Resurrecting the secrets to innovation and creativity developed by an obscure 1950s psychologist.
[6 min. read]
We are naive to our next great idea.
If we already knew what it was, we would have had it already.
This was beautifully put in an article by Sina Mossayeb, titled 5 constraints that help me innovate.
The second item on his list of constraints is: if you want to be innovative, you can’t start knowing the answer, or sometimes even the right question.
If you’re trying to come up with an innovation, a unique never-before-executed concept, or an original idea, you need a beginner’s mind. “Innovation requires not knowing—because you can’t—what the right answer is at the outset.”
There’s power in embracing this naiveté.
Not knowing is really important.
Embrace Naïveté and Constraints
Mossayeb defined his list of innovation force multipliers as constraints.
This is consistent with a key takeaway from Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen: Design when it was released.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, total flexibility doesn’t lend itself to new ideas. Absolute potential—the blank page, the empty slide, the fresh whiteboard—can be really difficult to overcome.
Perhaps it’s related to the paradox of choice, the idea that too many choices actually limits the freedom of the chooser.
Maybe that’s why Hollywood obsesses over things like The Seven Basic Plots, and the author of Ecclesiastes says “…there is nothing new under the sun.”
As a student, I heard artist James Christensen describe creativity like a library card catalog (back when those existed).
His point was that creativity and innovation are not about making something entirely novel. Rather about combining that which already exists in new ways.
You’ll notice that the first mark, the first word, the first shape on a blank page immediately changes how you view what is possible.
Constraints activate the creative space.
What about this psychologist?
I’m talking about personality psychologist George Kelly.
In 1955 while at Ohio State University, Kelly published The Psychology of Personal Constructs.
Kelly’s idea was that human beings are like naïve scientists.
We arrive to life not knowing very much, so we experiment and test and establish constructs that form the architecture of our worldview.
As we move through life, experimenting as we go, we develop constructs in order to organize and make sense of the world.
And we do that with one goal: to build an understanding of the world that gives us greater power to predict the future.
Noteworthy aspects of Kelly’s approach include:
- Constructs can be preverbal. They occur in babies who don’t yet have language or speech to articulate them.
- Humans are telic, (Kelly was not a Behaviorist) that is they have intentions that originate from within. They’re individuals influenced by, but not necessarily determined by nature, nurture, stimulus-response, etc. I love that. It explains that human beings are creative and so inherently possess the power to change.
- The architecture of constructs is never complete. The simplest child builds constructs that resemble neural networks containing complex hierarchy and massive constellations of relationships. These relationships are constantly in flux. Some constructs are rigid, while others are more permeable. They can be deconstructed, rearranged, or reversed. The reordering or rebuilding of constructs is where creativity lives.
The reordering or rebuilding of constructs is where creativity lives.
That’s it. That’s the essence of creativity.
But, wait. There’s more.
The Creativity Cycle
To be creative; to rearrange our constructs in order to see the world in new and innovative ways, there’s a formula, a process.
It’s a cycle and very scientific, because it is repeatable.
In fact, it’s constantly being repeated as we gain new experiences .
What makes the creativity cycle even more interesting is that we can exercise it and do it on purpose.
When you read it you’ll realize that you’ve seen this cycle many times before.
You may know it by another name. You may even have your own system for utilizing the process.
I want you to recognize that as soon as you reexamine how you think about the creative process, you will have activated it—by considering it, you will have already engaged in it.
There are two steps, and it’s important that you not try to do them simultaneously.
They need to be done in sequence.
Step 1: Loosening
This is the brainstorm.
It’s the power of the open mind.
Here’s where you consider that your idea of how things are, your constructs, your worldview, your understanding, may not be 100% accurate.
Your constructs soften.
You consider ideas that fly in the face of what you would normally entertain. It’s the heart of what a brainstorm should be like.
Here’s where you ask yourself or your team for crazy ideas.
It’s essential that you make it safe enough (Google’s first step for producing effective teams) that people are willing to throw up really dumb ideas—I mean the absolute worst.
At this stage, you need to be open to the craziest, foolhardiest, backward, nonsensical ideas you can get.
Step 2: Constricting
The second step is to narrow down the ideas worth keeping.
You firm up your constructs around new ideas, see where they fit, and how this novel part relates to the rest of the whole.
Instead of being free of judgment, this step requires you to be very discriminate.
The time for open-mindedness is past and you need to ruthlessly prune until only the best ideas remain.
The cream rises to the top during constriction.
The hardest thing about applying the creativity cycle is to SLOW it down. Our brains are capable of completing an entire cycle — opening to a new idea and making a decision about it — in 1/20th of a second. Executives are experienced and adept at rapid decision-making. (They can be great constrictors.)
If you’ve heard someone comment, we have to go slow to go fast, listen.
Exercising the discipline to hold the door open long enough to fully loosen is often the biggest key to effective innovation.
There you have it.
The secret process behind every successful creative effort.
Creativity in practice
That’s George Kelly’s secret to creativity. If you expected something longer, I’m sorry to disappoint. You see, creativity isn’t hard. We do it all the time and have since we were infants.
What’s hard is keeping all our habits from getting in the way and keeping our preconceptions at bay.
As Yoda says, you must unlearn what you have learned.
But learning the creativity cycle is easy.
Loosen. Constrict. Repeat.
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P.S. You might enjoy these additional resources:
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz