Cracking the Riddle

An interview with Andrew Razeghi, author of The Riddle: Where Ideas Come From and How to Have Better Ones
By Vern Burkhardt
Artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs thrive on their ability to be creative. New wealth tends to flow to those who successfully introduce new ideas.

The quest for inspirational thinking or a creative epiphany is something that many people do not fully understand. It is a sudden burst of creative insight or what has been termed a "Eureka Moment" by those who study creativity. For the large majority of people, creativity is seen as a random event; the spontaneous occurrence of brilliance.

In his book The Riddle: Where Ideas Come From and How To Have Better Ones, Andrew Razeghi seeks to demonstrate that creative insight and the production of great ideas is not random but a skill that can be honed and applied.

Question: What led to your interest in creativity and innovation?

Andrew RazeghiAndrew Razeghi: Computer programming was my first job out of college and it didn't sit well with me. In hindsight, it was likely the best experience for me in that I learned relatively early in my career what I didn't like: rules. Add to that the fact that I am the son of an immigrant father with an "anything's possible" attitude and have always had an insatiable appetite for how things work and I suppose the only career that adequately fit me was that of innovation.

It's wonderful. There are no definitive rules in our field, unless, of course, you believe chaos to be orderly. At the end of the day, what really keeps me engaged in this work is the freedom that creativity and innovation afford.

If you believe in the capacity of the human spirit to "figure things out," it's liberating. There is a backdoor to all life's problems. Creativity is the key to opening it.

Question: You advise, if one wants to succeed at innovation, don't focus on innovating. Rather, focus on problem solving? Would you talk about this?

Andrew Razeghi: Most of us tend to think of innovation as a noun—as a product of human creativity. Whether those products come in the form of a new and improved brand of toothpaste or robotic dogs, we are infatuated with "stuff." However, a lot of stuff fails to meet expectations in the marketplace. There is a lot of road kill on the road to the future. Mention the word innovation and within minutes someone will invariably remind you of the "idea gone wild."

Failure and innovation are strange bedfellows. I believe the fundamental reason for new product failure is that those that don't quite make it solve the wrong problem and/or they solve no problem at all. Most great innovation works because it solves a problem no one else could quite figure out.

While it is true that the solutions to problems are what create new wealth, fundamentally, great innovation is the result of focused problem-solving. If you want to mitigate mistakes, focus on problem-solving not on innovating and your odds of success will increase dramatically.

Question: Is it essential to understand the steps that lead to the Eureka moment to be a consistently innovative thinker?

Andrew Razeghi: It depends on how you think. In other words, there are people walking around this world who are predisposed to thinking laterally, making unorthodox connections, and challenging convention as a matter of their cognitive disposition. However, if creativity is not something that comes naturally to you, then yes, simply becoming aware of the pre-cursors to Eureka moments can, in fact, help you foster creativity. This is different than trying to be creative.

For example, the reason why many people tend to have their greatest ideas in the shower or while jogging is precisely because they are NOT trying to come up with a big idea. The lack of focus, once a problem is activated in our minds, improves our creativity. But first, we must work out what exactly we are trying to figure out.

Archimedes knew the problem he was trying to solve. He just didn't have an answer. Likewise, Apple knew the problem it was trying to solve that the whole of the music industry couldn't figure out—likely because they didn't know what the real problem really was but rather were sidetracked in their attempts to stop the future from getting here.

Question: Great leaders are often seen as being innovative or brilliant thinkers. Do you see leaders as being exceptionally innovative or do they create the environment around them that allows for creative fermentation?

Andrew Razeghi: It really depends. There are creative people who also happen to lead innovative organizations just as there are creative people who lead organizations not known for their creativity. That said: leaders do not need to be creative in order to create a company that is. In the context of designing an innovative organization, a non-creative leader can work to put the appropriate structure, procedures, funding, and people in place to create.

Question: What types of people generate great ideas? Not in terms of men and women, old and young, but in terms of mental state, outlook or attitude?

Andrew Razeghi: In terms of disposition and outlook, a particular mental state is not as important as the change in state of mind.

For example, if you tend to be pessimistic, you might try taking a more optimistic point of view when trying to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. Likewise, if you are naturally optimistic, you might try being a bit more skeptical in your search for solutions. This change in attitude is a pre-cursor to creative insight more so than a particular disposition.

The RiddleQuestion: In The Riddle you raise concerns over what you see as the increased specialization of knowledge—that we are becoming more and more entrenched in the knowledge in which we specialize. One of the factors you outline for creative thinking and innovation is having a wide range of experiences and knowledge. What do you see as the positive and negative consequences of increased specialization?

Andrew Razeghi: I believe there is very good reason why we as a species were so very creative during the historical period of the Enlightenment—the period that set the table for the innovation feast that was the Industrial Revolution. We thought more broadly simply because we lived more broadly.

For example, consider the life of one of history's most famously successful innovators, Benjamin Franklin. His resume reads like a Denny's restaurant menu: activist, author, diplomat, inventor, philosopher, printer, publisher, and scientist. In our contemporary society, we would accuse Franklin of being indecisive in his career choices. Yet, consider his achievements.

