Episode 373 – Rethinking creativity with Dennis Sherwood

Dennis Sherwood“What’s important about creativity is not novelty, but difference. I want something different from what is happening now, and difference is much easier to discover because difference means different from now.”

There’s a lot of mystique around creativity, but for practical people – people like scientists and engineers – being able to have good new ideas reliably is vitally important in a fast-changing world. Luckily, there’s a process for that, and Dennis Sherwood has put it into an award-winning book. 

In this generous and thoughtful conversation, we talk about that process for discovering difference (which makes, incidentally, a GREAT exploratory writing prompt), and we debate the order of writing and thinking. Fittingly, we land in different places here: what do YOU think? 



Dennis’s website: https://www.silverbulletmachine.com/

Dennis on Twitter: https://twitter.com/noookophile

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: Having been a consulting partner in Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, and an Executive Director at Goldman Sachs, Dennis Sherwood now runs his own consulting business, Silver Bullet, specializing in all aspects of organizational creativity and innovation, and his new book, Creativity for Scientists and Engineers: A Practical Guide won the Specialist Business Book category at the Business Book Awards 2023. So first of all, congratulations Dennis, and welcome to the show.

Dennis Sherwood: Well thank you so much and for that most gracious introduction.

Alison Jones: Have you stopped celebrating yet or is it still going strong?

Dennis Sherwood: Oh, still going strong. Any excuse is fine.

Alison Jones: Well, tell me about the moment. What was it like when they announced your name?

Dennis Sherwood: Well the moment was really, really splendid. And there was the big do in the big ballroom. I was there with my wife. You never know what’s going to happen. There’s no early warning, no hints. And of course, my book is very, very unusual for a management book. To have a title like Creativity for Scientists and Engineers is very, very different.

So it’s most, you know, pleasing and thrilling to to be awarded Specialist Business Book of the Year.

Alison Jones: And hooray for that category, in fact, because it means that books like this have a fighting chance.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, yes indeed. You know, most management business books are about leadership and teamwork, and these days inclusion, all very, very important subjects but there are really many specialist niches where people with particular backgrounds or particular interests are very, very interested in books and in learning.

Alison Jones: Well, let’s pick up on that because I guess the obvious question is how is creativity for scientists and engineers any different from creativity for anybody?

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, you are right. And in many ways it isn’t. And there are many, many creative books on creativity in the market. They’re targeted perhaps at managers or people in marketing or self-help. What’s different about Creativity for Scientists and Engineers is in essence the language, the process, and some of the examples.

Scientists and engineers like disciplined processes, they like thinking rigorously, and it’s very easy to make creativity very, very fluffy and a bit touchy-feely. I’ve spent a lot of time working with scientists and engineers in industry, in the public service, in universities, and indeed with kids at school as well. So I’ve crafted a process and I use the language that they understand and respond to.

Alison Jones: I guess there’s a question behind that as well, isn’t there, which I’d like to explore before we get onto the process itself, which is fascinating, which is: why do they need it?

Dennis Sherwood: Well, having ideas and being able to judge wisely between good ones and bad ones is central to making the world a better place. And scientists and engineers, especially engineers, in fact, are doing that all the time: architecture, structures, civil engineering, live alone medicine.

Now I, myself, I’m a scientist, that’s what I studied at university, but no one ever told me at school, at university how to be creative. It was expected. I kind of did that. Well, there are things that you can do deliberately to make that happen. That’s what the book is about.

Alison Jones: And let’s get onto that because it was really interesting hearing your personal story, that sort of just being left alone to be creative and, you know, wondering how to do it. And then almost stumbling over the methodology you talk about. So well, tell us the methodology and then a little bit about how you discovered it and how it works.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, the methodology is incredibly straightforward and simple, but it’s based on a principle that is perhaps less obvious. If you say to someone, what is creativity? They’ll talk about something which is new or maybe valuable. And the search for novelty is pervasive, but actually that’s looking in the wrong place.

