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Thinking About Something New: Brain Twisting Is Unnecessary

Norman J. Jacknis explains how creativity need not be a difficult process.

If you have a new product or service in mind, you know that you need to find a way to differentiate it from the alternatives that people are already using or could use. But then maybe you have a hard time coming up with ways to make what you are offering really different and new.

This is a basically a challenge to your creativity. And many of us think we need to twist our brains to come up with good creative ideas, which is hard work we don’t feel we can do.

Although we have come to frequently expect new technology products, the challenge of creativity is especially hard for technologists. They have lived in a world that demands no software bugs, no downtime and the like. They are by training (as the A students many were in school) and maybe by nature perfectionists.

A perfectionist mindset undermines the kind of experimental approach and its possibility of failure which is necessary for innovation. For that reason, creativity can seem to be an insurmountable, impossible challenge  to be both perfect and creative is a low probability occurrence.

Coming up with new ideas shouldn’t be such a challenge. Consider just two of many authors. Tina Seelig, Professor of Practice at Stanford, has written and spoken about creativity and innovation. The titles of two of her books offer a quick summary of her themes — “InsightOut” Get Ideas Out Of Your Head and Into the World” and “inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity”.

Insight Out

William Duggan of Columbia Business School has also written “Creative Strategy: A Handbook for Innovation” in which he champions the innovation matrix as a means of generating new ways of looking at the world. You break down what you’re trying to do into its parts and then search for any company that provides a model of how to do that part well. It’s a tool for what’s called recombinant innovation.

Insight Matrix

In addition to books on creativity, however, consider a methodology for analysis and software design from more than forty years ago that was named after its originators – Yourdon and DeMarco. If it is remembered at all, it is for data flow diagrams.

Yourdon DeMarco DFD Example

That’s not what I want to emphasize here. Nor do I plan to lead an effort to revive the popularity of Yourdon-DeMarco structured analysis/design and the classic waterfall development lifecycle that it aimed to improve. Nor am I advocating for the underlying idea that there could be a complete and correct design up front in that lifecycle.

Yourdon and DeMarco had even more important guidance for software designers, although that seems to have been lost in the history of software design.

That guidance: think more conceptually, more abstractly. They distinguished between the logical level (the “what”) and the physical level (the “how”). At the physical level, you would describe the implementation. At the logical level, traditionally, you would describe essentially what the organization is trying to do. When thinking about a problem, separate out its implementation (how you see it operate) from its intention.

When it comes time to re-design a system or designing a new product, you first rearrange what is happening at the logical level. Only after that makes sense to everyone do you worry about how it will be implemented.

By the way, this is not something that requires an excessive amount of writing upfront. Instead, it is often better to explain this to someone else verbally.  Because you are trying to communicate clearly and concisely in conversation rather than impress someone with a document.

Look at what is happening and describe it in simple words, before you use a fancy name for it that you might have been taught. Often the solution to a problem is obvious if you listen to yourself carefully.  (Maybe recording it helps). That’s what you should start with.

Alexander Gordian Knot

Thinking this way makes things clear and clarity yields insight. Sometimes the solution can be blindingly simple once you look at things conceptually. The ancient story of Alexander the Great and the Gordon knot is a good example. The knot only had to be broken. Instead of meticulously searching where to pull on it so it would unravel, he just cut it.

One often cited example of the reverse approach and of missed opportunities that result is in the transportation industry. When airplanes and airlines first appeared, there was an opportunity for the railroads to invest and own the new industry. Instead of thinking of themselves as the movers of people and goods over long distances (the higher conceptual level), they thought of themselves as the operators of railroads (the lower physical level). As they say, the rest is history.

You don’t need to twist your brain to arrive at innovative solutions. Actually, conventional thinking often requires more brain twisting than creative thinking. Using the approaches that I’ve outlined here require less, not more, brain twisting to be creative.

This article was originally published in Looking Forward

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.

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