November 10, 2015, by Academic contributor

Spot the ‘genius’

GeniusImagine you’re on a spaceship travelling towards some distant star. One day you glance in the equivalent of your rear-view mirror and see a faster vessel about to overtake you.

It turns out that this vessel is from your own planet. It left Earth years after your mission but has caught up as a result of major advances in technology. What was the merit in you setting out at all? Why bother?

This paradox is widely credited to renowned science writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke. What it illustrates beautifully is that ideas don’t just address the problems of the present: they also lay the foundations for the future.

How so? Because the second spaceship would never have been conceived were it not for the efforts of those who created the first. Sir Isaac Newton expressed a similar sentiment when he famously remarked: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

What was true in Newton’s day remains true now: the mind is the greatest resource humanity possesses – readily available, inexhaustible and free at the point of use. There’s every chance this will still be the case when one manned interplanetary flight is capable of sweeping past another.

The currency of the mind is ideas. Our brightest hope for progress lies in their effective generation and evaluation. They enable us to make decisions and exploit opportunities. They allow us to solve problems and innovate. Yet in many quarters our ability to come up with ideas is both misunderstood and hugely underestimated.

Where do ideas come from? Here and there it’s assumed they magically materialise out of thin air – that “genius” is inspired by some outside force. Poets and painters seek their “muse”. Words like “insight” and “illumination” are bandied about – providing, ironically enough, neither insight nor illumination.

Fortunately, there’s a more practical and straightforward way of analysing human ingenuity. To pursue it we need to put aside the conceit that moments of discovery are the result of some kind of external intervention; and we need to dispense with the self-defeating notion that problem-solvers and innovators are in some way fundamentally different.

The fact is that you don’t have to be a “genius” to be creative. Nothing of the sort. A very simple experiment is all it takes to detonate this myth.

We all accept we should engage our brains before opening our mouths, yet we rarely do. When we start to speak we seldom know how a sentence is going to end or even if it will. We might set out with a vague plan, but in conversation – even with ourselves – repeated interruptions force us to revise what we’re about to say.

This is why a cheesy chat-up line or a scripted snippet of sales patter is so obvious to us. We discern innately the unoriginal and the contrived, because that’s not how we talk. Our speech is cybernetic. In short, we make it up as we go along. We showcase our creative ability every time we have a chat.

Much the same happens when we’re confronted by a problem. We respond automatically and almost unconsciously, dredging our own well of experience to generate and evaluate ideas so quickly that the process seems almost instantaneous. We search our memories, finding similarities and analogies, dismissing one possibility after another until the procedure finally leads to a solution we like.

In the course of any given working week people who hold positions of seniority and responsibility are likely to find themselves in all manner of scenarios that would benefit from skills that might be somewhat imprecisely defined as “innovative”, “entrepreneurial” or even “visionary”.

This raises some crucial questions:

  1. Are they aware of the value they can deliver in such circumstances?
  2. Can anything be done to increase their chances of bringing the necessary skills to bear?
  3. Do the environment and culture in which they work support such a philosophy?

To answer these in turn:

  1. “Vision” isn’t a gift. There’s growing evidence that creativity is an everyday and entirely natural faculty of humanity. We often hear that someone is born with such an ability; it would be more accurate to say nobody is born without it.
  2. This being the case, just as singers or athletes sometimes have to relearn breathing techniques to augment their performance, we should be able to enhance our intrinsic capacity for creativity, problem-solving and innovation. It should be possible to build on and refine our aptitude for spotting opportunities, making connections and identifying solutions that are effective and imaginative.
  3. Sadly, the standard organisational response to “problems” can be depressingly blinkered. It might be “Don’t bring us problems – bring us answers!” or, maybe even worse still, “Don’t think – we don’t pay you to think!”. By now we should be starting to grasp that this type of attitude can be enormously wasteful.

In addition, there’s an unhappy tendency to rush to judgment. A common consequence of this propensity is a sub-optimal outcome. As NASA flight director Gene Kranz wisely cautioned his staff upon learning that an oxygen tank aboard Apollo 13 had exploded: “Okay, everybody keep cool… Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.”

At Nottingham University Business School we have our own creative problem-solving process, ‘Ingenuity’. Taught to students and business executives at our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia, it’s rooted in a methodology that seeks to strengthen the link between imagination and reason. The core of it can be explained simply.

Think back to the example of creative language. If you want to create better sentences you need to know exactly what you want to say; a wider vocabulary would also come in handy; and you might want to enhance your grammar as well.

So we have three basic steps towards improved outcomes:

  • Define precisely what’s wante.
  • Discover as many alternatives as you ca.
  • Determine which is the most effective.

The good news is that the potential for doing things better – and, in tandem, for doing things differently – is limitless. The even better news is that more and more people are at last appreciating that how we go about achieving that doesn’t have to be rocket science. One suspects Clarke and Newton alike would be profoundly heartened.

Martin Binks is Professor of Entrepreneurial Development Nottingham University Business School

Posted in InnovationMBA