Debra Kaye’s New Book, Red Thread Thinking March 12, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
Tags: american express, Apple, brand strategy, colgate, creativity, innovation, marketing
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I really enjoyed Debra Kaye’s new book about entrepreneurship and innovation, Red Thread Thinking. Kaye is what I would call a marketing expert, but nowadays the trendier more correct term for marketing is “brand strategy”. She’s an expert on consumer product trends, and she’s consulted for Apple, Colgate, McDonalds, American Express, you name it–she is a tapped in thought leader.
I was intrigued to find a marketing expert (sorry, branding expert) writing a book about innovation, but after reading Kaye’s book it makes perfect sense. For Kaye, successful branding and marketing depends on identifying the hidden links between observations, experiences, facts, and feelings–and when we do that, we uncover fresh and surprising new insights. She’s right: the psychological research likewise shows that the most original and surprising ideas come from making hidden and distant connections. The first epigraph in her book is Steve Jobs saying “Creativity is connecting things” (I quote the same epigraph in my new book, Zig Zag!)
Kaye’s book tells you how to identify and understand these hidden “cultural codes and shifts in consumer perception” with the goal of “catapulting fresh products to iconic status.” Every Chief Marketing Officer wants that! So how do we do it? Kaye identifies five “red threads”
1. Become better at observing and interpreting what’s around us
2. Take a fresh look at the past
3. Know what makes your market tick
4. Learn how to create a new “language” to make your product stand out, and yet also be universally understood
5. Persevere, review, and refine your ideas but without compromising integrity or core beliefs
I liked this book, because I am a psychologist studying creativity, and this brings a completely different perspective to the same phenomenon: How to engage in behaviors and habits that lead to consistent and deliberate creativity.
Learning Spaces and 21st Century Skills January 22, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Education, Uncategorized.
Tags: architecture, creativity, jeanne narum, learning spaces collaboratory, srg, traditional classrooms
Take a look at this fascinating graphic (click on the link, it’s a pdf):
A Fabric of Learning in Spaces 2013
(developed by the architecture firm SRG and Jeanne Narum of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory)
At the left, you’ll see a list of 21st century skills, including Adaptability, Collaboration, and Innovation.
At the top, you’ll see a list of various types of physical spaces that are found on college campuses.
The content of the graphic shows to what extent each skill is fostered in each type of space. There is so much rich information here, but the first thing to notice is that “Traditional Classrooms” do the least to foster these skills. And “Tiered Classrooms” (like you find in a business school) aren’t much better.
So what do you think the college campus of the future should look like? What will we do with all of those lecture halls? After all, if this graphic is correct, then why wouldn’t we “flip” all classrooms and have all lectures videotaped and delivered over the Internet?
Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer May 14, 2012Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, New research.
Tags: christopher chabris, cognitive neuroscience, creativity, creativity research, imagine, jonah lehrer
Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine just received a fairly critical review in the New York Times.* This follows on a famously critical review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. When I first commented on Lehrer’s book in March 2012, I was generally positive, although my overall sense was that his book didn’t really have anything new that hadn’t already appeared in other good creativity books. Poole’s scathing review was perhaps easy to dismiss, because of its bitingly sarcastic tone and also because he didn’t sufficiently ground his critique with quotations from the book. (Although I agree with his skepticism about the way Lehrer interprets neuroscience studies; see my article “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity”.) This new review by Christopher Chabris is much more sober and better supported, with specific criticisms, for example:
Lehrer makes science errors, like saying that visual information from the left eye goes to the right hemisphere (in fact, visual information from the left visual field of both eyes goes to the right hemisphere); different electrodes in an EEG do not record brain waves of different frequencies (they each record the same waves at a different location on the scalp); the Remote Associates Test is a divergent thinking test (creativity researchers agree it is a convergent thinking test).
Chabris argues that Lehrer often makes the basic undergraduate error of confusing correlation with causation. For example, Lehrer cites one study that shows that highly creative employees are also people who consult more colleagues–a correlation. Lehrer then concludes that if you increase the quantity of your office conversations, it will make you more creative (causation). Of course, it’s just as likely that creative people tend to be more talkative just because they have lots of ideas they want to share.
Chabris concludes, just as I did, that Lehrer’s book is entertaining to read, for its stories and its scientific studies. But if you want a stronger grounding in the science of creativity, you can always try my book Group Genius (one of the many books Lehrer drew his research from). And the bottom line is, I love it that Lehrer’s book is selling so well, and introducing so many people to a field of research I’ve dedicated my life to.
