SXSWedu 2017 was Awesome!

I spent a stimulating and exhausting week at the South-by-Southwest EDU conference in Austin, TX. It’s the premier event for new and innovative education products. I saw so many fascinating presentations, and everyone I met was super-interesting. I’ll try to capture my experience with just two events.

The firWP_20170306_13_27_47_Panoramast was the SXSW Playground–a big convention center ballroom, filled with fun educational technology. I sat in on a workshop for Bloxels–where you build a videogame world using colored blocks, then you snap a photo of the blocks and the computer turns it into your own virtual world. That’s the picture at the right.

Like the Bloxels, all of the technologies were designed for kids to be creators and make things. The robots and software guided learners as they programmed robots and computer games. One of my favorites was a drone that you can fly around yourself using Snap, a drag-and-drop programming environment that you can learn in a few minutes.WP_20170306_13_46_19_Pro

Second, I had a great time leading the workshop “Creative Teaching” along with Tacy Trowbridge from Adobe, and Villy Wang from Baycat. The room was filled to capacity with 60 conference attendees, ready to be active creators. We led them through a tower-building activity using 6 pieces of newspaper and tape. The take-home lessons were about group dynamics, design thinking, and iterative making. Here’s one of the groups, who used an analogy with a Christmas tree skirt for the base of their tower:


Thank you to Tacy and Villy, I learned so much from doing the workshop with them!


It’s always fun to do a book signing. I gave out a bunch of my Zig Zag creativity cards! Keep being creative everybody!





Collaborative Technology Leads to Collaborative Leadership

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I predicted that the organization of the future would drive innovation with collaboration.

In the ten years since, this prediction has largely come true. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal described how several big companies have shifted to a more collaborative, more innovative organizational structure–enabled by collaborative software that didn’t exist back in 2007, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This is a big reason why I’ve written a second edition of Group Genius (to be published later this year).

New data-driven capabilities are breaking down barriers between formerly siloed business units, flattening out management structures and streamlining production processes, prompting many firms to redraw leadership roles and responsibilities.

Companies moving toward innovative structures include Equifax, Liberty Mutual, and Procter & Gamble. For example, Equifax is moving to “small, cross-functional teams”. And the role of leaders changes, too: “rather than issue top-down directives, these managers instead strive to help self-directed teams leverage collaboration and sharing tools.” Managers are changing from “dictating how things should be done” to acting more like coaches who guide collaborative teams.

My own research on collaboration and creativity explains why and how this works: Innovation emerges, bottom up, from improvisational, nonlinear, and unpredictable processes. The organizations that can channel and foster this bottom-up, emergent process, will be the winners in the innovation competition of the future.

The organizational structures and cultures that lead to innovation have always been collaborative, distributed, and improvisational. Even before the Internet, a few rare organizations were able to design for innovation and collaboration. But today, Internet-based collaboration software is making it a lot easier for companies to shift to innovative organization designs.

The Path to Creativity

In Austin, Texas, “Voice and Exit” is a cool gathering of tech visionaries and experts in human flourishing. At 8:30 Friday night, I kicked off a series of 10-minute talks, in front of 300 hipsters, in a converted produce market in Austin’s East Side–surrounded by fair trade coffee tables, massage artists, virtual reality rooms, and hammocks. Here’s how I started the 10-minute talk. It’s the core message of my ZIG ZAG creativity advice book:

Creativity is not mysterious. Creativity is not a rare insight, that comes to you suddenly, once in a lifetime, to change the world. It’s just the opposite. Creativity is a way of life. It’s a process. The process starts with an idea. But it’s not a big insight–it’s a small idea. And that small idea can’t change the world by itself. In the creative life, you have small ideas every week, every day, even every hour. The key is to learn how to bring those ideas together, over time, and that’s the essence of the creative process. The latest creativity research shows the daily practices that exceptional creators use to keep having those small ideas, and how to bring them together in a creative process that consistently leads to successful creative outcomes.

For the whole talk, wait a couple of weeks and the video of my talk will be posted online. I’ll let you know!

Sawyer keynote at IDEAS conference in Calgary, Canada

I just delivered the keynote address “Educating for Innovation” at this big event in Calgary, with teachers, school leaders, education professors, and policy types:

2016 Calgary photo

After the keynote, I did a breakout session where I shared my research on how art school professors teach. Then, I asked the audience to work in small groups to apply these practices to their own teaching in math and science. They all had great ideas about how to teach for creativity! The lessons from art and design pedagogy are really powerful.

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.






Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003





A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:






I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:






Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.




Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

Inventology: a new book by Pagan Kennedy

Creativity researchers have shown that serendipity plays a big role in creativity, and that serendipity is more likely to happen when you seek out new experiences and become more aware of what’s going on around you.  My 2013 book ZIG ZAG  is filled with creativity advice based on this research. One of my chapters is called “LOOK: How to be aware of the answers all around you.” I start the chapter with several examples of serendipity: how Velcro was invented after George De Mestral became curious about why burrs got stuck in his dog’s fur; how Hasbro got the idea for a toothbrush that played a two-minute song, to make sure that a child would brush for at least two minutes.

Inventology coverThe book Inventology  builds on this research, and Pagan Kennedy emphasizes the same theme as my book chapter: Serendipity is critical to creativity. (See the excerpt in today’s New York Times.) I love her examples of inventions that are inspired by LOOK’s awareness: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, and X-ray imaging. Kennedy’s main point is that you can spot these surprising connections systematically.

My 22 techniques for serendipity* are grouped into three practices:

  • Use Fresh Eyes: based on research about mindfulness and about how people systematically become more lucky.
  • Grab New Sights and Cool Sounds: with exercises about how to consistently experience new things that help you spot unexpected connections.
  • Render It Visible: exercises that help you translate what you see into creative action.

The techniques are each based on creativity research. For example, I describe the fascinating research by Richard Wiseman on what lucky people do that’s different from unlucky people.

Kennedy ends her article by calling for a new field of “serendipity studies.” Fortunately, scientists already have a great start on understanding luck and serendipity; creativity researchers and cognitive psychologists have been studying this for many years. They don’t call it “serendipity”; they use more technical terms like analogical reasoning, distant connections, and remote associations. (If you want to delve deeper into this research, there’s a pretty extensive review in my book Explaining Creativity.) After reading the NYTimes excerpt  today, I look forward to reading Kennedy’s book. She’s hit on one of the most important findings to emerge from creativity research: If you systematically seek out new experiences, sights, people, and places, you’ll be more likely to have surprising new creative insights.

*Two of the techniques in ZIG ZAG  that foster serendipity:

  1. Flip through strange magazines. Buy a magazine that you’d normally never read (hunting, hot rods, tattoos, musical instruments…) As you flip through it, look carefully and you’ll be drawn to a few photos or stories. Think about how you can apply what you see there to your own problem.
  2. Cultivate your senses. Put yourself in an experience that you don’t know much about. Visit an art museum, attend a wine tasting, watch a children’s cartoon, try a new fast-food restaurant. Make an effort to figure out what’s going on, how everything works to create a complete experience.