Can Creativity Be Planned?

April 24, 2014


In an earlier post, I wrote about Project ENCODE, the massive, global research into the human genome, including the functionality of hidden regulatory switches within our DNA. This was one of the greatest examples of “Data For Good,” and it involved significant collaboration, tremendous computing power, and new ways of gathering and presenting findings. ENCODE redefined how people work together on massive research and applications. A fundamental aspect of the project, for example, was that all data is rapidly released into public databases, which can foster connections and new insights. 


In Wiki Management, Rod Collins, of Optimity Advisors cites another, similar global research project comprised of open source technology, mass collaboration, multiple-centers, and the best scientists from across 11 nations. It was the 2003 effort to rapidly identify and help address the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory System) virus.


This process ultimately averted a global pandemic, and it’s similar to the collaboration and container management processes pursued in ENCODE. Indeed, the SARS effort involved continually passing data back and forth—including working through informed and informative daily calls—to learn, aggregate, and disperse collective knowledge .


According to Collins, innovation requires discovering what we don’t know that we don’t know. Numerous examples from history show that sometimes the greatest breakthroughs happen by accident (e.g., penicillin, Post-It notes). Collins says this is another key aspect of container-enabled innovation, what he calls “serendipity over planning.”


While serendipitous discoveries may be accidental, that does not mean serendipity is random. Rather, it is the product of connections or insights paired with one’s ability to recognize the discovery.


“Creativity cannot be planned, it can only be facilitated,” Collins argues. “Centralized planning of command and control is designed to eliminate surprises and therefore blunts serendipity…Organizations need good surprises for sustained business success.”   


The value in fostering serendipity would seem to be key to looking for innovation in all the wrong places.