Mark Breen is the senior economic development officer with Enterprise Saint John. After checking data gathered by Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada, Mark learned that New Brunswick was last on the innovation scorecard. To increase innovation across the province, Enterprise Saint John provides a sequential methodology that helps a wide variety of industries identify opportunities and improve results. This interview focuses on the Simplexity system, which helps us to identify both our imaginative and analytical skills, provide a clear problem-seeking and problem-solving process, and embraces multiple skills as we move from ideation into action. To date, Mark has successfully used this process with over forty companies and organizations in New Brunswick.
MS: How did you get interested in innovation and creativity?
MB: I began college as an engineering major. Optimizing results is at the heart of this field and remains a significant aspect of my work. However, I soon realized that I was most interested exploring new challenges and generating new ideas, and I switched to major in Psychology. In my current work, I combine insight into motivation and effective marketing with a commitment to practical action.
MS: In one of your online interviews, you suggest that creativity is the generative process that precedes innovation. Can you expand on that?
MB: Yes. I see innovation as applied creativity. Through creativity, we generate options and conceptualize solutions; through innovation, we implement new services and processes and manufacture new products. It’s not enough to just generate ideas; we also need to be able to decide what we will focus on and what we won’t. Innovation is all about making good decisions.
MS: In our conversation, you described the eight-step Simplexity process in depth. Can you give us a concise overview?
MB: This approach was developed by my mentor, Dr. Min Basadur, President of Basadur Applied Creativity and Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior and Innovation at McMaster University. We selected this process because our clients needed something that they could learn and apply quickly to produce results. The following notes are based on text from the Applied Creativity website.
Problem Formulation dominates the first three steps.
Step 1: Problem Finding literally consists of finding or anticipating problems and opportunities. The result is a continuous flow between past, present and future problems, changes to address and opportunities for improvement within the organization.
Innovative people and organizations don’t wait for problems--they go out and find good problems to solve. Initially, neither the problem nor the solution is clear: all we have are “fuzzy situations” that seem to have strong potential for further development.
Step 2: Fact Finding consists of deferring judgement and actively gathering information that helps to better define the fuzzy situation we identified in Step 1. This sets the stage for Step 3.
Step 3: Problem Definition consists of using divergence to convert the key facts the group selected into a wide variety of creative “how might we?” challenges, and then selecting the ones which seem most advantageous to pursue. Finding the right question sets us up for finding the right answer. This seems obvious, but actually requires serious work.
In the next two steps, we begin to grapple with possible solutions.
Step 4: Idea Finding consists of deferring judgement while creating large number of potential solutions to the target problem. Converging on a smaller number of potentially good solutions comes next. Idea Finding is easy if the group did a good job in Step 3.
Step 5: Evaluation and Selection requires careful critical thinking. We begin by generating a wide variety of criteria we might use in making an unbiased and accurate evaluation of the potential solutions, and then selecting and applying the most significant to the problem at hand.
The final three stages recognise that problem solving does not end with the development of a good solution. Unless the solution is skilfully prepared for implementation and implementation skilfully executed, the problem solving will fail. Finding ways to gain support for a proposed change, building broad-based commitment, tailoring the solution to match the situation, and following up to ensure the change "sticks"--all of these are absolutely crucial.
Step 6: Action Planning involves thinking up a sequence of specific actions that will lead to a successful installation of the new solution.
Step 7: Gaining acceptance recognises that the best laid plans can be scuttled by resistance to the changes involved. When people see that the solution benefits them and that potential problems caused by the solution can be minimized, they more readily embrace change.
Step 8: Action Taking recognizes that actions speak louder than words. No matter how carefully thought out the steps may be, nothing will move forward until we “get on with it!" Adjustments can then be made based on actual results.
MS: This has a lot in common with Design Thinking, which is a very hot topic in education in the United States. Both emphasize the importance of problem definition, rely on extensive research, and alternate between divergent and convergent thinking.
MB: Yes! Both Design Thinking and Simplexity recognize the importance of psychology. We must clearly identify stakeholders and understand client needs . No matter how great a product or process may be on paper, it will fail if it doesn't improve someone's life. A key element of Simplexity is understanding how everyone on the team prefers to solve problems and how best to integrate those styles. Based on Dr. Basur's research, we can identify the following four problem solving styles:
Creates options in the form of new possibilities or new problems that might be solved and new opportunities that might be capitalized on.
Creates options in the form of alternate ways to understand and define a problem or opportunity, and good ideas that help solve it.
Creates options in the form of ways to get an idea to work in practice and uncovering all of the factors that go into a successful implementation plan.
Creates options in the form of actions that get results and gain acceptance for implementing a change or a new idea.
MS: What is your connection to the Atlantic Centre for Creativity?
MB: At present, I am a strong supporter and occasional presenter. I loved giving a workshop titled "Introduction to Applied Creativity" at their Creative Connections Conference in 2017. I would like to get more involved and think that the Simplexity process could help the ACC continue to identify potential options as it evolves.
MS: What would you most like to see the ACC accomplish?
MB: Creativity can provide a stimulating connection between the academic world and industry. In industry, we often rush into action, sometimes without adequately considering the options or seeing the obstacles. By contrast, academics sometimes focus so much on theory and historical context that students leave with little practical knowledge.
Creativity isn't really a function of talent or produced by an occasional flash of genius. It is about careful observation, insightful analysis, synthesis, empathy and persistence! Creative processes (such as Simplexity and Design Thinking) can be applied to all kinds of problem seeking and problem solving and can equip students for professional and personal success throughout their lives.