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  • Thomas Thurston

On Creativity (vs mechanical innovation tools)

Updated: Jul 24

Creativity.  It’s why people become innovators in the first place.  Innovation has always been a creative process, which is the source of its magic.

Despite the emphasis on creativity and intangibles, there are obvious benefits in using mechanical tools (like algorithms, statistics and analytics) to guide innovation and venture capital.  For example, it could be great to calculate an innovation’s odds of success, and to see how those odds change with different go-to-market strategies.

Innovation and venture capital have suffered 70% – 80% failure rates, which beg for improvement.  The logical parts of our brains can appreciate how a more rigorous, quantitative approach might help.  Aftrer all, statistics have helped just about every domain humans have ever taken seriously (medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, psychology, engineering, etc.).

Yet while rationality may flow in one direction, emotion can flow in another. The emotional reaction to the idea of using mechanical tools to guide innovation is often dread.

Let’s face it, creativity is fun and it’s a party anyone can join (you don’t need special credentials to be creative or innovative).  In contrast, for most people, rigorous quantitative analysis, algorithms and statistics are no fun whatsoever.  They’re also exclusive, in that only a tiny fraction of people understand them.  To evolve innovation from a qualitative domain into a quantitative one is to kill what innovators love about it in the first place.

idea light bulb chalk - licensed jpg

Seen this way, creative vs. mechanical approaches to innovation occupy opposite ends of a spectrum.  If creativity is a party, mechanics are a buzz-kill.  It can seem like, sooner or later, math comes along and ruins everything.

That’s how the dichotomy can feel, and it explains many of the angry reactions people have had to my work.  I am, after all, in the quantitative camp.  But I’m not just being diplomatic when I acknowledge the value of creativity.  Creativity is important.  What I object to is the false dichotomy itself.

Creativity and mechanics may feel like oppositive ends of a spectrum, but they aren’t.  They’re aren’t opposed, nor are they mutually exclusive.  Mechanical techniques, statistics and models are mere tools.  They aren’t physical tools, they’re mental tools.  They’re peripheral accessories for our brains.  Computers are another mental tool – we use computers to save and store thoughts, to express concepts, to count things and spark new ideas. It’s hard to argue computers have made the world less creative.  If anything, computers frequenlty take creativity to new heights.  That’s what good tools do.

Similarly, when it comes to innovation, mechanical tools and creativity aren’t rivals, they’re bedfellows.  Creativity can kick off an innovation, which can then be shaped and refined with algorithms and statistical insight.  The tools can also go first, exposing the mind to patterns that trigger creative flashes. There’s a virtuous cycle between tradespeople and their tools.  Done right, each improves the other.

The goal isn’t to kill creativity, but to save it.

If mechanical tools can help us better predict when innovations will survive or fail, that’s a good thing.  If statistics can help us course-correct, pivot and save a struggling businesses, that’s good too.  Whether your next breakthrough comes from a creative brain or a blinking algorithm, it’s all in service of better results.  There will always be a premium on creativity in the world of innovation, and any tools to help more innovations succeed are a welcome addition; mechanical or otherwise.

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