Engineering Design

The way in which you design is probably driven by personality and circumstance. Personality shapes what you like, and circumstance shapes who your teachers and mentors are. With those limitations in mind, I like to explore what is possible in engineering design, what works and what doesn't.

I tend to like to get something approximately right, and then iterate to something almost completely correct as fast as I can using that first one as a learning experience. Today I learned that this approach was once described as the "New Jersey" approach in programming. Its contrary was called the MIT approach, since that institution emphasized these elements at the time this term was coined.

 

The New Jersey Approach

  • Simplicity-the design must be simple, both in implementation and interface. It is more important for the implementation to be simple than the interface. Simplicity is the most important consideration in a design.
     
  • Correctness-the design must be correct in all observable aspects. It is slightly better to be simple than correct.
     
  • Consistency-the design must not be overly inconsistent. Consistency can be sacrificed for simplicity in some cases, but it is better to drop those parts of the design that deal with less common circumstances than to introduce either implementational complexity or inconsistency.
     
  • Completeness-the design must cover as many important situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases should be covered. Completeness can be sacrificed in favor of any other quality. In fact, completeness must sacrificed whenever implementation simplicity is jeopardized. Consistency can be sacrificed to achieve completeness if simplicity is retained; especially worthless is consistency of interface.

The MIT Approach

  • Simplicity-the design must be simple, both in implementation and interface. It is more important for the interface to be simple than the implementation.

     
  • Correctness-the design must be correct in all observable aspects. Incorrectness is simply not allowed.
     
  • Consistency-the design must not be inconsistent. A design is allowed to be slightly less simple and less complete to avoid inconsistency. Consistency is as important as correctness.


     
  • Completeness-the design must cover as many important situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases must be covered. Simplicity is not allowed to overly reduce completeness.

 

 

Lots of engineers like the MIT approach, and the author of the piece argues that despite this attractiveness, the New Jersey approach is superior, hence the catchphrase "worse is better." The way I've usually phrased it is "the perfect is the enemy of the good." I think this is a rule of thumb, and more useful in engineering than metaphysics.

Even though the context is programming, I think this can be applied to other fields of engineering as well. A really good appreciation of both risk and tradeoffs is key to making the New Jersey approach work. Since you can't actually create a perfectly simple, correct, and consistent design, something will always be inadequate. Knowing what really matters, and what can be given up without really harming your business or the customer allows for more rapid development and release, and better responsiveness to the market. However, part of the the appeal of the MIT approach is that when the New Jersey approach really screws up, it can be catastrophic. Regulatory controls tend to push engineering in the direction of the MIT approach, in order to prevent and eliminate foreseeable disasters.

h/t Ken Shirriff

LinkFest 2016-10-07

James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’

I was introduced to the Gaia Hypothesis by SimEarth on a Mac LC. That was a great game, and it is a neat idea. James Lovelock also introduced me to John Brockman's Edge.org, through Brockman's book The Third Culture. I always find it fun to read things written by eminent scientists after they are too old to care what other people think, and this interview does not disappoint.

Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials

LOL

80% of data in Chinese clinical trials have been fabricated

No one in my line of work would be surprised.

Knowledge, Human Capital and Economic Development: Evidence from the British Industrial Revolution, 1750-1930

This goes on the pile of evidence for my cocktail party theory that technological progress [what most people call scientific progress] is harmed when science is more pure.

The camel doesn’t have two humps: Programming “aptitude test” canned for overzealous conclusion

I can't find the link now, but I am pretty sure I referenced this draft paper at some point on this blog. It has one of the funniest retractions I have seen:

