Find Your Inner Creativity With Thinkertoys

It’s not too difficult to come across posts or comments to posts at other librarian blogs where there is a good deal of whining about the inadequacies of an LIS education. The number one complaint is something along the lines of “I didn’t learn anything.” Well, that’s unfortunate, but my reaction is “Were you listening or thinking while you were doing all that reading, writing and fieldwork?” None of us recalls everything that happened in LIS school, or from our undergraduate days for that matter, but I have several memorable experiences that were indeed excellent learning events.

One came in my now ancient PL1 programming course. The instructor was awful, but trying my hand at computer programming languages taught me a great life lesson: to solve problems you must look at them from a completely different perspective and the more complex the problem the more perspectives one must think through. When my programs failed to run, and how I dreaded re-doing those punch cards, I realized the only way to attack my failure was to stop my linear thinking and turn the problem completely upside down. I had no idea then, but I was using a Thinkertoy technique to release my inner creativity

I had never heard of Thinkertoys until I came across an interview at IdeaConnection with the author of the book. Michael Michalko has put together an interesting collection of techniques for creative thinking, and collectively he refers to them as Thinkertoys, which is also the title of his book on creative thinking. While some of the suggestions will come off as platitudes (e.g., creative thinkers are positive thinkers), others are rather thought provoking. For example, one of our greatest barriers to creativity is our own expertise. It leads us to use the same experiences and resources to approach problems in the same ways we have always used them. Sometimes that approach works fine, but mostly for simple decision-making scenarios. In other words it is critical to understand the context of the problem. If you attempt to resolve a problem with a complex context with your techniques that work well in the simple context, you will likely fail (for more on this see an excellent article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” in the November 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review). Michalko says “Learning how to look at problems in different ways with different perspectives, and learning how to generate a multiplicity of ideas is the key to solving any problem.”

What I found really interesting was the link between one of Michalko’s techniques for improving creativity to solve problems and Roger Martin’s new book on the opposable mind. Both propose that in order to release creativity in problem solving one must be able to resolve “two opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts or images that exist simultaneously and that may even be beyond logic” (Michalko). This approach is what moves creative thinkers into the realm of seeing totally new perspectives on their existing problems in ways that free them from the biases of their routine approaches. We think there can’t possibly be another solution, that we’ve thought it all the way through. But when we explore options that are in complete opposition to our existing solutions, and then make the effort to resolve the two opposites a new solution is able to emerge. [NOTE – in the HBR article the authors pose that some decision-making situations are so utterly complex that one can only create an environment that allows solutions to emerge from the people affected by the problem; master problem solvers and highly creative individuals have the knowledge and experience to both establish the right environment and avoid the urge to impose their own solution].

I believe this is what I experienced in my PL1 course when I learned that in order to get a non-thinking, highly logical computer to do what I wanted I needed to stop reading the code commands in the book and instead attack my challenge from a completely different angle that had never before occured to me. Unfortunately, that would usually happen only after many hours of frustration. But like Edison I suppose I was only exploring all the ideas that didn’t work before I found the one that did. Michalko has other good examples of this that are based on the methods of creative thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.

But is what Michalko has to offer anything more than what I might summarize as “think outside the box” which is simply a platitude that suggests we need to move beyond our inner biases and mental limitations? He even gives such basic advice as reading beyond the boundaries of one’s own profession (that’s a key element of the keeping up philosophy that I’ve been imparting for years) or seeking out experts from other fields for advice in solving problems. In seeking the answers to these questions I will need to read the book, and explore more of his creative thinking techniques. When I get to the end of it I will hope to be the monkey, not the kitten, when it comes to creative problem solving. Monkeys? Kittens? Go read the interview.


Designing Better Libraries For The Dream Economy

A new economic era is on the rise. Call it the Dream Economy. Will libraries be ready for it?

Actually, I have no idea if the Dream Economy is upon us, but it does offer some interesting perspectives about changing consumer expectations, and how a service organization like a library could use this knowledge to design better user experiences. Pat Jordan explains what the Dream Economy is by explaining that:

Consumers are increasingly looking for products and services which will meet their higher needs, enhance their self-image, and perhaps even help them move towards self-actualisation. People want great experiences and an enhanced self-image, they want to express their values and convictions through their purchase choices. The key to success is in understanding people. The better our understanding of consumers, the greater our ability to create products and services that they will find compelling. To connect with people we need to know what is important to them – their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their lifestyle, their aspirations.

