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Why I Learned to Love My Messy Mind

By Karla Schlaepfer
creativity, design thinking, scott barry kaufmann

My mind leaks. No, gross stuff does not drip out! But according to creativity scholar Scott Barry Kaufmann, leaky sensors mean that some brains don’t filter out as much irrelevant stuff from their surroundings as others. Distraction is a result. And now the real surprise: these distractions can actually help inspire more creative insights.

In the meantime, scientists have shown that creative thinking does not come more from one side or the other of the brain (the myth of right/left brain division!). Creativity is a whole-brain process involving much cooperative, interactive team-work of the emotional, conscious and unconscious systems to get the job done.

And this new research on the imagination network that Kaufmann examines is fascinating!

It includes a major change of focus from what our brains do when we are “on task”, to what it is doing, when we’re not really set on doing anything. In phases like day dreaming and drifting and leaking. And why these states are so important for creativity and generating new ideas. Creative people it turns out are particularly good at flexibly juggling contradictory styles of thinking.

Why the  word “messy” is often used to describe the contradicting cognitive complexity.

In everyday jargon, things that are messy are not organized, or not logically ordered…like this complex neural network in our brains. It has no problems with ambiguity or with contradictions. There is no linearity or rationality  in creative idea generation but rather messy disorder. People with less gated-filter activity reflect this “messy mind” picture. They are often tuned into greater amounts of information from the world around us and don’t automatically filter things out or make categories. This openness to experience widens the brain’s scope of attention. Curiosity is sparked. Dopamine is activated. More sensory information is perceived. Contradictions are integrated. And here lies a key to creative thinking – the more input, the greater the chances of making new and unusual connections between distantly related things.

At Hasso Plattner Insitut in Potsdam, I heard the “messy” linked to user-centered problem solving process Design Thinking.  Initially, I thought it meant Design Thinking was messy because we used so many scribbled Post-its and so much prototyping material!  In the meantime, I appreciate the messiness of Design Thinking in other ways. It is a highly iterative or cyclic method, with results that are open and not pre-determined from the start. No, following the path from a to z, and then congratulations, you have reached the finish line!

This trial and error procedure, which embraces risk and emotion, is often a challenge for people trained to be fast, efficient and think goal-orientated.

Roger Martin, author and Dean of the Rotman School of Management, says that design thinking involves “integrative thinking: the ability to exploit opposing ideas or constraints to create entirely new solutions.”

New solutions with Design Thinking process are based on:

  • Achievements based on human-centered research, empathic insights, prototyping and testing with people – not primarily numbers
  • Flexibility of a series of phases whose order may change
  • Creative intuition, testing and questioning that helps teams decide if they are on track
  • Dynamic potential of hard and open questions like “what if”

The good thing is that we can reframe the ambiguity of the method to the messiness of “wicked” design-driven problems or challenges! These are often complex, future-oriented challenges which are highly suitable to be used in finding new and unexpected solutions with the Design Thinking process.

This process in not set in stone. Design Thinking process has been and continues to be iterated by companies and institutions worldwide. It is applied in individual ways to develop products, services and for internal change processes. IBM has its own brand, so does Siemens Health Care. What amazes me, is that in all these applications,  the  simple “What if” question can be applied that charges and recharges so much creativity energy and moves thinking and problem-solving forward.

How messy is your business?!

Check out the book:

Wired to Create, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. Scott Barry Kaufmann & Carolyn Gregoire. 2015

Karla Schlaepfer