Friday, December 30, 2005

How to Become More Creative in Solving Problems

Over my 20+ year career, I have had the opportunity to observe many different co-workers in fields as diverse as computer programming (business), computer programming (scientific & engineering), solid state physics, antennas, digital logic design, systems integration, customer service, accounting, web design, mathematics, banking, insurance, manufacturing, marketing, databases, acousto-optical signal processing, microwave electronics, management consulting, package-enabled business transformation, radar, security, and enterprise architecture. There are more to the list but I won’t bore you.

It seems that no matter what field, there are always a few people who stand above the rest as being really creative and innovative in the way the solve problems. They’re the ones you go to when you have a really intractable problem.

The solution they select may not always be elegant in the academic sense. Sometimes the “problem” is the project schedule and the solution really needed is something which can be done quickly. Sometimes the solution isn't a technical one either. Perhaps there is a political solution or an idea can be "sold" differently.

I find myself often wondering “Why do some people come up with more creative approaches than others?” and “Is this kind of creative problem solving something innate (something we are born with, a gift) or is this a skill that almost anyone can learn?”

I suspect the answer is a little of both. For the creativity I was born with, I am truly grateful.

As for developing my creativity as a skill.... I am not an expert on how the brain works, but I have noticed that my most creative ideas come at times when I am exposed to new ideas from others. When I hear them express problems or solutions in a way different from mine, it gets me out of a rut. It makes me exercise new and/or different brain cells.

For example, I filed a patent application on an idea I had while listening to someone else’s presentation at a large IBM technical conference. I had this burst of insight when I looked at a particular block diagram in the presentation. As the guy talked, I immediately thought “His diagram is missing the XXX !” (where the XXX was my idea, not to be talked about here)

For any management who might be reading, this (perhaps unoriginal) observation of mine doesn’t bode well for all the emphasis on distance learning which saves money by eliminating travel costs but greatly reduces the chance of accidental discovery of new people and ideas!

I would say that it is probably good for our creativity if we allow ourselves the opportunity to “hang out” with people who are really different from us occasionally. This may mean “different” because they have different areas of expertise (see my first paragraph), personalities, personal backgrounds, employment histories, motivations, hobbies, etc. Me being a conservative preacher’s kid from the Bible Belt, I must admit that I learned a great deal about Object-Oriented Analysis and Design from a guy who liked to hit strip clubs in the evening after work. :-) (If you’re reading this - you know who you are... and thanks for the great mentoring!) Therefore, I recommend developing personal relationships with people on all extremes.

I have gotten similar bursts of inspiration when reading material that is off-the-wall or outside my area of expertise. I had some frequent flier miles on an airline I don’t travel very often that I used to subscribe to some different magazine than I normally read. I found the following to be particularly “different” from my usual fare to get creative juices flowing:

Technology Review: MIT's Magazine of Innovation – This one has lots of stuff on all the cool gadgets, cool ideas, cool projects in corporate research labs, etc.

Fast Company – This one is really focused on business, motivating people, and what makes people tick. Incidentally, I first heard of this magazine during a talk given by the head of IBM Research at an IBM conference in Toronto I attended several years ago.
I can’t prove it but I think learning to play a musical instrument or learning a foreign language will also “wire” your brain to be more creative, though probably most effective if done when young.

I will end my post with a list of links which you may find thought provoking and examples of the outside-the-box kind of thinking I’ve been talking about.

Fast Company Dec 2004 The 6 Myths of Creativity

Fast Company Dec 2004 What Makes Beautiful Minds

Johns Hopkins Feb 2005 Changing Their Tune (entrepreneurship in the field of classical music?)

Wired Feb 2005 – Revenge of the Right Brain

Here’s a book I will admit to only partially reading as it is very long, but it provides a fascinating look at how we mentally name and categorize things in our native language. The book is called Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The title comes from a classification in Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia. Imagine a culture where the terms women, fire, and dangerous things are thought of as "going together" ? :-)

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions.

No comments: