Shortcut: How Analogies Drive Innovation

For several decades, psychologists have been studying creative mental processes, and we have a really good understanding of what goes on in the mind when people are being creative. I summarize this research in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, by grouping all of the research into eight “stages” or “habits of mind” that are involved in being creative. And in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I describe over 100 techniques to train your brain in these eight stages.

One of the most important cognitive processes is analogy–a comparison of two things that seem very different on the surface, but that have an underlying conceptual or structural similarity. A really fun new book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, tells some fascinating stories of history’s most important innovative analogies. The author, John Pollack, identifies four rules for innovating through analogy:

  • Question conventional analogies. Sometimes the most obvious analogy is a dead end. Trying to invent an airplane by copying how birds flap their wings never worked.
  • Explore multiple analogies. Usually, there are lots of different potential analogical comparisons. Don’t stop with the first one. (This seems closely related to the first rule…)
  • Look to diverse sources. The most radical innovations often come from what psychologists call “distant analogies”, where the analogy comes from a radically different industry or discipline. This is why so many great breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary teams.
  • Simplify. The best analogies make complicated things easier to use.

Pollack’s book restates much of what we already know about innovation, but it’s well written, and his stories add to our growing database of historical examples that show how innovation works.

What Political System Best Fosters Innovation?

My research shows that innovation always emerges from collaborative groups and distributed social networks. My 2007 book Group Genius proves that the lone inventor is a myth. All creativity emerges from many contributions, from many different people, distributed through space and time.

The most innovative teams, organizations, and economic systems are the ones that enable everyone’s ideas to come together most effectively. I can talk for hours about the implications of this research for organizational structure and culture, but I tend to avoid discussing the political and economic implications.  Do you think that the “group genius” message is implicitly critical of Capitalism–with its narrative of the solitary individual, the hard-working entrepreneur, fighting against entrenched interests? And if so, wouldn’t group genius then be associated with Socialism, with collective systems that have everyone working together toward a common goal?

If you’re intrigued by this question, you should read columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal:

When future historians look back on our times, they will ask, why did the U.S. dominate all its peers when it came to the really big innovations? It didn’t happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. Innovation happens when the federal government isn’t paying attention, and because entrepreneurs can go against the grain and ignore the consensus of experts. And, because our capital markets are sometimes willing to bet against those experts.

Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer.

A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.

This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead. [I have paraphrased Stephens’ words a bit here and there…]

Stephens ends by attributing the success of the United States to group genius:

We are larger than our leaders. We are better than our politics. We are wiser than our culture. We are smarter than our ideas.

The Problem With School Testing

In a recent post, I argued:

Tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter.

Just published is a new book by education writer Anya Kamenetz that attacks the standardized tests that are used today in the United States. The TIME Magazine review quotes from it:

The research against these tests is fairly damning. “MIT neuroscientists found that improving the math scores of a group of eight grade students in Boston has little influence on their…ability to apply reasoning,” the author writes. Most standardized tests aren’t objective, don’t measure a student’s ability to think, and don’t reliably predict how well a kid will do in the workplace. So what’s good about them? They’re relatively cheap to create, easy to administer, and they yield data.

By coincidence, this week I also attended a compelling keynote talk by Harvard’s Tony Wagner, education researcher and author of five books on educational change and reform. He emphasized the same points, noting that we actually DO have tests today that in fact CAN measure valuable 21st century skills. So why aren’t they used? They’re expensive and time-consuming to administer–too expensive for every student to take. So we keep using tests that everyone knows are lousy, just because politically, we need SOMETHING and we can’t afford anything that’s actually based in research. (Well, not without increasing school funding…)

We know how to improve schools. And it’s NOT by doing the same thing we’re doing now, just incrementally better. (Which is the only possible outcome of today’s tests.) To learn more, read this new article, available for free: “The future of learning.”

The Art of Tinkering

I’m reading a fascinating book about creativity called The Art of Tinkering, curated by the two co-directors of the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. The book brings together creations and practices of artists and makers from all over the United States.

I love this list of “Tinkering Tenets” from the book–daily practices that help you create:

  • Revisit and iterate on your ideas
  • Prototype rapidly
  • Merge science, art & technology
  • Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways
  • Create rather than consume
  • Express ideas via construction
  • Embrace your tools
  • Be comfortable not knowing
  • Go ahead, get stuck
  • Reinvent old technologies
  • Try a little “snarkasm” (joke around and be playful)
  • Balance autonomy with collaboration
  • Put yourself in messy and noisy situations
  • Take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously

These Tinkering Tenets are completely aligned with the advice that comes from creativity research, and the techniques I describe in my creativity advice book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

I first met the two co-authors of this book–Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich–when I was a Visiting Osher Fellow at the Exploratorium for one glorious month in the summer of 2009. I analyze their “cardboard automata” activity in a forthcoming scientific article in Teachers College Record titled “How to transform schools to foster creativity”.

Check out the final sentence of Mike and Karen’s “Author Acknowledgements” on page 223 (Mike and Karen are husband and wife, by the way): “Tinkering as a way of being has been the way we’ve operated since the day we met (well, maybe three months after we met, but that’s another story).” Please tell us the story!