By: Amy Saltzman and Edward C. Baig
Once creativity was inspired by mountaintops, seedy cafes and, if all else failed, deadline-induced panic. How passe. Think what Shakespeare, Edison and Picasso might have accomplished with a Pocket Innovator, a Creative Whack Pack or computer software like IdeaFisher to spur them on.
Creativity has become another hot button in the executive suite, corporate America’s reaction to global competition and runaway technology. Nearly 1 company in 3 now offers “creativity training” to its employees; it was more like 1 out 25 just five years ago, according to “Training”, a magazine for human-resource executives. Organizations from General Motors and IBM to Coca-Cola and the U.S. Department of Defense are dominant – the logical upper left, the organized lower left, the visionary upper right or the emotional lower right. “When you are aware of your own brain characteristics, creativity becomes more predictable and comfortable,” says Nod Herrmann, whose Lake Lure, N.C., consulting firm offers “whole brain” workshops to trainers and executives. For those anxious to exercise their own creative lobes, dozens of books, tapes, games, software-even “brain workout” salons (box, page 96) – promise to turn an uptight number-cruncher into a one
person idea factory.
The challenge is to think up ideas that are both innovative and pragmatic. This brand of corporate creativity requires being open to new ideas while avoiding being branded an overzealous boat-rocker.” Every time we do a strategic analysis we tend to come up with the same answers,” says Donald Young, director of human resources for Levi Strauss International’s Asia-Pacific division. “You have to ask yourself: If you’re continually coming up with the same solutions, could it be that those are the only answers, or is it that you are only looking at the market from one perspective?”
Employers like Levi Strauss are buying into the notion that rather than being the province of artists and inventors, creativity is a learnable skill that can be enhanced through practice and training-and a gaggle of new tools. To nudge themselves out of the status quo, Young and several other managers in the division recently attended a creativity seminar conducted by William Miller, author of The Creative Edge (l989, Addison-Wesley, $12.95), who believes that people are simply innovative in different ways. Creativity gets blocked in organizations, contends Miller, because of a mind-set that overemphasizes one style-such as steady, incremental change over free-wheeling experimentation.
For professionals who don’t have the luxury of attending workshops and can’t justify an afternoon walking in the woods, even oddball creativity tools and techniques can be surprisingly effective. “They give you permission to look at the world a little differently,” says Sidney Parnes, professor emeritus at the Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which offers a master’s degree in creative studies. It is easy to be skeptical about these latest attempts at New Age corporate salvation. And it goes without saying that no device will turn you into a creative genius. Benefiting from creativity tools, however, calls for displaying the same openness to the device itself as to the possible range of solutions to your creative quandary. The following approaches should at least be more productive than staring into space. More entertaining, too.
Playing with creativity games comes close to sanctioned goofing off. “The best ideas emerge when people loosen up and act a little crazy,” Arthur Van Gundy, a creativity consultant and professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
*Circles of Creativity ($14.95), from New Product Development,(201) 295- 8258, is a brainstorming tool that helps ideas, objects or images fit together in interesting, non-obvious ways. Arrows on the cardboard device rotate, pointing to dozens of phrases arranged in six concentric circles. The “try to” arrow, for instance, can be turned to suggestions like “moisten it,” “jiggle it” or “freeze it,” yielding responses from other arrows like “failure,” “gears” and “cold.” When Bill Torregrossa, a director of research and development for Hershey Foods in Hershey, Pa., was putting together a business analysis this summer, he gave Circles a whirl and landed on “bag it.” After mulling that for a moment, says Torregrossa, “I pictured myself putting whole pieces of the company into a bag.” That gave rise to the notion of breaking the company’s Canadian hard-candy market, which had been simply defined as either “sugar” or “sugar free,” into smaller categories such as breath mints, mini-mints and individually wrapped candies. Recalls Torregrossa: “By looking more closely at specific areas, we were able to pinpoint growth potential in mint candies that we had never noticed.” Hershey now keeps a Circles in every conference room for moments when executives feel “blocked.”
*The Creative Whack Pack ($12.95), from consultant Roger von Oech, (415) 321-6775, is another brainstorming aid – nothing more than a deck of 64- cards with bold labels like “Be Whacky,” “Do Something to It” and “Break the Rules”-aimed at showing people off the well-worn and predictable corporate path. “Reverse Your Viewpoint” rang a bell with Don Massaro, chairman of Metaphor Computer Systems in Mountain View, Calif., as he flipped through the Whack Pack during a meeting with his managers about quality problems. What would they do, he asked, if they were competitors who had infiltrated executive ranks to hamstring the company? It turned out that the managers were guilty of some of the very sins they listed. For instance, by letting the product engineers dot every i on a new design proposal before getting feedback from manufacturing or marketing specialists, they had complicated the route from idea to marketplace and wasted time and money.
