Codifying Creativity

I read this article today about creativity and its lack of existence in American education. It reminded me of many things, but foremost got me thinking about how the various projects I’ve worked on have attempted at codifying creativity.

In the article, creativity is described as the ability to think divergently (generate ideas), and then converge on something (combine those ideas into one). I’ve never heard a more succinct definition that is applicable to so many situations. Of course, I look at this from the angle of building software & hardware.

Engineering is a creative process, but we rarely recognize the need for divergent thinking. We all expect big engineering companies to come up with new and innovative solutions for the problems we have in our daily lives, and management loves to get a team of engineers fired up about solving those problems. However, organizations also get very anxious when the team shows little progress towards building an actual product over an extended period of time. Management can get especially antsy when the goal was to have a product out by the end of the year, but it’s March and you don’t even know what features it will have yet.

The projects on which I have worked have sandboxed creativity to designers. Sure, engineers could consider themselves creative people, but they didn’t get to practice creativity in the way the article suggests. Everything had a schedule associated with it, and even prototypes and investigations were time boxed. The article talks about disengaging the left side of your brain to get some right brain action started. I find that, under schedule pressure, this is very difficult to do.

Larger problems need larger playgrounds for divergent thinking and experimentation. On one scale, the divergence in opinions about social networking had lots of competitors (Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, Facebook). If we think of the introduction of these products into the market simply as divergent thinking, it took maybe a decade for things to converge. On yet a larger scale, the divergence in opinions about how to build software (open source, closed source, somewhere in the middle) has been in experimentation for 20 years and continues.

At Microsoft, many groups move from the tail end of implementation in a release to the beginning of implementation in the next release. There are planning phases that are supposed to allow for creativity, but I just don’t think it’s enough. The Xbox release before last had a 3 month planning cycle, but it lacked real convergence. The last project I know of that truly had the wave of divergence & convergence before it began implementation was Courier: it started with designers looking at the act of reading, only to find that reading leads to writing. It took over a year and a half to converge on what would eventually become Courier.

I’m still not sure how to use this new information: creating a process to spur creativity seems ironic as processes usually stifle divergent thinking.