On Basketball, Creativity, and Controlled Chaos

One of the questions I am often asked when discussing Creativity is, “can you guarantee we will generate creative insights and ideas?” A more blunt version of this question is, “how long will it take us to come up with a creative solution to our challenge?” And at the far end of bluntness, there’s my all-time favorite: “can we just cut to the part where we solve the problem?”

In our result-driven environment (primarily, but not only in business organizations), we got used to thinking in terms of the bottom line, and only in these terms. If the bottom line is guaranteed, we’ll go for it. And while we are at it, let’s try to shorten the process as much as possible.

Imagine that starting a talk or a workshop with a statement such as “Creativity is messy.” That’s not exactly what one would call walking on safe ground. When your audience wants immediate results or, at minimum, guaranteed results, such a statement is not really encouraging. In fact, it raises a more profound question: how can you model something messy, and why should you? If the outcome is not guaranteed, what value will the model have? Since this website’s tagline includes the terms model and creative, this question is in place.

Nobody in the world can guarantee the outcome of a basketball game. It doesn’t matter if you think about a friendly neighborhood game or a game between two professional teams. No one — not the players, or the coaches, or the owners of the teams — can look you in the eyes and say, “we’ve prepared such great moves; this game is ours!” No one can commit to winning the game, let alone predict the exact result unless they have rigged the game (and even then, they could get caught). A basketball game is chaos. Controlled chaos, to be more accurate. There are so many things that could happen that you cannot really plan the game. You can surely prepare for it, but you cannot plan a series of moves to lead to the desired outcome. There are too many variables, and each of them can trigger a different course for the game. The other team, the audience, the judge, an unexpected injury, a player thinking about something that happened just before the game at home… anything can affect the game and its outcome.

And yet, no professional basketball team gives up and says, “we cannot control the course of the game so let’s just quit.” Nor do they say, let’s just show up and hope for the best.” No one can guarantee the game’s outcome, but we all know we can create certain conditions that will help us. Like all other sports, basketball could be broken down (somewhat artificially but very effectively) into a set of skills, routines, and maneuvers to help any team that masters them come better prepared for the game. Take speed, for example. The faster I run, the greater my chance to reach an optimal shooting point before the other team players can block me. Does that mean I will score? Nobody can guarantee that. But, the faster I run, the better starting conditions I have. The same applies to my shooting accuracy. The more accurate I am, the better my chances to score in the game. Obviously, anything can happen. I could get blocked, or be distracted, or just not run fast enough. But, the more I work on this core capability, I am in a better position to reach the desired outcome.

Speed, shooting accuracy, physical fitness, rebounding, offense, and defense maneuvers are part of the underlying model used by any good basketball player and basketball team. If you wish to be a better player, you should take each of these capabilities and master them. The better you get, the greater your chances to win the game. Better, but never guaranteed. Basketball is chaotic when you think about the course of the game and its outcome. But we can create a relatively simple model of the underlying infrastructure that will improve our chances of achieving the desired result.

Creativity is at least as chaotic and unpredictable as a basketball game, at least when it comes to the bottom line. No one can guarantee a successful outcome given a predefined set of steps. There are many attempts to capture creative processes, but they are all futile. Creativity is not a process — there is no predefined set of actions that leads to a predictable result. When you think of it, this axiom is pretty much derived from what we expect from Creativity. If the result is predictable and repeatable, it could be anything but creative.

But just like the case is with basketball, our inability to describe Creativity in the form of a process does not imply we are helpless when it comes to improving the settings — our starting point — and increase the chances of generating creative insights. The Creativity Operating System does not describe a process. It is a model of the underlying infrastructure we all need to be more creative. The stronger this infrastructure is, the better our chances to come up with a creative outcome. And yet, we will experience failures. We will reach dead-ends. We will come across challenges we won’t be able to cross. At least not on demand. Creativity is chaotic, and this might sound pretty discouraging at first.

But this messy nature of Creativity also has an upside. While we might not solve every challenge on demand, Creativity can help us identify unexpected opportunities — opportunities we wouldn’t have been able to engineer intentionally in a million years. When we master our creative skills, we have a better chance to identify these opportunities. The reason we perceive creative people as more successful is not that they never fail, but because their failures are balanced with opportunities others are blind to.

Chaotic systems such as the one that fuels Creativity cannot be tamed. They can be controlled in the sense that we can increase the chances of a desired outcome or drive the system in the right direction. Mastering your Creativity Operating System will not provide a definite solution to any creative challenge. It will create a fertile ground for creative ideas to grow on.

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