What’s important about creativity is not novelty, but difference. I want something different from what is happening now, and difference is much easier to discover because difference means different from now. Now you know, and I know what now looks like. We can describe it, we can touch it, we can feel it.

So the key question in creativity is not what can I discover that is new, but how may, whatever it is, of the current state of the world be different from now and ideally better. So the whole process is based on observation, noticing what is around you, and then a spirit of inquiry. How might this be different? What might happen if we did this rather than that? That’s the core of it, which is deliciously simple and very practical.

Alison Jones: And actually very closely aligned to the scientific method really, isn’t it?

Dennis Sherwood: Absolutely, scientists have been doing that for years, but often not consciously or deliberately. It sort of happens because it sort of happens, which is great. But if you know how to do it deliberately, you can do it now and be so much more effective and productive.

Alison Jones: And by way of illustration, and also because it’s just a lovely story, just tell us about your own experience of having those sort of three things in your head and combining them differently when you went to look at the game.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, well, in fact, going way back, I did a PhD years ago and I remember being stuck. And I had learned how to solve problems other people had solved before when I was at school and university. That’s what you learn to do. But when you’re doing your own work, there is no book and I just was stuck. Remained stuck forever.

Alison Jones: And your supervisor isn’t really the person that’s going to solve it for you.

Dennis Sherwood: Well, all the supervisor says is, what ideas have you got? And the answer is, I don’t have any. That’s why I am stuck. And it was a long time before suddenly I appreciated that it was all about being very observant of what you’re doing now, than saying I have to do something different.

And I picked that up by reading a book called The Act of Creation by a guy called Arthur Koestler. And in that book he describes creativity as assembling and reassembling patterns of things that already exist, and that’s a very, very different definition of creativity but so true. Music, for example, you know, Beethoven didn’t invent the notes, but he crafted wonderful patterns of notes that already existed.

And that principle, taking things that already exist and combining them into new patterns is enormously powerful.

Alison Jones: And you used a lovely example of the chess board, you know, what if the pieces didn’t go in that position? What if part of chess was laying out the pieces in your own order? Which I thought was a terrific example of how it actually looks in practice.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, splendid, that’s a really good exercise to do because everyone knows the game of chess, even if only there are two players and there’s a board. But as soon as you observe chess, you know, there are two players. How might that be different? Well, maybe there are four players. Okay. What are they doing? Is it like doubles tennis or are they in different rooms, for example. If a pair of people are playing, say five moves at a time, and then they switch with their partner who’s been in a different room. That’s a much more challenging game because you don’t have the background of the preceding five moves. And that’s so easy to think of once you say, how might there be…

…there are two players, how might that be different? And chess is just full of that stuff. So it’s a very good way to get people tuned into that concept.

Alison Jones: Yes, I rather suspect that around the the world, there are people who have developed these sorts of rules. We have a particular family brand of Uno, which nobody else in the world would be able to understand, you know, crafted over the years. I never thought of it as innovation.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes it is, because this is the difference between new and different. You do not know any more than I do what is new because someone in Australia might have had that idea before, but if it’s new in our context and has some benefit in our context, that’s absolutely fine. So that’s the difference between new and being different. And that’s a very, very profound concept, I believe.

Alison Jones: Yes, philosophically it is really significant, isn’t it? And then in terms of practical application, I mean, you call this process ‘innov-action’, I think, I was really intrigued as to where that coinage, I mean obviously it’s innovate and putting into action, but you know, how did that evolve and stick?

Dennis Sherwood: Well, I mean, actually it’s just that process, taking different things and putting them together. Innovation-in-action, ‘innov-action’. And that’s how these things happen. And it’s a very deliberate process. You choose a topic of interest, you get various people with experience of that to notice and describe it, and you share those descriptions. I’m listening to other people with perhaps rather different experiences. That then gives me a very good description of what happens now.

