Monday, 12 September 2011

Creativity and the Design Process

Creativity and production of digital goods: managing creative intellectual teamwork
The results or outcomes of creative processes are unique and sensitive to context. This section reviews practical strategies for unleashing the creative dynamics of teams in digital production. Creative performance on teams is shown to be affected by group relations, structure, composition and skill. Therefore management has a role in cultivating the conditions for the creative dynamic to occur by supporting divergent and convergent thinking, producing a (usually) productive process of problem/idea/solution generation.

"Seymour Cray described how his little company, located in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, had come to build what are generally acknowledged to be the fastest computers in the world... Cray said that he liked hiring inexperienced engineers right out of school, because they do not know what’s supposed to be impossible."
(Kidder, 1981)
If I cannot control an individual’s creative potential how is it possible to manage that of a team? It seems possible that two different processes are in play, collective and individual, and that both processes are interrelated in certain ways. E. Paul Torrance defined creativity for his groundbreaking studies of creativity in children as:
"The process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies; testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results."
(Torrance, 1965)
Torrance described two main activities in the creative process: divergence and convergence. Divergence described ideation, extrapolating and growing ideas; convergence described judging and selecting ideas, reducing the alternatives being considered. People displayed different proficiencies for purely original thinking versus elaborating on existing ideas. The creative process consisted alternatively of divergent and convergent thinking. There are also two broad approaches to understanding creativity; on the one hand, creativity as an individual's own cognitive process (Treffinger, 1995), and on the other hand, organizational/contextual analyses of creativity or innovation (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006). The brainstorming captures elements of both individual and team creativity whilst it structures the two activities. The suspension of judgment allows for elaboration and extrapolation of ideas, while a returning focus on the problem allows for periods when ideas can be tested and selected.

Certainly creativity is largely an individual cognitive activity. Indeed the ‘ex nihilo’ generation of ideas may be a necessary underlying process of individuals during a collective design or problem solving activity. However cognitive psychologists conclude that individual creative processes are more often processes of analogical reasoning applied to make sense of new situations rather than gestalt insights. Therefore the individualist perspective overplays the role of the inventor in the process of creative production while innovation studies in particular, often emphasize the importance of contextual factors in successful innovations but underplays the role of ‘supraindividual creativity’ (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006).

However there are interesting dynamics surrounding design which unfold over the life of a team that suggest a strongly collaborative collective aspect to design and learning in general. Creativity is can be defined, in terms of team outcomes, simply as the “recombination of existing ideas” (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006) to produce a novel solution or address a problem. From this perspective the phenomenon of interest will be apparent in groups through interaction and behaviour.

"What turns collections of creative individuals into creative collectives, where particular interactions yield creative insights, yet those insights cannot be attributed to particular individuals?"
(Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
The need to answer this question drove longitudinal study of professional service consulting firms in the business of developing ‘novel and valuable solutions’ (Table below). The study was designed to understand how collective creativity takes place in groups and therefore addresses a gap in our understanding of the links between creative problem solving and innovative production in organizations.
Table:Six creative workplaces (Hagridden & Bechky, 2006)
From Scrapbook Photos
This study is relevant to programming and software development because it can inform how we might better understand creative processes in software development teams. The findings are based on six in-depth case studies of highly creative industry workplaces. The research looks at group members’ own reflection and sense making of their experiences working in groups involved in creative production. All six firms in three industry areas worked directly on problems that required creative solutions. The view of collective creativity presented is plausible and actionable by others. If the practices can be introduced they could then be regularized in policy or supported by management.

