It’s sometimes difficult to remember while we are filling out forms, responding to bureaucracy, and going about our daily routine, but we are all creative and innovative beings. Each of us has good ideas, sometimes great ideas. And each of us can generate unique and novel ways to address customer needs and to troubleshoot problems.
Why is Creativity Lost?
Kids have lots of creativity. They color outside the lines and make cats purple. They imagine themselves as swash-buckling pirates and as famous movie stars. My friend, Karen, and I used to act out our favorite books in our backyards with no props at all. The walnut tree served as the deserted island and our dolls were the orphaned children. We understood the story and, well, we just had fun!
Then, our parents and teachers taught us that we needed to stay inside the lines, cats are never purple, and it was more important to do chores then pretend to be surviving on coconuts and palm leaves in a snow-covered backyard in Idaho.
Learning is very, very important and without understanding how mathematics and science work, we cannot become engineers, scientists, or project managers. We must learn the right way to solve an algebra problem and we need to know the correct answers. As chemical engineers, the safety of our co-workers and communities relies on us calculating the right answers and using the right formulas.
Yet, another piece of finding the right answer uses our creative problem-solving skills. And many of us have relegated creativity to the back burner. We don’t have time to “play” and we don’t want to look dumb by not coming up with “the right” answer.
Build Creativity through Experimentation
Edison is famous for saying he didn’t discover how to make a light bulb. He had, instead, found 10,000 ways to not make a light bulb. As innovation and engineering professionals, we strive for creativity through experimentation. We learn, just as Edison did, by failing. Each failure tells us what won’t work, but each failure also frames a hypothesis for the next experiment.
We often go about experimentation by changing one variable at a time. This can take a long time to find a novel answer to a problem, yet it provides accurate and detailed data and information about the problem. We should also experiment with “outside the box” solutions. These are problem solutions that come from other industries or analogies from radically different systems.
Legend has it that the inventor of Velcro watched a lizard climb the side of the building and wondered about its sticky feet. Another industry legend illustrates that rotating vessels with brushes used for oil spill clean-ups came from the observation that sea otters’ fur was highly absorptive. Applying a biological analogy to a static process can unleash creative hypotheses. And we can test these ideas in a controlled way to learn from failure.
it’s hard to be creative by ourselves. We need to share ideas – sometimes crazy ideas – with others to generate better ideas. Often, just looking at a problem from a different perspective can stimulate creativity. A simple exercise to help you focus on new concepts is to drive to work by a different route. You will observe different landmarks and patterns. Strike up a conversation with a stranger in the queue at the supermarket. Who knows? You might leave with a new recipe.
At work, seek out the opinions and impressions with those you don’t normally share assignments. Learn what challenges face the structural and electrical engineers, IT and HR professionals, and supply chain specialists. Talk to technicians about their workflows. All of these unusual conversations will give you creative fodder for solving the next problem when it arises. Download a handout on creativity here.
Creativity is Lifelong Learning
Anyone who has followed my blog for any time knows that I’m a huge believer in lifelong learning. Of course, as an experienced and safety conscious process engineer, I know that there are “right” answers. We cannot defy the laws of gravity or of thermodynamics. We know that a material balance is fixed by the laws of nature.
However, when we experiment and lose our fear of judgment, we can test hypotheses to find better and more creative ways to solve problems. We can share a stream between systems that need heating and cooling in a plant to save water and energy. We can push chemical reactions to increase efficiency and reduce material usage with the clever application of temperature, pressure, or catalyst. Whatever your field of expertise, look for new ways to do things, especially by trying an approach that comes from a biological system or another industry.
What can you do, today, to create a novel hypothesis and test it to learn?
Check out my presentation on creativity and design thinking with the Houston ATD chapter here. Register for our online workshop 29 and 30 March 2021 here. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to implement effective tools for innovation team communications.
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