We then explore how might that be different and let that be. And then we choose another feature, and this applies to chess. There are 16 pieces. What if we started with 10 pieces? How would that work? That’s interesting. Let’s think about that.

But it also applies to anything you can think of, clearly product design, if I’ve got a product, how could this be different? What if I use different materials or they’re in a different configuration? But most importantly, it applies to social behaviours and personal behaviours.

Everyone wants to be in a more high-performing team. Now, the only way that’s going to happen is if individuals in that community do something different. Well, what is it that I need to do differently so that the team behaves as a more high-performing team? It’s the same question. It’s just harder because it’s about my behaviour.

Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought of it as a straight take across two soft skills. You are almost applying that scientific principle to the variables involved in human relationships.

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, and it’s not just human relations, it’s about me too. It so happens that, you know, despite all of this stuff, I’m actually pretty introverted, pretty shy, so I go to a lot of conferences and all those things. And one of the things I like to do on a conference is say, please put me on in the morning, ideally before the coffee break, because it means that when coffee happens, I’ve sort of been on display and people know who I am, so they come up to me and say, Hey, that was interesting, or whatever.

If I’m on at the end of the afternoon, no one knows me and I’m too shy to come up and say, you know, hi, Joanna, how are you? Or, hi Simon, how are you? So I just stand there and I’m quite happy, I’m not freaked out about it, but I know that actually that’s not the right thing to do. How might that be different?

Maybe I do go up to Joanna and say, hi, I’m Dennis, you know, how are you? But I’m scared of that because I’m afraid she’ll turn me away. So I have to come to terms with trying that out in my head and then I do it and I find it works. How might that be different, is a really important principle.

Alison Jones: It’s a great prompt as well, I talk a lot about exploratory writing and just using, you know, getting better at giving yourself prompts and then writing into them and how might ‘x’ be different, I think is a grand general purpose prompt that can’t help but give you something useful.

Dennis Sherwood: Thank you and I think that applies very much to writing because one of the things I’ve learned, I’ve done a lot of writing especially with this book, is that I never get it right first time or second time and maybe third time it’s becoming okay. And that used to be writers block. I would agonize over a sentence or agonize over a word and find after three hours I’ve written five words. Now I say it really doesn’t matter what those first five words are, as long as they’re more or less in the right direction, because I can go through it again and apply ‘how might it be different’ to the words, to the sentences, and then it goes to the second draft and then the third draft. And by the time you get to the third draft, it’s beginning to be a bit okay, because it’s different from the second one and different from the first one.

But with that confidence, I’m much more comfortable about being fluid the first time round and not getting hung up, which actually makes the whole process much more productive.

Alison Jones: That’s such a great tip for writing, because you’re right, often, particularly for new writers, they want to get it right first time and it’s very hard to tolerate something that’s so different from the perfect vision that you have in your head when you sort of read back over what you’ve written and it’s a bit shonky.

But you can’t ask ‘how can it be different’ until you have something there to look at in the first place.

Dennis Sherwood: And it really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s not sort of rubbish. The issue that you have to come to terms with in what we’re talking about, is the time that process takes.

Because it takes longer to write whatever it is three times than agonizing over the once. And if you are not scheduling that in then you get all frenzied about it. But if you know that you’re going do it three times, your first draft is a lot quicker and gets improved second and third time around.

And indeed myself, if I’m ever coaching, for example, academic people in writing academic papers, it’s not their first skill writing clearly and fluently. And they do worry about that. And I say, Don’t worry, you know it well, write it down first time, then go through it saying, how might it be different at all levels. Word, sentence, paragraph, concept. Expect to do it three times and plan to do it three times and then you’ll get somewhere.

Alison Jones: It’s a great point, isn’t it? If you don’t allow yourself that time, then you are going to be feeling anxious and you don’t, in the same way that you’re not terribly creative when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, you also don’t write terribly well.

I mean, I would say it doesn’t take three times the length of time to do it that way. It takes an awful long time to agonize over a first draft.

Dennis Sherwood: Well there you go.

