Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Simple. Simplex. Simplexity: Interview with Dr. Min Basadur by Dorte Nielsen

Simple. Simplex. Simplexity.

Interview with Dr. Min Basadur by Dorte Nielsen

at the 12th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation


It’s not every day you get the chance to meet a person of Dr. Min Basadur’s stature, let alone be given the privilege of interviewing him face to face. It’s perhaps testament to his talent that he is difficult to describe accurately with one professional title. He’s an Author, Thinker, Inventor, Consultant, Strategist, Innovator, Speaker, Researcher, Professor, Problem Solver and Founding Director of Basadur Applied Creativity Inc. and The Center for Research in Applied Creativity.

In the early 70’s Min Basadur went to the CPSI conference held by the Creative Education Foundation at the State University College at Buffalo. At CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Institute) Min Basadur was introduced to the work of Alex F. Osborn and Sid Parnes. Back at work, at Procter and Gamble, Min Basadur started to apply what he’d learned at the conference, and this became the beginning of his work in the field of applied creativity and problem solving.

Diving deeper into his work as I prepared for the interview I was very impressed, not only by the sheer volume of work, but also by his contributions to the field. He has written more than 30 peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals, several book chapters and two books of his own on innovation, problem solving and creativity. As a creativity scholar he has a unique position in the field. He is renowned for bringing together academic research with the practical application of creativity processes, tools and skills working very closely with businesses. What started as the Simplex process almost 30 years ago has evolved into The Simplexity Thinking System – a method of applied creativity that interconnects process, personal style profiles, thinking skills and tools.

I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Dr. Min Basadur at the 12th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation in September 2011 and I learned a lot about him and his professional achievements. He is an interesting and charismatic man who talked with enthusiasm and professionalism. The interview was conducted in four different parts as different time over a 2-day period.

The story behind the Simplexity Thinking

Meeting the creator of The Simplexity Thinking System, I was keen to hear more about its origins. I asked Dr. Min Basadur to tell me a little about how it was conceived.

The Simplexity Thinking System was conceived in the real world, based on the way problem solving happens successfully in organizations. It's built on the Osborn-Parnes’ concept, but greatly deepens and expands it, as the Osborn-Parnes process is a limited process, especially in its original form.

When I went to the Creative Problem Solving Institute (the CPSI conference on creativity and innovation), Osborn and Parnes gave us their five step process. It was a start, and meshed very well with my own ideas about creativity and problem solving. I said to myself – I'm going to jump off the diving board and start using what I have learned. When I returned to Procter & Gamble, I began to adapt the process to the many situations we had at the company. I was very uncomfortable at first. Here I was, telling a bunch of very highly qualified PhD Chemists that I might be able to help them. To my surprise, they liked what I did, and I began to realize that I could do something that they couldn't do well, and with that success grew my confidence. I started to work with other people on other problems, and little by little I began to weld it all together. I learned a tremendous amount about how problem solving and creativity works in real organizations. The fact that it was a circular never ending process was one of the most important discoveries. I integrated psychological, educational and behavioral research which I was learning at the University of Cincinnati into my on-the-job experience and out of that came “Simplex” which evolved into “The Simplexity Thinking System”. It's a way of operating. It's a system of thinking (and thinking simply). It integrates the behaviors, attitudes, and thinking skills that are required to make the process work, into a flowing continuous process, a process of adaptability, if you like. It's not a change management process; it's a change-making process. It's proactive and deliberate. And it recognizes that problem finding and problem definition, as well as implementation are critical and difficult for most people. Effective organizations implement such a process of adaptability into their everyday life.”

Key contributions to the field of creativity

Having been given this rare opportunity to get to know Dr. Min Basadur a little better, I asked him what he thought his major contributions to the field of creativity have been.

“Getting my PhD was the biggest joy in my career, although it was quite a hurdle to get to. I did it while I was working at Procter & Gamble, raising a young family, and responding to requests from local organizations to share and present my work. Working on my PhD let me integrate all of the key components I was experiencing into a flow and all my work came together. I wrote an award-winning dissertation in which I showed that people can be trained in creativity by following and building skills in a structured system of problem solving. I converted the dissertation into several published articles.

