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Little Bets Excerpt: Problems Are the New Solutions

[The] strategy of breaking a project down into discrete, relatively small problems to be resolved, is what Bing Gordon, a cofounder and the former chief creative officer of the video game company Electronic Arts, calls smallifying. At Electronic Arts, Gordon found that when software teams worked on longer- term projects, they were inefficient and took unnecessary paths. However, when job tasks were broken down into particular problems to be solved, which were manageable and could be tackled within one or two weeks, developers were more creative and effective. This practice of smallifying problems is a common one in

Silicon Valley these days, related to what executives call one of the most important recent ideas in the software industry: agile software development … [in which] software development projects [are] broken into small pieces, prioritized, completed, and released based on user needs. They [agile software-develop- ment founders] emphasized using small collaborative teams to respond to change over determined processes or plans, and be- lieved that working software was the best measure of success. Inherent to agile development is to focus on smallified pieces of work and narrowly defined problems. However, the problems to be solved become better known throughout the process, rather than at the outset. This involves something that creativity research has shown to be a central aid to any creative process:

the ability to actively seek out problems. ... Psychologists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a seminal study in the 1970s that highlighted the importance of problem finding to creative work. In a study of 35 artists, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found that the most creative in their sample were more open to experimentation and reformulating their ideas for projects than their less creative counterparts. The artists were shown 27 objects, such as cups or trash bins, and were asked to use some of the objects to create a drawing. Problem finders looked at more objects and selected more complicated ones to draw than their counterparts. Finders then explored more possibilities and were willing to switch direction with their drawings when new opportunities presented themselves. The less creative artists, on the other hand, immediately jumped to drawing objects, leading the researchers to call them “problem solvers.” A panel of inde- pendent judges found the problem finders’ work markedly more creative than the problem solvers’ work. In a follow-up study completed 18 years later, this one expanded to also include scientists, the researchers found that the work of active problem finders was more critically acclaimed as determined by their peers and other expert judges.

© 2011, published by Free Press

my research or experiences. And so that to me is not enjoyable. I have only had one event like that though, and I have probably done 60 events over the past four months. As I have been around the country and in different parts of

the world, I have seen that, in certain audiences, there is a lot of energy and excitement for creativity and innovation. And yet in many audiences, there is this very strong feeling

of stagnation. There is a very, very deep fear in our culture. It is understandable, because we have been through an extremely difficult economic period and are still going through one and we have not had a lot of leadership. I will speak with an audience and it will just feel dead; there is no reverberation. It is hard, because I am doing all the work. It is not like we are playing off of each other. They want to be inspired, they want to be motivated. But I

am asking them to take responsibility and take control and do something, and I think that is actually a message that I wish our political leaders would say more often. I think that is exactly the method that is going to re-inject confidence in the country. It is not going to re-establish confidence by having people in the financial markets come up with some plan or ideas. It is that confidence is lacking in the country — there are people who are worried about losing their jobs or who have lost their house. They are really worried about paying for their kids’ education, and they don’t want to do anything that is the slightest bit risky. I get that. I empathize with that — but then do something. Take

72 pcma convene February 2012

some small steps. Rather than feeling a sense of powerlessness, take some action so that you can build towards a small win. That is a big part of my message to those types of audiences. It is all about entrepreneurship, because that is a core value

in the United States. You go out and you just do things. It is the ethos of the American way, and people just need to be aligned to that. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur. All of these skills can be learned. It is just a process. I am 35. I think 30-somethings and 20-somethings are the

ones that have got all the energy right now. I see this in my audiences — they are doing entrepreneurial stuff, and they are inventing their own careers. They have to. They have no other choice. So it is very exciting. We just want to solve problems. We don’t understand these partisan debates that are rooted in some era that we just aren’t familiar with. We just don’t under- stand big government, small government — we just want to solve problems. If I could talk with every meeting planner in the world for

just a second, I would say, listen, I know a big part of your call- ing is to create community and to inspire people to do better, to get more out of their potential. And I think that the way to do that is to bring some fun and enthusiasm and energy. I would just encourage meeting planners to look towards the future gen- eration of people that are coming up. n

u Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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