Why Hallways Matter

If you were setting out to do something that had never been done before, how would you build your team? As it turns out, it depends on the nature of the task: 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers were able to realize human flight with nothing but their own minds and the tools in their garage. But if you’re going to revolutionize the world today; say by training a monkey to move a mouse cursor with nothing but it’s mind, you might need to do things differently.

That’s what the Brain Science Program at Brown University set out to do back in 2002. They assembled a group of mathematicians, medial doctors, neuroscientists, and computer scientists and set them on the task of understanding how brain activity could be decoded and interfaced with a computer. Not only did they get it, successfully teaching a rhesus monkey with implanted neural electrodes to control a cursor on the screen, but in doing so they accomplished something far larger than any one individual (or even a pair of brothers) might have been able to accomplish.

As problems have gotten more complex and our knowledge of particular fields deeper, the amount of expertise that needs to be brought to bear on particular problems has increased. This has pushed project teams to be larger and more diverse. After all, building team composed of a variety of experts with different skill sets and interests allows the group to draw on a knowledge base much broader than any one of them would have been bring to bear. This means more knowledge and more interesting combinations of that knowledge. Frans Johansson, author of the Medici Effect, terms this phenomenon “intersection”, which describes the process of combining “fields, disciplines, or cultures [in order to] combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.”

And that’s where hallways come in. Continue reading

DIY: Hanging Planters

While any DIY project can be fun, the best ones are those that are 1) cheap, and 2) let you show off something beautiful to friends. Homemade hanging planters aren’t a new idea (this is also a reblog of a reblog, eesh), but I’ve recently rediscovered a love of growing things and am looking forward to hanging a couple of these in my window. Check out the article at Apartment Therapy and the original tutorial at Hangar 29.

Image Credit: Apartment Therapy

TEDLuck: A Recipe for Geekin’ Out

Last week my housemates and I hosted our second “TEDLuck” event, which is designed around the idea of bringing together a diverse group of people to share in good food and wine while geeking out over a handful of TED talks. Our theme for the night was “Stories”, so we watched Billy Collins’ illustrated poems in “Everyday Moments Caught in Time” and Sarah Kay’s spoken word “If I Should Have a Daughter” while enjoying a hearty potluck dinner of pasta, salads, butternut squash, and wine.

From the perspective of creativity theory, the event works well because it brings together a diverse set of viewpoints, adds just a small dose of structure, and then allows the discussion to flow as it will. The group is thus on a collaborative mission (see last post) to learn and explore interesting ideas. From the perspective of the people involved, the event works well just because the food is delicious and it’s a fun way to hang out with people after a long day. Here’s the recipe, if you want to organize one yourself:

  1. Select a theme. So far we’ve done “technology” and “stories”.
  2. Get your group. We had 7 for the first and 10 for the second, but I think smaller groups would work well too.
  3. Select three TED talks or other similar videos roughly related to your theme. You can browse all of the talks at TED.com, and there’s no shortage of bloggers who have sorted and tagged their favorites as well.
  4. Have everybody bring over a dish, give everyone a glass of wine, and sit down to enjoy some talks! We’ve tried discussing each talk individually as well as waiting until the end; the best approach seems to be to let the discussion flow organically.

Both TEDLucks that we’ve held held have been fantastic, fun, and enlightening evenings. If you host your own and have suggestions or improvements, let me know! We’ll probably run another within the next couple of weeks on the topic of community or citizenship; themes that resonate with personal experience and don’t presuppose a correct answer (e.g., “sustainability”) seem to be the most exciting.

Creativity Under the Gun

Few people would dispute that deadlines makes things get done faster, but do they make us more creative? Certainly we do have our moments of brilliance under pressure: during the Apollo 13 disaster in 1970, NASA ground crews had mere hours to engineer a makeshift carbon dioxide scrubber to replace the one aboard the damaged spacecraft. Their high stakes, “under the gun” creativity saved the three astronauts, but is it the way we usually work?

