This article focuses on how engineers prize creativity, and for good reason. Innovation powers corporate success. Henry Ford’s low-cost mass production line, the Wright brothers’ airplane, and Thomas Edison’s phonograph all launched new businesses and created fortunes for their developers. The same is true for such creative breakthroughs as personal computers, biomedical implants, composite aircraft, and cell phones. Engineers may work at individual desks and workstations, but teams almost always create the vision that guides their work. Teams have grown increasingly diverse. In large companies, in particular, few designs make it into production without early input from manufacturing, purchasing, finance, marketing, and sales. There are ways to improve team creativity, although much of it sounds like common sense. Team members should spend time getting to know and trust one another and learning how to share information. Managing creativity is not always easy. The predilection of creative thinkers to stray outside corporate boundaries, their willingness to fail while trying something new, and the uneven quality of their output make them hard to manage in corporations that thrive on control.
Engineers prize creativity, and for good reason. Innovation powers corporate success. Henry Ford's low-cost mass production line, the Wright brothers' airplane, and Thomas Edison's phonograph all launched new businesses and created fortunes for their developers. The same is true for such creative breakthroughs as personal computers, biomedical implants, composite aircraft, and cell phones.
There is one difference, though, between innovations of today and those at the start of the last century: Although the original idea may spring from one person, it rarely reaches market today without creative input from teams of others. Now, team members may include many different engineers, as well as industrial designers, marketers, manufacturers, purchasers, and project managers.
That was the case when engineering firm Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City, Mo., called in Chris Barlow and his partner Janet Finley to work on the design of a sewage treatment plant. The two consultants are founders of the Co-Creativity Institute in Glen Ellyn, Ill., which helps organizations achieve more creative results from cross-functional teams.
Barlow and Finley were there because the plant's federal grant called for a value engineering component, and they are both value engineers. The company's team consisted of experts. Neither Barlow nor Finley knew much about sewage treatment. That was their strength.
At one point in a meeting, Finley asked, "What is a pumphouse?" The question seemed foolish to engineers who knew everything about pump houses, but she kept hammering away.
"It finally came out that the chief function of a pumphouse was to keep people from falling into the hole where they pumped the waste," Barlow said. "This is a heavy-duty building with expensive sensors, alarms, and explosion-proof fans to vent methane. We eliminated it all simply by using a grating instead of a building. We also developed ways to simplify the system and improve aeration while shrinking the size of the plant."
While Burns & McDonnell did not use every idea, the value engineering team was a great success and its suggestions became part of the company's innovative water treatment system. Barlow and Finley were invited back to run value engineering assessments again and again.
"We never did as good a job as facilitators afterward," Barlow admitted. "We learned so much and got to be so good at it, there was no sense of wonder, and we stopped asking the basic questions."
Barlow's story illustrates several points about the creative process. It shows how redefining the problem" Why build a pumphouse?" rather than "How do we build a better pumphouse?"-may lead to breakthroughs. It demonstrates how the mixture of naivete and knowledge sometimes yields surprising results. It even suggests that teams may find solutions that escape creative individuals.
Despite its importance, creativity is hard to pinpoint. According to Jim Adams, "It's like beauty: You know it when you see it. But if you try to define it, you wind up quibbling." Adams is a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. H e taught design in the school's highly regarded program and also wrote Conceptual Blockbusting, a pioneering work on eliminating barriers to creativity.
Adams 'said he learned a working definition of creativity from his children. "It's cool new stuff," he said. "Somebody has to think it's kind of cool. It has to be new, at least locally. And it has to be tangible. Many people come up with unusual ideas that cannot be implemented. Ideas are easy, just give any group some alcohol. But to come up with ideas that can work? That's creative."
Adams was a disciple of John Arnold, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later brought Stanford's design program to the front ranks.
"He was a very charismatic guy who used exercises to get people to try things that were unique," Adams said. "He got on the cover of Life magazine in the 1960s for challenging students to build things for fictitious beings whose forearms could not reach their heads. It required tremendous creativity."
The use of creative exercises for business rather than engineering had been around since the 1920s. Yet it has taken decades to apply those exercises to engineering.
According to Graham Thompson, the former head of the University of Manchester's School of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Civil Engineering in the United Kingdom, "There is a whole literature of articles and learned papers on creativity, especially on the management side, going back to the 1920s. It's only been during the past 10 to 15 years that the engineering community has woken up to these techniques."
Is this because engineers are less creative or more set in their ways than other professions? Not at all, Thompson said. Engineers just work in an environment where creativity is not always rewarded.
According to Adams, the problem is that engineers are taught to find the right answer. It starts with their education. "Many people who go into engineering liked getting the right answers in math and science in high school," he explained.
Instead of coming up with radically new ways to do things, most engineers spend their academic years mastering the tools of their trade, Adams said. From physics and mathematics to advanced modeling and electromechanical systems integration, this content knowledge has expanded enormously over the years.
Work often places additional constraints on creative thinking. "Two hundred years ago, people were not making things that were so potentially dangerous," Adams said. "Now, you have to worry about liability and regulation. You work on more complex problems in larger groups with commercial constraints on your ideas." Groups managing all those pressures often avoid innovations because they shy away from the unknown.
