One Person’s “It Can’t Be Done” Is Another Person’s “Easy Fix”

Sometimes the only way to solve a challenging problem is to try seeing it from a completely different perspective. Call that “problem reversal” or “turn it on its head” – the hardest part is realizing a totally different approach is needed.

On my regular bike ride to work one morning I began to hear a strange sound, like something vibrating or metal hitting metal. Usually my bike rides as quite as the Absolutely No Noise Room at the library. Unfortunately one of the bolts fastening my bike rack to the frame broke leaving half the bolt in the bike. The rack was holding steady, though moving around enough to create the chatter. It sounded lousy but the bike was otherwise riding fine.

On the way home from work I stopped at a bike shop on my route – but not my usual shop. A bike mechanic came over to take a look. He quickly declared “Sorry, but it can’t be fixed”. He said that efforts to remove the broken bolt would likely strip out the threads and there’d be no way to attach the bike rack. Disappointing news but I decided to try again – at my regular shop.

One of the staff was doubtful anything could be done. Another thought it might be fixed with an expensive replacement part. A third technician came over, looked the situation over a bit and said “Let me take it into the back. I have an idea.”

It actually turned out to be quite a simple fix. Instead of dealing with the broken bolt – an obviously more complicated job – he realized the rack could be attached to another spot in the bike frame. He just needed to find the right bolt for it. Ten minutes and ten dollars later I was on my way with a good as new bike rack.

How did this bike technician see what no one else did? How did he change the focus from the broken bolt to an entirely different route to the solution – one that in retrospect seemed more obvious. Certainly not to that first mechanic who only saw an insurmountable problem. Was it experience? Just luck that he saw a solution no one else did? I think it was something else entirely.

For lack of a better description, I’d call it reframing a problem though I think it’s deeper than that. To my way of thinking it is more a case of being able to turn a problem completely on its head in order to examine it from an angle that is 180 degrees different. One term I’ve come across that might describe it is problem reversal.

Whatever you call it, this is no easy task to achieve. Our minds get locked on to a single track that we think must be the answer. That first mechanic could only see the problems associated with getting the bolt out of the frame. Once he locked on to that singular perception he no longer was able to see the possibilities for an alternate mounting option. For him that solution simply failed to exist.

What does that look like? This TED talk offers what might be an example of what happens to our minds. Read this sentence:

After reading this sentence you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize the second “the”.

See how easy that happens owing to our attention blindness or fixed mindset. Now if you read this sentence backwards – turning it completely on its head and looking at it from a completely different perspective – you can’t miss that there are two occurrences of “the” in a row. So how can we train our minds to examine a problem, especially one where our locked mind sees no solution, by looking at it from multiple perspectives?

One technique I’ve come to use is to simply walk away from the problem and just stop thinking about it entirely. Consider this not-so-serious example. Not only am I one of those people who reads the local newspaper every day, but I still read the paper version. I also always finish my newspaper reading with the comics page. In particular I set aside five minutes for the daily Jumble puzzle.(examples here). My mind really struggles with this sort of puzzle though I’ve gotten better with practice.

Sometimes I see the solution within seconds. When I don’t my mind can got locked on the jumbled words so that I only see the letters in one possible order. That’s when I just stop and move on to the comic strips. If I still don’t have it I may go off to take care of other things. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not when I come back to the Jumble I can see it in a different way. Just stepping away, even with small challenges, can often unlock the mind. But will it work for more unwieldy problems?

It can, albeit with a more radical attitude adjustment. This notion first dawned on me as a graduate library school student at Drexel University in 1977. I was taking my first-ever computer programming course. We used PL-1 in the course and it was worse then trying to learn a foreign language. Now this is back in the day when students typed each line of code on a single computer punch card. Then all the punch cards were submitted at the computer center for mainframe processing. If the program failed it required a thorough troubleshoot to find the problem. It could be anything from a missing comma to a big-time syntax error. Then the offending punch cards had to be re-done, re-submitted…until it worked.

While it was a real thrill to write a working solution, it seemed overwhelmingly laborious. I just wanted to help people do research, and learning PL-1 seemed like a complete waste of time. Then came one assignment. All we had to do was write the code to take eight mixed-up words and print them out to form a proper sentence. I believe it was “The quick brown fox jumped over the fence.” If I can still remember that you get the picture this was a traumatic experience.

Simple enough, right. I failed again and again to get it to work. I went through dozens of punch cards and many hours waiting at the computer center. While I don’t quite recall all the details I remember clearly where I was when the solution finally came to me. I was actually working on something entirely different. What popped into my head was nearly a reversal of the strategy that got me nowhere. I had to start again from scratch but the new program worked. Suddenly it all seemed so clear. How was I was initially blinded to it?

While that course convinced me I was not destined for computer programming, the lesson learned of real value was the discovery of a few strategies and skills for tackling a frustrating problem with no easy solution. Continuing in a frustrating way with the same strategy, attempting only minor tweaks, only takes you so far. Eventually you must determine that the situation requires examination from an entirely different perspective.

