Animal Crackers

An Interview with Peter Lloyd, co-creator of Animal Crackers
By Vern Burkhardt
People need a slight switch in their mood—in a positive direction—before they can create. When you get creative insights it is thrilling; it gives you energy.

The essence of the creative attitude is looking at problems as opportunities.

Peter LloydI recently had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Lloyd and Steve Grossman, who jointly developed Animal Crackers to assist people in identifying great solutions to their problems. Peter hails from Kentucky and Steve lives in Pennsylvania, USA.

Peter, who writes Right Brain Workouts for (more on that in the next newsletter), is a freelance writer, creativity trainer, and specialist at leading brainstorming sessions.

Steve is a scientist—a paper and fiber physicist. While working in the private sector he quickly became recognized as a guru of creativity. Since the early 1980s he has taught, trained and been a consultant in creativity and creative problem solving. In the early 1990s Steve was making a presentation to a conference hosted by the Creative Problem Solving Institute, Peter heard his presentation, they met, and—as the saying goes—sparks flew. They discovered they were going down a similar path, and have collaborated ever since.

Question: When and how did you first come up with the idea of Animal Crackers?

Steve Grossman:
I used to teach creative courses, and I asked Bob Weisberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Pennsylvania, USA, to give a presentation to the class. Bob had discovered people create with a process analogous to evolution. That idea caused me to start looking at what evolution and the survival process meant for human creativity. I developed a three phase approach to creativity that mirrored Darwin’s ideas, which is the process included in Animal Crackers: Extinction, Mutation and Selection.

When Peter and I met at the Creative Problem Solving Institute in the early 1990s, we quickly realized the work Peter had been doing could put legs under my three-phase process that would be fun and exciting to use. Peter has done some great things with animals—just look at the songs he has written.

Question: Peter, what was the basis for the fun to use approach?

Peter Lloyd:
I had been providing one-day seminars called Creative Animal Safaris, in which we actually visit a zoo. In the seminar trainees find their animal metaphor and use it to break down the four walls that cage their natural creative instincts; they then apply it to a real creative challenge. The metaphor is derived from the behaviors or something they did not previously know about an animal.

The premise is that humans will always find creative solutions, in emergencies, at work, at play or in any other situations that may pose challenges to them. In fact, our adaptation as human beings is to be creative—it is wired into our nature, as part of evolution. So the question becomes, how can one be helped to always identify great solutions to problems? We can use and learn from what animals have done to solve problems and to survive.

Steve and I realized when we talked after his seminar presentation that we were both going down a similar path in developing an approach to spark creativity.

Question: So what happened?

Steve Grossman:
One of Peter’s creative ideas was to take people to the zoo. We discussed laying his approach over the animals’ survival process as a way to stimulate creativity. So in the mid 1990s we started working on developing Animal Crackers.

Question: What did you develop?

Peter Lloyd:
We developed a step-by-step system, or perhaps you could call it a roadmap for solving serious business problems.

The Animal Crackers kit contains Animal Territory Cards that focus one’s thinking toward specific areas of concern in business, such as downsizing to maintain productivity or creating an effective packaging design. On the opposite side of the cards are fascinating animal adaptations that inspire the kind of thinking required and suitable for solving problems in these areas of concern.

For example, the jacana appears to run on water by stepping on submerged vegetation. Its oversized feet can momentarily alight on more than one plant at a time to distribute its weight. Or the skink lizard—it dislodges and drops its tail to fool its predators. The dolphin never sleeps, but rests by closing down one-half of its brain at a time. Camels can tolerate as much as a ten-degree change in their body temperature and endure dehydration up to as much as 40% of their body weight.

The goal is to stimulate as many ideas as possible using these kinds of animal adaptations, and then to select the most suitable idea or solution.

There are three pads of worksheets for the idea generation and selection processes. The worksheets systematically and easily guide one through the three phases that Steve talked about earlier.

In the Extinction Phase you examine your previous failures to understand why they don’t or won’t work, in order to make you consciously convinced that an entirely new solution is necessary. As an aside, I think it is fascinating that the threat of loss is a much stronger motivator than the hope of some gain or accomplishment.

Under the Mutation Phase we consider why you failed in the past to solve the problem. This helps you escape your habitual patterns of thinking and become more conscious of the way you think and to make it easier to shift your perspective.

Next you pick animal cards that appear to be related to your thinking about the underlying issue. On the reverse side of these animal cards are descriptions of specific animal adaptations; the camel, dolphin and skink lizard adaptations I told you about are examples.

Then you record your thoughts about the chosen animal on a worksheet. The more observations you record, the more ideas you will have, and the greater your chances of finding a brilliant idea.

Next, you take a break, such as a walk or a nap like Einstein used to do when presented with a difficult problem he couldn’t solve. This allows your intuitive, unconscious mind to work. And then you record on the worksheet ideas that come to mind related to the observations you had previously made.

In the final phase, Selection, you identify and record on a worksheet all the positive and negative aspects of your new idea, thinking about how to turn the negatives into positives, and ultimately identifying your solution.

Question: Why do we have to follow such a process in order to stimulate our creativity?

Peter Lloyd:
As children we are naturally creative but as we get older we rely more and more on the habits we develop. Of course, good habits make productive and positive living possible, but they also make it difficult to form new thinking patterns required to invent creative solutions. The process we developed helps one be more like highly creative people—to break habitual thinking patterns.

Question: In your Animal Crackers manual you say most creativity arises from necessity. Could you elaborate?

Steve Grossman:
People don’t create for the fun of it. Creativity is hard work; it’s not easy to change one’s point of view. We have five million “irrelevant” ideas going on in our heads. The ideas or notions one is conscious of deal with a situation that is on the surface at the moment—mostly habitual reactions and associations.