According to Barlow, this often leads to incremental improvements rather than breakthroughs, and that is not necessarily bad. "Creativity is important, but you also want to block people from doing stupid stuff," he said. "In school, it's more important to teach in-the-box creativity by challenging students with puzzle-like problems that teach them the specific skills they need to know. That's really good preparation, and it teaches them to analyze problems and see solutions."
Most academic problems, he said, are confined and narrow, almost the opposite of what happens in the real world, where engineers often work on less defined problems and where no one person has all the knowledge. That means working in groups.
The C Student Advantage
Engineers may work at individual desks and workstations, but teams almost always create the vision that guides their work. Teams have grown increasingly diverse. In large companies, in particular, few designs make it into production without early input from manufacturing, purchasing, finance, marketing, and sales.
Anyone who has sat through cross-functional team meetings knows that they can produce vastly different outcomes. Some teams turn into exciting springboards for new ideas. Others prove a mind-numbing exercise in group think.
Barlow and Adams are two of a growing number of consultants who believe groups can achieve creative solutions that are often beyond the scope of individuals. The key, Barlow said, lies in creating teams where individuals learn about subjects they do not understand from the people around them.
"As a consultant, I'm far more effective when I don't know much about the project I'm working on," said Bar-low, recalling the sewage pump house."
That is why Barlow advises companies never to hire a 4.0 student. "They were always told they were right," he explained. "When you 're dealing with real problems, if you combine the best people in engineering, marketing, and accounting, you'll never have anything happen because they'll all think they're right. With A students, what they know is important and what everyone else knows is not.
"If you take C students, they're used to being wrong 30 percent of the time. They've learned to check with other people. In the real world, you need to look outside of what you know and learn what other people know."
While teams have the potential to surpass individual creativity, not every team functions at that level. This is not always the fault of team leaders. Dysfunctional teams can often trace their lack of innovation back to corporate culture.
Scott Isakson of Creative Problem Solving Group Inc., a consultant from Buffalo, N.Y., has built on work begun by Goron Ekvall, a Swedish industrial psychologist. Ekvall unearthed a link between corporate culture and creativity in the 1950s, Isakson said.
"Volvo brought in Ekvall to learn why some of its high-performance work environments worked and others did ·not," Isakson said. "As soon as he walked through the door of the first factory, Ekvall could feel its warm, inviting atmosphere. There were smiles on people's faces as they interacted with one another.
"The next plant 100 miles down the road was cold," Isakson said. "Management was in its corner, employees in theirs. The environment was tense. When he opened the idea box, there was nothing in it but cigarette butts."
Ekvall realized the connection, and over the next 20 years developed a scale to measure the climate in innovative companies. Its dimensions included everything from emotional involvement, freedom to do 0ne's job, conflicts, and open debate to trust, time to think things through before acting, and playfulness.
Isakson uses that scale to help a company remold its culture. He worked with a French multinational leader in power and electrical engineering to rebuild a division responsible for creating new products from proprietary technology. "The division was flushing money down the toilet, so they brought in a new general manager to turn it around fast," Isakson said.
"He realized he needed a lot of involvement and energy to turn the company around, so he had us do an assessment. The place was harsh and cruel, and the people were not being nice. So he set norms on how people should treat each other, and fired top managers who persisted in the old ways. He also set a goal of talking with each employee for 15 or 20 minutes per quarter, and set aside more money for training.
"When we did the next assessment, the overall climate had improved. People wanted to stay there, and they had begun making a profit."
Isakson thought for a second, then added: "The advantage I've found in working with engineers is that if you can quantify something, they get the numbers quickly. When we start presenting decent numbers about environment, they know what to do about it."
The right culture unleashes team creativity, yet creativity varies widely among individuals. Adams, for example, finds cognitive differences in how people perceive and wrestle with problems. Some retreat inwardly, others need a sounding board, and still others are lost without a doodling pad.
"Because of cognitive differences, there are very few universal creativity techniques and approaches," he said. It is the reason that his book, Conceptual Blockbusting, looks more like a smorgasbord of techniques than a coherent program like Six Sigma.
According to Thompson in the U.K., some people are so locked into their own innovative style that they fail to appreciate the approach of others.
He points to research on adapters and innovators. "Innovators always look for blue skies. They want to break the paradigm," Thompson explained. "Ask them to improve a car's fuel economy and they'll put a solar panel on top.
"On the other side are adapters. They tend to make incremental improvements. They might alter the car's fuel mixture or cut its weight.
"In the 1990s, I worked with psychologists to administer psychometric tests to engineering students, and we found that most innovators think adapters are not really creative," Thompson said. "But when you look at the engineering literature, the really big, cost-cutting steps achieved by the Japanese in motorcars were all done by adapters. It's important to take advantage of both types of creativity."
While any measure of creativity is certain to descend to what Adams calls "quibbling," it is possible to identify common characteristics of creative people. Isakson points to research on several hundred top-rated geniuses. Its findings show why managers are often uncomfortable working with truly creative individuals.
