Creativity, Innovation, and Invention

Dennis Holeman
Revised 6 October 2019

Approaches for Enhancing Creativity

Personal mind-body factors for creativity:

  • Schedule creative work for the times you are most creative, based on your personal biorhythms.
  • Emphasize good sleep, exercise, diet, and emotional health factors to facilitate creativity.
  • Practice Vipassana (Mindfulness) meditation.
  • Understand what body conditions (posture, etc.) supports your own best creativity.
  • Avoid all forms of mind-entraining entertainment (radio, TV, music, etc.) while doing creative work.
  • Some people advocate long walks in the wilderness, ideally in unsettled weather, to stimulate creativity.

Use mental background mode:

  • Seed your mind with a problem to be solved, and then sleep on it.

Note: incubation works best when you have already been deeply engaged with the problem.

  • Mentally prime your mind with intense focus on the problem and then go do something completely different.
  • Ask your subconscious to chew on a creative task during other low-cognitive workload activities (e.g., housework).
  • Work outdoors to facilitate creativity.


Shake up established patterns:

  • Interact regularly with other creative people, particularly people outside your accustomed circles.
  • Embrace uncertainty.
  • Break the rules.
  • Expose yourself to ideas considerably outside your normal interests. Watch unusual TED videos, look at magazines you would otherwise never pick up, etc.
  • Use the mental mode that is contrary to your habitual style. If you are an intuitive thinker, emphasize thinking rationally. If you are a rational thinker, strive to think intuitively.
  • Become a storyteller. Write wildly imaginative short stories, novels, plays, etc.
  • Stimulate the mind with absurdity. For example, re-read Alice in Wonderland or something similar.
  • Force yourself to step outside your comfort zone. Avoid operating out of habit. Break cognitive patterns. Take risks.
  • Diversify your active experiences. Learn a major new skill, take up a new sport, investigate the religion of a completely different culture, travel to novel places, explore unfamiliar cuisines, listen to different music, change your appearance, etc.
  • Best of all: move to another country and learn another language and culture.


General creativity practices:

  • Spend time at the beginning re-conceptualizing the problem. Don’t start to generate a creative solution until the problem has been looked at creatively. Make sure you are asking the right question.
  • Question all assumptions. Especially look for hidden assumptions. Examine alternatives to each of the assumptions.
  • Imagine how a very perceptive, brilliant, and intuitive child would see the problem.
  • Fast forward in time. See the problem from the perspective of 1 year, 10 years, even 100 years in the future.
  • Create psychological distance from the problem. See the problem from space.
  • When people try to be creative, they usually take the path of least resistance by building on existing ideas. Instead, look for the path of most resistance.
  • See the problem as outside yourself. Research shows that people are more creative solving a problem for someone else than for themselves, as they can think more abstractly and less concretely.
  • Habitually strive to make connections between two or more previously unconnected ideas or things.
  • Keep asking “why?” at deeper and deeper levels.
  • Keep asking “what if?” and “what could be different?”
  • Delay evaluation. Give yourself space to be wrong at the early stages.


Creative idea recording and review:

  • Be fanatical about recording your creative ideas as they occur. Have a mechanism that makes it really easy and quick to record a thought (one’s whiteboard, the voice recording feature on one’s cellphone, Post-It notes, a notebook, etc.).
  • Go back regularly to revisit your recorded ideas and extend them, combine them, refine them, etc.


Creativity heuristics:

  • Think about what could be taken away from the given problem.
  • Think about what could be added to the given problem.
  • Write down the problem, then change any specific verbs to more generic verbs.
  • Write down the problem, then recode it using synonyms and category taxonomies.
  • Look for abstractions, metaphors, analogies, similes, etc. in connection with the problem.
  • Enlarge the definition of the problem.
  • Consider scale changes—magnify or shrink the problem.
  • Break the problem into pieces and shuffle them.
  • Create a feature list and examine the effects of changing each of the features in turn.
  • Systematize the search space to narrow candidates to investigate.
  • Consider the problem from the perspectives of each of the stakeholders.
  • Do “Janus thinking”1. Conceive of polar opposites, or multiple simultaneous views. Integrative ideas emerge from juxtapositions. Consider unconventional combinations.
  • See how the problem definition changes by considering different externalities.
  • Feel yourself to be the situation, system, device, etc. and notice what you sense.
  • See things from inside the situation, system, device, etc.
  • Use morphological analysis. List the desired attributes of the desired system and independently list all the ways that each attribute can be satisfied. Then combine and permute the results to reveal various new combinations.