Though it’s embarrassing, I feel it’s necessary to explain how and why I came to write “The camel has two humps” and its part-retraction in (Bornat et al., 2008). It’s in part a mental health story. In autumn 2005 I became clinically depressed. My physician put me on the then-standard treatment for depression, an SSRI. But she wasn’t aware that for some people an SSRI doesn’t gently treat depression, it puts them on the ceiling. I took the SSRI for three months, by which time I was grandiose, extremely self-righteous and very combative – myself turned up to one hundred and eleven. I did a number of very silly things whilst on the SSRI and some more in the immediate aftermath, amongst them writing “The camel has two humps”. I’m fairly sure that I believed, at the time, that there were people who couldn’t learn to program and that Dehnadi had proved it. Perhaps I wanted to believe it because it would explain why I’d so often failed to teach them. The paper doesn’t exactly make that claim, but it comes pretty close. It was an absurd claim because I didn’t have the extraordinary evidence needed to support it. I no longer believe it’s true.

I don't follow the Retraction Watch blog, but I am unlikely to since poor Larry Summers and James Watson are unfairly lumped together with a guy who exaggerated his conclusion.

The Forgotten Revolution

Via Logarithmic HIstory: Plutarch attributed to Hipparchus a discovery that would be forgotten for two millennia, Schröder numbers. The Ionian Greeks were truly something special.

Don't Call Yourself a Programmer

I'm a frequent visitor to the PhysicsForums career section, I try to give the advice I wish I had received when I was younger. I saw a really interesting post this week, Don't Call Yourself a Programmer.

There is a lot of good stuff here. I think the single biggest eye-opener in the whole article is the focus on money. As an engineer/programmer/technical-whatever in the business world, you exist to make the company money. This seems to be a surprisingly difficult concept, given how often it comes up in the career section of the forum.

I like using concepts in new contexts, and I think this one is really useful for understanding the difference between being a scientist and an engineer in America. I've pondered this subject a lot, because when I was little I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a scientist, and I went to college to be a scientist, and I ended up as an engineer.

In a certain sense, the tasks of an engineer and a scientist are very similar. You conduct experiments, write technical papers or reports, go to meetings, and so forth. However, very few people see these activities as the same.

The biggest difference is in the end. An engineer is almost always trying to make a product, something you can sell in the market. A scientist is trying to advance our knowledge about a subject. Science is typically seen as more pure than engineering, which is kind of dirty, since it is about money.

Due to this difference in final causes, most young people perceive scientist to be a higher prestige profession than engineer. Being a Thomist, this implicitly Aristotelian perspective amuses me.

Where the disconnect occurs is in the actual work of a typical scientist and a typical engineer. While in theory young scientists are bravely advancing the frontiers of knowledge, in practice they are grinding away at their PI's latest project, sequencing yet another strain of E. Coli. Everything you need to do is new, in a certain sense of never having been done before, but not really groundbreaking.

Rutherford's famous quip about all of science either being physics or stamp-collecting seems to be more and more true. And I'm not so sure about physics anymore.

Unlike the scientist, the engineer is focused on making a thing that has never existed before. Sometimes this does not involve new understanding, but in my own experience I have seen plenty of new discoveries come out of engineering work that would have been worthy of a dissertation in academia. The real difference is in the end that is pursued, in a sense the discoveries are accidental or secondary to the process, whereas in the scientist's case these discoveries are the whole point of the exercise.

Having seen both sides of the coin, I have come to doubt that pursuing pure science is more effective than trying to make stuff, and having the discoveries come by accident. If I were to win the lottery, I would love to investigate the biographies of famous scientists over the past 500 years [scientist wasn't even a word in English until 1834], because I have a theory that many people we now call scientists spent a great deal of time doing what we now call engineering, and their science was the better for it.

To bring this back to the beginning, in the engineering world you can stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn't about money, but if you can understand a business perspective you will be much more successful. It isn't hard for this to become perverse, but engineering is about efficiency and performing miracles with constrained resources. For a scientist, the money issue is hidden, but still present. You really can pretend that this is all about knowledge and discovery and whatnot, because the PI and the lab manager make all that happen.

Cold War Rocket Science

As an engineer, I don't really find it all that mysterious how Eisenhower's military-industrial complex got started. The Cold War meant that enormous sums were spent on secret projects far beyond the cutting edge of technology. It was a great time to be an engineer.

