Tag: Innovation

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doers and thinkers from Shakespeare to Jobs, liberally “stole” inspiration from the doers and thinkers who came before. Here’s how to do it right.

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“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development. It doesn’t make what you do less valuable. Embrace it.

Everyone gets a lift up

Ironically, Newton’s turn of phrase wasn’t even entirely his own. The phrase can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants and said that “we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”

There are giants in every field. Don’t be intimidated by them. They offer an exciting perspective. As the film director Jim Jarmusch advised, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

That might sound demoralizing. Some might think, “My song, my book, my blog post, my startup, my app, my creation—surely they are original? Surely no one has done this before!” But that’s likely not the case. It’s also not a bad thing. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in his TED Talk: “Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness—it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.”

There lies the important fact. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables us to see further, not merely as far as before. When we build upon prior work, we often improve upon it and take humanity in new directions. However original your work seems to be, the influences are there—they might just be uncredited or not obvious. As we know from social proof, copying is a natural human tendency. It’s how we learn and figure out how to behave.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb describes the type of antifragile inventions and ideas that have lasted throughout history. He describes himself heading to a restaurant (the likes of which have been around for at least 2,500 years), in shoes similar to those worn at least 5,300 years ago, to use silverware designed by the Mesopotamians. During the evening, he drinks wine based on a 6,000-year-old recipe, from glasses invented 2,900 years ago, followed by cheese unchanged through the centuries. The dinner is prepared with one of our oldest tools, fire, and using utensils much like those the Romans developed.

Much about our societies and cultures has undeniably changed and continues to change at an ever-faster rate. But we continue to stand on the shoulders of those who came before in our everyday life, using their inventions and ideas, and sometimes building upon them.

Not invented here syndrome

When we discredit what came before or try to reinvent the wheel or refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, many of the best ideas are the oldest. “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is a term for situations when we avoid using ideas, products, or data created by someone else, preferring instead to develop our own (even if it is more expensive, time-consuming, and of lower quality.)

The syndrome can also manifest as reluctance to outsource or delegate work. People might think their output is intrinsically better if they do it themselves, becoming overconfident in their own abilities. After all, who likes getting told what to do, even by someone who knows better? Who wouldn’t want to be known as the genius who (re)invented the wheel?

Developing a new solution for a problem is more exciting than using someone else’s ideas. But new solutions, in turn, create new problems. Some people joke that, for example, the largest Silicon Valley companies are in fact just impromptu incubators for people who will eventually set up their own business, firm in the belief that what they create themselves will be better.

The syndrome is also a case of the sunk cost fallacy. If a company has spent a lot of time and money getting a square wheel to work, they may be resistant to buying the round ones that someone else comes out with. The opportunity costs can be tremendous. Not Invented Here Syndrome detracts from an organization or individual’s core competency, and results in wasting time and talent on what are ultimately distractions. Better to use someone else’s idea and be a giant for someone else.

Why Steve Jobs stole his ideas

“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. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

— Steve Jobs

In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman trace the path that led to the creation of the iPhone and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched. We often hail Jobs as a revolutionary figure who changed how we use technology. Few who were around in 2007 could have failed to notice the buzz created by the release of the iPhone. It seemed so new, a total departure from anything that had come before. The truth is a little messier.

The first touchscreen came about almost half a century before the iPhone, developed by E.A. Johnson for air traffic control. Other engineers built upon his work and developed usable models, filing a patent in 1975. Around the same time, the University of Illinois was developing touchscreen terminals for students. Prior to touchscreens, light pens used similar technology. The first commercial touchscreen computer came out in 1983, soon followed by graphics boards, tablets, watches, and video game consoles. Casio released a touchscreen pocket computer in 1987 (remember, this is still a full twenty years before the iPhone.)

However, early touchscreen devices were frustrating to use, with very limited functionality, often short battery lives, and minimal use cases for the average person. As touchscreen devices developed in complexity and usability, they laid down the groundwork for the iPhone.

