounds. Originating about 5 years ago in London, Sofar Sounds describes their intimate living room concerts like this:
“We ask that 100% of your attention is given to the music. That means no talking/texting during the performances. We strive to create an environment where music is respected. Come on time and stay until the end.”
Here is how singer-songwriter Kate Davis tells it:
“I’ve had qualms with ‘performances’ before, within many genre types. Sometimes performances can be circus-y. Calculated. Emotionally reserved. Perhaps even a situation where the audience feels alienated. . . . However, my main intention is to communicate, share my art, and offer some kind of message. . . . With an experience like Sofar Sounds, the opportunities for sharing and communication are endless. You sit right in front of someone who is listening to your every word, feeling your every harmonic move, and thus truly committing themselves to your musical moment.”
And then, taking a slightly different approach, there’s The Bugle Boy with its 80-seat listening room, in La Grange, Texas. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, The Bugle Boy offers:
“a space where you go to listen. Talking is not permitted during a performance. A Listening Room environment creates the best and most intimate experience that an artist can share with an attentive audience. It’s like having a personal, live concert in your own living room!”
Creatively enhancing our musical experiences can take other new forms. The Bugle Boy partners with the online performance provider Concert Window. Self-described as “passionate about bringing live music online, in a way that helps musicians, venues, and fans,” Concert Window uses contemporary digital technology to re-present intimate live music into our own “living room” listening spaces.
Singer-songwriter John Fullbright recently playing at The Bugle Boy—and more broadly shared via Concert Window—epitomizes these new/old ways of experiencing music:
We may have encountered the term “embodied cognition” in recent research showing the surprising interrelations of our minds and brains with our bodies—but here’s a twist.
How might the tuxedo and formal apparel of a violinist in a symphony orchestra detract from their freedom of movement, active expression, and basic physical comfort?
Although creating an experience of ethereal beauty, performing classical music can be sweaty work. In the words of one concert violinist after playing Berlioz’s epically passionate Symphonie Fantastique: “We were sweating through our undershirts, through our tuxedo shirts. My bow tie was completely soaked.”
Must this be in the 21st century?
By evening a concert violinist, by day an entrepreneurial Dallas businessman, Kevin Yu after his morning run found himself wondering why couldn’t formal concert garb be more like athletic wear?
That was the start of an idea whose time had surely come. Yu soon began prototyping new forms of tuxedo shirts made of fabric that was accommodating, moisture-wicking, and flexible just like his running gear. Although he tried to keep his prototypes under wraps—word soon spread and orders and requests poured in.
As Yu’s friend a Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster mused: “You kind of wonder why it didn’t exist in the marketplace to begin with . . . A lot of us just took it for granted: that that’s the way it had to be because that’s the way it always was.”
What else in our worlds might be just like this. . . .
—> For more background and the quotations cited above see:
Michael Cooper, Taking the starch out of concert attire, The New York Times, August 18, 2015.
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.
—> 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.
Sometimes to make progress in our creative thinking we need to forge ahead in a new direction, setting aside and even forgetting what we’ve tried in the past. But just how intentional does that forgetting need to be?
Redirecting our focus to something entirely new will change our idea landscapes. It can make our previous ideas less accessible to us. This can be a good thing if those ideas were stale or were misleading us.
In a series of experiments, researchers provided participants with a list of several common objects (newspaper, spoon, paperclip, etc.). Each object was accompanied by a list of 4 alternative uses for that object that the participant was asked to study. Here, for instance, are the 4 alternative uses for “bucket”: music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub.
Asked a short while later to generate new uses for the same common objects participants often showed that they had unintentionally forgotten many of the alternative uses they had studied earlier. This “thinking-induced forgetting” was apparent even when participants were given specific cues to help them to remember the studied items.
When the researchers evaluated the creativity of the suggested alternative uses that the participants had generated they found something intriguing. The thinking-induced forgetting was greater for those who were the most creative.
As the researchers explained: “by inhibiting or in some way setting aside the studied uses, participants were able to explore a more diverse and original search space, leading them to generate more creative uses.”
In another experiment, though, the researchers found that if the participants were instructed to use the provided 4 uses as hints to generate additional alternative uses—then there was no thinking-induced forgetting. The same information, now used as hints, for possible uses for a bucket (music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub) was now no longer forgotten and acted to associatively cue ideas that were less creative.
The fate of the provided uses was different depending on how the participants were asked to treat them—either as something to avoid or as something to prompt their idea generation. In the hint condition there was less forgetting—but also less creativity.
From a broader perspective, this illustrates ongoing and adaptive changes in our dynamic idea landscapes with some ideas becoming more reachable and others less accessible. In our idea landscapes thoughts are always forming and re-forming, with some ideas rising to peak awareness and others receding.