When I finished my PhD I came to a crossroads. I had a good job and yet I realized deep down I’d outgrown the company. I was getting requests for consulting from other companies. I was faced with a decision; would I become an independent consultant or a full time professor? It was then that I made the decision that I would do both. I would become a consultant, and I would become a professor and continue my research as well. So when I left Procter & Gamble, I joined McMaster University with a tenure track professorship and formed my own company, the Centre for Research in Applied Creativity. I soon began to get more calls for help from various companies. At the university, teaching has always been my passion; however doing the research was the harder part. At both universities, Cincinnati and McMaster, I built upon the research of Sid Parnes and other academics, which had been done mostly in the laboratory. So I took Sid Parnes’ research and advanced it into the context of real world organizations and situations. I found myself pioneering research in applied creativity in the real world of organizational life. At the time, there was virtually no one else researching creativity in this way. Which was actually a good thing, because I didn't have anybody telling me 'you can't do this, and you can't do that.' I had to discover, analyze and measure new concepts myself.

So my major contribution is that I have combined academic creativity research and my work in the real world to advance the science of applied creativity by doing work 'in the trenches'. I considered every single client as a research partner. While working together, we experimented with new ways of doing things, like the mapping tool 'Why? What’s stopping you?' We’d run an experiment, observe the effect, make a hypothesis, and validate the results. This work has resulted in 30 or 40 published scientific articles and book chapters and two books. My field work has had me working with Presidents, Managers and Shop Workers. The work has resulted in the development of frameworks for understanding creativity, such as a system of key elements including content, process, process skills, cognitive styles and tools such as: Why? What’s Stopping you?, Challenge Mapping, the Creative Problem Solving Profile, and an interconnected circular process. So basically, I strove to give credibility to the science of applied creativity, have developed new ways of thinking in this area and have identified a structured innovative problem solving system that anyone can learn. The work we have done has advanced the field, and I am pretty happy with that.”

Why? What’s stopping you? and How might we?

I was intrigued as to how Dr. Min Basadur came about the now well established tool – “Why, what’s stopping you?” and the expression “How might we?” I asked him if he could elaborate.

“I remember how I invented 'How might we?' and 'Why? – What’s stopping you?' At CPSI we were taught to ask 'Why?' and 'How?' But I found that the 'How?' didn’t work because it puts people into a solution mode rather than diving deeper into the real root of the challenge. So, in 1978 I had a group of Industrial Engineers from different parts of Procter & Gamble coming to a seminar. They each had to bring a problem. I put them into small groups, and they had to tell each other about the problem they came with. One of the groups had moved through problem definition, and they were helping each other define the problem. A gentleman from Sacramento insisted that he didn’t really have a problem. He said, 'I thought I did, but I don't'. I went over to help. They said: 'This guy says he doesn't have a problem.' I said: 'What do you mean?' And he said: 'I came here with a problem. How do we get our plant to move from 8 boilers to 4 boilers? But I have talked to the guy from the Atlanta plant, and they already gone from 8 boilers to 4. So, I don't really have a problem anymore.' So I am thinking, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. To help I said: 'What’s stopping you?' It just came out of my mouth; 'What's stopping you from going from 8 boilers down to 4?' and he said: 'Well nothing, Atlanta already knows how to do it.' So I asked again: 'What's stopping you and your company from doing it?' He replied again: 'Well nothing,' So then I asked him: 'What's stopping you walking out of here now and moving the plant to 4 boilers?' and he said: 'The department managers are not interested in energy conservation'– and that was the real answer to the question! The new 'How might? was 'How might I get the department managers interested in energy conservation?' I'll never forget it. I thought that's it! If you ask people 'How?' - they're just going give you a solution. But the 'What’s stopping you?' forces them to think about the real facts underlying the challenge. It's very difficult for people to think that way when they're used to giving solutions, rather than facts.

'How might we?' came about in 1973 or 74, when I was working at Procter & Gamble. Sid Parnes was using 'In what ways might we?' That was the original phrase. But 'In what ways might we?' is long-winded and is not going to work in a business environment. So we used 'How might we?' which is very quick, much more intuitive, and has consequently proven to work better. It also becomes a battle cry for optimistic problem finding and solving, and a simple concept for culture change."