Likewise, the iPod built upon the work of Kane Kramer, who took inspiration from the Sony Walkman. Kramer designed a small portable music player in the 1970s. The IXI, as he called it, looked similar to the iPod but arrived too early for a market to exist, and Kramer lacked the marketing skills to create one. When pitching to investors, Kramer described the potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, taped live performances, back catalog availability, and the promotion of new artists and microtransactions. Sound familiar?

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of the many unseen engineers, students, and scientists who worked for decades to build the technology he drew upon. Although Apple has a long history of merciless lawsuits against those they consider to have stolen their ideas, many were not truly their own in the first place. Brandt and Eagleman conclude that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

How Shakespeare got his ideas

Nothing will come of nothing.”  

— William Shakespeare, King Lear

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays draw heavily upon prior works—so much so that some question whether he would have survived today’s copyright laws.

Hamlet took inspiration from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus, consisting of sixteen Latin books. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare had access to the original text, scholars find the parallels undeniable and believe he may have read another play based on it, from which he drew inspiration. In particular, the accounts of the plight of Prince Amleth (which has the same letters as Hamlet) involves similar events.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches. Holinshed’s Chronicles itself was a mélange of earlier texts, which transferred their biases and fabrications to Shakespeare. It also likely inspired King Lear.

Parts of Antony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was an undisguised template for Romeo and Juliet. Once again, there are more giants behind the scenes—Brooke copied a 1559 poem by Pierre Boaistuau, who in turn drew from a 1554 story by Matteo Bandello, who in turn drew inspiration from a 1530 work by Luigi da Porto. The list continues, with Plutarch, Chaucer, and the Bible acting as inspirations for many major literary, theatrical, and cultural works.

Yet what Shakespeare did with the works he sometimes copied, sometimes learned from, is remarkable. Take a look at any of the original texts and, despite the mimicry, you will find that they cannot compare to his plays. Many of the originals were dry, unengaging, and lacking any sort of poetic language. J.J. Munro wrote in 1908 that The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet “meanders on like a listless stream in a strange and impossible land; Shakespeare’s sweeps on like a broad and rushing river, singing and foaming, flashing in sunlight and darkening in cloud, carrying all things irresistibly to where it plunges over the precipice into a waste of waters below.”

Despite bordering on plagiarism at times, he overhauled the stories with an exceptional use of the English language, bringing drama and emotion to dreary chronicles or poems. He had a keen sense for the changes required to restructure plots, creating suspense and intensity in their stories. Shakespeare saw far further than those who wrote before him, and with their help, he ushered in a new era of the English language.

Of course, it’s not just Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare who found a (sometimes willing, sometimes not) shoulder to stand upon. Facebook is presumed to have built upon Friendster. Cormac McCarthy’s books often replicate older history texts, with one character coming straight from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions. John Lennon borrowed from diverse musicians, once writing in a letter to the New York Times that though the Beatles copied black musicians, “it wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.”

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem points to many other instances of influences in classic works. In 1916, journalist Heinz von Lichberg published a story of a man who falls in love with his landlady’s daughter and begins a love affair, culminating in her death and his lasting loneliness. The title? Lolita. It’s hard to question that Nabokov must have read it, but aside from the plot and name, the style of language in his version is absent from the original.

The list continues. The point is not to be flippant about plagiarism but to cultivate sensitivity to the elements of value in a previous work, as well as the ability to build upon those elements. If we restrict the flow of ideas, everyone loses out.

The adjacent possible

What’s this about? Why can’t people come up with their own ideas? Why do so many people come up with a brilliant idea but never profit from it? The answer lies in what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Quite simply, each new innovation or idea opens up the possibility of additional innovations and ideas. At any time, there are limits to what is possible, yet those limits are constantly expanding.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson compares this process to being in a house where opening a door creates new rooms. Each time we open the door to a new room, new doors appear and the house grows. Johnson compares it to the formation of life, beginning with basic fatty acids. The first fatty acids to form were not capable of turning into living creatures. When they self-organized into spheres, the groundwork formed for cell membranes, and a new door opened to genetic codes, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. When dinosaurs evolved a new bone that meant they had more manual dexterity, they opened a new door to flight. When our distant ancestors evolved opposable thumbs, dozens of new doors opened to the use of tools, writing, and warfare. According to Johnson, the history of innovation has been about exploring new wings of the adjacent possible and expanding what we are capable of.

