Scott Berkun on The Dance Of The Possible

When is a creative idea a good idea? How do you manage creativity within your organization? And how can looking at history help you to be creative now? Scott Berkun, author of The Dance Of The Possible, spoke at Business of Software Conference USA 2017 about how to unlock your creativity and pursue it in your workplace. Looking back at examples from history including The Eiffel Tower, the invention of the Post-It Note, and the development of the Computer Mouse, Scott’s talk is all about how to think creatively at work – and why it’s so important.

Find Scott’s talk video, slides, transcript, and more from Scott below.

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Scott Berkun: In 1884, two young, ambitious, bright engineers decided to propose a project that would change the world. And as most projects that will change the world go, they didn’t know they would do that by that proposal which is why they tried. Now in 1884, the hot tech sector was not web development, wasn’t cloud computing. If you were a young, smart and ambitious person in this era, the hot commodity and technology that you would work on would have been construction. Which for us today sounds really boring. We forget that many of the words we use to describe the process of engineering a piece of software and technology uses a lot of the language that was developed for construction. We talk about building software – that comes from building. So these two young men looked at all the things they could possibly do as people who wanted to use technology to change the world. This is the time of railroads and telegraphy and the beginning of telephone. You have to put your lens of what was interesting or cool back that far. This was before you could travel very far, you would travel by horse and buggy. These two young engineers at the age of the time, one of the hot parts of construction was working with steel and iron, making buildings out of them was new. People were afraid in the same way we’re afraid to use new technologies today. But what their proposal was they wanted to build the largest steel or iron building that had ever been built and they wanted to do it in a short amount of time in a reasonable manner. This is the pitch, their proposal – for those who were in Paris, this may look familiar. The men were employed by a man named Eiffel, who had done some good work, he wasn’t famous yet around the world, this is many years before the tower was built. He was interested in new technology and wanted to use it to solve some problems. So this was their pitch for the Eiffel tower and I want to share some stuff with you – you can see it’s a tall building made of iron but if you look in the margins, what these two young men did, they knew they were pitching something bold. This is the largest building by many times over and one bit of advice for all of you, the grander the idea you’re pitching, it’s harder to seal cause it requires sacrifice and risk and chance. So they tried to help Eiffel understand the significance of what it meant. They took the 7-8 tallest buildings in the world and showed how big their building would be. Put this pitch together, they pitched Eiffel on it and he said no for a couple reasons. He said it would be the tallest building but that’s not good enough – if that’s the only purpose, it’s empty technology and he wanted to use technology to improve the human condition, to solve a problem and this didn’t solve a problem. So they took this feedback to heart – he didn’t tell them to stop working on this idea, even though he rejected it. Which is the great bit around creativity. He gave them feedback and they wanted to keep working – they realized there were other talent that needed to contribute to it to get Eiffel’s approval. They got another guy involved and he was more experienced than them and brought a sophistication that wasn’t there before. So if you think about the tower, it’s got to do with the arches underneath the pillars that support the building. So that whole idea of using these slow sloping arches that use golden ratio, the size and shapes of them, all the notions and detail came from him. We have also now collaboration. A pitch that was clever, but rejected, these people persisted and got a 3rd person involved with a skillset they didn’t have, then they came back and pitched Eiffel again and as we all know, the story is a happy ending. Their great project was successful and it’s now one of the most famous buildings in history. It’s the most popular for which you pay to see. I tell you the story about the history of history and architecture not to divert the talks from software, but because one of my missions as a writer is to prove and teach people how much there is that we can learn from the situations that engineers and entrepreneurs faced that parallel the challenges we faced today. We ignore them cause we think history is understood.

So today I will share some ideas that are applicable to your daily work life and probably your out of work life as well that are pulled from history. My first lesson for you is that all ideas are made from other ideas. Every idea, every invention, design, engineered thing, product, philosophy, piece of music or work of art, anything you could comprise as an idea, you could break it down into smaller ideas. I know it’s early in the morning, but I’d like you to all say this phrase with me. At the count of three. 1,2,3! Very good! You sound like a cult. This is good! Who knows where the stock goes now? So this phrase of course, at an intellectual level it sounds obvious, yes we know and learn in school that every scientific discovery was based on the previous one and every technology absorbs things from the past. Offering this in a deeper way, that too often, we have inventions that we either inherited – they already existed when we grew up or things we discovered later in life – we imagine they entered the world perfectly, somehow the inventor had an epiphany and they set out to build the thing and it’s a unique thing, there’s no seams on it, it’s a perfect thing that entered the world. We forget that if you scratch the ideas on any of those ideas, you can see the pieces that were brought together to make that thing and as makers and creators and business people, that is what you do for a living, is you are making new things. Even if you’re doing trivial things of a simple 0.1 upgrade to an ancient software package you’re still being paid and making money for making something new. And one of the insights you have to have is the ability to take anything apart and see its basic ideas. Whenever you feel stuck, you’re working on a problem you’re trying to solve and you don’t see any other alternative, it means you forgot this. It could be the toolkit or products you’re competing with. You’re looking at discreet things. You take a look and think how did we get here? What are the two pieces required to make this thing? Once you do that, it’s another pathway forward. You can say what if I change the order in which they’re constructed or take the 4 of them and introduce another component? What do I get now? And that thinking won’t guarantee you will have a good idea, it’s about recombining things, but it will prevent you from being stuck. That’s preventing you from seeing the opportunities in front of you which is derived from this. Everything you see here, they’re from my most recent book. I don’t have to sell you on it, cause Mark put one in your packs. The book gives more detailed information on how you put it in practice. You’re welcome to take picture of my slides if you wish.

