Zig Zag Creativity – An interview with Professor Keith Sawyer

I had the great pleasure of having lunch several years back with Professor Keith Sawyer at the University of Cambridge.  Keith is  Professor of Creativity at Washington University in St. Louis.  It was with great expectations that I recently opened a copy of his new book “Zig Zag – The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity”.  I was not disappointed.

Keith Sawyer, Psychologist, Jazz Pianist, Creativity expert

Keith Sawyer, Psychologist, Jazz Pianist, Creativity expert

Zig Zag offers a thoroughly well researched guide to the inner workings of creativity via an iterative model of eight steps to systematically move from fuzzy ideas to concrete innovation.  The title of the book alludes to the notion that creativity does not proceed along a linear path but via a series of zig zag patterns, that profit from non linear thinking styles, incubation and a number of other deliberate processes that are available to all.

Professor Sawyer draws on a wide range of sources, from research through experience gained from his life as a creativity expert and consultant and from insights gained from great creative minds, from Steve Jobs, Ingmar Bergman, Tom Kelly of IDEO and even Charlie Chaplin and Socrates.  This wide church provides a mind-expanding and credible grounding for the eight principles he explores at the core of this book.

I asked Keith a few questions about his background in writing this:

Peter:  I know you are a jazz musician alongside your day job.   Can you say something about the parallels between creativity and improvisation in jazz?

Professor Sawyer:  Well in a way, all of life is improvisational! Any time we deviate from a fixed plan, and we take an unexpected turn, we are improvising. And that, I believe, is the essence of the creative process: It’s never a straight path from idea to solution. Creativity is all about engaging in a process that moves you forward, even when you don’t know where you’re going. There are sudden new developments, unexpected failures that sometimes result in new thoughts that then lead down a different path. That’s why I titled the book “Zig Zag: The surprising path to greater creativity.” The “surprise” is that the path is really not very “path-like” at all. It’s more like wandering, almost as if you’re lost. But you have to trust that the process will eventually lead to a creative outcome.

Peter:  I’d agree of course, as someone who spends a lot of time improvising in music.  Working alongside the great creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi must have been something of an experience.  What would you offer us as the main learnings you took away from that time?

Professor Sawyer:  Mike was a wonderful mentor, and he is a warm and happy person. He was a good role model of how to work hard and have a successful academic career, and yet not be Type A neurotic workaholic. I think I am a workaholic, but maybe something like Type Z. Yes, let’s coin a new personality type right now: Type Z, the person who works hard but in flow and having a great time.

Mike (and his research) taught me the importance of intrinsic motivation in creativity, and also the central role of “problem finding”—it’s so important to ask the right question, before you start working on creative ideas and solutions.

Peter:  When work is play, it does not feel like work at all.  I guess I have some understanding of Type Z, but I have some way to go!  Turning now to creativity and business, I’m often told these days that creativity caused the banking crash, when I put that down to gambling rather than mindful creativity.  Can you say something about why we need creativity more than ever at this time?

Professor Sawyer:  Interesting! I never thought about it that way. But sure, I don’t mind if people say creativity caused the banking crisis. I remember the earlier failure of Enron, a U.S. company that had been lauded as the most innovative with its new financial instruments. And then, it all blew up, and everyone blamed it on their innovations. After all, creativity isn’t guaranteed to generate positive outcomes.

Peter:  That’s a very generous outlook and is of course a product of inventive search.  Reading the book, I took away the word randomness from much of what you wrote, yet everyday our lives are more ordered by systems and routines to make our lives more predictable.  What hope is there for us when we are run by our smart phone?

Professor Sawyer:  I wouldn’t call it “randomness” and I don’t use that word in the book, do I? Instead I call it “unpredictable.”

Peter:  Correct, that’s my English paraphrasing of what you wrote!  🙂 Tell me more.

Instead I call it “unpredictable.”  But it is still deliberate. One key message of my book is that you can follow this 8-step process, and it will lead to consistently positive creative outcomes—even though you can’t predict what they will be and when they will happen.

Peter:  Yes, indeed, I’d noted that the creativity process is not purely random, but also deliberate.  An interesting comparison.  So, turning to the practicalities as to why people need to read this book, what one thing could companies do to encourage better creativity at work (I realize this is a ridiculous question but want to ask it anyway! 🙂

Professor Sawyer:  Make sure that your people have time in their schedule to work on new stuff and think of new things. If everyone is working overtime and having trouble meeting deadlines, it’s rare that they will generate radical new breakthrough ideas. All of the research shows that creativity requires some slack time. It doesn’t come for free, in other words!

Peter:  Time is a killer of many things in life, but certainly creativity is one of the more fragile commodities that is stifled by inadequate time.

Zig Zag - click on the picture to buy on Amazon

Zig Zag – click on the picture to buy on Amazon

Zig Zag is accompanied by a compendium of creative practices and 100 techniques that will assist the novice in escaping tramline thinking at any stage of the creative process.  This ‘better brainstorming toolkit’ is worth buying the book for just on its own as compared with the more limited toolkits offered by proprietary consultants in the ‘creativity products’ field.

The book is eautifully illustrated with examples and quotes that exemplify each of the eight principles.  It is is a real page-turner.  I will leave you to find the examples of the Hooker Doll, The Catholic Church and The Shopping Cart.

At the end of the book Professor Sawyer provides an excellent comparison table of the various models of creativity that have existed for a century, from Wallas (1926) onwards. His 8-step model is a synthesis of all of this prior research.  This, together with the extensive examples, references and notes gives a book on creativity real weight and value.

Contact Professor Keith Sawyer via his Web site, the Zig Zag website and his Blog


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