Self actualization? Enhancing the self-image? Libraries are fundamentally good places. They make a positive contribution to the quality of life. But to say they can help people to achieve the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy – well, that might be stretching things a bit. At a basic level libraries are about connecting people with information so that they can get their work done. Excluding the most passionate of library users, the vast majority of people will only visit the library when they have to, and how do we expect to be a part of the Dream Economy if that’s the nature of our service? Can we aspire to meeting the end user’s higher level needs?

The answer to that question may become more clear with a look at the “Four Pleasures” which Jordan says provide a framework for understand the good experiences that people can have. As you read them ask yourself if libraries could deliver these experiences:

Physio-Pleasure. This is to do with the body and the senses. It includes pleasures associated with touch, taste and smell, as well as feelings of sensual pleasure. It also includes pleasures associated with physical enablement, such as being able to perform physical tasks.

Psycho-Pleasure. Pleasures associated with the mind such as being able to understand things and positive emotional states. Mental challenges come into this category as do things that people find interesting.

Socio-Pleasure. This is to do with relationships, both in the concrete and abstract sense. Concrete relationships are those with specific people, such as friends, family, co-workers, neighbours and loved ones. Abstract ones are concerned with our relationship with society as a whole, such as our social status, image and memberships of social groups.

Ideo-Pleasure. These include our tastes, values and aspirations. Tastes are to do with our preferences – what colours we like best, what kinds of music and art we like for example. Values are to do with our moral belief system and our sense of right and wrong. Meanwhile, our aspirations are to do with our sense of who we want to be and the self-image of ourselves that we want to have.

Let’s take a closer look at each. Physio-Pleasure? Well, no one will mistake the library for a fine restaurant or spa, but even a good physical environment – comfortable furniture; a cafe brewing aromatic beverages; attractive displays – is within the reach of many libraries. Psycho-Pleasure? This seems to play to our strong hand. Few societal structures are so closely associated with pleasures of the mind and mental challenges as are libraries. What can we do to better promote reading as a path to Physio-Pleasure? Socio-Pleasure? Libraries have always had a role in the social life of the community. One challenge is making the library a destination for community members. The library should be the place you WANT to visit, not the place you HAVE to visit. We can capitalize on Socio-Pleasure by facilitating the community member’s ability to establish relationships with others. Ideo-Pleasure? Somewhat more challenging to grasp, but are their ways the library can connect with human desires for good taste, strong values and developing a good self-image? People certainly value success, and want to see themselves as being successful. Libraries can help people achieve success, both academically and in careers. How do we transition our brand from books to life success?

It can be difficult to design a better library user experience when there is difficulty in grasping what users would define as a great experience. You can’t deliver an experience without a thorough understanding of the user and their desires, and then shaping an experience that not only meets those desires but makes a lasting impression (the WoW factor). I think this is where thinking through the Dream Economy may be of help. It can provide better insight into what our users’ desires are – or at least four categories of desires that can be used as foundations for well designed user experiences. Jordan provides a few case studies. One of them is about the L’Oreal cosmetic company. He writes that “L’Oreal has understood contemporary femininity better than any of their competitors, have built a brand to reflect this, and then, through their initiatives, built a community around the brand. Their in-depth understanding of their customers has been rewarded with a huge success”. Now, imagine that statement with “your library” there instead of L’Oreal and “their community’s information needs” instead of femininity. It sounds pretty good. Now we need to make it happen.

Guerilla Innovations – Lessons Learned from NEASIS&T

After a necessary break from blogging, I’m back and I’d like to share with you the experience I had as a presenter at NEASIS&T’s exciting program, From Guerilla Innovation to Institutional Transformation: Information Professionals as Change Agents. The talk featured John Blyberg, Jessamyn West, and myself. Though my summary is a bit overdue (the program took place on November 15th), the themes we explored are ones I hope we’ll continue to think about for the foreseeable future.

