Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 27, 2000
Brains can use some elbow room
Thinking 'not normally' boosts creativity in career, personal life, say mechanical engineers


"Creativity is a core value. You either live it or you don't live it." --Bernie Roth

"To be creative, you have to not think normally." --Rolf Faste

Those remarks, by two professors from the Design Division of Stanford's Mechanical Engineering Department, set the tone for a workshop titled "Creative Problem Solving Skills for Your Profession and Life," held June 13-17 at Stanford's Terman Engineering Center. Roth and Faste, who have led several creativity workshops over the years, wheedled, cajoled and walked participants through an interactive and at times raucous regimen intended to jar loose some extra elbow room for their brains. The rapidity and aplomb with which teams of participants completed a challenging design project in the latter stages of the workshop made it clear that the duo had succeeded.

Attendees were culled from the ranks of more than a score of manufacturing-oriented companies that, with the School of Engineering and Graduate School of Business, support the campus-based Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford (AIMS), the workshop's sponsor. AIMS promotes the exchange of technical ideas and techniques between academia and industry.

"We'll ask you to do things which may appear silly or make you uncomfortable," Roth warned the group at the very outset. Breaching the comfort zone was necessary because "if you always do what you've always done, what you'll get is what you've always got."

Faste and Roth then asked the 15 participants to stand in a circle and, one by one, to give their first names. Each was directed to accompany the identification with a flamboyant "signature" gesture such as sticking one's fingers in one's ears or bowing deeply. Participants were then to repeat each other's names and personalized gestures.

Embarrassing at first, perhaps, but effective. The next morning, everyone in the group remembered everyone else's name ­ part of Roth and Faste's grand design. Both playfulness and teamwork are essential in professional creativity, they told participants.

"It's impossible to work in a vacuum," said Roth. "You have to work with others, whether it's a formal team or not." This is complicated, he observed, by the fact that there are many personality types. "We assume everybody is like us, but in fact everybody is very different, viscerally as well as intellectually. Just because someone seems off the wall to you doesn't mean they won't make perfect sense to some third party."

Before long, the group was divided up into pairs, one member of which led the other around for 25 minutes with the latter's eyes closed. The pairs wended their way up and down the staircases of Terman in a saltatory fashion, groping semi-blindly and sometimes noisily through the narrow corridors. Busy administrative assistants, having seen it all before, batted nary an eyelash at the wayward walkers, who on occasion made "off the wall" a literal expression.

This disorienting activity, in addition to building trust among prospective teammates, was a great way of learning to, in Roth's words, "dismiss the 'catastrophic expectation' ­ as in, 'Oh, if I do this, such-and-such will happen!' But there's no telling what will happen."

Faste ran with that theme. "We're afraid of the unknown," he said. "Yet, if you're being creative, you are doing something unknown ­ by definition, you've never done it before ­ and you are going to be a little afraid of it." You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, Faste said. "'Comfortable' is, to a large extent, whatever we know how to do. 'Uncomfortable' means your neurons aren't experienced." You can verify this by merely clasping hands or folding your arms the "wrong" way ­ that is, the opposite of the way you usually do it.

Faste coached participants in several physical exercises that he said were beneficial in rewiring the brain: for example, placing your hands on your shoulders, then alternately lifting each leg repeatedly while on every pass leaning forward and touching the protruding knee with your opposite elbow. According to Faste, this exercise warms up the corpus colossus, which integrates the two hemispheres of the brain.

Roth hammered home the virtues of breaking free of habitual thinking with a joke: "A drunk walks into a lamppost and smacks his head, backs up, lurches forward, smacks his head again, and screams: 'I give up! They've got me surrounded!' Most people are like my drunk ­ they just keep smashing the pole. You have to approach problems flexibly. There's no magic formula."

There may be, in fact, lots of correct answers, as Roth illustrated with another joke: The scene is a courtroom. The prosecutor gets up and gives his argument, and the judge looks at him and says, "You're right!" Then the defense lawyer gives her argument, and the judge looks at her and says, "You're right!" Finally, somebody in the audience jumps up and yells, "Wait a minute, Your Honor. They can't both be right!" After a few seconds the judge shrugs and says, "You're right!"

Give that judge credit for open-mindedness ­ a good quality, said Roth and Faste, because there's more than one way to skin a problem, whose myriad solutions may be obscured by the language we use to define it.

"Words are conventional, agreed-upon consensus terms," Faste said. "We couldn't get through life without conventions." Then participants were asked to try an exercise called "un-labeling": walking about the huge conference room pointing at whatever objects or people they encountered and calling them by the wrong names. The cacophony that ensued was profoundly disorienting. But in a discussion afterward, participants agreed that temporarily abandoning the generalized semantic "containers" called words had heightened their perceptions and caused them to pay attention to hitherto unnoticed details ­ vivid colors, the edges of things and the spaces between them.

"Words are the most powerful things humans have, but they're also imprecise," Faste said. "They're very useful when we agree on their meaning. When we have a new problem, though, we don't know what they mean." If you label an object or situation too quickly with language, you can miss the details that differentiate it.

As an antidote to this stereotyping, each member of the group was given a piece of popcorn and told to stare at it for 75 seconds without letting any words come to mind. After a series of escalating exercises whose intent was to force the viewer to see the unique individual kernel behind the catch-all term "popcorn," participants were instructed to draw likenesses of theirs without using mental language of any sort or glancing down at the papers on which they were drawing.

The last two days of the workshop were increasingly devoted to what's called a "rapid-prototyping" project: the design and construction of a model of a hypothetical amusement-park ride, using simple materials and tools ­ foamboard, string, Exacto blades and so forth. Armed with a few pointers on giving and taking criticism, highly enthusiastic participant teams were set loose to generate ideas, work out schematic diagrams and physically create miniature combinations of catapults, loops, vortices and lifts. After a very late evening and early morning of bearing down in a frenzy of intensely focused energy, teammates supplied sound effects and motive power for their attractions in show-and-tell demonstrations during the workshop's final session. The results were uniformly impressive.

Faste had the final word: "Creativity is really messy. So pick up all the junk and put the room in order." SR