Creativity isn’t about novelty – it’s about difference

We often talk about Engineers as problem-solvers, but what if there is no problem, you just want to make things better. Dennis Sherwood, author of a new book on creativity explains how simply thinking differently is the key.


How I used to fear brainstorming sessions!

I’d sit there – ideally at the back – staring at that blank sheet of paper, hoping that the facilitator wouldn’t pick on me and say, “Dennis! What new ideas have you got?”

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas at all, for I did, from time to time. What was terrifying was that word ‘new’, for creativity, surely, is all about having new ideas, isn’t it? My problem was that, if I did have an idea, how could I know whether it was new? The last thing I wanted to happen was to blurt something out, and then for the boss to lean forward and say, “Thank you, Dennis. We all know you weren’t with us last year, when that idea was tabled and rejected.” No way. So my best defence was to say nothing, and ensure I wasn’t making eye contact with the facilitator, praying that someone else was, and so be picked on instead.

Only much later did I realise that creativity isn’t about novelty at all.

It’s about difference.

Novelty might be nice; but it’s difference that counts. For if the objective of any good idea is that it results in ‘a better world’, then what’s important is that the future is different from the way-things-are-now, and – hopefully – better too. If the future is the same as now, then nothing has happened, so the post-idea future must, in some respect, be different; and if the future is different but worse than now, then that future isn’t worth having, implying that the corresponding idea is bad, and so should be rejected.

A good idea is therefore one in which the future is both different and better, which suggests a two-stage process of discovery: the first being the identification of difference, and the second, the exercise of wise judgement, so as to determine, as far as is possible in advance, that the result of the idea will indeed be a ‘better world’ rather than a ‘worse’ one.

As soon as the penny dropped in my mind that creativity is fundamentally the search for difference, everything became much easier. For “different” must mean “different from now”, and what happens now can be seen, touched, felt, experienced, described. That’s important, for it grounds the process of creative discovery in the very real, very tangible, world of now. If I observe, carefully and insightfully, what is happening now, then that gives me a platform for asking “how might this be different?”, forcing the discovery of difference, from which ideas will flow.

It really is that simple. And much enriched when different people contribute to both the description of the current reality, and the exploration of potential differences.


“We’re just going to discover something better.”


Let me give a real example, from a workshop I ran with a team of engineers who design, manufacture, install and service equipment such as pumps, valves and actuators, and some of their customers too. The workshop focused on a particular type of pump and, at the start of the event, I said words along the lines of “Hi, everyone. Today’s workshop is all about being creative – so we’re going to invent some new [ones of these whatever-they-weres] .”

At that point, one of the participants asked, “Sure. But what’s wrong with it? What complaints have we had?”

To which I replied, “Nothing’s wrong. No complaints. We’re just going to discover something better.”

Which triggered someone else to say, “I don’t get it. What’s the problem statement?”

“There is no problem. So there’s no problem statement. We’re just going to discover whatever we can.”

Many of the workshop participants were surprised by that, for there is a widespread belief that creativity – or to use the currently fashionable term ‘design thinking’ – starts with a ‘problem statement’.


One of the big mistakes is to think that creativity is needed only when there is a problem to solve, when there is a clearly-articulated ‘problem statement’. For sure, if you have a problem that needs solving, if customers are complaining, you certainly need to be creative. But if you wait until a problem is biting, it may be too late – as all the victims of so-called ‘disruptive innovation’ know to their cost.


“How might this be different?”


Back to the workshop, and the next surprise.

Instead of putting up a blank sheet of paper, and asking “Alex” what new ideas she has, I said, “Okay, everyone, what I’d like you each to do first is to write down everything you know about these whatevers, and then, when you’ve each finished that – I expect that to be in about half-an-hour’s time – get around the flip-chart and share your observations.”

So the next half-hour was spent in pin-drop silence, as each person made notes describing their experience of the ‘focus of attention’ from their own perspective. The design engineers drew specification diagrams; those involved with manufacture described the production process; the service engineers noted how the whatevers were maintained; the customers wrote down how the whatevers worked in practice.

And then, when everyone came together, the result was a vivid description, far richer than any one individual’s perspective.

That description captured the current reality, so setting the scene for the next step, the creative one. To take any feature of that description, and ask the single most important question in the entire canon of creativity: “how might this be different?”

This question is generic, and can be asked in many specific ways. Suppose this component were made of a different material? What might we do if we had a sensor that could detect this? How many ways can we think of which would make this maintenance activity easier? …

All of which generate ideas. Often hundreds of them. Some will be better than others, but that judgement should be done later, only once all the ideas are on the table.

It really is that easy.

Creativity is not the search for novelty. It’s the search for difference. And that means “different from now”. So if we define, in detail, what “now” looks like, and then ask “how might this be different?”, ideas will flow and flow.

Try it. It works. In corporations, and in academia too.



Dennis Sherwood runs his own consulting business, The Silver Bullet Machine Manufacturing Company Limited, specialising in all aspects of creativity and innovation. Dennis’s two most recent books are Creativity for Scientists and Engineers (published by the Institute of Physics), and How to be Creative – A practical guide for the mathematical sciences (co-authored with Professor Nicholas Higham FRS FREng, published by SIAM),

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