To bring these notion that all ideas derive from other ideas, tie it back to this opening story about Eiffel, he’s known for one work, the Eiffel tower. How many of you have ever seen that early sketch of the tower before? No one, it’s one of the most famous thing in the world, the single thing he’s known for, but because it existed before we were born, we imagined it entered the world complete. I will tell you about his history. Here is one of his first buildings, the railway bridge in France. If you think of the Eiffel tower, I showed you a beautiful picture at night and you compare the aesthetics of that to this, this is not all that interesting. Now, you can look at this in a bunch of different ways, to build a bridge out of iron in the 1850s was impressive, there were buildings like this, but no one had done it on this river before. It works well, but the construction he’s using here is pretty basic. A wood bridge was used with this system for a long time. Early in his career, he was using ideas, as all of us do, that were already existing. One thing he should be famous for is he took these new technologies, raw iron in construction and developed ideas for how to perfect them and use them more efficiently so they’re not these box structures and they were more efficient and economical

So one of his later works, a few years after that bridge, is another bridge. Now this bridge is very different. He’s still using the same material, but somehow now it transformed into something that’s interesting. All ideas are made from other ideas. Now this is very old, the centre part of the bridge is an arch. It’s one of the oldest techniques in architecture and engineering, but what he’s done, he combined that old idea with something new that he was developing, his ability to use raw iron was so sophisticated that now he could deconstruct the arch. So now, instead of being something made out of stone, it’s transparent. You can look at it now and it’s kind of a wonder, cause it’s a deconstructed arch with air inside. How could that work? In the 1860 or 1870, in that time, this was a magical transformative thing. People thought of it as wondrous. I would say he knew very well he was incorporating ideas that were around for a long time. We also know that he was a student, as most great creators are, of other works in their field. So this was built for the world fair in NY in the 1850s. it was the tallest building at the time. They tore the buildings down a few weeks later, it was terrible construction. He looked at it and said it’s tall and doesn’t do anything. Which is also to bring this back in the modern day, a lot of the technology we see is often built just because it can be built. We don’t know what problem it solves yet, we just know we’re building something that’s cool and that’s enough but I wanted a higher standard. He looked at it and said it’s just a construction, it’s just built as a stunt, it’s stunt engineering or creativity, doesn’t do anything.

Another example of ideas being made by other ideas is this drawing by Da Vinci. Does anyone know the name of this drawing? Vitruvian man, you guys are smart. This is the liberal art section of the audience. I may come back to you in a few minutes. So I remember when I was a kid and read about it, I thought that must have been his neighbour’s name or the name of the model – turns out it’s a reference to Vitruvius who was a Roman architect who died 100s of years before Da Vinci was even born, but this architect, wrote a book. Today we’re very proud in engineering circles about books about design patterns and this is the first book in the western canon. He was an architect and wrote a book about everything he knew from it, a lot of which he took from the Greeks, Da Vinci read this book because it was one of the few artefacts that talked about how to build good things. He read a passage in there that taught about proportion, about the golden ratio and the size of your head should be in proportion of your body, 1 head size should be about 1/8th of your body and the ratio of your arms and legs. He read this passage and was inspired by an old idea, 100s of years before Da Vinci was born to make it. Most people don’t care about history. The Eiffel tower exists and we think it entered the world on its own. This is a popular drawing cause Da Vinci is a very popular man in the US and Europe. People don’t know what its significance is and where it comes from and we see things like this, where people take a thing from the past they think is important and they make fun of it. There’s 100s of different variations on the same thing. In some cases, though, you find example of this meme being used intelligently and when you understand what the idea means, you can understand how to apply it. So it’s about showing the AI and the future of humanity so referencing the idea of the perfect man and this notion is a very perfect and deep use of this old idea. My lesson for you, this tour of history and art history is maybe entertaining for you, is that if you really care about the work that you do and things you make, you try and solve problems for people, there is value in studying the history of the problem you’re trying to solve. By studying the history of the problem you’re trying to solve, you will go back in time and understand why certain ideas were proposed in the past and discover ideas that worked well but weren’t adopted cause they weren’t marketed yet or they ran out of money. That idea can help you solve a problem right now, in the present. The history of a problem is the most important thing you can study, which is counterintuitive because the books talk like how to be a genius and it’s all about finding things that are unique. I think it’s a tragically flawed approach to creativity. If you study any great man in any field, that’s not how they did it. Most of them were very well trained in the history of the ideas they were working on and they used those things as springboards, like Da Vinci did, to come up with new ways to interpret those ideas and bring them into the present.

