Become a Creative Breakthrough Thinker: Increase Your Value to Your Organization
The traditional employment contract of lifelong personal job security in exchange for dependable performance and loyalty is now history. So too is the previous corporate security of sustainable market strength based on a track record of quality and brand-name recognition. The past is no longer prologue to the future. Welcome to the new era of constant, rapid, and unpredictable change!
by Howard Eisenberg
President, Syntrek® Inc.
Computers, telecommunication technologies, and the globalization of the economy have literally transformed our world. We have generated as much new information in the past 30 years as in the previous 5,000. The half-life of knowledge is now just 2 to 3 years. Product life-cycles have shrunk from several years to several months.
It is not just the rate of change that has changed, it is also its very nature. Traditional change was evolutionary with incremental modifications in processes and structures. Current change by contrast is non-linear, more revolutionary than evolutionary. It is characterized by rapid transformations into completely different processes and structures.
Ironically, our traditional notion of valuing expertise as mastery of previous knowledge is rapidly becoming a liability, like horse blinders, resulting in maladaptive tunnel vision. For example, at the turn of the century, the eminent scientists, Lord Kelvin and Simon Newcomb, dismissed the possibility of flight by heavier-than-air-machines because it violated their law of gravity paradigm. Similarly, in 1977, Ken Olsen, the founder and CEO of the once formidable Digital Equipment Corporation, stated, "There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home." More recently, even Microsoft failed to anticipate the explosive popularity of the Internet.
If you want to survive and thrive in this new era of rapid, unpredictable change, then you must develop the competency to break through the conditioning of the familiar by thinking outside the box.
Despite popular belief, creative thinking is not an ability restricted to a few gifted individuals, nor a result of simple capriciousness. It is a learnable competency.
Unfortunately, our tendency is biased to think in terms of the familiar. Consequently, about 90 percent of all new products are actually simple line extensions and fail to substantially increase corporate revenues. This is exemplified by the annual ‘new’ variations and enhancements for existing automobile models, in contrast to the development of the minivan as a true breakthrough product and market segment. It’s no wonder that between 1980 and 1990, 50 percent of the Fortune 500 companies disappeared as independent entities.
You can increase your ability to think creatively for developing breakthrough products, systems, and services, by benchmarking the characteristics and processes of successful innovators.
We are all naturally creative to some degree in childhood. Predictably, creativity decreases as we are programmed to share a common perspective; we become increasingly risk-averse. So, the converse — intentionally questioning and experimenting beyond the bounds of the conventional values and mindsets — is what can preserve and enhance this native, but mostly latent ability.
Creative people are not necessarily more intelligent or more highly educated. In fact, high intelligence can actually inhibit creative thinking, if it manifests as an arrogant dismissal of alternative viewpoints. Similarly, higher levels of education often result in stronger programming to follow the rules; excessive specialization results in "knowing more and more about less and less."
The more important correlates for creative thinking are such factors as varied early developmental experiences and extracurricular activities for a richer base of associations, curiosity to understand and seek out new concepts and experiences, and self-confidence for taking risks by going against the pack. Individuals with these characteristics are usually more independent and resourceful — qualities which are not yet generally appreciated in our prevalent bureaucracies.
How to Do It
You can increase your probability of generating a continual flow of creative ideas by developing the key characteristics of creative thinkers:
* Explore new subjects by experimenting with different categories of magazines, journals, books, courses, movies, and Web sites.
* Play with creative problem-solving exercises and intellectually challenging games.
* Try new hobbies which differ from your past experiences or currently known talents.
* Socialize with people outside your conventional occupational and social circles.
* Browse in a variety of stores, being on the lookout for new toys and trends.
* Vacation off the beaten path to new places, and by means of different types of transportation.
* Seek new things to do, and new ways of doing familiar
* Change your physical perspective by occasionally rearranging your personal furnishings and office layout.
* Take daydream breaks. Allow yourself to observe whatever spontaneously floats up into your consciousness.
* Be open to what you can learn from children.
* Explore the various options in your locale, such as other neighborhoods, ethnic restaurants, and different radio and television programs.
* Ask more questions about other people’s experiences, interests, and opinions.
* Be more open to change and serendipity.
* Recognize and free yourself from self-limiting assumptions, (for instance, negative self-talk such as "I’m not creative" and "It’s too foolish").
* Allow yourself to be more spontaneous and less concerned about other people’s opinions.
* Try making some 10-second decisions on minor matters, such as selecting clothing and books.
* Initiate more discussions with strangers.
