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The Medici Effect: How Do You Make Creativity A Process?

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 25, 2007

This post in Jeff Monaghan’s blog struck a chord with a process I’ve used for a long time to stimulate creativity:

The basic premise is that true creativity can be found through the cross-fertilization of ideas from different, and unrelated fields.

I will broaden it a bit to reflect my own process:  true creativity can be found through exploring the unknown relationships of unrelated ideas.  In the most extreme, the ideas may even be randomly generated.

How can this work?

Consider a brainstorming exercise.  Take as many ideas as you can that are interesting to you no matter what the reason.  Write them on slips of paper (or do it in software if you prefer) and put the slips in a hat.  Shuffle, and start pulling out pairs of slips.  Write down the combinations.  The idea for SmoothSpan happened because “Viral” and “Enterprise Software” happened to come out of a hat at the same time.  I will say no more about SmoothSpan at this time, and people familiar with the idea will likely say it isn’t viral at all, but it was that unlikely juxtaposition (after all, what Enterprise Software even wants to be associated with the idea of being viral?) that got the creative juices flowing.

For some people, this process is automatic.  These are the intuitive thinkers.  If you are an overly top down and logical thinker, don’t underestimate the value of adding a randomizer to break you out of your rut and help you see around corners.  There are two other helpful techniques I will add to this. 

First, creativity is often stimulated by conversation if you have an open mind.  When you start out explaining an idea, the other person will often leap to an unexpected conclusion about what you’re trying to say.  Don’t scold them or drag them back on track too quickly.  Register their misconception and think about whether it isn’t an improvement on your idea rather than an error.

Second, learn to think about isomorphisms and abstractions.  Isomorphism is a fancy mathematical term for what a lot of folks would call a metaphor.  Technically, an isomorphism is a structure-preserving mapping.  Practically, if you think in those terms, you more reasily recognize when apparently unrelated things contain principles that apply to one another.  Abstraction is related in this context.  Abstraction involves eliminating details that don’t matter to the behaviour of a thing until we have the most generic possible view of the thing.  It’s like jumping up to 100,000 feet to look at it.  If you abstract unrelated things, it will be easier to see the isomorphisms that may link the two together because there is less detail to confuse the issue. 

Perfect those techniques and you’ll be borrowing useful insights from everything you encounter.

4 Responses to “The Medici Effect: How Do You Make Creativity A Process?”

  1. jeffreymonaghan said

    Great elaboration Bob. I absolutely love this approach to formulating new ideas.

  2. joejordan said

    Great insights into how to release creative energies in a group or organization. Now–if we can just get people to agree on the problems they’re trying to solve–and the root cause of those problems, all that creative force can achieve some amazing results.

    I wrote about the risks in creativity yesterday (10/24) at I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  3. […] Posted by smoothspan on October 31st, 2007 In watching yet another ping pong game of compiled versus dynamic languages, I found myself mostly siding with the dynamic language crowd in the form of Steve Vinoski and Patrick Logan.  This time around the discussion was all about what to do with “average programmers”.  It all got started when some others posited that dynamic languages and RESTful architectures are for those who view progamming as art while statically checking the contract, whether speaking of languages or SOA’s, is what those who want to view programming as engineering should do.  I don’t want to get sidetracked by all of that background, because I will write about it some other time (is programming art or engineering, what to do with average programmes, yada, yada).  For this post, I was struck by one of the linked in tributaries that make the blogosphere such a powerful idea generator because it triggers that sudden tunneling of ideas between relatively unrelated spaces that sparks creativity. […]

  4. […] I’ve described the application of isomorphisms to creativity in an earlier post on “The Medici” effect.  It’s worth a […]

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