Physics and Ideation: Creativity and Mismatched Socks

I’ve been thinking about lessons we can take from the physics community to more successfully develop ideas — and I’ve been wearing mismatched socks. 

I blame Louisa Gilder and her wonderful exploration into the weird path physics took towards accepting entanglement over the past century. In 1964 John Bell lit a small fire at the foundations of modern physics using timber put in place by Einstein 30 years prior. It launched a few investigations but in truth mostly smoldered for another 17 years until he stated the implications of his theory a bit differently. 

He spoke about Bertlmann’s Socks. 

“Dr. Bertlmann likes to wear two socks of different colors. Which color he will have on a given foot on a given day is quite unpredictable. But when you see that the first sock is pink you can be already sure that the second sock will not be pink. Observation of the first, and experience of Bertlmann, give immediate information about the second. There is no accounting for tastes, but apart from that there is no mystery here. And is not the EPR [Einstein-Poldosky-Rosin] business just the same.” “Bertlmann’s Socks and the Nature of Reality,” Journal de Physique, Colloque C2, suppl. Au#2, Tome 42 (1981) 41-61.

Gilder brings this up in her book The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn. Not only did the paper surprise Bertlmann, but it made clear why physics had to deal with the issue of entanglement — something the powers-that-be seemed content to ignore, bury and work around for the previous half century or so. 

Physics is about math, observation and facts. Why would socks do the job Einstein hadn’t? Because it did the job at the right time and so clearly that finally — everyone got it. (And yes, there’s more to it than just socks. There’s tigers too, and a bit of math.)

New ideas seldom come packaged neatly.

I don’t think I have ever met a creative soul in business who wasn’t frustrated by the powers-that-be.

Great ideas are ignored.

Meaningful risks are not taken.

Have you ever seen a concept presented year after year and rejected. Then suddenly accepted. Often the originator of the idea gave up long ago, left ship. So the new kid on the block that didn’t know better, brings the idea forward and gets the kudos. You may have met, or may be, a creative soul mildly frustrated by such an occurrence. 

How can you help an idea through a brick wall? 

  1. The Neutrino Approach: Neutrinos are so small it’s unlikely they will even notice a brick wall.  Send the organization away. Give them a budget and keep management away. Let them interact with the main organization like a consultant group, dropping in to seed the idea and grab useful tidbits for back at the neutrino cave. After a reasonable bit of time see what form the idea is in, can you sell it now? Or have folks seen it enough that it has been adopted without a fight? 
  2. The Socks Approach: So you have a great idea and nobody wants to give you a budget to develop it. Time to drop it and move on?  Not until a better idea comes along. Change its form. Allow it to mold to the circumstances. See how reactions change to it over time. Add elements that make it more elegant and obvious. Find kindred spirits willing to discuss it over beer.
  3. The Defend Approach: Academic circles are marvelous at challenging conclusions, arguing points minor and major, especially when a paradigm change seems to be in the works. Gilder shows that the scientific method and collegiate courtesy does not always work perfectly — Bohr was great at arguing others away from points he disliked — but the approach provides multiple places and times in private and in public to argue and discuss new ideas. And, most importantly, a record is kept of the theory’s ups and downs. A nice part of this approach is that you establish a culture that learns how to test and probe ideas in ways that are meaningful and not just political.

All of these approaches required varying levels of commitment from both the organization and the creative spirit and accept the idea that sometimes great ideas take time. The danger of these approaches is that you won’t realize when an idea has been eclipsed by a better or ‘more right’ idea.   Drucker always warns that projects must be killed rapidly when they don’t seem to work out.  The same is true here, its just hard to do. The trick is managing the level of investment (thought through physical) and pushing for an organization that learns. The strategies all have the benefit of giving ideas time to be tested and probed in a way that creates a record to be built off of. The more open the historical record is to others in the company, the more likely a great idea will find a second and third champion – even if they riff off it in a slightly different way. This type of record can also give feedback to the original idea holder, encouraging them and creating new ideas.

To succeed ideas need to be had, nurtured and defended. 

Here is where the creative spirit gets whacked most severely and an organization can destroy a fountain of great ideas. Sometimes the person who had the original idea is not the one who needs to take it to the next level.  Physicists were split into groups starting with theorists and experimentalists. Now that extends even further depending on math or viewpoint or specialty. By encouraging lively debate among different specialties you can create better understanding between groups that can lead to stronger ideas moving forward.  (An artist learning to speak in the tongue of the accountant? It happens. Maybe this is where corporate blogging could really have an internal wide open impact!)