However, creative people have lots of other problems in their pre-conscious simmering away, much like a large back burner. In order to pull creative responses to these into the conscious mind something mentally unusual has to happen. (Vern’s note: “preconscious” is the part of the mind containing all of one’s memories; it is usually considered to be between the conscious and unconscious mind. One is not aware of all these memories at any given time, but the conscious mind can access them at any time).

Question: How do the Animal Crackers stimulate creativity?

Steve Grossman:
Other thinkers and writers do not talk about how you recognize a great idea, and how you choose. The essential element of creativity is choice making. Animal Crackers set up choice making with a process to help “burn away” things that don’t work.

Of course, it’s okay to keep doing the same thing if one doesn’t have a problem, but if you have an especially difficult challenge, this repetition can be unproductive.

Creativity is not limited to people. Not only do animals have instinctive survival drives, my research shows they are also capable of pre-conscious problem solving.

Part of the creative act is preconscious, if you are aware of the Jungian idea of the preconscious. The animal crackers are a hook, animals are the bait. They help shape one’s unconscious. When we talk about extinction, it makes us recognize that our old ideas don’t work, and that makes what remains in your head—your unconscious ideas and notions -- more valuable. The Animal Crackers are a hook to pull these ideas out, to have them come closer to the surface. The hook is the description of the adaptation the animal uses for survival.

Question: What is the key difference of Animal Crackers compared to other approaches to stimulating creativity?

Steve Grossman:
The brilliance of Animal Crackers is it takes the focus off the problem and puts the focus on ideas that were previous attempts to solve the problem—this is a form of self-watching. Self-watching is a fundamental attribute of the creative act. This is why computers will never create—they can’t watch themselves in the process.

Our approach was to find one hundred animals without thinking about any business problems that may need to be solved. We wrote descriptions of the animals’ adaptations that related to things people don’t normally know about those animals and that are fascinating.

This surprise element is useful because the creative act has an element of surprise. We then thought about business principles that were applicable to the animal being described. The descriptions of the animals’ adaptations on the Animal Cracker cards function to provide the surprise element to the conscious mind, which is the hidden support to enable access to the preconscious mind’s ideas and notions, thereby enabling one to generate creative ideas.

Question: In what Steve described as the “hook” element of the Animal Crackers, do you think there are similarities to what Edward de Bono calls “Provocation”, but with significant visual and written aids to stimulate idea generation? (Vern’s note: “Provocation”, as used by Edward de Bono, means using a statement we know to be wrong in order to jerk us out of our usual thinking, thus allowing us to generate new ideas.)

Peter Lloyd:
Perhaps. Animal Crackers provide the element of surprise, and the focus certainly is on generating ideas.

Question: I understand you are continuing to write new Animal Cracker cards. Where do your ideas for them come from?

Peter Lloyd:
Mother Nature has provided all the solutions. We get ideas for additional Animal Crackers from journals, newspapers, writings about nature, and observing nature—such as when I go for walks. There are no shortage of excellent and fascinating animal adaptations.

Question: The Animal Crackers you have produced is a “Business Version”. Do you have any other versions?

Peter Lloyd:
We are currently developing a game version. Steve has tested it with some groups and the feedback has been very positive. Its purpose is not to solve problems of major importance, but rather it provides situations that are embarrassing or problematic at a personal level. Animal adaptations are identified to solve these trivial life problems—but I guess they are not so trivial if you are the person who might have actually faced the embarrassing situation!

Question: Do the Animal Crackers work best when one is solving a problem or wanting to spark creativity by oneself, or will they work equally as well for teams of people working together?

Peter Lloyd:
They should work equally well in team or group environments. Steve has used them for groups of people with good success in sparking creativity and idea generation.

Question: You said you are working on a game version. Thinking into the future, are there any other directions you might take this approach to generating creativity?

Peter Lloyd:
There is so much to do, so little time! But in addition to animals, useful observations can be made related to plants and insects, for example. So Plant Crackers or Insect Crackers would be a fun future direction.

Question: I don’t know which of you to address this next question to, so you can decide who will answer. You have been immersed in Animal Crackers for so long and so extensively, do you dream about them?

Peter Lloyd:
I will answer that question. No.

But it does invade my life. I keep a notebook and when I see what an animal does that I didn’t know; I make a note about it. I write songs about animals; I like to write quirky songs.

Animal Crackers have opened up a completely new focus for me. My son has a Great Dane dog; when they come for a visit I watch and learn from the dog’s behavior. I am very much attuned to what animals do, and to nature in general. When I go for my walk in the morning there are a couple of trees I touch every day. I am much closer to nature as a result of Animal Crackers.

Question: This discussion about Animal Crackers has been fascinating. Are there any books that you would recommend to our readers?

Steve Grossman:
Yes, there are a few I find especially applicable and useful. A great book is The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, by Jacques Hadamard first published I believe in 1945. There are three other key books that have been the foundation for the theory behind Animal Crackers. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern by Douglas Hofstadter published in 1996 is a brilliant book. The other two are The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives by Robert Sternberg published in 1988, and Creative Cognition Approach edited by Steven Smith, Thomas Ward and Ronald Finke and published in 1995.

Peter Lloyd and Steve Grossman have developed an interesting approach to stimulating creativity. The analogy to animal adaptations in their Animal Crackers definitely captures the imagination.

Being jolted out of one’s habitual thinking patterns when these are suboptimal for solving our business problems is essential. Animal Crackers provide that element of surprise. I suspect they could also be usefully applied in our personal lives—as well as in IdeaConnection’s ThinkSpace™.

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