Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Intelligence and Insight

I have trouble believing in the value of intelligence tests or believing that those who do well in quiz shows are necessarily brighter than others. Intelligence isn't about how much you know. Intelligence is about seeing things in different ways and coming up with new and innovative solutions.

In a previous post, I mentioned Altshuller (1997, 1999) who proposed ways in which to foster innovation. He didn't see his proposal as being a tool only for those judged to be intellectually superior. His principles are available for all to use if we are willing to develop the skill to use them and to look at problems from new directions.

Another who fosters innovation is Goldratt through his theory of constraints. Goldratt's initial focus was on improving manufacturing (1993) but he later applied his theory to other contexts (1994, 1997). His techniques involved identifying the underlying problem and the root cause of the problem. By resolving the root cause, what appear to be innovative solutions are proposed. For manufacturing and project management a core idea is that scheduling should be based around the constraint or bottleneck. It sets the pace for the activity so if we want greater productivity, we need to look at how to modify the restrictions caused by the bottleneck. To do that, we need to know what is causing the restriction and not try and fix the surface problem.

There are many other sources that talk of innovation and creativity. It is something that can be fostered but more often it is stifled, not by the innovator but by the society of the day. Berkun (2007) says “Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp of rejection on its face” (p 54). Once society has gained the benefits of an innovation then it forgets that it once rejected it. We want to stay within our comfort zone. Berkun goes on to say “Innovation conflicts with this desire. It asks for faith in something unknown over something known to be safe, or even pleasant” (p 56). It isn't just the desire for safety and comfort that restricts innovation. We invest heavily in certain processes or systems. That investment is something we don't want to lose so when someone comes with an innovation that might put our investment at risk, we move to protect the investment (p 61-62).

Kuhn (1996, 2000) documents a number of scientific advancements that struggled to gain currency because they didn't fit the paradigm of the day. He argues for paradigm shifts as the foundation for innovation and advancement in the sciences.

I have seen this when talking about the need for a fundamental rethink of our financial processes and our competitive society. To suggest that we should look at methods of collaboration or of justice in the distribution of wealth is to threaten the investment that so many have made in building their personal wealth. A recession may cause the wealthy to write off some of the value of their assets but it doesn't hurt them as much as the person who loses all of his or her income and may lose even their home. Only innovative solutions that challenge the self protection interests of those who manage the financial systems will bring a lasting solution to the bust and recession cycles of our economic system. Further proposals are there if we will only open our eyes to see them or move outside out comfort zone and utilise new paradigms to review proposals.

Innovation and creativity draw on being able to synthesise ideas from different areas. To see the commonalities and the differences. To create solutions that don't quite fit the current mode of thinking within the domain to which they apply. To foster innovation means that we have to foster the ability to think in new ways rather than to conform to existing practices and behaviours.

I write this as a software developer who utilises design patterns (proven solutions to programming problems) to create software. From my research (Thompson 2008), I recognise that the best programmers see the design patterns more as a tool for thinking about solutions rather than as solutions. They are not restricted by a programming paradigm or by conventions in the use of a particular programming language. They create solutions by drawing on past experience and ideas drawn from a wide range of areas. A good programmer doesn't simply have a list of languages, tools, and environments on their CV. They have the ability to adapt and keep on learning. They are able to utilise new languages and new techniques even when they haven't seen them before. They are able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the tool set that they are currently using and expand that tool set within the constraints of the project that they are working on.

My thesis (Thompson 2008) describes hierarchies in the way that software developers are aware of what they are creating and their design approach to the development of software. At the lowest levels, the awareness is restricted by narrow definitions of the nature of a program or by a particular programming language or paradigm. At the higher levels in the awareness hierarchy, the developer is thinking in terms of interactions between components in a system and is applying ways of thinking about design that draw on a range of languages, programming paradigms, design principles, and programming practices. They tailor their approach to the programming task based on the problem at hand and the tool sets available. Innovation is simply what they do on an every day basis.

The next stage of my research is to develop courses that help foster these ways of thinking while building the basic skills required to program. Yes, the programmer needs to know a programming language but they need to see it as a tool and not as the constraint on solving the programming problem. I briefly propose an approach in my thesis but the time constraints inherent in that work stopped me progressing further.

Innovation comes from an ability to think outside the constraints of the predominant paradigm of the field. We should foster such thinking in our education systems. Have the computer scientist read some philosophy and study languages. In assessing work, don't just look for the obvious answer but look to see the connections the learner is making and the way that they are drawing ideas together. Encourage them to have a wider focus but also lay a solid foundation in the principles and techniques of the domain.

Such a philosophy shouldn't simply apply to computing education. It should apply to all education. The economist needs to understand more than the economic thinking of our time. The engineer needs to be able to see alternative design solutions. Foster creativity by encouraging our learners to draw on ideas from other domains and to reason about the problems they face from as many perspectives as possible. Remove the threat of failure if they fail to conform to the existing norms of the discipline. You never know we might actually get solutions that are real solutions.


Altshuller, G. (1997), 40 principles: TRIZ keys to technical innovation. Technical Information Center.

Altshuller, G. (1999), The innovation algorithm: Technical Information Center.

Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media Inc.

Goldratt, E. M., & Cox, J. (1993). The goal : a process of ongoing improvement (2nd ed ed.). Aldershot: Gower Publishing.

Goldratt, E. M. (1994). It's not luck. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Goldratt, E. M. (1997). Critical Chain. Great Barrington, MA: North River Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Kuhn, T. S. (2000). The road since structure. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available at:

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