Friday, July 02, 2004

Killing Creativity

Killing Creativity

A while back Business Pundit posed an important question:

Are we uncreative because we simply don't have the time? Seriously, creativity takes work. It takes varying stimuli and inputs.

I think he is right and offer the following in support of that argument:

First, he is exactly correct that we learn little while engaged in intensive day to day operations. Thoughtful practitioners and practical thinkers have highlighted this problem for over a century.

Henry Kissinger-- It is an illusion to believe that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience. As I have said, the convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they are in office. There is little time to reflect. They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important.

British soldier and scholar Basil H. Liddell Hart-- Direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or for application. At the best it produces an atmosphere that is of value in drying and hardening the structure of thought. The greater value of indirect experience [i.e. reflective study] lies in its greater variety and extent.

Philosopher and psychologist William James-- we learn to swim during the winter, and to skate during the summer.

Historian Jacques Barzun-- the inner integration of experience takes place slowly and during inactivity.

David Gelernter argues in The Muse in the Machine that creativity has three distinctive traits:

1. At base it “is the linking of ideas that are seemingly unrelated.”
2. It is not an incremental process, rather inspiration comes as a bolt from the blue.”
3. It occurs “in a state of unconcentration.” Hence, “hard work does not pay. You can’t achieve inspiration by concentrating hard, by putting your mind to it.”

Gelernter’s framework demonstrates why the nose-to-the-grindstone approach is a drag on creativity:

A. Ideas cannot be linked until the mind acquires them in the first place. Hence, study and reflection are critical.

B. It allows no time for broad study. Yet that is the only way to increase the chances that the right unrelated ideas will be linked. (As Jacques Barzun puts it, “abundant reading develops the original mind.” )

C. Intense focus allows no time for relaxation and reflection. There is not enough time spent in a state of unconcentration-- the state where inspiration occurs.

The mythic stories of scientific discovery support Gelernter's thesis. There are no better examples of the role of relaxed reflection than Archimedes in his bath or Isaac Newton beneath the apple tree.

In a business context, our best researchers on innovation make the same point. Utterbeck, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation and Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma, both argue that focusing on operational excellence today often leads to tunnel-vision that blinds executives to the potential of new technologies and methods.

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