Too perfect: Inviting creativity through improvisable gaps

Take a look at these two images:

icons_finished_unfinished

Source: Jonathan Binks, adapted from McGrath, Bresciani, & Eppler (2016)

How do they make you feel? How are they different?

For some recent research exploring how images that you use can invite you and others to playfully and creatively elaborate on ideas see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201611/too-perfect-no-room-newness

New ways to think about how to turn limitations into helpful guides and goads

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.

Our constraints can be seen as "corner flags." Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

Our constraints can be seen as “corner flags.” Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Staying the course

Korean traffic detour sign. Source: P.Ctnt via Wikimedia Commons.

Korean traffic detour sign. Source: P.Ctnt via Wikimedia Commons.

Take a look at this Apple web page describing ways producer/musician Greg Kurstin, in working with the singer/songwriter Adele, anticipates — and eludes — likely detours during their creative process.

  • What are the materials that are ready to hand/ready to mind for Kurstin? How did they get there?
  • How does he clear the path to capturing ideas? What different ways does he use to make sure his ideas don’t escape?
  • How do gaps in time contribute to their creative process?
  • How does the thinking-making process repeatedly interweave between singer/songwriter and producer/musician?

With these insights in mind, what possible obstacles are detouring you on your creative path — and how could you better elude them?

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”? . . .

How do we (really) keep our creative momentum?

We often like to simplify things but — let’s face it — creativity is a messy business. It’s filled with trial and error, trying this and trying that. It reaches across time (minutes, hours, weeks or months, sometimes years) and space. It’s rife with unpredictable spurts forward and sudden stops or detours as unforeseen obstacles loom on the horizon. How then can we ever see “inside creativity” — peering into this dynamically changing thinking-making process to learn what works well, and what doesn’t?

One promising approach is to generate a sort of “creative micro-world” —setting out a creative challenge that can be taken up in a somewhat limited period of time (say a few hours), with specific constraints and goals. Then the entire thinking-making process of creative designers or engineers can be observed (perhaps videotaped and audiotaped). The designers might also be asked to “think aloud” — telling us, moment by moment, what they’re thinking, what problem they’re facing, what options they see, or what next steps they’re mentally testing out (or ruling out). . . .

For more please see WK’s Psychology Today post “Inside Creativity: Charting Innovation as it Happens.”

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.

The Magic of “Inside Out”

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:

  • What might it mean to have a control console in your head?
  • Fear, sadness, anger, joy, disgust… each is so identifiable and tangibly distinct, so affectionately near yet far. Why is caricaturing these emotions so helpful?
  • If memories aren’t really little crystal-ball-like orbs, what are they?
  • If we touch a memory (recall it), how and why do we modify it?
  • In order to grow and meet changing circumstances, how important is it to forget (or to re-characterize) our past?
  • How can all of our emotions work better together as team players—integrating and tempering each other, in ongoing interplay with our changing goals?
  • If you could add to the console team other emotions, beyond the five, what would they be, and why?

 

 

What makes some teams smarter than others?

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.

 

Beyond simple brainstorming: Emerging, without submerging, good ideas

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.”

Brainstorming variants

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 QuestionAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, 2010, Pages 157–203.

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.

Creativity friendly environments: Two examples

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”