Group creativity:

  • Contemporary research shows that group brainstorming isn’t as effective as previously thought. It turns out that a higher quantity and quantity of ideas are produced by a group when the participants begin working on their own and get together later to discuss the ideas they have developed. The problem in the group environment is diffusion of responsibility.
  • One aspect of brainstorming that is still valid is the notion to not stifle nascent ideas with immediate evaluation and criticism.
  • Don’t crush creativity by punishing people for ideas that don’t pan out!
  • Emphasize to participants that they are expected to be creative, and provide meaningful incentives for creativity.
  • Form creativity groups with an eye towards diversity: skills, abilities, viewpoints, approaches, etc.
  • Set up group creative sessions in a novel environment. Don’t try to do creative sessions in an accustomed space.
  • Expose participants to novel experiences, ideas, people, etc. The more novel, the better for creativity.
  • During a group problem solving task, have people change seats several times during the session to shuffle the group dynamics.

Principles and Environments for Innovation

Exploring the adjacent possible2:

  • The adjacent possible consists of those things that are within reach of what is current.
  • Only certain changes can happen; things that are too far a stretch from the current situation can’t be accessed.
  • Every time a boundary is stretched, new adjacencies become possible. New rooms that couldn’t be entered previously become accessible once one goes through the right door.
  • At any time, there are doors that can’t be unlocked yet, but are waiting for other developments to occur.
  • To foster innovation, look for ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you.
  • Unfortunately, it’s rare for challenging problems to indicate their adjacent possible in a manner that points directly towards a solution.
  • Parallel discovery and parallel invention is commonplace. This is because at some point the adjacent possible becomes apparent to multiple people.
  • Ideas that skip too far ahead are likely not to come to anything. This is because they are not supported by the rest of the environment. Timing is extremely important.


Innovation combinatorics:

  • Today, many of the opportunities come from combinatorial innovation.
  • Good ideas generally are not derived out of thin air, but are built up from existing prior ideas.
  • Innovation often involves a process of accretion, in place of solving of one problem, then another, then another in a progressive fashion.
  • Ideas commonly connect, fuse, and recombine to generate new forms.
  • Innovation is particularly driven by crossing conceptual borders.
  • Ideas from different sources often complete each other.
  • New ideas are often works of bricolage, assembled from pieces that happen to be available at the time.
  • Instead of sitting in isolation and trying to think big thoughts, it is much more productive to have a broad diversity of pieces available to examine and try to fit together.
  • Endeavor to put out a more eclectic collection of idea building blocks that the innovators can play with.
  • A common process in innovation involves borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field. For example, Gutenberg’s development of the printing press was enabled by borrowing the mature technology of the screw winepress.
  • Concepts from one domain can cross over to another in the form of a structuring metaphor. This can unlock a door into an adjacent possible that had previously been hidden from view.


Interdisciplinary innovation:

  • Many problems are not possible to solve within the confines of a single discipline.
  • It’s important to provide tools drawn from a range of disciplines.
  • The most creative individuals tend to have broad social networks that extend beyond their own areas of expertise.


Innovation insights:

  • True insights involve thinking something that no one has previously thought in quite the same way.
  • These can be a new perspective on a problem. Alternately they can be a recognition of an opportunity previously unexplored.
  • Even better than good ideas are good ideas that make it easier to have other good ideas.
  • It turns out that brainstorming is not as effective as initially thought. The problem is one of sustaining the flow through which an idea is pursued.
  • Conformity and convention are antithetical to creativity and innovation.


