Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Serious creativity

Here are some interesting ideas; what if creativity was a logical, analytical process? What if creativity could be learned, or your existing creative skills practiced and improved? Edward De Bono says all of this is possible and in Serious Creativity he tells you how. For me, a logical, analytical kind of person who doesn't consider himself creative, this is a fascinating idea.

Please note than De Bono has been writing for many many years on creativity and other subjects, but this is the first time I've encountered some of his work. Without a doubt, it won't be the last time.

My misconceptions about creativity

I've had a few misconceptions about creativity for most of my life. Some stem from school. Subjects like science and maths, subjects I was good at, weren't considered creative. Art and music, subjects I wasn't good at, were considered creative. What left me with this perception? I really can't remember.

Are some people more creative that others? I've always thought so. Loud, outgoing, eccentric, extrovert people like art, dance, music, acting and things like that. Clearly they are more creative. They must be as those subjects aren't logical or analytical, they require mystical skills that I don't possess.

If you're not creative, tough, you're stuck with it. There's no way forward, creativity can't be learnt. Just give up and stick to non creative things. Basically you're either born creative, or you're not. Again with the mystical skills.

After reading Serious Creativity

My perception of creativity has changed considerably after reading Serious Creativity. What I had assumed was a creative activity isn't necessarily so. For instance, you could consider me musical. I play the guitar. But do I do it creativity? No. I enjoy learning riffs note for note. Rocking Metallica riffs is fun! How did I learn the guitar? Hours and hours of fairly boring repetitive practice. Not creative. The same applies to things like art and dance. They can be extremely creative, but it's unfair to assume that they are.

A big factor that helped change my perceptions is that De Bono suggests there are two types of creativity; artistic creativity and idea creativity. Artistic creativity can't be taught, it isn't logical. Genius artists and musicians and such like will have it. This is what most people think of when you ask them to describe creativity. The other type of creativity, idea creativity, De Bono suggests is available to everyone. Idea creativity is about changing concepts and perceptions and is what Serious Creativity is concerned with. It is formal, logical, serious and can learnt. You can practice and improve your skill. 

Another factor is the realisation that most people are creative in some way. Ever made someone laugh? Then you're creative. Humour is the essence of creativity.

What it's about

Serious Creativity is split into three parts; the need for creativity, tools and techniques and the application of creative thinking. 

Part 1, the need for creativity is an introduction to creativity including why we need it, where it comes from and it uses. De Bono provides a model to explain how the brain organises information which he calls a self organising information system. He says our brains fit what we see into existing perceptions and we need creativity to break away from these perceptions and form new ideas. This is the essence of lateral thinking, a term he invented.

Part 2 details the tools and techniques De Bono invented for creative thinking. To mention a few; the six thinking hats, creative focus, the creative pause, provocation and random input. I'll talk about some of these later.

Part 3 is concerned with the application of creative thinking. It details which techniques are appropriate for particular situations and provides a formal structure for each creative session. Interestingly he advises creative effort should be applied for a short period of time. Around five minutes using the technique, then another five minutes harvesting any ideas generated. The benefits of this approach is that you train your brain to work quickly and there's no pressure to keep working until you come up with a great idea. 

How can it be applied to software development?

The title of this section is misleading. De Bono's techniques can be used anywhere creativity is required, not just in software development. There are numerous ways his techniques could be applied, but I found a few particularly interesting.

The six thinking hats is a particularly fascinating idea. Have you ever had a discussion with another developer where you were explaining the advantages of a certain course of action and the other developer was pointing out all the disadvantages? I have, many times. The six thinking hats aims to move away from this attack and defence style of discussion. De Bono claims, and I believe him, that it isn't very constructive. It's not a helpful mechanism. The six think hats is an approach that calls for particular style of thought according to the chosen hat. This can be applied individually or in groups. For example if a group of people was being overly negative you could ask for less black hat thinking and more yellow hat thinking (optimistic).

De Bono talks about the creative challenge. The essence of this is questioning everything. Why do we do it this way? Is there a better way to do it? This applies even if there seems to be nothing wrong with a particular process. In fact De Bono suggests that more focus should be applied in this situation. Just because nobody sees any problems with a process doesn't mean it can't be improved significantly. Potentially significant improvements can be missed if you assume something is as good as it can be.

Coming up with new ideas is a difficult but useful skill in any line of work. Surely you need to be a creative type of person to do this? De Bono says not. It can be another formal, methodical process. How? Several techniques are included in Serious Creativity, I'll only mention about a couple. 

Firstly there's random input. As the name suggests you use a random word to generate new ideas. It doesn't sound logical does it? The principle behind the technique is that the random word can trigger new ideas or new directions in relation to a concept for which you want to generate more ideas. Or to put it another way it stimulates lateral thinking. In theory, by practicing this technique you can improve your brain's ability to make this kind of new connection. 

The second technique I'll briefly talk about is provocation. Apologies for the terrible explanation of this technique. It's a tricky idea for me to grasp. Essentially the principle is to use a deliberately provocative statement to stimulate new ideas. There are several ways to create a provocative statement. For example, come up with a situation which isn't possible, or exaggerate a measure or dimension, or reverse the usual way of doing things. Once the provocation is stated you seek new ideas from the statement. An example given relates to the problem of waste being dumped into rivers from power plants. The provocation is "what if the power plant was downstream of itself". Clearly this isn't possible but the provocation contains the idea that a power plant must use it's own polluted water. Apparently this actually became law in some countries. Power plants must have two sites, one downstream of the other.

Summary bit at the end

I'm not sure why but I alway feel the need to write some kind of conclusion rather than just end the blog post. So here it is. Hopefully what I've written makes some kind of sense and conveys why I find this subject so interesting. To say I've just scratched the surface is a huge understatement. There is a huge amount more to this subject than I've covered. If it sounds interesting, then check out Serious Creativity.