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Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University better known for his science fiction novels. He was one to ponder the genesis of new ideas, as uncovered in an unpublished 1959 essay on creativity. The context of this essay is particularly interesting, as Asimov wrote the essay subsequent to being invited to join a group of people – scientists, thinkers and creative types – who were charged with thinking ‘out of the box’, considering secret classified information.
It was for this reason that Asimov eventually decided not to continue in the group – he worried that having access to such information would limit his freedom of expression. Before leaving the group he expressed himself rather eloquently in a formal essay on creativity, which is just as relevant today as when he wrote it. I’ve extracted a few pearls of wisdom here.
Asimov explains that “unfortunately, the method of generation (of an idea) is never clear, even to the ‘generators’ themselves.” To start, however, what is needed is people with a good background in a particular field, as well as people who are capable of making connections between things that may not otherwise seem connected.
The concept of ‘cross-connections’ is the crucial point. Making a cross-connection requires a ‘certain daring’. Asimov says, “A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance… Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits.”
Apply this to a company, and you’ll see that the people who should be encouraged to come up with ideas are the people who interact most intimately with your customer and who understand, first hand, what goes into the day-to-day labors that make your company tick. Among those people will be some who go against the grain and think differently.
Asimov notes that once a cross-connection is made, the idea becomes obvious (“Why didn’t I think of that?”) and suddenly seems reasonable. (One of Saatchi & Saatchi’s brightest, Cliff Francis, called this ‘Surprising with the Obvious’) During, it usually seems unreasonable. Perhaps this is why Asimov advocated isolation, as far as creativity is concerned – it can be embarrassing to voice new ideas, and thus creativity can be inhibited in the presence of others.
However, all is not lost on creativity in groups, or ‘cerebration sessions’ as Asimov calls them. Their purpose should be to “educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts” – not to think up new ideas.
Asimov talks of the ideal conditions for a creative group: no more than five people who are willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish; no individuals who are more reputable, articulate, or commanding than the others; a feeling of informality and joviality; a relaxed environment; if possible, little to no responsibility or pressure to generate new ideas (“the great ideas came as side issues”); and a session arbiter, asking shrewd questions, making necessary comments and bringing the group gently back to the point.
You can read the full essay here.