Two examples that are far more local to this conference, the BoS. So this is a diagram from Wikipedia about the page rank algorithm which is the key idea in the founding of Google, that made their search engine better. If you poke at the history, you can read the Wikipedia page and in 2 paragraphs you’ll be like wow I didn’t know this. Although it happens to be true in this case, that page rank which is the idea that the value of a page depends on how many other pages point to it, there’s a referential equation you can run, that idea comes from academic papers, that for decades, they would list the bottom the references, what papers helped you write this paper? And you could find which papers were most referenced. So the core idea page rank was around for a long time and mathematically, the idea behind it, you need to engineer this thing that was also around for a long time. That means the founder of google stole an idea? Not really, they took an idea from the past that wasn’t used to solve a problem they cared about. That’s one of the most useful ways to achieve what would later be called an innovation or creative idea. You’re taking something from context, that people you’re competing with won’t be familiar with. You combine it with something new and no one will have an idea. Another example is Sears and Roebuck. Amazon very proud, everything store! Mail order! Instant delivery for everything, making drones deliver it to your house. Sears and Roebuck in the late 1800s was the Amazon, they were the one source for all things. They published a catalogue 100s of pages long, with every product you could possibly buy and by filling the form and sending it through the mail, you can get it delivered to you. This is their motto at the time, we sell everything by mail order only. Your money will be prompted for any goods not satisfactory. This is Amazon’s core philosophy today, mail order only. We like to talk about how the web destroyed brick and mortar. They were thinking about it in the 1880s. does that mean that Amazon is wrong? No, it means there’s a history here and if you follow it further, think about web design. If Sears was the equivalent of Amazon, Amazon has all these pages that are masterfully designed to be conversion pages. This is the equivalent of a conversion page on their catalogue. And some things they do smart here, if you look at their pricing here, many of you know about price anchoring. Whichever price you put first will anchor others. Menus on restaurants have an expensive item on the bottom cause it helps you calibrate what a good price is. They were also zooming in to the right, which on Amazon, you can now zoom in and see the back of the product. All the stuff is there, so if you’re working on a conversion page for whatever business you’re in, flipping through the catalogue, you will find some notion or idea or way to approach a problem you’re dealing with that you never saw before. Can you copy it and put it in your – no. but there’s a piece here, for you to go let me see if I can try that here, and turn it around and add this thing.