Maybe not quite as good in Russia as in America. Today in the New York Times we see the obituary of Boris Chertok, second greatest rocket designer in all of the Russias. His boss, Sergei Korolev, propelled the Soviets to first place in the space race until his untimely death in 1966. Chertok's and Korolev's accomplishments are all the greater, given that the US literally stole all the researcher and researchers it could out of Nazi Germany, even in the Soviet occupation zone. Operation Paperclip wisked German scientists and their families away from the Soviets, and then gave them more acceptable backgrounds so they could get security clearances in the US.

The most famous of all German rocket scientists is Wernher von Braun, and he benefitted immensely from surrendering to the US instead of Russia. The Germans who were captured by the Soviets lived in scientific labor camps along with men like Korolev. These were not gulags, but they were still prisoners. Braun clearly knew what he was doing.

But for all that, the Russians really had something going! Korolev beat von Braun with far less money and expertise. The Americans had someone who already had achieved rocket flight, and lots of money, but Korolev studied the rockets he found and managed to orbit the first satellite with that knowledge. Russia produces some amazing engineers.

Freefall

Jerry Pournelle recently recommended Freefall, and this is my favorite web comic of the moment. It may have been slow going waiting for it to come out originally, but I breezed through the first couple of years of comics already. This is definitely engineer humor, but it can also make you think.

There are nice little science tidbits scattered throughout, but also some fun ruminations on political philosophy, ethics, and common sense. From the point of view of a genetically engineered dog. =)

I also still think of the WWF as the World Wrestling Federation.

Project Azorian Book Review

Project Azorian

By Norman Polmar and Michael White
$29.95; 276 pages

Hughes Glomar ExplorerI had heard of the Hughes Glomar Explorer before. The kind of science books I read as a kid often featured engineering feats such as the HGE, I can still remember the blurb about the ship being built for seafloor mining of manganese nodules. For reason or another it never worked out, but these books never said why.

It turns out it was all a lie. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was really one of the most ambitious gambits of the Cold War. The HGE was constructed for the singular purpose of clandestinely recovering a sunken Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific.

The ballistic missle submarine K-129 sank on March 8, 1968 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii. The American underwater sonophone network discovered that something had happened, and the position was triangulated. The USS Halibut was sent to locate the wreckage, and was able to accurately locate the wreck and take photographs.

Using this information, the CIA decided to try to recover the submarine, and the HGE was commissioned under the codename Project Azorian.  The CIA contacted Howard Hughes and he was more than happy to provide a cover story for the mission and laundering of the money to disguise the true ownership of the ship. His many companies and eccentric reputation made both of these things possible. The cover story was so good that some universities began to offer programs in Ocean Engineering to prepare students for the seafloor mining boom.

The Soviets were fooled as well. They never discovered the true purpose of the ship until after it had already been used. The HGE was constructed in public, but the critical recovery vehicle codenamed Clementine was built inside a submersible barge to prevent anyone from realizing the ship was not actually equipped for mining.

This crazy idea almost worked. The submarine was successfully captured, but broke in half while being lifted to the surface. Only the bow was actually recovered. The Soviets actually watched this lift taking place, but did not know what had been done until the story was leaked in the American press in 1975. This leak scrapped plans to send the HGE back to recover the rest of the submarine, because the Soviets threatened war if an American ship returned to the site.

Project Azorian would ultimately cost $500 million, the same as a lunar mission in 1970. This project pushed the state of the art so far that the ship would not find another use for 40 years, when it was leased to Global Santa Fe for its stated purpose: seafloor mining. The American Society of Mechanical Engineering designated the ship an Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 2006.

This is the second Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark I have come across in a month. When I was touring the Johnson Space Center, my fellow associate asked me, "Why can't we make something like this?" We have vastly better technology as engineers. These guys worked on paper! However, I realize now that one of the things we are lacking is money. Project Azorian would cost $2.7 billion today. Not many people are willing to throw down that kind of money on something that will only be used once.