Innovation is messy:

  • The actual process of coming up with innovative ideas tends to be much messier than the accounts that you read. What gets published is typically tidied up. Hindsight tends to emphasize the singular Eureka moments, the epiphanies. But these are the exception.
  • History books tend to condense slower, evolutionary developments into dramatic Eureka events, with a dominant heroic inventor.
  • The common experience is that great ideas first emerge in a half-baked manner. They are often more hunches than full-blown revelations. They can’t bear up well under hostile scrutiny.
  • They are commonly first expressed in incomplete form, lacking some key element. Often, this key element is located somewhere else, in the head of another person.


The idea parking lot:

  • Innovations generally develop over an extended time frame, starting with hunches.
  • An important facilitating aspect is a structure that allows ideas that are incomplete to be revisited from time to time to see if new insights that may have emerged in another area could fill in more of the puzzle.
  • It’s common for ideas to be held in the back of one’s mind, assembling new connections and gathering strength. At some point, they get transformed into something more substantial, possibly as a result of a newly discovered body of information, the interaction with another person’s hunches, or some internal association that finally makes the connection and completes the thought.
  • It’s important to write everything down, so the idea doesn’t disappear in the presence of more pressing matters.
  • Capture hunches, but don’t over-categorize them, since categorizing can create barriers between ideas.
  • Create a space for hunches that ripen slowly.
  • Build information networks that allow hunches and partial ideas to persist and disperse, with the goal that two or more will connect and recombine.


Following up on intriguing anomalies:

  • Paradigm shifts typically begin with troublesome anomalies in the data, or predictions of theories that turn out wrong. It’s important not to treat surprising outcomes as defects in the experiment. They are often the starting point for the next insight!
  • Lab conferences are very useful in reviewing puzzling phenomena. Other people who are less close to the experiment are likely to have less of a preconceived notion of what the result is supposed to be, so they can be more objective about the actual situation.
  • Modern scientific paradigms are seldom completely overthrown, but rather extended and built upon.


Taking advantage of mistakes:

  • Noise-free environments can be sterile and predictable, and thus less productive for innovation.
  • One wants to take full advantage of useful mistakes. The incidental side effect of one effort can be the basis for a large opportunity in another area.
  • When the demands of quality control are too strong, it’s hard to deal follow the implications of failures leading to insight. Six Sigma and Total Quality Management can have the effect of stifling innovation.
  • Error can indicate a path out of one’s comfortable assumptions and lead to productive exploration.
  • The recommendation to “fail faster” is very apt.


Environments for group innovation:

  • There are environments that support exploring the adjacent possible. These tend to have a wide and diverse set of elements available to be tried in combination. The elements can be both conceptual and physical.
  • Unfortunately, some environments quash innovation, for example by punishing experimentation and mandating success in all research activities.
  • If you really do want innovation, it’s very important to encourage exploration and an appropriate degree of risk-taking.
  • It is valuable to have a “randomizing” aspect in the environment that makes collisions between elements in the system more frequent.
  • You don’t want too much anarchy or too much order either. There is a fertile zone in the middle.
  • Regular lab meetings where researchers present and discuss their latest work in an informal setting are very useful.
  • Such group environments are great for challenging assumptions and recontextualizing problems.
  • The results produced by one person can become the inputs to another person’s line of reasoning.
  • Avoid islands of close-knit groups.
  • Don’t reproduce the org chart in the layout of the office spaces! Make sure that people from different groups are going to have frequent informal interactions as a result of their daily activities. This is the best way to cross-fertilize ideas.
  • Make sure that partial ideas can intersect, connect and complete each other.
  • Enable serendipitous intersections of creative insight. Such events often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines. One wants to actively foster such connections.


The downsides to incentives:

  • When large financial rewards are instituted into a system for innovation, secrecy and barricades emerge.
  • Secrecy and proprietary information actually come at a high cost to innovation.

