What Niels Bohr Taught Us About Creativity and Leadership

One of the most potent techniques in creative problem solving, and perhaps also the most difficult, is holding two contradictory points of view at the same time. Albert Rothenberg, who extensively studied Nobel Laureates and other eminent people, found that the ability of “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously” underlies many creative accomplishments. He coined the term “Janusian” thinking after the Roman god, Janus, who has two faces that look in opposite directions. 

A salient example of Janusian thinking, one that laid the foundation of quantum mechanics, is wave-particle duality. The nature of light had been a topic of vigorous debate because different experiments revealed contradictory aspects. Diffraction indicated a wave like nature while photoelectric effect pointed to its particle characteristic. It took Niels Bohr, Danish physicist and winner of the 1922 Nobel prize in physics, to resolve this apparent contradiction. More than four decades before Rothenberg came up with Janusian thinking, Niels Bohr had arrived at the concept of complementarity during a ski vacation in Norway. The key idea behind complementarity is that objects have certain complementary properties that cannot be observed or measured simultaneously, with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle being the most well known example. So depending on the measurement apparatus, you could either get a wave like behavior or a particle like behavior. Yet, both those behaviors are equally valid and together they provide a fuller picture of reality. 

The true nature of light, according to Bohr, is impossible to visualize because mathematically speaking, it requires more dimensions to represent than the three dimensions of the cartesian world. Even Einstein, who predominantly relied on visualization for his creative breakthroughs, found the juxtaposition of these two conflicting ideas too jarring. Along with Podolsky and Rosen, he offered a rebuttal to the quantum mechanical description but unfortunately it couldn’t stand up to Bohr’s complementarity argument. 

A vital aspect of Janusian thinking, that Bohr brought to light, is the idea of additional dimensions. Imagine you and a friend are looking at a can of soup on a table. Your friend sees the top of the can and insists that the object is circular, while you see the side and believe it’s rectangular. As is obvious, without including the third dimension both of you cannot recognize the object as a cylinder. Finding the hidden dimension or underlying aspect is key to resolving Janusian contradictions. 

One reason why most people find Janusian thinking hard, is that holding two conflicting concepts simultaneously leads to cognitive dissonance. Our brains naturally rush to alleviate the feeling of discomfort that cognitive dissonance brings by resolving the contradiction as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it often takes the easy way out by “picking a winner” based on an easily available argument instead of trying to view the conflicting ideas as truly complementary and finding hidden factors to resolve contradictions. 

You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to find Janusian thinking useful. Niels Bohr, who also had strong philosophical leanings, found complementarity to be a foundational aspect of life. Much like yin and yang, he saw complementarity in thoughts and feelings, instinct and reason, and different cultures. Thinking about a feeling makes the feeling disappear, and while thoughts and feelings may not be observable at the same time, they represent valuable facets of human behavior. 

Bohr’s way of thinking is just as valuable in today’s world as it was back then. Here are three ways Janusian thinking can help businesses:

  • Creative Problem Solving: The most obvious area that benefits from Janusian thinking is in creative problem solving. Engineering problems often involve tradeoffs between different factors – improving one lowers another. Janussian thinking can cut through the Gordian knot by solving the problem on a different plane. Creativity expert Michael Mikhalko shares an example from foundries that use sandblasting to clean parts. To clean thoroughly, particles need to be “hard” but hard particles also get stuck and are difficult to remove. So the paradox is that you need something that can be both hard and soft. One clever solution is to use particles of dry ice that are hard enough to clean and then evaporate. In this case, by adding a new dimension of temperature, which transforms the material, the problem gets solved at a completely different level.  
  • Conflict Resolution: Applying Janusian thinking in resolving conflicts aligns naturally with transformational leadership. Leaders routinely face conflicting information – one team believes a particular feature will be a hit with users while the other team feels the exact opposite. Instead of jumping in to make a quick decision, adopting a mindset that both teams have a valid rationale naturally leads you to ask more questions and dig deeper to find underlying factors at play. Once those factors are surfaced, the conversation shifts into a more productive state – the group arrives at a more complete mental model and actively engages in discovering new pathways to make progress.  
  • Building Effective Teams: Bohr believed that different cultures represent a  “harmonious balance of traditional conventions” that reflect the richness of human life. This lesson has even more relevance today when companies have to appeal to global audiences. A travel booking site found that German users were less likely to book compared to Danish people. On investigating further they realized that cultural differences were at play. Germans have a high threshold for uncertainty avoidance compared to their Danish peers, so showing them more details about the trip improved booking rate. Having a more diverse team ensures that decisions in product design are more creative and effective. Leaders who recognize the complementary nature of cultures choose more diverse teams not because there is a mandate to do so, but because it leads to superior results.

Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head is a challenging cognitive process, but it can yield groundbreaking ideas. There are plenty of situations ranging from product design to resolving disagreements where such thinking can lead to new insights. The next time you face a seemingly intractable conflict, apply Janusian thinking to discover a deep insight because as Bohr quipped, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” 

Our First Summer Camp And Lessons Learned

We just wrapped up our first summer camp to teach children (8-12yr olds) how to think in more innovative ways. For this camp, we wanted to go beyond simply teaching creativity techniques, to having children actually design objects they use regularly. And since this is the back to school season, we picked “Redesigning School Supplies” as the theme of our camp.