He invented the glass harmonica, the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. He created the first lending library, published Poor Richard's Almanac, promoted colonial unity, and founded the first American fire department. In his spare time he brokered the French Alliance that set the table for the American Revolution and somehow found time to become fluent in five languages.

The only reason history holds out Benjamin Franklin as an outlier along with Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and the litany of innovators of the 17th and 18th centuries is that they were allowed to live and work broadly. Today, it's all about becoming an expert.

Don't get me wrong, if I suffered a brain injury, I'd rather have a specialist do the job than a general practitioner. But in the field of innovation, broad-based thinkers are increasingly hard to come by. Lateral thinking—thinking across conventionally-drawn boundaries—is enhanced by how we live, how we work, what we read, and how we spend our time. We need more broad-based thinkers. We need more tinkerers.

Question: You say the generation you call the Millenials—kids and young adults born after 1982—lack the motivation to be creative. And yet they have a seemingly endless supply of knowledge at their fingertips.

Diverse knowledge is one thing that you see as essential for innovation as well as intrinsic motivation—the drive to solve a problem. Is there hope for them and, in turn, for us as they will be the leaders of tomorrow? What type of creative thinkers do you see the Millenials becoming?

Andrew Razeghi: Yes, there is hope for them and us. They are my students and so I am simultaneously encouraged and challenged in how they approach acts of creativity. They have a great appetite for collaboration that is unprecedented. This will have a real implication on how they innovate in the future.

Question: What roles do teams with diverse skill sets play in the generation of creative solutions?

Andrew Razeghi: The research on this subject is rather definitive: individuals are more creative than groups—if one measures creativity by its conventional metrics (fluency, flexibility, and originality). That said, groups are better equipped to improve upon existing ideas. The practical take-away is to allow yourself and your team time for individual brainstorming prior to any organized group-based or team-based innovation efforts, workshops, and so on. Your combined output will improve significantly.

Question: With information so readily and easily available, such as Google and Wikipedia, and the fact that we have to remember or memorize less and less, how will the processes of innovation and creative thinking change?

Andrew Razeghi: Memory is an important contributor to creative insight—to Eureka moments. That said, we can't outsource creativity entirely to Google. You may be able to find an idea, but in order to create ideas of your own authorship and unique to your situation, pre-existing knowledge, memory, and some basic level of skill will continue to be relevant. Of course, if your strategy is to be the best second-mover on the planet, start Googling.

Question: You frequently consult with corporations on important issues of strategy and creativity. Given the challenges of the global economy, do corporate leaders generally understand the need to change the way creativity is supported within their organizations?

How can companies in North America and Europe successfully compete with countries such as India, China, and other low-wage economies?

Andrew Razeghi: As for the first question regarding the need to change, most organizations I work with, including many household names, take creativity and innovation very seriously. In fact, it is the cornerstone of their strategy even in recessionary times. In fact, some of the more notable innovation leaders today, including P&G's CEO A.G. Lafley, are promoters of innovation in recession as perhaps more important then during periods of economic growth.

As far as the geography of creativity, unlike manufacturing, innovation is not as much a place-specific discipline. While there are lists of the most innovative countries in the world—which consider factors such as physical infrastructure, patent system, access to talent and technology, capital, and so on—the world of innovation is becoming increasingly inter-connected. And so, these lists are not as relevant today.

That said, these lists often do not list either India or China as bastions of innovation primarily for their lack of modern physical infrastructure, philosophies over the protection of intellectual property, and so on.

And so, my advice to organizations is two-fold in this regard: One, innovate locally (the inspiration for ideas must be based upon specific in-market factors such as customer insights, cultural norms, etc.). Two, design globally (we know that global design begets greater success in the area of new products).

Question: Would you give an example of how the process of innovative thinking can be applied to a crisis we are facing today? Say for example, climate change or the AIDS problem in Africa.

Andrew Razeghi: Most problems that perpetuate beyond a generation of leadership continue because of the way we choose to define the problem.

For example, it was long believed that the AIDS epidemic in Africa was the result of a lack of education, which certainly is true. However, the reason for this was often assumed to be due to the lack of the physical infrastructure with which to disseminate information to people living in the more remote regions of the continent.

Specifically, in many places there is simply not access to an electric grid to power things such as radios, TVs, computers, and so on. And so, many people who could help—manufacturers of these communications devices—didn't see the opportunity to help without access to a grid.

Enter Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio. Powered by human energy, you don't need an electric grid or batteries (which are most often cost-prohibitive). You simply wind it up and listen. He challenged convention about what was previously required to solve the problem—an electric grid.

This is just one example but one that underscores how innovative thinking can be applied in a crisis situation. Identify the common answers—the reasons why things don't work. Try something different.

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Company, used to call the process "Five Whys." Ask "Why?" five times until you get to the root cause of the problem. Use that as a starting point for innovation.

Question: We are all subject to individual patterns of behaviour. What role does understanding our own patterns of behaviour play in innovation and creative thinking?

