Random Thoughts on Creativity
In a 1986 address to MIT graduates, Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, addressed the slippery challenge of defining and identifying creativity. An MIT alumnus, he explained that creativity is discovered by creating an environment that fosters innovation - then observing who flourishes. (The following is an abridged version of Hewlett's commencement address.)
In the 50 years since I walked across the stage to receive my Master of Science from MIT, I have been intimately associated with the creative process that is so important to our modern, high-technology culture. Creativity and the related issue of productivity continue to be of the utmost importance to the international business community.
Today, this country has a renewed interest in innovation and creativity. It has become increasingly evident that we are losing the competitive edge that for so long had characterized the American economy. In 1983, a presidential commission of distinguished business leaders and educators assembled to study ways to increase the long-term competitiveness of United States industry at home and abroad concluded that we must work to "create, apply and protect technology." The commission noted that "innovation spurs new industries and revives mature ones. Technological advances lead to improved productivity, an essential ingredient for our standard of living." In essence, their recommendation was two-fold - to create technology and improve productivity.
How do you define creativity? According to Chuck House, who heads up our engineering productivity program, "Creativity is what screws up my engineering program." Unfortunately, there is much truth in that statement. Thomas Edison is alleged to have remarked about his laboratory, "There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something." These two comments say a great deal about the creative process. It works best when it is not too structured, but it must, in the long run, be tamed, harnessed and hitched to the wagon of man's needs. Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgi provided a good working definition when he said, "Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different."
It is very difficult to spot a creative individual just by looking at a resume. It is clear, for example, that education is not a sine qua non for being creative. Psychologists can't even agree on how to measure this characteristic, let alone predict who will display it. Establishing an environment that fosters creativity and observing who flourishes is probably the best way of finding this elusive characteristic.
Successful innovators share many common traits. Creative people have an abiding curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn how and why things work. They take nothing for granted. They are interested in things around them and tend to stow away bits and pieces of information in their minds for future use. And, they have a great ability to mobilize their thinking and experiences for use in solving a new problem.
Problems, however, are rarely solved on the spur of the moment. They must be organized and dissected, then key issues isolated and defined. A period of gestation then sets in, during which these issues are mulled over. You put them in your mind and consciously or unconsciously work at them at odd hours of the day or night - even at work. It is somewhat analogous to trying to place a name on the face of someone you've met before. Often the solution to a problem comes to you in much the same way you eventually recall the name.
Creativity is an area in which younger people have a tremendous advantage, since they have an endearing habit of always questioning past wisdom and authority. They say to themselves that there must be a better way. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they discover that the existing, traditional way is the best. But it is that one percent that counts. That is how progress is made.
There is a time and a place for creativity, but in the developmental process, timing sometimes outweighs technical innovations. I remember when we were trying to bring out our first scientific desktop calculator. Integrated circuits were just being introduced and we had to decide whether to delay the entry of the product so that we might use integrated circuits or go ahead and introduce it with a primitive, but proven, read-only memory device. We chose the latter. Timing was the dominant factor and the "niceness" of the solution.
While the creative process is critical in the R&D phase, it is also an essential ingredient for increased productivity and improved quality. The challenge is that modern technology must be used to improve productivity. We need the same creative effort in the production process that we now lavish on the development phase. We must start by having productivity and quality as objectives in the research and development process. Productivity must be designed into products - not added at a later date. Quality cannot be "inspected in."
There is already a great deal of technology readily available that can be used to improve quality and manufacturability of a product. In many cases, however, U.S. industries are not taking advantage of this knowledge, although much of it originated in the U.S. We need new ideas and new leadership in this quest. Here, the universities have a very real responsibility. I don't mean that they should go back to teaching forging, foundry, machine shop and drafting - subjects that I had to take as an engineering student.
But our universities do need to provide a theoretical base for quality and efficiency in the manufacturing process. I was delighted to learn that this trend is already under way at this institution.
Creativity will play a vital and critical role in our increasingly high-tech society. Our company's president, John Young, puts it this way: "Creativity is the only American competitive advantage left." Industry is going to have to make some drastic changes in how it views the importance of the research and development program and the necessity of increasing productivity. Changes are never easy to make. There is comfort and safety in tradition, but change must come, no matter how painful or expensive it may be.