Connective thinking is rare, crucial – 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity

Connective thinking ability cited as key trait in newly published Isaac Asimov essay on Creativity:

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out which Malthus had applied to human beings would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection if applied to species generally.

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

Asimov also ponders the need and purpose of collaboration, along with providing a (still relevant) tip on sparking and extracting wisdom:

In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.

via Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity | MIT Technology Review.

Links: Making the case for polymaths

Not everyone can be a specialist, and that’s a good thing. Four good sources on why we still need polymaths (generalists, versatility) in an age of increasing specialization, and complexity.

For natural polymaths, check out the bonus link on Maya Angelou, and then proceed as wired.

THE LAST DAYS OF THE POLYMATH | More Intelligent Life

“The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields.”

Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.”

New Problems, New Approaches: The Rise of the Generalist | Reuven Gorsht

“The new Generalist is in fact a master of their trade.   They bring expertise and experience in several areas, fueled by insatiable curiosity and the ability to “hyper-learn” new concepts and ideas.”

“They complement specialists, by challenging them to think differently, but never compete with them or take credit for their ideas.   They approach challenges with an open mind, using a “how might we” mindset rather than come with pre-conceived ideas.”

Key attributes:

“Attitude first, not only experience. A “Can-do” attitude and a high degree of motivation are a must. The Generalist must note constraints, but has to creatively encourage ways to work around them.

Intellectually curious (to an extreme level). Can learn and (un)learn any topic (enough to be dangerous) in a matter of hours. Learns on their own as well as from others by asking questions.

Connects the Dots. Can bring in new perspectives and ideas from other disciplines, industries, etc.

Practices empathy. Can imagine the world from different perspective. Those of colleagues, customers, users, etc. Takes time to listen and understand before presenting their own ideas.

Leads by influence and collaboration. Can earn the respect of the specialists, influence new ways of thinking and an open mindset towards new ideas.

Constantly challenges the status quo and encourages new ways of doing things.”

Anyone can learn to be a polymath – Robert Twigger – Aeon

“Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery.”

“There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world. Call it polymathics. Any such field would have to include physical, artistic and scientific elements to be truly rounded. It isn’t just that mastering physical skills aids general learning. The fact is, if we exclude the physicality of existence and reduce everything worth knowing down to book-learning, we miss out on a huge chunk of what makes us human. Remember, Feynman had to be physically competent enough to spin a plate to get his new idea.

Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas.”

All power to the polymath: Ella Saltmarshe at TEDxLSE 2013

POLYMATH BONUS: Growing Up Maya Angelou | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

“I have a theory that nobody understands talent any more than we understand electricity. So I think we’ve done a real disservice to young people by telling them, “Oh, you be careful. You’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that. You may not become Max Roach on the drums. But you can learn the drums. I’ve long felt that way about things. If I’m asked, “Can you do this?” I think, if I don’t do it, it’ll be ten years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?

My mom, you know, was a seaman. At one point, I was in Los Angeles. I called her in San Francisco and said, I want to see you, I’m going to New York and I don’t know when I’ll be back, so let’s meet mid-state. She said, “Oh, baby, I wanted to see you, too, because I’m going to sea.” I said, going to see what? She said, “I’m going to become a seaman.” I said, Mother, really, come on. She said, “No, they told me they wouldn’t let women in their union. I told them, ‘You wanna bet?’ I put my foot in that door up to my hip so women of every color will get in that union, get aboard a ship and go to sea.” She retired in 1980, and Asian, white and black women gave a party for her. They called her the mother of the sea.

So, yes, we cripple our children, we cripple each other with those designations that if you’re a brick mason you shouldn’t love the ballet. Who made that rule? You ever see a person lay bricks? [She moves her hands in a precise bricklaying manner.] Because of the eye and the hands, of course he or she would like to see ballet. It is that precise, that established, that organized, that sort of development from the bottom to the top.”

The future belongs to systems thinkers

I’ve often said the future belongs to the dot-connectors. Webber’s Rule of Thumb #7, the System is the Solution, describes it perfectly:

My point is that embedded in every company, in every organization, is a system. When you see the system and not just the individual pieces you increase your chances of winning.

Most people look at a company and see the organization chart. Or the pyramid of functions. Or the products and services the company offers as output.

Systems thinkers see the relationships, not the functions. They see the processes, not the stand-alone components or the final products. It’s the difference between looking at a fence and noticing the barbed wire running horizontally rather than the fence posts standing vertically.

Sometimes it helps to do something as simple as drawing a picture with arrows to show what would otherwise be invisible connections. A drawing of a three-legged stool isn’t a sophisticated operations chart, but it makes the point about how magazines need to operate as a system.

Systems thinking can also help when you’re trying to solve a perplexing problem. If you want to untangle the clues as to how something went wrong, think like a detective: figure out who all the players are and how they relate to each other. Usually it’s the system, not one person or department, that explains the real cause of the problem.

One thing is sure: the future belongs to systems thinkers.

For extra credit, see Rule #10 A Good Question Beats a Good Answer:

Why do questions matter more than answers? If you don’t ask the right question, it doesn’t matter what your answer is. And if you do ask the right question, no matter what your answer, you will learn something of value.

Questions are how we learn. Which means questions are how we create change…

Source: Webber, Alan M. (2009-04-10). Rules of Thumb (p. 32). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Link: Three Approaches to Managing Total Digitization – Peter Weill and Stephanie Woerner

“How are enterprises managing the spread and scope of total digitization? We at MIT CISR have found that enterprises are using one or more of three approaches to managing total digitization: convergence, coordination, or a separate digital innovation stacks approach. Each approach has very different objectives and measures of success.”

“Convergence is about reducing cost, reducing risk, and achieving synergies. Coordination is the right choice for enterprises that are trying to achieve a few enterprise-wide goals such as improving customer experience or asset utilization. Finally, the separate digital innovation stacks approach is right for enterprises that believe autonomy helps improve innovation and local customer responsiveness.”

“We believe that managing total digitization is one of the biggest opportunities and challenges facing enterprises — and their CIOs — today.”

Source:  HBR Blogs

via my Diigo