Too often the ‘creative spirit’ sees working within a larger organization as burdensome and deadening.  Gordon MacKenzie used to call surviving such an organization ‘circling the giant hair ball.’ Gravity is always working to suck you in, keep you from seeing a bigger picture, defending a great idea.  The least a hair ball can do is create an environment where this becomes a bit easier for the creative spirit.  Even if it means wearing mismatched socks.

What are you doing to nurture and defend your ideas?

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8 Responses to Physics and Ideation: Creativity and Mismatched Socks

  1. Andrew says:

    Fred,

    Ideas are powerful but only so if they are acted upon.

    For those working within the horribly bureaucratic structures of a government organization or a large company, the process of nurturing and developing ideas until they are accepted by decision makers requires a great deal of persistence.

    I think this is one of the reasons why companies and government organizations tend to lose their most creative people, who seem to me to like either (a) working for smaller start ups; or (b) striking out on their own.

    Those who strike out on their own are free to act upon their idea immediately. Those who work in a large bureaucratic structure often have a great battle in getting their idea through the inspiration-killing bureaucracy before any action can happen.

    No wonder large organizations find the process of attracting and retaining creative talent to be such a challenge.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Should copyright infringers be disconnected?

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Sigh. My prediction – creativity will come from outside the organization in the future. Partly, this will happen because companies are figuring out that they can tap into the creativity of the world via the internet. Already, P&G is trying to outsource most of their new product ideas, according to what I read. But the other reason for outsourcing creativity is that organizations are more open to ideas from the outside. Too much pressure on employees to toe the line. Within organizations the pull of conformity is as irresistible as the pull of gravity. There may be exceptions, but on the whole organizational conformity is as old as humankind.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Influence Customers with Meaningful Terms in Meta Descriptions

  3. Andrew says:

    Fred,

    I think Brad makes an interesting point in terms of the preference for creativity from the outside, and as Brad suggests, there is definitely more of a tendency amongst internal employees to toe the line, and this in many cases limits their capacity for innovative ideas when compared to those who operate outside of the company.

    But their may be other factors at play in addition to the ‘toe the line’ culture of internal employees, and one of these, I think, relates to the need for fresh perspectives. It is all too easy for employees of an organization to become accustomed to the ways and systems of the organization, and this may limit their ability to see the potential for new and better ways of accomplishing certain tasks.

    On the other hand, those who operate externally to an organization have a greater capacity to view the methods, procedures and systems of the organization from a fresh perspective, and thereby more easily identify any areas for potential improvement.

  4. @Brad and @Andrew Great points. The drive to outsource creativity in every department is very strong. This can actually be very productive, especially when the skill in question is far outside the organization’s primary strengths. The problem I’ve seen with this though is management ends up losing faith in their own people – calling in consultants even on questions that can and should have been answered internally. Some of my most enjoyable assignments have been to help reconnect the chain and help managers realize answers were floating all around them.

    So maybe the great hope of the creative spirit is to ‘get out’ so they can have a bigger impact ‘back in.’

    • LaVonn says:

      I think the problem with outsourcing creativity is the same as using consultants but magnified by 10. The consultant has no real control over the ultimate implementation and execution of their ideas, remedies and solutions. Without that “passionate protector” it is difficult to survive in the melee of the everyday business cycle. While I think the pressure to oursource creativity will continue to increase, the wisest leaders will recognize that it needs to come from within.

      • And that puts the finger on the true problem. When you outsource, the organization losses real knowledge, whether it is your accounting system, production line, engineering or artist. Sometimes what is gained outweighs what is lost. Sometimes it doesn’t.

  5. Diana says:

    What Andrew said (both times). But especially “For those working within the horribly bureaucratic structures of a government organization… No wonder large organizations find the process of attracting and retaining creative talent to be such a challenge.”

    I’ve been there and done that and I’ve never seen such a soul-killing apparatus as I did working for municipal government. I don’t think I will ever entirely recover my former self.

    Once you are “inside,” you are absorbed and then defined by their lack of imagination. That’s why they hire consultants. As their narcissistic object, you couldn’t possibly know anything they can’t imagine. Get it?

    I got out.

    Diana’s last blog post..Unconditional art

    • Hi Diana, Getting out can sometimes be the only way to stay sane and true to yourself. But I like to think there can be a middle ground where creativity (and difference of opinion) can flourish benefiting both creative and organization alike. I was involved in some experiments to that end during my Hallmark days that were very fruitful (while they were allowed.) Of course, I’ve been ‘out’ for some time now myself and seldom look back.