*The Pocket lnnovator ($39.95), from Creative Learning International, (800)955-4332-promises to help users pinpoint a goal or problem, solve it and than sell the solution to superiors. For most people, however, this deck of narrow, bookmark-size cards, which fans out like brightly colored paint swatches, amounts to a brainstorming aid. On each swatch, words like “visualize,” synthesize” and “assemble” act as problem-solving triggers. “If I feel stuck, I just flip through it and look for words that might lead to a solution,” says Janet Rogers, a senior engineer at a Du Pont plant in Memphis. She recently used the tool, for instance, to correct a chronically plugged pipeline. The word “simplify” led Rogers to consider a more direct path so the pipeline wouldn’t plug
up. And “add” suggested using two pipelines rather than one, so there would be a backup.
Games often work best when people meet as a group. That’s not necessary with creativity software. It’s also nice to know that your electronic brainstorming partner won’t laugh at your most idiotic suggestions. And you can print out useful summaries of your work.
*IdeaFisher ($495), from Fisher Idea Systems, (800) 289-4332, is a kind of brainstorming thesaurus, with two databases that work together. The “QBank,” a collection of more than 3,000 questions, nudges you to define the job at hand. You might be quizzed, for instance, about the engineering of the proposed product, its timeliness and the history of similar products. The “IdeaBank” contains more than 700,000 cross-referenced words and phrases organized into 28 major categories and 387 “topical categories.” For example, typing “blue” triggers a spurt of
associations that offer fodder for everything from advertising slogans to new product names: Midnight blue, blue whale, Little Boy Blue, wild blue yonder, White House Blue Room, Blue Angels, Ol’ Blue Eyes and Blue Suede Shoes.
U.S. News put the program to work, posing as a marketer trying to name as a new laundry detergent and wanting to convey the message that the product is efficient and environmentally sound. We entered such terms as “environment,” “clean” and “detergent,” and the IdeaBank gave back suggestions that included Breathe, Back to Nature and Purify. Barkley Wyckoff, president of the National Advisory Service, Inc., a financial-planning company in Bethlehem, Pa., used IdeaFisher to concoct an advertising metaphor for safe money. The result: Think of your money as
wearing a seat belt. The program does chew up 6 to 7 megabytes of valuable IBM or Macintosh computer memory, so a sizable hard disk is advised.
*Idea Generator Plus ($195, no Macintosh version), from Experience In Software, (800) 678-7008, makes you examine your problem from unexpected angles by having you respond to such questions as: What similar situations have you been in? What is the opposite of what you want to achieve? Can you think of metaphors that apply? What does the pessimist in you think? Who are the people affected by your decision and what solutions might they offer? Bryan Mattimore, president of Mattimore Communications, a creativity consulting company in Stamford, Conn., used
Idea Generator while devising an adult board game in which the players pretend to be inventors. By figuring out what advice his mother-in-law would give-he imagined she would urge him to “keep it simple”-Mattimore created a game good enough that it is now under development at the Games Gang, the New York toy company that sells Pictionary and Balderdash.
*MindLink, $299 (Macintosh only); IBM version due early next year), from MindLink, Inc., (802) 457-2025, gets at your creative quandary n a seemingly roundabout way, sending you on improvisational tangents called “idea triggers.” Your might be instructed to pick up the nearest magazine at hand and extract two ideas from each of five articles. Or you may have to work your observations into a short story. Other triggers urge you to conjure up images by pairing words such as “time” and “confetti,” or fun and “cowlike.” After each exercise, you’re asked to figure out how these thoughts might be brought together to help you deal with your creative dilemma. If the software doesn’t do it, MindLink comes with a small bag of creativity-provoking trinkets such as a marble, a plastic dinosaur and a tiny toy truck. A pared-down $79 student version of the program is due out next month.
Not every harried professional has the time or patience to run though a software program or dawdle away the day playing with creativity toys. There is also the danger of coming to rely on a computer of a game as an idea crutch. Consultant Mattimore advises against over-using the tools in brainstorming session, lest the focus shift from generating good ideas to the gadgets themselves. Even if a device speeds up the creative juices, bright thoughts still have to emerge from a human brain. Aha!
(The above material appeared in an October 29, 1990 issue of U.S. News & World Report.)
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