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A Collaboration Tool for Introverts
By Costa Michailidis
“Innovation is for a few ‘special’ people.”
“Creativity is innate. You either have it, or you don’t!”
Part of the work we do at Innovation Bound is bust myths like these, and one of our favorite myths, that has percolated more recently, is the notion that collaboration is bad for innovation, and that true breakthroughs are made solo. Why would the individual, group, or crowd be “the best medium for innovation?” Powerful innovations have resulted from all three of these, and context (the challenge at hand, available resources, et cetera) clearly plays a critical role. We dug a little deeper and came to an interesting challenge: How can groups have effective fair collaborations that are not dominated by strong personalities and extroverted behavior?
A Quiet Idea Generation Tool
The solution we’ve found most effective is an exercise called Brainwriting. It is a powerful way to quickly generate and build on one another’s ideas. Here’s how it’s done:
Take a few sheets of paper and draw Tic-Tac-Toe grids on them, so that each sheet is divided up into nine boxes.
Hand one of these sheets to each participant.
Assuming you’ve already phrased a challenge for which to generate solutions, have each participant write out three ideas for solutions; one in each of the top three boxes.
As participants finish, they can place their sheets in the center of the table, and take sheets other participants have placed in the center.
With a new sheet in hand, top row filled out, participants should build on each of the three ideas in the top row, and write down the new ideas in the second row.
Repeat this process until all nine boxes on all of the sheets are filled out.
If you need more ideas, you can use larger grids. Participants can build on each others ideas very directly, or just be “inspired by” the other ideas on the sheet. You can also do the exact same exercise on a Google Spreadsheet live online from different geographical locations.
Doing the work that we do has shown us time and time again that there is always a way to overcome obstacles, to tackle challenges, and to reach our goals. Don’t let common myths get in your way.
The style of brainwriting described in our article is adapted from the original developed by Professor Bernd Rohrbach in 1968.
We thank Bruce Campbell for his elegant sculpture: Untitled (Nervous System).
Ask Siri what time it is or ask Google for today’s weather and you’ll get what you need. Punch a mathematical expression into a calculator and you’ll almost never be let down. Computers are incredibly precise and reliable when it comes to these types of tasks.
“Hey Siri, why doesn’t my girlfriend like my paintings anymore?”
“Apple doesn’t tell me everything you know.”
On the other hand, there is a world of tasks computers are terrible at resolving. Why the stark difference? Will computers ever be able to understand art or be creative? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Two Types of Problems
Let’s divide our world of problems into two types. Firstly, there are problems that have a definitive answer, or multiple definitive answers. For example: Nine is divisible by which numbers? The answers are one, three and nine. The wonderful thing about these types of problems is that resolving them can be broken down into a simple sequence of steps, a procedure or a program. That’s why computers are so great at solving them. You just run the program and it spits out the answers, often at a remarkably fast pace. It’s incredible how sophisticated these algorithms, programs, have gotten and how powerful they can be. My favorite example of this type of ingenuity is IBM’s Watson.
There is a second set of problems we deal with in our lives, and these problems have no definitive answer. They are entrenched in context, deal with changing variables or unknown factors. It is either more difficult or not useful to solve these problems by taking a prescribed set of steps to reach a conclusion. The solution is often contextual, transient, or mysterious unto itself. How to write an inspiring story or make a beautiful painting? How to choreograph a dance that will dazzle an audience? We come across these challenges in the arts but also in business. Which marketing campaign will succeed? Which logo best represents our brand? So far, computers have not been very successful in this realm. The realm of the creativity.
The Heartbeat of Creativity
When we look at this second set of challenges, and observe humans that are solving these types of problems (writers, musicians, marketeers), we find them leveraging their imagination. We find them using their creativity. So, what is Creativity? Creativity has a collection of definitions, many of which highlight two factors: Novelty and value. Something which is creative has an element of novelty, or newness, and an element of value, or utility.
