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.