Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Creativity Lesson from John Cleese

Rae Ann Fera has written a column for Fast Company about comedic actor John Cleese and his ideas regarding creativity.  I found the article quite fascinating, particularly Cleese's point about the importance of play.  Cleese tells the story of Sussex University Professor Brian Bates and his study of architects.  Here is what Fera wrote about Bates' conclusions from his research:

The first thing he discovered is that the creative architects knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem. It was almost childlike, like when a child gets utterly absorbed in a problem. The second thing was that they deferred making decisions as long as they could. This is surprising.
If you have a decision to make, what is the single most important question to ask yourself? I believe it’s ‘when does this decision have to be made’? When most of us have a problem that’s a little bit unresolved, we’re a little bit uncomfortable. We want to resolve it. The creative architects had this tolerance for this discomfort we all feel when we leave things unresolved. Why would those two things be importance? The playfulness is because in that moment of childlike play, you’re much more in touch with your unconscious. The second is that when you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your unconscious the maximum amount of time to come up with something.

 As a research on decision-making, I found this point about deferring decisions quite interesting.   Often you hear people bemoaning the chronic indecision that they observe in their organizations.   Here though, Bates' research shows that sometimes we have to give ourselves time to let thoughts and ideas percolate.  I found it a bit hard to reconcile this advice with one of the key principles from design thinking...which is that we learn and improve very effectively through trial and error.   In other words, take action, experiment, and learn and adapt from that trial.  How does one reconcile that model of innovation with this advice to defer decisions at times?   I think the idea here is that "deferring decisions" doesn't preclude trial and error.  It simply means not setting things in concrete too soon.   It means exploring options and waiting to commit fully to particular path.  Trial and error, in fact, can help sort out those plausible options,and it can be part of the "play" process.  

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