Insights, intuitions and epiphanies: some reflections on innovation and creativity
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word innovation as:
Innovation (n): a new idea, method or device.
This definition leaves the door wide open as to what the term means: an innovation could be a novel product to blow the competition away to a new way to organise paperwork that makes it easier to find the hardcopy of the contract you’re after.
Organisations hunt high and low for the magic formula that would enable them to foster and manage innovation. So management gurus, consultants and academics oblige by waxing at length on the best way to inspire and direct innovation (there has to be a process for it, right?). And there’s the paradox: the more we chase it, the further it seems to recede. But that does not stop organisations from chasing the mirage. In this post I present a few reflections on creativity and innovation based on a couple of personal experiences.
The first story
In the early 90s I started working towards a research degree in chemical engineering at University of Queensland. Given my theoretical leanings, I naturally gravitated towards the mathematically-oriented field of fluid dynamics. I’d spoken to a couple of folks working in the area, and finally decided to work with Tony Howes, not only because I found his work interesting, but also thought that his quick intelligence and easygoing manner would make for a good work environment.
I spent a few weeks – or was it months – trying to define a decent research problem, but got nowhere. Tony, sensing that it was time to nudge me towards a decision, suggested a couple of problems relating to a phenomenon that is easily demonstrated in a kitchen sink. If you’re game you may want to make your way to the nearest sink and try the following:
Turn the tap on slowly until water starts to flow out as a cylindrical jet. You will notice that the jet breaks up into near spherical droplets a short distance from the mouth of the tap.
This phenomenon is called jet breakup. Instead of describing it further, I’ll follow the advice that a picture is worth several words (see figure 1).
If you are interested in knowing why fluid jets tend to break up into drops, please see the next paragraph; if not, feels free to skip the bracketed section as it is not essential to the story.
[Boring details: The basic cause of break up is surface tension – which is essentially a force that keeps a fluid from becoming a gas. Surface tension arises from the unbalanced “pull” that molecules in the interior of a fluid exert on molecules on the surface. The imbalance occurs because molecules at the surface “feel” a pull only from the interior of the fluid. In contrast, molecules in the interior of the fluid are subjected to the same force on all sides as they are surrounded by fluid. One of the effects of surface tension is that fluid bodies tend to minimise their surface area. The upshot of this for cylindrically shaped jets (such as those emerging from a tap) is that they tend to pinch off into a series of drops because the combined surface area of the drops is less than that of the cylinder.]
To get back to my story: I realised that I’d already burnt up a few months of a research grant so I agreed to work on one of the problems Tony suggested. Once I’d signed up to it, I hit the books and research journals getting up to speed with the problem. I learnt a lot. Among other things, I learnt that the problem of jet breakup was first studied by Lord Rayleigh in 1878! I also learnt that since the late 1960s, the phenomenon of jet break had enjoyed a bit of a renaissance due to applications such as inkjet printing. Tony had proposed a problem of interest to the metals industry – the production of shot from jets of molten metal. However, it seemed to me that this problem was at best a minor variation on a theme that had already been done to death.
Anyway, regardless of how I felt about it, I was being paid to do research, so I plugged away at it. In the process I developed a good sense for the physics behind the phenomenon, its applications and what had been done up until then. Although I wasn’t too fired up about it, I’d also started work on modelling the molten metal shot problem. It was progress of sorts, but of the dull, desultory kind.
Then one evening in October or November 1994, I had one of those magical Aha moments. …
I was washing up after dinner when I noticed a curious wave-like structure on the thin jet that emerged from the kitchen sink tap and fell onto a plate an inch or two below the tap (the dishes had piled up a while). The wave pattern was absolutely stationary and rather striking. Rather than attempt to describe it any further, I’ll just show you a a photograph of the phenomenon taken by my colleague Anh Vu.
The phenomenon is one that countless folks have noticed, and even I’d seen it before but never paid it much attention. Having been immersed in the theory of fluid jets for so long, I realised at once that the pattern had the same underlying cause as jet breakup. I wondered if any one had published any papers on it. Google Scholar and decent search engines weren’t available so I rushed off to the library find out. A few hours of searching catalogues and references confirmed that I’d stumbled on to something that could see me through my degree and perhaps even give me a couple of papers.
The next day, I told Tony about it. He was just as excited about it as I was and was more than happy for me to switch topics. I worked feverishly on the problem and within a few months had a theory that related the wavelength of the waves to jet velocity and properties of the fluid. The work was not a major innovation, but it was novel enough to get me my degree and a couple of papers.