"Many never finished their B.A.'s, because too much formal education is not good on the creativity side," Isakson said. "What distinguished them was their high level of personal and professional productivity. They had a tendency to generate a large fluency of original ideas without diving too deep. They are willing to take risks and to work outside the norm.
"They made lots of mistakes. That's why personal characteristics like persistence, motivation, and the urge to produce are so important," he said. "A highly creative person is more likely to produce below-average quality. But the creative and productive person will also generate more good ideas, too."
Creative people often adopt different mindsets as they move through the creativity process, according to Roger von Oech, the author of A Whack 0n the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative.
"Early on, creative people might be explorers, open to new ideas. Then they become artists, imaginative, thinking in metaphors and looking at resources. Then they are judges, evaluating ideas while trying to avoid being a prisoner of familiarity," he said.
Most surprisingly, though, is the role von Oech describes as the creative warrior. "They turn ideas into action through persistent narrow focus," he said. "They get rid of excuses and sell others on the idea." Often, this calls for more creativity than coming up with the original idea.
Change the Problem
Creativity consultants have developed many techniques designed to boost individual and group creativity.
According to Barlow, "The most powerful thing you can do is change the problem. A typical engineering problem might ask how to raise a bridge so you can get all the boats under it. But the real issue is: How do you create a structure that lets all the boats pass? Maybe you don't have to raise the bridge. Maybe you lower the bridge. In Greece, for example, there is a submersible bridge that actually sinks below the boats."
He points to a similar case in India, where engineers were trying to solve a quality problem with wear coatings on multidiameter shafts. They originally tried to improve the coating process, but ultimately decided to make the belt less abrasive. "This is better-box thinking," said Barlow. "When you change your assumptions and perceptions, you change the box so it holds a different problem. In real life, the dumbest thing you can do is solve the problem you're given," he said.
There are hundreds of papers and books about improving individual creativity. Adams, for example, asks readers to identify impediments to their creativity and work through them. Isakson says the best ideas rarely come from sitting in front of a workstation, and suggests engineers take time to relax. Von Oech said engineers should look outside their field for inspiration, and not jump at the first right answer, but look for the second, or third, or fifth right answer to see where they lead.
There are ways to improve team creativity, although much of it sounds like common sense. Barlow, for example, thinks team members should spend time getting to know and trust one another and learning how to share information.
There are several reasons for this. First, cross-functional team members have no way to assess the competence of other people on a team, but they need to rely on their competence. Second, conflicts arise with teams because the right solution is different for everyone in the room. Engineers, for example, may want to add features while manufacturers want to simplify assembly.
"Shared information and group cohesiveness create an infrastructure that lets teams look at these complex issues," Barlow said. "The only way to build cohesiveness is social. You may need to have a true feeling about whether you can trust someone, like, 'I know your boss sent you in with an agenda and I will try to take care of you.' "
He also advises against letting creative teams make decisions. "They get too enthused and fall in love with their ideas," he said. "You have to send those innovations off to other engineers to see if they will really work."
But Does it Last
Most companies want to be creative. In a world where commodity products and well-understood technologies migrate instantly to low-wage nations, innovation is the only way to survive.
Yet managing creativity is not always easy. The predilection of creative thinkers to stray outside corporate boundaries, their willingness to fail while trying something new, and the uneven quality of their output make them hard to manage in corporations that thrive on control.
Adams worries that many creativity seminars fall into the "feel-good" category. "When I'm feeling cynical about creativity consulting, I think it works until they get back to the office," he said. "They find they're three days behind, they have dozens of e-mails to answer, and they put their class notebook on the shelf and go back to doing things the way they did them before."
Yet creativity programs can have a lasting impact. Jeff Krull is a former vice president of product development at Shure Inc. While at Shure, he brought in Barlow to run a creativity workshop. The reason Shure reaped results from that session came down to three things.
"First, without the support of top management, it would have died," Krull said. "In many of these programs, you have to try to line up support for ideas on an ad hoc basis. We treated it like a retirement account, where you put away a certain amount in order to meet your long-term goals.
"Second, we focused on the needs of our customers. Many inventions sat on the sidelines because they didn't have customer acceptance. We used our cross-functional teams to really understand what our customers wanted and plan how we would develop the technology to get there. We also looked for ways to improve product functionality even before we had the whole technology package.
"Finally, there's execution, some rough expectation around when the technology work could be done," Krull said. "It often ends up taking its own twists and turns, but at least there's a sense of urgency."
Krull's take on Barlow's creativity workshop was not just that it generated ideas, but that it gave those ideas enough details to provide a roadmap of the future.
Yet despite their importance, creativity and innovation are often subject to corporate whims. One corporate "process" might falter simply because it must compete with other "processes" that are favored by a shifting management.
When Thompson conducts creativity workshops, he tries to develop creative processes. But he also goes one step further. "I try to give them creative behavior, so individuals can improve their own creativity and be able to influence any process."
Even if it means reimagining something as mundane as a sewage treatment plant.