My second lesson for you has to do with human nature. And one of my earlier books was called the miss of innovation and I spent time to cry the abuse of that word and how often abused it is and how despite our pretention for being wise and smart in 2017, we suffer from the romanticism around ideas that has been pervasive in our history and in the same way we make fun of the foolish projects people did years ago, we fall victim to the same thing. We like to believe that we’re so smart and tech savvy now that we can recognize good ideas when we see them and I’m here to tell you that’s wrong. Many of the things right now that are the most hyped things, whatever it may be now, I think we’re terrible at predicting which technologies will matter because of the way our brains work. Let me tell you more about this notion that great ideas are weird. Our brains are structured to be efficient. We like to think our perception is all about bringing information in, but that’s not really true. My peripheral vision is 130 degrees so it’s 360 degrees around me. I can’t see – my brain is tuning that out the same thing is true for our sense of memory, our brains are wired to be very efficient and to hide their efficiencies from us, we don’t know what we can’t see. When it comes to see our new ideas, our brains are efficient. We can only interpret new information based on old information. I think history is really important, it turns out, to all of you cause as you’re sitting and listening to me right now and trying to figure out if you like what I’m saying, your determination of that is based on your history. What else you have seen, read or studied? We depend a tremendous amount, we depend on it too much. A new idea, a truly transformative idea, as much as I hate that word, and paradigm shift, a true thing like that that you see, you won’t understand it the first time you see it. You can’t possibly. You have a world view and this includes your business and the features you build. You’ve been working to figure out how to solve the problem and you filtered a bunch of ways of not to solve the problem. But an idea that will change everything will cut across your vision in a way that won’t make any sense. Let me illustrate this by going to the Eiffel tower story. That story has a happy ending, but almost every story of a great idea being developed, has some adversity along the way. Sometimes it’s significant. So Eiffel two challenges after the point I left the story. Had this proposal from 2 engineers, they pitched it to the world’s fair committee in Paris, they said yes. One problem, they only offered them half the money he required for the plan. He was an entrepreneur, wasn’t someone who cared about making great buildings. Many of these stories were about making money. Da Vinci was an entrepreneur to himself. Eiffel said I’ll put up half the money myself but I want ticket sales, intellectual property rights for the tower. He profited great from that decision to put his own wealth up as collateral to make this thing they wanted to build. Which is a great story for anyone who has an idea and works for an employer that you find hard to convince. Ask yourself what am I willing to put up as collateral? Maybe your reputation or weekends? If you put it as an idea. But that’s really a side-story. The core part of this weirdness, he put up the money, got over that hurdle and started construction and his plans were going great, he started building. Very quickly, all the cultural elites in Paris came together in outrage against the Eiffel tower. So artists, engineers, architects, poets, musicians, 300 of them got together and wrote an essay they made in a pamphlet and put it in the newspapers saying we should kill this project. I will read you a part of it. Now I used to be a product manager and I used to manage a team of designers and engineers and I saw enough product reviews for executives, I’ve heard tough things about my work had done, gotten some hard feedback. I’ve never had 300 of my peers show up at a project proposal – the thing isn’t even built yet and tell they should kill the project. And I laughed too, it seems absurd that people would be so upset at the time for what we know to be one of the greatest works of engineering in history. But part of what I’m trying to share with you is the other view. We’re looking back and we know way more than anyone did at the time. If you were alive in 1885 in Paris, you have to realize what the world was like. The Eiffel tower, it was a new technology, iron – people were afraid of it, nothing was built in the city landscape at this scale. You have to imagine in 1885, most buildings in Paris were a few stories high, built out of Stone. Paris is a beautiful city now and it was then. Imagine walking around on some boulevard and you have some great cheese and sipping on wine and you’re strolling along and it’s great and you turn the corner and you see this. It is kind of monstrous from that perspective it is very weird, it’s shocking cause it’s so different. And the way we all respond to things we don’t understand is – not necessarily disgust, but certainly resistance. It’s not something you want to look at. Most of us won’t be that curious about something that’s so strange. We like to think of strangeness as badness. Another example, closer to home that I will show you. This is a picture of a prototype, it’s a prototype of something, an important inventions, one of the most important invention in the last 50 years related to technology. If any of you think you know what it’s a prototype of, raise your hand. Just raise your hand. Telephone? Ok, anyone else wants to take a guess? I’m doing something unfair as a speaker, this picture is upside down. So now, take a look, see if it’s any easier. I tricked you again, cause it doesn’t help anything. So the clue that does help is so this is a human knee, it’s a knee. So this is a prototype of the computer mouse, so Doug who should be a household name, he’s credited with inventing the mouse and deserves the credit and in the 1960s he was thinking about human-computer interaction. What are better ways for people to interact with computers? In the 60s he’s thinking how do people interact with machines? What computers do they use? Cars? Two hands, but you also use your foot, pedal. A sowing machine, use your hands and feet. He’s thinking why not use your other limb? You have to have your hands free for typing and your knee could control the position on the screen. Obviously this isn’t how we compute today. This is a later prototype to a mouse, but my point here this looks familiar to us cause we know, but if it’d show you this in 1970 and say this is the future of work, you’d be like what the hell are you talking about? Looks like a poorly made box on a string. And if you’re with Doug, he’s saying everyone will be on computers all the time, it would be inconceivable to you that this would be that significant. My lesson here to you about weirdness is that – and the tactic to use, learn more about history – so it goes on for all of us and all of you in work – whatever work you do, designing things, making business decisions, if you make good ones, you’re exploring alternatives. You have alternative a,b,c and if you do design work for software, you have to list some criteria for how to evaluate ideas. Maybe they’re using scenarios or different ways – doesn’t matter. You look at idea A and say I can see these scenarios are really good and we should keep it around. B, we can see right away it will be confusing or this technology will be hard to be. C, you go through them. And some of the time, you will reach an idea E and look at it and be like I don’t – what is that? And you will ask the person who pitched that idea, can you explain this? And they will say something like yeah, that’s a weird one, I feel there’s something good there, but I couldn’t figure out what it is. I believe it’s good and wanted to show it to you. Normally what we do with weird ideas, if to put them in the same pile with bad ideas. We’re busy and have stuff to do, we’re gonna move stuff off the table if we can so we push it away. My advice to you is if you have ambition to truly be an innovator, to take a different approach and have better ideas, that are conceptually of a higher grade than the people you’re competing with or you want to get better at the practice of developing ordinary ideas, my advice is to keep some of those weird ideas around, keep it on your white board, come back to it the next day, a week later and look at it again. Because if it’s truly something new and something better, you won’t understand it the first time you see it, but the 2nd time you look at it, you will ask different questions. What if it’s this or that way? And it will sharpen your thinking about examining the unexpected value of certain things that you discover. So my story to share with you about this, the history of the post-it note, it’s a very popular cliché. History people said it’s an accident, they tried to make strong glue, they made weak glue and we got them. It’s an example that teaches you nothing about invention. I will give you the better version – it’s true there was an inventor who tried to make a strong glue and one of his recipes turns out it was weak, but in a strange way to him. It’s weak, but sticky, it must be good for something to keep it around. So he kept around and as well as other stuff too, and every week or so, he tried it on different things. Maybe I can use it for this or that. Didn’t work. Couple years went by, he showed it to co-workers and instead of telling them what he made it for, he didn’t tell them the intent of his creation. He asked to show it to them and say what can you use this for? What problem can this solve for you? He didn’t biased them with his preconception of what it might be useful for. Eventually someone saw a use for it, he said it had musical notation and wanted to put labels on it to notate things, he couldn’t find a way to do that – the story takes another few years to develop that prototype and get approval to get a product. He kept weird stuff around and most artists and musicians and writers, we keep weird stuff around. It doesn’t cost much and it’s fun to go back to them and ask myself what is this good for now? This chapter, I ripped it out of a book – can’t it be a book on its own? Can I trim it down into a tweet? Maybe 3 tweets? Who knows? With that kind of question and mentality, if you’re a believer of these big ideas, it’s a great idea to think about what ideas are and how they work.