Alison Jones: I wouldn’t say there’s probably much in it. Yes, really, really fascinating.

You’ve written a lot of books, a lot of output over the years. If I were to say to you, what’s your process? What’s your writing process? What would you say?

Dennis Sherwood: Okay. That’s an interesting question because I would answer it as a thinking process, not a writing process. I’ve not written fiction novels, so I’m sure it’s different in novels where you are telling a story. In non-fiction, you are in essence describing something or instructing people or helping them, guiding them or making an argument about something.

Now, I’ve never read any bad writing. I’ve just seen lots of evidence of what I would call poor thinking. So, I like to think and think and think and think and think. And if it’s something to do with training or teaching, I like to have the experience of interacting with the people that I’m training or teaching and getting experience with that.

There comes a point then when it’s in your head, and it’s in the head very, very clearly, in a very good structure and quite logically. And then you just write down what’s in your head. And it’s the same with presentations. I’ve given a lot of coaching to people giving presentations who get really hung up and find that very stressful and have slides full of words and all of that stuff.

And I say, Stop, don’t write anything down. Think. Because you can think much more quickly than you can write and you can rethink. And only when your thinking is quite clear and, you know, walk around the house speaking it if you really want to, then you can write. And I find that, well that works for me and the people that I’ve interacted with, usually after some degree of anguish, find that pretty helpful.

Alison Jones: It’s so interesting because one of my tenets is that writing is thinking and that if you try and do it all in your head before you start writing, I find that really difficult and I wonder if it’s an introversion, extroversion thing. In that I work best as an extrovert, you know, in conversation with people. And writing allows me to be in conversation with myself almost, or with the page and just is much more helpful for it to help me get my thoughts sorted than simply considering it all in my head.

Dennis Sherwood: That’s a wonderful thing to say and I don’t know.

Alison Jones: Isn’t it interesting?

Dennis Sherwood: Isn’t it interesting, because as I said, I’m pretty introverted, so that kind of internal process that I described, you know, does indeed work for me. And I could well believe that other things work for other people. And I get the bit about the dialogue with yourself when you are writing. But actually the halfway house there is speaking to other people or indeed speaking to yourself.

Alison Jones: To yourself, or the dog. The dog’s great.

Dennis Sherwood: The dog is great. Because I always say, you know, once again, that if you’re trying to learn something, the most powerful learning experience is trying to teach someone else so that they understand.

It’s the same thing. It’s getting it clear in one’s own mind, really clear, so that someone else will understand it, and then it’s just capturing it.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Dennis Sherwood: But I take your point about, you know, different styles. Splendid.

Alison Jones: And in terms of, this is really geeky now, but in terms of sort of tools and systems, you have it all crystal clear in your brain and then do you just sit down and open a new Word document or do you have index cards? Do you have software? You know, what are your sort of tools of the trade when you’re writing?

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, no, actually it used to be pen and paper. I haven’t used that for a long time. I sit down at Word and just type away to be honest. But the structure is largely already there. That’s subject to everything I say about rewriting because the structure is there but it’s not right. And actually that process of self-analysis of a first draft is that iterative process of which you speak.

But to get to that first draft, prior to that, I really do think hard about it.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I love that the question, how can this be different, applies to the content that you’re writing, but it also applies to the way that you are writing, it also applies to the premise that you’re taking, it… across the whole spread of what you’re doing, isn’t it?

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, and I think this is something that young people can learn. And fundamentally, to my mind, creativity is about a combination of observation first, you’ve got to notice things. I’ve got to have somewhere to start. It’s then about curiosity. How might this be different? But you need to do that in a context of permission. So if the boss says, no, it’s got to be like that, forget it.

Now, those three characteristics of observation, curiosity, and permission can be around a very young child, if you’re taking a toddler for a walk, you encourage them to notice things. You know, what do you see? How many insects can you spot? What’s the color of the leaves? Get them to describe it back. And of course, they don’t have to use words if they don’t want to. If they want to do a dance or if they want to do a mime. They’re using their own self-expression to reflect what they’ve learned.

