• Robb G. Best

Read Like a Finder, Think Like an Artist

W. Edwards Deming might not be a household name, but his fingerprints are virtually all over the stuff in your house. That is, assuming you own anything made since the late 1960’s.

Born on October 14, 1900, Deming is considered by many to be the father of modern manufacturing principle. Particularly in Japan, he is hailed as a hero. After World War II, Deming traveled to the war-torn country as a statistician to help rebuild the economy. There, he developed his 14 key principles. These 14 commandments of modern manufacturing helped turn Japan into the global powerhouse it is today.

Central to Deming’s philosophy is the notion that, when solving a problem, it is first necessary to identify the root cause.

On the surface, it doesn't seem too groundbreaking. (But then again, neither does washing your hands before surgery and that only caught on in the twentieth century.) Failing to follow Deming's root cause rule has caused incalculable cost in manufacturing, relationships and medical procedures, to name but a few.

Fast forward about two decades. In the 1960's, famed social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are searching for the root cause of creativity. Their quest brings them to the Art Institute in Chicago, where they observe fourth-year students preparing to draw a still life by arranging standard drawing class objects on a table. In his new book, To Sell is Human: the surprising truth about moving others, Daniel Pink describes what happened next:

“The young artists approached their task in two distinct ways. Some examined relatively few objects, outlined their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still live. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, rearranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete their drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve the problem: How can I produce a good drawing?"(soley about the technique) "The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?” (about creating art)

In a subsequent art show, a panel of experts declared that the finders generally had the better drawings. Follow-up studies 18 years later confirmed the finders were indeed more successful in the art world.

According to Pink, “Getzel and Csikszentmihalyi’s research influenced the modern understanding and academic study of creativity. In subsequent research, they and other scholars found that people most disposed to creative breakthroughs in art, science, or any other endeavor tend to be problem finders.” These people tend to experiment more across a variety of disciplines, search for unique combinations, and show flexibility in both their approach and their willingness to change course as necessary.

Kirby Ferguson would tell you that everything is a remix of what's come before. He suggests that the essence of creativity, of originality, is recombining existing ideas and reframing them in surprising ways. This itself is, in a way, a remix of the Getzel and Csikszentmihalyi findings. (Obviously Ferguson practice what he preaches.)

If we are truly a mash-up of what we take in, we need to learn how to read books in finder mode. Instead of treating each volume like a multiplication problem with one truth to uncover and solve, we should search for links and meanings across many books, across conversations we had months ago and concepts we saw in movies and stories we heard as children. Like a tree with a root structure intertwined with a much larger ecosystem, discovering these connections produces insight far beyond each individual item.

Deming made us pay attention to the idea of solving for root cause. But Getzel, Csikszentmihalyi, Ferguson and many more show us that roots and their connectivity offer seemingly unlimited possibilities. This is the elegance and beauty of both the forest and our creative quest.


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