The Inefficiency of Creative Thinking

When I was 19, I spent a summer working in the craft shops of Colonial Williamsburg, in the Tidewater area of Virginia. I was the only Yankee within sight, and my southern colleagues would say, repeatedly, that they could tell I was from New York.

"Why?" I'd ask. "My accent?"

"Nah," they'd answer. "Because anytime you walk anywhere, you put your head down and power on over like you're on a mission. Don't ever look left, right, or up." They'd shake their heads, as if I were a sad case in need of some serious help. "Girl," they'd advise, "you need to look around more, see what there is to see along the way!"

920141484_8b16c0c0f6_m.jpgThat story came to mind again this past weekend as I read about new research that's exploring the differences in how baby and adult minds perceive and approach the world. In a nutshell: babies are more like the slow-paced, observant Virginians I worked with, while adults are more like New Yorkers.

Young brains, according to UC Berkekey psychology professor Alison Gopnik, are "remarkably plastic and flexible. ... But they are less efficient." They wander in all sorts of connectional directions, imagine all kinds of possibilities, and are drawn particularly to objects and events that are "new, unexpected or informative." Things, in other words, that will teach them the most.

Adult brains, on the other hand, have been honed to ignore superfluous information and events--especially when given a particular goal to achieve. Gopnik references an experiment where adults, told to count the number of ball tosses in a video, don't even notice a person in a gorilla suit who walks through the scene. Like the way I walked through Williamsburg, they focused on the goal to the exclusion of all other distractions.

But is that a bad thing? Depends. Focus and efficiency certainly have their place. I wouldn't want a trauma surgeon getting distracted by some interesting side-topic while performing emergency surgery. Ditto for a check-out clerk at the grocery store during a very busy shopping time.

But one can worship overmuch at the temple of efficiency--as my Virginia friends pointed out. We have spent much of the past century extolling the virtues of efficiency in everything from food preparation and daily life to production and processes in the business and manufacturing world. Books on achieving greater efficiency crowd the business section in bookstores. The "Six Sigma" management training program, which focuses largely on streamlining and improving the efficiency (and effectiveness) of management and manufacturing processes, is so popular there's now even a "Six Sigma for Dummies" book. Seriously. From factory floors to boardrooms, numbers-based efficiency rules, in an equation that reads, roughly: increased efficiency=increased production=increased profit. What that focus on machine-like efficiency does for the motivation and spirits of human workers is an open question, of course.

But more importantly ... as Gopnik's article and research point out, getting the brain to think creatively, about new possibilities, employs and requires a different process than focusing on efficiency and goal-achievement. Creative thinking is not something you can streamline or use time-management studies to improve, as any writer or artist well knows. Ideas have their own unique ways and schedule for coming into the world. And sometimes, ironically enough, they arrive most efficiently when we stop focusing on efficiency. I've come up with more breakthrough writing answers sitting in my back garden watching the hummingbirds (see my previous post on that subject here), when I wasn't even consciously looking for an answer, than at any other place or time. Lord knows I wish it were otherwise. Life would be so much easier to manage and plan.

But Gopnik's point also has implications for businesses. If an increase in efficiency-oriented thinking comes at the cost of a broader mental radar that's more tuned to unexpected or new possibilities, that could account for why more companies don't do better at innovation. Innovation requires imagining a process, product, or service that doesn't yet exist. It's a creative function. And minds long pressured and trained to focus on efficiency and numbers-based goals aren't even close to being in the right frame of mind, so to speak, to tackle the challenge. This is a major argument made by advocates of "design thinking" ... consultants like Darrel Rhea of Cheskin Added Value and Tony Golsby-Smith of 2nd Road, and educators like Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and Jeanne Liedtka of UVa's Darden School of Business. All of them would say that if you want more innovation and creative problem-solving in your ranks, you have to relax the laser focus on efficiency and short-term, numbers-based goal achievement.

And Dr. Gopnik, it seems, would agree.

2997539372_1d12716149_m.jpgBut there's another intriguing dimension of these research results, as well. I often get asked why it is that young people have such passion for dreams and possibilities ... and why many adults seem to lose that passion and belief as they grow into middle age. Part of the answer is undoubtedly fear of failure, an increase in responsibilities and financial commitments, and a higher risk of loss--both of money and status--with any departure from the inertia of known routines. But part of it also may be that a continual focus on efficiency and goal achievement actually makes it harder for an adult brain to shift back to the habits of its youth, when it got excited by the things that would teach it the most. And when it focused not on efficiency, but on exploration, curiosity, and all the possibilities that an uncharted landscape, or path in life, might hold.

(Photo: Flickr User Paul Foster and so.salem)