Hackathons are popular, but are they useful? In an essay titled, “Why Hackathons are Bad for Innovation,” a consultant and an MIT lecturer made a point about these brainstorming sessions, and about creativity in general, that’s often overlooked: “Innovation is usually a lurching journey of discovery and problem-solving. As a result, it’s an iterative, often slow-moving process that requires patience and discipline.”
The precise mechanics of creativity are not well understood. But the circumstances in which people are most creative are fairly straightforward. We’ve written before about the vital and intertwined roles that hiring, and setting and culture play in an determining an organization’s capacity for innovation. The common thread running through those elements is serendipity — promoting the likelihood that people with different backgrounds and perspectives will share ideas and collaborate. (Slate recently reported on the chance meeting and “failed experiment” that led to a breakthrough treatment for burn victims, for which MIT Professor Ioannis Yannas was recently inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.) But ideas are just starting points. It’s one thing to imagine an invention. It’s quite another to clear the dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of obstacles that stand between idea and viable product.
“Creative thinking requires our brains to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas,” writes James Clear in “Why Creativity Is a Process, Not an Event.” Fittingly, given that headline, he goes on to explain:
One of the most critical components [of personal creativity] is how you view your talents internally. More specifically, your creative skills are largely determined by whether you approach the creative process with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The differences between these two mindsets are described in detail in Carol Dweck’s fantastic book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The basic idea is that when we use a fixed mindset we approach tasks as if our talents and abilities are fixed and unchanging. In a growth mindset, however, we believe that our abilities can be improved with effort and practice.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of persistence in innovation. This is one reason why we support bringing back shop classes in high schools — and not just in robotics and other headline-grabbing tech. Working with wood and metal is hard, but for those willing to struggle, the results will improve, and that’s the important lesson. No one truly learns this in a lecture; they learn it by experiencing it themselves. (Read more about growth mindset here.)
But even mindset, while important, is still just the halfway point between forming ideas and acting on them. The last step, work, is the one that determines whether you can innovate. And it’s not enough to work when inspiration strikes — in fact that’s a terrible habit. In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, a collection of essays on productivity, writer Gretchen Rubin explains the often misunderstood relationship between inspiration and effort:
You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. … Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.
We like the term “creative collisions” because it hints at the messy nature of innovation. Collisions are violent. Objects that collide often break and need to be put back together. And it’s the same with ideas; creative collisions are not a goal but a means to an end. You can’t just weld a snowblower onto a lawnmower and expect either to work properly (or anyone to buy it). But with patience and persistence, you can build just such a hybrid, and keep on building it until you’ve devised something genuinely unique.