#106 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 7          July 1994

Creativity and Innovation in R&D
by David Tanner, Ph.D.

Dr. Tanner is president, Tanner & Associates, Inc., and executive director, Edward de Bono International Creative Forum in Wilmington, Delaware.  Previously, he was R&D director of du Pont Industrial Fibers Division and director, du Pont Center for Creativity & Innovation. He is author of Total Creativity in Business & Industry (1997).

We define creativity as the generation of novel, useful ideas.  We define innovation as the process for bringing the best ideas to reality.  Creativity is a personal act while innovation is often a team effort.  The innovation process starts with a need, which triggers a creative idea, which generates a series of innovative events, including demonstration, scaleup, and commercialization.

Innovation may be viewed as occurring in three time frames:  1)  decade-to-decade: e.g., discovery and commercialization of major new classes of polymers; 2) year-to-year: e.g., important advances in existing polymers, like making tougher ones; and 3)  day-to-day: e.g., modeling reactions to improve yields.

Creativity plays an essential role in all three types of innovation.  It helps generate the original idea and overcome barriers to bringing the idea to reality. 

Creative Thinking Techniques and Applications

There is a myth that creativity is limited to a few individuals who are naturally creative.  In reality, creativity is a skill that can be learned and applied like any other skill.  Many techniques in creative thinking are available to help germinate and accelerate the innovation process.

Research with fraternal and identical twins supports the view that different abilities to think, and to think creatively, are not inherited.  Thinking and creative thinking are learnable skills like driving a car, swimming, or knitting.  Some people will be better than others, but, given sufficient motivation, everyone can develop a reasonable amount of skill.

Techniques that stimulate creative thinking include:  1)  lateral thinking; 2)  metaphoric thinking; 3)  positive thinking; 4)  questioning conventional wisdom; and 5) capturing and interpreting dreams.  At du Pont, these techniques have been used successfully in product and process development, trouble-shooting, and tackling difficult business issues.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is defined as “seeking ways to solve problems by apparently illogical means.”  In science, many major discoveries have come about through a chance observation, accident, or mistake that led to non-obvious ways of perceiving things.  Dr. Edward de Bono, who coined the term "lateral thinking," teaches techniques that jar normal thought patterns in problem solving and shift them to new starting points.  These techniques (which can be found in his 1992 book, Serious Creativity, HarperCollins) lead to provocations and alternative approaches to the problem. 

Lateral thinking at du Pont led to a process breakthrough for drying polymer fluff.  The old process used a reciprocating belt system with 70 moving parts, which frequently broke down.  A lateral thinking session resulted in a major new design concept, reducing the number of moving parts by 80% and significantly improving process continuity.  The lateral thinking technique used was “reversal,” which triggered the provocation, “the reciprocating belt is stationary.”  This shifted thinking into an entirely new direction, leading to the new design concept.

Metaphoric Thinking

Metaphoric thinking involves generating new ideas by connecting the problem to something in a totally unrelated realm (often in nature). 

At Du Pont, the need to develop a flame-resistant Nomex™ fiber that could be dyed more simply frustrated our research program for many years.  Then a researcher asked himself what made it possible for people to enter a coal mine.  His answer:  props that keep the hole from collapsing.  Applying this metaphor to Nomex™, he imbibed a large molecule into the fiber during manufacturing, which propped open the structure so dyes could enter.

Positive Thinking

Our positive-thinking technique involves viewing a negative from different angles and turning it into a positive.

At Du Pont, we needed a more rapidly dyeable nylon fiber.  In one experiment, the chemically modified nylon was totally unreceptive to dyes.  Instead of viewing this as a negative result, our chemist reasoned that since the fiber wouldn’t dye at all, it could be mixed with dyeable fibers and provide a novel pattern effect.  This concept was the birth of du Pont’s dye-resist nylon styling yarn--now an important carpet material.

Questioning Conventional Wisdom

Here, we deliberately question existing paradigms and take risks (something which comes naturally to many researchers).

In the early 1960’s, we had a vision for a super fiber with the heat resistance of asbestos and the stiffness of glass.  The breakthrough occurred in 1965, when a researcher produced a solution of an opaque polymer that couldn’t be clarified by heating or filtration.  This implied that inert matter was dispersed in the solution, which would plug the spinneret holes and prevent spinning into fibers.  The researcher bucked conventional wisdom and persisted in extruding the opaque solution.  Surprisingly, it spun well, and we now know that this opacity was due to formation of liquid crystals that shear-oriented in the spinnerett capillaries.  This led to Kevlar™ aramid fibers.

Capturing and Interpreting Dreams

This technique harnesses the subconscious in generating new ideas.  It requires keeping a pad and pencil by your bedside to record your dreams.

A du Pont plant was experiencing costly shutdowns caused by de-lamination and collapsing vacuum hoses.  One night, a team member working on the problem dreamed about slinky toys, those metal-spring children’s toys that “walk” themselves down stairs.  This dream sparked the idea that a slinky-like spring inserted into the vacuum hoses would prevent them from collapsing.  It worked.

Stimulating Creativity at the Company

It’s vital to set aside quality time specifically for people to learn the techniques of creative thinking.  This first step satisfies an essential criterion for cultural shift—that is, it gives “status” to the effort.  What resources can you use to focus on this subject?  In-house seminars, books and articles on creativity, and outside creativity experts.  By rewarding and recognizing individuals and teams which apply creative thinking techniques and deliver bottom-line results, you reinforce the central importance of creative thinking.

Even units in the organization that have less participation in formal creativity programs will think and act more creatively because the general environment has improved.  They will recognize that management is supportive of creative thinking, provides freedom in doing the job, encourages risk taking, and doesn’t punish mistakes but rather focuses on learning from them.

Many creative thinking techniques offer processes for deliberate, systematic approaches to problem solving and opportunity searching.  Techniques like lateral thinking are applicable to all disciplines and in all situations.  In this way, creativity can help accelerate the process of innovation.

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