The Creative Problem Solving Profile

I went on to ask Dr. Min Basadur to elaborate on the origins of The Creative Problem Solving Profile and how that came about.

“In 1981 I was asked by the Ford Motor company if I could do some work with them and come up with something that people could share with their colleagues or family after participating in Simplexity training or problem solving workshops. So that's where I created the profile styles that match with the Simplexity four stage, eight step process. The styles are based on different combinations of the mental operations of Guilford’s landmark Structure Of Intellect (SOI) model. From then on, when Ford Motor Company participants came in for a workshop, they filled out a form identifying their style profile, and then took a fresh form home to involve a spouse or colleague in sharing their process and skill learnings in a 'learning by doing way'. It worked very well! It was then that I began to realize how powerful this tool was. The Ford Motor company said to me: 'This profile is probably the most important thing you've done.' And I’d have to agree."

Simple, Simplex, Simplexity

Dr. Min Basadur then went on to talk more about The Simplexity Thinking System and how it’s developed over the years.

Right from the beginning people have asked me: What is it you do? and How do you do that? So I had to give it a name… Simplex was the idea of simple with an X. Over the years I have been asked, what I do, so many times that I realized what we really are doing is helping people solve problems. That's it! The problems will vary, but the approach in solving problems stays the same. Because of globalization and cross cultural integration of international commerce the problems are getting more and more complex. So a good way of communicating what we do for people, in a way that will engage them, is to describe it as: We make complex problems simple – Simplexity. I wish I'd thought of the name Simplexity twenty five years ago, but I’d have to admit that I wasn’t one hundred percent clear in what I was actually doing back then. I thought that I was just helping people generate ideas, break through barriers and think outside the box. But little by little I began to realize, it was much more than that. We help people work together and collaborate. We understand that problem solving has a huge amount of emotion in it. We know how to get people to converse with each other, and not to be afraid. We can get senior people to admit to their mistakes, which can be very challenging. But we know that, if we can get people to speak in simple language and follow the simple steps of the Simplexity Thinking System we can make even their very complex problems very simple.

We are branding everything as Simplexity now. Simplexity is a system. It involves a process, which we call Simplexity. It requires process skills, which we call Simplexity Process Skills. We have Simplexity Tools, and Simplexity Styles. I would like to establish Simplexity Thinking as the new highest-level managerial skill obtainable. Higher than Design Thinking, which I understand is the current buzz-word. It is our goal to make Simplexity Thinking the most recognized brand when it comes to problem solving and innovation. I can understand it if people still call it Simplex though. After all, we've been working hard for so many years to establish that brand. Although, strictly speaking, it should now be called The Simplexity Thinking System.

The key to our success has been building self-sufficiency. If you come to us as a client, we won't just help you solve your problems. We will train you to do what we do, and we will train you to teach others what we do. We are very comfortable in making agreements where there's something in it for us, and something in it for them. We give our clients all the knowledge, materials and skills they require and we want them to use everything. It's in our interests to make them successful. When they're successful, they tell other companies. They say: 'Phone this outfit. They can teach you how to solve your problems.' So that's the way we work.”

New publications

I was also keen to hear about Dr. Min Basadur’s current projects. I asked him what he was working on at the moment.

My most recent publications are about increasing awareness about the need for a process and subsequently the skills needed to drive the process in creativity, problem solving and innovation in the real world. Those skills are attitudinal, cognitive and behavioral. It’s what I believe that Sid Parnes and Alex Osborn were trying achieve ; it’s what we call creative behavior. Creative behavior is more than having a process you use briefly to solve a problem over in some corner. Rather, it's the way we behave all the time, 24/7/365. We're trying to induce creative behavior, and raise it beyond a process. That's what I mean by system. Creative thinking is what you want as a way of life in your organization. Ultimately, we want people coming in every day eager to solve problems. Not to say: 'This is not my job, I've got to run the machine (or track sales)'. There's process, there's tools, there’s behavioral, attitudinal, and cognitive skills, and styles. When you have everyone applying them every day, you have got yourself a culture of creativity.

