Scott Berkun: How to Translate Observations and Creative Insight Into a Solution

In “The Dance of the Possible,” Scott Berkun outlines four tests for understanding the real work involved to translate observations and creative insight into a solution.

Creativity is Not an Accident

Tree of Ideas offers Creative InsightIn the chapter “Creativity is Not an Accident,” Scott Berkun makes the following key points:

  • Many of our popular stories of discovery are portrayed as accidents or matters of luck. We love these stories as they make creativity seem easy and fun, regardless of how misleading they are.
  • What’s overlooked is that these accidents were earned. [Inventors] committed themselves to years of work chasing hard problems, and then, when an accident happened, they chose not to ignore it, as most of us would. They chose to study the accident.
  • The vast majority of accidents and mistakes lead absolutely nowhere.
  • Work is the essential element in all finished creative projects and inventions. No matter how brilliant the idea, or miraculous its discovery, work will be required to develop it to the point of consumption by the rest of the world.

He then suggests four questions to answer whenever you hear the story of “lucky breakthrough”:

  1. How much work did the creator do before the accident/breakthrough happened?
  2. How much work did they do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
  3. What did they sacrifice (time/money/reputation) to convince others of the value of the discovery?
  4. How many months or years of work were required to develop the idea into its final useful form

Four Guidelines to Translate Observations and Creative Insight into a Solution

Inverting each of these questions gives you four guidelines for translating an observation or creative insight into a solution or product.

  1. Creative insight requires preparation and an understanding of the normal variation of events.
  2. There is considerable work involved in determining root causes and how to reproduce what was observed.
  3. To get others to adopt your solution, you have to persevere and prove it to their satisfaction–not just yours.
  4. To create a truly useful product takes months to years.

1. Creative insight requires preparation and an understanding of the normal variation of events.

It’s only when you spot something that does not fit your model of normal variation–and don’t overlook or reject it–that you can start the process of understanding what really happened and the underlying forces or mechanisms at work. It’s not unusual for someone to come into a new field and translate creative insights into novel solutions, but often this is because they are building on prior expertise developed elsewhere that they have found a way to apply.

“Unless a man has trained himself for his chance, the chance will only make him ridiculous. A great occasion is worth to a man exactly what his preparation enables him to make of it.”
James Brander Matthews

2. Considerable work is involved in determining root causes and how to reproduce what was observed.

Determining root causes often involves considerable experimentation and attention to detail, in particular commonly occurring conditions that were absent–to see what was missing. Ultimately you need to be able to reproduce an effect to prove you really understand it.

3. To persevere and get others to adopt your solution, you have to prove it to their satisfaction–not just yours.

Introducing a new product often means that you start from a position where you are viewed as mistaken or foolish–sometimes for a very long time. The ability to persist in the face of others’ doubts is probably one of the hallmarks of an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, it’s also a hallmark for complainers, misfits, and cranks. One rule of thumb is to discount general negative feedback such as “that will never work” and “it’s been tried before and always failed” but to pay close attention to specific questions such as “how will you solve this particular problem?” or “when they tried it before they could never get past this constraint, how do you plan to avoid that?”

4. To create a truly useful product takes months to years.

Evolutionary products require a sequence of small experiments, of trial and error, to gradually refine an initial product into a truly useful one. Bill Buxton documents this for a number of successful products in “The Long Nose of Innovation” [Revised-PDF] and reaches these three key conclusions:

  1. The bulk of innovation is low-amplitude and takes place over a long period—but well before the “new” idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point.
  2. Any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. That doesn’t imply that the 10-year-old technologies we might draw from are mature or that we understand their implications; rather, just the basic concept is known, or knowable to those who care to look.
  3. An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement.

Bill Buxton “The Long Nose of Innovation

Revolutionary products that require a significant change in work process or infrastructure typically go through three phases:

  1. Substitution: cost reduction of current practices due to the substitution of legacy products with early versions of  the new product.
  2. Increased use: increased levels of activity beyond what existed before the introduction of the new product due to additional cost reductions in intermediate versions of the new product.
  3. Novel forms and structures emerge: further cost reductions in later versions of a truly useful product enable new business models.

Malone and Rockhart document this three phase evolution in the introduction of new transportation technologies:

“A first-order effect of transportation technology was simply the substitution of new transportation  technologies for the old. People began to ride in trains and automobiles rather than on horses and in horse-drawn carriages.

As transportation technology continued to improve, people did not use it just to substitute for the transportation they had been using all along. Instead a second-order effect emerged: people began to travel more. They commuted farther to work each day. They were more likely to attend distant business meetings and to visit faraway friends and relatives.

Then, as people used more and more transportation, a third-order effect eventually occurred: the emergence of new “transportation-intensive” social and economic structures. These structures, such as suburbs and shopping malls, would not have been possible without the wide availability of cheap and convenient transportation.”

Tom Malone and John F. Rockhart in “Computers, Networks, and the Corporation” (1991 Scientific American Article)

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Photo Credit Andrés Nieto Porras: El árbol de las ideas

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