One of the recurring themes on Crinid are age-old questions like: Where do creative thoughts come from? What determines one’s ability to be creative and why does this often seem so vague, fleeting and intangible?
A creative suggestion is found in ancient Greece, where they believed separate entities such as the Muses or Genius’ are responsible for our ability to be creative. Invisible to the eye, but always helping out by whispering new and original thoughts into the ears of their protégé’s. This romantic interpretation of creativity is presented beautifully in this presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert.
But inspiring as the notion of mythical creatures helping us with our ideas might be, the goal of Crinid is to make creativity more tangible, so we can learn and grow in our ability to create Great Ideas. And as creativity is such an important factor of a Great Idea, we should take a look at some of the alternative and more tangible theories on creativity.
We start our exploration inside the machine that I think is still responsible for our own ideas – the human mind.
The human mind
At its most basic level, our brain is responsible for processing impulses from outside (input), evaluate the observations, then create a reaction (a thought or physical action – the output). Our brain is very effective at processing the input and is able to make these decisions in split seconds. This is because rather than looking at each occurrence of an event as an individual event, we have the ability to recognize this event, and respond in a way we did to the previous occurrences of a comparable event by following a set of global rules rather than instructions for the individual occurrence of the event.
In other words, our brain recognizes patterns. For example. when we see a car speeding towards us, we quickly make a prediction of what is likely to happen if the situation remains unaltered. We do this by lining up things we’ve been taught, such as the theory of collision (fast moving object meets another object). Then our brain recognizes the undesirable but probably outcome of the unaltered event, so it tells our limbs to change the situation by moving out of the way. A solution we think is most likely to work based on those same patterns.
A pattern can be defined as a set of rules that can be used repeatedly. The pattern above this text has the following rules:
1. Every red square should be followed by a green triangle.
2. Every green triangle should be followed by a blue star
3. Every blue star should be followed by a red square
Other patterns our brain uses very frequently are language, grammar, mathematics, instinct and probably even our well-being (happiness) is largely based on patterns. Our ability to process information to predict a probable outcome and create output (ideas and actions) all based on a set of rules somewhere in our brain (a pattern).
The reason we use these patterns is because they are time-efficient. When I would ask you to tell me the color of the 300th symbol in the pattern above, you wouldn’t need to draw out 300 symbols in order to find out. You use the pattern, and will quickly be able to tell me that it’s likely to be a blue star (because 300 is just 100 repeats of the pattern, and at the end of every pattern there is a blue star.)
The alternative to patterns, is having to learn every single word combination possible in order for form a sentence. Or every number conceivable in order to use it. No one ever taught you 19.915 follows 19.914, but when asked you know this using a pattern called counting.
As we get older, our brain gets more efficient in using these patterns. As humans we even start to prefer one pattern over another. These are the patterns that shape our personality after a loop of feeling safe with a certain pattern because you’ve used it before, and using a pattern because you feel safe with it. Some patterns are widely adopted and become known as ‘common sense’. Patterns shapes us into who we are and what we do in certain situations. This is the self-regulating system of our brain.
The above is a rough sketch of how the mind works: processing information and shaping our observations into ideas and actions by predictions through patterns. But there’s a real paradox here when we look at how this self regulating system affects our ability to be creative.
Creativity and the Lateral Leap
As we’ve seen, the sole purpose of patterns is to predict highly probable outcomes. These predictions determine our actions accordingly. If a probable prediction is likely to have a negative effect on us, our brain starts to correct this process. If the probable prediction is likely to be positive, we work towards obtaining it. The result of ‘processing by pattern’ is per definition a predictable outcome. But the problem in the context of creativity with this is: predictable is exactly the opposite of creative.
Creativity is about new, original ideas and thoughts that somehow have relevance to a problem, but this is not obvious. Obvious solutions are never creative solutions. Or as Sir Ken Robinson put it:
One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development, is common sense. ~Sir Ken Robinson, author of ‘The element, How finding your passion changes everything’
This is why creativity seems so intangible. Why we have trouble defining and repeating the success of creative ideas. It doesn’t obey the rules of our pattern oriented thinking. The process of creativity requires a radically different approach than our regular, common sense thinking.
