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The Creative Techniques Toolbox

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The stench of rotten corpses fills the streets of collapsing Rome. The Antonine Plague, the first pandemic known to hit the Roman Empire in 170 AD, eradicated fifteen percent of the population within fifteen years. A global state of panic caused most survivors to either ransack or flee the city. Yet its emperor at that time, Marcus Aurelius, chose to stay and brave the crisis, reassuring the people that his life wasn’t worth more than anyone else’s, in stark contrast to so many of his predecessors. When faced with a life-threatening problem such as the plague, instead of zooming in on his own situation, Aurelius' Stoic training taught him to look at the whole.

During and after the ravages of the plague, more bad news kept pouring in. The Roman borders were constantly under attack and slowly but surely exhausted both its soldiers and its finances. Instead of taking the narrow-minded approach to solve the gaping hole in the treasury, for example by raising taxes and plundering neighbors, Aurelius did the opposite. He zoomed out and looked at all aspects of the problem. It occurred to him that his predecessors amassed a lot of shiny trinkets that did nothing but gather dust. Thus, Marcus made a bold decision: to keep on funding the war against the German tribe, he sold all imperial ornaments at the Forum. According to Roman historian Dio Cassius, after the emperor’s triumph over Rome’s enemies, Aurelius returned the gold to those who brought back the ornaments, without forcing anyone unwilling to do so.

His motto was simple, humbling even: “Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Waste no more time talking about what a good man is like. Be one”. This statement came from a man that lost nine out of fourteen children, faced constant war, and due to recurring health problems presumably succumbed to the plague himself, thereby ending the 200-year long Roman Golden Age.

Eighteen centuries later, the squeaking bed springs fill an otherwise peacefully silent hotel room somewhere in the western United States. A middle-aged balding man scribbles notes on a small piece of paper. Many hotel visits later, the ever-increasing stack of paper pieces would form the basis of the twentieth century classic novel Lolita that Vladimir Nabokov wrote during his butterfly-collection travels as an entomologist.

Nabokov didn’t approach writing like many others do. Instead, after forming a picture in his head, he gradually maps out the entire structure on index cards. This allowed him to overcome the infamous fear of the blank page or writer’s block. New cards get filled as he felt inspiration bubbling up, sometimes even during butterfly hunts. “I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper” he tells us in an interview.

When Nabokov got stuck, or when a part of the story somehow didn’t appeal to him, he simply placed the related index cards on the floor1 to rearrange, add, or remove bits and pieces. After many rearrangements (and reiterations), Nabokov would join the cards by numbering them, and dictate everything to his wife who acted as typist, proofreader, and sometimes savior of discarded index cards. Nabokov’s jigsaw puzzle-like approach to novel writing earned him a lot of flexibility and efficiency.

The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s final novel, was never completed. Thirty-two years later, Penguin published it as “a novel in fragments”. The 138 present index cards that are faithfully reproduced, complete with smudges and crossed-out words, can be cut out and organized—and reorganized—as the reader sees fit, in true Nabokov-style. It sheds light on how Nabokov structured his work and how he selected the best words to describe characters.

The original index cards of Nabokov's final book fetched for 78k pounds at Christie's!

At the beginning of our current twenty-first century, a Manifesto for Agile Software Development was formed by a team of dedicated human-oriented software professionals, stating that “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly”2. The manifesto was authored by one of the most influential software engineers of our time: Robert C. Martin, Jeff Sutherland, Alistair Cockburn, Martin Fowler, Andy Hunt, Kent Beck, Ken Schwaber, …

Two years later, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland compressed their “advanced product development method” ideas in a single word called Scrum. Regular reflections were also baked into the core of Scrum: “After the Sprint Review and prior to the next Sprint Planning meeting, the ScrumMaster holds a Sprint Retrospective meeting with the Team”. The Sprint Retrospective was born.

How do you conduct a sprint retrospective? According to the Scrum Guide, it should be a both enjoyable and effective way to look back at the work done and inspect what could be improved with regards to people, relationships, processes, and tools—depending on the team’s Definition of “Done”. Over the years, several inventive techniques have surfaced to set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, and close the reflection. The Check-In, Mad Sad Glad, Five Whys, Circle of Questions, Temperature Reading, and many other methods provide helpful guidelines to conduct an enjoyable and efficient retro.

What is the greatest common divisor between Marcus Aurelius' Bird’s-eye view approach to ruling an empire during troubled times, Vladimir Nabokov’s flexible index card system that allowed him to easily change the entire structure of a novel, and various agile retrospective techniques? All three examples showcase the use of creative techniques to overcome roadblocks and generate novel insights.

Without a firm background in Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius might not be considered today as the last of the Five Good Roman Emperors. He could have ruled as ruthlessly as Nero and Caesar, but he chose not to: he had been given the tools to deny malice and hypocrisy. “Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple, it happens. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you” he wrote in his Meditations when he was older.

Without index cards, Nabokov might never have recovered from writer’s block. Just like Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system, Nabokov’s cards boosted both creativity and productivity. Just like Luhmann, Nabokov was another great polymath or “multipotentialite” as a novelist, poet, translator, professor of literature, and entomologist.

Without the creative tools to facilitate an agile retrospective, the fortnightly meeting ends up like any other meeting: a boring and useless waste of time. Knowing one or more of the aforementioned methods will keep things enjoyable and effective, something all professional gatherings should aim for.

This is part seven of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity, part 2: constraint-based creativity, part 3: creative critical thinking, part 4: from curiosity to creativity, part 5: a creative state of mind, and part 6: technical knowledge brews creativity.

  1. Rearranging also happened in a box in the back of the car en route to his beloved butterfly-hunting locations. ↩︎

  2. See↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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