—> For more on the experiments described above see:
Benjamin C. Storm and Trisha N. Patel (2014). Forgetting as a consequence and enabler of creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, volume 40, number 6, pages 1594-1609. The quotation is found on page 1603.
If you’ve just seen, or are about to see, the magically profound and profoundly magical Pixar film “Inside Out,” here are a few questions we invite you to think about:
Recently, talking to an experienced designer, we heard that her colleagues often intentionally waited a long time before they actually got started on a new project. By delaying and deeply mulling creative options over in their minds they felt that their work would be stronger and more creative.
But is this “working entirely in our heads” the best approach? What might be gained if we just got going sooner?
Some of the difficulties that we imagine may fall away once we actually start putting our ideas out there into the world. Our idea landscape quickly changes once we get started. What we are looking at and working with associatively cues new ideas, our well-learned procedures kick in, we start to experiment with ideas—trying out, shifting, and reconfiguring possibilities to discover novel promising options.
“There is a much (much!) wider range of information and many more possibilities that will be ‘ready to mind’ once [we become] immersed in the appropriate problem-solving context, which allows processes such as automatic reminding and the triggering of ‘if-then’ rules and so on to come to the fore and ‘share the load’ of thinking with our conscious and deliberate efforts at control.” (The Agile Mind, p. 595.)
Part of the benefit of getting started arises through the “co-evolution” of our understanding of a problem’s requirements with its possible solutions. Creative problems and their solutions often mutually inform each other. We’ll expand on this in an upcoming blog entry where we will talk about the vital role of our working environments in prompting us to bridge to significant insights. These “bridges” emerge especially during our actual hands-on, interactive, individual and team-based collaborations.
To take a concrete example, John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, has some wise words about the value of just getting started and getting feedback as soon as possible:
—> For additional discussion see: Wilma Koutstaal, The Agile Mind, (New York, Oxford University Press: 2012), especially pages 594-595.
How could we answer this question? To find out what makes some teams smarter and work better than others we could look separately at the characteristics of individuals in the team (e.g., how intelligent they each are or how open to experience they each are). Or, instead, we could look at how the team as a team worked and problem-solved together.
To answer what enabled teams to work well collectively, researchers looked at newly formed teams (of four members each) who were asked to think together to perform a wide range of tasks. They were asked to generate ideas, solve puzzles, detect patterns, and make evaluative judgments.
Groups that collectively showed greater intelligence, as shown in higher performance across this wide range of tasks, were distinguished by two factors:
(1) They communicated more often and their communications were more evenly distributed across the team.
(2) Individuals on the team excelled on a test that measures social/emotional perceptiveness (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”). This test asks you to judge someone’s mental state (e.g., curious, preoccupied, interested) from a photograph of just that person’s eyes.
These two factors were earlier established as important to effective team collaboration in experiments using small face-to-face teams. A more recent study (published in late 2014) asked a new question—would the collective intelligence of groups that met solely online or only virtually be influenced by these same two factors?
Newly formed teams of four people were situated in a room. There were two types of teams, and two types of rooms. For face-to-face teams, the members met in a small room, each team member with a laptop, and they could all see one other, talk directly, and they knew who was on their team. For the online teams, the team members were randomly co-located with other team members in a large room interspersed with other similarly scattered teams, where they did not know or see each other and could communicate solely on laptops using text-based chat online.
If directly reading subtle interpersonal cues (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, body language) during face-to-face interactions is a critical team mechanism then it would be expected that online teams would perform more poorly. But that wasn’t what was found—the online teams, who scored high on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, did just as well as the face-to-face groups who also had high abilities on that test. This suggests that the virtual teams could still perceive subtle interpersonal cues in the text messages they shared, perhaps conveyed through sentence structure, phrasing, word choice, timing, or tone.
Equally important, the effects of conversational turn taking also were the same in both groups. In online teams where participation was more equally shared, and not dominated by one or two individuals, online teams performed a wide range of tasks just as well as their face-to-face peers who also had a democratic approach to group problem solving.
So, it’s not just your cognitive ability or how smart as an individual you or your team members are—it’s also how well you can coordinate and be “heedful” of others in your group and the situation you jointly find yourselves in (whether working virtually or face-to-face). Part of the key to better team performance is also making sure that each team member shares in communicating within the group.
Sharing in communication and noticing interpersonal cues, whether in the eyes or “between the lines,” may contribute to a broader group characteristic of heedfulness. As we observe in Innovating Minds:
“In heedfulness the actions and thinking of a group or team emerge based not entirely on habit but on a ‘heedful’ monitoring and comprehending of an unfolding dynamic situation. Each person acts in a way that converges, supplements, or assists with the overall collective effort.
