Peter Sims is the bestselling author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.
Peter and I discussed Pixar’s secret to collaboration, the creative process shared by world class architects and comedians, and the single most important thing everyone needs to be doing to have breakthroughs of their own.
We think that when we’re doing something new, whether it be taking a different career path or starting a company, that we have to have the whole idea or the vision concrete before we begin, and that’s at odds with reality. If you look at Starbucks or Google or YouTube or any company that’s been discovered over the past 10, 15, 20 years, you’ll find the same thing: they start in one place and end up in a very different place.
It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.
Frank Gehry uses a very similar approach. He is one of the most respected architects of his generation, and yet when he begins something new, he’s afraid constantly that he’s not going to know how to design a building. That’s kind of surprising for somebody in their 80s, but he will just crumple up sheets of paper and use cardboard and lots of duct tape or just crude prototypes to get the process going. He does this with a team of people who he’s bouncing ideas around with. But the whole point is, is that once he gets into it, once he starts getting into the whole project, it gets a lot easier as you go.
The same is true of most creative processes. The term for these people is “experimental innovators” – those who learn from each little mistake and piece together what ends up being something great, whether it’s a comedy act or a building or a piece of music. It just doesn’t come without lots of setback and toil.
The thing that was the most surprising to me was that people across all these different industries and disciplines used such a similar approach to invention. Whether it was comedy, or Frank Gehry and his architecture, or Pixar, or The School of Design Thinking at Stanford, or even the military. There is a method to thinking and acting in more creative ways. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of being, really, at the end of the day. It’s a way of living.
As Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull describes it, you have to “go from suck to non-suck” when you’re developing a new movie. So, they “plus” each other’s ideas. They don’t use judgmental language when they’re in these team meetings, even if the ideas are really crummy. They use what they call “plussing.” So, they take an idea, they say, “Yes. That looks good and what if we did this,” instead of saying, “I don’t like that idea,” and just throwing it out completely. So, this idea of plussing, taken from improvisation rules, is core to the Pixar culture, and the point is just that you make everybody’s ideas better, you take the good elements and then you make them better and you constantly do this until you get to perfection.
One of the really interesting things from the research on creativity, including from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that the most creative artists tend to be really, really good at trying a lot of things before they solve a problem. These people weren’t just problem solvers, they were problem finders.
YouTube began as a dating website, and that didn’t go anywhere, and, eventually, they found a way to become a platform for all online video sharing. eBay began as a Pez Dispenser company. Google started as a library project at Stanford, where they were trying to help prioritize library book searches. It helped solve a certain type of problem, but, then, once Larry Page and Sergei Brin realized, “We found this really interesting problem, how to take a whole bunch of information and use it to try to prioritize search results,” — and they realized they could apply it to a much larger problem.
The more quickly you find problems, the quicker you can come up with more innovative solutions. So, obviously, Google was able to do that in a major way, but, we see it in the psychology research, too: people who come up with many more possibilities, before they dive into a solution, are judged to have much more creative work.
Develop a set of constraints and then say, “I’m going to try this for a few weeks and I’m going to see where it gets me. Then I’m going to check in again and I’m going to measure the progress. I’m going to take stock and I’m going to make a decision then about whether to keep going in that direction or to shift.” You can use that basic philosophy to guide you whenever you’re doing something new or creative; look at constraints and affordable losses.
You look for evidence and then you shift more into a mindset of looking for qualitative or quantitative evidence that you’re on the right track before you really start to bet in larger increments.
The mindset is what makes a big difference. The willingness to spend 5 to 10% of your time doing experiments will, over the long run, really open up that part of you that can be more creative and entrepreneurial, and yield, hopefully, some new opportunities that you hadn’t thought of before trying something.
Richard Wiseman is a researcher in England who has studied why certain people are lucky and certain people are unlucky, and what he’s found is that the people who tend to be more lucky have a much more open stance to their world. They interact with people at gatherings or parties who are different from them. They’re just more open to different types of people, and unlucky people tend to just stick to their very own type, people who are of similar backgrounds, similar educational backgrounds, etc.
In the military, since the Cold War, there’s been a training program of doctrine-approved solutions, a checklist of things to do when you’re in the middle of battle to win against an army like the Soviet Union. So you would learn, if you were driving a tank, exactly how to fire the tank against a certain type of artillery or certain type of tank, you learn exactly how to get to underground fuel storage, etc. So it eliminates the decision-making that needs to go on in warfare, and you can act in a very efficient, smooth manner.
Now, the reality is, when you go to a place like Afghanistan or Iraq or get into unconventional warfare, they don’t even know what the problems are when they go into new situations. So they can’t think in that rigid, linear way. They have to experiment. This is just a completely different mindset from fighting the Soviet Union.
And the way that they train cadets to do this at West Point now, is to make it cool to make mistakes. As the former head of training at West Point, Casey Haskins described it, make it so people are very comfortable working with ambiguity and fighting through setbacks and failure, in order to solve problems in more creative ways. So, this, in a sense, is very similar to how an entrepreneur has to work when they’re doing something new in discovery. So, that’s a very high level of the change in the military.
The psychology research that exists on the effects of humor in the workplace generally shows that if you’re laughing, you’re more likely to have a more relaxed state of mind and you’re more likely to be in a creative state of mind. Humor removes some of the barriers and some of the self-consciousness.
When they look at jazz pianists through an MRI, they can tell that in a relaxed, improvising state of mind they tend to be less censoring of their ideas, that the part of their mind responsible for censoring ideas shuts down. They’re more likely to make creative connections.
So, improvisation and humor really lubricate the skids for creativity as a group, and then, also, allow people to not censor their ideas too prematurely, which is obviously really important.
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