The Creative Frame of Mind

An Interview with Roger Von Oech, author of Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It
By Vern Burkhardt
While thinking "outside the box" is touted as a key to being creative, thinking "inside the box" with limitations of time, money and other resources often sharpens the mind. A project with fifteen people dedicated to it may take longer than one with half that number!

Roger Von OechRoger von Oech, author and creativity consultant, has been strongly influenced by Heraclitus who lived about 2,500 years ago. But von Oech's observations and advice are very useful for those who wish to improve their creative thinking abilities and for leaders who want to promote creative thinking in their businesses.

Two weeks ago we featured A Whack on the Side of the Head. Roger von Oech has also written Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.

VB: When did you first become involved in helping businesses focus on creativity and innovation?

Roger von Oech: I've had my own creativity consulting business since 1977. When I first started my business there were only three or four other people teaching creativity in business and leading creativity seminars. Now there are thousands if not tens of thousands doing it.

It was hard to sell creativity to businesses when I first started. Typically I tried to sell not so much creativity in business, which was almost a non-starter, but rather the product of the product—what having a more creative workforce would do for business. The product of the product was having higher productivity, having a project managed in four months rather than five, having your marketing people understand what your engineering people were about and vise versa, or having your finance department look for ways to save money. People responded to this message and found creativity had application in their businesses.

VB: Do you find that business leaders are increasingly keen to enhance their creative skills and to promote creativity and innovation in their firms, and do they understand its importance in our knowledge economy?

Roger von Oech: Yes. Creativity has always been important in business but it's increasingly becoming a key part of business success. There is a vital idea here which is one of my favorites. It relates to two of Heraclitus' key ideas: everything flows; and you can't step in the same river twice. In the creative context every right idea is eventually the wrong idea no matter who you are or what your company. So you need to innovate.

Innovation means two things. Coming up with new ideas, strategies, and ways of doing business. That's the easy part of innovation, that's the constructive side.

The hard part of innovation is the destructive side. That's letting go of what worked for you six months ago, two years ago or for the past five years. It sold well, solved your problem or whatever but it may not be the best way to deal with emerging opportunities in 2009 or 2010. So the innovator needs to be constantly coming up with new ideas and letting go of past successes. I think more and more business managers appreciate this and that's why they want more of their employees to be creative people.

VB: And business managers also want to develop their own creativity?

Roger von Oech: Indeed. And find use for their creative expression.

VB: Would you agree that creativity is increasingly recognized as a key to success.

Roger von Oech: Excellent companies that have been really admired over the years—the last fifty or even one hundred years—have been leaders in creativity and innovation.

If you were to go inside these excellent companies fifty years ago you would find that only about three to five percent of their workforce was expected to be creative. They were the select group of engineers, marketing persons, R&D people.

One big change I've seen in business in the last twenty-five or thirty years is a greater recognition that more people in the company need to be creative and that creative resources from outside their companies should also be used. Businesses realize it's important for people in accounting, R&D, marketing, and IT, for example, to be innovative because things continue to change. And when things change you have to let go of past practices and come up with new ideas.

VB: How can business leaders go about deliberately developing and nurturing an environment that encourages creativity?

Roger von Oech: The simplest thing I would recommend for any company is put innovation and creativity in people's performance plans. Most people get reviewed once or twice a year, and in order to get rewarded, recognized and promoted they go where the incentives are. If you include in people's performance plans the need to come up with at least three or four innovative ideas per year, people will go out of their way to look for opportunities to be creative. This is true even in areas you don't typically associate with being creative like finance or accounting.

And try to give people a common vernacular about what is involved in creativity and innovation.

VB: Would you recommend including creative attitude and ability as important criteria when hiring new employees?

Roger von Oech: I think you look for those traits.

Every now and then I become aware of a company hiring an in-house artist for three months. That's not what I'm referring to.

Businesses need to expect creativity from all their employees as an integral part of their jobs and businesses need to help employees acquire creative skills. They also need to let them know it's not appropriate to get in the way of the creative process within the company; they can not be idea killers. There are times when people don't want to change because it can be a pain in the butt, but if your employees have been trained about the creative process they can contribute a lot more.

VB: Is creativity always characterized by thinking "outside of the box"?

Roger von Oech: There is a lot of talk about thinking outside the box, but I find I do some of my best thinking when I'm inside the box. When I have a very tight set of guidelines that I have to follow. You can generalize that principle to business.

In my consulting work most of the really creative teams I've seen are the ones that didn't have a lot of time, money or resources to throw at a problem or a project. They had limits and that seemed to get the most out of their teams.

VB: That really focused their attention and creativity.

