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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 17, 2013

Creativity Training For Creative Creators

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Posted by Derek

Here's a bilous broadside against the whole "creativity" business - the books, courses, and workshops that will tell you how to unleash the creative powers within your innards and those of your company:

And yet the troubled writer also knew that there had been, over these same years, fantastic growth in our creativity promoting sector. There were TED talks on how to be a creative person. There were “Innovation Jams” at which IBM employees brainstormed collectively over a global hookup, and “Thinking Out of the Box” desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club. There were creativity consultants you could hire, and cities that had spent billions reworking neighborhoods into arts-friendly districts where rule-bending whimsicality was a thing to be celebrated. If you listened to certain people, creativity was the story of our time, from the halls of MIT to the incubators of Silicon Valley.

The literature on the subject was vast. Its authors included management gurus, forever exhorting us to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis. Most prominent, perhaps, were the science writers, with their endless tales of creative success and their dissection of the brains that made it all possible.

I share his skepticism, although the author (Thomas Frank) comes at the whole question from a left-wing political perspective, which is rather far from my own. I think he's correct that many of the books, etc., on this topic have the aim of flattering their readers and reinforcing their own self-images. And I also have grave doubts about the extent to which creativity can be taught or enhanced. There are plenty of things that will squash it, and so avoiding those is a good thing if creativity is actually what you're looking for in the first place. But gain-of-function in this area is hard to achieve: taking a more-or-less normal individual, group, or company and somehow ramping up their creative forces is something that I don't think anyone really knows how to do.

That point I made in passing there is worth coming back to. Not everyone who says that they value rule-breaking disruptive creative types really means it, you know. "Creative" is often used as a feel-good buzzword; the sort of thing that companies know that they're supposed to say that they are and want to be.

"Innovative" works the same way, and there are plenty of others, which can be extracted from any mission statement that you might happen to have lying around. I think those belong in the same category as the prayers of Abner Scofield. He's the coal dealer in Mark Twain's "Letter to the Earth", and is advised by a recording angel that: "Your remaining 401 details count for wind only. We bunch them and use them for head winds in retarding the ships of improper people, but it takes so many of them to make an impression that we cannot allow anything for their use". Just so.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 17, 2013 9:42 AM writes...

As the old saying goes, "you don't win the high jump with eight people who each can jump one foot, you need one person who can jump eight feet."

Management cannot cause creativity, the most they can do is avoid preventing it. Unfortunately, few companies can avoid preventing their people from being creative.

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2. me on October 17, 2013 9:43 AM writes...

I have over a hundred issued inventions, and am of two minds on this. I certainly believe that the ability to recognize patentable material is trainable - I have done this successfully with many fellow inventors. And there are certainly techniques that I and others use to create inventions. And it is certainly true that once one has recognized a problem that is ripe for a solution that brainstorming can be very successful in coming up with patentable ideas. None-the-less I am skeptical that the basic creative ability is something that is not innate.

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3. me on October 17, 2013 9:44 AM writes...

I have over a hundred issued inventions, and am of two minds on this. I certainly believe that the ability to recognize patentable material is trainable - I have done this successfully with many fellow inventors. And there are certainly techniques that I and others use to create inventions. And it is certainly true that once one has recognized a problem that is ripe for a solution that brainstorming can be very successful in coming up with patentable ideas. None-the-less I am skeptical that the basic creative ability is something that is not innate.

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4. me on October 17, 2013 9:50 AM writes...

I have over a hundred issued inventions, and am of two minds on this. I certainly believe that the ability to recognize patentable material is trainable - I have done this successfully with many fellow inventors. And there are certainly techniques that I and others use to create inventions. And it is certainly true that once one has recognized a problem that is ripe for a solution that brainstorming can be very successful in coming up with patentable ideas. None-the-less I am skeptical that the basic creative ability is something that is not innate.

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5. Hap on October 17, 2013 9:58 AM writes...

If your desires (and the desires of your investors) are to have easily predictable product creation processes made by employees who are easily controlled and expendable, I'm not certain how "creativity" or "innovation" are going to happen. Imagination and creativity require the knowledge and honesty to know what you have and face its consequences and the persistence and time to make it work - in general, knowledge is not rewarded, honesty is actively penalized (because it tells people things they don't want to hear), persistence is problematic because it makes employees less controllable, and neither management nor investors have the time or patience to wait. Good luck with that.

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6. johnnyboy on October 17, 2013 10:05 AM writes...

@3-5: sounds like you need to invent something to prevent overactive clicky finger...

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7. Anonymous on October 17, 2013 10:11 AM writes...

@2: Have you commercialized any of those patents, or just collecting them as a hobby (at huge cost)?

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8. Anon on October 17, 2013 10:25 AM writes...

But what are the antithetical synonyms for creativity?
You have intentions "creativity," and you will be persevered as aloof, scatterbrained, eccentric, etc.
The tech world has embraced (I won't say why), pharma likely never will.
Like someone said above, its about removing disincentive, not added incentive. Incentivizing can only work after you've done the first step.

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9. Anon on October 17, 2013 10:26 AM writes...


