Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thinking about thinking, creativity and, innovation

Several recent items that serve as variations on a theme.

Who knew that the classic Eames recliner owes its origin to the US Navy’s search for a better splint in WWII?

All Technology is Assistive Technology

In 1941, the husband-and-wife design team, Charles and Ray Eames, were commissioned by the US Navy to design a lightweight splint for wounded soldiers to get them out of the field more securely. Metal splints of that period weren’t secure enough to hold the leg still, causing unnecessary death from gangrene or shock, blood loss, and so on.

The Eameses’ unpainted wood splint, curved at its edges to keep the leg from falling off, with a targeted set of slots and holes for tying secure restraints.

The Eameses had been working on techniques to mold and bend plywood, and they were able to come up with this splint designconforming to the body without a lot of extra joints and parts. The wood design became a secure, lightweight, nest-able solution, and they produced more than 150,000 such splints for the Navy.

Over the next decade, the Eameses would go on to refine their wood-molding process to create both sculpture and functional design pieces, most notably these celebrated chairs:

Graham Pullin, in his book, Design Meets Disability, cites this story as an example of a seemingly specialized design problema medical aid for disabled soldiersthat inspired a whole aesthetic in modernist furnishings. The chairs that launched a thousand imitators, and a new ethos of simple, organic lines in household objects.
I’ve posted before about David Gelernter’s ideas on creativity which I think apply here.

Killing Creativity

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.

Next we have an incisive critique of brainstorming:

Brainstorming Is Not Very Creative

Brainstorming has three serious flaws that prevent it from being very effective as an idea generation method: people shouting out ideas is less creative than people writing ideas individually; reserving judgment and prohibiting criticism reduces creativity; and decision makers tend to choose moderately creative ideas over highly creative ideas. The first is easily resolved. The second two are fatal. All three of these flaws have been found and tested through clinical research by individuals and groups that have nothing to gain by finding flaw with brainstorming. Let’s look at the research.
As the author notes the “no criticism” rule works against what we now know about how real creative collaboration works.

Peter Drucker wrote that, in his experience, when anything important was accomplished, it was by “a monomaniac with a mission.” Conventional brainstorming is a poor method to find such people. A delicate flower who cannot defend their idea is not the sort of relentless monomaniac who will drive a project forward in the face of the inevitable obstacles.

Finally, there is this:

It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity.

Our findings have practical implications. There is, for instance, a minimalist design trend taking hold in contemporary office spaces: out of favor are private walled-in offices and even private cubicles. Today’s office environments often involve desk sharing and have minimal “footprints” (smaller office space per worker), which means less room to make a mess.

At the same time, the working world is abuzz about cultivating innovation and creativity, endeavors that our findings suggest might be hampered by the minimalist movement. While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.
The minimalist office reflects an antiquated view of work and thinking. It might be fine for work that involves sequential, machine-like thinking (but wouldn’t a machine be even better?) but is wholly unsuited for the lateral thinking that Gelernter is writing about.

This calls to mind C. S. Lewis:

And all the time-- such is the tragicomedy of our situation-- we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more 'drive' or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. we laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.
Which helps to explain the persistence of brainstorming exercises. Executives, having eliminated the prerequisites of creative thinking, must “bid the gelding be fruitful”. Even though the sessions provide little benefit, they at least provide the illusion of action.

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