Roger von Oech: Yes. I'll give you a personal example of the value of constraints. The Creative Whack Pack that I created in 1988 was the very first business content card deck, and I have since updated it with a number of new editions. I always wanted to have a creativity workshop in a box—taking my sixty-four creative thinking strategies and boiling each of them down to a card.

Expect the UnexpectedA card has limitations. There is only so much space to write on it. Each Creative Whack Pack card has a strategy as a bold headline, a picture or illustration, a very short story or anecdote that exemplifies the creative thinking strategy, and then a question the user can a great deal of space to make a point. On a card you've got only eight or nine lines which forces you to get to the essence of what you're trying to say. You have to be very economical with your thinking but still say enough so you connect with the reader.

You understand your idea well if you can boil it down to seven words or so, and describe it like it would appear on a billboard, a sign or in a catchy motto. I've found that approach is really good.

Similarly when creating products like a Ball of Whacks it's always good to approach it with a limited budget so I'm not just throwing money at it. It forces me to think more deeply about what I'm trying to do.

VB: Have you found that people in business are using your creative card decks and Ball of Whacks to stimulate creative thinking and generate new ideas?

Roger von Oech: Judging by the number of sets that have been sold it must be working!

I can't say that everyone who has bought a set has become a better creative thinker but I've received a lot of mail and other feedback over the years from people who say it got them thinking in a different way.

If you use it as it was intended it can loosen up your thinking. That's why it's called a whack pack. When you are locked into a perspective the creative whack pack exercises can jog you loose. Especially if you're working with another person and you each pull out a card—it gives you license to say what your unconscious mind kicks to the surface.

VB: They can actually be used as an aid to stimulate creative thinking.

Roger von Oech: I use them in my seminars and people love them. When we work with the Creative Whack Pack I am able to lay out the creative process that involves the explorer, artist, judge and the warrior. (Vern's note: these were described in last week's article)

The Creative Whack Pack is divided into four suits, with sixteen cards in each suit. One is the explorer suit—the strategies you might use to poke around in unknown areas, or when you're trying to get different information, or looking for unusual patterns. There are also sixteen artist strategies, sixteen judge strategies and sixteen warrior strategies. It helps you locate where you are in the creative process and it helps you ask what you think are pertinent questions related to that step in the process.

Timing is the essence of life and business, and it's also important in the creative process. If you're using the wrong kind of approach at the wrong time in the creative process you can really mess things up. For example, if you're at the point in the creative process where you're saying let's get an answer right now or you're trying to implement an idea, and someone in your team is asking lots of strange "what if" questions and coming up with things appropriate for the explorer or artist stages, it can really mess up the process. Sometimes you need to be creative and sometimes you need get the product out the door and sold. These card decks channel people's thinking.

VB: The concept of creative licensing at meetings is a novel approach. (Vern's note: at the beginning of a meeting each participant is dealt a certain number of cards giving that person permission to play each card and make a point related to it at any time during the meeting.)

Roger von Oech: I've met with people who report good success with that approach. It doesn't always work but it is one approach to using the creative thinking tools.

VB: If your writing style and the number of insights contained in your works are any indication, your creative thinking workshops must be a treat to attend. Would you describe what one can anticipate being exposed to when attending one of your workshops?

Roger von Oech: One of the exercises I do in my seminars, at the beginning, is have groups make up offbeat or irreverent mottos for their products or organizations as a way of loosening them up. I think there's a close relationship between the ha-ha of humor and the ah-ah of creative discovery.

If you laugh at a problem, a product or a way of doing business it frees the mind up from a lot of deeply embedded assumptions.

In a workshop you learn by doing. Therefore I like to have individual and group exercises. Some of the exercises will be out in left field, like coming up with an irreverent new motto for your company. Some will be middle of the road, such as if someone like Walt Disney or Mother Teresa was your product manager, how would he or she go about it? Others will be very practical exercises in which you're trying to get to the nuts and bolts of a problem.

I collect old TV commercials from the last half century and I'll show these at various times. I try to stimulate people in a variety of different ways.

VB: I assume you like Heraclitus' creative enigmas because they serve as whacks on the side of the head?

Roger von Oech: I see him as the first creativity teacher. He was so enigmatic in the way he approached things.

His epigrams seem to me to be jewels of insight. It is almost like solving a crossword puzzle, asking yourself how this clue fits. In what context does this idea make sense? It forces you to put your thinking cap on and when he says things like "your character is your destiny" or "the sun is new each day", you ask how it applies to me, to my circumstances. It helps you deal with the changing world.

He also said "everything flows", "you can't step in the same river twice", "that which opposed produces a benefit", and "the cosmos speaks in patterns". You look at those sayings and wonder what they mean. They force you to get into a creative frame of mind in order to understand and interpret them. Once you understand one you have a creative piece of philosophy you can apply to whatever you're doing.