Now another way to think about this is that all masterpieces start as experiments. I showed you the experiment for the Eiffel tower, it was just this ordinary sketch. Every great work has a story like that and product. For you to make a great product, you need to become a fan of those stories cause it’s the same situation you were in when you started making something new.

My last lesson for you is about the creativity which is supposed to be the thrust of this talk and the book. How are we a better creative thinker? Most of what we’re taught and many on the popular ideas focus on content generation but I think that’s relatively easy because of how our brains work. Fundamentally we have exceeded as a species because of our ability to make things. We’re not the strongest or fastest creatures, we can’t change our skin colour like an octopus can. One that we can is the ability to craft things and be able to generate ideas and try to put them into the world. One example to drive this notion home or to make you believe me is a story that comes from ordinary life. I want you to imagine that you go back home after this wonderful conference and are stimulated for these ideas, you get up to go to work and do your usual routine and go to your door and it’s pre-airlock check. Wallet, purse, keys, phone and check for your keys and go like my keys aren’t here. So your brain automatically goes to level 1 thinking. Where are the places I usually put my keys? So you go there. Let’s say you go there and the keys aren’t there, your brain goes to level2 thinking. Maybe it’s near here, they fell behind the basket or on the floor. Not there, level 3 thinking. Now without doing an ideation exercise or by applying a brainstorming technique, your brain starts making stuff up. You go to your closet and start looking at clothes you haven’t worn in a week. Just do it! You look under the couch, all the sudden your brain is generating ideas and you are trying them out and eventually you go in crazier places. You will check your pockets again as if somehow in between last time you looked it magically reappeared through some mystical force. Then you think – you get the paranoia, maybe someone broke in and stole my keys. But why steal the keys, everything is still here. Maybe I left them at work – your brain just does it without thinking about it. Why? Cause you have an important problem to solve, so the ability to generate interesting ideas and create and creativity is idea generation, interesting ideas, it’s not the same as good ideas. And one of the problems we have is we like to think that creative people just generate good ideas all the time. That’s not how it works. The goal for creativity is to find interesting alternative, help you ask better questions and some point down the line, you will dump a ton of ideas, but creativity is about finding interesting questions and some will be weird and crazy. Our brains are naturally wired to do this for us. What happens is through the course of becoming civilized adults, we invent all these ways to inhibit our ideas – that’s a good thing in a way. In this case, we’re all at this event, all of you knew not to sit here upfront, next to me. That’s just not what you do. There’s no sign that says don’t sit next to the speaker, but that’s what we all do. It’s a rule that we apply automatically – none of you are standing up or singing a song while I’m talking. But we all follow these conventions because that’s how civilization works, we filter stuff automatically to fit in and that’s good, that’s why you can drive from the highway and be 2 inches away from the car in front of you and this works. But when we talk about being creative and asking interesting questions, we have to do more work or unpack some of those things to allow our minds which I’m telling you, all have power to do this, to allow that power to come out. To frame this in a one-sentence thing, when we are suitably motivated by a hard problem, creativity is inevitable. It happens automatically, you will try things and come up with things without questioning them, looking at clothes you haven’t worn in weeks, simply because your brain comes up with that notion and you aren’t filtering it out. You will explore it and entertain it for at least 4 seconds. If you’re motivated to solve an easy problem, then creativity is avoidable, because you can use solutions that people invented. You need both and it has to be an interesting problem and interesting enough that the brain can engage in this natural process. So with my remaining time, about 20 minutes left I’d love to have QA with you but before I do that, I wanna offer you three more discreet and practical bits of advice.