We organized camp activities around a few principles and learned what works well and what doesn’t:

Don’t dumb it down

The neat thing about Creativity is that it is relatively age-agnostic – it’s easy to teach kids core creativity concepts. So, we didn’t skimp on the content. The children learned and experienced creativity techniques and design thinking processes that are typically encountered in graduate level courses.

But we did package the material to be more kid-friendly. For instance, we made a “Minion Game” for the Alternate Uses Task, where a group of minions “discover” an object and the minions take turns in interpreting how that object might be used by humans (all while speaking minion-ese, of course).

Lesson Learned: The campers grasped the concept that we were teaching quickly through play and games, although not everything went perfect. For example, we used the Minion-Game as an opening game, and realized that it wasn’t the best decision. While the kids loved the concept (they asked to play it again the next day), they hadn’t sufficiently warmed up to each other to act silly. In hindsight, this game would have probably worked much better had we scheduled for the second day or later. Our other games fared a lot better, and the children had a great time making their own Twist-a-Story skits, and Crime Scene Investigation movie trailers!

Both group and individual thinking are important

Research has shown that when people brainstorm individually and then bring their ideas to the table for group discussion, the outcome is superior compared to group brainstorming. So, our activities alternated between individual thinking and group brainstorming giving everyone a chance to think on their own.

Lesson Learned: This strategy worked out really well and we ended up with a lot of unique, interesting ideas that children were able to use in their final designs! We will definitely keep this approach going forward.

Make it Relatable

Everyday, we also studied an inventor and their creation to illustrate the concept of the day (like using empathy, making associations, or storyboarding). We also wanted to remove the the psychological barrier that children typically have –  that inventing is for adults. So our profiles included young inventors like the 11 yr old girl who invented the crayon holder, to help use up little pieces of crayon.

Lesson Learned: We are not really sure how much (or if) this inspired our campers, but the children did seem to enjoy learning about other inventors. We’ll continue using  this because it also served as a good transition activity between games and project work.

We organized the campers into four teams and each team picked a school supply to redesign. By the time camp ended we  had some interesting new products – a lunch bag that helps you plan healthy portions, a multi-functional scissors, a universal notebook that minimizes paper cuts, and a better organized and safer backpack. Not bad for the one week we had!

But most importantly, the campers had a great time figuring out their own, unique problems with the objects they picked and applying design thinking to solve them!

MindAntix Brainteaser: Many Uses

One of the most common divergent thinking tasks is the Alternate Uses (AU) Task where you take an everyday object and think of different uses it can be put to. For example, a cup could  be used as a flower vase or as a hat or even as a toy. Designed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967, the Alternative Uses Task is used as a standard creativity task to evaluate fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration of responses. But coming up with creative ideas is tricky because most people find it hard to move beyond their first strong associations. So, how can you jumpstart your brain into thinking of novel ideas?

In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after listing more obvious ones (typically after 10 or more responses). In a different study on divergent thinking strategies, researchers analyzed how participants responded to alternate uses and discovered some interesting patterns. They found four underlying mechanisms that people use to trigger new ideas: Memory Use (pull pre-known responses from memory), Property Use (pick a property and search for functions using that property), Broad Use (review the object against a broad use like “transport”), and Disassembly Use (pick a component of the object and find a use for it).

We can apply the three step process for creative thinking to our cup example to discover novel ideas in a more structured way. As the first step, we dissect the object into its properties (glass, metal, round), function (drink liquids from), or assumptions (hold liquids, kept open side up). In the next step, we can try and change one or more of these properties and then see if the resulting object could be used for something else. For instance,

  • instead of holding liquids, it could hold solids (vase, piggy bank, pencil holder).
  • if it was inverted it could be used as hat or a lamp shade.
  • if it was made of paper, you could cut the circle at the bottom and use that as a coin.

Once you dissect in many dimensions, you get many more starting points to modify things and come up with neat uses. In fact, the responses deemed most creative (property use) in the divergent thinking study fit neatly into the dissect and manipulate approach. You could also include the third step, associate, to increase your idea fluency. For example if you attach a string and a ball to the cup you could make a new kind of paddle ball or kendama.

So, when you attempt the “Many Uses” brainteasers (a loosely constrained version of Alternate Uses) on MindAntix, or similar problems elsewhere, try to dissect and change things to trigger more unusual connections. And remember, your best ideas will likely come in the second wave – after the more obvious ones.

Can You Learn To Be More Creative?

In the Paris Manuscript B, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s oldest surviving notebooks, there is a drawing of huge artificial wings undergoing trials. Under the drawing, Leonardo describes in some detail his instructions to test the wings. He ends his instructions with a pragmatic suggestion – “If the desired effect is not achieved, do not waste any more time on it.” The casual humility of his last sentence comes, perhaps, from having produced many ideas and seeing a fair share of them fail. And he certainly produced a lot of ideas. By the time he died, he had penned more than 13,000 pages of notes and drawings that fuse art and various forms of science. About 500 years after his death, the world is still fascinated with his raw creative genius. But was Leonardo simply a lucky coincidence of the right genes or did his upbringing and environment play a role in making him creative? Or in other words, is creativity, like Leonardo’s, an innate trait or can it be acquired?

