From my talk at Georgetown University. Knowledge Work–increasingly being replaced by machines/AI– will give way to Wisdom Work.
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I know what you might be thinking: “Codifying creativity—isn’t that oxymoronic?” And to some degree perhaps yes. But attempting to establish a methodical framework should not be considered the antithesis of creativity. We shouldn’t shy away from trying to understand the creative process so we can facilitate it, particularly within the setting of an organization or enterprise.
What is clear is that creativity as a codified process very much requires a divergent and convergent thought process, and hence is very much both a left and right brain activity*. I think there is a bias towards believing that creativity only operates in the divergent realm. But it is in fact very much a bi-hemispheric process. Additionally, creativity involves the combination of originality and task appropriateness. Any framework that attempts to foster achieving a creative solution must therefore take into account these dimensions.
In both reviewing the literature as well as formulating my own thoughts from my experience, I have realized that there is a common thread among all the various methodologies put forth, and it goes pretty much like this (see also the figure above):
1. Clarify the problem: Are you asking the right question? Searching for the proper solution?
2. Prepare: There is no substitute for doing good old fashion homework. What is the state of the art? What have others said, thought, attempted in the past that is relevant?
3. Ideation and reality mining: Come up with a lot of possible solutions (a future Creative Heuristic will discuss some well documented techniques). Here, quantity reigns superior over quality. Now is not the time to be critical or discerning; allow yourself and the team to be foolish even. Suspend judgment on any ideas or solutions put forth by the group.
4. “Walk away”—allow for incubation and gestation of the challenge and the ideas put forth; allow your mind to wander free of conscious thought on the problem. This allows the unconscious mind to work and churn on the task. Utilize good creative hygiene!
5. Eureka! What inspired solutions has your subconscious mind put forth while you were exercising, on a long walk, in the shower? Write them down!
6. Evaluate those new solutions: Now is the time to switch back to convergent and analytical thought. Which idea is best?
7. Make real and share: Time to get ideas, solutions and options into a concrete form. Share with others—preferably those outside the current team. Opt for generalists over specialists who may be locked into their own silo of domain expertise. Now is the time to test your solutions and expect and evaluate criticisms.
8. Implementation and production: Is the solution both novel, task appropriate and feasible?
Creative Heuristic #4: Solving challenges with a creative approach can be facilitated with a framework like the one above. It’s a process that very much utilizes both hemispheres of the brain and both divergent and convergent thinking.
[* By “divergent thinking” I mean the ability to come up with many responses to a challenge or issue, as contrasted with “convergent thinking,” or the process to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer.]
-Mark HT Ridinger
Telling—and listening—to stories goes back to the dawn of mankind. Before there was writing of course, stories which were often embellished to become more that that—to become narratives—were the only way to pass knowledge from generation to generation. What’s behind the narrative process, and how does the creative use of such matter to you today?
In a recent interview in The Financial Times, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses the premise of his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. In it he advances the theory that humans have surpassed other species primarily due to our ability to create compelling fictional accounts or narratives. This makes it possible, he argues, for people to band together—to help or fight each other—be it to believe in the possibility of bringing down animals much bigger and stronger in an organized hunt, to the idea of currency, or a cause worth fighting or dying for.
“Any band of Neanderthals, Harari suggests, can raise a few dozen people for a hunt but humans can tell the stories needed to ensure co-operation in groups of 150 or more – numbers large enough to organize mass hunting using prepared traps, raise modern armies, or subdue the natural world.”
The narrative seems critical to our ability to understand and relate to each other as well. For example, a study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships, and certainly part of a healthy “EQ”.
The power of the narrative is also getting the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA). The agency’s biotechnology office is studying how the narrative process is critical in how we process events— most notably traumatic ones– and how that impacts post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can contribute to radicalization as well. “Narratives may consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, and influence group distinctions.”
In other words, narratives can be used for good or bad. Indeed, Nassim Taleb discusses what he calls the “narrative fallacy” in his book The Black Swan at length. We are vulnerable to the seduction of the narrative he argues, and that can result in cognitive biases not the least of which makes us susceptible to the allure of correlation (as opposed to causality) from data mining and big data (particularly relevant issue today). In other words, our minds are desperate to find meaning, and we need to be on guard for that.
The common thread I’m trying to weave with these varied accounts of the narrative process is that without creativity, these narratives (fictional or otherwise) wouldn’t be possible (and therefore be used for either good or nefarious ends). And without imagination on the part of those that listen, they would have no power; creativity and imagination are two sides of the same coin. The creativity of the person writing the narrative is very important of course, but he relies on the imagination of those receiving the narrative, which then, given their capability for empathy and ‘theory of mind’, can understand and co-opt that narrative as their own. It remains a uniquely human capability—at least in this degree of complexity we assume. (Perhaps animals have ways to tell “stories” in a limited way, as has been suggested by observing ants and bees doing a dance to communicate distant food sources etc.)
The famous fax machine analogy also comes to mind: one fax machine is worthless—two have some value and many, a lot of value. But just as that fax on the receiving end has to decode the signal to recreate an image—a facsimile—so does the human imagination decode the narrative. But in the case of humans as opposed to the lowly fax machine, this reconstruction can vary dramatically from individual to individual and be modified as well, adding a special dimension that is unique to them and their experiences. And just as the more fax machines there are is directly and exponentially related to the usefulness and value of the machine (Metcalfe’s law), so does the size of the network of those tapping the creative narrative, and hence the power of social media (and, unfortunately, it’s increasing use by radicalized terror groups.)
