"If you can't write your idea on the back of your business card, you don't have an idea." American theatrical producer David Balasco, who made that observation, never had to suffer the daily gridlock that plagues Los Angeles commuters. But his simple, creative approach can help us turn Southern California into a more enjoyable and productive place.
Four years ago, I got the idea to write a book on simple, creative solutions. I analyzed more than 400 such solutions developed by innovative individuals over the last 2,500 years. Soon I learned something quite intriguing. The individuals who make major breakthroughs have different personalities. They have different lifestyles. The problems they solve are different. But the thought processes they use in developing their simple, creative solutions are hauntingly similar.
That is why all of us can learn how to become more creative. All we have to do is apply the specific thought processes creative individuals employ when they make major breakthroughs.
Here are my six strategies for achieving creative solutions.
1. Taking a fresh look at the interfaces
In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to join him in conquering the moon, Werner von Braun and his colleagues' favored approach for the mission called for a single 12-million-pound booster that would lift off the launch pad, then fly up to the moon, dropping off increasingly smaller stages along the way. But then one scientist figured out how to reach the lunar surface at half price. Instead of flying the astronauts directly to the moon aboard one gigantic booster, the new scheme called for a rendezvous in orbit around the moon.
When the astronauts reached lunar orbit, two of them would enter a smaller and lighter craft for their trip down to the lunar surface. Then half of it would fly back up to rejoin the larger craft circling overhead.
Lunar orbit rendezvous allowed the use of a single booster weighing only 6 million pounds. In other words, only half the liftoff weight would be required to complete the mission.
This inspiration came taking a fresh look at what happens when two dissimilar things come together. Most interfaces are so unobtrusive we seldom ever notice them. But, as you try to devise ways to solve problems, notice how easy--and inexpensive--it is to manipulate various interfaces to produce fruitful results.
Take, for instance, the interfaces in local prisons. In today's prisons, social interaction makes effective prisoner control difficult. But troublesome interfaces could be restructured to eliminate most human interactions during incarceration.
Meals, laundry, toiletries and medical supplies would all be delivered by conveyor belt so prisoners would have essentially no human contact during their short stay. No one would be harmed or brutalized or inducted by fellow inmates into the next levels of crime. But prisoners would have ample time to reflect on their wasted lives in that safe, but lonely, prison.
2. Reformulating the problem
In order to maximize the payload-carrying capabilities of the Saturn V moon rocket, my fellow aerospace engineers and I installed special devices to measure the amount of fuel and oxidizer remaining so we could make adjustments in the ratio at which the two propellants were being burned.
This allowed us to achieve simultaneous depletion of the two. Unfortunately, adjustments in the mixture caused small payload changes, which we tried to eliminate by various means. But one scientist, Bud Brux reminded us that the purpose of a rocket is to carry payloads into space. So, he reasoned that we actually should maximize payload variations instead of trying to make them go away. That brilliant insight allowed the Saturn V to carry nearly 3,000 extra pounds of payload to the moon, saving U.S. taxpayers $6 million on each lunar flight.
This scientist used a strategy that frequently leads to breakthroughs of major proportions. He reformulated the problem and in so doing turned it into an opportunity.
Take the problem of graffiti artists defacing Los Angeles. Instead of trying to stop graffiti before it happens, maybe the solution is to require convicted graffiti artists to clean up the mess? Each guilty party might be responsible for a three-block area. Sweaty hours of hand-scrubbing might make the crime downright unappealing. That's reformulating the problem.
3. Visualizing fruitful analogies
In 1905, two brothers wobbled aloft aboard an ungainly contraption over the sands at Kitty Hawk. Why did they succeed when so many others had failed? Because they had a special ability to visualize fruitful analogies in designing and building their flying machines.
Most of their predecessors had been distracted by the rapidly flapping wings of the sparrow. But the Wright brothers used the condor, a soaring bird, as the mode they were attempting to emulate.
Fruitful analogies can also accentuate your creative problem-solving skills. Find the hidden connection between the problem you're trying to solve and another problem already solved by earlier inventors and you may be on your way toward developing your own breakthrough.
A fruitful analogy, properly chosen and implemented, could help improve Southern California neighborhoods. The Peace Corps has been a consistently successful institution but, unfortunately, those who join must make a two-year commitment. A practical analogy could be a "Weekend Peace Corps." Platoons of 50 to 75 residents could clean up a park, refurbish housing units or clean city streets with highly visible results.
4. Searching for useful order of magnitude changes
During World War II, two talented scientists, J. Presper Eckhert and John W. Mauchley, volunteered to build a new kind of computer to tackle stubborn computational problems encountered in building new artillery systems.
They decided against copying Harvard University's Mark 1 machine because its electromechanical switching circuits required at least 1/500th of a second to open or close.
So they chose, instead, to build their new computer with electronic switches, in which the only thing that moves is a stream of electrons hurtling forward at 186,000 miles per second. An electronic device can switch in one-millionth of a second--or faster.
Eckhert and Mauchley put their faith in a high-payoff approach by searching for useful order-of-magnitude changes.
One order-of-magnitude change capable of making Southern California a better place would involve the use of electromagnetic waves rather than motorcars, which take about 20 million times longer to reach their destinations. Another term for this is telecommuting.
Electronic offices would allow commuters to avoid traffic congestion. Computer modem fax machines, software modules and inexpensive telephone links could provide order-of-magnitude improvements over almost any commute.
5. Staying alert to happy serendipity
In 1581, Galileo Galilee saw inside a church a candle hanging on a chain, swaying in the breeze. He noticed that the amount of time required for the candle to swing back and forth was independent of the length of its swinging arc. If the candle traveled along a short arc, it moved slowly; if it traveled along a longer arc, it moved faster to compensate.
Clocks using Galileo's pendulum principle soon were being produced all over Europe. Galileo was fortunate to experience happy serendipity, which occurs when we stumble onto a creative solution almost by accident.
Serendipity played a key role in many of humankind's most important discoveries, among them vulcanized rubber, the self-starter for automobiles, the microwave oven, Velcro and the cotton gin.
While vacationing in southern Scotland, I experienced "happy serendipity" when I stumbled upon an approach that might prove helpful in revamping our sagging Southern California economy. I noticed that government leaders in Glasgow had formed the Scottish Development Agency to encourage industrial development on the Scottish countryside with emphasis on computer chip production, automotive component manufacturing and other high-value enterprises. Some of the unique skills and talents associated with California's high-tech aerospace industry might be salvaged by analogous well-organized governmental structures.
6. Breaking your problem apart and putting it back together again
Near the end of his junior year at Yale, an undergraduate named Fred Smith wrote a term paper in which he advanced the notion that a nationwide package-delivery service with guaranteed overnight arrival could become a billion-dollar enterprise.
Why not, he reasoned, fly all the packages radially inward to one central location in the middle of the night, sort them according to destination, then fly them radially outward again, he reasoned. Later, he gave his dream a try, with Memphis as the center of his "hub-and-spoke" system. His company is called Federal Express.
Smith broke his problem apart and put it back together again in a different way. (Unfortunately, his initial proposal did not elicit rave reviews; his term paper received a barely passing grade.)
Such a creative approach can yield surprising results. Take Los Angeles' notorious traffic. What if a high-speed computer analyzed information about each family in the Los Angeles Basin--addresses, work locations, hobbies, tastes. Then it was asked to relocate families to homes where their commute times would be minimized.
Ok, so most people might not want to uproot. But if even a small fraction thought it was a good idea, traffic congestion in Los Angeles would improve dramatically.