Archive for the 'Creativity & innovation' Category

Choose a big problem.

30 March 2006

This post from Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM cites Burt Rutan to make the point that "if you want teams of people to perform at an extraordinary level, you need to challenge them with problems that really inspire them."

I read that shortly after having a fascinating conversation with one of my professors in which he stressed the need for great works of scholarship to be "problem-driven." It's not enough for a scholar to pick an interesting era or an interesting phenomenon to study, and it's not enough to carry out a study that treats complex topics from interesting angles. There must be a problem that the scholar is trying to solve — some grand question that begs for a smart answer.

This resonates with something I quoted a couple of months back from Richard Hamming: "If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them." It also matches with Gian-Carlo Rota's description of Richard Feynman's methods.

I can't tell you how many bright people I know — in business, in scholarship, in art, or in life generally — who have never given themselves a big problem to solve.  They sometimes don't know what to work on, or what to do with themselves, in part because they haven't thought enough about what big problem awaits their assault on it.

The moral of this story:  go big. 


Oil is the world’s most important commodity . . .

30 March 2006

. . . until water becomes a problem

This item from The Business Innovation Insider features an interview with Gary White, the founder of WaterPartners International.  They are doing innovative work to bring clean water to the world's poor, especially via microfinance.  Worth checking out.

It's also worthwhile to spare a thought for where our current water-use practices are taking us.  What sort of water future do we want?

Innovation: Visual Complexity.

16 March 2006

I’m always looking for ways to stimulate ideas in myself. A while back I talked about how I do this using rotating pictures on my two-monitor screensaver.

A new source I’ve been poking at is the Visual Complexity (or, I guess, “visualcomplexity”) site. The many different diagrams offer lots of fodder for thinking creatively about relationships that might not be immediately apparent.

How do you kick-start your ideas?

The best thing I’ve ever read on the creative life.

4 March 2006

Seriously, friends–I’ve found an epicenter of insight here.

How to Be Creative (Long Version) by Hugh Macleod

If you have creative urges, fulfilled or unfulfilled, please don’t wait to follow this link. Please don’t be deterred by the piece’s length, and please don’t wait until later to read it. Get yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and read, and don’t run off when Macleod starts making the observations that sear your conscience. Face up to it.

“Do you want to make this damn thing exist or not?”

Addendum to “Prolificity: Stock your head”

27 February 2006

When I jotted down my thoughts on keeping problems in mind that you could think about in the odd moments of the day, I had forgotten this anecdote from the late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota:

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

I say “forgotten,” because I stumbled across it yesterday while on a laptop cleaning frenzy. I had jotted down Rota’s words a couple of years ago . . . and then neglected to keep them in my own mind during the interim.

The quotation is taken from Rota’s talk, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught.” (You can find a nice PDF version here.) In finding the links to it, I’ve discovered much more about Rota himself. He was a fascinating man and a great scholar, as this obituary from MIT makes clear. His work bridged mathematics, philosophy, writing, editing, and teaching. From what I can tell–especially given this page of remembrances and honors–Rota’s life presents a fine model of what a scholar should aspire to be. Besides the speech already quoted, I can recommend Rota’s lecture on “10 Lessons of an MIT Education.” Even if your field is not mathematics (mine certainly isn’t!), there is much of value there.

Prolificity: Turn it off.

23 February 2006

Want to get more written? Here’s a simple step to take: Disconnect yourself from the Internet.

Radical stuff, I know. I work in front of a computer all day, so I have plenty of time to poke around in the Realm of Mystery and Wonder that is the online world. But it gets to be such a habit–interrupting what I’m doing to look something up, to check e-mail, etc.–that I do it all the time. Maybe you’re the same? Yes?

My best writing time is early in the morning, when my kids are still asleep. Me, my thoughts, and my cup of coffee, we all commune at my kitchen table, and when things are going right, the words flow quite well. But for things to go right, I have to unplug from the Realm of Mystery and Wonder. Sure, I always have some fact to check or detail to find online, but I can jot down my question on a piece of scratch paper (handy stuff, that) and then look it up after my sacred writing time is over. Hitting Wikipedia for a name or a date is a great thing to do while my kids are chomping down breakfast across from me. That setting is not the likeliest one for deep thinking.

For a while I was very good about unhooking myself from the Realm during my writing time. My wireless router is next to my wife’s desk in our bedroom; it’s the simplest thing in the world to unplug it at night before I go to bed or first thing in the morning. After that, I could go back in to hook it up before my wife wakes up, but one doesn’t want to run the risk of awaking the peacefully sleeping spouse–or at least, this particular spouse–before the appointed time.

Lately, though, I have profaned the sacred temple of my writing time. Why? Laziness of mind, probably. Fear of what I might write, maybe? I’m not sure I have a good answer for that.

Anyway, I’m thinking about this right now because it’s 6 a.m. and I’ve spent a frustrating time this morning trying to download a piece of software, trying to check my blog-traffic stats (thanks for the business, folks!), and wondering why Gmail has been loading so slowly the past couple of mornings. In other words, I’ve been farting around with things online that in theory should take “just a minute” but in fact have eaten through much of my holy two-hour block of time. Meanwhile, I have no less than five partially-done essays burning a hole in my pocket; I was sure I was going to get through one of them and post it here this morning. But instead I entered the Realm, I didn’t even get to enjoy the Mystery and Wonder part of it, and I didn’t finish that essay. So to recover some value from my misdirected time, I wrote this instead, as a reminder to you and to me: The Realm is a wonderful place to visit, but not when it keeps you from your real work.

