Saturday, June 29, 2013

Creativity through left-brained analysis: Thinking inside the box

From a Saturday Essay in the June 14th Wall Street Journal by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg:

When most CEOs hear the word "innovation," they roll their eyes. It conjures up images of employees wasting hours, even days, sitting in beanbag chairs, tossing Frisbees and regurgitating ideas they had already considered. "Brainstorming" has become a byword for tedium and frustration.
Indeed, there have been numerous recent studies that have debunked the supposed power of brainstorming in enhancing creativity.

More from Boyd and Goldenberg:
The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn't follow rules or patterns. Would-be innovators are told to "think outside the box," "start with a problem and then brainstorm ideas for a solution," "go wild making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your product or service."
This is certainly the view of creativity seen in standardized tests of creativity and interview questions that are supposed to gauge the creativity of job applicants.

Boyd and Goldenberg:
We advocate a radically different approach: thinking inside the proverbial box, not outside of it. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them. By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative—and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.

Our method works by taking a product, concept, situation, service or process and breaking it into components or attributes. Using one of five techniques, innovators can manipulate the components to create new-to-the-world ideas that can then be put to valuable use.
The techniques are "subtraction," "task unification," "multiplication," "division," and "attribute dependency." Subtraction:
Subtract the frame of a pair of glasses and you have the contact lens. Remove a bike's rear wheel and you invent the exercise bicycle. Extract water from soup to make a package of powdered soup. Take the bank employee out of a cash transaction and you have an ATM.
Task unification involves "bringing together unrelated tasks or functions"--seen, for example, in Samsonite backpacks designed to distribute weight so as to massage the shoulders at shiatsu points.

Multiplication involves "copying a component and then altering it"--seen, for example, in compound lenses, bifocals, and double-bladed razors.

Division involves "separating the components of a product or service and rearranging them":
Instances of this technique abound, from airline check-in procedures that now have you print your boarding pass at home to the TV remote control whose functions used to be attached to the box itself. Or consider central air-conditioning. The first air-conditioning units contained all the necessary components in a single box: thermostat, fan, cooling unit. But once the motor and fan of the cooling unit were separated from the other pieces, they could be placed somewhere else—like outside a house, thus reducing noise and heat and eliminating the need to block a window with a bulky integrated unit.
Attribute dependency involves "making the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment":
An excellent example of this technique is eyewear with transition lenses, which change from light to dark in the sunlight. So, too, are windshield wipers that speed up as it rains harder.
For Boyd and Goldenberg, the best way to inspire creativity is to make problems less open-ended:
Most people think innovation starts with establishing a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions. Our method is just the opposite: We take an abstract, conceptual solution and find a problem that it can solve.
For example:
Imagine a baby bottle and being told that it changes color as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? Because it would help to make sure that you don't burn the baby with milk that is too hot. Now imagine you were asked the opposite question: How can we make sure not to burn a baby's mouth with milk that is too hot? How long would it take you to come up with a color-changing milk bottle? You might never arrive at the idea.
Very true. And yet today's educators are convinced that giving away the solution squelches creativity. Nor do they recognize that:
The most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. 
This, after all, requires us to analyze what is under our noses, subtracting, recombining, and copying--all things that too many of today's educators view as opposing rather than enabling truly creative innovations.

1 comment:

Niels Henrik Abel said...

So true. Creativity without focus tends to be a huge waste of time. Merely saying “go create something” is actually kind of paralyzing because the task is so broadly defined as to be pointless.

On the other hand, imposing a set of constraints to focus creativity is, perhaps ironically, what really sets the creative mind free. This is what the cooking contests on the Food Network do when they give the chefs a task of creating entrees utilizing certain mystery components (revealed at the start of the contest) and then impose a time limit on the whole process.