At heart Phil is an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a creativity researcher. Phil has worked as a manufacturing engineer and production manager in many industries and as an executive in IT and education. As program manager in University of New Brunswick's J Herbert Smith Center for Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship, Phil collaborates with staff, faculty and instructors to build the quality of the TME programs through curriculum review and development, marketing, and implementation of co-curricular programs and events. He is currently completing a PhD where he is investigating the intersection of creativity and complexity science.
MS: You started out as an engineer. What attracted you to this field?
PL: I began working in my father's camera repair business when I was thirteen. I enjoyed the challenge of taking something apart, figuring out what was wrong, fixing it and getting everything back together. Over time I noticed that some designs seemed to take the repairperson (and the need for repair) into account, making them much easier to work on and, therefore, less expensive to repair. Others seemed to be designed as a deliberate challenge for the repair person. As an engineer, I hoped I would be able to avoid poor design choices and make more user-centered designs.
MS: What did you learn about creativity through your engineering coursework?
PL: For the most part, engineering courses emphasize methodical analysis and provide extensive technical skills. Other than our senior year project, every problem we were assigned had one correct answer. Creativity wasn't really discussed per se--it was more implicit, especially as we moved into our senior projects.
My hands-on work in camera repair helped me trouble-shoot and thus solve atypical problems. For example, using an incorrectly labeled bottled of methane gas caused repeated failures in an experiment I was conducting. When I finally figured out that the bottle itself was the problem, I was able to move forward. Theory is great--but as an engineer in the field, a practical approach is essential. Sometimes, we overlook basic problems, like a mislabeled material.
MS: What did you learn about creativity through your MBA?
PL: While an MBA curriculum does deal with more open-ended problems, creativity was again mostly implicit, not a specific course component. Through coursework in organizational theory, I became interested in human motivation. Years later this would expand my interests in creativity. As Daniel Pink discusses in his book titled Drive (and as Theresa Amabile has revealed with decades of research), intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation. It is largely driven by our desire for autonomy, mastery, and significance. Contrary to popular belief, most of us are not primarily driven by money or the desire for power.
MS: As the co-founder of LearnStream, you tackled creativity in education more directly.
PL: Yes. We developed e-learning courses for many different industries using instructional design strategies, media, and software development, as well as sales and marketing. Getting diverse groups of people together to solve problems creatively was a fantastic experience.
MS: What has your current PhD research revealed about creativity?
PL: I am most interested in the theory of complex adaptive systems and how it can help us understand creativity and innovation. A complex adaptive system is one in which a number of diverse, interconnected, interdependent elements (referred to as agents) adapt their behaviour based on interactions with other agents and their environment. Complex adaptive systems include such things as the human brain, all living organisms, economies, stock markets, and colonies of social insects. One of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems is self-organization.
There’s a great example of this from nature that I really like: the ant bridge. The ants manage this with no leader, no general shouting orders. They don’t hold a brainstorming meeting or construct charts and graphs. Instead, they respond to the positions of every other ant, continually adjusting until they build the bridge.
MS: That really sheds new light on a problem, doesn't it? How about an example from entrepreneurship?
PL: Sure. Another characteristic of complex adaptive systems is what is called sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This has been popularized as the butterfly affect – the idea that a small change in the conditions of a system at one point in time can result in large differences later. Essentially, a butterfly in South America flapping its wings today could be the difference between there being a typhon in Asia in two months, or not.
And, we all know cases in which a small project was impacted by a large event. I knew someone who had a small but stable company. He eventually found some investors who believed in him and wanted to grow the business. Most of the investment went towards a carefully thought out advertising campaign that launched on September 9, 2001 – just two days before the attacks of September 11 became the focus of the world’s attention. Unfortunately, the 9-11 attacks completely derailed the ad campaign and the entire investment was a failure. Large or small, today's events affect tomorrow's results. The take-away from this is very similar to a quote of Linus Pauling’s that I like: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” My version: The best plan consists of lots of little plans.
MS: In your paper titled The Order-Chaos Dynamic of Creativity, you describe another crucial point--that highly creative people and processes employ a full spectrum of approaches, rather than being constrained. Can you distill this idea for us?
PL: I think you did a pretty good job of distilling the point of the paper with your question, Mary, but I will expand on that a bit. In the paper, I discuss existing creativity research that shows highly creative people tend to dynamically move along many different continuums, while less creative people are more static, taking up a point along each continuum, without moving as much, or as often. These continuums include: Knowledge /Naivety, Psychological Health/Psychiatric Disorders, Mindfulness/Mind-Wandering, Executive Attention Network /Default Network, Convergent/Divergent-Thinking, Extroverted/Introverted. The Order-Chaos dynamic is an essential property of complex adaptive systems. That is, all complex adaptive systems are always in a state of flux, dynamically moving along multiple continuums, as subsystems adapt to the ever-changing world around them.
MS: What is your connection to the Atlantic Centre for Creativity?
PL: It is an important enterprise, and I have been involved from the start. Right now, I am focusing on completing my PhD--but I hope to re-engage in the coming year.
MS: What would you most like to see the ACC accomplish?
PL: I am especially interested in programming, including workshops, guest speakers, possibly coursework for a certificate in creativity –even a degree in creativity, eventually. I believe that more explicit creativity coursework can strengthen our students' resilience as well as their imaginations. It can make them more employable and help them lead more fulfilling lives. The jobs of today are unlikely to be the jobs of tomorrow--and adaptability could be the key to our students' success. I’m also very interested in ongoing creativity research. I believe there is a lot we can do to better understand this critical aspect of life.