A new idea—like those of Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare—is only possible because a previous giant opened a new door and made their work possible. They in turn opened new doors and expanded the realm of possibility. Technology, art, and other advances are only possible if someone else has laid the groundwork; nothing comes from nothing. Shakespeare could write his plays because other people had developed the structures and language that formed his tools. Newton could advance science because of the preliminary discoveries that others had made. Jobs built Apple out of the debris of many prior devices and technological advances.

The questions we all have to ask ourselves are these: What new doors can I open, based on the work of the giants that came before me? What opportunities can I spot that they couldn’t? Where can I take the adjacent possible? If you think all the good ideas have already been found, you are very wrong. Other people’s good ideas open new possibilities, rather than restricting them.

As time passes, the giants just keep getting taller and more willing to let us hop onto their shoulders. Their expertise is out there in books and blog posts, open-source software and TED talks, podcast interviews, and academic papers. Whatever we are trying to do, we have the option to find a suitable giant and see what can be learned from them. In the process, knowledge compounds, and everyone gets to see further as we open new doors to the adjacent possible.

The Value of Play As a Driver of Innovation

Innovation does not always have to be the result of serious study and agonizing progress. As Steven Johnson so eloquently argues in Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, many of the activities and endeavors we have undertaken for pleasure have fueled an exceptional amount of innovation and discovery.

The story of play, of how it fits into the human experience, can teach us how to embrace the possibilities that can come of being frivolous. Initially, play might seem like an indulgence, but it can lead to some amazingly consequential developments. As Johnson writes:

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History.

Play and Technological Innovation

The desire to both amuse and be amused can lead to the development of technology that has wide-ranging applications.

Johnson traces a direct line between devices described in The Book of Ingenious Devices, by three brothers known as the Banu Musa in Baghdad in 760 CE, and the programmable software that drives our computer-based culture. Play is the connection that links the inventions from ancient pictures of self-playing instruments to the relatively recent development of the internet.

Some of the devices described in the book were programmable in a very rudimentary sense. And it was this idea that contained the seeds of the future. “Conceptually, this was a massive leap forward: machines designed specifically to be open-ended in their functionality, machines controlled by code and not just by mechanics.”

These machines were designed to entertain, but for this entertainment to come alive, some significant technological advancement needed to happen. We had to develop the working parts, the engineering know-how, the language to create machines that could move on their own, and a whole host of other innovations. Johnson traces “how long the idea of a programmable machine was kept in circulation by the propulsive force of delight” until the skills and technology developed gave us such things as the typewriter, the frequency hopping technology used on navy ships, and Bitcoin.

This power of play to inspire technology that does more than entertain reminds us that there is no specific prescription for innovation. New ideas can come from a chain of thoughts and circumstances that are not obvious in terms of what they produce. Take the story of Charles Babbage, considered one of the fathers of modern computers. His mother took him to a Mechanical Museum, a place to be entertained by artistic, whimsical devices. He was taken up to the attic to see rare specimens, the most captivating of which was a mechanical dancer.

The encounter in [the] attic stokes an obsession in Babbage, a fascination with mechanical devices that convincingly emulate the subtleties of human behavior. He earns degrees in mathematics and astronomy as a young scholar, but maintains his interest in machines by studying the new factory systems that are sprouting across England’s industrial north. Almost thirty years after his visit to [the Mechanical Museum], he publishes a seminal analysis of industrial technology, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, a work that would go on to play a pivotal role in Marx’s Das Kapital two decades later. Around the same time, Babbage begins sketching plans for a calculating machine he calls the Difference Engine, an invention that will eventually lead him to the Analytical Engine several years later, now considered to be the first programmable computer ever imagined.

“Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions,” Johnson explains, “it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.”