Whether you think of that as problem reversal or “working backwards” or simply turning a problem on its head, coming up with a creative idea or innovative solution occasionally requires us to persist in seeking a solution when everyone else believes it can’t be done. Sometimes it is just a matter of walking away, clearing the mind and eliminating the distractions that obscure the solution – and then coming at it from a completely new perspective.

Have you had a similar experience? What problem did you encounter that led you to a realization about problem reversal? Did you come up with a name or creative description for your technique that is worth sharing here?

Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.

Taking Advantage of a Creative Insight

My first position as an academic librarian was in a business library. Much like the familiar liaison model of service delivery, each of us librarians maintained several subject specialties. As the newly hired librarian I had little choice. I was assigned the subjects that no one else wanted. No surprise then how accounting became part of my liaison package.

One of my responsibilities involved oversight of our Disclosure collection of microfiche annual reports and Securities and Exchange Commission documents. It was a huge tangled mess of content that no one really understood, leading to its lack of use. Initially I forced myself to learn how to file the microfiche so I could train student workers to do it so that I could then forget about it and go on to more important things. But something happened. I discovered a whole world of fascinating information in those documents. Devoting time to learn about the different SEC filings allowed me to better understand the relationship between them and how they could contribute to business research in areas such as mergers and acquisitions.

My intense interest in these documents and a realization that many business researchers were overlooking their value led me to want to learn more rather than less. Ultimately it led me to become the go-to-person at the business school for assistance and support in using the SEC documents collection. It helped to have a guide to a poorly designed, non-intuitive micro-format collection. The experience inspired me to share my knowledge to help others. That led to research guides and presentations. A published article in the library literature was followed by more presentations and publications and eventually a book. Without a creative insight into a service gap going unfilled none of it may have happened.

Not that I have any particular interest in baby products – or “gear” as it is referred to in Jamie Grayson’s story – but it caught my attention because it directly connects with my own experience at the business library as the accounting liaison librarian. It’s about getting caught up in something you thought was a boring waste of your time, but then your unexpected passion for it leads to a creative insight and a multitude of opportunities for new products and services. The gist of the story conveyed in this article is to understand how an out-of-work, single actor with no children became the number one go-to-person for information and advice about baby gear. It all happened because of a creative insight – seeing something that others didn’t and then capitalizing on that idea to build it into a growing suite of services and products.

Grayson, just another out-of-work actor, is desperate for a job to pay the bills until his next acting gig. With few options he replies to an ad for a position at a large baby products retailer seeking actors to demonstrate the products. Initially Grayson demonstrated one product only – an expensive stroller. The last thing Grayson expected was to develop a passion for baby gear. Bored with that one product he decides to branch out from strollers and endeavors to gain expertise in as many baby products as possible. He read baby blogs, follows product reviews and studies what parents say about the products. He even spent a year alongside midwives to learn about the birth and parenting experience. Soon enough Grayson was the expert.

Grayson also recognized that his acting ability gave him an edge. He had a true knack for demonstrations that enabled parents to choose the right products. The store owners gave Grayson even more responsibility, putting him in charge of all product demonstrations. Thanks to word-of-mouth parents began to seek Grayson out for his advice. They trusted his unbiased and honest recommendations. Things got really crazy for Grayson when he was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about finding the right baby products in different price ranges.

That’s when Grayson had his creative insight. He saw an unfilled gap for a product/service that no one else did.

That’s how he came to start the Babyguy Gear Guide, a compendium of news, reviews and information about baby products. From there it’s another success story. Grayson owes it to a combination of factors that include his acting ability, his position as an outsider who can be objective and critical of the products, building trust with his audience and maintaining an unthreatening presence with which moms and dads are comfortable. But it all started with the recognition of a service gap that needed filling.

The big takeaway for me in Grayson’s story is how that one creative insight led to a completely new service. It’s also provides a good answer to the question “What is creativity?” Grayson came up with a really good idea for something new or an improvement on past efforts, and was able to bring his idea to fruition. But it may have been more than that. At the start he fell into a job and then it got kind of boring. He was good at that one product demonstration, but he needed more. Creative endeavor requires more than just insights that lead to ideas. It must be fueled by an investment of hard work and time to make things happen.

Rather than quit and go on to something else, Grayson instead immersed himself in his work by learning everything he could about baby gear and gadgets. It all led to the realization that consumers wanted a certain type of expertise to guide them in making the best product choices. He also did the field research that led to the realization of the gap in services. He spoke to parents. He went to product conventions. He experienced the childrearing process from the parents’ perspective. He saw the patterns coming together: expensive baby gear; affluent parents; internet commerce; review-driven consumers; options overload; social media. Grayson’s creative insight is owed to much more than job boredom.

Grayson’s story may help us to understand how a creative idea and what follows happens, but what can we take away from this story to help us design better libraries? How would a library design a space that would encourage, inspire or facilitate community members to achieve more creativity? What services could librarians provide in a creativity zone? Is it even possible to design such a space? At the ACRL2015 Conference colleagues and I participated in a panel session titled “Turn Your Library Into an Idea Engine: Creating the Ideal Creativity Space“. We explored some basic ideas about creativity, how libraries have evolved over time as places where creativity can occur, how librarians can be intentional about designing a space that contributes to creativity and innovation and offered an example of such a space in a medical center library. When it comes to intangibles like creativity no one has all the answers. Our panel presentation demonstrated that the opportunity is there and that the campus or community library is a natural location to situate a space to bring together the many elements that contribute to creativity and innovation.