When a musician writes a new song lyric or when an inventor sets out to design something she considers hundreds of possibilities before converging on an appropriate option. A marketing team generates a huge number of ideas before investing the time and resources to develop a campaign for its potential customers. The next time our musician writes or our inventor innovates, they will begin again by diverging on all possibilities before converging onto the most appropriate choice. This oscillation of divergence and convergence is what I like to call the “Heartbeat of Creativity.” There is a huge volume of scholarly articles on this pattern of divergence and convergence with respect to the psychology of human creativity.
This pattern shows up in another place that is significant to our original question of whether computers can be creative: Evolution. In evolution divergence happens in the variance produced by reproduction and mutation, then convergence happens when the environment selects the varieties most suitable for survival. Evolution, like the creative mind, is constantly diverging on possibilities and converging on the most appropriate options.
What About Computers?
Let’s return to our original question: Can computers be creative?
I see hope. Pandora is a music website that curates music for you based on your and other users’ preferences. Often times Pandora plays a song for you that you’ve never heard before (novelty) and that you’re likely to enjoy (value). Choosing music that you will enjoy is certainly the type of challenge with an indefinite, transient and contextual solution. What about the creative process of divergence and convergence? That too, is beginning to make it into modern algorithms and programs. Take a look at the science behind Watson and see if you can spot the divergence and the convergence.
It seems to me that psychologists are beginning to better understand human creativity, and that engineers are beginning to learn to program it into computers. Perhaps the next great generation of artists will be made of silicon.
A dog training service that trains your dog to do useful things, perhaps even income generating things.
Garbage cans that recycle trash.
Using devices (smartphones, laptops, etc) as wireless routers. Imagine every device boosted the wifi signal.
Shoes that clean the ground.
Grounds that clean your shoes.
Toys that build character.
An alarm clock that simulates the sunrise and sounds of nature to wake you up.
A smart phone that brews your coffee just before your alarm goes off.
An app for phones to control your TV remotely.
A “home” app that connects all of your house’s appliances to the cloud.
A bedtime stories database sortable by what type of difficulties your child is having.
An app that scans text from paper onto a screen.
Retractable packaging - a serivce that sends packaging back to the seller for reuse.
Lightning-powered power plants.
Pants that heat up or cool down depending on the weather.
Clothing that heats up as you move.
Paint that changes hue when hit by sound waves.
GPS for pets. No-more missing cat flyers.
Laws that prevent the above technology from being used on people.
Sailing on top of the atmosphere the way ships sail on top of the sea.
Using one of those atmosphere sailboats to attach the elevator to space.
Attaching an expiration date to money.
Having a presidential debate with instant audience approval ratings.
A series of tech educational videos for old folks.
Social skills curriculm at schools.
Teaching creativity at school.
Toys that teach creativity at home.
Video games that teach social skills.
Remote controlled snorkeling robots.
Underwater Greenhousing for Coral Reefs.
Dolls of role model women: Rosa Parks, Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, Gaby Douglas.
A counter for how many times Google searching has settled an argument.
Sorting your email by who sent it to you instead of by date.
Voice command emailing.
A sink that doubles as a dish washer.
Have the stearing wheel vibrate when you’re too close to the car behind you, instead of that annoying beeping sound.
Hats with solar panels. No more dead cell phones.
Refabricate pay phones as public outlets. No more dead cell phones.
A totally customizable all-in-one healthy habits points system that’s enforceable.
GPS tracker for expensive jewelery, so that when it gets stollen you can tell the cops where to look for it.
A school that farmed some of it’s own food locally so that students could learn about farming, and systems in general in a hands-on way, maybe it could sell some of that food during harvest season as well.
Word-of-the-day unlock screens for smartphones.
To-do list on the unlock screen for smartphones.
Starbucks set up at busy intersections right up along the street like a drive-through.
Flash Mobs that do something useful.
Cable car systems for traffic-dense cities.
A mobile dating app with augmented reality personal ads/profiles.
Planes that are remotely piloted from the ground so they can’t be hijacked.
TED Talks from historical figures (such as: Abraham Lincoln, Aristotle, Cleopatra) written by historians and delivered by actors.
A bracelet that measures your vitals and stores them in your own personal health database.
An app that calculates the nutritional value of your food when you take a picture of it.
Using trees to boost WiFi signals.
Using cars to boost WiFi signals.
Offer drivers in big cities a tax deduction for mounting a WiFi device onto their cars. The device is powered by the car, and the more cars adopt a device the better the city’s WiFi.
An app that told you if someone near you went to your high school or college, or had something else in common with you.
An app that gave live stats on parties.
Massive Multiplayer Online Games that have a productive output or side effect.
A spoof of drug commercials to educate kids on the dangers of drug abuse.
Pockets that clean your smartphone screen.
Smart outlets, that know how much voltage and amperge is optimal for the device that’s plugged in.
Cars with multiple energy systems. Solar Panels, Batteries, a combustion engine, breaks that absorb energy.
Cars that pull electricity from the road.
GPS on public transporation so that we have live updates on when trains and buses will arrive.
Packaging that decomposes into fertalizer.
A dating site for old folks.
A vacation website where you can search by feeling. For example: relaxation, excitement, laughter, peace.
Do-it-yourself cell phone repair kit.
The personification of smartphones. Name your device, let it decide things like which restaurant to go to, have it friend other smartphones on Facebook, dress it up for Halloween.
Replace text emails with video messages.
Napster for university lectures.
Contests where the prize is a job at Google or IBM.
Cell phone screens that double as solar panels.
Order business cards directly from Linkedin.
A web app that let’s you watch TV shows or movies with friends while you’re not in-person.
Cup holder that keeps your coffee hot.
Building material that sweats to cool the building down.
A bar that only people going out alone are allowed into.
A website where movie fans can request sequels and contribute ideas for the screenplay.
A video game that helps you succeed in your career.
A career exchange program. You mentor someone who’s looking to get into your field, and someone from the field you want to get into mentors you.
A browser plugin that puts old bookmarks along side search results, so that you can be reminded of the things you bookmarked when you search with similar keywords.
Touch screens for laptops.
A marketplace that connects bazzars in developing countries with buyers in developed countries.
An online platform that helps people crowdsource the completion of small tasks rather than donations.
Doubling your headphones as earmuffs in the winter.
Combining geothermal energy principles with the heat differential required to run a sterling engine. This could generate electricity in the winter, especially when it snows.
A feature that allows you to follow, friend, and share contact info with someone by bumping phones.
Computer Viruses that attack other computer viruses.
A waterpark built at the beach.
A remote controlled droid for safari adventures. Look out for that Lion! (You break it, you buy it)
Flip-chart-sized paper airplanes.
A Doomsday Kit that held the information needed to restart civilization if we had a near extinction event.
Insights in Idea Generation
Most often when we start to come up with ideas to solve a problem, whether we’re alone or collaborating with a group, we evaluate the ideas as they come up. Consequently we stop at the first good idea. A better way is to defer evaluation, and just list out ideas, hundreds of ideas! Amongst many ideas there will be some real gems. Also, what’s typical during idea generation is for people to think of the typical ideas first and for novelty to emerge later in the process. Next time you’re faced with a challenge that requires some imagination to solve, try generating a hundred ideas for how to solve it.
Lastly, some of the crazy ideas above are real in some form or another, can you guess which ones?
While creative ability in the US declines, the challenges that require creativity are increasing in size, complexity, and quantity. In the past, even a mere half-century ago, problems that we faced on a daily basis had fairly predictable solutions. Most manufacturing jobs could be summed up as the routine execution of a handful of tasks. Today, the challenges we face have far less predictable answers. Software engineers are constantly inventing new solutions to programming challenges. Health care professionals are taking more challenges diseases and an aging population. Teachers are faced with the obstacle of educating their students for jobs that don’t exist yet. These challenges, and most others today require Creativity to solve. Bad news: there is less and less creativity going around.
