Catalyzing Creativity

While I am not sure I quite agree, a recent article in The Atlantic proclaims that there are two ways to save the economy: innovation and inflation. Inflation sounds like a postponement of the issue, so let’s focus on innovation. As I wrote Innovation Types a few weeks ago, I had in mind the processes that we use to go about these different types.  Before we explore how they are different, let’s look at the conditions for creativity and innovation that they share.

Conditions. Not a formula. This is about emergence. It doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. It isn’t clearly causal. It is something that we can increase the probability of rather than directly ensure. Creativity could happen without these conditions, but most of the time it happens with some of these conditions. Increase the conditions and you may increase your chances.

My insights here come from conversations with Valdis Krebs and Steve Crandall among others. Valdis approaches the subject as a social network analyst, watching for the characteristics of networks that give rise to creativity. Steve… well, Pip Coborn says of Steve that he “is one of those rare Bell Labs genuises that when I was growing up people spoke of in hushed tones.” My relationship with Steve is as an amazing friend rather than a creative collaborator/innovator/partner. And, I am aware that he has given significant attention to what gives rise to creativity and has deep experience creating very forward thinking innovations. I have heard his stories. I will share a few with you.

So when Venessa Miemis asked

I knew it was time to write about what I have learned from Steve and Valdis. There are two other groups I also learned from – conversations here and there over the last five years with many people and a deep devouring of written information. And then, my years in the creative fields of art, theater, and literature.

Let’s begin. What conditions contribute to creativity and innovation? My response to Venessa was:

And Valdis added:

In no particular order, then:

Randomness – I say randomness because things, even in hindsight, seem to look a bit random. Steve talks about developing the idea for MP3 technology by trying to figure out how mother bats can find their baby bats in a cave of thousands. Ah…they screen out sounds other than the sound of their baby. Bats? When I first heard this story, I was shaking my head, thinking who would have guessed that bats led to MP3s? The path to innovation is not a straight line or a clear flow chart. It is a jumble of odd experience that a creative brain makes note of and creates meaning from. Creative people are ones who can take the random bits and make something from some of them. Encourage randomness. Go for walks in nature and notice things. Visit an art museum or take an odd dive into history. Look elsewhere than right in front of you.

Time – Innovation doesn’t happen on pre-determined timelines. In fact, time pressure can undermine creativity. Time pressure and monetary incentives both trigger analytical thinking instead of creative flowing. Time also works in two ways for creative outputs. There is often a tremendous amount of time gathering all the information relevant to a creation. It is as if the warehouse of the unconscious mind must be filled with all the relevant parts but you have no list of relevant parts to be adding to the warehouse, so you can’t know when what you need is in stock. However, the moment where those things are in stock and meaning is made – creation happens – can feel instantaneous. Sometimes the ideas emerge fully formed and plop into the conscious mind ready for action. That can’t be scheduled.

The other crucial element to time is having long enough stretches of it. When interrupted from deep mental activity, it can take 20 minutes to return to the same headspace. For creative activity, turn off phones, put away social media, and reduce your chances of being distracted. Steve says there are institutions that actively encourage this “offline” time for deeper creative activity. Give yourself the time to explore without distraction. Go deep into the warehouses of the mind and play there.

Right mix of Sameness and Difference – Valdis drew a Gaussian curve for me and said – I think the left side of the curve is something where people are so different they can hardly communicate at all. And on the right side of the curve, people are so similar that adding another person doesn’t increase information available – the homophily doesn’t generate creativity. He said he wasn’t sure what the numbers were or what the curve was precisely, but somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum there is enough sameness to enable communication & trust and enough difference to generate something creative that the people involved couldn’t come up with on their own. Think of that warehouse metaphor above – if you have difference, then you have more inventory to be pulling from. And he had this nice phrase to go along with it: “connect on your sameness and profit from your difference.”

Play (lightness) – This might be the most important condition. A significant portion of creativity involves trying many different combinations of things together. Steve has this wonderful expression: innovation is like throwing yourself at the ground over and over again until you finally miss the ground and start flying. If you take yourself too seriously in the act of throwing yourself at the ground, you won’t take enough risks to generate something really creative. Instead you will try 100 small variations in a very methodical process. If you are afraid of hitting the ground, you won’t really throw yourself at it. Tickle the fear out of yourself and play with possibility and with your collaborators.

Steve also tells stories of Friday creative jams at Bell Labs. He and several others would gather together. One – a catalyst – would listen and encourage them, then, later in the session, sort and summarize their best ideas. I call it a jam because, like jazz, it was each person knowing how to play with others and giving forth their best pieces in a space of play. The vast majority of the ideas generated were tossed away. We should ask Steve for some of the outcomes from these jams. When he describes them, he is focused on how much fun they were and how creative they could be instead of what they led to. This is a sign of play – that the process is alive and enjoyable (even when challenging).

