Bill Mei’s Essays

How do people get more creative?

How do people get more creative?

The following essay is an adaptation[1] of my undergraduate research thesis.

Doctors from the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) were perplexed: their patients were dying at abnormally high rates after surgeries, but the surgeons weren’t doing anything wrong while people were still under the knife. What was going on?

Many of the mortalities took place in the hospital’s cardiac ward. After careful study, the doctors determined that “a large number of fatalities occurred due to problems during the handovers between the operating room and the intensive care unit.” (Snow, 2014)

One day, two doctors were taking a break when Formula One appeared on TV, and one of the doctors realized that “the pit stop where they changed tires and topped up the fuel was pretty well identical in concept to what we do in handover.” After contacting a Ferrari pit team in Italy, the doctors observed the methods that the pit crews used to conduct a handover.

They discovered: “Ferrari crewmembers operated with lots of physical space between each other; the hospital staff constantly got in each other’s way—by virtue of the small space, they claimed. But a dozen grown men with power tools managed to gather round about as small a space during every race without bottlenecking anybody.” By studying the pit crews and implementing their methods, the hospital “had reduced its worst handover errors by 66 percent.” (Snow, 2014)

What can we learn from this story? At first glance, the “eureka moment” of connecting Formula One to hospital management appears to be pure luck that is simply unreplicable. However, as we dig more into the research on similar creative breakthroughs, we find that the GOSH story is actually the inevitable result of a well-defined creative process.

The Creative Process

The critical moment for the GOSH doctors occurred in making the leap to realize that the ideas of Formula One are equally applicable to a hospital even though the contexts don’t look anything alike. This type of insight is foundational to the research into creativity, as a key assumption is that creativity can be measured objectively by scoring the number of creative leaps that an individual can make in response to an open-ended probe. This is also known as divergent thinking. (Runco & Mraz, 1992)

The creative process is a consistent path that is shown to have the same number of stages through both neuroimaging studies of the brain while subjects are engaged in divergent thinking, as well as subjective accounts of the creative experience from individuals who have achieved a high level of success in a creative field. (Andreasen, 2011) These stages are as follows:

  1. Preparation, when skills relating to the domain are acquired

  2. Incubation, when the individual does not work on the problem consciously but is making unconscious connections

  3. Inspiration, the eureka moment when the solution is found

  4. Production, when the solution is implemented in practice

The GOSH story is an archetype of the above model:

Preparation

Prior to discovering the handover problems at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, there had been outrage in the community stemming from the news of the fatalities, which pressured the doctors to study the handover problem so intensely that it remained top-of-mind for them after each surgery. (Snow, 2014) This background rumination set the right context for the doctors to be on the lookout for anything that appears similar to their problem; thus, by the time they happened upon Formula One, they were already thinking about handovers. While there is some luck involved in the TV being set to the right channel in the break room, the doctors may not have realized they could borrow ideas from Formula One if they did not also know that the source of their problems were in the handovers.

For most professions, the preparation phase is characterized by large amounts of deliberate practice—the consistent work on difficult problems that are just beyond what you can do with your current abilities. (Newport, 2010) This method of skill acquisition is important to develop a strong foundational understanding of your field before you can build on top of it. “You cannot transform a domain unless you first thoroughly understand how it works.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)

Incubation

The incubation phase of the creative process requires you to make unconscious connections through divergent thinking. This relaxed time has an alternate name: random episodic silent thought, or REST. The GOSH doctors didn’t connect their work with Formula One through conscious problem-solving techniques such as the Socratic method, but instead unconsciously while they were resting in the break room and watching TV.

Despite the acronym REST, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that the brain is actually very active when engaged in divergent thinking, where the “cortices of the human brain […] converse with one another in a free and uncensored manner […] [this was] not a passive silent brain during the “resting state”, but rather a brain that was actively connecting thoughts and experiences.” (Andreasen, 2011)

If you’re searching for new innovations, you can practice divergent thinking as a method for finding viable ideas. The key is to develop the skill of noticing viable ideas while engaged in REST; Paul Graham, the prolific investor and founder of the highly successful startup incubator Y Combinator, advises entrepreneurs on this skill:

The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC [Y Combinator] we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way. (Graham, 2012)

In practice this is not a simple prescription to take a lot of breaks. In fact, taking a break with the deliberate goal of trying to find a new innovation can be counterproductive as you may come up with ideas that sound good but are actually bad.[2] Instead, Graham (2012) advises:

The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiosity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.

Inspiration

Once you happen upon a creative insight during the incubation phase, it’s important not to reject the idea simply because it seems “obvious”. If you spend a lot of time developing expertise in a niche field, it follows that you will be able to make relationships between ideas that are obvious to you but are not obvious to others. (Andreasen, 2014)

You can also reject an idea prematurely if it does not follow the preconceived notion that good ideas must be purely original. This happens if the creative insight you discover is an existing idea from one domain that is applied to a different domain, rather than one discovered from first principles. The GOSH doctors didn’t invent any new breakthroughs in medical science, yet were able to save lives by borrowing techniques that were already well-known by crews in Formula One.

The act of borrowing well-known ideas from other fields is not what we normally imagine as “original” innovation, which is to re-think a problem from its fundamental principles (as described by Elon Musk), and is what Google calls moonshot thinking—this is the image of the Wright Brothers working away in their garage to create a technology that has no precedent.

Graham recounts a missed an opportunity to start a business in VoIP software a decade before the idea was popularized by the multi-billion dollar company Skype, because the idea was “obvious”:

[B]ack at Harvard in the mid 90s a fellow grad student of my friends Robert and Trevor wrote his own voice over IP software. He didn’t mean it to be a startup, and he never tried to turn it into one. He just wanted to talk to his girlfriend in Taiwan without paying for long distance calls, and since he was an expert on networks it seemed obvious to him that the way to do it was turn the sound into packets and ship it over the Internet. (Graham, 2014)

Production

The advice on how to execute a strategy is well covered by the business literature, so I will not be describing it here. However, there is an important cognitive bias that may prevent the implementation of an innovative idea especially if it is very different from the status quo: people hold an implicit bias against creativity even though it is desired and even when it is expressed as an explicit goal.[3] (Mueller et al. 2011)

Studies by Mueller, Melwani, and  Goncalo, (2011) find “a negative bias toward creativity (relative to practicality) when participants experienced uncertainty. […] Hence, people can also have negative associations with novelty; an attribute at the heart of what makes ideas creative in the first place.” If you’re looking to garner support for the implementation of a creative idea, you must take steps to reduce the perceived uncertainty associated with the idea, and must create a culture where novelty is a desired trait if you want positive support from the rest of your company.

Accelerating Creativity

What should you do if you want to move through the creative process quickly to find new breakthroughs more often? The preparation and production phases of the creative process are intuitive to understand, as there is a clear, well-researched path to follow. Ergo, if you want to accelerate the creative process you may have the most trouble with the incubation and inspiration phases, as divergent thinking cannot have a clear path, by definition.

If you’re looking for a quick foray into divergent thinking, Glausiusz (2009) recommends setting time aside for daydreaming, where you are able to engage in REST without feeling guilty that you are “wasting time”, as “[t]hose who pay attention to their daydreams, […] are especially likely to harvest creative insights from their reveries.”

Frans Johansson (2004) uses the term intersection to describe the action of smashing together unrelated ideas: “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.” Among other recommendations, Johansson proposes the following techniques to “harness the intersection”, and accelerate the incubation phase of the creative process:

Although we present the creative process as a set of clear steps, creative people generally don’t follow the process linearly. You can jump from production to incubation to inspiration and back to production. “[T]he creative process is less linear than recursive. […] Sometimes incubation lasts for years; sometimes it takes a few hours. Sometimes the creative idea includes one deep insight [but sometimes it includes] innumerable small ones.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)

Future Research

More research is needed into what role, if any, personality plays in the ability to develop creative insights. Initial findings from Csikszentmihalyi (1996) suggest that personality does not matter so much, especially in domains where there is only a single dimension for success (profit, in the case of business). “You can be a happy extrovert like Raphael, or a surly introvert like Michelangelo—the only thing that matters is how good your paintings are judged to be.”