This episode taught me a few things about innovation and creativity, which I list below:
- Interesting opportunities lurk in unexpected places: A kitchen sink – who would have thought….
- …but it takes work and training to recognise opportunities for what they are: If I hadn’t the background in the physics of fluid jets, I wouldn’t have seen the stationary waves for what they were.
- A sense progress is important, even when things aren’t going well: Tony left me to my own devices initially, but then nudged me towards a productive direction when he saw I was going nowhere. This had the effect of giving me a sense of progress towards a goal (my degree), which kept my spirits up through a hard time.
- It is best to work on things that interest you, not those that interest others: I stuck to my primary interest (mathematical modelling) rather than do something that was not of much interest but may have been a better career choice.
The second story
Here’s another story, from a few years later when I was working as an applied mathematician within a polymer processing laboratory.
Some background first – polymer extrusion is an industrial process that is used to create plastic tubing from raw polymer pellets. It involves melting the raw material and driving the melt through a die with the required cross-sectional profile. A common problem encountered in this process is that at high flow rates, the melt emerging from the die has shark skin-like surface imperfections. This phenomenon is sometimes called the melt flow instability.
I was hired to work on a project to model the melt flow instability described above. I began, as researchers always do, by wading through a stack of research papers on the topic. Again this was a topic that had been over-researched in that many different groups had tried many different approaches. However none of them had answered the question definitively. I learnt a lot about modelling polymer flows (quite different from modelling flows of water-like fluids described in the earlier story) but didn’t make any progress on the problem.
Most of the other members in the research group were doing experimental projects, working in the lab doing stuff with real polymers, whilst I was engaged in modelling imaginary ones using simulations. Oddly enough, the folks engaged in the two strands of research did not meet much; I didn’t have much to do with them, and was happy working on my own little projects.
One day, after I’d been in the lab for a year or so, one of the experimentalists knocked on my door to have a chat regarding a problem he was having with a mathematical model he had developed. The reading and background work I had done up to that point enabled me to solve his problem rather quickly. Progress at last – but not in the way I’d imagined.
Encouraged by this, I started talking to others in the group and soon found that they had modelling problems that I could help with. I published a few papers through such collaborations and kept my academic score ticking along. More importantly, though, I got – for the first time – a taste of collaborative work, and I found that I really enjoyed it. One of the papers that we wrote rated a minor award, which would have helped my academic career had I stayed in the field. However, later that year I decided to switch careers and move to consulting. But that’s another story…
My stint in the polymer lab, very different from my solo research experience, taught me a few more things about creativity and innovation. These are:
- Collaboration between diversely skilled individuals enhances creativity. It is important to interact with others, particularly professionals from other disciplines. I’m grateful to my colleagues from the lab for drawing me out of my “comfort zone” of theoretical work.
- Being part of a larger effort does not preclude creativity and innovation – although I did not do any experiments, I was able to develop models that explained some of the phenomena that my colleagues found.
- Even modest contributions add value to the end product – great insights and epiphanies aren’t necessary – none of the modelling work that I did was particularly profound or new. It was all fairly routine stuff, done using existing methods and algorithms. Yet, my contributions to the research added a piece that was essential for completeness.
Reflections and wrap-up
The events related above occurred in a research environment, but the lessons I took away have, I believe, a much wider applicability. Further, although the two stories are quite different – and hold different lessons – there are a few common themes that run through them. These are:
- When doing creative work, one invariably ends up with results that one didn’t intend or expect to find.
- A shift in perspective may help in generating new ideas. Looking at things from someone else’s point of view might be just the spark you need.
- Things rarely go according to plan, but it is important to keep ones spirits up.
- Background is important; it is critical to learn/read as much as possible about the problem you’re attempting to solve.
The above conclusions hold a warning for those who night over-plan and control innovative or creative activities. In both cases I started out by defining what I intended to solve, but ended up solving something else. By the yardstick of a project plan, I failed. But by a more flexible measure, I did alright. By definition, the process of discovery is unpredictable and somewhat opportunistic – one has to be willing and able to redefine goals as one proceed, and at times even throw everything away and start from scratch.
I wrote this piece in 2009, intending to post it on Eight to Late. Around that time Paul Culmsee and I were just starting out on our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. I was pretty sure this piece would find a place in the book so I held off from blogging it. As it turned out, a modified version ended up in Chapter 4: Managing Innovation: The Demise of Command and Control.