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If You Want to Be Creative, You Need to Discover New Patterns

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

We humans are programmed to see patterns and interpret them in meaningful ways. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the positive side, it has been essential to the human race's intellectual development. On the negative side, it can inhibit creativity. But it does not have to do so.

Our ability to see and interpret patterns is amazing. Babies, of course, are not born with some kind of internal instruction manual. Rather they burst into a world of light, dark, shapes, smells, sounds, tastes and tactile sensations. They quickly learn that a particular pattern represents mum and her provision of love, food and security. Later they learn that similar patterns of shapes and sounds are other people, each of whom has a particular meaning. That furry, soft pattern, that runs away whenever baby approaches, is a cat. Similar furry patterns, the baby will eventually learn, are also cats, but not her family cat. And so on. With growing age, the child sees and understands ever more sophisticated patterns. Eventually, her ability to understand patterns will enable her to learn the alphabet, read and write. Maths, logic, science, these disciplines all require interpreting patterns.

As We Grow Older, Patterns Become Fixed

However, as babies grow into adults, patterns become fixed in their minds. They learn to fit everything into appropriate patterns based on their upbringing, education and friends. If the baby grows up in a family that is prejudiced against Belgians and one day as an adult she meets a Belgian, she will probably assume that he is not very nice; she assumes he she met fits the pattern of Belgians she has learned from her anti-Belgian parents.

If she -- let us call her 'Jane' --  goes to university and gets a degree in business administration followed by a career in business, she will build in her mind patterns associated with business; patterns about customer behaviour, products and operations. As a result Jane may, for example, believe that customers want low prices, cameras take pictures and should have certain features (such as a lens, image processor, adjustable lens aperture, shutter speed, etc) and maximising productivity is essential to profitability.

While such patterns may contain truisms, it is clear they can also inhibit creativity. If Jane assumes customers only want inexpensive products, she closes her mind to other ways to please her customers, ways which might allow her company increase prices and therefore margins and profitability.

Creativity Is Not About Destroying Patterns

You might assume that creativity is about breaking patterns. This is only partly true. Creativity is actually about seeing beyond conventional patterns and recognising new patterns. For instance, a typical person perceives a camera as an electronic gadget that uses an adjustable lens and a shutter to store images on a processor. A creative person might see that pattern, but look beyond it to perceive that a camera is also a device for capturing visual memories that will most likely be saved for future enjoyment and shared with others through email, social media and a growing array of new sharing technologies. The creative person will probably also recognise that today a camera is most likely to be called a smartphone because it facilitates the sharing of visual memories better than do most traditional cameras. Both the typical person and the creative person are correct in their interpretation of the camera. But by seeing beyond the standard camera pattern, the creative person discovers new patterns. This facilitates creative thinking in big way.

Most people will have in their minds a pattern of customer behaviour in which customers will seek the lowest price for many products they buy. Hence, the popularity of price comparison web sites that tell people where to buy the cheapest example of a particular product.

The creative person will see beyond this pattern and recognise a more complex economic pattern that involves more than just money. For people of medium to higher income, time is increasingly valuable and spending an extra half hour to save €10 is not worth it. However, the creative person will also understand that that the pattern is more complicated than that. Time has variable value to many people. So, an hour in the evening spent on-line researching purchase prices of a product is less valuable than an hour spent in a department store during the working day. Also, a merchant's reputation has value and most people will spend a little more to buy from a trusted merchant than from an unknown one.

In these examples, the new patterns creative people perceive make it easier for them to find new ideas. These ideas are often not flashes of brilliance that knock creative thinkers off their feet, but obvious pieces that fit into their patterns. For example, compare the challenge of coming up with new ideas for a camera as compared to coming up with new ideas for a device that can capture visual memories, save them for the future and share them with others. The second challenge makes it much easier to come up with creative ideas simply because it provides a new pattern for thinking about cameras.

Look Beyond the Obvious

We are so thoroughly trained to work with existing patterns that it is hard for most people to see beyond those patterns. But, you are better than most people. You can do it! You need to learn to look at assumptions and work out where they are coming from. You need to look at behaviour and ask if there is another explanation beyond the obvious.

In 1848, a prospector found gold nuggets in California's Sacramento Valley. News spread quickly and soon hoards of prospectors set off for California. This created a simple pattern in the mind of opportunists: "There is gold in the Sacramento Valley; if I go there, buy prospecting gear and stake out a claim, I can find some of that gold and become rich."

Creative opportunists, on the other hand, saw another pattern beyond the obvious: "Soon many opportunists will head to California to dig for gold. They will need not only prospecting gear, but camping equipment, food and drink. Those who strike it successful will want drinks and possibly gambling and other rewards." So, creative people set up businesses providing these goods and services to prospectors.

While a small number of prospectors became wealthy, most made little or nothing. The creative opportunists who set up shops to sell goods to the hoards of prospectors, on the other hand, did very well as a whole.

Look Beyond the Obvious

That is what you need to do if you want to think more creatively. You need to look beyond the obvious patterns and see the obscure, possibly all new, patterns that may exist beyond the obvious. Once you find these patterns, you will find yourself in place where creative ideas come easily.

A Great Tool for Facilitators and Leaders

If you are a creativity facilitator or creative leader, the ability to see beyond the established patterns and make people aware of deeper patterns is a great way to inspire creative thinking among your team. When preparing an ideation session, spend some time thinking about the conventional patterns that will limit your team's creative thinking and look for the less conventional patterns that exist beyond the conventional. If you can share those patterns with your team, the results will be marvellous!



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey