Unlocking the engineer’s creative potential through constraints

World Engineering Day

Engineers often tell me that they are not creative. I do not believe this is true. What I do believe, however, is that engineers have a major blind spot when it comes to innovating and this can impact both their ability to come up with more inventive and resourceful ideas and their capacity to “stress test” ideas and concepts once the wheels are in motion. These are skills that will be paramount for the future of engineering.

So, what is this “major blind spot”?

Engineers are generally conditioned by the positivist paradigm whereby knowledge is objectively true or false and perfectly observable (like gravity and voltage). For many of the things engineers do, this is a helpful mindset; a bridge really does either hold … or collapse. However, the positivist universe doesn’t really leave a place for bias, because it leaves no place for interpretation. “If the positivist universe has a bias, it is the belief that bias has no influence”, explains my friend, Streicher Louw, a profoundly inventive engineer and Behavioural Strategist.

And yet, cognitive bias permeates our thinking on every level. Melbourne based thought leader Steve Glaveski tells us “there are over 100 biases impacting our perceptions and beliefs at any one time and 36 of them have an immediate impact on our ability to innovate.

One bias that has enormous impact on innovation is “cognitive fixedness”. Cognitive fixedness is a state of mind in which it is easy and natural to perceive aspects of the world in a particular way and very difficult to see them any other way. It may take one of three forms:

Functional: where we cannot imagine an alternate function for a component (e.g. a piece of medical equipment is designed with spare batteries and a screen when it could simply have been connected with a monitor in the operating theatre with both). This was illustrated by Karl Duncker in his famous candle experiment.

Structural: where a system is locked into a certain configuration (as we did with the fridge for decades! Draw a square perched on a vertical rectangle and everyone knows what it is. That was the configuration that stayed long after its use by date).

Relational: where we lock in dependencies between two variables and can’t imagine alternatives (imagine if the windscreen wipers worked at the same speed irrespective of the amount of rain).

So how can engineers overcome bias when coming up with ideas?

There are three very powerful skills that should be honed:

Engineers need to learn to work better with constraints. They
need to impose constraints on the problem solving process, product
or system and then work more systematically with the resources they already have. Listing the inventory of resources available is a simple way of avoiding blind spots. Following a path of most resistance and avoiding adding new resources is a more realistic way to innovate in a resource-constrained world.

Engineers need thinking tools that help them use existing resources in novel ways. Once constrained, they need ways of thinking differently about the resources they have. This is where it is helpful to harness thinking
tools that are derived from great ideas. Innovation methods such as Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) or Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) offer this. These are methods that were founded on the observation of creative patterns in the best ideas. These patterns have been reverse-engineered into thinking tools that give you a greater chance of coming up with something innovative.

Engineers need more agility in their thinking so that they can come up with forms and ask what they are good for. Given how embedded this bias is in our thinking, we need ways of “suspending” it. Engineers have mastered the art of thinking from a problem to a solution. What they need to learn is to do the reverse and work “form to function” or “solution to problem,” so that they cannot embed default or biased thinking into the ideas at the outset.

And how does this relate to “stress testing” ideas once the wheels are in motion?

Picture this: in the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing in the quest to explore the moon. Some of the smartest engineers in the world were put on the project. Unable to send up a manned ship, the Soviet Union decided to launch an unmanned lunar probe to take an autonomous vehicle over to the dark side. The light source was the incandescent light bulb. The problem was that they would not survive the impact of landing on the lunar surface; the light bulbs kept breaking!

Even the toughest bulbs cracked during tests. A major effort was started to figure out how to strengthen the glass bulb. The situation was reported to the director of the Moon Landing project who queried the role of the light bulb. Clearly the bulb served to seal a vacuum around the filament. However, given that this was an oxygen-free environment, this wasn’t required. (1)

The solution was simple: remove what they had thought was an essential component: the bulb.
The filament burnt happily in space without the bulb and the team were left looking at each other wondering “Why on earth didn’t I think of that”?!

Had they designed the lunar probe scanning for different types of fixedness from the start, the time, resources and expense of solving the problem could have been spared.

Engineering projects should involve regular assumption challenging and bias-scanning sessions. This “inventive stress testing” needs to become the norm just like the systematic due diligence we have around safety and quality assurance. Most projects cannot afford to leave better ideas off the table — or to realise them when it is too late in the schedule to implement them.

Being able to recognise cognitive fixedness, bust it and scan for it throughout any engineering project are skills that our engineers need to understand and hone if they are to be powerful innovators in a complex, resource-constrained world.

(1) “Innovation on Demand”, V. Fey, E. Rivin, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 5.

First written for GHD Digital’s Thought Book to reimagine the future of engineering. A collection of 38 provocations.

Rachel Audigé is a certified Systematic Inventive Thinking facilitator and trainer. She is also the author of ‘Unblinkered: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking…and how to bust them’. She is based in Australia.

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