One way you can look at everything I’ve said so far is that creativity is a kind of work. The word create is my favourite part of the word cause it’s a verb, an action. To be creative means you’re in the process of making something. To teach someone to be creative, you can’t do that in the abstract, you need to be working on something, writing a book or song, learning to play guitar, you have to evolve an activity for creativity to ensue. It’s an effort thing. It’s not some abstract quality that you just polish and push a button and creativity juice comes out of it. That’s a romantic notion we have about the muse and it’s not true. It’s work and a lot of the stories I’d told you, those 2 engineers pitching an idea, realizing they needed a collaborator, Eiffel put up his own money – also protecting his project having 300 people come out against his work, a lot of his work was spent doing PR for the project. All that stuff sounds like ordinary work and a lot of it is required to deliver on any idea, no matter how great it is. That’s number one, number two is about false constraints. And to fit into society, we know all these rules we apply about not sitting on stage and waiting in line and taking our turn, they apply but when we’re working at a problem at work, we often apply constraints that are false, we assume they’re true but they’re not really true and one way to be better at solving problems and finding more interesting ways to solve them is to be good at realizing constraints that are commonly held, but are untrue. A little side story here, there is a common phrase and language around creativity, think outside the box. How many of you have head someone say this phrase sometimes this week? This month? How many of you have ever heard the phrase before? I was hoping for a lot of hands, good. So this phrase comes from this puzzle. There was a consultant in the 70s who used this puzzle as this exercise, it’s been around for a long time, he used it to say to support his consulting business basically nothing wrong with that. I will show you the solution to it – it’s called the 9 dots puzzle, the instruction is you’re supposed to connect all the dots using only straight lines so the only way you can solve it is to have one line that goes outside the box. This phrase is incredibly stupid because if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to solve a problem and someone says that, somehow they’re better at creative thinking than you yet all they can think to do is say that instead of solving the problem. It’s something no one should say and those that do don’t understand what the puzzle is all about. But anyway, the intent here, the lesson here which is useful is about false constraints. This is an example where we’re so trained by you could argue through our education system that whenever we see something with an edge, we assume it has to be inside the box otherwise the puzzle would be too easy. We just assume that. But this puzzle goes further if you want to go further. They’re other involved here and there’s 3 outside the box, a 3 line solution but if you think about constraints, what’s the problem? You have to use a line, what if that’s thick – no one told you it was there. You can also have a solution, there’s one line and goes all the way around the world. No one – the line is an imaginary thing so it could be anywhere and there’s the ergonomic solution to the puzzle that if you fold it enough it’s one thing. So there’s actually an infinite number of solutions to this puzzle, depending on how ridiculous and absurd you will get. That’s the lessons of this puzzle about false constraints so to make this practical and something that’s useful in every day work setting, if you’re in a design discussion and you’re stuck at the ideas that people are generating, someone should go to the whiteboard and make a list what constraints – what are they here? Everyone in the room has different opinions on that. If you could make a list of them and go wait a second, you thought it was due on Monday? It’s on Wednesday and now a whole path of options open up. It could be about what user scenario you’re trying to solve. But it’s a constraint – you can’t notice or discover the ones that are actually unnecessary or at a minimum can be postponed, you can take a constraint out and say let’s assume our budget was twice what it is. What do we consider? Turns out once you play with it, you might find a way to fit that idea into the budget. So playing with constraints seems very reductive and logical, it’s one of the most potent ways to unlock the natural creativity like looking for your keys, that we all have.