This book was a great read. I read the whole thing in two days while on vacation. The book is well-researched, with the explicit purpose of correcting the earlier mistakes of other books on the HGE and K-129. There are lots of fun asides about Cold War espionage and politics that situate the book in its historical context. Anyone interested in the Cold War, submarines, or just science and history should find this book engaging.

Johnson Space Center

I updated the Places I've Been section with photographs from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The JSC is a shrine to mechanical engineering. There was a plaque set near the Command Module that designed the Saturn V a National Mechanical Engineering landmark. I didn't even know that designation existed!

A building has been constructed around the Saturn V because it was rusting in the humid Houston climate. The rocket itself has been repainted and restored, it was a sight to see. The Command Module was a bit rusty, but I was awed to think of the work that went into designing and building the machine that took man to the moon.

The War Dividend

I was looking up some information on PID controllers yesterday, and I discovered that the PID controller was originally invented to steer ships for the Navy. Well, not exactly steer, but rather keep them going in a constant direction given both random wave motion and steady breeze or currents. I can see how this works, but it is interesting how something that was developed for one purpose has become a worldwide standard for controlling just about anything, from chemical reactors to ovens to cruise control in a car.

The inventor was a man named Nicolas Minorsky, who was inspired by watching a helmsman steer a ship. He discovered that the way an experienced sailor steers a ship not only takes into account the difference between the current and desired headings, but also what the difference has been, and the current rate of change of the heading.

These observations also give the PID controller its prosaic name: Proportional Integral Derivative controller. Each term corresponds to the kinds of control Minorsky observed on the bridge. The proportional term corrects for the current error, the integral term corrects for the past error, and the derivative term corrects for the rate of change. Now these things are all implemented electronically, but originally these mathematical functions where implemented physically, whether pneumatically, hydraulically, or with gears.

Thinking of the development of the PID controller reminded me of another acronymed military project. I learned about it when I was looking into the career of Grace Hopper. The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment was a piece of Cold War technology that seems like it belongs in a movie. The system was created to track incoming bombers, and direct fighter planes to intercept them faster than a human could. It could even send instructions to the autopilots in some planes. The system even had an input device that allowed you to select a target on a screen by pointing at it, and a master display that showed everything that was currently being tracked. This was all done in the 1950s! It was crude, but the system did exactly what it was intended to, although its function was superseded by ICBMs.

SAGE continued to be used until the 1980s, but the real impact that most people feel from SAGE comes from a successor project SABRE. The technology that allowed the system to track so many targets and then send orders remotely was used by American Airlines to create an automated reservation system. It works very well, and today the system is still in use, and you might recognize its consumer interface: Travelocity.

So much of the technology of the twentieth century was originally developed by the American military for purposes not even remotely related to what we use it for now. NASA sometimes gets some credit for all this, but the bulk of government sponsored technology development was really done for military purposes.

A Cautionary Tale

I was engaged in a discussion over at the PhysicsForums regarding the relative merits of academic versus industrial jobs for science and engineering types, and one of the regular members posted a link to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the rise and fall of Westinghouse. It was a sad tale. Also an instructive one.

I had not known the story of Westinghouse before, being more familiar with its arch rival General Electric. George Westinghouse was a true Victorian, full of energy, inventive, eccentric, no sense of his own limits. He was also apparently not much of a businessman, despite his 361 patents. He was thrown off the board of his own company in 1909, never to return. He never looked back, either.

His corporation became very successful, and by 1963 it had a 135 divisions, making electrical power generators, appliances, and desalinization plants. The company was renowned for its technical expertise, and had created several engineering firsts, including the first commercial nuclear power plant. Westinghouse was also actively practicing a philosophy of doing well by doing good, building teaching labs and affordable housing. They even tried to develop an electric car.

By the 1970s, things began to get difficult for Westinghouse. Among the problems cited in the article were an increase in the cost of enriched uranium, poor acquisitions and divestitures, and corporate intrigue. They experimented with different solutions, but nothing really seemed to work.