* Experiment with wearing very different styles of clothes.
* Follow your intuitive hunches.
Tools of the Trade
Fortunately, you can substantially increase your competency to think outside the box on demand by learning some key creative thinking tools. Basically, these tools templates force you to experience novel perspectives.
The classic creative thinking tool is brainstorming. Alex Osborn, a pioneer of creative thinking, developed it. Its key concept is the enforced separation of the generation of ideas from their subsequent evaluation (so the latter doesn’t inhibit the former). It can be used by either an individual or a group, but is usually used as a group process.
Initial ideas tend to flow more easily because they are the more conventional ones. So, it’s important to push through for the subsequent richer ones. Ideally, the participants should be drawn from diverse backgrounds in terms of their experiences, values, and skills.
This tool is based on four major rules:
* Don’t evaluate any of the ideas in the idea-generation phase of this process.
* Think and propose the wildest ideas.
* Generate a large quantity of ideas.
* Build on the other ideas.
Alex Osborn also developed a list of idea-spurring questions to facilitate the development of a larger volume of breakthrough ideas. For example, one category was minify, with such subcomponent questions as "What to subtract? Smaller? Condensed? Miniature? Lower? Shorter? Lighter? Omit? Streamline? Split up? Understate?" These provocative questions led to Sony’s redesign of the classic tape recorder into a smaller — but breakthrough — new product: the miniaturized, recordless, speakerless "Walkman".
Challenging the rules
To apply this tool, directly question the way things are conventionally experienced or done. It can be applied to almost anything (e.g. material, structure, process, time, location, energy source, cost).
The first and crucial step is to surface the underlying implicit assumptions/paradigms. For example, describe your operation or organization from the perspective of an outsider (the business of your business, proprietary technology/ knowledge, locus of operations, target markets and strategy, competitive threats).
The second step is to challenge the organization’s conventional beliefs and practices.
The third step is reverse engineering, transforming the vision of the novel service, or product into a reality.
For example, in most companies quality has become a sacrosanct parameter. However, Fuji Corporation provocatively questioned the potential value of intentionally producing a very low-quality product. This imaginative exercise resulted in a successful new product: the disposable cardboard camera. Similarly, this creative thinking tool led to the development of cable TV networks, such as CNN and CNBC, which generate their own programming, rather than simply being conventional passive distributors of third-party content.
Another classic example of this tool’s power is the McDonald’s restaurant chain. Until recently, McDonald’s was known as a fast-food hamburger operation, targeting the young-family lunch and dinner markets. McDonald’s decided to provocatively question whether the same facilities, equipment, and staff could be profitably directed towards other products and markets. The result was the breakthrough development of a new menu of breakfast items, targeted at business people on the run.
This tool is applied by forcing new associations between a problem or opportunity, and a randomly chosen subject to generate awareness of other perspectives. For example, Pilkington invented the process of distortion-free float glass by thinking about how a bar of Ivory soap floats on water.
Similarly, an IBM designer conceptualized the butterfly keyboard, which features full-size ergonomics but contracts into the case of a compact laptop computer, by thinking about how a child plays with toy blocks.
The first step for using this tool is to randomly select a provocative subject for the forced association. (The randomization factor is critical; it helps ensure development of creative thinking.) The subject could be a word, picture, or a physical object. If it is a word, it should be an easy-to-visualize noun, such as in the following table:
Ladder Bumblebee Onion
Key Parasite Toilet
Ice Bridge Frog
Glue Flashlight Cloud
However, pictures are more evocative of images and therefore a richer source of associations. Three-dimensional objects provide a more potent source of multi-sensory associations.
The second step is to free-associate to whatever is stimulated by the provocative subject (word, picture, or object).
The third step is to connect the associated ideas in a meaningful way to the original problem or opportunity.
Your Value Goes Up
Now you know a variety of ways to enable you to think more creatively so that you can add more value to your organization. Increasingly, with the demise of the traditional employment contract, the burden is on you to add measurable value to your organization.
For example, at 3M, a trend-setter for innovation, the divisions are expected to generate 30 percent of their sales from new products developed within the preceding four years. Their previous standard was 25 percent in five years.
The final step is to commit yourself to acting on this information. Thomas Edison provides an inspiring example here, as one of the world’s most prolific inventors, with more than 1,000 patents. He believed in exercising his mind by setting up quotas for future inventions; for instance, a minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Now – go forth and multiply!
Howard Eisenberg (
This article was published in the Summer, 1998 issue of "Today’s Engineer" and is copyrighted by its publisher – "IEEE-USA".
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