That’s exactly the question that a group of Harvard researchers asked when they set out to study the creative processes of 177 employees on 22 project teams back in 2001. In doing so, they collected 9,000 diary entries that link workplace environment, time pressure, and creative output. The research project, summarized in a very accessible HBR article here and a longer working paper here, provides fascinating insight into when being “under the gun” makes us more creative, and when it doesn’t.

A couple big takeaways. First, time pressure does NOT improve creativity. In fact, people were 45% less likely to think creatively on the days that they rated as the most hectic. Second, and somewhat amazingly, the impact of high pressure days persisted, depressing creative output for two full days afterward. We thus seem to be subject to “creative hangovers” brought on by exhaustion and cognitive paralysis.

Finally, the authors did find some cases where time pressure dramatically improved creative output – the “Apollo 13 moments.” By delving into the qualitative diary entries, they were able to identify a common set of conditions across all of these instances. In particular, workers:

  1. Were protected from distractions and were able to focus on one activity,
  2. Believed that their work was important and challenging, and
  3. Were tasked with both identifying problems and exploring solutions.

Together, these conditions convey a sense of “meaningful urgency” rather than Calvin’s “last minute panic”. The study thus suggests that while we’d do well to avoid high pressure deadlines whenever possible, there are still ways to be creative even if we find ourselves under the gun. Check out the HBR article here and the longer working paper here.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Daemons Within

Those of us who study innovation tend to believe that individual creativity is a skill; certain people may have greater initial aptitudes, but anyone might be able to learn and hone their creative process. Not only does this viewpoint give scholars like me a fair amount of job security, but it also offers a fundamentally optimistic take on the ownership and agency that individuals have in their creative lives.

In a 2009 TED Talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert explores an unanticipated dark side effect of this perspective. If artists are fundamentally in control of their creative lives, how are they to deal with the “utter maddening capriciousness” of the creative process? And is it a coincidence that have creativity and anguish become so indelibly linked in our minds?

She’s speaking after the knockout success of her own “Eat, Pray, Love”, and speaks candidly about her personal fears that her best work is now behind her. She also discusses the strategies she uses to overcome these fears, drawing in particular on the ancient Greek and Roman ideas that creative brilliance was due to divine spirits (Daemons, in the Greek) that attended to and inspired artists’ work. Without giving away everything I’ll share the key lines:

“So the dancer [who had inspired such beauty the night before] wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11am and he’s no longer a glimpse of god; he’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend that high again…what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

“But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you, but [instead] you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished to somebody else.”

The message to artists is thus “don’t be afraid – just show up and do your job.” Work hard, be ready to capture brilliance should it come, and when it does – or doesn’t – it isn’t all on you. Watch the talk here.

Left Brain, Right Brain

One of the consistent themes in research on creativity is that it ISN’T all about the “right brain”. While the unstructured and unexpected are at the heart of the creative process, realization of useful creative output requires structure, discipline, and execution. This series of ads done for Mercedes-Benz in 2011 (Shalmor Avnon Amichay/Y&R Interactive Tel Aviv, Israel) highlights the contrast beautifully.

What is Creativity?

My goal in starting this blog was to provide a tour of the creative world, and that tour begins at the dictionary. What is creativity? While there are probably a number of definitions, I’ll rely on the defifinition of creativity as the production of novel or useful ideas in any domain. In order to be considered creative, an idea must simply be different from what has been done before, which is a pretty low bar until we add that the idea “cannot be merely different for difference’s sake; it must also be appropriate to the goal at hand, correct, valuable, or expressive of meaning” (Amabile, 1996).

Note that this is a much broader grab than oil paints and art projects; creativity is fundamentally the creation of novel and useful ideas in any domain. It therefore includes almost every corner of the human world; a movie poster that catches the mind as well as the eye, a novel way to open a can, a better way to cross the road. It excludes only the rote, the unanalyzed, and the purely random.

This definition still has a couple of issues, however. First, is the person, their process, or the end product that is creative? Continue reading