For most of us, play is a special time away from the ordinary tasks we undertake every day. It can open us up to possibilities because it requires an atypical engagement with our surroundings. Sometimes, this openness provides a space for innovation.

Play is a gateway to possibility.

Play and Social Innovation

Johnson also demonstrates how play led to social innovation. Certain types of recreation, like attending theater performances, seeing exhibits of the weird and wonderful, or visiting amusement parks, are play experiences that we partake in as a group. When we started doing this, it was revolutionary because those groups were made up of equals. The usual social hierarchies were temporarily suspended, as all audience members were there to have the same experience of entertainment, diversion, and wonder. It was equally thrilling for rich and poor, women and men.

This shared play experience set up new possibilities for social interaction. The ability to come together in a leisure environment with no particular agenda other than to enjoy it unleashed collaboration. “Escaping your lawful calling — and your official rank and status in society — not only created a new kind of leisure, it also created new ideas, ideas that couldn’t emerge in the more stratified gathering places of commerce or religion or domestic life.”

Take, for example, the development of the bar. “The birth of the drinking house also marked the origins of a new kind of space: a structure designed explicitly for the casual pleasures of leisure time. The tavern was not a space of work, or worship; it was not a home. It existed somewhere else on the grid of social possibility, a place you went to just for the fun of it.” Johnson argues that these spaces, these places we went to just for fun, gave birth to movements of democracy, of equality. In an interesting example, he describes how taverns were directly responsible for the colonists’ success in the American Revolution.

The pursuit of play gave us the ability to organize ourselves differently, to make connections with people we would not normally have interacted with. Not that this ability necessarily transformed each individual, but it changed our ideas of what was proper and right, gradually allowing the concept of the common space to become critical to how we design our cities and organize our societies.

A Final Musing on Play

Why is play so powerful? Johnson explains that “humans — and other organisms — evolved neural mechanisms that promote learning when they have experiences that confound their expectations. When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention.”

And the whole point of play is to be surprised. The unknown factor is part of what entertains us. Play is a gateway to possibility. Whether it’s through new music, a new spectacle, or a new round of a board game, play can get our senses tingling as we wonder what we will experience in the coming minutes. This is why Einstein called play the essential feature of productive thought. Seneca was also a fan of combinatorial play.

Play can transport us out of the realm of “things we already know” (the route to work, the importance of saving money and of brushing our teeth) and into the realm of “things we haven’t yet figured out.” And it is here that innovation happens.

It is in this sense of the concept that Johnson suggests that play is a gateway into the future. “So many of the wonderlands of history offered a glimpse of future developments because those were the spaces where the new found its way into everyday life: first as an escape from our ‘lawful calling and affairs’ and then as a key element in those affairs.”

Exploring play is about understanding that innovation can happen when we are driven by enjoyment. Innovation doesn’t always have to be a serious pursuit. So if you are in a creative funk, fresh out of good ideas, try playing.

Footnotes

Hares, Tortoises, and the Trouble with Genius

“Geniuses are dangerous.”
— James March

How many organizations would deny that they want more creativity, more genius, and more divergent thinking among their constituents? The great genius leaders of the world are fawned over breathlessly and a great amount of lip service is given to innovation; given the choice between “mediocrity” and “innovation,” we all choose innovation hands-down.

So why do we act the opposite way?

Stanford’s James March might have some insight. His book On Leadership (see our earlier notes here) is a collection of insights derived mostly from the study of great literature, from Don Quixote to Saint Joan to War & Peace. In March’s estimation, we can learn more about human nature (of which leadership is merely a subset) from studying literature than we can from studying leadership literature.

March discusses the nature of divergent thinking and “genius” in a way that seems to reflect true reality. We don’t seek to cultivate genius, especially in a mature organization, because we’re more afraid of the risks than appreciative of the benefits. A classic case of loss aversion. Tolerating genius means tolerating a certain amount of disruption; the upside of genius sounds pretty good until we start understanding its dark side:

Most original ideas are bad ones. Those that are good, moreover, are only seen as such after a long learning period; they rarely are impressive when first tried out. As a result, an organization is likely to discourage both experimentation with deviant ideas and the people who come up with them, thereby depriving itself, in the name of efficient operation, of its main source of innovation.

