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Thinking differently about creativity

By Dennis Sherwood

We all know that old cliché 'Necessity is the mother of invention', and events over the past nine months have validated its truth: that wretched virus has caused many new things to happen, from enhanced remote teaching at all educational levels to the ever-closer development of a vaccine.

Why has there been such an outburst of the discovery of new ideas, of creativity? Is it because people have suddenly become more creative?

I’d be surprised, for the people are largely the same as those that were around the table this time last year. So it must be something else. Or rather, I suggest, two something elses: firstly, an urgency to get some important things done, and secondly, a significant reduction in all the objections that are normally thrown in the way.

As an example, take the development of a vaccine. I really know nothing about this – really! – but from what I’ve read, one of the reasons why so much progress has been made so quickly is because certain processes that hitherto have taken place sequentially have been run in parallel, but without compromising safety. You can imagine what might have happened at a development team meeting a year ago had someone suggested "Why don’t we run these activities side-by-side rather than back-to-back?". Unless the idea came from the boss, it’s quite likely that the response would have been an avalanche of all the reasons why that is a really bad idea, not the least of which is the challenge to the ‘way we do things around here’. The idea would have quickly been killed, and the idea’s originator will have learnt an important organisational lesson.

Suppose that, a year ago, an outsider had spent a few days at the laboratory studying how vaccines were being developed then, and returned a week ago to take another look. What would the observer say, comparing the two visits? Lots of things I’m sure, but one particular word is likely to feature repeatedly in the observer’s description of the more recent visit. 'Different'. What would be most striking would be the differences between the new process in contrast to the old one.

So let me leap from the specific example of the vaccine to a general principle. Is the result of all creativity something that is different from its immediate predecessor or predecessors?

I think it is. Sometimes that difference is relatively modest, for example, the ‘innovation’ associated with successive iphone releases; sometimes more dramatic, for example, the difference between the very first telephone, and its predecessor, the telegraph. Likewise, one seventeenth century Dutch still life is very much like another, especially to an untrained eye, but even I can distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Rothko.

Mmm… that gives me an idea… If the result of creativity is something different from whatever exists now, then, flipping that around, might it be possible to make creativity happen – deliberately – by taking something that exists now, and imagining differences?

Take the game of chess, for example. At the start of the game, the pieces are arranged in a very specific way: in two rows, the pawns at the front, the more important pieces behind, with the castles at the corners, the knights next to the castles, then the bishops, and the king and queen in the middle. How might that be different? Well, in lots of ways… so imagine that the positions of the knights and bishops are switched, with the bishops next to the castles. Everything else can remain the same, but the way the game evolves would be very different…

Or the way in which lessons are usually conducted, with students in the same room as the teacher. How might that be different? Suppose the students were in different locations? How might the lesson be delivered?

Since the virus, of course, we all know the answer. But this could have been explored at any time over the last several years, simply by asking 'How might this be different?' of the status quo.

Some people, of course, did, and a long time ago – the UK’s Open University, a pioneer of distance learning, got going in the 1960s. But many schools didn’t, and had to scramble. Given the urgency, all those 'We can’t do that because…' objections were dismissed as the unconstructive blockers that they are, and replaced by the much more enabling question 'What do we need to do to make this happen?'.

And that meeting tomorrow with the person I don’t like. I know that I usually behave in a rather aggressive way, sometimes disagreeing just for the sake of it. How might that be different? Maybe I could listen more, and pick up on the sensible things that are said… It’s quite difficult for me to do that… but perhaps it’s worth a try… I’ve never thought of ‘creativity’ relating to how I might change my own behaviour – for the better – but perhaps it does…

So maybe being creative isn’t so mystical, so intangible, so serendipitous, after all. Yes, ideas can suddenly come ‘out-of-the-blue’, and we all rejoice when that happens. But creativity is not only that; it can also be deliberate, systematic, concrete.  Nor is necessity necessarily the ‘mother of invention’, for any ‘as it is now’ can be the subject of the question 'How might that be different?', even if there is no immediate problem-to-solve.

The key insight is that creativity is not the search for novelty, but the identification of something that is different from, and ideally better than, what happens now. And since what happens now is real, you and I can see it, touch it, feel it, experience it, describe it. That’s just careful observation. And our combined observations are collectively richer than those of any single individual, collectively providing a rich platform for asking that oh-so-important question, 'How might that be different?'. Especially when the answers to that question are explored in a spirit of being positive, working out how to deliver the idea, rather than being negative, and just blocking it.

Dennis Sherwood is a consultant on organisational creativity and innovation. His usual blog is SilverBulletMachine.

4 thoughts on “Thinking differently about creativity


    Nor is necessity necessarily the ‘mother of invention’, for any ‘as it is now’ can be the subject of the question 'How might that be different?', even if there is no immediate problem-to-solve.

    "Why the rich are revolting" is an article over on unherd which has some relevance here, I believe. Even though I'm not sure I necessarily agree with the tone of the piece.

  2. PeterT

    Thanks for this Dennis. I recon we could use this approach to enhance thinking about additional ways of recognising school students' achievements:
    * Describe current forms of summative assessment
    * Compare our descriptions - to understand how different people perceive the current systems - importantly including folk outside education who actually rely on the transcripts/evidence about school leavers' achievements when selecting/recruiting them
    * Think about things that could be changed and what impacts they would have
    * Identify strategies for implementing the most impactful of those changes (ways to overcome the 'We can't do that because ...' objections)

  3. Dennis Sherwood

    Hi Peter - thank you, yes, that will work.

    My experience is that the richer the descriptions of the way-things-are-now, the better. So that's not just about the steps in the process, but includes everything about the context, and how people feel about what's happening too.

    Also, let me strongly endorse your second point: the importance of gathering descriptions from a variety of people, all of whom experience [whatever it is] but from different perspectives. So, for example, in describing a car, the designer will have one view, the factory manager another, and an elderly person who finds it difficult to open the door a third.

    The purpose of asking "how might [this] be different?" is to generate as many alternatives as possible, from the incrementally different to the radically so. The objective here is volume - the more possibilities the better. Many will be pretty poor, but no matter: you're looking for the really good ones. And it often happens that the good idea emerges only after some poor ones have been tabled - quite possibly because the good idea combines 'fragments' of preceding poor ones in a 'pattern' that can be formed only after the 'fragments' have been identified individually.

    That's the realisation of a key principle that I call 'Koestler's Law' - in his 1964 book, the Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler writes that "The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesises already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole."

    One other point if I may. In the blog, I referred to "unconstructive blockers". That's my shorthand for the very common occurrence that an idea is evaluated and judged far too soon. Yes, not all ideas are good ones, and you do need to eliminate the poor ones. But not whilst ideas are being generated - the process of what I call 'wise evaluation' takes place later, when the ideas have had an opportunity to be rather better understood - but that's another story...

  4. Aleta Chowfin

    Recently, while listening to Ben Stuart's talk on 'Excelling at the Basics', I came across the term HeartMath. Now, I know we have known about emotional intelligence for a while but the concept of heart coherence and its connection to gratitude and wellbeing really resonated with me. Your article made me think of creativity as a way of connecting to the 'newness' whether it seen in a piece of artwork or an assessment; said or written differently-an augmentation of the previous, a hope for the undefined.


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