Tomorrow morning, the router stays off.

Wanna get smarter?

22 February 2006

Another gem from Kathy Sierra: Working in an interesting environment stimulates neurogenesis.

After reading Kathy’s post, I rearranged all the tchotchkes in my work cubicle. It was time for my monthly purge of useless paper files anyway, so I allowed myself a little housekeeping tizzy, pulled old toys out of drawers, rearranged the pictures of my kids, and so on. Now that I think of it, I did basically the same thing last week when I completely renovated the file structure on my laptop–clean up, dejunk, renovate your head. As I’ve mentioned before, I use little things like my screensaver to keep my brain stocked with images and ideas.

This is the same idea as an experienced runner changing routes every so often, to put more emphasis on speed, or distance, or hills. Jack LaLanne has said that he changes up his whole workout every two weeks. Given the discussion in Sierra’s post, this might help to account not only for LaLanne’s physical vigor, but also his mental sharpness so far into his advanced age.

What do you do to keep your mind sharp?

Clueless, but in a good way.

20 February 2006

A great post from Kathy Sierra on ignoring the artificial constraints around us.

The Clueless Manifesto.

Often, by the time you learn you can’t do it, your response might be “Oops! You mean this thing I just did?”

All of the most frustrated people I know are really, really certain about how the deck is stacked against them, or how their efforts will come to naught. Me, I’d rather be “clueless,” happy, and creative.

Prolificity: Stock your head.

18 February 2006

[Note the later addendum to this piece.]

Like most people, I am confronted with enforced periods of physical idleness–in the car, in meetings, or what have you. Lately I have made a concerted effort to use this time to improve my writing. How? Besides reinforcing my long-time habit of always having something to take notes in, I have stocked my head in advance with particular subjects for reflection, namely, the subjects I about which I am currently composing essays, articles, and stories.

I think it was Anthony Trollope who talked about how much he interacted with the characters of his novels during the odd moments of his day. When he had the chance to daydream, he did not do it randomly: he thought about the novel he was writing. Sustained attention to the characters in his current book led to a deep understanding of them, so that when he sat down to write in his famous early-morning sessions, he knew intimately the people he was writing about.

In a fictional world, you make up the settings, the scenarios, and the actors. But this process need not all be programmatic. In fact, if you plan it out too strenuously, you run the risk of making it all too tidy, or too pat for the purposes of your story. At least some of your cogitating time ought to be given over to open-ended reflection, during which you can, as Stephen King describes, unearth the pre-existing parts of your story that are waiting for you to find them.

The same holds true, though, for nonfiction. You don’t make up the details, but you figure out how to tell the story, what the important parts of it are, what comes first and what comes next, how to characterize particular individuals and events, and on and on. There are hundreds of little decisions to make even for a short magazine feature; you can make some of them while you’re sitting through the most boring part of your weekly staff meeting–but only if you’ve stocked your head with your key facts and problems ahead of time.

As a psychological or spiritual discipline, I am trying to inculcate the notion that there is no wasted time. I am so overbooked these days, I have the tendency to think that if I’m not getting something done right-now-this-instant, I am wasting time. But it need not be so. I am living my life. I am breathing in and out, experiencing the world, and I can spare the foresight and effort to do it a little better each day.

Practically speaking, this also means that you can spend more than just one hour per day or whatever on your writing–even if you’re as overbooked professionally as I am. This helps to explain how Trollope got so much done: He had the remarkable discipline to get up and write every single morning. He had the wiring to write well on his first draft, and to press ahead with his story no matter what. But he also multiplied his time by using odd moments throughout his days to converse with the characters and the scenes of his mythical Barsetshire.

My marching orders for myself: Lay out your course of work. Then stock your head with the provisions to accomplish that work at all hours of the day and night, regardless of circumstances.

Intake and output.

16 February 2006

During my first few weeks of regular blogging, I hewed pretty closely to my personal standard of three posts per day. I figure that not all of my posts have to be the mini-essays I love so well; they can be a mix of long and short, of musings, links, and commonplaces. But over the past week, my output has been haphazard at best. Meanwhile, though, I’ve been reading–from blogs, books, magazines, you name it–at a pace even more frenetic than usual. I use “frenetic” advisedly, because there’s a certain pointlessness to my reading when I get this way: instead of working my way through a particular idea, I flash through a hundred ideas without arriving at any sort of conclusion or application for my own life.

So now I’m back on the bandwagon of regular posting. My point in doing this isn’t only to give you something new to ponder each day, gentle reader, but also to reinforce my own sense of chutzpah: It’s the idea that what I have to say is more important–to me–than what someone else has to say. This is a tricky balancing act to pull off, since I believe that my own life is about interacting with others. This does imply listening–more and deeper listening than I usually pull off. But my real mission is to contribute to others. And while listening and absorbing is a key part of that, I can’t use my own talents to contribute to the lives of others unless I produce.

As evidence of my own struggles to pull off this balancing act, I can look at both the million half-consumed, one-fifth-digested ideas I’ve encountered from others over the years, and even more so to the million unborn or stillborn ideas of my own that I’ve never put into the world. Plenty of my ideas aren’t very consequential to anyone but me–which is fine. That’s the nature of ideas. But all of those that have gone undeveloped or unexpressed, they’re open loops that weigh on my mind.

My goal: improve the ratio between the many ideas I have and the ones I turn into something useful to share with others.

In other words: brace yourself for an onslaught of bloggery! :)