[…]

Geniuses are dangerous. Othello’s instinctive action makes him commit an appalling crime, the fine sentiments of Pierre Bezukhov bring little comfort to the Russian peasants, and Don Quixote treats innocent people badly over and over again. A genius combines the characteristics that produce resounding failures (stubbornness, lack of discipline, ignorance), a few ingredients of success (elements of intelligence, a capacity to put mistakes behind him or her, unquenchable motivation), and exceptional good luck. Genius therefore only appears as a sub-product of a great tolerance for heresy and apparent craziness, which is often the result of particular circumstances (over-abundant resources, managerial ideology, promotional systems) rather than deliberate intention. “Intelligent” organizations will therefore try to create an environment that allows genius to flourish by accepting the risks of inefficiency or crushing failures…within the limits of the risks that they can afford to take.

We’ve bolded an important component: Exceptional good luck. The kind of genius that rarely surfaces but we desperately pursue needs great luck to make an impact. Truthfully, genius is always recognized in hindsight, with the benefit of positive results in mind. We “cherrypick” the good results of divergent thinkers, but forget that we use the results to decide who’s a genius and who isn’t. Thus, tolerating divergent, genius-level thinking requires an ability to tolerate failure, loss, and change if it’s to be applied prospectively.

Sounds easy enough, in theory. But as Daniel Kahneman and Charlie Munger have so brilliantly pointed out, we become very risk averse when we possess anything, including success; we feel loss more acutely than gain, and we seek to keep the status quo intact. (And it’s probably good that we do, on average.)

Compounding the problem, when we do recognize and promote genius, some of our exalting is likely to be based on false confidence, almost by definition:

Individuals who are frequently promoted because they have been successful will have confidence in their own abilities to beat the odds. Since in a selective, and therefore increasingly homogenous, management group the differences in performance that are observed are likely to be more often due to chance events than to any particular individual capacity, the confidence is likely to be misplaced. Thus, the process of selecting on performance results in exaggerated self-confidence and exaggerated risk-taking.

Let’s use a current example: Elon Musk. Elon is (justifiably) recognized as a modern genius, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Yet as Ashlee Vance makes clear in his biography, Musk teetered on the brink several times. It’s a near miracle that his businesses have survived (and thrived) to where they’re at today. The press would read much differently if SpaceX or Tesla had gone under — he might be considered a brilliant but fatally flawed eccentric rather than a genius. Luck played a fair part in that outcome (which is not to take away from Musk’s incredible work).

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Getting back to organizations, the failure to appropriately tolerate genius is also a problem of homeostasis: The tendency of systems to “stay in place” and avoid disruption of strongly formed past habits. Would an Elon Musk be able to rise in a homeostatic organization? It generally does not happen.

James March has a solution, though, and it’s one we’ve heard echoed by other thinkers like Nassim Taleb and seems to be used fairly well in some modern technology organizations. As with most organizational solutions, it requires realigning incentives, which is the job of a strong and selfless leader.

An analogy of the hare and the tortoise illustrates the solution:

Although one particular hare (who runs fast but sleeps too long) has every chance or being beaten by one particular tortoise, an army of hares in competition with an army of tortoises will almost certainly result in one of the hares crossing the finish line first. The choices of an organization therefore depend on the respective importance that it attaches to its mean performance (in which case it should recruit tortoises) and the achievement of a few dazzling successes (an army of hares, which is inefficient as a whole, but contains some outstanding individuals.)

[…]

In a simple model, a tortoise advances with a constant speed of 1 mile/hour while a hare runs at 5 miles/hour, but in each given 5-minute period a hare has a 90 percent chance of sleeping rather than running. A tortoise will cover the mile of the test in one hour exactly and a hare will have only about an 11 percent chance of arriving faster (the probability that he will be awake for at least three of the 5-minute periods.) If there is a race between the tortoise and one hare, the probability that the hare will win is only 0.11. However, if there are 100 tortoises and 100 hares in the race, the probability that at least one hare will arrive before any tortoise (and thus the race will be won by a hare) is 1– ((0.89)^100), or greater than 0.9999.