One of the best ways to evaluate heritability for any trait is through twin studies. Traits that are genetic show higher correlations for identical twins than for fraternal twins. Over the years many researchers have given creativity tests to twins and they have consistently found that divergent thinking and originality, key components of creativity, do not have any genetic basis. This implies that creativity is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

Studies have, in fact, shown that creativity trainings do help in making people more creative. Ginamarie Scott and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma did a meta-analysis of prior creativity studies and found that trainings that focused on developing creative thinking skills, like divergent thinking and problem solving, were the most effective. Originality showed the largest effect size suggesting that “creativity training is effecting the critical manifestation of creative thought—the generation of original, or surprising, new ideas”.

Coming back to Leonardo da Vinci – a strategy that he often used to get his creative inspiration was to “connect the unconnected”. It’s quite likely that his prolific output was the result of him practicing his creative thinking skills repeatedly and becoming a virtuoso at it.

While achieving great creative outcomes depends on more factors than just generating ideas, it is nevertheless true that the ability to produce large, diverse and original ideas is a precursor to creative accomplishments. Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, best captured this sentiment when he said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” And as we are learning now, the ability to have a lot of ideas is a skill that can be acquired by anyone. All you need to do is a little practice.

A Left Brainer’s Guide to Right Brain Creativity

When I first started coaching my daughter’s Destination Imagination team, I struggled with getting my team to really think outside the box. I found that during brainstorming, most of their ideas showed, loosely borrowing computer science terminology, either “temporal” or “spatial” locality. For instance, when they were deciding a plot for their play in December, most of their ideas were around toys and Christmas. Or, if I pressed them for more ideas, they would start scanning the room to see if anything triggered their imagination. It frustrated me that my team wasn’t coming up with more diverse ideas but I did not know how to make them think differently. That’s when I started researching on how to boost creative thinking.

Michael Michalko, a leading expert in Creative Thinking, started his work in the field when he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. After spending several years refining various techniques, he published Thinkertoys in 1991 which is currently one of the best compilation of different creative thinking techniques. Even earlier in the 1940s, Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet inventor who first started work as a clerk in a patent office, wanted to discover rules or patterns that would help in the creation of novel ideas. He analyzed thousands of patents and developed his Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) which includes 40 principles that can guide novel thinking. What’s interesting with both Thinkertoys (specifically, the Linear Thinkertoys, which focus on conscious problem solving) and TRIZ is that even though they originated differently and target different audiences (businesses vs. technical inventors), they both share many common techniques. But how do you keep all these different tips and tricks in your head when trying to solve a thorny problem?

One way, that I find easy to explain to children, is to integrate these different techniques in a broader model as a three-step problem solving process:

  • Dissect: The first step is to list all the different dimensions or attributes of the problem like material, shape and functionality. The trap that most of us fall into at this step is that we only think of physical attributes. You can get trigger more diverse ideas by also thinking about less tangible dimensions like the underlying assumptions or the environment. For instance, the thinkertoy, False Faces, focuses on underlying assumptions as it’s attribute.
  • Transform: The next step in the process, once you have selected the dimension, is to manipulate it in some way. As Professor Kyung Hee Kim points out, novel ideas are generated from mental actions, not external objects. You could make a physical attribute bigger or smaller, change materials, add more remove functionality, or even turn around assumptions. For instance, in False Faces, Michalko reverses our assumption that all restaurants have menus. By working with the reversed assumption, we could imagine a restaurant where the chef creates a meal out of ingredients that you pick and names the dish after you, to provide a unique and personal experience.
  • Associate: The final step in thinking creatively is to pick one or two random objects and see how they are related to solving the problem. This technique allows you to tap into the brain’s natural ability to find associations between things that may be unrelated and give you completely new, unanticipated directions to think about. This isn’t necessarily the last step – you can use associations any time in the brainstorming process. The Brutethink technique in Thinkertoys, that works by pairing two things that have nothing in common, uses association to reveal novel connections and ideas.

So, why are we inclined to think in a temporal and spatial sense? Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, explains that ideas are like nodes in a vast network, called associative memory. Each idea is connected to many others through different types of links, one of which is the contiguity in time and space. So when you have a starting thought, your brain subconsciously starts finding other ideas that are related, and not surprisingly, picks ones that are close in time or space. When we have two unrelated ideas, the same associative engine gets to work under the ground to find what connects them. Which is why the third step in the process (association) works so well. The trick to being more creative is to recognize that our brain by default lights up only a few directions, and that we can consciously provide additional triggers for more unique (and sometimes profound) ideas.

By thinking of creative brainstorming as a three-step process, you can learn to significantly increase the number and quality of novel ideas. So, the next time you are stumped with a challenge, try out the three-step process of dissect, transform and associate. List out as many attributes and dimensions of the problem as you can think of, find different ways to change things, throw in some randomness, and then rinse and repeat.