By the 1980s, all of the industrial divisions were not doing well. By not doing well, I actually mean many of them were stable businesses, but because of the pernicious influence of Dewey and Dakin, by this time, the business world assumed that any business not experiencing 10% annual growth was dying. I suspect, but do not know, that the industrial divisions could have benefited from the kind of quality improvement that W. Edwards Deming had spurred in Japan after being rejected in America. However, since these were stable businesses, and no longer capable of the expected growth, Westinghouse began to look for alternative businesses to invest in.

This era of Westinghouse is one of unrestrained greed. This was probably typical of the time but the executives were enjoying ever increasing bonuses while the company was very obviously declining, not the way to encourage employee loyalty. This also contributed to their final mistake, placing so much money into obviously dubious corporate loans because of their high short term return. This would prove to be their doom, because the company was destroyed by the market's inevitable return to sanity.

All of the parts of the company that actually made things were sold to pay the bills, and all that was left was the broadcasting business they had bought, with the result that Westinghouse abandoned its name along with its factories, becoming CBS.

The reason this is so interesting to me is that my current employer is also an engineer-centered company, founded and largely run by engineers. My company is also known for technical expertise and innovative products. When I read an article like the one above I usually ask myself: what would I have done if I were there? Not with the benefit of hindsight, but in the middle of the crisis with limited time and limited information. What would I have done? 

I do not know. Westinghouse's problems ran very deep. But deepest of all it seems that they had become far too comfortable, and did not trouble to keep their organization quick and responsive. Reading between the lines of the article, it seems that Westinghouse's corporate culture had become deeply flawed over time, and the company was simply unable to respond effectively to its problems. No matter how smart or experienced their leadership was, I think the company was fundamentally unable to respond to change. Back in the 1960s, they had much less market share in appliances than their rival, GE, even though they had better technology. Westinghouse was making the front loading washers that are all the rage now.  However, it seems that they suffered from a lack of manufacturing efficiency. Westinghouse decided to sell their appliance business rather than upgrade it to the then current standards. I think this is a good example of what happened to them. Westinghouse should have upgraded its factories five or ten years earlier. They were stuck reacting to problems that they had long ignored.

The description of Westinghouse's corporate culture is very Dilberty. There seemed to be an immense amount of bureaucracy and forms, with everyone keeping their head down and hoping for the best. People would keep doing what they had been doing even when it was obviously the wrong thing to do. This kind of thing is exactly what prompted Bill Gore to start his own company, and I can see now that his company has so far done a better job of avoiding these kind of mistakes.

What mistakes am I referring to? Ignoring inevitable market downturns. Not improving efficiency and quality all the time. Not focusing on your core competency.  Westinghouse probably could have kept going like GE did if they focused on making stuff, which they were actually really good at, and improving efficiency, which they were bad at. Instead, they diversified into TV and loans, and sold profitable manufacturing and heavy industries. This was rewarded in the stock market in the short term, but destroyed the company in only 20 years. And probably dis-served the American public [and the rest of the world too], which benefited much from Westinghouse technology, but far less so from having another TV network.

I have often talked smack about business-people, but there is real value in good business acumen. Westinghouse [founder and company] seemed to lack this, even though they had successfully preserved their technical expertise. I still think engineers can make contributions to the business world, but not all engineers are well suited for this role. A good example of this is John Walker, one of the founders of Autodesk. He was both involved in shaping his company, and man enough to step down from direct leadership when it was in the best interest of the company. Even someone as smart as Walker doesn't necessarily have the business skills to make a really good corporate president or CEO. However, some engineers can go on to learn these things. I think they are well-prepared to do so, but you have to be careful. Technical expertise does not guarantee business success.

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 3

Managing Creativity

Based on the personality traits identified with creativity in the last post, it seems that managing creativity is going to be difficult. However, there is some hope. I have less direct experience in the world of science, but in engineering, it is basically impossible for a lone genius to do all the work himself. Everything is team based these days. I work on a team, not a large one, but nonetheless it takes a lot of different skills to bring a medical product to market. 