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10. Cellbio on October 17, 2013 10:28 AM writes...

I share the intuitive belief that a large part of creativity is innate (wouldn't there be some good lit on this?), but wholeheartedly disagree with not being able to ramp up the creative forces of an organization. Yes, it may be next to impossible to quickly transform a large company with entrenched systems and personal protective behaviors that work against creativity when the CEO sees the "mission" as the path to quickly rescue earnings.

However, there are clear drivers of organizational creativity that can be consciously built, enforced and which do positively impact creativity. And when in place, it also becomes evident that while there are more and less creative individuals, contributions to creativity can and do come from all angles, often by people outside of the depth of field under discussion because they have a fresh perspective.

The drivers are a culture where ideas have no hierarchy, where managers are skilled at management and artfully disappear from moments of team success, where "leaders" are not modeled of off academic PIs where the presumption is the final scientific say sits higher in the organization, where teams have the strongest voice, where the breadth of the team is exposed to strategic goals not just tasks, where failure is safe and when safe to fail honest opinions about the potential of projects frees people to change direction and pursue ideas with merit instead of advancing toward goals that meet career objectives and satisfy internal metrics of success.

WIth a unyielding belief in this and never wavering, creativity can be cultivated. And perhaps, the high jump analogy is incorrect in that success of highly functional drug discovery teams can be driven by one foot jumps by many members. I think the concept of productive creativity is too narrow if one assume's that creativity stops when the target or NCE is "discovered". Perhaps this contributes to our industry failings as I am quite sure drug discovery from this point forward requires as much or more creative energy.

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11. GBS on October 17, 2013 10:32 AM writes...

Those that can create, those that can't write about it and make money.

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12. Anonymous on October 17, 2013 10:46 AM writes...

Creativity is about being able to make connections between previously disconnected ideas and concepts (problems and solutions). I don't think one can acquire that ability if it isn't there, though it does require regular practice to keep it active.

And, yes, there are plenty of ways to kill creative thinking, particularly in big risk-averse organizations where the antibodies are just waiting to attack the new and unfamiliar!

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13. barry on October 17, 2013 10:49 AM writes...

as long as our corporate culture selects against the creative types, this "creativity training" is wasted on those who remain in industry.
In children, creativity may be taught. By the time one's in industry, it must be selected and rewarded.

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14. Anonymous on October 17, 2013 11:29 AM writes...

“Creative activity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.”

“Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality.”

- Arthur Koestler

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15. AK Ch on October 17, 2013 12:29 PM writes...

Creativity is not necessarily taught, but often arises from ignorance of what's already known. And occasionally, attempting that's rather accepted to be doomed for failure is worth doing. I just think that when such a crap-shoot works in the Organic field, we call it innovation or creativity and hence cloud the next guy from ever trying the crazy thing.

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16. Toad on October 17, 2013 1:20 PM writes...

Tom and David Kelley were on CBS This Morning today hawking their book "Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All". I half-expected it to be co-written by Kevin Trudeau, and expect it to contain about as much new material as Trudeau's books. They've had success with IDEO but do I think they would or could give away the "secret sauce" in 10 easy steps, applicable to everyone? No, I seriously doubt it.

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17. daveh on October 17, 2013 1:51 PM writes...

Creativity can be stifled or cultivated by a corporate culture, but I've never witnessed it be created by management directive.

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18. patentgeek on October 17, 2013 3:07 PM writes...

The description of how the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was created, in Alexander and Smith's "Fumbling the Future", is one of the few things useful things I've read on establishing an intensely innovative team. Of course, ultimately Xerox (legendarily) blew it, but PARC did deliver the creative goods.

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19. Ayatollah of Equitable Creativity on October 17, 2013 5:39 PM writes...

Most medicinal chemists I've known, when called for, can be tremendously creative. That's never been a problem. Many of us probably wouldn't be alive if it weren't for some drug molecule that a medicinal chemist conjured up late at night, to evade thousands of side-reactions and just do one thing in the human body. Think of it, that's way tougher than sending a rocket to the moon.

The problem has been, that big pharma management has of late, been too creative at putting up barriers to such creativity. (disguised with names like Lean Six Sigma) If one of you has a brilliant idea today that will need ~4 months of work to develop, how easy is it for any of you to actually do this in your company? You'll likely have to convince multiple levels of management above to get buy-in. Notwithstanding the political crap which will parallel Washington, the process will enable them to water-down your idea from being truly disruptive and high risk, to something very low-risk and incremental at best, if it survives. Also you likely won't be able to implement it this year. It will have to wait till the next year to get on to your performance goals. When it does come time for goal planning, your manager will likely convince you to make it more predictable for your own sake with the very innovation-inspiring hint: if the bosses decide on a lay-off later they may look at your success rate and at how useful this thing actually is.

True creativity is about freedom to experiment and leadership to take risks, not about some young kids from HR sticking colorful pictures all over the company and running workshops. We are all born with it and trained for it. And about management truly incentivizing and awarding disruptive uncertainty as opposed to incremental certainty.

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20. CMCguy on October 17, 2013 8:11 PM writes...