Further research could also be used to explore the degree to which genetics impacts creativity. Research on one facet, IQ, shows that intelligence is not correlated with creativity beyond a certain threshold; however, high intelligence does create an increased propensity to see relationships between dissimilar ideas—especially relationships that are not obvious to others. (Andreasen, 2014)

Another area to explore is the impact of culture on individual creative productivity. Are there certain cultural practices, values, or beliefs that make it easier for individuals to make the leap between different domains and discover a creative innovation?

While it may be difficult to define, more research can conducted on the relationship between creativity and luck. While we have uncovered practical methods to increase the likelihood of a creative insight occurring during the incubation phase of the creative process, the actual occurrence of the insight itself is still dependent on luck. One way to conduct this research is to look at individual responses to “luck events” rather than trying to define luck itself, as per the method used by Collins and Hansen (2011) when studying companies that have achieved a high degree of success.

Conclusion

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating, which means that successful entrepreneurs today must continue to find new creative breakthroughs on a consistent basis in order to remain competitive. The recommendations described in this paper can be used to discover valuable new ideas that can be delivered to the marketplace. If you want to arrive at your own eureka moments to create new products and new business models, it pays off to study the creative process and to learn how to accelerate the speed at which you move through it.

This essay is only one of many that I’ve written on innovation. If you want to read the rest, sign up on my email list and I’ll send them to you as they are published. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Appendix

  1. In general I’ve changed the tone from that an academic paper to a tone that is more appropriate for online publication: third-person pronouns have been changed to second-person pronouns, passive voice turned into active voice, and more background information has been inserted.

  2. Graham (2012):

    Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them. […] Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas.

  3. Mueller et al. (2011):

    This is because when […] R&D companies commend the development of new products, […] they may do so in ways that promote uncertainty by requiring gate-keepers to identify the single “best” and most “accurate” idea thereby creative an unacknowledged aversion to creativity.

  4. Johansson (2004) describes an assumption reversal with a diagram and example, reproduced below:

    Now try to think of ways you could conceivably build a sustainable business out of each reversal. Here are some examples:

    • A restaurant with no menus: The chef informs each customer what he bought that day at the meat, vegetable, and fish markets. The diner selects the desired food items and the chef creates a dish from them, specifically for each customer.

    • A restaurant that does not charge for food: This restaurant is a café where people get together to talk and work with each other. The café charges for time spent instead of food consumed. Selected low-cost food items and beverages are given for free.

    • A restaurant that does not serve food: The restaurant has a unique and beautiful décor in an exotic environment. People bring their own food and beverages in picnic baskets and pay a service charge for the location.

  5. By interacting with and making friends with experts from fields other than your own, you can discover ideas that you never would have considered because you will be in contact with domains that look nothing like what you’re used to.

    Eric Bonabeau, an R&D engineer at France Telecom was able to develop a new field called “swarm intelligence” as a result of meeting Guy Theraulaz, an ecologist studying social insects such as ants. It turns out that the ants’ method of finding food by releasing pheromones during its search is an effective algorithm that can be applied to optimizing network problems such as routing truck drivers between multiple destinations with the least driving time. (Johansson, 2004)

    This is also what happened with the GOSH doctors when they contacted a Ferrari pit team—race car driving has nothing to do with surgery but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ideas that can be shared between them, or even a shared relationship: “Over the next several years, the Formula 1 made GOSH its official charity, raising more than £3 million for the children and hosting events where sick kids and their parents could hang out with the racing stars and for a moment forget their pain.” (Snow, 2014)

Bibliography

Published May 2015