This explains part of the reason why Charlton was complaining that science education selects for people with high conscientiousness and agreeableness. You just plain have to be able to work with people to get anything done today. However, this also has the effect of changing the distribution of personality traits you find amongst scientists and engineers. I don't know whether this works by just adding more agreeable scientists or preventing the less agreeable scientists from completing their PhDs. I wonder whether those who find that they don't like the direct of modern science end up in engineering of some sort [that is what happened to me].

A further important point is that the discussion of the traits associated with creativity are ceteris paribus. And on average. Turning to my favorite example for this series, my mad scientist team member is pretty rare in my organization. He has the classic profile of creativity sketched here: independent, obsessive about his work, willing to insist he is right in the face of criticism, and rather eccentric. He also has 22 patents, and hundreds of ideas that weren't worth enough money to patent, or are trade secret. Yet, in an organization known for innovative products, there are only a handful of people like him.

That kind of personality is hard to put to a given task. So, basically we don't. The task of running a project and bringing a project to market falls to slightly less creative individuals who are better at getting things done. Thinking in terms of distributions, you match the engineer or scientist to the task at hand. More diligent and less creative individuals [and I mean less relatively, not absolutely] typically end up in direct manufacturing support roles. You need people with higher C in that position, because getting all the details right and getting them done on time is critical there. But you don't necessarily need that person thinking about the 10-year plan. More creative, less diligent individuals can then be tasked with development work. Less paperwork, more rapid innovation. The most creative simply generate ideas, and don't do any paperwork except that required to file patents and whatnot.  

But even this is still speaking in terms of ceteris paribus. Even on a given team, you find a spread of traits, such that some team members will be more or less conscientious or creative. The trick is making sure the team is compatible, which would be a whole 'nother post.

Standler's essay on creativity identifies true creativity as a solitary activity, and there is definitely some truth to that. But, that essay is also written from the point of view of identifying only epochal, ground breaking work as truly creative. It certainly is, but tending to think in terms of distributions, the lesser work that I see going on at my job still qualifies as creative, it is just less earth-shattering. Each team member has their own bits of creativity to add to the project, which could in some ways be seen as the art of combining little bursts of individual creativity into a useful whole. I don't agree with Standler that this is a different kind of research, but I rather see it as a lesser variety of the same thing.

Other good points Standler makes about managing creativity is that the creative work is inherently wasteful and difficult to predict. You end up with a lot of ideas that don't make the cut. This is totally normal, the trick is to be good enough at generating ideas that some of them work. If we think of the distribution of engineers, the most creative ones generate the most ideas, but have the most bad ones too. The least creative engineers have fewer creative ideas, but have to make them work every time, because failure means products that are not made right. Those most creative engineers are usually not on a schedule, and as you move through the distribution, the expectations of meeting a schedule increase. This is all for the best, given the people involved.

Really, one of the best things to help creativity occur is to match the person to the task, and then get out of the way. Speaking of "managing" creativity seems to imply that you can shepherd the process, but in my experience that does not seem to be the case. The best results seem to come from finding the right people and turning them loose.

See Part 1 and Part 2

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 2

Personality traits associated with creativity

See Part 1

Which personality traits are associated with creativity can help us know which individuals will be best suited to a role in R&D. So first, I think it is worthwhile to specify what I mean by creativity. Borrowing from an essay on creativity from Ronald Standler: A creative person does things that have never been done before. Standler goes on to make several good distinctions. Creativity is not identical to intelligence, which is furthermore not identical to academic accomplishment. 

Another good distinction is made by Bruce Charlton. Creativity is not just the application of abstract intelligence to a complex problem. This is the kind of thing I can imagine a 1st grade teacher telling her students: you just need to be more creative! However, as Charlton notes, this is more of a manifestation of neoteny, novelty-seeking, than any kind of actual creativity. So, Standler's definition needs some modification. We might operationally narrow the definition to be doing things that have not been done before in a useful way that is non-obvious. If it was obvious, anyone of sufficiently high intelligence could figure it out, and it is clear that not all intelligent people are creative. Also, it seems important to look for useful things to weed out pure novelty seeking.