And then you can say, oh, okay, that leaf was green, but what other color might it be? And that encourages their imagination. And of course, you know, as the child gets older, that can be rather more specific and focused, but observation, curiosity, and permission underpin ‘how might this be different’.

Alison Jones: And there’s a whole podcast here about what that means for teachers and our education system as well, which we sadly haven’t got time for. But’s a really fascinating point. Yes, amazing.

If I were to ask you for your one best tip, I’m a bit greedy here, because you’ve already given us loads, but your one best tip for somebody who is just perhaps at the early stages of writing their first book, what would you say to them?

Dennis Sherwood: Courage, actually. Do it. Do it. If you’ve got the passion to do it, it’s very, very daunting. And to think of writing a book of 80,000 words or whatever, is a big task, it’s terribly easy at the start to say, oh no, I’m scared. I’ve never done it before. So I would say, you know, take courage. Do it. Try it. Chunk it up into smaller bits. Don’t try to write 80,000 words, but you know, write the first few pages and keep going because it’s so easy to give up.

And actually, I find that there’s a period when I’m sort of excited about it and it’s all very, very interesting. And then there’s a rather sort of grungy bit where I’m just fed up with it and I really don’t like writing about whatever it might be.

But I’ll struggle through that. Then you’ll have a more complete thing. So take courage, take heart, and…

Alison Jones: …and keep going…

Dennis Sherwood: …be tenacious. Yes.

Alison Jones: It’s so true, we call that the saggy middle.

Dennis Sherwood: Ah, right. Yes, yes, yes. I know what you mean.

Alison Jones: But I think if you haven’t been there before, if you haven’t come out the other side and you know that this is part of the process, you can just feel, oh, well, it’s not working. I must be doing something wrong. Or it must be the wrong book. Actually, it is part of the process. There’s no getting away from it.

Dennis Sherwood: Absolutely. It is the process, because actually if you’re writing anything, there’s always a bit that you are not that interested in as much as you are in other bits, but is necessary for part of the story or perhaps the research that you need to do because you don’t really know about that.

And I’m sure even novelists find there are bits of writing a novel where, you know, that bit of background or whatever it is, or that particular character development is not as exciting as other bits. So it goes up and down a bit. Expect that to happen. And it’s hard work. It’s hard work.

Alison Jones: Yes, courage and tenacity. Brilliant. Thank you. And I always ask my guests as well to recommend a book. You’re not allowed to recommend your own, sorry, that’s against the rules. But is there a book that you would like to thrust into the hands of everybody listening to this?

Dennis Sherwood: Yes, can I cheat a bit with two, please?

Alison Jones: You won’t be the first. I’m sure you won’t be the last.

Dennis Sherwood: Okay. I’ve already mentioned the Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler, it’s published in 1964. Anyone who is really interested in what creativity is about ,that is a masterpiece.

Alison Jones: A classic, isn’t it?

Dennis Sherwood: And Koestler was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but didn’t actually get it, but you know, he knows how to write.

The other one that I would go for is by Daniel Kahneman. I’m sure other people have mentioned this, Thinking, Fast and Slow, because that too is a masterpiece of how you think about things and how you notice things and how you don’t leap to unwise judgements.

Alison Jones: Yes, your two systems. Brilliant. Excellent recommendations. Thank you. And Dennis, if people want to find out more about you, more about Silver Bullet, more about the book, where should they go?

Dennis Sherwood: Super. The book is published by the Institute of Physics Publishing, and that’s a first for them to have the award. And it’s available on Amazon and all of those places.

And yes, I run my own little consulting business Silver Bullet. It’s all about creativity and innovation. If you google Dennis Sherwood Silver Bullet, you’ll find me.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. Such a pleasure to talk to you today, Dennis. Thanks for your time.

Dennis Sherwood: Thanks for a lovely conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.