2017.06.08 Creativity, Innovation, Part 3

How many Monty Python actors does it take to change a light bulb?

Thanks to my second level network on LinkedIn, I was introduced to this excellent (if a bit dated 1991) video where Nearly Headless Nick - oops - John Cleese over 36 minutes outlines "everything worth knowing" about creativity. It can hardly be a surprise to anybody that a person behind such unusual "inventions" as The Ministry of Silly Walks and A Fish Called Wanda might be interested in creativity. For those who don't have 37 minutes, below are the central points, but do set time aside to watch the video itself.

Cleese says that creativity requires 5 prerequisites:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence and
  5. Humor

Space refers to a place where one can be undisturbed. Sitting in the middle of an open office with telephone calls and people talking - not to mention disturbing you directly - will not work.

Time is a slot of 1-1.5 hours where you can get into what Cleese calls "open" mode. When we are open, we are playful and non-judgmental. But we will only allow ourselves to stay in that mode if we know that it ends at some point. And after 1.5 hours we normally think we have squandered enough time on being unproductive.

The second Time is letting the issue stew "on the back burner". We have diligently pondered a question for a while (ref. above) and sleep on it. Perhaps we even take out an hour a couple of days later and ponder some more. By giving the matter so much attention that our subconscious mind understands that we are really interested in this problem, it will keep working on it while we are asleep or attend to other things. And suddenly, eureka, something may pop up while we are in the shower.

Cleese refers to the Japanese as some who are good at keeping problems simmering on the back burner. Carlos Ghosn of Renaut/Nissan likewise has credited his experiences working in Japan with a changed attitude to decision making. In this talk he distinguishes between making a decision and implementing it and says that waiting longer before making a decision can make the organization more ready for the change and hence facilitate the implementation phase. Conveniently, it also give more time to let it stew.

So try to be decisive about not making a decision until you have to.

With Confidence Cleese means that we must be non-judgmental. There are no wrong answers or questions when we are in open mode.

And finally is Humor an important ingredient to get into and stay in this playful mindset. Humor works because it uses something in an unexpected context and that is exactly what creativity is all about: Taking something from one realm into another.

This last point is what Bruce Vorjack describes in the paper I have referred to in Creativity, Innovation Part 2.

The last point Cleese makes is about being playful together in a group and here the Confidence could be replaced with Trust. Just as there are no wrong questions and answers while you are pondering, there are no wrong ideas if you work creatively together. Not surprisingly, this was exactly whet Google later found when studying what made some of their teams much more productive than others: The good teams had psychological safety where people didn't ridicule each other's ideas and genuinely listened to each other.

As for changing light bulbs, I refer to the video. The use of stereotypes make me slightly uncomfortable, as funny as they are. But building on what Cleese says about humor and seriousness I will paraphrase Piet Hein who in one of his Grucks writes that "if you think humor is only about something funny and seriousness equals solemnity, you don't know much about either."