Andrew Razeghi: You can't think outside the box unless you understand the box itself—the way in which you think. And so, the very first step is to define what you believe are the rules of the game, the assumptions that lead to success, and so on. Once you've got your personal point of view written down on paper, it makes thinking differently much easier.

Question: When you describe Diametrically Opposed Conventions, you make some interesting points about the different ways Westerner and Easterner societies approach problems and creative thinking.

Westerners tend to think in terms of right versus wrong, whereas Japanese creativity, for example, is based on harmony or polyocular thinking, where things are seen from multiple perspectives.

Both of these societies are successful when it comes to innovation and creativity. How do you account for the success given the differences in approach?

Andrew Razeghi: Great question.

Indeed, creativity and innovation are extensions of culture. It's not that one way of thinking or another is better. It's that both ways of thinking help individuals and teams understand how they need to think differently.

Easterners could improve their creativity by thinking in Western ways and vice versa. It's about the change in perspective. Of course, that is only in getting to the big idea. Once the idea is incubated, the culture takes on a completely different role. For example, wild ideas may not fit was well in a culture of harmony as they do in a culture of "go West young man!"

Question: We have all experienced a moment when that big idea comes to us or when that troubling question suddenly opens up in a whole new way. Would you give me an example of when you personally experienced a Eureka moment and how the creative idea came to you?

Andrew Razeghi: The idea for this book on the Eureka moment itself!

I was running an innovation project for a client of mine when, in the midst of an innovation lab in which we were working to identify new product opportunities for this company—we were just about to end the day, when a member of the team stood up with excitement. We had been stuck on a problem all day—and in fact for months before this "event"—when she suddenly had this flash of insight. She stood and articulated the business case for it to the group—in what seemed to be a spontaneous act of creative inspiration. The group loved the idea and eventually took the product to market with great success.

I was taken aback by that moment and left that day wondering what happened in her mind. It led to my research and ultimately to this book.

Question: Do you remember the first time you were able to put the conditions of innovative thinking you outline in your book to work that helped you achieve a desired outcome.

Andrew Razeghi: I put them to use in my consulting business, in my experience as a teacher, and in my publishing work as well. Most recently, I've put these principles to work in how I teach my course at Northwestern.

Question: How would you like people to remember you and the contributions of your work? What have been your highest achievements?

Andrew Razeghi: I'd like to be remembered for all sorts of things, but I suppose when all is said and done, I'd like to be remembered for one thing: giving people hope. Whether that hope takes the form of personal or professional growth or delivers hope in the form of a new product that contributes to the growth of a company.

I deeply believe that creativity and innovation are acts of hope. In part, it's why the very first book I ever wrote was about hope, and called Hope, in fact). New products, new services, new procedures, new leaders, newness give people hope. "Maybe this will be the one, our year, or our turn to shine." It's something everyone aspires to and creativity allows people to make hope actionable.

Question: How is the future of innovation and creativity going to be shaped by the global economy as it increasingly inter-weaves cultures and business practices from Asia, North America, Europe and the new economies of the web?

Andrew Razeghi: The answer is that the future of innovation will be much like the past: collaborative, but with much easier access.

Question: You have provided a lot of insights and information about the "Riddle" of innovation. What are some of the unanswered questions related to this riddle?

Andrew Razeghi: The unanswered questions will, in fact, be answered in my next book. Stay tuned!

Question: In The Riddle you identify fifteen books and articles for further reading. Which one do you recommend the most as providing insights about creativity?

Andrew Razeghi: That's the thing. It's the combination of books that gives the most insight. Rather than read one, I would suggest that you take one hour and skim all 15.

Question: What other interesting projects are you currently working on, such as a new book or interesting consulting assignment?

Andrew Razeghi: Stay tuned on the next book. It will hit shelves in the Fall of 2009 from Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

As far as assignments, this past year I've had the great privilege to work on a number of challenging assignments around the world with a broad-array of clients—from agribusiness to tourism to television production and distribution.

If I've learned one thing this past year it is that the spirit of innovation is alive and well all across the globe. Even in these difficult economic times, people continue to invest—if not money, then at least they are allocating time and people against innovation objectives.

One thing is for certain, those who are investing now will be the darlings of Wall Street in the coming years. Look out! There are some fantastic things happening in laboratories and garages across this planet.

Andrew Razeghi says that in our collective effort to gain mastery over subjects, we risk narrow-casting our minds and stifling our collective creativities. He states that we live our lives broadly and in doing so our creativity will be enhanced. In The Riddle, Andrew Razeghi takes the mystery out of the creative process. Using techniques described in his book, innovators can draw on the Eureka moment again and again.

Andrew Razeghi is an adjunct associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is an internationally recognized speaker and advisor on growth, strategy, creativity, and innovation. He is the principal in the firm Strategy Lab Inc. and has consulted with executives from many Fortune 500 companies. Andrew is also the author of Hope: How Triumphant Leaders Create the Future. He can be reached at [email protected].

Share on      
Next Interview »