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Creativity by Addition and Integration

by Bryan on February 27, 2006

A previous post introduced the subject of creativity and briefly described a technique for finding ideas by subtraction. This post continues the theme of creativity but takes up the technique of addition. We usually call it creative combination, and it has two levels: simple addition of two concepts, and the more complex integration of two concepts.

The Hairpin Curve
A number of authors have written about the value of combining a challenge with a principle from some other field of study. Holding the two concepts in thought at once can sometimes lead to insights. For example, if the problem is finding ways to improve sales, the problem solver might select a concept at random like a hairpin and put that together with the problem and see what emerges as those two concepts are held together in thought. Hairpins keep hair in place. Maybe we need to put salespeople in place at key accounts. Hairpins have those little waves on one side. Why? Maybe they help hold the hair and keep the hairpin from sliding out. Maybe our sales people need three or four key holds that they can use to keep accounts. There’s another type of hairpin that operates like a clothespin–squeeze one end to open the jaws and then let go so the jaws can clamp down on the hair…

On and on the ideas can flow. Most of the ideas–maybe 90% of them or more will be useless as ideas but may be very valuable because what’s really going on is two things. First, the people engaging in the process are forcing themselves to think differently about their challenge and the difference alone may help open up new domains in the solution space. Second, the people are experiencing massive failure (lots of ideas that lead to nowhere) and if they can learn to become comfortable with that feeling, they’ll let go of a lot of the fear and tension that inhibits creativity to begin with. So the exercise is beneficial even if nothing comes of it in terms of a solution.

Division vs. Integration
We use creative combinations frequently in our practice and have noticed a few phenomena that may be worth sharing. First is the difference between division and integration. It’s easier for us as human beings to take things apart, give them nomenclature and categorize them than it is for us to create synthesis from seemingly disparate concepts. Pattern recognition is difficult for many of us. It’s what makes crossword puzzles difficult. If I give you a common word and ask you to list definitions for the word, you’ll have little difficulty. However, if I give you a definition for a common word, you’ll likely have more difficulty extrapolating from the definition to the word itself. If I give you a category, like birds and ask you to fill the category with related words, again you’d have little problem. First you’d identify types of birds, then characteristics of birds, then other concepts related to birds. You’d build a mind map fairly quickly. However, if I give you four objects: a bird, a cube, scissors, and a car and ask you to synthesize them into an overarching concept, you’d find that a bit more difficult. Division is easier than integration.

Most of the challenges inherent in finding innovative ideas lie in the domain of integration. We’re looking to synthesize something completely new out of existing objects or concepts.

There’s a facilitation exercise called Yellow Pages that illuminates the problem. Each team is provided with two businesses from the yellow pages and is asked to create a new business that’s a synthesis of the two. So, for example, a hair stylist and an irrigation installation company. Try it.

Put One Idea Inside the Other
The first attempts are usually to put on in the context of another. So the Irrigation company gives away free styling coupons or something like that. These ideas may be valuable, but usually they’re so pedestrian as to be useless. That’s OK if the team uses these initial ideas to just get the mind limbered up and then pushes on. But at some point simple addition isn’t enough. What happens when you add apples and oranges? Fruit salad. There’s nothing in the composition of the apple or the orange itself that suggests fruit salad. Fruit salad is an emergent concept.

Abstracting to Principles
After a while the team may see that both of the firms are interested in grooming in some way. The former grooms people’s hair and the latter grooms people’s lawns. This approach involves abstracting each business back into underlying principles and following this track may lead to some new valuable idea (usually unrelated to either of the businesses in the original problem). So maybe there are principles in irrigation that can be carried over into the hair styling business. Does hair need hydration? Could irrigation systems dispense conditioners?

Note that both of these ideas are already common solutions employed by both types of companies. This leads to another point. Unless you’re really familiar with the styling business or the irrigation business, the ideas you come up with are likely to be very insightful. Some level of familiarity is required with both types of concepts when you’re doing creativity by addition.

Popping to a Completely New Idea
The holy grail of this exercise is to come up with a completely new type of business that traces its roots back to either the specifics of the two parent businesses or to the abstracted principles of the two. This result is very rare. That’s OK. The general purpose of the exercise in a collaborative session is to just get people loosened up. And to realize how very difficult it is to look at two concepts and have to imagine a third concept that is the offspring of the two.

Maybe the two companies combine in some form of data management that combines a service that shapes data (related to the stylist) and a service that irrigates data, providing it with nutrients like periodic updates (related to the irrigation company).

The final phenomenon I’d like to share in this blog with respect to this topic is the particularly western tendency towards impatience when it comes to creativity. We’re all brought up in school to believe that every problem has (usually one) right answer and that answer should emerge immediately, often in competition against time (as in testing) or against other people (as in who raises their hand first). But the real world isn’t like that. There’s competition, true, but there isn’t any company that has a monopoly on the solution space. I believe after having facilitated hundreds of collaborative sessions with clients that the average participant has a tolerance for ten or fifteen “wrong answers” max before impatience (and probably humiliation) gets the better of them and they begin to feel either dejected or angry at the facilitator. My experience of the origin of really good ideas, however, indicates that somewhere between 50 and 100 “wrong answers” are required before a really good breakthrough idea comes up. There may be a few other good ideas along the way, but only one really good one out of every 100 (50 if you’re lucky).

Somehow we have to get past this tendency. In the few hours it takes to generate 100’s of ideas, how much is really lost? A few hours is all. But the potential reward is very large.

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