Most of the above has been researched and analyzed by far greater specialists on the mind than me. One of which is Edward de Bono, one of the modern guru’s on creativity and ideation. He saw the pattern-based, self regulating system of the mind and wondered how we could use this to start making sense of creativity. Where does it hide if not in the patterns of our mind. In his best-selling book ‘Lateral Thinking’ de Bono introduces his thinking framework, called Lateral Thinking, that introduces the first steps into understanding the process of creative idea generation.
Out of this book the following is my take on altering our way of usual idea generation in order to break our patterns: The Lateral Leap.
The Lateral Leap is the process of consciously working on creative solutions, by effectively being aware of patterns, avoiding the use of our regular, pattern oriented thinking and re-arranging information differently to create truly new, relevant and original ideas.
The Lateral Leap in 3 steps
The following three steps illustrate a path of creating Lateral Leaps by trying to break and re-structure existing patterns, and with that provide an opportunity to create new, creative ideas.
1. Recognize and identify assumptions
The first and most essential thing to realize when dealing with a problem is the assumptions you have about the situation. Lateral Leaping is not so much about whether these assumptions are right or wrong, but more with our tendency to treat these assumptions as objective truths. Things that cannot, or should not be changed. Before we can make the Lateral Leap, we must first rid ourselves of such assumptions.
Assumptions are usually non-existing rules that handicap our ability to generate new ideas, and help us slide along pre-existing patterns in our mind. So the first step towards the Lateral Leap is exposing these assumptions and turning them into questions.
To illustrate these patterns I always do one test that requires the students/participants to draw as many objects possible in a short amount of time, and give them a few examples. After the time has passed, I ask how many of the participants used the given examples. Usually 9 out of 10 didn’t, even though those where 4 ‘free’ ones, and I never stated you could not use them. It was presumed – handicapping their ability to get the most objects done within the given amount of time.
2. Explore alternatives
Once we’ve dealt with our assumptions we are ready to start generating ideas. Traditional ideation is mostly concerned about finding that one Great Idea, and move on from there. The generation of ideas in Lateral Leaping is not as much about creating individual solutions, but more about generating a number of different approaches, insights and ideas with as much variation as possible.
Just as in regular Ideation through brainstorming for instance, it’s important to postpone judgment. Don’t evaluate the alternative solutions, in this phase of Lateral Leaping we’re only concerned with finding as many different ‘angles’ as possible. It’s perfectly possible (in fact, very probable) these individual solutions/alternatives are the result of pattern-oriented thinking, but the collective of ideas is the foundation of our Lateral Leap into creative ideas.
To generate these ‘solutions from different angles’ we need to look beyond the obvious. Lateral Leaping relies on exploring for the sake of exploring, and not necessarily for the sake of finding. Some paths may lead nowhere, some paths may offer flawed or partial solutions. In this phase all findings are relevant however.
To go beyond the obvious, we need to first consider the obvious, then think of alternatives. The problem of building a bridge might at first seem a building problem dealing with architecture, landscaping and safety. Going beyond the obvious is exploring the fields of biology, astronomy or 20th century expressionists and look for solutions to the same problem.
In this phase, quantity and variation are preferred over quality.
3. Create connections between different fields
The convergent phase of the Lateral Leap is the leap itself. Jumping from one field into an apparently unrelated field. Start to connect the generated alternatives and look as their individual parts, rather than to see them as complete solutions. This way we start breaking down the existing patterns that might have created the pool of solutuins, and start rearranging the individual information into new, original solutions.
One of the most effective ways to visualize these Lateral Leaps between fields is to use a mindmap. A mindmap naturally connects and illustrates pattern oriented thinking, constantly drawing relations between pieces of information. But a mindmap tends to go in different directions, indicating clear separations in their context even though they all relate back to the problem at the center.
By seeking connections between two fields that seem the furthest away from eachother (left lower corner to upper right corner) you force yourself to explore new fields for relevant solutions, that go beyond our usual, predictable, pattern based solutions.