*Christopher Chabris, May 13 2012: “Boggle the Mind”. New York Times Sunday Book Review, page 12.
Sawyer, R. K. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. In Creativity Research Journal.
The Tiger Mother is (half) Right August 5, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Everyday life.
Tags: amy chua, carol dweck, creativity, jean twenge, tiger mom, tiger mother
I’ve been thinking about Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for almost a year now. I’ve been holding off on posting about it, but the latest review (in NYRB August 18, 2011) finally got me typing. Her book is a personal story about how she raised her two daughters using a very strict style of parenting that she associates with China and other Asian cultures. It’s radically different from what most American parents do, and the huge response to the book is probably because everyone is wondering “Is this why China is kicking our butt?” and “Is this why Asian students get into the best colleges?” And, “Should I be doing this with my child?” Mostly, we really don’t want to be doing this with our children. You’ve probably already heard about how she forced her daughters to learn piano and violin, and made them practice for hours until they could play each piece perfectly (even when they were crying and miserable). Another shocking story from the book is that when her daughter made her a mother’s day card that wasn’t very good, she gave it back, acted insulted, and insisted that she make a better one.
I can’t count how many times this past year that people have asked me, “won’t this style of parenting squash all creativity out of children?”
I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.
It’s also well-established that the “self esteem” movement has no research grounding. For a good critique of the U.S. tendency to give everyone awards, to lavishly praise even mediocre work, see Jean Twenge’s book Generation Me. It won’t damage your child’s emotional development if you give constructive criticism. And, there’s a right way to give praise: For the latest research, see Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset.
But: The tiger style of parenting is only half of what you need to raise a creative child. After all, the Chinese realize that they aren’t as creative as Westerners and they’re working hard to figure out how to become more creative. Yes, creativity requires hard work and long hours, and some amount of repetition and copying to master what has come before. But a child also needs time for open-ended play, exploration, activities without goals–because that’s when interesting new goals can suddenly emerge. My 8-year-old son spends hours inventing complex new games that bring together strange combinations of toys: last week, it was playing pieces from the Masterpiece board game, multicolored fuzzy craft balls, and disassembled Battle Striker spinning tops, all mounted on his Sit-n-Spin in a complicated race to the edge. He can’t put that on his college application, but these hours are just as important as the time he spends practicing piano or doing his homework. I believe in the value of creative play.
Another problem is that Chua’s style of parenting resulted in a lot of lonely hours, because she didn’t allow her girls to go on play dates or sleepovers. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last January, this means the girls missed valuable developmental opportunities to learn social, conversational, and collaborative skills. And in today’s world, most creative work is done in collaborative teams, not by solitary individuals (see my book Group Genius). Successful adults need to have many unstructured social interactions as children, to prepare them to participate in collaborative creativity.
So, like many controversies, both sides are half right. And really, American parents already know this. We’re not all praise-spewing pushovers who let our kids play videogames all day in a friend’s basement. And by the end of Amy Chua’s book, she realizes that she probably should have relaxed a bit as well. Creativity requires a complex blend of discipline and freedom, hard work and play, imitation and novelty. The Tiger Mother is half right, but the American style of parenting is half right too. To best realize a child’s creative potential, bring them together.
Apple Without Steve Jobs January 16, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Organizational innovation.
Tags: Apple, creativity, design, hormone imbalance, innovation, joe nocera, steve jobs
I’ve lost track of how many cover stories I’ve read about Steve Jobs’ mysterious illness and his leave of absence from Apple. The announcement came on Wednesday, and right after the stock markets opened on Thursday morning Apple shares were down 5.7 percent. Shares recovered Thursday afternoon, but as I write this (Friday Jan. 16th) shares are back down to 80.73. New York Times reporter Joe Nocera, who has written more than once about his private off-the-record conversation with Jobs last summer, yesterday argued that the time is overdue for Apple and Jobs to tell all (read it here). Also yesterday, Brad Stones wrote in the New York Times “Can Apple Fill the Void?”
A solitary, genius individual, being immortalized as the creative genius responsible for a company’s success. Readers of this blog know what I think about stories like this: they’re always a myth. Innovation never comes from one person’s genius, and that’s not the way it happened at Apple, either.