Standler and Charlton both go on to look at the personality traits that they have identified with creative people. Standler lists:

  • Diligence
  • Stubbornness
  • Male
  • Eccentric

His list is based mostly on personal experience and biographies of famous scientists and inventors. Please be aware that everything here is based on "for the most part" kind of associations and correlations, so please don't be offended if you don't fit the criteria.

Charlton identifies a specific personality trait Psychoticism, as being correlated with creativity.

Perhaps surprisingly, creativity has often been found to be predicted by moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’ [31]. The trait of Psychoticism has been well-validated [6] and [32]; high psychoticism combines low-Agreeableness (e.g., higher selfishness, independence from group norms), low Conscientiousness (for example impulsivity, sensation-seeking) with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. So, although a trait of low Psychoticism implies a rational and pro-social personality (which are usually highly desirable traits); moderately high Psychoticism is not merely antisocial but has positive aspects as well – since it has flavours of independence of spirit and a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking. This style of cognition seems to be a basis for creativity.

An interesting contrast here is that Standler identifies diligence, which is probably similar to conscientiousness, as an important factor, whereas Charlton downplays that factor. Clearly, there is something to be said for the idea that if you never finish anything, your creativity doesn't really amount to much. However, I think that perhaps the solution here is that Charlton is talking about a trait or tendency, rather than a result like Standler is. By way of analogy, my mad scientist co-worker has a messy desk, and needs meeting reminders, but damn does he work hard. I think the missing factor may be obsessiveness. Charles Murray noted in Human Accomplishment that the most famous figures in science and art have a tendency to be obsessed with their work, to the exclusion of even their friends and families, if they had families. Standler mentioned this in passing, but I think it probably helps make up for the lack of conscientiousness. A creative person is often not who you want organizing the lab space, because they just aren't that interested in it. They are going to get distracted by some new idea. Someone with a high C, on the other hand, would be very good at this.

One of the critical factors of true creativity is a certain independence of mind. Not too much, because creative individuals do in fact have to be able to work with other people, but just enough to be able to insist that "yes, my idea does work". Also important is a certain degree of obsessiveness, because that is a critical factor in ensuring something actually gets accomplished, because creative people are certain to be bored by routine work. A little bit of stubbornness helps, because you need to persist in the face of obstacles both managerial and scientific. The last bit that Charlton identifies as a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking is hard to pin down, but it seems basically correct.

Now that the traits have been identified, the question becomes how do you manage this creativity? Given the traits identified, this may seem difficult, but the task must be done. Creativity in science and engineering is often directed to specific ends, and in engineering, you must ultimately make money. So what do you do with all these crazy people?

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 1

Recently, my project manager attended a seminar on Systematic Innovation. It was interesting he said, but he wasn't too sure of the ultimate value of it. It mostly seemed like a really fancy kind of brainstorming, to try and help you address a greater proportion of the probabilities. But the really crucial question for us was: would this help the most creative guy we work with be more innovative? We basically figured no, because it would just drive him crazy. Our resident mad scientist is pretty hard to put to task on anything, but he comes up with the craziest ideas that often actually work. Telling him that he needed to apply some system would just annoy him, and waste our time.

This got me thinking of the subject of creativity in science and engineering, since I have fallen into a corporate R&D role. My job is essentially to come up with innovative new products, and bring them to market. I don't know much about other kinds of creativity, so I will hew pretty closely to the kinds of things I am familiar with.

This is something that bears thinking about, because innovative science and engineering have a great deal to do with our modern standard of life, so it seems that we would like to encourage creativity as a matter of the common good. With this goal in mind, I'd like to look at the personality traits associated with creativity, and the matter of the best way to manage creativity in a business environment. Over the next few days, I will post my thoughts on those subjects.