Thursday, July 12, 2012

Practical Ways to Become More Creative

In the latest issue of Pacific Standard, Paul Silvia reviews Roberta Ness' new book, Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas.

Full disclosure: I haven't yet read the book, so my impressions are based entirely on Silvia's review. It sounds like a useful (albeit imperfect) contribution the literature, and I look forward to getting hold of a copy.

Many innovation books fall into what I affectionately think of as the Platitude Pitfall: exhorting the reader to be more creative, to think "outside the box," to challenge assumptions and preconceptions, etc., whilst simultaneously providing no guidance whatsoever on just how to go about this. I don't know whether Ness' book falls into the Platitude Pitfall, but I fear that it does.

For example, "Incubate" - one of the six innovation steps in Ness' gimmicky "PIG IN MUD" mnemonic - is not, in fact, a practical or actionable technique for developing new ideas. Instead, it amounts to saying, "Take a break and hope that something will come to you." And sure, this does sometimes happen; we have all had good strike us out of nowhere. But hoping for the best has no place in a formal innovation process.

The same holds true for steps 1 ("Phrase a Question"), 5 ("Meld your Best Idea"), and 6 ("Disseminate"). None of this has anything to do with developing new ideas; they are instead pre-work (i.e., picking a specific topic), or they involve analysis, communication, and consensus-building. I don't object to any of that, but let's be clear: analysis, communication, and consensus-building have nothing to do with innovation. Rather, they take place only after the radical new idea has been conceived.

I look forward to reading "Innovation Generation," and perhaps the book contains some useful nuggets. But I would predict that these methods are inferior to, for instance, Edward de Bono's group of Lateral Thinking innovation tools, which definitely do not fall into the Platitude Pitfall.

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