Prompts for Invention

System definitional aspects:

  • Working backwards: Work backwards from a desired result to the starting conditions. At each earlier stage, what are the required and enabling preconditions?
  • Outside in: Examine the system from the outside looking in. What are features in this view that are not apparent from an internal perspective only?
  • System boundary: Identify the system boundary. What is inside the definition of the system, and what is outside? What could change if the boundary were drawn differently?
  • Is/Is Not: Describe the system on the basis of what it IS and IS NOT. How could the system be changed in a beneficial manner by making adjustments to the IS/IS NOT distinction?
  • System interactions: Examine the system interactions. What flows across the system boundary (energy, material, control signals, data, etc.)? What could be different (and beneficial) if the flows were altered?
  • Underlying assumptions: Describe the assumptions underlying the system. In particular, look for hidden assumptions (ones that are so basic that they aren’t even ordinarily stated). What could be improved if an assumption were altered?
  • System constraints: Describe the constraints on the system. What could be improved if one constraint were relaxed? What could be improved if two or more constraints were altered in combination with each other?
  • System intelligence. Consider how the system incorporates intelligence. Where could machine intelligence be provided or augmented to increase a system’s functionality or capability? How could cooperative human-machine intelligence be facilitated?
  • Transition between operating domains: Consider inter-domain transition. How can a system move from one operating domain to an adjacent one to improve performance (e.g., a ship riding on hydrofoils or an air cushion to decrease hull drag and increase speed capability)?
  • Phase transition. Look for situations where a system or situation is close to a phase transition point (analogous to when a solid turns to a liquid, or a liquid turns to a gas). How can the potential phase transition be utilized to advantage?


Conceptual reframing aspects:

  • System abstraction: Consider the definition of the system in the most abstract terms. How could the system be reframed so as to expand the conception of what it does?
  • System “problems”: Examine the system’s “problems”. How could something initially seen as a “bug” be reframed so it is a “feature” and be used to benefit?
  • Functional fixedness: Look for cases of functional fixedness, where specific functions are ascribed to an object in a limiting way. How could the object be used for an alternate function?
  • Structural fixedness: Look for cases of structural fixedness, where design characteristics that stem from some older limitation (e.g., a production process or a materials characteristic) are no longer necessary. How could the object be redesigned to function better by changing the design characteristics?


System architecture aspects:

  • Functional block diagram: Describe the system in the form of a functional block diagram with flows and carefully describe each element in functional terms. Then examine the functions individually and in combination. How could two or more functions be combined to achieve a benefit? How could a function be separated into two simpler functions beneficially? How could a function be redefined beneficially?
  • Core functionality: Examine the system core functionality. How could the core functionality be isolated and provided by a simplified system?
  • Multi-functionality: Consider multi-functionality. How could a system perform multiple relevant functions at the same time? How could a system perform multiple functions sequentially, perhaps following reconfiguration?
  • Functional parallels: Describe the functionality of the system or a subsystem in abstract terms. Where has that functionality been developed in a parallel domain that could be adapted? Where could the functionality developed in this system be applied usefully in a parallel domain?
  • Primary technical obstacle: Examine technical obstacles in an existing design. What is the current “long pole in the tent”? How could the architecture be rearranged to eliminate that?
  • Scale factors: Consider scale factors. How could the system be miniaturized? What would be enabled thereby? Alternately, how could the system be scaled up? What would be enabled as a result?
  • Segmentation: Consider segmentation. How could separating the system into component parts enable new or improved capabilities? Could this ease shipping, storage, etc.?
  • Distribution: Consider distribution. How could a centralized system be distributed to advantage?
  • Mobility: Consider mobility. How could a formerly stationary system be made mobile to advantage?
  • Modularity: Consider modularity. How could the system be made modular to advantage? How could this increase flexibility, or the ability to evolve in response to changing conditions?
  • Layered structure: Consider layered structure. How can the system be organized into layers to allow independent development and evolution of the layers, with standard interactions between the layers?
  • Degrees of freedom: Consider the degrees of freedom in the system. What could be improved by either decreasing or increasing the number of degrees of freedom?
  • Networking: Consider networking. How can multiple systems or units be networked to provide redundancy, resilience, increased capacity, and other benefits?


