ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards Now Available!

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December 15, 2015

I’m excited to announce the release of the ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards!

The card deck has 48 cards, and each one has a different creativity exercise. There are also four cards that describe how to use the cards alone, in groups, and when you’re facilitating a workshop.

The cards are perfect for everyday use. You can do each technique in a few minutes, and use the cards throughout your day. The card deck comes in a hard plastic case so you can take it everywhere (cardboard boxes fall apart pretty fast). It’s time for a new set of creativity techniques that’s practical for everyday use, with exercises that are grounded in the latest creativity research.

The 48 techniques are taken from the book ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. They’re grouped into the eight stages of the creative process:

  1. Ask: how to ask the right question
  2. Learn: prepare your mind
  3. Look: spot the answers around you
  4. Play: imagine possible worlds
  5. Think: how to have great ideas
  6. Fuse: how to combine ideas
  7. Choose: make good ideas even better
  8. Make: make your ideas visible

The 8 stages are based on creativity research (for a summary of the research, see my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity.) ZIG ZAG  is a practical, hands-on application of that research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two sample cards, with their techniques. If you’d like to see more cards, the card deck web site has a Daily Creativity Card that changes every day.

Card ASK 5

 

ASK is the first step toward greater creativity. Each of the 8 stages has its own color, and has six cards numbered 1 to 6. The six ASK cards help you make sure that you’ve identified the right problem. (This one is number 5.) Often when you’re stumped, and you can’t think of a solution, it turns out you’re asking the wrong question. (Kudos to artist Robert Cori for the illustrations, and to Nyla Smith for the graphic design.)

 

 

 

Card LEARN 6

 

 

The third step is LEARN, preparing yourself for creativity by filling your mind with a variety of information. I love to learn a little bit about lots of different things! It doesn’t take long to learn to juggle, or to play the harmonica. In the past year, I’ve been teaching myself how to repair old accordions! (And yes, I’m still a dilettante, you shouldn’t trust me with your accordion.)

 

 

 

 

The card deck is available from Amazon.com for $19.95. Visit the card deck web site, www.zzdeck.com, for more techniques and games–for individuals, teams, and workshop facilitation.

How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002

 

 

 

 

My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004

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!

 

How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.

Thinking In New Boxes

Thinking in New Boxes is the title of a new book by Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny of Boston Consulting Group. They write “Thinking outside the box is dead” and propose “thinking in new boxes processes” like: doubt everything; research; generate ideas; introduce reality; and implement and evaluate relentlessly.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, with over 100 creativity techniques based in research, I make a similar point. In Chapter 4, on how to get yourself into the playful mindset where great ideas happen, I recommend “Find The Right Box” and I introduce a group of four practical techniques with this:

There’s a popular belief that creativity comes from the absence of constraints. People assume that if you’re not creative, it’s because you’re thinking inside the box—so all you need to do is to get rid of the box!

But research shows just the opposite: creativity is enhanced by constraints. They just have to be the right constraints. The techniques of this section show you how important it is to draw boundaries around the space in which you play. If you’re stumped for an idea, maybe you just need to play with different toys for a while; start a new game, with a different set of rules.

As the famous G. K. Chesterton put it: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

25 Ways To Be More Creative

Inc. Magazine just published a review of my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Reporter Christina DesMarais selected her favorite 25 techniques, out of more than 100 I wrote about in the book. DesMarais writes:

The book is a gem, chock full of fascinating findings from research studies and a deep well of tactics that will get you thinking differently. Check out Sawyer’s book if you want to know more–he claims it offers more than 100 tips on how to be more creative.

This great book review definitely made my weekend!

 

Executing On Creativity

I’ve just finished delivering a ZIG ZAG workshop at the “Convene LIVE” annual event, hosted by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in beautiful Ottawa, Canada. The theme of this year’s event was “Executing on Creativity.” In addition to my workshop today, Todd Henry delivered yesterday’s workshop on the theme of his 2011 book, The Accidental Creative.

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Todd Henry on his new book “Die Empty”

I arrived a day early so I could watch Todd’s workshop; he does great stuff and I was eager to see him in action. His title was “Harnessing creativity: Concepts and processes that lead to everyday brilliance.” His session closely followed the messages from his book. For example, the second half of his session was about the “five elements of rhythm”:

  • Focus (staying focused on business priorities, vision, and what’s important)
  • Relationships (interacting with people who will help you get great ideas)
  • Energy (how to sustain a high energy level)
  • Stimuli (make sure you expose yourself constantly to new and interesting stimuli)
  • Hours (time management)

My overall take-home from Todd’s talk: great advice about productivity, work effectiveness, and time management, but with a particular focus on creative professionals. Todd’s message reminded me of Scott Belsky (the author of Making Ideas Happen). I had a chance to watch Scott’s awesome keynote when he and I both gave keynotes at the Creativity World Forum in Belgium in 2011.

My workshop today was four hours, giving me plenty of time to engage the audience with hands-on activities from all eight steps of the creative process (each step has one chapter in Zig Zag):

  1. ASK: Find and formulate the problem
  2. LEARN: Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem
  3. LOOK: Gather a broad range of potentially related information
  4. PLAY: Take time off for incubation
  5. THINK: Generate a large variety of ideas
  6. FUSE: Combine ideas in unexpected ways
  7. CHOOSE: Select the best ideas
  8. MAKE: Externalize your ideas

Here are some photos of the attendees, using the “Affinity Diagram” technique to develop creative solutions for planning their next meeting.

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And I learned a lot about event planning! Thanks to Kelly Peacy of PCMA for doing such a great job organizing the event.

Tips to Maximize Creativity at Work

 

These tips, from Scientific American Mind, are all also found in the book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity:

  • Become an expert. You need a solid knowledge base. (Zig Zag Chapter 2: LEARN)
  • Observe. Carefully study how people use what they currently have, and what problems they face. (Zig Zag Chapter 3: LOOK)
  • Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. (Again, LOOK)
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. (LOOK again)
  • Be willing to work alone. Balance group time with alone time.
  • Talk to outsiders about your work. This helps with novel perspectives. (Research on how to balance solitary and group time is in my book Group Genius)
  • Have fun. A good mood helps! (Zig Zag Chapter 4: PLAY)
  • Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can get you past the impasse. (Again, PLAY)
  • Take a break. Occupy your mind with a different task. (PLAY again!)
  • Challenge yourself. Disrupt your daily routine. Go beyond your initial idea and look for more. Try to improve on other people’s answers. (Zig Zag Chapters 5 and 6, THINK and FUSE)

This is a wonderful set of advice, prepared by Professor Evangelia G. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas.

Burt Bacharach’s Creativity Technique

Burt Bacharach said this in an interview with Spencer Bailey in the New York Times:

When I’m stuck with musicians in the studio and don’t know what’s wrong, I will break and go into a stall in the men’s room. I will sit on the toilet seat. Nobody talks to me there, and I get no advice from any musician. I work it through in my head, and four out of four times, I come out a winner.

I give very similar advice in my book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. I call this technique “Incubate” and in addition to the toilet seat, here are some common places that people have sudden inspiration (page 114):

  • In the tub
  • On the treadmill
  • Gardening
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Sorting the recycling
  • Waiting in the doctor’s office
  • Shopping
  • Listening to talk show radio
  • Listening to a boring lecture
  • Sitting through a boring meeting
  • Commuting to and from work

I really should have added Burt Bacharach’s technique to the list!