Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > September 2019


Creativity arises from playful thought and experimentation, and by pursuing ideas that others too quickly dismiss.

One well known writer on the subject of creativity, Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, argues that the mind has a generative process and an evaluative process. The generative process generates ideas, and the evaluative process narrows them down to those which are practical. The problem that most people face is to begin evaluation of ideas before the generation of them is complete. Thus, they end up having a much smaller pool of ideas from which to choose.

He recommends that you begin by thinking up as many ideas as you can. Even silly, foolish, or ridiculous solutions are to be considered, because a) they can lead you to better ideas, and b) through your willingness to note such ideas you prevent the evaluative process from kicking in too soon.

In Von Oech's book, he focuses on what he calls the "ten mental locks". In order to develop creative solutions, you must prevent yourself from being constrained by these locks:

  1. "The Right Answer"
  2. "That's Not Logical"
  3. "Follow the Rules"
  4. "Be Practical"
  5. "Avoid Ambiguity"
  6. "To Err is Wrong"
  7. "Play is Frivolous"
  8. "That's Not My Area"
  9. "Don't be Foolish"
  10. "I'm Not Creative"

The "Right Answer" is a mental lock, because if you are looking for one right answer you will fail to consider multiple possible right answers. (Often there is a second alternative that turns out better.) "I'm Not Creative" is a mental lock because if you take that attitude, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. As for the others: foolishness, error, impracticality, fun, illogic, etc., are all jumping off points for finding creative solutions.

This doesn't mean that people seek to make errors, or to break rules arbitrarily. But sometimes there is a need to reconsider past constraints, or to try something different from what has been done before (even knowing that some experiments don't turn out as desired).

In my career I have worked in a number of different organizations, and it seems that the largest ones have the most difficulty trying new things. It is well known that most innovative new products begin their life in smaller organizations, perhaps later to be bought up by bigger organizations and marketed more widely. Government bureaucracy in particular has difficulty in this regard, because governments function by rules and standardization on a large scale, and there are many levels of approval required for any proposal to change the status quo.

While working in government, I have so often heard the phrase "adopting best practices" as a prescription for excellence. The problem is that the best practices have to be developed and tested outside of the organization first, in order to prove that those practices are "best". Any idea is tested by checking that many other organizations have done it successfully already. This is not a prescription for innovation! What it typically accomplishes is to keep government at least 10 years behind most other organizations in adoption of new technology and processes.

The fact of the matter is that standardization and innovation are opposites! Innovation occurs most easily where there is less standardization.

However, standardization is also necessary for efficiency and to produce consistent results. There is a real tension between keeping the "status quo" working smoothly and introducing change. When new things are tried, often it is done as a small-scale experiment first in order to minimize risk.

Likewise in individuals, people develop their own standards, and those standards become habits. A habit can be a useful thing, because it relieves the conscious mind from applying attention to mundane things. Without habits, a person would be faced with a constant barrage of choices to make. Should I get out of bed after I wake up in the morning? What next? Do I go the bathroom and brush my teeth? Do I go to the kitchen and put toast in the toaster? What is the route I should follow? If someone says "good morning" to me, will I answer back? What will I say?

Habits make life easy as the mundane things are taken care of. But where is the excitement, and challenge, and opportunity to fulfil one's potential? It is from going outside the easy habits to do something different once in a while! It is from considering ideas from other people, to pick up ideas one had not thought of before. Those things become a catalyst for creativity, and creativity opens up new potential for accomplishment and personal satisfaction.

- Arthur de Leyssac, September 2019

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