My last note for you and better advice for you is that when it comes down to offering ideas, one problem we face in the workplace is self-centre and politics. That you always have this burden in the workplace of the effect you might suggest someone might have. When you’re in a meeting and there’s 10 people there and you know that promotions will be decided next week, you’re thinking about I want to show off and represent myself well. There’s a lot of posturing in politics that goes on. In some places that can be a poisonous thing. There’s also centring of yourself. A lot of ideas that come in your mind and you’re afraid to do anything with them. People say I want to be more creative – you need the way your mind works a lot better and the best way to do that is to keep some kind of journal, a place where you can put things that go across your mind and one other thing about biology is our memory are terrible, we don’t realize how terrible they are. So one key link then is ideas across your mind is half-baked weird things that may be good or terrible, you have a place to put them. By having a place to put them, two things happens. One, there’s some chance in the future you can flip through it and say that’s an interesting idea. You can take it out and do something with it. It lives outside of your mind, but the 2nd thing which may be more important is it teaches you all the things you forgot about your own subconscious. We learned as being adults to try to repress. Once you start giving more attentions to these notions, and write them down, your brain will get better at hearing those things come up. And your subconscious will get better at communicating these things to you. Most people who became famous have – even scientist keep lab notes for a reason, they document what they saw, what happened and what they thought about it so they can later tie it together. It’s an essential tool, it can be super simple, or on paper. Doesn’t matter, as long as you feel safe doing and you keep it with you. One comment I get about this, what if I’m afraid of what I will write down? To which I say see a therapist! If you’re afraid of what’s in your mind, creative thinking isn’t your first problem. You’re afraid of yourself. I think therapy is great, most people should see one once in their life. We all need some help, but if you’re afraid of what you will put down that is revealing, because you can’t get into being more creative if you’re afraid of what your mind does. You should be happy and curious about – why did I come up with that? Why did this thing make me think of that? That will develop your own instincts and ability to work with new abilities.

My last lesson, I will end with some – I don’t know what happened there. That was not the end. This is the end. Book cover, I don’t have to impress upon you that it’s good because you own it, but I will say it’s a short book, like a 2-hour read, perfect for a paid flight or a train trip and my attempt to distil everything I learned from it in a couple hours. With that, I will say thank you and open the floor for questions! Thank you!

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Mark Littlewood: Great start! Hands up, everyone! You know the routine! We got one there to start.

Audience Member: Thanks for a great talk! Early on you were talking about the tower, the 2 engineers that worked for him, it struck me that Eiffel might be the founder, but his 2 engineers were the creators. How about managing creativity in your organization? How Eiffel did it?

Scott Berkun: That’s a great question and you’re on the money that one of the things he should get credit for – he didn’t kill the project, he was like yeah, I don’t know about this, but you guys are young. See where it goes. There’s a lot of validity in that, by the time you’re old enough to be a founder, you’re no longer on the cutting edge. You like to think you are, but you’re not and you hire talent because of how they see the world. You have to have some room that will make the company strategy founded on this, but there must be some budget and offering for them to allow their perspective to lead something. If you’re hiring great talent that you want to be creative and you make them conform to your philosophy, it’s a waste and a mismatch. If you want to hire cogs, hire cogs. I should not be the pointer, it would be confusing.

Mark Littlewood: Sorry!

Audience Member: Hey, Scott! Your point about nobody is creative is a great one. So what the hell happens that stops that and how do you manage that?

Scott Berkun: Sure! I think the number one thing that happens – part of it is civilization, conformity is an asset, that’s how we get along. We didn’t use creative people, things are changing now and people create a lot. When I think about America and education, it’s the obsession with greats. That as soon as you’re in the situation to get a good grade, this is no longer about self-discovery and project definition, but studying to get a good grade. There’s a right answer, that’s a way to recover this. If any project you do there’s no right answer, there’s far more room to do something that’s good or that manifests your own sense of good. Me as a kid, Lego was a thing, for these kids is Minecraft, which is the same thing. You make your own rules and there’s no answer. That’s the project work that lends to more creative thinking when there’s no right answer. Some people say I want to write a book and get great reviews. Now you’re – you have to work on your own definition of good and we quickly chase on other people’s ideas on what’s good.

Audience Member: Hi! I really enjoyed your talk and your book. So this is off topic and I read something you said, that you wanted to write a whole shelf of books. How do you stay creative about so many different topics that you’ve written books about and over such a long period of time? This is a huge goal!

Scott Berkun: It depends on which shelf – a question I keep asking my therapist, I don’t know. I’m joking. I don’t know, I’m curious and chose to be a writer cause it’s the best way to exercise the desire and the challenge to try and do it for a living was encouraging. The stuff I know least about is the most interesting to me. I don’t have any magical answer, I’m just curious. Many people say that, that’s the fuel then. What happens if I take this and do that? That kind of curiosity is the engine for a lot of people to make stuff cause it takes time. For other people it’s ambition, for me it’s curiosity.

Mark Littlewood: In the back.

Audience Member: Over here! All of us have ideas and are creative people. Over the course of our lifetime, we will have dozens of ideas, but not every idea that comes to us, some ideas have a gestation period, some you may not be able to execute or work on them at that time, and as much as you say you should journal them – how do you keep the flame of the ideas you have alive through the decades and the years? The reason I’m saying this, is sometimes it feels like you had an idea a couple years ago, some other stuff came up, maybe you pursued another idea. That idea is sitting in one of your journals. Is it the ideas that you don’t follow through? How do you keep the flame or it alive?

