Engineering innovation specialist David Cropley believes that for engineers to be innovative they need environments that encourage this from school, through university, to the workplace.
You might recognise Dr David Cropley from ABC Television a few years ago; using a toaster he melted a plastic bag to make a knife with which he cut a tomato. Cropley was talking to TV personality and advertising executive Todd Sampson about creativity in an episode of Redesign My Brain, a 2013 documentary series about Sampson’s quest to expand the boundaries of his grey matter.
Cropley is an associate professor of engineering innovation at the University of South Australia (UniSA), author of four books, and a renowned expert on organisational creativity and innovation.
One of Cropley’s focus areas is on divergent versus convergent thinking.
“It’s about thinking in reverse,” he said.
“You learn by looking at all the possible answers to a question. Instead of just learning 2+2 = 4, to build divergent thinking you ask, ‘How many different ways can you arrive at 4?’. This includes 0.1+3.9 and other combinations.”
Cropley said that Australia’s current emphasis on teaching STEM in schools and tertiary education will not automatically make graduates more creative, unless divergent thinking is a major dimension of their learning process.
“Of course schools are constrained by curriculum; they have to get kids to read, spell, add and subtract, so they often fall back on convergent thinking. It’s really too rigid an environment to get kids thinking creatively,” he said.
“Teachers need to open a space so kids have room and time to be creative.”
At the university level, convergent thinking again most often prevails.
“We are guilty at university of the same thing,” Cropley admitted, pointing to the fact that first year engineering courses focus on maths and related skills and do little with creative problem solving.
“This will continue unless we change the existing system,” he said.
“Students come out of high school all excited to do engineering, so we need to show them what engineers really do, give them real-life problems to work on and then they can figure out the skills they need to solve them.”
Cropley extends his analysis of divergent thinking to the workplace, arguing that some essential measurable and intertwined elements impact on organisations’ potential and ability to deliver creative and innovative results.
To be creative, an organisation needs people who are willing, motivated, have an openness to try new things, the ability to take risks and face uncertainty in order to find a creative solution.
“Usually a creative person gets intrinsic rewards. They are motivated by an internal desire to find the answer,” he said.
“A creative person is comfortable with uncertainty. If they are faced with a dilemma they will do something, while a person who is not creative will do nothing at all.”
The next element is process; individuals in an organisation need to change their cognitive and mental process to think laterally, outside the box, instead of just searching for the ‘right answer’.
But to do this, Cropley argues an organisation also needs to foster a fertile environment and culture for problem solving.
“If management provides a supportive environment, providing adequate time and resources to find an answer, this will facilitate creativity,” he said.
The final element is the product; to make it successful, it can’t just be creative in isolation, for its own sake, Cropley maintains, but must provide a tangible service or outcome, be effective and have a novel or original take on the problem.
Using these elements of person, process, press (environment) and product together, he measures an organisation’s innovation.
“I take a snapshot of their ability and then assess how creative and innovative they are. I address their strengths but also their weaknesses, and look at how they can turn them into strengths as well,” he said.