Control system aspects:

  • Control strategy: Examine the control strategy. What data are sensed for control? How could improved sensing facilitate better system performance? What data are fed back for control? How could improved feedback enhance system performance?
  • Control laws: Examine control system control laws. How can the gains in a feedback loop be scaled according to the measurements to fine tune the system response? How can control laws adapt to the range of circumstances to be encountered?
  • Automation: Consider automation. Where could a manual process be replaced by an automated process?


Human interaction aspects:

  • Collaboration: Consider collaboration. How could multiple users be supported to collaborate (particularly in real time) to increase a system’s functionality or capability?
  • Skill reduction: Consider skill requirements reduction. How could a system be modified so the level of user skill required to use it is reduced?
  • Embedded training: Consider embedded training. How could a system incorporate embedded training so the user learns its operation in the process of using it?
  • Convenience: Consider convenience. How could a system or item be redesigned to be more convenient to use? For example, what could be made more convenient by replacing a durable element with a disposable one?
  • Ease of use: Consider ease of use. How could a system or item be redesigned to be easier to use?
  • User special needs: Consider user special needs. How could a system or item be redesigned to be better suited for a non-standard user (e.g., youth, left-handed, low vision, non-literate, non-English speaking, arthritic, wheelchair bound, etc.)?
  • Adaptability: Consider ability to adapt to differing conditions. How could a system or item be redesigned so it can adapt to function well in different use environments?
  • User interaction mode: Consider the mode of user interaction. How could a system that currently uses typing to input information function with voice input instead? How could a system that currently shows static images function with video or computer animation (or even virtual reality) instead?
  • Virtual personal assistance: Consider virtual personal assistance. How can a smart computer system that learns the user’s modes, etc. enhance the user’s functional capabilities?


System arrangement aspects:

  • Functional localization: Consider functional localization. How could the special requirements of one function (e.g., temperature control of the environment) be isolated from the rest of the system that does not have those requirements?
  • Separation of elements: Consider separation of elements into different locations. How could an interfering part or function be relocated so as to eliminate or reduce its unwanted effects or reduce its exposure to adverse effects?
  • Functional distribution: Consider functional distribution. How could each part of the system or unit be made to serve a separate use?
  • Increased dimensionality: Assess affordances provided by increased dimensionality. How could the unit benefit by utilizing the third dimension (including stacking, overpasses, underpasses, etc.), or both sides of a planar dimension? How could the system utilize higher logical dimensions (the 4th dimension, the 5th dimension, etc.)?
  • Reversal: Consider working the other way around. How can the normal arrangement be inverted or reversed (e.g., move or rotate the part instead of the tool)? In particular, how can gravity be used as a free force to advantage? In what way can the item be transposed, turned backwards, upside down, inside out?
  • Rearrangement: Consider how the elements are arranged. Could interchanging components or the layout make a positive difference?
  • Asymmetry: Consider asymmetry of physical elements. How could changing the symmetry of an object improve its function?
  • Nesting: Consider nesting. How can units fit inside each other for compactness or collapse into a storage configuration?


Robustness aspects:

  • Failure mode minimization: Analyze failure modes. What elements of the system could be changed to eliminate or reduce failure modes or minimize the consequences?
  • Risk mitigation: Analyze risks. What elements of the system could be changed to mitigate risks?
  • Reparability/restorability: Consider reparability/restorability. How could the system be made easier to repair and restore (e.g., by providing quick disconnects)?
  • Back-up: Consider back-up. How can a system provide for a backup mechanism to compensate for a possible failure?