Scott Berkun: So I think that one notion here that’s important is that creativity and working with ideas is terribly inefficient. It is! Most creators of any kind, you have ideas for stuff and try something, it doesn’t work. I have piles of journals, as many artists and musicians do. I’m like I won’t do all this stuff, but the process of me staying comfortable with ideas has utility. It’s not perfect utility. If you think about that, you would put stuff you would be sure you will do and won’t put anything down. I can’t answer that for you, and that changes over time. I have maybe 3 books that are half written, I wrote a first draft of it, got to a certain point and I decided it needs to sit aside for a while so I can come back to it later. And some of those books I may come back and some I won’t that in determination is frustrating for business minded people. It makes them feel like they’re doing it wrong. So from my study of all the famous people, it’s common place. You’re doing a risky activity, you’re working with the unknown in how you will feel about it a week, month or year into it. So there’s no perfect answer to it. You recognize your self-aware for some of these limitations, I’m here to tell you that doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong, even successful creative people feel the same frustrations about your work.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you! Is there another one?

Audience Member: Hey, Scott! You mentioned original thought it’s done and it’s ideas and ideas. You mentioned transformative ideas, even though you don’t like that term. Is there a difference between a regular new cool idea blending or one that takes over the world and changes everything?

Scott Berkun: It’s part of the problem. If we took – this room is air conditioned. If we took it to some tribe in Amazon rainforest, it would be a transformative breakthrough for them. For us it’s nothing, so it’s all relative, the perception of how breakthrough as an idea is relative and it means the people who were most naïve about the history or technology see it as the greatest change and transformation. The web for me in 1994, I saw it, I was playing with other hyper tech systems and I don’t think anyone at the time – even working on the browser, I don’t think the team had an idea what would happen. It all seemed contained, I don’t think anyone close to it can have a full sense of that scale. That determination, how big of an idea is this, is relative to who you’re selling it to and who the consumers will be. It’s easy if you’re a business person, you can say I want to solve this problem for the customer. What ideas will best solve it? How can I improve the problem solving? It takes out all the grandiosity out of it, we’re solving this kind of problem and want to be paid for it. Great! Humble and simple.

Mark Littlewood: Ok.

Audience Member: I have another question about – some ideas are transformative, some just  bit new and easy to observe. So any advice on how to make the breach for transformative ideas smaller and how to pitch the ideas to your audience?

Scott Berkun: Pitching is a social process, it’s much less to do with your intellectual or the brilliance of the idea and far more to do with your reputation, your ability to study the catcher. How will I pitch? Who am I pitching to? What do they know and what’s their goal? They want to get promoted this year? What projects will they want to support? You have to do some research about them cause we obsess about it ourselves. I mentioned before how our behaviour changes about ideas if other people are in the room. So those are all factors that we all considered when to pitch, who do I pitch, what kind of pitch do I offer? All these questions I would ask before I begin the pitch and most people make the mistakes thinking the idea itself will stand on its own.

Mark Littlewood: One more quick one.

Audience Member: The tension between creativity and efficiency is fascinating to me. Have you seen that done really well in an established organization? You worked at Microsoft for a while, did you have to leave in order to gain that freedom to have your own creativity or someone in an established organization can do it well?

Scott Berkun: Sequestering is the fancy word. Let’s say I’m the manager of the team, my boss is super – efficiency, productivity, but my goals are ambitious, I know I need to develop a new way to solve our problem for the customer, my job as manager is to use the budget so there is freedom to experiment that for my team. I have to shield that from management. The first week we get feedback, we iterate fast, and a lot of that stuff will be inefficient cause we will throw a lot of it away. You can’t work on new ideas without that expiration. That is the most efficient way to solve the goal to develop a new idea to that level of quality. And places that say they’re doing, you will find people experimenting on weekends, there’s always a place where people try stuff out and learning what they need to learn to solve the problem. You’re hiding it so many people don’t know you do the experimentation, but a good manager will find some way to integrate that kind of phase and thinking into their very budget oriented culture.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you! That’s all we’ve got time for! Time for a little break. Thank you, Scott!

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Scott Berkun.

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author, explainer and popular speaker on creativity, leading projects, culture, business and many other subjects. 

He’s the author of eight books, including How Design Makes The WorldThe Myths of InnovationConfessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants

Born and raised in Queens, NYC, he studied philosophy, computer science and design at CMU. His first career focused on UX Design. At Microsoft he worked on Internet Explorer 1.0 to 5.0, Windows, MSN and later led an engineering team at (2010-2012) responsible for Jetpack, Publicize and other features used by millions of people.   

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