Imagination, Creativity, Innovation (2015)

ObserverImagination. Creativity. Innovation. Powerful words that have become cheapened as buzzwords, falsely attributed to some and sometimes never attributed to the deserving. I’ve been accused of all 3 at different points in my life and it’s not a brag I make – most of the time it has seemed a curse. In fact, the thing that gained the most visibility remains one of my most painful memories.

It should be no surprise that I picked up Imagine: How Creativity Works and have been reading it in spurts. It’s not that my ADD has kicked in or that it’s a difficult read – it’s something I consider a thoughtful read. It’s criticized for not being scientific in that it’s largely – if not all – anecdotal and doesn’t cite references but my own experience is anecdotal. One point does not a graph make but what the book has done has caused some introspection. That’s healthy and, if you do it yourself, it’s cheaper than laying on someone else’s couch. Really.

The reason I picked up the book is because for decades I’ve been dealing with the software developer/ engineering side and tossing in the creative side. Getting the two to work in conjunction has become easier over time but it has become more difficult to function within companies that don’t understand that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

A story I often tell involves an old manager at Honeywell who told me that something needed to be done. I said I would ‘play’ with it after lunch. He told me, “we don’t play at Honeywell. We work!” I arched an eyebrow and went back to what I was doing. My mentor at the time shook his head at the manager. My mentor got me. But it wasn’t new to me – my father was much the same way. In fact, most of my family is the same way. “If you’re not miserable, uncomfortable and otherwise aggravated, it is not WORK.”

Fine. Maybe it isn’t. But that isn’t productive for me.

Misery Loves Company

I’ve worked with people who took great pleasure in grinding away at a problem – and they were often good at it though in a very brute force manner. I’ve always known a playful mind is where ideas come from. I lean on it under stress; when most people are miserable (see the above definition of work), I’ll seem upbeat and amused at the world. Why? That’s how I handle stress. It’s also how I solve problems most efficiently. I don’t beat myself like a member of Opus Dei.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times to be serious. The reality, though, is that being miserable and expecting other people to be miserable lends itself to spreading misery more than creativity and problem solving. Some people mistake this for a positive attitude. It’s not. I’ve found that once I separate myself from the problem I can walk around it, dance with it and get to know it in a circumspect way.

I know I’m not alone in this but I’m fairly certain I’m in a minority.

Everyone’s Creativity and Imagination are… Different

Ask 5 kids to make up a story, individually, and you’ll likely get 5 different stories. If they play at it together, though, you get stuff like ‘tape a cheetah to her back‘. The different ways that individuals approach problems is something that can work synergistically or… not. It means reining in egos and being able to discuss a problem outside of one’s self. It takes a level of trust and a willingness to have bad ideas.

Imagine: How Creativity Works talks about different paths to creativity. Being relaxed allows one to solve problems more readily – something that seems very intuitive but is counterintuitive in most work cultures I have experienced (see definition of ‘work’ above). As a software developer, I typically solve all the problems away from the keyboard and go to the keyboard when I’m ready to implement or test an idea… but most work cultures expect a software developer to sit in place. I often go for walks throughout the day not just to get the blood moving rather than congealing in my posterior but to change what I am experiencing. It’s almost something that Buddhists have patented – being in the present. Being a little distracted, like watching something from the corner of your eye. Throwing yourself at the ground and missing – or as I explained it to someone recently, woolgathering.

It wasn’t too long ago that I fixed a browser plugin as I walked to lunch and pondered Costa Rican addresses. When Microsoft’s documentation fails – more often than Microsoft likes to think – all you can do is look at what you know and try to find a solution. Lateral thinking allowed me to look at the problem with my own experiences and understand a problem that was, literally, not in the documentation. The data being returned by a call to Microsoft’s API for the printer was returning more information than was planned for, causing the plugin to break 3% of the time.

There are other paths to getting creative problem solving and the book (ibid) points them out – anecdotally – but I’ve experienced much of what I have read myself. Did you know that people with ADD/ADHD seem to do better where creativity is required?

Look! Squirrel!

Technology and Innovation

When it comes to technology, more people associate innovation with adding features and functionality (Open Source and Microsoft do have something in common, after all) – but innovation isn’t about adding features and functionality. Innovation is about adding the right features and functionality for a problem or group of problems. You want innovation? Don’t look at the iPad, the iPod or what have you – look at the damned wheel. Look at fire. Look at Visicalc. Yeah, we know you want to talk about the Internet but the Internet hasn’t changed things as much as accelerated them, in my opinion – we could get into the decreased distance per unit time discussion but that’s not what I’m writing about right now. Simmer down.

When you read about how scotch tape was made, you get a real idea of innovation. Incidentally, the company that brought that to you also brought the touch screen. 3M. Not Apple.

Real innovation is rare and it’s even more rarely commercialized. Tesla invented and he basically had to give away his patent to Westinghouse to get alternating current off the ground while Thomas Edison was busy electrocuting any creature he could find during the War of the Currents. If you think Apple vs. Microsoft is a better love story than Twilight, the War of the Currents will knock your socks off – static electricity and all.

People all over the world want to know where innovation comes from – as if it’s a secret sauce that you add or a base upon which to build a foundation. What Imagine: How Creativity Works explores isn’t exactly that but the many paths of getting there – and there are quite a few. And the roots of such innovation, as one might expect, are in imagination and creativity – but the real roots are in being able to harness them in different ways and be willing to fail. Innovation is rarely someone in a white lab coat staring at a computer 12 hours a day. Innovation is what happens when you’re in the shower thinking about what happened during that 12 hour day.

It seems that in a world that shouts for innovation we work ourselves into a corner where we can’t get to it. Everyone has imagination and creativity and, yes, they can be as overdone as the young stereotypical black clad poet screaming into a microphone – but enough imagination and creativity can go a long way.

Image at top left courtesy Flickr user Hartwig HKD, whose inspirational shots were tough to choose from. The work is made available through this Creative Commons License.
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