Category: Creativity

A Technique for Producing Ideas

In the foreword to James Webb Young’s book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, Keith Reinhard asks, “How can a book first published in the 1940s be important to today’s creative people on the cutting edge?”

The answer lies in the question that inspired Webb’s book, “How do you get ideas?”

Webb argues that the production of ideas is a process, just like the production of cars.

… the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

The formula is simple but not easy.

First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it.

Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.

That’s the same reason Warren Buffett has no problem sharing the secrets of investing in his shareholder letters (I recommend the real thing, but if you’re pressed for time, you could do worse than the Cliff Notes version.)

Training the mind requires that you learn principles and methods.

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

[…]

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

Echoing Einstein, Webb believed that the key to creativity could be found in new combinations of old things.

With regard to the general principles which underlie the production of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important.

The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.

This is, perhaps the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas.

[…]

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

[…]

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Young expands on the notion that combinations, and thus relationships and connections between ideas, are the key.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

The process he advises involves 5 steps.

While we will all be familiar with each individual step, it is more important to recognize their relationship and “grasp the fact that the mind follows these five steps in definite order.”

1. Gather Raw Material

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general.

Part of this is what you set out to do when you create an idea and part of it is a life-long curiosity.

“Before passing on to the next step there are two practical suggestions I might make about this material-gathering process.”

The first is that if you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.This is simply to get yourself a supply of those little 3 X 5 ruled white cards and use them to write down the items of specific information as you gather them. If you do this, one item to a card, after a while you can begin to classify them by sections of your subject. Eventually you will have a whole file box of them, neatly classified.

The second suggestion is that for storing up certain kinds of general material some method of doing it like a scrapbook or file is useful.

You will remember the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the master detective spent his time indexing and cross-indexing the old bits of material he gathered there.

2. The Mental Digestive Process

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

3. Unconsciously Process
Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

4. A-Ha

Now, if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

5. The Final Stage

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

Still curious? Read A Technique for Producing Ideas.

The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers

Tina Rosenberg with a thoughtful op-ed in the NYT on the influence people around us have on our decisions, even, oddly, when they are imaginary.

Bad behavior is usually more visible than good. It’s what people talk about, it’s what the news media report on, it’s what experts focus on. Experts are always trying to change bad behavior by warning of how widespread it is, and they take any opportunity to label it a crisis. “The field loves talking about the problems because it generates political and economic support,” said Perkins.

This strategy might feel effective, but it’s not — it simply communicates that bad behavior is the social norm. Telling people to go against their peer group never works. A better strategy is the reverse: give people credible evidence that among their peers, good behavior is the social norm.

In short, stop nagging people about what they shouldn’t be doing and instead tell them how other people are doing the right thing.

Why does this work?

Because when we don’t know what to do in a situation, we naturally look around to see what other people are doing. “From that we learn what is appropriate, and what is practical.”

With traditional approaches to behavior change, an outsider comes in, warns you of the dire consequences of your behavior and tells you what to do differently. That often just makes people defensive.

With social norming you tell people what other people are doing, not what they should be doing. But we need to be aware of salience.

“We can only hold one thing in consciousness at a time – and it is that thing that drives behavior,” said Cialdini, who is writing his next book about the topic. Success is more likely if the social norming message hits people just when they are about to make that behavioral decision.

And, of course, you need to make sure the behavior you’re norming is credible and accurate.

Also, it helps to compare people’s behavior to the closest peer group possible. For example, Cialdini’s towel study found that people were even more likely to re-use towels when told that most people who had stayed in the same room did so.

If you consider the social norm as a sort of baseline, then the people doing worse than the baseline will improve their behavior. But we’re not all below the baseline; some people are above average. Simply knowing that you’re actually doing better than your peers can turn you into a slacker.

This is called the boomerang effect, and it is real. Opower initially found that households that were saving a lot of energy relaxed their efforts once they know how other people were doing. But Opower officials solved the problem by providing rewards for good behavior. Well, a computer did – the “reward” was a smiley face or two on their bill. That small change kept people from backsliding, and the boomerang stopped.

