I have always had a bit of a problem with the role of intuition or insight in creativity. When I was first taught the psychology of problem solving and creativity at Oxford Brookes University, I remember our lecturer talking about the “aha!” moment, and getting annoyed, as a lot of the descriptions she gave of moments of creative insight seemed to be reinforcing the “mythic” side of creativity. The idea that the answer will come to you in a blinding flash of insight, after a period of incubation, annoys me because it’s random, and I don’t believe that you can (or should, or need to) rely on chance to come up with clever ideas.
Creativity is difficult to define and predict and that moment when we come up with a clever idea feels magical: however just because it feels magical doesn’t mean that it is. People talk about the “eureka” moment and Archimede’s realisation of how he could measure the volume of gold in an irregularly shaped crown by submerging it in water (as he was stepping into the bath) is a brilliant story.
The image of the mathematician running through the streets, naked and wet, exclaiming “eureka” is a wonderful evocation of the emotional response to having a great idea, but what no-one talks about is the years of training to develop his mathematical genius, and the hours (days, weeks?) spent understanding and defining the problem correctly. A lot of the research into creative genius, such as the work by Weisberg, highlights the importance of expertise and experience in creativity: you can’t have a flash of insight without years of hard work first!
No-one is terribly sure how insight happens but there are some theories regarding the importance of incubating an idea and why it might be useful (and therefore lead to insight). One theory is that when we’re working hard on a problem we just get tired: having a break just gives us more mental energy, and when we return to thinking about the problem we are more likely to think of a solution.
Another theory is that we get mentally stuck in a rut of thinking – psychologists call this fixation, TRIZ people call it psychologically inertia – and when we go away and leave the problem for a while, we come back to it with a fresh perspective, having broken out of our fixation. This allows us to see new possibilities and allows a moment of insight to happen.
This is probably what is happening when we are in the shower, or on a bike ride, and suddenly think of a solution to our problem – we have brought a fresh perspective. However it doesn’t need to be random – we can logically and systematically understand our problem and consciously break our psychological inertia in order to come up with creative ideas.
This is what I use TRIZ for (although it’s only one way) and one of the ways that TRIZ can feel like magic. There are times when you’re working on a problem and you are just not sure that it’s going well. You’re facilitating a group, and have helped them uncover a contradiction, for example, and a number of inventive principles have been suggested and you look at them and your heart sinks. “Colour change!?” you think, “How is that going to be useful?!?!” and you feel sick and want to go and hide in the toilets. However you give the group the principle, you explain it, and what happens, what ALWAYS happens, is that they will take their years of expertise and domain knowledge and see a clever way of applying it, and come up with a brilliant idea. A ripple of excitement goes through the group, the magic has happened, but it wasn’t random.
This is why we always say: trust the TRIZ. It’s a bit like Obi Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker at the end of the first Star Wars movie to “trust the force”. This is what problem solving with TRIZ is like…you don’t know when the magic is going to happen, but it will…
So in honour of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you)…