Creativity is a difficult word to define. We all sort of understand what it means, and we can find dictionary definitions for it, but it is still difficult to put into words.
From one perspective, creativity is the ability or act of making something new. It's the quality that lets us go beyond our current designs, concepts, and perceptions and emerge with something completely new. It's the quality that lets artists start with a blank canvas and create masterful images. It lets writers start with a blank page or computer screen and create new stories. It lets sculptors start with a block of stone and create meaningful shapes. And it lets engineers start with a need and define products or processes that meet that need.
We intuitively feel that originality (the thought of creating something completely new) somehow figures into all of the above, especially for engineers. In our engineering world, though, is this really the case?
Think about this for a moment: Do our engineering designs reflect completely new concepts and products? I suggest to you that, in nearly all cases, the answer is no. Most new designs are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. They are improvements or modifications of other designs, rather than completely new concepts. They involve applications of other mechanisms and concepts, rather than completely new things.
Taylors's Hierarchy of Creativity consists of five levels. Engineers typically operate
somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy.
Creativity in these situations is associated with how we improve designs and how we combine design solutions. Very few printers are completely new designs; they're adaptations, improvements, or modifications of other printers. Very few cars are completely new designs; they rely on the frames, engines, and interiors of earlier models as a basis for their designs.
You're probably an engineer. It's why you're reading this article. I'm an engineer, too. I'll bet you think the same way I did. You probably think that engineers are among the most creative people on the planet. Are we? Are you?
Here’s another thing I used to believe, and I'll bet you probably do, too: With our years of engineering education and experience, our creativity has matured, developed, and increased significantly over the years. It might even be compared to a fine wine.
Before I convince you the above is actually what occurs with our creativity as we age, let's try a quick creativity test, the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Think of an empty tin can, and in one minute, list as many uses as you can for it. After you've made your list, count the number of ideas you generated. The results may surprise you. We'll use the Torrance test's four measures of creativity.
- Fluency: This is a simple count of how many ideas you generated. If you listed 16 ideas, your fluency count is 16.
- Flexibility: This assesses your ability to develop ideas in different categories -- using a tin can as a container, as a communications device, as a toy, etc.
- Originality: That term refers to any uses of the tin can that are completely original. I think this is the most revealing and important area in the test. A good example of an original idea for an empty tin can might be "a hat for a small person," because it's completely unrelated to a tin can's common job of holding things. If you are like most of us, many of your ideas centered on using the can as a container of some sort. None of those ideas should be included in your originality score. They are just variations on what the can normally does.
- Elaboration: That means the ability to develop details associated with an idea. For example, if you suggested using the tin can as a wheel on a toy, you might have mentioned how to mount the axle, adding tape with a high coefficient of friction to boost traction, etc.
When we score the test, we are most interested in our originality score -- in particular, the ideas in the originality category as a percentage of the overall number of ideas we generated. Do you see where we are going with this? A word of advice: When you finish scoring your results, don't be disappointed. The typical originality score for us grownups is very low.
Often, we find that none of our ideas are completely original; at best, we might have one or two original ideas. It's shocking, actually. It sure got my attention. I've been an engineer for close to 40 years. I had only one original idea.
Don't despair. It's a common result for adults. If you try the test with very young children (preschoolers or kids in kindergarten), the results are usually much different. They have a much higher percentage of completely original ideas (way higher than those of us who are paid to be creative). That's also shocking.