One of the mysteries of social norming is that although it is being used by some people in several fields, it isn’t used by a lot of people. Even institutions that used it successfully in the past have abandoned it when the champion left.

Social norms work below our conscious radar. “People don’t see themselves as easily influenced by those around them,” Cialdini says. When people are asked what would make them change a behavior, they rank “what my peers are doing” last. But when tested against what does, in fact, change behavior, it comes first.

Rosenberg concludes that “[f]ollowing the crowd is primal.”

If you’re interested in understanding how people persuade you—and how you can better persuade others—you should read Robert Cialdini’s books Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

John Holland: The Building Blocks of Innovation

“Most innovation comes from combining well-known, well-established, building blocks in new ways.”

***

John Holland, a professor of two vastly different fields—psychology and engineering—at the University of Michigan, frequently lectures on innovative thinking.

According to Holland, there are two steps to innovation. The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

Holland is focused on innovation, but many readers of Farnam Street will recognize the first step—acquiring the building blocks—as the process for acquiring worldly wisdom.

Like us, Holland wants to connect well-known and well-established ideas from multiple disciplines in new ways to solve problems.

In our case, the basic building blocks are the big ideas in each major discipline. While this seems daunting, luckily, according to Charlie Munger, “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person.”

Domain Dependence and Linking

It’s important that you can link these models together and recognize them outside of the domain they are presented. Many people, for instance, don’t link the supply and demand from economics and equilibrium from physics. Yet in many ways, they are the same thing. If you can’t recognize the forces at play outside of the system in which you learned about them, you are domain-dependent.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

We are all, in a way, similarly handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context. It is as if we are doomed to be deceived by the most superficial part of things, the packaging, the gift wrapping.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of each of the major models, you won’t be able to link them together. And if you can’t link them together, you’re going to go through life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Construction of a Model

According to Holland, “the construction of a mental model … closely resembles the construction of a metaphor:”

  1. There is a source system with an established aura of facts, interpretation and practice.
  2. There is a target system with a collection of observed phenomena that are difficult to interpret or explain.
  3. There is a translation from source to target that suggests a means of transferring inferences for the source into inferences for the target.

Seeing new connections requires models and metaphors. Holland continues:

For most who are heavily engaged in creative activities, be it in literature or the sciences, metaphor and model lie at the center of their activities. In the sciences, both the source and the target are best characterized as systems rather than isolated objects. … In the sciences, decisions about which properties of the source system are central for understanding the target, and which are incidental, are resolved by careful testing against the world. As a result of testing and deduction, a well-established model in the sciences accumulates a complicated aura of technique, interpretation, and consequences, much of it unwritten. One physicist will say to another “this is a conservation of mass problem” and immediately both will have in mind a whole array of knowledge associated with problems modeled in this way.

“The essence of metaphor,” writes Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

Holland posits that metaphors help us translate ideas into models, which form the building blocks of innovative thinking.

“In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood,” Robert Hagstrom writes in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, “using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases, we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.”

Metaphor and Innovation

From the Credit Suisse Thought Leader Forum:

To understand the problems in any discipline, it is necessary to have deep knowledge in that discipline. To resolve those problems, it is often necessary to look at the problem through the filters of a different and often distant discipline. The simplest analogy to the phenomenon is simply perspective. It is very difficult to understand, say, the traffic patterns of a city if you are stuck in your car at rush hour. With the distance provided by a traffic helicopter, however, it is much easier to see the major thoroughfares, the bottlenecks and the overall dynamics of the traffic system. The shift in vantage point offers better understanding and new insights for your strategy. For more abstract challenges, the use of metaphor serves the same purpose as distance in the traffic example. If we are stuck on the challenge of distribution in a global manufacturing company, for example, it may be useful to apply models from other disciplines as metaphors. The model that we have developed and used for our distribution system has been quite effective over the years, but we just cannot seem to resolve some particular challenge. Perhaps we can learn something from other kinds of distribution systems. How does an ant colony collect and distribute its resources? How does the human body manage its circulation and processing of nutrients and wastes?