What is Creativity?
We often think of creativity as an intangible, sometimes even magical, property. You either have it, or you don’t. It can’t be quantified, broken down, measured or improved. Some ancient civilizations even believed creativity (or genius) was a spirit that possessed you and helped you to produce creative work. Perhaps we won’t ever fully comprehend creativity, but over the last half century, psychologists and other researchers have uncovered incredible insights that reveal a little bit about how that magical property works. Aspects of creativity have been identified, measured, even improved. One of the earlier researchers in the field of Creative Studies, Ellis Paul Torrance, created an assessment that measures Divergent Thinking, a critical skill needed to think creatively.
“The Creativity Crisis”
In 1958, the first Torrence Tests for Creative Thinking (TTCT) were conducted with Minnesota elementary school students. Since then researchers have followed up with longitudinal studies. The verdict: In the US, creativity peaked in 1990. A Newsweek article, titled The Creativity Crisis, explains the details.
Science isn’t alone in concluding that creativity is declining. The most watched TED Talk in the last two years is titled Schools Kill Creativity.
Creativity may be in decline, but what does it matter?
Faster World, Tougher Challenges
The world is changing at an accelerating pace, and as things change we must adapt to survive. Adaptation, in essence, is the ability to solve new problems, and the class of problems that we’re beginning to face puts 20th century challenges to shame. The Climate Crisis, Peak Oil, and a Global Water Shortage, are some chief challenges highlighted by the Arlington Institute. For a deep dive into the top ten challenges facing humanity, check out a TED Talk by Stephen Petranek titled 10 Ways The World Could End.
Creativity is declining, and our challenges are getting bigger and more complicated. It’s like we’ve leaped off a cliff and the ground is rising up to meet us.
What to Do?
The pace of change is so fast that we can’t foresee the problems we’ll need to solve tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we won’t need to solve them. What we need to do is get better at problem solving, and creativity is key!
Two needle-in-a-haystack puzzles, and what they might teach us about being creative
( Click the arrow on the right to continue. )
The First Puzzle:
Jamie and Jamilla were born in the same year on the same month on the same day to the same mother and the same father, but they are not twins. How is that possible?
Ask yourself: What might be all the assumptions I am making? Jot as many as you can think of in the area below:
Now, consider that any one of these assumptions, perhaps many of them, might be false. What else might be going on here?
Jamie and Jamilla are part of a group of triplets! Other good answers: they are part of a group of quadruplets (etc.), or they are puppies, or another animal, that are part of a litter.
The Trouble with Assumptions (The Box):
What does it mean to think outside the box? The box, in essence, is created from a set of assumptions you bring with you as you think about a problem. We all carry assumptions based on our experiences (the most basic things can be the most deep-set assumptions). Imprisoned within these assumptions we become unaware of the possibilities that lay beyond, limiting the options we consider.
How to recognize when you’re in the box:
It’s not always relevant to think outside the box. Sometimes the solutions inside the box are perfectly suitable to resolve your challenge. When the situation requires creative thinking, however, is it relevant to recognize that we’re in a box, victim to our own experience and the assumptions that come with. Sometimes the experts with the most experience are most steeped in their assumptions. Luckily, busting assumptions is not rocket science, it takes attention and practice like most other skills. Speaking of practice, lets try another puzzle…
Imagine you are a doctor in a busy hospital. There are many patients that need your help. You have one patient with a malignant tumor in her stomach. It is too dangerous to operate, but if you don’t remove the tumor she will certainly die. A raygun is at your disposal. Set to a high intensity it will destroy the tumor, but also destroy healthy tissue and kill the patient. At a low intensity the raygun won’t damage healthy tissue or the tumor. What can you do to save your patient? (the next slide has the answer)
Set up many rayguns at low intensity, but pointing at the tumor from different angles. At the exact point where the rays intersect, and only at the point, the intensity will grow high enough to destroy the tumor.