Phase Transitions and Creativity
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.
The key to most creativity is the usefulness of the end result. The “usefulness” of a work of art can be difficult, if not impossible, to define. However, in a business setting, the usefulness of our creativity is paramount.
Another definition of creativity is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations.” The words “originality” and “progressiveness” are often associated with creativity. In this definition, the focus is on “meaningful”, which is probably another way of expressing usefulness.
To be able to transcend or break the rules in a meaningful way, it is necessary to first fully understand what are the “rules” and what they govern. Understanding the rules of your profession will prevent you from wandering meaninglessly. To break the rules, you first must understand them.
So, what does a phase transition have to do with creativity? Well, a phase transition is defined as a “change between different states of matter”. Real life examples of phase transitions could be water changing into ice, or ice reverting back to water. Both are the result of changes in a thermodynamical parameter, in this case, temperature. Changes in pressure, volume, or magnetic fields can also cause phase transitions.
Phase transition as applied to creativity means that, basically, creativity doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t just happen. Something must change. Metaphorically, in our businesses, creativity could be the result of the circumstances, such as a pandemic “turning up the heat”. We can be pressured into becoming creative due to our competition. Volume-wise, if the marketplace is suddenly flooded with products or services like our own, to survive, we need to get creative.
Researcher Douglas Hofstadter finds that the creative process can be broken down into three steps:
1. Gain a deep understanding of a particular system and its rules.
2. Step outside of that system and look for something surprising that subverts its rules.
3. Use what you find as the basis for making something new and creative.
Again, according to Douglas Hofstadter, understanding fully what we do also provides critical limitations. It may seem strange to talk about limitations when discussing creativity, but they are essential because they give us a starting point and a shape to work against.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett explains: “If you try to start a creative effort from nothing, you’ll end up with mere chaos”.
To be creative, you must give yourself space to fail. As Dennett states, “The exploitation of accidents is the key to creativity.” However, giving ourselves “room to fail” is hard when we are up against deadlines. As difficult as it may seem, if we want to cultivate creativity, we need to carve out time to do it. Or we can reach out to someone who is knowledgeable in our profession and have them do it for us. Two heads are better than one philosophy.
To succeed, we need to standout. Incremental improvements are great, but they seldom standout. To standout, we need to offer something different, something better, something creative.