Heedfulness is not solely an effort at paying attention. Rather it is this, combined with an active taking care and staying in touch with new information and its immediate and broader implications—for ourselves, for others, and for a collective envisioning of a larger unfolding joint enterprise.”
—> For more see also:
David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, & Thomas W. Malone (2014). Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE, 9, e115212, pp. 1-16.
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, A, Nada Hashmi, & Thomas W. Malone (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330, pp. 686–688.
An example of the Reading of the Mind in the Eyes test can be found here.
We recently encountered this insightful piece on new types of social media marketing. The newly emerging form of marketing invites online interactively engaged play between marketers and consumers. One of the differences with this novel approach is that it is not predominantly top-down, attempting to fully foresee and plan; rather, it places greater reliance on a more open-ended, risk-laden process itself, akin to improvising.
It got us to thinking about play and creativity.
As we observe in Innovating Minds:
“Play provides us with brief times in-between that encourage a “re-set” or refreshing of our mental landscapes and a release of tension and an invitation to participation. Humor and creativity are significantly positively associated with one another, in part reflecting shared characteristics such as risk taking, insight, cognitive flexibility with mild positive affect, and surprise. Playful imaginative exploration—including in virtual online environments—may provide an impetus for creativity and act as a space that can welcome and sustain ambiguity and may stimulate nonroutine abstract learning in teams and organizations.”
Or to quote organizational theorist and professor James G. March:
“A strict insistence on purpose, consistency, and rationality limits our ability to find new purposes. Play relaxes that insistence to allow us to act ‘unintelligently’ or ‘irrationally,’ or ‘foolishly’ to explore alternative ideas of possible purposes and alternative concepts of behavioral consistency. And it does this while maintaining our basic commitment to the necessity of intelligence.”
Goal-guided behavior is not incompatible with spontaneity. The creative process, under some circumstances, can itself be seen as a deep interweaving of the thoughts of multiple individuals in different roles. Play and learning can be emergent ambiguity-laden processes which can evoke a form of meaning-making/meaning guided turn-taking to which each participant contributes questions as well as answers. Oftentimes, we make and find meaning as we go.
John A. Deighton & Leora Kornfeld. (2014). Beyond Bedlam: How Consumers and Brands Alike Are Playing the Web. GfK Marketing Intelligence Review, 6, no. 2, pp. 28–33.
James G. March (1976). The technology of foolishness. In March, J. G. & Olsen, J. P. (Eds., pp. 69–81). Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. Bergen, Norway: Universitetsforlaget.
Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, David J. Glew, & Chockalingam Viswesvaran, (2012). A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27, pp. 155–190.
Noel Murray, Harish Sujan, Edward R. Hirt, & Mita Sujan (1990). The influence of mood on categorization: A cognitive flexibility interpretation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, pp. 411–425.
A recent large-scale experimental study used a simple computer task. In this task, college students are presented with a noun on a computer screen and asked to say a verb that could be associated with that noun. For example, the noun “dog” could be paired with a verb such as “bark” or with the less expected “rescue.”
This task was done for many different nouns and under two different conditions. In one condition participants were asked simply to produce the first word that comes to mind. In the second condition they were specifically asked to “think creatively.”
The experiment revealed that the prompt or instruction to be more creative made a significant difference in three ways:
(1) If we are specifically asked or cued to be creative we give responses that are less predictable, less conventional, and more creative. Setting the explicit goal of being creative enables us to be more creative.
(2) When we are under no specific goal to think creatively we tend to provide responses that are fast and efficient but that are less creative.
(3) The extent to which the students were more creative when prompted was significantly correlated with being more creative at types of drawing and story writing too, even after taking into account individual differences in on-the-spot problem solving and personality factors such as openness to experience. This suggests that creativity isn’t a single ever-present ability but is something we can boost in response to particular contexts and goals.
—> For the full text of the experiment see:
Ranjani Prabhakaran, Adam E. Green & Jeremy R. Gray (2014). Thin slices of creativity: Using single-word utterances to assess creative cognition. Behavior Research Methods, 46, pp. 641-659.
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:
How stimulating environments “makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive.”
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.
Most everyone knows what brainstorming is—the group idea generation process where any and all ideas are welcomed, and ideas can be combined or built upon. Not being “judgy” is key, etc.
But how many of us know how to assess the effectiveness of a brainstorming session? And how to make what may be a good process even better?
Compared to what?
Individuals in a group brainstorming session may generate many ideas—but how do those ideas compare with the number and quality of ideas that would be produced by the same number of individuals working alone generating their own ideas?
Many research studies and meta-analyses show that typical interacting face-to-face group brainstorming sessions produce fewer unique (non-redundant) ideas than do the same number of individuals working alone. The ideas generated in the typical face-to-face group are also of lower average quality than if the individuals had worked independently.
Why might this be?
Hearing the ideas of others has the effect of associatively cuing our ideas in the same direction as what we are hearing. This can be helpful if it occurs at the right time by cognitively stimulating our thinking in new and useful directions. But such associative cuing can be a big drawback if it occurs at the wrong time, or too soon, preventing us from reaching and articulating ideas we otherwise would have formed.
Another factor is that ideas compete with one another for emergence in our awareness and “bottlenecks” may be created while we wait our turn to speak.
As we observe in Innovating Minds: “Verbally expressing our ideas to the group too soon may lead to a single shared idea landscape—without the beneficial input of each individual’s contributions and successive reworkings. Variations on simpler face-to-face group brainstorming are attempts to avoid the drawbacks of jumping into a single idea space too soon.”
So what should we do?
We might try brainwriting. Here we each individually and silently write down our ideas and place them on idea sheets in the center of a table. People in the group, when they feel they are ready, can select and read the ideas of others, adding to or elaborating on those ideas if they choose. Another approach is to pass the idea sheets along. In the 6-3-5 method: 6 people each generate and write down 3 ideas on their own. Then they pass them along 5 times, silently and in parallel building on the ideas of others, until the idea sheet returns to where it started.
Sketches rather than words could also be circulated this way or later displayed as a “gallery” of ideas. Or ideas could be generated individually and then selectively shared and later broadcast more widely electronically via a computer network.
Each of these are potential ways of maximizing the diverseness of our idea landscapes, reaping the cognitively stimulating benefits of encountering the ideas of others without incurring creativity costs. Such “pairs of pairs of pairs” methods allow varied contributions and intermeshing of the contributions of others in a way that can optimize both individual and group idea generation.
–> For a recent extensive review see: Wolfgang Stroebe, Bernard A. Nijstad, & Eric F. Rietzschel, “Beyond Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: The Evolution of a Question” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, 2010, Pages 157–203.
What makes for a “creativity friendly” environment?
There is no single “one size fits all” answer… but here are some broader themes to think about. Let’s look at two recent examples through the lens of our iCASA framework.
(1) Shared learning and experimentation space
A very large Chinese factory that produced mobile phones had a massive open floor plan where the workers on the production lines and the supervisors were continually and readily seen. What would happen to production speed and quality if some of the lines were surrounded by a privacy curtain?
A field study with four production lines randomly chosen to be surrounded by such a curtain for several months found that the curtain increased improvisation, encouraged “productive deviance,” and led to higher productivity and quality. The comparative increase in team privacy afforded by the curtain allowed temporary, smaller issues to be solved locally through line-level learning and it promoted collective team knowledge.
Observations by embedded student researchers on the curtain-surrounded lines revealed that the workers actively switched roles to learn multiple tasks and enable team cross-support, fluid adaptation, experimentation, and learning.
The innovations that were observed “were a mix of preexisting and new ideas: some of these were ideas that were just waiting for an opportunity at experimentation, while others reflected novel learning on the line through the increased levels of experimentation the curtain enabled.’’ (Bernstein, 2012, p. 202)
The curtain allowed the line to collaborate and discuss new ideas and to iteratively test and try process improvements, arriving at successful prototypes before sharing them outside of their local idea landscape. It formed a “scrutiny-reduced” supportive making-and-finding environment where the workers and the line managers could adaptively and contextually experiment with an increased degree of autonomy.
—> For the research study, see Ethan S. Bernstein, The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control, Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 181–216. Also, see Bernstein’s, “The transparency trap”
(2) Cross-pollination at IKEA
IKEA’s product catalogs feature multi-color contemporary images of home furnishings in various natural looking settings. The company, though, was looking to move from its longstanding tradition of studio photography of its products to computer-generated images. Transitioning to computer-generated imagery would greatly reduce logistical and environmental costs because the many products would no longer need to be flown in and configured on site. Instead of physically creating multiple culturally specific settings, for example a typical Japanese kitchen, a German kitchen, and an American kitchen, computer-generated imagery would make such reconfigurations much simpler. But how could IKEA make this transition in a creativity-friendly way, while preserving catalog image quality and empowering employees throughout the change process?
The solution was simple and incisively creative: They started small scale, and then scaled up. After initial experimentation and demonstration of the feasibility of the computer-generated imagery process, all of IKEA’s studio photographers were required to learn to use the 3D computer generated process and vice versa. This in-depth cross-training extended the skills and understanding of both groups, and led to an increase in quality, with computer-generated images that were essentially indistinguishable from conventional photographs. There was a synergistic meeting of the two approaches to image making, and a fuller appreciation of the goals, aspirations, and constraints that each uniquely faced. The merging of techniques expanded and deepened everyone’s individual and shared idea landscapes and mental models. There was learning and unlearning at the same time.
—> For more background on the IKEA process, see: Kirsty Parkin, “Building 3D with IKEA”