Where Do Collective Creative Processes Take Place? Hagridden and Bechky’s unit of analysis is group interaction and design behaviour.
"this perspective recognizes the fleeting coincidence of behaviours that trigger moments when creative insights emerge. ...insights that emerge in the interactions between individuals."
(Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
Their analysis identifies a model of collective creativity consisting of four dominant interrelated activities: help seeking, help giving, reflective reframing, and reinforcing. They draw on Weick and Roberts idea of mindful engagement in social interaction that shapes group or collective cognition.
"Mindfulness describes the amount of attention and effort that individuals allocate to a particular task or interaction. Participation in group interactions, as a result, becomes a product not of membership or presence within a group, but of the attention and energy that an individual commits to a particular interaction with others in the group."
(Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
Informal events and formal processes were identified as important enabling factors to initiate problem solving. Chance meetings in halls were cited as were organizational norms for brainstorming and problem solving.
  • Design Continuum used formal brainstorming sessions.
  • HP’s SPaM group and IDEO held weekly meetings to openly discuss current projects and problems.
  • Boeing’s Ops Tech group met monthly but also informally more frequently.
"The simple practice of holding regular review and brainstorming meetings was an important enabling factor was were ‘ad hoc meetings,’ ‘hallway conversations,’ and ‘tapping into personal networks."
(Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
The absence of social costs or sanctions for asking help after failure, and organizational cultures that did not stigmatize people for seeking help for problems or failure are powerful enablers to reinforcing help seeking behaviour.
At IDEO "blame for any particular design failure depended on whether the engineer had asked others for help or not: If they had not sought help, then they would be held individually responsible." (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)

The counterpart to ‘help seeking’ behaviour was ‘help giving,’ without which there could be no collective creative interaction. ‘Help Giving’ also had to take place and in a timely manner. There were obstacles to help giving. The more experienced people were often very busy. There were often institutional constraints around accounting for people’s ‘billable time’ and you can’t always get the obvious person involved. Help seekers would resort to people who were available and accessible instead of going to the top.
"You talk with whom you can. You explore until you find people in the firm that are accessible, near enough in the time frame to talk about it." (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
"There were certainly times when, for example, solicitations for help arrived as clear questions and could be easily returned with equally clear answers." (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
However while the process of formulating and expressing the problem in documents can often help resolve the issue, email and document mediated interactions could be useful but lost immediacy and clarity.

Reflective reframing is a process of recasting problems or solutions from one field into another. The actual process or act of expressing the problem with another and engaging with them in a ‘brainstorming session,’ ‘ad hoc meeting,’ or ‘hallway conversation,’ was the key interactive dynamic that represented the formation of the creative collective.
"Within such interactions, introducing an alternative frame – and reflecting upon it – makes new aspects of the situation salient to other participants, prompting them to view the relevance of their past experiences in a new light." (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
This was the experience of expressing the problem with others engaged mindfully in the interaction. It was a joint process of seeing solutions in terms of past experience or reframing the problem from a different perspective.

Reinforcing is the normative personal and social process of feedback and recognition (both good and bad). Reinforcing plays an important role in making individuals aware of the activities which feed into the creative process and it predisposes individuals (positively or negatively) to engaging with the process again. The set of behaviours will also be reinforced if individuals have positive experiences when they engage in the process of help seeking and help giving. Reinforcing influences shape how individuals may become more or less open to future creative interactions, capturing in some sense how people remember these experiences and value them. Reinforcing behaviour becomes a matter of shared values and beliefs, the local organizational culture and that at large. Importantly they found that
"asocial means of enabling knowledge sharing do not encourage people to participate in joint problem-solving efforts." (Hargadon and Bechky, 2006)
It is evident, from research and experience, that collaborative creative interactions are complexly sensitive to issues of group interaction, relations, behaviour, practices, skill, group composition, experience (prior and together), and access to each other, time, materials and other resources. This list of factors is also unlikely to be exhausted. Performance of creative interaction is subject to the vagaries of situations, context, history and local culture. However there are some things we can say about creativity in teams; creativity is an emerging phenomena. The ideas and decisions made in collective processes emerge in unplanned ways. The quality of the ideas is a function of various group aspects alongside structural enablers like norms, culture, attitudes and process. Unquantifiable aspects may be as important as those we can manage; for example, ambiguity may be a necessary condition to allow misunderstandings to occur. Ignorance of prior limitations may allow the problem to be approached in a fresh light, unencumbered by pre-existing paradigms.