Part of my ongoing research continues to be improving the Creative Problem Solving Profile, that is making it psychometrically tighter and tighter, and showing that it connects meaningfully to the real world. I established the first Profile version in 1982, and it has been significantly improved five times. I have a son who is studying for a PhD right now in Chicago in the same area. Because of his interest, I've completed even more research than normal in the past five years. My son is carrying my work forward and connecting it with newer concepts like social networks and regulatory mode theory and explaining the complex motivation – creativity process relationship. I’m in the lucky situation, were I can continue to work, experiment and learn with help from many others. Our system and Profile has been translated into more than ten different languages. So again, it's another example of how I've taken the theoretical work of Sid Parnes and Alex Osborn and taken it into the real world.

I'm also writing a new book now, called 'What's missing?' That may not be the final title. It's about why people have come to me over the last 30 years. Why are they coming? Why can't they do it themselves? What can't they do? Why does the Simplexity System provide the answers? What’s missing in our educational systems? I’ve have experiences and story after story to illustrate deficiencies in skill, which we're transforming into a structured book.”

Connection with the International Center for Studies in Creativity

As Dr. Min Basadur’s found a lot of his early inspiration in the work of Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes, which grew into The International Centre for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo, I was keen to hear what his connections with the Center were today.

“I am very closely connected with the Centre especially with department chair Dr. Gerard Puccio. We're partners. I help him with research, and he helps me. Gerard's very open minded and a very good scientist and researcher. In recent years, he has started to discover the basic research I had done in my early career, where previously very few were interested. I have presented for Gerard and Sid Parnes at the Center at conferences, and teaching workshops. Several students from the Center have been using our instruments such as the Ideation-Evaluation Preference Scale in their training and research. Several years ago I shared my Creative Problem Solving Profile inventory with Gerard, to help him validate his own work on styles."

The Guilford connection

Finally Dr. Min Basadur talked enthusiastically about his connection with the work of J. P. Guilford:

“I am a big fan of Guilford. He was one of the people who added structure to creativity. I had lunch with him when I was looking for ideas and inspiration for my dissertation.

My Creative Problem Solving Profile is based on the mental operations of his Structure Of Intellect model: Cognition, Divergent Production, Evaluation and Convergent Production.

Now, if you look carefully, Cognition is one way of learning. As children we learn by doing. We touch. We feel. The opposite is learning by Convergent production. People give us problems at school, and we have to converge to the right answer. It's a way of thinking, which converges to the right answer from a given set of information. So it's producing knowledge by thinking, as opposed to producing knowledge by doing. When we take kids into school, we make them switch. We force them how to learn by thinking, when they're so used to learning by doing. Individuals have personal preferences for learning one way or the other. You can see this reflected in one of the two bipolar axes (vertical) of the Profile. (See Basadur’s Profile Overview). The other bipolar axis reflects how individuals differ in their preferences for how they use their knowledge however gained. On the horizontal axis, one side is evaluation and the other side is divergent production. If you combine the mental operations in various ways, you've got the different styles. So the first style is learning by doing and using knowledge for diverging. That's the Generator. The next one is learning by thinking and using knowledge for diverging. That’s the Conceptualizer. So that's when you get people to understand. It is when they can see the whole picture. It makes sense to them. It comes together. The third style is the Optimizer. They think abstractly. And they evaluate. It's got to make sense. They want the single best solution. Finally, you get to the Implementers. They also learn by doing, but they're always evaluating but always eager to get something finished. They're coming through, and they've got to implement. And that's the way the combinations go. I am just so pleased, that I could make something that Guilford did become so useful to people.”

And finally, an admission.

Finally, I asked Dr. Min Basadur, if he could tell me something about himself and his professional life, that nobody else knows… He thought for a while, and with a smile he replied:

“After all these years, I still have to work very hard to defer judgment. I have to work at not being too impatient. Most might not know my struggle. People would probably say: 'He just does that so naturally, but I must admit that I have to work hard at it.”

Dorte Nielsen is an Associate Professor at the Danish School of Media Journalism, where she is Head of Department and a Course Leader of ”Creative Communication” a BA education for Art Directors and Conceptual Thinkers. Dorte teaches creativity and creative thinking, and is the author of numerous books and articles on the subject. In recent years Dorte held the position of Chair of Creative Circle, the Danish society for the creative industries.