Scholars objectifying the creative process

Two Israeli researchers are trying to break down the process by which inventors such as Thomas Edison created the light bulb and other products.For most mere mortals, success in inventing a new product that will succeed in the marketplace is …

Two Israeli researchers are trying to break down the process by which inventors such as Thomas Edison created the light bulb and other products.For most mere mortals, success in inventing a new product that will succeed in the marketplace is a mystical blend of art, talent and some kind of innate genius coupled with methodology, timing and a generous amount of luck. It’s tough to be a successful innovator. Tens of thousands of new products enter the market every year, from a slightly improved widget to a paradigm-breaking new technology, or at least a technology that aspires to break paradigms. Most of them fail.

Whether it’s a chaotic brainstorming session or a brilliant idea conceived by a scientist or marketing executive as he’s dozing off to sleep, wouldn’t the haphazard processes of innovation be helped if they could be developed systematically

That is what two Israeli academics, Jacob Goldenberg of the Hebrew University’s School of Business Administration and his colleague Roni Horowitz of Tel Aviv University, aim to do with their Creativity Templates methodology. The concept refines and quantifies the inventing process and is used as a tool by product developers, marketers and advertisers. Their work is based on the concept of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), developed 30 years ago by a scientist from the former Soviet Union. The idea was to look for a systematic approach to developing new concepts and cracking existing technological problems.

Both aeronautical engineers by training, the two eschew the fuzzy elements of creativity. Indeed, their work has been published in scientific journals rather than “Advertising Age.” Goldenberg and his collaborators developed Creativity Templates to “depict discernible, measurable and learnable regularities or patterns in innovations.” If you have a model based on the template of an existing success, Goldenberg said, you can use it to develop a new pattern – a product, marketing or advertising concept. By compartmentalizing the elements of innovation, the lowliest marketing trainee can aspire, if not to be a Thomas Edison, at least to benefit from the great inventor’s thinking processes.

Edison’s persona would be difficult to quantify, Goldenberg said, but the patterns of creativity in his inventions can be duplicated. Templating looks at the products, not the inventors, to discover any regularities of the creativity behind the idea or product. A century ago, for instance, Edison had the gate to his house connected to a water pump so that every time a visitor rang his energy was unknowingly put to work on a second task. A hundred years later, Compaq developed a laptap computer that recharges itself simply by the user’s typing on the keyboard. Goldenberg said both cases make use of the unconscious harnessing of energy and demonstrate that patterns exist that can be discovered and utilized by the Creativity Template model. “Now that we are aware of templates, you can apply them and do systematically what the inventors had to do sometimes by accident and sometimes by less-efficient work,” he said.

Goldenberg and his colleagues found that most creative ideas fall into a few classes according to their conceptual structure and were structured enough to be converted into computerized algorithms. About 10 to 15 creative templates account for 90 to 95 percent of creative processes. The templates work by duplicating the processes used by people to create things and solve problems. The regularly quantifiable parts of the processes are grouped by concept and transformed into Creativity Templates.

One of the most common is the “replacement template” whereby an object is replaced with something representative drawn from a database of concepts. The gist of the replacement template is then converted to a computer program, which comes up with a creative solution when given certain parameters. The “advertising template” database was formed over time by deconstructing well-received advertisements and determining which templates they matched. For example, when challenged to come up with an advertisement for a Jerusalem tennis tournament using the Muslim shrine the Dome of the Rock, a computer using Creativity Templates selections suggested replacing the dome with a tennis ball. Perhaps a little sacrilegious for some, but creative nonetheless. “Using templates you can find better and simpler and more creative ideas for new products,” Goldenberg said. “There are very strong signs that template-based ideas are superior.”

Goldenberg and his colleagues have published several papers showing that there are more templates in successful products than in failures that actually separate winners from losers. And, a book by Goldenberg and faculty colleague David Mazursky on how to apply templates, “Creativity in Product Innovation,” is due to be released this fall by Oxford University Press.

“If you apply templates to existing products then you’ll have ideas for the next generation before the market sends any signals about the needs,” he said. “Basically you’ll have more time before your competitors, before the markets expresses its needs so they can not find it through regular marketing research. You have the time to properly develop the product and launch it under your timing considerations.”

SIT’s workload has since expanded rapidly. The Israeli offices of IBM, Intel, and Motorola have become clients and helped them land contracts abroad with Eastman Kodak, Ford and Lucent in the United States and Philips Electronics in Europe. Besides McCann-Erickson and Ogilvy & Mather, SIT’s advertising clients include top firms such as BBDO Worldwide and Saatchi & Saatchi.