Creative thinking for everyone

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

THE CREATIVE AGE:EVEN IN these fractious times, there is a reasonable level of agreement that creativity and innovation will be more important in the future. Although the words are often used interchangeably, creativity usually refers to new ideas or insights, while innovation refers to the practical application of these ideas or insights.

Let’s concentrate on creativity. There are any amount of definitions, but I’m going to take it to mean “the creation of meaningful new forms”. The ability to “create” will be increasingly important not just for business but also on a national and on a personal level.

Creativity in business is widely accepted as necessary, in order to face the challenges of a global future and, as more traditional jobs become outsourced or outmoded, Irish businesses must continually create new, meaningful forms if they are to have any hope of retaining a base in this country.

The country must do the same if we are to have any chance of maintaining a civilised level of State development and support services. The Croke Park agreement may be a step in the right direction, but vastly more creativity will have to be applied to the provision of every kind of State service in the future.

At an individual level, as Maslow’s famous hierarchy pointed out more than 60 years ago, everyone aspires to their own capacity for self-expression, and as digital guru Clay Shirky pointed out more recently, the digital revolution exponentially expands this capacity, leading him to predict that more people will be able to transcend their old status as consumers or couch potatoes and create “meaningful new forms” for themselves in a process he refers to as “cognitive surplus”. To maximise the opportunities presented by the creative age we need to take account of the huge amount of work that has been undertaken on the subject in the last few decades.

We can group some of the findings under four headings: what is creativity? Is it only the preserve of the few? Can we increase our creativity capacity and output? And what should we do next here in Ireland?

On the first question there is widespread agreement. It is now accepted that the creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the New Testament: “It does not create something out of nothing . . . it encodes, selects, re-combines syntheses already existing facts, ideas, facilities, skills.” This quotation comes from one of the first of the recent avalanche of books dealing with the subject, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, in which he describes the essential nature of the process with the memorable phrase, “the unlikely marriage of cabbages and kings”. The most important implication arising from this definition is that the more diverse interests, subject matter, friends, hobbies and so on we have, the more likely we are to connect “cabbages and kings” in new meaningful ways.

The latest thinking on the second question raised above is the best news of all. It used to be assumed that creativity was the preserve of the few – but it now turns out that it is the prerogative of us all. We used to think that creative people were gifted oddballs who didn’t fit in with “normal” society in much the same way that up to 50 years ago we thought that running a marathon was the preserve of gifted running oddballs, who were in a tiny minority.

Now we realise that most people who follow a rigorous training schedule can complete a marathon in a respectable time. The success of creative writing courses in universities is a case in point. Eyebrows were raised, not least among creative writers, when they first appeared, but the first in the UK, in the University of East Anglia, celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a publication of essays by leading alumni including Booker prize winners Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and our own Anne Enright. Flaubert’s comment about talent being “long practice” seem appropriate.

There’s no single answer to how we can increase our creative capacity, but a number of fairly coherent themes are beginning to emerge around two areas of the subject.

Continuing with the marathon analogy, the first could be called “stretching exercises” – activities you can engage in that encourage the creative juices to flow and the second, the “run” itself, are practical techniques designed to produce new ideas and insights. The most important preliminary exercise is what is sometimes referred to as domain skills, that is, mastery of the subject area under review. There is widespread agreement that people who have a deep and profound knowledge of a subject are more likely to come up with new insights or, as Louis Pasteur put it, “fortune favours the prepared mind”.

Bearing in mind the “cabbages and kings” metaphor, it is also considered an advantage if those involved in creative exercises have an innate curiosity and a wide range of interests. In order to keep one’s interests and random observations in mind, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From recommends adopting the 19th-century concept of the “commonplace book”, a notebook where intellectuals of the day would transcribe inspirational or interesting passages from their reading and then consult the assembled thoughts from time to time in order to “facilitate reflective thought”.

Johnson goes on to tell the story of a young boy who found a dusty copy of one in an attic in London in the 1960s. More than 30 years later, working as a software engineer and overwhelmed by the increasing flood of information, he recalled the dusty notebook and came up with an idea.

It was Tim Berners Lee, founder of the World Wide Web.

If you hit the “wall” during the race itself, additional exercises have been noted to break the logjam. The number of famous creative people who relied on artificial stimulants to resolve logjams is often commented on, as is meditation which is recommended as a way to clear the mind of the day-to-day clutter that can impede original insights.

But literature on the subject is also full of references to more mundane practices such as going for a walk: “The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people who took time out for a stroll.” There are a number of practical techniques for the race itself – trying to come up with new ideas to solve specific problems. Brainstorming is the most widely used, but there are huge questionmarks over its effectiveness.

A recent report in the leading UK marketing communications journal Admap concluded: “Academic research over the years has demonstrated, unequivocally, that brainstorming groups produce fewer and poorer quality ideas than the same number of individuals working alone.”

As long as you’ve completed your exercises, working alone appears to be the most productive route, but there are some techniques that can help. These include scenario planning and metaphorical analysis and filling out charts like the Fishbone Diagram can often lead to creative breakthroughs.

The implications of the latest thinking on creativity for the country, for businesses, and for the rest of us will depend on how enthusiastically we embrace the findings. From a national perspective, they seem to offer an opportunity to enhance Ireland’s already favourable image in this area.

We now have an economy powered by human creativity, with more people engaged in complex problem-solving involving independent judgment and high levels of education. If we were the first country in the world to introduce some of these ideas into the school curriculum it would not only benefit teachers and pupils, it would be sending put a very positive messages to critical overseas audiences.

A regular theme of the comment on creativity is the fact that some of the most significant bursts of creative energy have occurred in relatively confined places where different disciplines are thrown together, often referred to as “information spillover”.

Examples include Athens in the second century BC, Florence in the 15th century, Vienna in the 1930s, New York in the 1950s and, more recently, Silicon Valley in the 1990s. It would be an interesting national objective to add Ireland to that list as we approach our decade of significant anniversaries.

On the business front, I can’t think of any that wouldn’t benefit from applying the main lessons on building creative capacity, reviewed above. But the lessons need to be repeated on a regular basis; de Botton recently reminded us the world’s religions were always conscious of our perplexing tendency to know what we should do, combined with a persistent reluctance to actually do it, so they devised ways of reminding their flocks on a regular basis. Businesses should take note.

Private citizens should do the same, beginning with adopting the habit of compiling our own Commonplace Book; personal computers make this a much easier task. Charles Leadbetter, in We-Think, predicts a more creative future for everyone: “In the 20th century almost everyone in the industrialised world was a worker and a consumer in the mass production economy; a worker by day and a consumer by night. By the end of the 21st century our grandchildren are likely to see themselves more as participants, contributors and innovators.”