It’s well established in the history of computer technology that Steve Jobs did not invent any of the technologies that make Apple products famous. The Apple II was not the first personal computer. The MacIntosh was not the first windows-and-mouse computer. The iPod was not the first portable MP3 player. And the iPhone was not the first Internet-enabled PDA (I love my iPhone but I had almost all of the same features three years earlier on my Palm Treo).
What distinguishes Apple products is not their technical innovations, but their superior design and their focus on the user experience. (I’d never want to give up my iPhone and go back to my old Treo!) People say Jobs was responsible for the emphasis on design at Apple. But Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of design thinking for decades. IDEO (and its current CEO Tim Brown) have been promoting “design thinking” for years. Stanford created an interdisciplinary design-oriented school known as the d-school. Is it an accident that a company like Apple, profiting on these same philosophies, happens to exist down the street from IDEO and Stanford? I don’t think so.
There are good reasons, however, for a company like Apple to propagate the myth of a legendary and gifted leader. The same thing happens in big science laboratories, where the assembled postdocs and graduate students have a vested interest in the reputation of the professor that they work for (you can read about this research in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity). Thomas Edison created the public image of a genius inventor largely for publicity and marketing purposes (historians have known for years that Edison didn’t invent, it was the inventors that he hired who did the inventing).
Steve Jobs is important for Apple in the same way that any gifted and talented CEO is important for their company. I believe his skills are a uniquely good match for what Apple has needed in recent years. But his importance is not due to his creativity, or to his unique gift for design. Apple’s creativity and its design sense are collective, organizational qualities and don’t reside in any one person. Any time you hear someone telling a story about an indispensable genius, you should get suspicious, and start looking for the real story.
Check out my other blog posts about Apple by searching for “Apple” at the upper right of this screen.
Einstein’s genius September 5, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: collaboration, creativity, Einstein, Einstein's mistakes, genius, Max von Laue, Ohanian, special relativity
When I give lectures, whether to the general public or to a business audience, my take-home message is that creativity is always collaborative. I make a strong claim: that no significant creation ever comes from an isolated, lone genius. Instead, it always takes multiple contributions over time, and creators always work within collaborative webs.
This is hard for many people to accept, because we’ve all heard so many stories about the isolated lone genius. So when I’m done with my talk, and ready to accept questions from the audience, I always get one question something like this: “What about (insert famous historical creator here)? Didn’t he work completely alone?” Now it’s impossible for me to know every biography of every inventor, but after doing this for many years my audience tends to bring up the same names. One of the names that comes up frequently is Albert Einstein. Many people learned that he did his Nobel-prize winning work while working full-time in a customs office. His crazy hair and casual dress fit pretty well with our stereotype of the lone genius.
So I’m delighted to learn of a new book about Einstein, Einstein’s Mistakes, by Hans C. Ohanian, that makes it very clear that Einstein did not work alone. Take the formula E=mc squared, which you can find on T-shirts underneath Einstein’s image. It turns out that Einstein didn’t discover this equation; it was known for years before his 1905 paper. But no one had worked out the math to prove that the equation was right; that’s what Einstein was trying to do in the paper. But Einstein’s math skills weren’t so great, and he made several critical mistakes. It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.
This wasn’t an isolated story, either, according to Ohanian’s book: pretty much all of Einstein’s publications were incomplete and contained errors. Other physicists, very few of them with such famous names, put it all together and made sure everything worked.
The point isn’t to tear down Einstein’s reputation; Ohanian still believes he deserves a lot of credit. He often had the right instincts, even if other people had to come along later to prove he had been right. But his instincts were often wrong, too–for example, his futile search for a unified field theory over the last decades of his life.
I like the E=mc squared story because it matches perfectly everything we know about how new ideas occur: although we tell ourselves a story of a great genius who sees it all in a blinding flash of insight, in fact the real story is always one of small contributions, over long periods of time, with different people making each small contribution. Einstein didn’t come up with E=mc squared, and he didn’t even prove it was correct. He played an important role in a collaborative web of multiple scientists working on the problem, and he deserves credit for that. But that’s a lot less flashy than the myths we tell about the lone genius.
