Typical stories of creativity and invention focus on finding novel ways to solve problems. James Dyson found a way to adapt the industrial cyclone to eliminate the bag in a vacuum cleaner. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed cubism as a technique for including several views of a scene in the same painting. The desktop operating system developed at Xerox PARC replaced computer commands with a spatial user interface.
These brief descriptions of these innovations all focus primarily on the novel solution. The problem they solve seems obvious.
But framing innovations in this way makes creativity seem like a mystery. How could so many people have missed the solution to the problem for so long? And how in the world did the first person come up with that solution at all?
In fact, most people who come up with creative solutions to problems rely on a relatively straightforward method: finding a solution inside the collective memory of the people working on the problem. That is, someone working to solve the problem knows something that will help them find a solution — they just haven’t realized yet that they know it.
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