I agree with #10 Cellbio in that with appropriate leadership, culture, guidance and/or freedom organizational creativity can be promoted. What is harder is to focus the creativity to a meaningful and profitable outcome and that often does take a team to bring in different approaches and skills to transition (including those who can bring in money at risk to fund uncertain ventures).

Although I do mostly think creativity is innate wonder if it exists in every individual, particularly children, but experiences and discouragement of nonconformity ultimately stifles sparks that might grow if nurtured. The education system seems to damage or rarely encourage it, unless lucky enough to get a special teacher that recognizes and works to enhance immature abilities. Majority of these are probably more in Art and Theater programs, where it is accepted, as most Science appears as Facts and Figures without training in looking beyond the next test, cum exam or dissertation. Unfortunately even if survives all that most companies can further restrict or not build on creativity.

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21. TinyB on October 17, 2013 8:27 PM writes...

I perhaps understand your skepticism regarding "gain of function" for individuals through the kind of stereotypical behavioral reinforcement you refer to, but I firmly believe that "gain of function" for organizations is achievable. Getting groups of people to be creative, imo, seems to be more dependent on how high functioning the intergroup communication is (e.g., do they trust each other enough to try crazy new ideas) rather than the absolute creativity of the individual members. I believe the right group behaviors can be improved through training, painful as it might be, and group creative group output will improve.

As you said, Derek, "Not everyone who says that they value rule-breaking disruptive creative types really means it, you know." Just one of those types in a team leadership position will certainly reduce the creative output of the group.

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22. Kelvin on October 17, 2013 10:02 PM writes...

Risk-averse managers are hired and promoted by risk-averse managers because they are seen as safe, and like to keep in control of things. However, creativity and innovation depend on comfort with uncertainty, experimentation and letting go of control, so there is an inherent conflict.

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23. Nick K on October 17, 2013 11:09 PM writes...

Strange, isn't it, how actual creativity in Pharma is negatively correlated with the amount of talk about creativity.

Senior management can't seem to understand that a stressed, insecure workforce is unlikely to take risks and "think outside the box", to use the current cliche.

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24. kreeateive on October 18, 2013 1:10 AM writes...

Well, there was this documentary... electroshocks help, apparently.

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25. sepisp on October 18, 2013 3:57 AM writes...

Pure ideas are an inexhaustible resource. What is scarce is following them up. I could've easily filed 2-4 patents from the ideas I get from the current project I'm working in. But, they're not in the research plan, and won't be pursued.

The trouble is that when people say "innovation" or "creativity", they don't actually mean that. They translate to "patents", "publications" and "success". When someone higher-up tells you to "innovate", they don't mean that you should innovate, they mean that you should file a patent within 6 months. When they say "creative", it's creative within tightly constrained limits, solving predetermined problems with predetermined tools and methods. You can't fail, otherwise you'll get fired.

Ideally, scientific managers would fulfill two roles: foremanship and scientific authority. This can be successful. Combining both is a Hard Problem.

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26. eugene on October 18, 2013 6:48 AM writes...

"Well, there was this documentary... electroshocks help, apparently."

Excellent. I have an old two element electric stove that often gives me small shocks when I change the temperature and accidentally touch the metal part. I'll put 'creativity' into my resume from now on. Though... lately I've been good about not touching the metal, but I guess I should do it on purpose for the good of my career.

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27. Anonymous on October 18, 2013 7:15 AM writes...

A good old fashioned crisis is often the best way to stimulate creativity. Perhaps that explains big pharma's strategy to run itself into the ground until there is a real crisis?

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28. Kling on October 19, 2013 6:22 AM writes...

It is clear from Eroom's law that Pharma ecosystem may be in a death spiral towards extinction. Whether slapping on new ideas of creativity are exercises in rearranging the deck chairs remains to be seen, especially as the $xxxBn / drug becomes a larger and larger iceberg.

The old communist countries went belly up because their infrastructure was not sustainable economically. It did not matter whether those countries had creatives or not.

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29. TX raven on October 19, 2013 11:16 AM writes...

I agree with @26.
Creativity is one great asset. That's hard to argue against.
I see lots of very creative younger folks in Pharma project teams wasting tons of resources running predictable failures because their lack of knowledge.
So, ideally, it takes both: inspiration and perspiration.

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30. cliffintokyo on October 21, 2013 8:16 AM writes...

My 2 cents:
Creativity is progressive thinking, including deductions and synthesis of ideas, as already mentioned in the comments.
Several heads (but not too many) are always better than one, in terms of making faster progress.
Med Chem projects are a classic illustration of this process, with increasingly sophisticated SAR correlations, tie-ins with previous lit., and so on.
Unfortunately many of our projects are very creative without being successful....a fact of high risk research life.

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31. KenMar on October 21, 2013 6:59 PM writes...

I found this little video about creativity a great example of how you need time more than any other thing in order to be creative.

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32. Sili on October 26, 2013 3:48 PM writes...

a left-wing political perspective, which is rather far from my own.
Ah well. Nobody's perfect.

At least you like cats.

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