Three Keys to effectively applying metaphors

There are three keys to effectively applying metaphors to achieve insight and innovation. First, you must develop a deep understanding of the metaphorical system. You will gain no new insights if you look at the human circulatory system and say, “Aha! The brain tells the rest of the body where to send things!” If you draw conclusions too quickly, then more than likely you have only recreated your existing model of distribution systems – you are seeing the human body’s circulation system as if it were the distribution system of a global manufacturing firm. If you invest the time and effort to understand this complex new system on its own merits, then you might discover something interesting about your own discipline. For instance, the human circulatory system is one of several overlapping hierarchical systems that allow the human body to grow, heal, change and yet maintain homeostatic balance. How do those systems overlap? How are the priorities of those different systems balanced? What overlapping systems exist in our global manufacturing firm, and how do they interact? An in-depth study of a new complex system should force you to ask new questions about your own, seemingly familiar system.

The second key to applying metaphors is to recognize the value of the cognitive leap. As you map the models from one system onto another, the fit will never be perfect. Our global manufacturing firm is not a human body. Therefore the solution to our challenge will not lie in our suddenly believing this to be true. Instead, the solution will lie one or two steps away. As we look at the human circulatory system, we will encounter questions and tangential thoughts. “What performs the function of ‘hormones’ in our organization?” We will not, of course, implement a system of complex chemical exchanges in our organization, but this might lead us to think about our communication systems or decision-making metrics in a new way.

The final key is often the most frustrating for managers — only a very few of the ideas that this process produces will be highly valuable. Some of the ideas will be useless. Many of the ideas will be interesting but impractical or irrelevant. Other ideas will serve as useful, incremental improvements to your system. But only a rare few of these ideas will be truly revolutionary. The secret is the same in any game of statistics – you have to try large numbers of these metaphors for the big ideas to hit. These ideas are the outliers, not the norm, and while metaphor can push your thinking towards the innovative, no process can guarantee that your new ideas will be both different and effective. Many managers are willing to try this approach once or twice, and give up when it does not immediately return impressive results. … In order to discover great innovations, you must engage regularly in the search and recognize that most of your discoveries will have either marginal or moderate value. Creative combination is a process that increases your odds of discovering breakthrough innovations, but it cannot guarantee success. This is a tool, not a silver bullet.

Are Cities More Innovative?

Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “The larger a city, the greater the variety of its manufacturing, and also the greater both the number and the proportion of its small manufacturers.”

The benefits that cities offer to smallness are just as marked in retail trade, cultural facilities and entertainment. This is because city populations are large enough to support wide ranges of variety and choices in these things. And again we find that bigness has all the advantage in smaller settlements. Towns and suburbs for instance are natural homes for huge supermarkets, and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive ins for little else in the way of theatre.

There are simply not enough people to support further variety, although there may be people(too few of them) who would draw upon it were it there. Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets, and standard movie houses, plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small. Wherever lively and popular parts of the cities are found, the small much outnumber the large.

“Cities, then,” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, “Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways. This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters.”

And Samuel Arbesman, in The Half-life of Facts, adds: “Larger groups of interacting people can maintain skills and innovations, and in turn develop new ones. A small group doesn’t have the benefit of specialization and idea exchange necessary for any of this to happen.”

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Still curious? If you want a deeper understanding, read Growth in Cities.

An Introduction to Creativity

Professor Sanjay Bakshi teaches MBA students “Behavioral Finance & Business Valuation (BFBV)” and “Financial Shenanigans & Governance” at MDI, Gurgaon. He was kind enough to put together a list of reference material for Farnam Street readers (books/videos) that he uses on the subject of creativity.

Creative Whack Pack.

An illustrated deck of 64 creative thinking strategies that will whack you out of habitual thought patterns and enable you to look at your life and actions in a fresh way. Use the cards alone or with others to seek innovative solutions to issues.