The analogy holds up well in the business world. Any one young, aggressive “hare” is unlikely to beat the lumbering “tortoise” that reigns king, but put 100 hares out against 100 tortoises and the result is much different.

This means that any organization must conduct itself in such a way that hares have a chance to succeed internally. It means becoming open to divergence and allowing erratic genius to rise, while keeping the costs of failure manageable. It means having the courage to create an “army of hares” inside of your own organization rather than letting tortoises have their way, as they will if given the opportunity.

For a small young organization, the cost of failure isn’t all that high, comparatively speaking — you can’t fall far off a pancake. So hares tend to get a lot more leash. But for a large organization, the cost of failure tends to increase to such a pain point that it stops becoming tolerated! At this point, real innovation ceases.

But, if we have the will and ability to create small teams and projects with “hare-like” qualities, in ways that allow the “talent + luck” equation to surface truly better and different work, necessarily tolerating (and encouraging) failure and disruption, then we might have a shot at overcoming homeostasis in the same way that a specific combination of engineering and fuel allow rockets to overcome the equally strong force of gravity.

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Still Interested? Check out our notes on James March’s books On Leadership and The Ambiguities of Experience, and an interview March did on the topic of leadership.

Warren Berger’s Three-Part Method for More Creativity

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”
— Charles “Boss” Kettering

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The whole scientific method is built on a very simple structure: If I do this, then what will happen? That’s the basic question on which more complicated, intricate, and targeted lines of inquiry are built, across a wide variety of subjects. This simple form helps us push deeper and deeper into knowledge of the world. (On a sidenote, science has become such a loaded, political word that this basic truth of how it works frequently seems to be lost!)

Individuals learn this way too. From the time you were a child, you were asking why (maybe even too much), trying to figure out all the right questions to ask to get better information about how the world works and what to do about it.

Because question-asking is such an integral part of how we know things about the world, both institutionally and individually, it seems worthy to understand how creative inquiry works, no? If we want to do things that haven’t been done or learn things that have never been learned — in short, be more creative — we must learn to ask the right questions, ones so good that they’re half-answered in the asking. And to do that, it might help to understand the process, no?

Warren Berger proposes a simple method in his book A More Beautiful Questionan interesting three-part system to help (partially) solve the problem of inquiry. He calls it The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning, and reminds us why it’s worth learning about.

Each stage of the problem solving process has distinct challenges and issues–requiring a different mind-set, along with different types of questions. Expertise is helpful at certain points, not so helpful at others; wide-open, unfettered divergent thinking is critical at one stage, discipline and focus is called for at another. By thinking of questioning and problem solving in a more structured way, we can remind ourselves to shift approaches, change tools, and adjust our questions according to which stage we’re entering.

Three-Part Method for More Creativity

Why?

It starts with the Why?

A good Why? seeks true understanding. Why are things the way they are currently? Why do we do it that way? Why do we believe what we believe?

This start is essential because it gives us permission to continue down a line of inquiry fully equipped. Although we may think we have a brilliant idea in our heads for a new product, or a new answer to an old question, or a new way of doing an old thing, unless we understand why things are the way they are, we’re not yet on solid ground. We never want to operate from a position of ignorance, wasting our time on an idea that hasn’t been pushed and fleshed out. Before we say “I already know” the answer, maybe we need to step back and look for the truth.

