Cracking creativity #4

(Continuing my last post.) In Extreme Programming, one of the mottos is that one should start with “the simplest thing that could possibly work”. This is the trigger (that Richard Gabriel talked about); the spark to generate more ideas, as you learn from testing your idea in the real world, outside your head.

There’s a danger, though, in starting too quickly, and that is that a premature idea might be a result from your conventional thinking patterns. As you listen to what the people say that you build the software for, the first things you come to think of are things based on previous experience; things that probably were very good in the previous contexts, which is why your mind suggests them again, at the risk of you overlooking the facts that speak against this solution, and hindering new, and better, ideas to come to you.

Somewhere in the book, Michalko uses an analogy that I liked. You know how at some places, when you turn the faucet on, the first water is brownish, but if you let it run for a while, it gets clear. The brownish water are the not-so-good ideas that come first, but if you try to generate a few ideas, by making your mind think outside its regular patterns, they will get better and better.

Many of the techniques in the book rely on association. For instance, you can list some of the things you come think of in association to the concepts of your idea – synonyms or antonyms – to see what new ideas you get. I’ve toyed a little with mind mapping and it’s clearly a technique that would be useful when trying to find good metaphoric designs, because things pop up that you’d never thought you’d think of. I will definitely try this in the future.

Another element in some of the techniques is randomness. Flipping through a book and putting your finger somewhere on a page, to see what you come to think of when you read the word under your fingertip – and when you associate it to the concepts related to your problem. Apparently, it’s impossible for the mind to not form a connection when thinking of two seemingly unrelated things. This approach of seeing what connections form between “unrelated” objects, as a means to generate ideas, has been used by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso (if I remember correctly).

The reason I wanted to read about creativity was that I felt that in the software development business, there’s a trend towards regarding development as a purely rational process (I think there’s even a company that named themselves after this). To me this isn’t true – software development is creative in every sense of the word. But what I have realized as I read this book, is that creativity is simply problem solving; it’s about clearly seeing the essence of the problems and solving them in the best way possible. And this is an activity where you need to involve your “right half of the brain” to a great extent – not only your left (the rational half).

The above was posted to my personal weblog on December 4, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

Posted around the same time:

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  3. Tesugen Turns Five (March 21)
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