I've always been fascinated by creativity and the processes behind it. Recently made a research on the subject, and was surprised on how little we know about it. On the web, most of the things found on inspiration, come from creative artists, and more than 50% are devoid of any scientific rationalisation. Explanation for creativity include: Ghosts, angels and other divine entities, sleep, lack of sleep, brain damage, mental illness and much much more. I thought to myself. It's time for an engineer to write something about it. How amusing could it be ?
Not going to introduce any new theory nor going to deny any of the existing. As an engineer, my take on it, is not to discuss the source of the AHA! moment, but rather to enumerate the routines and the mindset that favour creativity and the ones that don't.
Creativity is quite often associated with the creation of arts, but it is much broader than that. From an engineering perspective, creativity is tightly linked with innovation. In other words finding an original and elegant solution to a given problem.
Sometimes, identifying a problem requires more creativity than to solve it. For example, when we sit at the table and eat a meal, we rarely think that there was a man somewhere in history that was eating settled on the floor and thought: "Sitting on the floor is not that comfortable to eat". Before solving the dinner table problem, someone had to see it as a problem. Maybe he even had resistance to the idea. I find amusing to imagine that there was someone at that time saying - "But we always eat sitting on the floor, why do we need a freakin table ? And that will require so many chairs." Which leads me to the first point.
1. Seeing the world as unperfected
"The world is full of imperfections", I heard it somewhere and it resonated on my mind. There might be a more efficient way to do this. If we integrate this thought into our daily lives we are bound to discover a lot of room for improvement. Paying attention to all you do and see around you is the first condition to be creative. Specially what we do by routine is where we fail more to see its inefficiencies.
2. Flex the creativity muscle
If for each "imperfection candidate", spend a moment imagining it differently, that is like doing creativity push-ups. It might sound a bit stupid, but, it can be quite funny, to imagine a different way to eat soup. A kind of small water mill, a kind of soup cannon, or perhaps the plate would be shaped so that a part would fit your mouth, what other possibilities exist ? It's normal if nothing comes out, or what comes is a worse solution than an existing one. We don't expect that a new and better potato peeler be discovered each year. Simply not possible, no matter how intelligent you are. But the mental activity of trying the problem solving is preparing the soil for good stuff.
3. Background work
The brain works on ideas in background mode. When you plant a seed on the earth and water it, it will take a while before it will germinate. The brain works in the same way. If you challenged you with a problem and nothing came out right away, that doesn't mean that the brain stopped thinking about it. It may take hours, days or even weeks may pass before something pops up.
4. Note your ideas
When finally that AHA! moment comes be sure to write it down as soon as possible. If it comes in the middle of the night, be willing to get up to fetch a pencil a piece of paper. Not doing it so, you may have troubles later to make the same neurons spark and bring back the idea as you conceived initially.
So, make sure you leave yourself enough details on to get back the idea to life. This also helps you to scrutinize the idea to whether it really makes sense. Often, a closer look at an idea, is enough to dismiss it. If not, you can pass to the next step, which is for an engineer, is selling the idea to someone else. That will require exposing yourself more than you would like to. That may be challenging for self-confidence. Don't be defensive if someone sees too many flaws in the idea, its for your own good. One way to do it, is to treat it as if it wasn't your idea at the first place. I think this explains the frequent attribution of ideas to an external entity. Just blame it on the angel that passed, if you believe in their existence.
5. First Time Right
Sure, it can happen, but don't make plans counting on it. Throughout history, so many ideas appeared to be great at the beginning and then turned out to be total flops. Still, I'm still very surprised when I see people making plans supposing that everything will be perfect at the first try.
6. When to give up
Sometimes, things simply don't go as expected. There is a natural tendency is to continue believing that somehow something can happen that can save the project. It's hard to let go, especially when too much time and money was invested. The best advice I heard for this, is simply to establish well defined failure checkpoints. If this doesn't get to that point till that date, then it means a stop. Another advice, is as simple as discussing with someone knowledgeable on the field, who hasn't emotional attachment.
Other tips and resources
Innovation doesn't mean that the idea has to be completely original. One can innovate by taking an existing idea and applying it on a different context. This can be by copying from Nature, which had millions of years to perfect itself, or copy an idea from a different area of expertise. Supermarket spaces were tagging higher prices for shelves located at eye level, much before Google started to do the same with Sponsored Links. Same principle, different areas of application. In other words, there is merit in improving an existing idea.
There is a limited amount of work that your brain can do everyday. This not only includes the obvious ones such as memorizing and processing data or playing an instrument but also small things as deciding which choosing clothes to wear. Einstein always wore the same clothes and ate always the same desert to not get distracted with mundane issues. Other things such as self imposing a discipline, driving, discussing with someone, answering emails, etc... all of this steals attention from your brain. This is why, you probably noticed that your best ideas don't come while you are at work, but when your mind is more relaxed.
If you really need to be creative, then you may want to avoid playing video games for 2 hours, or watching an action movie on TV.
I hope it brought you something useful.
Everybody is good at something, but not at everything. Those who find their true vocation have more chances of being happy with their work and find it rewarding.
Unfortunately this is not the case for all and often, we find people stubborningly hanging on to roles that really don't fit their competencies. It's frustrating for the under-performer and for all around him.
I've compiled a few behaviour indicators that I would like to share with you, hoping that it can identify misfits and help them find their true calling.
1. Taking personal offence in technical discussions.
When a critic to a technical solution hurts egos and ends up at the door of the Human Resources its a clear indication that something is not right. Not all people have the same point of view, and sometimes not really clear to see the right solution. Technical discussions are inevitable and sometimes they can rise of tone and need to be escalated to a technical supervisor. This is normal. What is not right is when in disagree, arguments like "bullying" and "I'm not stupid" come into the discussion.
2. It's not in my Job Description
This argument comes quite often from people that simply don't want to do a given task. Job descriptions make sense in a production environment where procedures are expected to be always the same. When in an environment where problems are always different and thus require different solutions, it's not possible to have a job description that covers everything.
3. Things were always done this way, why change ?
Changing is always difficult, there are primal fears involved in the prospect of change and thus being one of the most difficult things to promote. This is specially more true when selling change to people that are insecure of their value.
4. Hiding problems and reporting achievements
When no problems are reported and everything is going just smoothly for weeks in a row, is because something is definitely wrong.
Good engineers love to solve problems, and report the way they solved it. If this is not happening, beware. Dig a bit deeper and for sure, there is something there needing attention.
5. Attaching its name to work done by others
If someone places his name on a document without having contributed much to it, can happen for two possible reasons: a.) by request of the original author in order to give prestige to the document or b) without request and for reasons such as revising the formatting, or inclusion of an index.
6. Reporting time discussing with person A B or C
When for solving a problem, someone reports the time discussing it with person A, B or C, then it usually means that the problem is being solved by others. Please be very attentive to this, as it has very perverse effects on the company organisation. Not only is the person gaining credits for the work of others, but also, it is slowing down the work of others.
7. Using Seniority as argument
This one speaks for itself and doesn't need any further comments.
8. Appetite for Managing (but without vision)
There is a noticeable tendency of people that are frustrated with their work to aim to go to a managerial level. But if asked the simple question: "What would you make differently ?", there is nothing that is really relevant. I believe they secretly hope that this way, they will escape the need of having to actually "work".
Interestingly and very unfortunately, incompetents sometimes reach this goal and it can work very well for them, but not for the company. Humans are mostly lead by example, and when the example is not of hard work and competence, its effect is soon felt within the group. But that is a much longer topic.
That's it, I hope you liked it.