At the same time, starting with a strong Why also opens up the idea that the current way (whether it’s our way or someone else’s) might be wrong, or at least inefficient. Let’s say a friend proposes you go to the same restaurant you’ve been to a thousand times. It might be a little agitating, but a simple “Why do we always go there?” allows two things to happen:

A. Your friend can explain why, and this gives him/her a legitimate chance at persuasion. (If you’re open minded.)

B. The two of you may agree you only go there out of habit, and might like to go somewhere else.

This whole Why? business is the realm of contrarian thinking, which not everyone enjoys doing. But Berger cites the case of George Lois:

George Lois, the renowned designer of iconic magazine covers and celebrated advertising campaigns, was also known for being a disruptive force in business meetings. It wasn’t just that he was passionate in arguing for his ideas; the real issue, Lois recalls, was that often he was the only person in the meeting willing to ask why. The gathered business executives would be anxious to proceed on a course of action assumed to be sensible. While everyone else nodded in agreement, “I would be the only guy raising his hand to say, ‘Wait a minute, this thing you want to do doesn’t make any sense. Why the hell are you doing it this way?”

Others in the room saw Lois to be slowing the meeting and stopping the group from moving forward. But Lois understood that the group was apt to be operating on habit–trotting out an idea or approach similar to what had been done in similar situations before, without questioning whether it was the best idea or the right approach in this instance. The group needed to be challenged to “step back” by someone like Lois–who had a healthy enough ego to withstand being the lone questioner in the room.

The truth is that a really good Why? type question tends to be threatening. That’s also what makes it useful. It challenges us to step back and stop thinking on autopilot. It also requires what Berger calls a step back from knowing — that recognizable feeling of knowing something but not knowing how you know it. This forced perspective is, of course, as valuable a thing as you can do.

Berger describes a valuable exercise that’s sometimes used to force perspective on people who think they already have a complete answer. After showing a drawing of a large square (seemingly) divided into 16 smaller squares, the questioner asks the audience “How many squares do you see?”

The easy answer is sixteen. But the more observant people in the group are apt to notice–especially after Srinivas allows them to have a second, longer, look–that you can find additional squares by configuring them differently. In addition to the sixteen single squares, there are nine two-by-two squares, four three-by-three squares, and one large four-by-four square, which brings the total to thirty squares.

“The squares were always there, but you didn’t find them until you looked for them.”

Point being, until you step back, re-examine, and look a little harder, you might not have seen all the damn squares yet!

What If?

The second part is where a good questioner, after using Why? to understand as deeply as possible and open a new line of inquiry, proposes a new type of solution, usually an audacious one — all great ideas tend to be, almost by definition — by asking What If…?

Berger illustrates this one well with the story of Pandora Music. The founder Tim Westergren wanted to know why good music wasn’t making it out to the masses. His search didn’t lead to a satisfactory answer, so he eventually asked himself, What if we could map the DNA of music? The result has been pretty darn good, with something close to 80 million listeners at present:

The Pandora story, like many stories of inquiry-driven startups, started with someone’s wondering about an unmet need. It concluded with the questioner, Westergren, figuring out how to bring a fully realized version of the answer into the world.

But what happened in between? That’s when the lightning struck. In Westergren’s case, ideas and influences began to come together; he combined what he knew about music with what he was learning about technology. Inspiration was drawn from a magazine article, and from a seemingly unrelated world (biology). A vision of the new possibility began to form in the mind. It all resulted in an audacious hypothetical question that might or might not have been feasible–but was exciting enough to rally people to the challenge of trying to make it work.

The What If stage is the blue-sky moment of questioning, when anything is possible. Those possibilities may not survive the more practical How stage; but it’s critical to innovation that there be time for wild, improbable ideas to surface and to inspire.

If the word Why has penetrative power, enabling the questioner to get past assumptions and dig deep into problems, the words What if have a more expansive effect–allowing us to think without limits or constraints, firing the imagination.

Clearly, Westergren had engaged in serious combinatorial creativity pulling from multiple disciplines, which led him to ask the right kind of questions. This seems to be a pretty common feature at this stage of the game, and an extremely common feature of all new ideas:

Smart recombinations are all around us. Pandora, for example, is a combination of a radio station and search engine; it also takes the biological method of genetic coding and transfers it to the domain of music […] In today’s tech world, many of the most successful products–Apple’s iPhone being just one notable example–are hybrids, melding functions and features in new ways.