Heraclitus lived about 500 BC when the Persian Empire was just coming together. Other older empires were crumbling. The world hadn't seen anything like the Persian Empire in perhaps 1,000 years. There was the rise of Greek philosophy and science; new trade routes were being established. It was a very dynamic time, somewhat similar to our own, in which new ways of thinking were coming forth.

Heraclitus' words spoke then and they speak now. He's been popular in various eras over time. Plato and Socrates liked him. He was one of the founders of stoicism. You can detect his thoughts in the New Testament, and Neo Platonism. In more modern times you can find his thinking in Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Martin Buber, Carl Jung and Ernst Cassirer.

Because Heraclitus had an enigmatic quality people can take his ideas and fit them into their own thought structure. That's what I've done in terms of my creative take on things.

VB: And you turned Heraclitus' enigmas into the book, Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It.

Roger von Oech: This book was a real labor of love. It came out the first week of September 2001, a few days before the 911 attacks on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon.

VB: Unfortunate timing.

Roger von Oech: Clearly ironic given the title of the book.

Most of the media I had lined up to talk about the book just washed away. Whenever reporters did talk to me they would ask questions such as "how does this relate to Osama bin Laden" or "what about anthrax"? The book was well reviewed but it didn't reach the audience I hoped it would.

Ultimately I took some of my favorite parts of Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It, and incorporated them into another card deck, Innovative Whack Pack. I also integrated some of my favorite stories of Heraclitus into the 25th anniversary edition of A Whack on the Side of the Head.

VB: Do you think there is a mystical reason why Heraclitus lived at about the same time as Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China and Buddha (Siddartha Gautama) in India? Or is it just an interesting historical fact?

Roger von Oech: It's interesting that you picked up on that fact. It's not like they were sending emails to one another! Or maybe it would have been a different set of sun spots!

I've always found it really fascinating that these different strands in the fabric of world thought were being initiated at that time.

Another good reason for reading Heraclitus is that one can often think we are living in the most challenging of all eras, and that everything new, everything important, has been created in the last fifteen to twenty years. If you can go back 2,500 years and see what Confucius, Buddha or Heraclitus were thinking about, their issues of concern, you can see that people today are grappling with a lot of the same kinds of things. It helps to put a fresh perspective on what we're doing today.

VB: You are described as a Historian of Ideas. What does that mean?

Roger von Oech: I think it means I was in graduate school in the early 1970s! If I had done this in the 80's, 90's or now it would be something entirely different.

In the early 70's there were some places where you could write your own major as an undergraduate. At the time Stanford was one of the few universities where you could write you own major at the graduate level. It was designed for people who wanted to specialize their curriculum. For example, if chemists saw a problem or an issue in biology that was really important they could narrow it down between the two fields and have a graduate specialty between these two departments.

At that time, and it continued, I was interested in the creative process—how people got ideas and how they approached things. I didn't like the answers I was getting in psychology, and I realized people were creative in a variety of fields—like engineering, economics, art history, fine arts, chemistry, and physics. I took the special graduate program concept at Stanford and rather than narrow my studies I was able to turn it inside out and create a program called the History of Ideas and Humanities. In studying how people create and get ideas I eventually wrote my dissertation about twentieth century models of mind, and more specifically about the thought of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who I consider to be the last person to know everything. Basically it was a study of the creative mind in action. That was a good thing to do and good for a PH.D.

VB: It made you a renaissance man.

Roger von Oech: But it was even better to leave the academic world altogether and go out in the business world. I went to work for IBM right after I received my PHD. I realized that you can have a great idea but if you can't sell it to someone else you're not going to get very far.

VB: Do you think politicians could use a whack on the side of the head?

Roger von Oech: I think I'll stay out of politics. I'm not looking for messiahs, and I won't be satisfied until the ruby slippers come off the dead witch.

VB: Is there anything we haven't talked about that you would like IdeaConnection readers to know?

Roger von Oech: I think you've covered just about everything. I'm very grateful. Being featured in IdeaConnection will be a positive thing for my work.

Conclusion:
Roger von Oech does not just tell to be more creative. He provides us with how-to instruction and provides a lot of useful tools and helpful hints.

From Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It I quote my two favorite of Heraclitus' thirty creative enigmas:
  1. "A wonderful harmony is created when we join together the seemingly unconnected."

  2. "Those who approach life like a child playing a game, moving and pushing pieced, possess the power of Kings."



And remember, "Every walking animal is driven to its purpose with a whack."

Roger von Oech has a graduate degree from Ohio State University and a PH.D. from Stanford University. He founded Creative Think in 1977 and since then has provided seminars, consulting services and creativity products.

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