As colleges and universities, cities and corporations all place greater emphasis on the importance of creativity as a driver of innovation, entrepreneurship and the growth of new products and services, librarians may have an opportunity to support the effort to help community members discover their inner creativity. If we can learn from the stories and experiences of people like Jamie Grayson we may better understand how to help individuals tap their creativity flow. I believe creativity hubs would immensely add to the value libraries already deliver to their communities.

You might even be asking yourself, as a librarian, what are you doing now that seems like a dead end, but may ultimately turn out to be your next great new service. What’s your microfiche documents collection? It’s there just waiting for you to have a creative insight. Be sure to take advantage of it.

Prominent Design Thinker Moves On

Nearly everyone was surprised to read Bruce Nussbaum’s latest essay about design thinking titled “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment: So What’s Next”. I first shared a link to Nussbaum with DBL readers back in 2007, and recommended his blog as a good source of information about design thinking and user experience. Since then Nussbaum has been a leading proponent of design thinking as a way to improve organizations and increase creativity and innovation. In his regular columns about design thinking for BusinessWeek Nussbaum would share great insights into how organizations were using design thinking to achieve better results. How is it that someone so connected with design thinking would write “The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on.”

The gist of Nussbaum’s farewell to design thinking is that the business community has failed to apply design thinking as it was intended – or as it is applied in the design community. The failure is not so much about what design thinking is as the way that business has turned it into a process for achieving creativity. He writes:

Design Thinking originally offered the world of big business–which is defined by a culture of process efficiency–a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity. By packaging creativity within a process format, designers were able to expand their engagement, impact, and sales inside the corporate world. Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process…There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation.

It seems to me that Nussbaum is saying that business has warped the intent of design thinking by trying to turn it into a totally rational, analytical process for achieving creativity – in other words – trying to turn it into every other business fad such as TQM or Sigma Six. If you apply the process and follow the process it will provide the desired results. Only, according to Nussbaum, it didn’t. Nussbaum appears to have lost his optimism about design thinking’s capacity to serve as a process to help business become more creative and ultimately better organizations with improved products and services. In his post, Nussbaum still has some great things to say about design thinking’s impact has on improving some areas of society, but it ultimately hasn’t delivered on creativity. That’s where Nussbaum is headed. He writes:

In my experience, when you say the word “design” to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think “fashion.” Say “design thinking,” and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say “creativity” and people light up and lean in toward you… I believe the concept of Creative Intelligence expands that social engagement even further… I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions.

Hmm. Does Creative Intelligence sound somewhat like design thinking? Isn’t the goal of design thinkers to creatively identify problems and develop thoughtful solutions – the way that designers do? There are over 80 comments to Nussbaum’s post and many of them take up this point. At least one blogger agreed with Nussbaum, and provided a good discussion on the connection between creativity and innovation (saying that business saw design thinking as the path to innovation).

That Nussbaum says he is moving on to something new should be of little concern to those of us who find value in design thinking. His concerns seem more focused on the way business used design thinking – and the fact that there were more failures than successes – than the process of design thinking itself. But there’s a useful lesson here (and in the video interview with Tim Brown he provides in his post – see the 16-25 minute area) that if you just look at design thinking as a rote series of steps that you can apply to any problem, it’s bound to fail. The focus needs to be on the generation of creativity in developing solutions – on the outcomes. I will be interested in Nussbaum’s book on Creative Intelligence that comes out next year. I wonder what he will say about design thinking, and what more Creative Intelligence can offer us.

More On Meaning And Creative Showering

No, this isn’t a post about how you get meaning from your creative showering. I want to just follow up on two different posts with some new thoughts and links for you.

My most recent post shared some insights from the retreat I attended along with my colleagues in our public services units. In that post I talked about a conversation I had with my co-worker about meaning, and how an article I later came across shared research that indicated that people derive more meaning and happiness from experiences than they do from material objects. Then I came across this NYT article on virtually the same topic discussing similar research that documents that individuals derive more happiness from experiences than material objects:

Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. (Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.)

So with all the research pointing to the connection between meaning and happiness/satisfaction, that further reinforces that we can offer our user community members something of value whenever we deliver a great library experience.

Further back I wrote about the importance of capturing your good ideas – even when they come in the shower (and yes, there’s a special notebook for that). I mentioned that some research did show there is something to be said for showers as a creative place. For some reason, many individuals will indicate they came up with a good idea in the shower. Over at the Heart of Innovation blog, you’ll find a list of 20 reasons why people get their best ideas in the shower. Some make a lot of sense, and others are questionable – but intriguing – like showering with a partner and turning the shower into a brainstorming session. But I think it still comes down to reason number 20: Showering is easy. Not a lot of thinking is required to make it happen, which frees your mind to think about other things.