Extending the creative lifespan August 30, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: age, Apple, Benjamin Jones, creativity, Google, invention, Kellogg, lifespan, productivity
In each creative field, whether art, science, or invention, the creator’s productivity goes through a characteristic trajectory: it builds up, reaches a peak age of creative productivity, and then tends to drop off over the rest of the lifespan. The curve looks different in different fields; for example, in math and physics, productivity shoots up early in life, for a peak age of creativity around 30. Physicists joke that “if you haven’t done your Nobel-prize work by the time you’re thirty, it’s not going to happen.” But in other fields the peak age is substantially older; in the arts and the humanities, it’s usually in the fifties. And good news for those of us who are past the peak age: the drop-off can be very slight (and tends to be slighter as the peak age gets higher). Exceptional creators continue to generate surprising, important ideas far into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.
When it comes to business invention, companies want to increase the number of years of maximum creativity. A recent study by Kellogg professor Benjamin Jones* found that the age of peak invention has increased over the last 100 years, as technology becomes more complex and it takes more years to master the larger body of knowledge. Prior to 1935, the peak was age 36.5; after 1965, the peak age was 40. The onset of the peak productive years moved up, as well; and so did the age where innovation dropped off. Before 1935, the drop off was 51; after 1965, it was at 55.
If a company can increase the number of peak creative years, that translates directly into top-line growth. There are two ways: reduce the length of time it takes to become maximally creative early in a career, or extend the number of years at the older end of the career. A Wall Street Journal article** reports that Texas Instruments is trying the first: assigning a mentor to each new college grad for intensive training that can get them up to speed in three years instead of five. Sun Microsystems does the same. And the possibility is that the pairing could actually increase the productivity of the older workers, as well.
Most innovative companies haven’t thought very hard about how to extend the creative lifespan at the older end. Continuing education (credits for school tuition) and professional development is necessary, but not sufficient. Eventually, every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Sergey Brin (Google), and everyone that started their companies with them, will get older. If we don’t want to be replaced by younger, more creative upstarts, all of us need to stay creative as long as possible. Organizations need to come up with ways to help us further that goal. And because many societies are aging (including the U.S. and just about every OECD country), it’s critical for the wealth of nations that we figure this out. Any ideas?
*“Age and Great Invention” Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming
**WSJ, Monday August 18, 2008, p. B5
The Neuroscience of Creativity June 16, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: creativity, Daniel Levitin, ellen winner, learning, national science foundation, neuroscience, This is your brain on music
I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.
The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative? Or when it’s listening to music? Or looking at a painting? The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general? For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math. But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true. We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.
For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.
I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains? If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better? (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.) I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum. But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.
Protecting Proprietary Secrets Can Inhibit Creativity April 18, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, New research.
Tags: creativity, innovation, proprietary, public
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I’ve just read an interesting academic paper by Pamela J. Hinds at Stanford. It’s an experimental study that seems to show that if your company asks you to protect proprietary information, you might end up being less creative.
She took 69 undergraduates and asked them to imagine they worked for a company and that their goal was to “generate novel and marketable ideas for consumer-oriented information appliances” (like a toaster with a computer screen on it). Theiy were told they’d then share their ideas with a task force containing people from many companies. The best ideas would get a $25 bonus payment. Before starting the task, she gave each of them a packet with eleven pieces of information about information appliances.
Then, she split them into two groups. Half of the students were told that of the eleven pieces of information, four of them were proprietary and could not be used in the final suggestion–because, after all, that would be shared with the task force and other companies would have people on the task force. The other half of the students were told all the information was public and they were allowed to use all eleven pieces of information.
Of the proprietary students, the average number of ideas they generated was 10.18, and of the
public students, the average was 7.54. That seems to suggest that working with proprietary information makes you have fewer ideas.
Prof. Hinds then had all of the ideas rated for novelty and marketability by a product design engineer, on a scale of 1 to 5. The average creativity rating of the proprietary students’ ideas was 3.54, and for the public ideas, 3.47–not a significant difference. Finally, she compared the single highest rated idea for each student; and it turned out that the public students’ single best idea was more creative than the proprietary students.
The results are not dramatic but they are suggestive. Prof. Hinds concludes by discussing the reasons why this might be the case. It could be that suppressing the proprietary information is mentally demanding, and so interferes with idea generation. Or, it could be that students in the proprietary condition perceive the task to be more constraining, feel that they have less autonomy, and thus their motivation to create declines. Prof. Hinds is inclined to the first explanation, but further research is needed.
Hinds, P. J. 2000. The hidden cost of keeping secrets: How protecting proprietary information can inhibit creativity. Proceedings of the 33rd Hawaii Int’l Conference on Systems Science.