The Science Of "Aha!"


Breakthrough Creativity and

the New Science of Ideas

By Richard Ogle

Harvard Business School Press; 303pp; $29.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good A provocative look at the creative process.

The Bad Too much mumbo-jumbo and repetition mars the analysis.

The Bottom Line Insightful, but in the end, unsatisfying.

Talk to the R&D directors or CEOs of innovative companies, and they will tell you that most of their breakthroughs come from just a few key individuals. Or look at history's great leaps, from the printing press to the personal computer, which were also made by a crucial core. Why them? And can mere mortals learn from them to be more creative?

Consultant Richard Ogle boldly claims to have the answers in his provocative but frustrating new book, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas. "The central claim of this book is that...we can gain radically new insight into how creative breakthroughs happen," he asserts. Moreover, he adds, "this new understanding can help you transform your own business or profession."

Spinning a wide variety of tales, with characters ranging from Gutenberg, Steve Jobs, and Watson and Crick to the Barbie doll and Pablo Picasso, Ogle arrives at nine laws that "crack the code of creativity." The one he stresses the most is the notion that innovation doesn't come from a brilliant mind toiling alone. Instead, the real genius is in making sense of what is often a tumult of already existing, if separate, developments and ideas.

Take the printing press. Ogle persuasively argues that all the elements were in place when Gutenberg came along. There was a big potential market to be tapped—pious Catholics hungry for everything from Bibles to church documents. The growth of trade and a merchant class meant that capital was available to invest in a costly new process. And the existing technology for stamping out coins en masse provided the basic printing-press mechanism. By Gutenberg's time, printing was an invention waiting to happen, observes the author. Similarly, Francis Crick and James Watson did little themselves to discover the structure of DNA, he contends: Rather than the scientists, he argues, it was an ethereal interplay of ideas circulating around the field that "was doing the thinking."

So you shouldn't try to come up with the Next Big Thing via deep thinking alone, he advises: "Don't waste time inventing. ...What you need is already out there. Just find it and integrate it."

That's just the start, though. Ogle points out that Xerox (XRX ) created a far more capable minicomputer than the more successful Altair and Apple (AAPL ) II machines, yet the Xerox device went nowhere. The reason: Xerox had no links to suppliers or to the initial niche market of enthusiasts needed to make, use, and improve its invention. "It was, quite literally, out of the loop." Here, Ogle draws an obvious lesson: "In order to survive and prosper, breakthrough innovations must be integrated into the mainstream."

But that only gets you part of the way. Why did Watson and Crick get to the finish line ahead of Linus Pauling? Why was it Gutenberg who created the first printing press and not someone else? Ogle finds the answer in something that "has long had a bad rap"—the imagination. "Imagination is not the poor cousin of reason,...but rather...the very basis on which intelligent, sense-making thought builds," he writes.

In addition to such nuggets of wisdom, Smart World is laced with colorful tales—and claims—of breakthroughs in science, technology, art, and architecture. For instance, Ogle calls British 18th and 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner the "first truly modern painter." Why? He combined "the abstract, intangible, demassified world of kinetic forces proposed by scientists...[with] the spiritual dimensions of Romanticism...[creating] nothing less than a new space for art to unfold in," Ogle writes.

But as this quote suggests, Ogle too often says simple things in a complicated way. He also has an annoying habit of repeating his main points over and over. And he overplays his conclusions as "a radical break with the past, challenging some of our most deeply held beliefs regarding the mind's creative powers."

Sorry, Richard, but this is well-plowed ground, and some of the beliefs you purport to overturn, such as the "conventional wisdom" that breakthroughs don't draw upon a larger context, are straw men you've set up. And while the insights in Smart World do have value, I don't quite understand how people are supposed to develop the type of imagination that can transform a business or a profession. Ogle concludes: "Above all, trust your imaginative faculties as they surf embedded webs of intelligence near and far, and have the confidence that...the space of ideas, shaped by the laws of network dynamics, will do most of the hard thinking for you."

I wish it were that easy.

By John Carey

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