Innovative Whack Pack

Each card in the deck packs a two-sided creative punch. One side has a provocative insight about innovation from Heraclitus, the world’s first creativity teacher. These 2,500 year old ideas – such as “You can’t step into the same river twice,” “Everything flows,” “That which opposes produces a benefit,” and “Dogs bark at what they don’t understand” -will give you a fresh perspective. The other side contains a creativity strategy inspired by each insight.

Books:
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery—these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? How do we generate the groundbreaking ideas that push forward our lives, our society, our culture? Steven Johnson’s answers are revelatory as he identifies the seven key patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines. From Darwin and Freud to the halls of Google and Apple, Johnson investigates the innovation hubs throughout modern time and pulls out applicable approaches and commonalities that seem to appear at moments of originality. What he finds gives us both an important new understanding of the roots of innovation and a set of useful strategies for cultivating our own creative breakthroughs.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity

Linkner distills his years of experience in business and jazz — as well as hundreds of interviews with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and artists — into a 5-step process that will make creativity easy for you and your organization. The methodology is simple, backed by proven results.

I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History’s Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes

Describing something by relating it to another thing is the essence of metaphorical thought. It is one of the oldest activities of humankind—and one of the most impressive when done skillfully. Throughout history, many masters of metaphor have crafted observations that are so spectacular they have taken up a permanent residence in our minds.

Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently

Though indispensable, true iconoclasts are few and far between. In Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explains why. He explores the constraints the human brain places on innovative thinking, including fear of failure, the urge to conform, and the tendency to interpret sensory information in familiar ways.

Steve Jobs

At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology. He built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering.

Einstein: His Life and Universe (by Walter Isaacson)

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.

Presentations:

Ted talks by Hans Rosling

Stats that reshape your worldview (2006)
New insights on poverty(2007)
New facts and stunning data visuals (2009)
Let my dataset change your mindset (2009)
Asia’s rise — how and when (2009)
Global population growth, box by box (2010)
The good news of the decade? (2010)
The magic washing machine (2011)
Religions and babies (2012)

Steve Jobs Presentations (some examples below)

Apple Keynote — The “1984” Ad Introduction (1983)
Stanford Commencement Speech (2005)
iPhone Presentation (2007)
iPad Presentation (2010)
Steve Jobs Presents to the Cupertino City Council (2011)

Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk

People often credit their ideas to individual “Eureka!” moments. But Steven Johnson shows how history tells a different story. His fascinating tour takes us from the “liquid networks” of London’s coffee houses to Charles Darwin’s long, slow hunch to today’s high-velocity web.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted talk on “A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius”

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Tim Brown’s Ted talk on “The powerful link between creativity and play”

Tim Brown is the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm IDEO — taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.

TEDTalks : Creativity, fulfillment and flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2004)

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

Ken Robinson’s TED talks

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
schools kill creativity (2006)
Bring on the learning revolution! (2010)
Changing education paradigms 2010

The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person or organization who says they’re opposed to creativity. It’s seen as an unequivocally good thing. Everyone wants to have creative ideas.

But we don’t always behave in a way that indicates we value creativity. We resist new ideas. For instance, schools are meant to foster creativity. Yet research indicates that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking.

Why are our attitudes to creativity so contradictory?

Three researchers at Cornell University took a stab at the answer:

We offer a new perspective to explain this puzzle. Just as people have deeply-rooted biases against people of a certain age, race or gender that are not necessarily overt (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995), so too can people hold deeply-rooted negative views of creativity that are not openly acknowledged. Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancement, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary.

Creative ideas are novel and useful. Yet idea-evaluators (decision-makers) have a hard time “viewing novelty and practicality as attributes that go hand in hand,” and, in fact, often view them as inversely related.

When endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure, perceptions of risk, social rejection when expressing the idea to others, and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion.

And we generally like to avoid uncertainty:

Although the positive associations with creativity are typically the focus of attention both among scholars and practitioners, the negative associations may also be activated when people evaluate a creative idea. For example, research on associative thinking suggests that strong uncertainty feelings may make the negative attributes of creativity, particularly those related to uncertainty, more salient

The authors conclude:

Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.

Source: The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire: But Reject Creative Ideas