Not to judge a program by its title, but I was thrilled to see this request come my way. We information professionals are all too familiar with change. We see almost daily changes in technology, our patrons’ expectations, our budgets, and so on. What’s more difficult to recognize is that as our environments change, so too must our approaches to how we do our work. Design thinking plays a role here. We need to be innovative in how we craft user experiences so that they resonate with today’s patrons.

My presentation opened the program with a discussion of creativity – what it is and how to ‘get’ it. Creativity is a fascinating topic for me because it’s something that we all have but rarely use to its full potential. There are many reasons for this, including that creativity might appear too elusive for those of us who don’t think we fit a creative-type mold (the good news is that there isn’t one. Everyone is creative). Also, by its nature, creativity is both a creative and a destructive force. Creative ideas demand change; they entail risk; the creative process is both disciplined and chaotic. All of these qualities can make even the most innovative among us a little squeamish. While my talk was about an hour long, the following is quick summary of what I consider to be the most important points:

  • Creativity is a professional competency. It’s incumbent upon us to nurture our own creativity as well as the creativity within our organizations.
  • Nurturing creativity means:
    • Giving ideas time to percolate before dismissing them (your ideas and those of others).
    • Stepping out of comfort zones. It’s important to actively seek out new experiences and perspectives to generate new ideas.
    • Having fun.
    • Working in groups
    • Flattening hierarchies.
  • The qualities that make creativity scary (risk, change, uncertainty), are the very qualities we need to embrace if we are to remain relevant.
  • Creativity should be held accountable. It may sound ethereal, but creativity is a means of solving real problems.
    • Problems are great sources of ideas. Seek out white spaces, or unmet needs, just as you would seek out solutions.
  • Creativity is NOT a waste of time. It’s the raw material of innovation. Innovation is necessary for libraries’ survival.

(In my next DBL post, I’ll describe some creativity-friendly techniques you can use to awaken your creative talents).

Next up was John who discussed how creative ideas can become realities in the workplace. His talk was fantastic, as evidenced by my many pages of notes. From my experience and point-of-view, all of his suggestions are absolutely true. Here are the some of his key tips:

  • Refrain from being reactionary. It’s crucial to get the basics down pat before moving onto the next big thing.
  • People are your greatest asset. (That’s worth repeating). People are your greatest asset. John recommends using the 51% rule: Look for people who bring that extra level of commitment to their jobs. They can learn the rest.
  • Hierarchies can quash innovation. Often, it’s best to talk directly to colleagues in different departments, rather than through the chain.
  • Embed innovative people throughout every unit of your organization.
  • Understand your culture and be true to who you are.
  • Be flexible. John’s pledge to staff members is that if they really want to do something, he won’t say no as long as they are in it for the long-term.
  • Inculcate a continuous innovation state of mind and don’t dwell on one project or component of a project for too long.
  • Use flexible data structures. Data should be modular so as you collect data from anywhere, consider how it could be used in the future for multiple uses.

Some of my favorite points of John’s had to do with navigating the political structure to get things done. I wholeheartedly agree with his suggestion of offering a counter-vision. If you have an idea/passion/interest, be prepared to defend it against criticisms and other ideas. To do so, John recommended developing a personal and collaborative ideology and to draft a personal mission statement so that you’re ready to win people over on your vision under any circumstance. Also, when working on projects, invite the people you’re serving in on the planning stages. Doing so helps to gain buy-in and commitment to the initiative’s long-term success.

Jessamyn closed the session with a captivating talk on Agitprop (a combination of the words propaganda and agitation). I have far fewer notes on her talk because I got completely wrapped up in her story-telling abilities, which are phenomenal. Suffice it to say, Jessamyn favors an activist approach to change, calling on librarians to remain “truly, defiantly, radically public.” The new word I adopted from her talk was ‘suboptimal.’ Jessamyn argued that one should be able to identify a practice as ‘suboptimal’ without putting colleagues on the defensive. Agreed. As I mentioned earlier, creativity and innovation require that old or traditional ways of doing things should, at the very least, be open for discussion. Dismissing ideas too soon is a sure way to kill innovations ideas before they have a chance to prove their value.