Aesthete (deep sensitivity) – Steve was explaining to me, after many conversations about creativity and innovation, that serendipity is not only the seemingly random connection of things in a meaningful way, it is also noticing that the connection is significant. If you create something incredibly original, but no one realizes it including you, then it is lost. What does it take to notice that a new connection is made that could be significant? A deep sensitivity. I surround myself with really brilliant and creative people. And what I notice about them is that they are “noticers” by which I mean they are giving their attention to details – the flavors used in foods, the unique sound combinations in music, the way light moves through a water glass. Whatever their passion, they devote significant time to building up that warehouse of data in their minds using a great deal of discernment in their sorting. They have a deep awareness of and sensitivity to the topography of their interest areas.

Trust/Safety – Whether this is trust and safety we perceive in ourselves or between us and our collaborators, the trust and safety acts as the ground of creativity. If we don’t have it, we can’t try things. We become afraid to fail or look silly. Our mind-time focuses on social dynamics instead of playing with ideas. If we happen to be in groups where trust is missing, the only course is to trust ourselves. But trust must be there. Question everything…but not all at once…and not without trusting yourself to figure it out. Safety is also important. Sure, I mean physical safety as possible. But I also mean things like financial safety.

Deep curiosity – I almost forget this one because I tend to have it as a pre-requisite for people I share time with. When I was in the humanities, I noticed that those most dedicated to their work shared a trait – a deep curiosity about some question or another. Curiosity is the fuel for exploration. It is what feeds us in a space of profound un-knowing – the vast realms of unmapped possibility. We ask “why?” And the asking leads deeper into the question. Steve says the best questions lead to more questions. Only the deeply curious are willing to go there. One of my favorite quotes is an anonymous one: “go out on a limb, that is where all the fruit is.”

Network poised for Serendipity – As mentioned above, serendipity plays an important role in creativity. A network poised for serendipity is more likely to generate creativity. Steve talks about how the buildings at Bell Labs were like a labyrinth. It was easy to get lost. People of different backgrounds were mixed together and chalkboards filled the halls. This encouraged random interactions between people with differences and tools for them to brainstorm together. Steve also says another creative organization he has worked with designed their building with too few bathrooms to encourage waiting in line so interactions happen with unexpected people.

Some luck – Creativity and innovation operate in that space of probability. We can’t methodically try all possibilities (this would take much too long). There has to be some sensitivity to what could work and an ability to catalyze innovation to increase that probability. Whether it is the humility of those I have spoken to who are deeply creative or truly a matter of what is required, it seems luck has a hand in innovation. (Mind you, I am a big fan of the Richard Wiseman’s research book: The Luck Factor.)

And with that, I wish you luck. Innovate!

8 thoughts on “Catalyzing Creativity

  • Yes there is a formular to make innovation grow across boundaries:
    creating the shared feeling of making a difference together!
    Not that easy to achieve, taking a lot of courage to initiate out
    of “nothing” (or the preset current reality). With a bold vision and
    being pulled by that in line with your passions, there is a fair chance
    to get to it.

    It may look as silly as a first lily on a pond. Then there are two, four, eight, sixteen, …. and off we go. So my feeling for what the current change in the world is like, is very positive in the ultimate achievements :)

  • I would like to add several more like:
    Imagination (dream / vision)
    Freedom (letting go of old habits/ideas)
    Re-iteration – the process of creative cannot be one cycle, but repeated cycle, each one adding/reducing something of the previous cycle

    • These are great Yissar. Yes! And, it makes me want to explore what we mean by imagination. I am learning that some of us are wired to easily let go of past perceptions to embrace new ones, where others ground their being in what is known already, making them slow to release existing ideas. I am not sure I would call that freedom, but it is something useful and important. thumbs up on iteration. Yes yes. Thank you!

  • Thanks for this. I’m an innovator, designer, dancer, vocational circus artist and…many things really, human in short. I have a faith in the connectivity of things, their often unseen holarchy and the motility of parts. Creativity translates, this is valuable information, if you learn how your body fits in space and how it adjoins itself piece by piece, paying inner attention to structure through action then you automatically improve in many ways such as proper proportion when drawing. Inreased ability to focus on different areas simultaneously increases ability to multi-task and multi-think. I love creativity, its a lifelong adventure and is something to really enjoy and play with, if you set it as a goal you can forget about it, remember, creativity is a work with no purpose done for its own reward.

    • Eimhin, I disagree that creativity is work done with no purpose done for its own reward. I like the idea of multi-think! I suspect that is why it can take so long to get into the deep thinking space that is often required to think creatively – it is about bringing into mind many pieces and holding them in your attention as you move them around into different relationships, for example. Interesting.

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