Companies, too, can be smart recombinations. Netflix was started as a video-rental business that operated like a monthly membership health club (and how it has added “TV production studio” to the mix). Airbnb is a combination of an online travel agency, a social media platform, and a good old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast (the B&B itself is a smart combination from way back.)

It may be that the Why? –> What if? line of inquiry is common to all types of innovative thinking because it engages the part of our brain that starts turning over old ideas in new ways by combining them with other unrelated ideas, much of them previously sitting idle in our subconscious. That churning is where new ideas really arise.

The idea then has to be “reality-tested”, and that’s where the last major question comes in.

How?

Once we think we’ve hit on a brilliant new idea, it’s time to see if the thing actually works. Usually and most frequently, the answer is no. But enough times to make it worth our while, we discover that the new idea has legs.

The most common problem here is that we try to perfect a new idea all at once, leading to stagnation and paralysis. That’s usually the wrong approach.

Another, often better, way is to try the idea quickly and start getting feedback. As much as possible. In the book, Berger describes a fun little experiment that drives home the point, and serves as a fairly useful business metaphor besides:

A software designer shared a story about an interesting experiment in which the organizers brought together a group of kindergarten children who were divided into small teams and given a challenge: Using uncooked spaghetti sticks, string, tape, and a marshmallow, they had to assemble the tallest structure they could, within a time limit (the marshmallow was supposed to be placed on top of the completed structure.)

Then, in a second phase of the experiment, the organizers added a new wrinkle. They brought in teams of Harvard MBA grad students to compete in the challenge against the kindergartners. The grad students, I’m told, took it seriously. They brought a highly analytical approach to the challenge, debating among themselves about how best to combine the sticks, the string, and the tape to achieve maximum altitude.

Perhaps you’ll have guessed this already, but the MBA students were no match for the kindergartners. For all their planning and discussion, the structures they carefully conceived invariably fell apart–and then they were out of time before they could get in more attempts.

The kids used their time much more efficiently by constructing right away. They tried one way of building, and if it didn’t work, they quickly tried another. They got in a lot more tries. They learned from their mistakes as they went along, instead of attempting to figure out everything in advance.

This little experiment gets run in the real world all the time by startups looking to outcompete ponderous old bureaucracies. They simply substitute velocity for scale and see what happens — it often works well.

The point is to move along the axis of Why?–>What If–>How? without too much self-censoring in the last phase. Being afraid to fail can often mean a great What If? proposition gets stuck there forever. Analysis paralysis, as it’s sometimes called. But if you can instead enter the testing of the How? stage quickly, even by showing that an idea won’t work, then you can start the loop over again, either asking a new Why? or proposing a new What If? to an existing Why?

Thus moving your creative engine forward.

***

Berger’s point is that there is an intense practical end to understanding productive inquiry. Just like “If I do this, then what will happen?” is a basic structure on which all manner of complex scientific questioning and testing is built, so can a simple Why, What If, and How structure catalyze a litany of new ideas.

Still Interested? Check out the book, or check out some related posts: Steve Jobs on CreativitySeneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity, or for some fun with question-asking, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

The 10 Qualities of Creative Leaders

David Ogilvy was an advertising legend and perhaps the original “Mad Man.”

The Unpublished David Ogilvy offers a remarkably candid glimpse of the private man behind the public image.

Ogilvy was fond of lists. This one outlines the ten qualities of creative leaders.

The qualifications I look for in our (creative) leaders are these:

  1. High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.

***

Still curious about Ogilvy? Read why education is a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and scientific advertising.

The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

In Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future — more of an exercise in thinking about the questions you must ask to move from zero to one — there is a great section on the single best interview question you can ask someone.

Whenever Peter Thiel interviews someone he likes to ask the following question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

The most common answers, according to Thiel, are “Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.” “America is exceptional.” “There is no God.”

These are bad answers.

The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

[…]

What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come.

We hope for progress when we think about the future. To Thiel, that progress takes place in two ways.

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things— going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

best interview question peter thiel

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization— taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. … The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology. … Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time.

Peter Thiel
Here is Thiel’s answer to his own question:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.