Creative Heuristic #2: Use the power of creative narratives for good. Use them to inspire your coworkers, employees, and customers—do so in a way that taps into their imagination and so that narrative becomes in part their own as well.
-Mark HT Ridinger
“One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something— your dream, your image of the future.”
-E. Paul Torrance
According to a recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, “creativity” was deemed to be the most important leadership skill for the enterprise of the future. So what are the characteristics and traits of creative people? What sort of folks do they tend to be, if any, and how can they be identified, if at all?
Paul Torrance was the creator of the eponymous Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a validated instrument that does a good job of measuring divergent cognition, serves as an additional tool for gifted program placement (beyond IQ tests), and has shown to have predictive ability in measuring future creative achievement and output, as I have blogged about in the past.
Near the end of his career, he re-examined his data and also his decades of interviews with students, and ended up with what he called the Beyonders Checklist that described traits of creative individuals. These are:
- Love of work
- Tolerance of mistakes
- Feeling comfortable as a minority of one
- Purpose in life
- Diversity of experience
- High energy
- Creative self-concept
- Risk taker
- Open to change
- Deep thinking
A fifty year follow up analysis by Mark Runco et al. found that the first four traits in particular showed significant correlation to either professional or personal creative achievement.
Separately, Nancy Andreasen, an American neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist, has written about her findings in years of interviewing highly creative individuals. She found that:
- Creativity tends to run in families, with both a possible nature and nurture component. (e.g. she found half of her subjects came from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree, and the majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.)
- These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks and must confront doubt. Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection.
- Many creative people are polymaths (people with broad interests in many fields). The classic example is Da Vinci.
- They tend to be autodidacts. She wrote, “Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.”
- Her creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness (the most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism.)
It strikes me, that taken together, both Torrance’s “checklist” and Andreason’s observations give a very similar sketch of creative archetypes, and allows for a heuristic of sorts to help identify them:
Creative Heuristic #1
These are passionate and intensely curious individuals, self-motivated and taught, that often come from a family of “creatives” (and, unfortunately, may suffer disproportionately from some forms of mental illness.) Furthermore, I would posit that these characteristics are also those found typically in Generalists, as discussed previously.
Given the importance of creativity and innovation to organizations today, using this heuristic as part of a broad strategy of hiring and recruitment should be helpful.
-Mark HT Ridinger
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
I have to say off the bat that evoking Steve Jobs quotes is getting a bit too in vogue for my taste, but when one finds the essence of what they want to communicate encapsulated so well, resistance is futile.
I don’t know if Jobs ever uttered the term ‘evolved generalist’, but his quote on creativity and what type of person is likely to create and innovate—and how—is exactly what I wish to communicate here, and serves as the cornerstone of my talk (“Looking Up and In: The Creative Mind and Process”) and my case for the rise of the Generalist.
I’ll skip the de rigueur Wikipedia definition of generalist (and specialist for that matter), and state my definition: The Generalist (as coined in the 21st C) is an individual uniquely suited (due to interest, background, experiences, and personality archetypes) to bridge silos of domain expertise (typically inhabited by specialists), in such a way as to produce novel ways of looking at a problem, or determining a new approach or method, all of which produces a beneficial solution, product, or idea.
Note there are several parts to this definition:
- Bridging of silos: Specialists tend to be caught in their own silo of domain expertise. Bridging silos helps to break free of enculturation and conformity bias;
- Background of diverse experiences and interests that have been reflected on: Creative archetypes are typically polymaths and autodidacts– so is the Generalist;
- Adept at synthesizing something novel, the end product of which…
- has an actual benefit and value.
I want to be clear here: I am not arguing that there is no need for specialists. I am, however, making the case for generalists— that’s a big difference. If I had some bizarre malformation of, say, my pinky– some disorder that occurred in only one out of 10 million people– what do I want to do? I want to go to the pinky specialist! The surgeon that has operated on more Bizarre Pinky Disorders than anyone else, and written papers in Science: Pinky, and lectured to the Royal Society of Pinky Surgeons and so on. But if I am in the C-suite of an enterprise, or on the board of directors of a startup or any institution that is trying to thrive in the current climate of rapid change and disruption, I want some Generalists on board—and an evolved one even better! Need someone to churn out the best bug free code in the shortest time—get a specialist; want someone to help create a culture of innovation, avoid the pitfalls of dogmatic thinking, and connect disparate dots—get thee to a generalist! And there has never been a greater need in our history—perhaps urgency—for said folks.
Even the experts’ (a type of specialist) presumably safe bastion of forecasting is under siege. For example, Phillip Tetlock’s analysis of over 80,000 forecasts made by 284 professional forecasters found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise! Given our poor ability to predict the future, who will thrive and add more value to an organization—the specialist, entrenched in his world view, umvelt, or silo, or the silo spanning generalist–the polymath and (dare I use the term) renaissance (wo)man? Generalists, with (by my definition) their broad and horizontal interests are better evolved to connect ideas and experiences; they are more likely to look for new encounters (both of the physical and intellectual world) and reflect on them—allow them to incubate and gestate—and reap the rewards of the epiphanies of the creative mind.
In a piece that appeared on Harvard Business Review blog (“All Hail the Generalist”), Vikram Mansharamani opines: “The time has come to acknowledge expertise as overvalued. There is no question that expertise and … logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.).”
Machines already trump us in chess and Jeopardy!. Finding connections and associations across disperse domains of knowledge and disparate ideas are still a human bastion—it is the seed of creative thought. “Knowledge work” was the growth sector of the last century, slowly now being replaced by machines. “Creativity work” is rising. Here, the Generalist rules.
-Mark HT Ridinger
Be a fox, not a hedgehog!