Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Dyson approach

I wrote the title of this post then realised that there were two Dysons who had inspired me in some small way. The first is Freeman Dyson, a revolutionary thinker and one of the most creative minds of this and any other century, the other is James Dyson, he of the infamous vacuum cleaner fame.

Although both deserve a mention it is James Dyson who I want to focus on today, since he was the subject of a conversation I had yesterday with a couple of compatiots.

We were discussing the recent Dyson fan, in light of the increasingly glorious weather, and how cunning an idea it was. It got me thinking about the fact that Dyson has made a career out of taking established mundane inventions, removing a critical feature, and making it significantly better than the original design. The three best known examples being - A vacuum cleaner without a bag, a hand dryer which doesnt use heat and now a fan without any parts which could be described as a fan.

Being able to think 'outside the box' is a mantra which gets repeated all too often with no real understanding of what it means. In my mind the ability to think outside the box is to take convention, destroy it, and recreate it into a new form which is more effective. John Boyd called this 'creative synthesis' and it was the basis of his infamous snowmobile metaphor.

A snowmobile was not, in its original incarnation, a whole thing. It was in fact a set of snow skis, a boat with an outboard motor, a bicycle, and a set of tread, combined to form a more effective vehicle for moving through snowy conditions. This form wouldnt be possible without the established and effective devices which already existed.

And so it is with ideas. No matter what you think, you've almost certainly never had a truly original thought, somewhere, someone will have thought of the thing you've got on your mind. Equally, none of your ideas is spun from whole cloth, it is a combination of every idea you've experienced up to that point in time. For the record, I believe the same of myself.

However, there are two things which should be kept firmly in mind -

First, there is always the chance you can be the first person to put your idea into practice. In my experience most creative ideas are shot down at the first hurdle because they're too hard or too risky to impliment.

Second, you can make a good idea better, by truly being able to think outside the box and create a snowmobile.

Of these, I think the second is more important. As someone who works in an industry which essentially sells ideas, it is the ability to pluck creative novel ideas out of the air which is most important.

Its not an easy skill to come by, and it requires the type of luck which led Arnold Palmer to say "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

This is where I lurch violently into being a preacher for my own way of doing things. As always, I apologise if my tine turns preachy.

In my view there are two ways to learn to come up with creative ideas, the first being to do a job which requires you doing it. There's few things better than an client or boss demanding your thoughts to get the creative juices flowing. If you're working in a team, so much the better, kick back from the computer and start throwing some ideas around.

The second is more important however, and in many way simpler, absorb everything. This is something which I've learned to embrace in the last couple of years as I've developed from a Parliamentary researcher into what I describe as a political consultant. So many of the best ideas have been recorded in books and films, the majority of which are easily and abundently accessable. Make use of them.

On my pile of books to read right now are texts on politics (obviously), history, physics, psychology and pure philosophy. Further to this I have a daily blog list of 44 different sources, along with the articles which come pouring in via twitter, and finally there is the mainstream press. If I was to try and ascribe a value to any of these, I probably couldnt. Only a minority are directly related to anything which I do on a day to day basis, however I dont know what I'll be doing tomorrow, so its impossible for me to know what will be of greatest utility.

It helps I find these things fun to read in the main, although there was a time when I didnt, that too I had to learn by doing. The trick is to exist at the recieving end of a torrent of information and trying to catch as much as you can along the way.

So there are my brief thoughts on creativity, which may or may not be of any use to anyone.

If anyone would like my full blog list they're welcome to it, I've not put it up here in its fullest form, but the reading list contains the best of the bunch.
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