TCD: Creative Thinking and Innovation

I am attending a module on Creative Thinking and Innovation at Trinity College Dublin. I hereby want to share some topics that Fergal Brophy covered today and what thoughts they triggered in me.

Design thinking

Design thinking is an iterative process of empathising with the users, defining the problem, ideating, proposing solutions, prototyping, testing, gathering feedback and improving the design based on the gathered insights.

This process comes naturally to all of us. “Design thinking” is just a fancy term for capturing what we have been doing throughout ages.

done is better than perfect

Ideas should be pulled out of the head, put onto the paper, and into a prototype as fast as possible. It does not have to be a high fidelity prototype. It can be something as simple as a storyboard or a clay model. The prototype can also be just a part of a bigger whole, a component of the system if such decomposition is possible.

The idea behind this is to have something tangible to get feedback on. Based on this feedback one can discover design flaws, improve, change, adapt, refine, and iterate.

When we hold our ideas and prototypes to ourselves for too long, when we work on perfecting them before sharing them with the world, they become our cherished babies. No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly. Similarly, no one really wants to believe it when someone says that the prototype they spent so much time and effort on is rubbish. We develop a bias and we tend to ignore the harsh and painful reality of our baby actually being ugly and needing further refinement!

(Disclaimer: Please do not carry out beauty operations on your babies because someone said they were ugly.)

The goal is to fail and fail fast so that we can learn and improve. If it can even be called failing. Personally, I would simply call it experimenting. Finding ways that work well and ways that work in a slightly different way than intended. Maybe this failing solution can even be applied with great success in some other context, scenario, point in time, or with another group of people? Who knows. But at least we know that with current conditions it is not the best way to go.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That way, you will be a mile away from them and have their shoes.

The key to creating successful products and services is to provide something that there is a need or a demand for. For finding out what the need is and what the perfect solution should look like, it is necessary to know your customer. This is where empathy comes into play.

There are multiple ways to find out more about the user.

Ask questions. “How do you usually put on your shoes?”, “When was the last time you went abroad?”, “How many times did you go to the gym last week?”. Asking questions is very easy and straightforward. However, look out for not causing bias, e.g. “Did you like the concert?”, and for keeping it as open-ended as possible (at least at the beginning), e.g. not “Do you like your eggs scrambled or boiled?”.

Observe from a distance. Cut eye holes in a newspaper, sit on a park bench, and stalk people walking their dogs. Everyone can do this and everyone can do this daily (I often observe people on the bus or at a restaurant). The key thing here is to not intervene. Simply look at what the situation is right now.

Impersonate. Do everything that helps you identify with your user or customer. Walk a literal mile in their shoes. Use props. Put your arm in a cast. Wear a blindfold. Crawl on your knees to be on the same height as a child. Tie bags of weight to your body. Become your target.

Hang out and chat. Just chill with them. Discuss life with them. Let them guide your process.

Yet again, context is important. How is the problem currently solved? What is the experience like right now? What do they like and dislike about it? Is it the same everywhere or is it time- and location-dependent?

There are no goals in innovation

Having goals creates too much pressure to perform which, in turn, hinders creativity. Innovation is a creative process. Creativity is applied imagination and innovation is applied creativity. Creativity does not kick in in a pressure cooker.

Instead, one needs an incubator. Ideas and solutions need time to incubate. They need time to evolve naturally, to either turn into beautiful peacocks or to rot away. Either path is fine. As there are no goals, succeeding is also virtually unimportant. Yes, it is great if our idea lives and becomes successful, but if it doesn’t, we ought not to beat ourselves up about it, but simply move on to another idea in our incubator.

Fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles for innovation. Some ways to create a positive culture that supports innovation are:

  • not criticising the proposed ideas,
  • higher-ups openly talking about failures,
  • creating a safe psychological space where people feel comfortable trying out new things,
  • experimenting without successful results.

Why aren’t we all successful innovators?

According to research done by the authors Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen, there are five key skills that distinguish great innovators.

Questioning. They are constantly curious. They ask questions. They seek to find out more. I personally have no difficulties with this skill. I have been told that I ask too many questions. Sometimes I ask questions that I myself know the answers to purely because I know that there is someone who is too afraid to ask that question. Sometimes I ask as a buffer for my friends. I really do not mind asking questions, even if someone assesses me as ignorant because of it. Joke’s on them. At least I find answers to what I did not know before and can learn.

Observing. They look at people, objects, spaces, places, contexts, actions. They analyse how things are now and think about how they could be instead. Also not a problem for me. I enjoy people-watching (and bird-watching). I always run to the window when I hear the garbage collector truck approaching. I find it fascinating. People are amusing.

Experimenting. They go out and try things. They find thousands of ways of how things do not work and some ways of how they do. They iterate until they find something good. This is something that I might have difficulties with. I enjoy thought experiments, but I often give arguments against going out there and testing the ideas. Although, admittedly, I am pretty decent at testing my ideas via online media, such as Reddit. Nevertheless, I could give tangible forms to more of my ideas and test them better. Sometimes I simply don’t know how.

Networking. They have a huge list of people they know who might be useful in one situation or another. They get these contacts from attending events and connecting with people. They avidly use these connections for their own profit. I am an introvert by nature, but I have no difficulties with socialising at networking events once I get over the fact that it is simply so tiresome. I always feel drained after such events. And I never quite know what to do with all these contacts. Mostly because I tend to forget who I met, where and why, and how they might be useful to me. Maybe I should start taking notes whenever I meet someone.

Associating. They connect the dots. They put together puzzles. They take one thing from one domain and connect it to a completely other domain. I am not sure how to assess myself in this skill. I want to say that I am good and can think outside of the box. One recent example is maybe my idea of connecting student drivers with recycling stations or package delivery services. I think that one is actually a nice example of combinational thinking.

Learn by doing

Instead of doing a classical lecture where the students sit and take notes and the teacher talks for multiple hours straight, Fergal Brophy flipped the classroom and taught these topics (and many more) by letting us experience things firsthand. We did many gamified exercises throughout the day.

We learned more about each other by telling about objects that capture our creativity. Mine was a necklace with all sorts of trinkets on it. I have just been piling random things on that one because I think they look pretty or cool. There were paintings, cameras, keychains, notebooks, jars of mushrooms and many other items that people had brought with them.

We made tinfoil hats in ten minutes to learn about the importance of asking the right questions and getting to know your customer. Dare I say that we might have somewhat failed with that task as we did not focus on why or where our customer would want to wear the hat, but more about what our customer’s hobbies are, and built our hat design around that information.

We drew paintings in pairs without talking to each other to learn more about ambiguity and not knowing what others are up to. Each of us had a pen and added things to the picture, building on what was already there. This felt a lot like an improv game where you build upon other’s ideas and define them further. Our drawing turned out beautiful.

We built towers out of spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows to realise that experimenting, failing, iterating is more important than careful planning. Apparently children are much better at this task than CEOs of big companies because the latter are so afraid of failure that they do not give themselves the time to fail, fail fast, and improve.

We had a fun exercise on combinational thinking. We read news and combined them to build a funky problem space. We then came up with funny and amusing solutions to these weird problems. Ours was a mix of an article about the Irish police officers being accused of drinking while on duty and an article about how a wine truck that spilt in Italy caused the taps to release wine instead of water. Based on that, our problem came out to be that police officers cannot enjoy alcohol while on duty. Our solution was Wine-Not – a filter for taps that makes water taste like wine, so the police force can still enjoy the taste of alcoholic beverages.

With such a practical approach, we definitely had a lot of fun and, hopefully, will remember the topics better.

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