General technical aspects (not otherwise categorized):

  • Materials or ingredients substitution: Consider materials or ingredients substitution. How could expensive or scarce materials or ingredients be replaced by an alternate material or ingredient without decreasing the functionality or quality of the item? Alternately, how could system performance be increased by substituting higher capability materials or ingredients (e.g., replacing metal parts with carbon fiber parts)?
  • System quality factors: Consider system quality factors. Where do quality defects come from, and how could they be eliminated?
  • Bottlenecks: Examine bottlenecks. How could the arrangement be changed to remove each bottleneck?
  • Ilities: Examine the system “ilities” (e.g., testability, maintainability, reparability, etc.). How could the system be changed to significantly improve an adverse ility value?
  • General design quality: Examine the system/item/process for bad design. What simply doesn’t work well? For example, what makes the item annoying to use? What makes it awkward/clumsy/bulky/unhandy/unwieldy? What makes it inconvenient? What makes it uncomfortable? What makes it confusing? What makes it dangerous? What leads to errors and accidents? What makes it clunky/ungainly? What makes it time-consuming? What can be done to improve the general design to remove these detractions?


Business model aspects:

  • Supplier business model: Describe the business model of the supplier. What could expand the supplier’s customer base as a result of making an alteration to the business model?
  • Customer business model: Describe the business model of the customer. What could transform the customer’s business model in a favorable way? What are risks to the customer’s business model (e.g., from changing technology) that the customer needs help to respond to?
  • Technology-business model interactions: Look at the interactions between a new technology and a new business model. How could the combination of the two provide significant synergy?
  • Financing structure: Examine the financing structure used in the existing business model. How could the financing structure be changed to expand access to a larger customer base?


Supply and distribution chain aspects:

  • Middleman elimination: Describe all the links in the supply chain. How could a middleman be eliminated, or the middleman’s cut be reduced?
  • Globalization: Consider globalization. Where could something be done at a foreign location at lower system cost, more quickly, more flexibly, or with better quality?
  • Revised user role: Look at changing the role of the customer or user. Could the customer or user perform functions that were previously done by the supplier (e.g., do the assembly or configuration)?
  • Supply revision: Look at novel supply arrangements. Could you get a valuable service performed or obtain information for free (e.g., crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, etc.)?
  • Inventory: Consider production flow. How could inventory costs be minimized (e.g., by a just-in-time model)?
  • Distribution channel: Examine the distribution channel used in the existing business model. How could the distribution channel be changed beneficially (e.g., direct-to-consumer marketing via the Internet)?
  • Distribution mechanism: Examine the distribution mechanism. How could the form of distribution be changed beneficially (e.g., electronic distribution of information in place of physical books, magazines, newspapers, recordings, etc.; videoconferencing in place of physical travel to meetings, etc.)?


Production process aspects:

  • Saving time: Look for opportunities for saving time. Where do waits occur? What could be parallelized? What serial process could be accelerated? What process could be eliminated or moved outside the system boundary? How could things be performed on a 24 hour schedule?
  • Limiting resources: Consider the Law of the Minimum. What single resource limits the production or output? If that restraint were lifted, what is the next limiting resource?
  • Underutilized resources: Look for underutilized resources. What is idle during part of the process? What travels empty?
  • Waste: Examine processes producing scrap or waste. How could the item be produced with no, or minimum waste (e.g., using additive rather than subtractive manufacturing processes)?
  • Packaging standardization: Consider packaging standardization. How could modular packaging (e.g., pallets, standard shipping containers, etc.) be used to advantage?


Efficiency aspects:

  • Waste reduction: Examine how to utilize waste (material, energy, heat, etc.) productively. What is currently thrown away? What could that be used for as a raw material for another process or item?
  • Energy consumption: Consider energy use minimization/energy conservation. How can a system avoid wasting energy (e.g., as a result of raising and lowering parts in a gravity field)?
  • Energy recovery: Consider energy storage and recovery. How can energy in a process or system be stored rather than lost (e.g., as heat) and then recovered for subsequent use?
  • Expanded utilization: Consider task expansion for an existing system or item. How could an additional task/utilization be assigned to it so that a separate system or item is not needed?


Green aspects:

  • “Green-ness”: Consider environmental compatibility. How can the system be better oriented towards responsible interactions with the environment (e.g., able to be recycled and/or made from recycled materials, minimizing pollution during manufacture)?


See the table, Innovation and Invention


1 From Janus, the Roman god with two faces

2 Stuart Kauffman is the originator of the term “the adjacent possible”.


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