August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

The Pittsburgh Six: A Template for Innovation

In a previous article Can Creativity Be Taught? I argued for the importance of non-linear, lateral or divergent thinking to creativity and innovation. Several people responded that convergent methodologies like reading and even memorization are not necessarily antithetical to innovation. I couldn’t agree more, and if I left a contrary impression I plead guilty to overemphasis in order to make a point. Innovative breakthroughs are the result of the interplay between convergent and divergent modes of thinking.

I recently watched a documentary about six prisoners who escaped from a maximum security, “escape-proof” prison in Pittsburgh. Their exploit was so daring and yes, innovative, that they have gone down as “The Pittsburgh Six.” But what really struck me was the creative process the ringleader used for engineering the escape: a process that might be used as a template for innovation. [youtubevid id="UC8PtNcc2DA"]

From the moment the ringleader entered prison he focused on a single goal: breaking out. Then he spent the next two years committing to memory a mental map of the prison down to its tiniest details. He spent another year overlaying this map with prison routines- from the habits of guards to the comings and goings of delivery trucks. Then he spent countless hours just lying on his bed crunching this data until without warning, the answer just “popped” into his head.

Focusing on a single problem and memorizing the prison and its routines are perfect examples of linear or convergent thinking. Lying in his bunk constantly crunching until something “popped” is a perfect example of non-linear or divergent thinking. Jumping outside the system or getting outside the box are common terms for divergent leaps, and this is exactly what the ring leader does; though in his case the “system” was literally the prison system and the “box” was the prison itself.

The interplay between convergent and divergent thinking is recapitulated even in something as trivial as memory. Watch someone trying to remember something. The first thing you’ll notice is the “clench” phase as their eyes close and the muscles of the face tense up. After a few seconds, clenching is succeeded by the “release” phase: The eyes open, the face relaxes and the eyes roll back as the person “waits” for the answer to magically appear.

If the answer is not forthcoming, clenching and releasing is repeated until the answer either pops into their head or they give up and reach for Google. In this simple mnemonic example, the clench phase corresponds to convergence and the release to divergence. But note: though the answer always comes in the release phase, it relies on the clench phase.

By analyzing these examples it is possible to produce a template for innovation.

The first step is being “seized by the idea.” Some problem or opportunity must “capture the imagination” and convergently “focus the mind.” The second step is learning everything we can that might have a bearing on the problem. The magic of this step is that the more energy we invest the more committed we become and the more committed we become the more energy we invest. This creates a virtuous upward spiral of convergence as we lock ever more deeply onto the problem.

The third step is that as we become ever more committed we begin divergently wandering further afield looking for the key that will crack the problem. It is no accident that so many great innovative solutions divergently emerge from outside the industry or discipline where the problem was originally posed.

The fourth step is resisting the temptation to give up or reach for Google. Innovation is extremely frustrating, and I have no doubt that the ring leader of the Pittsburgh Six underwent many a dark night of the soul. Frustration however is merely the by-product of a buildup of mental energy. Mental energy like all energy does not like being constrained, harnessed, and forced to produce “work.” Water under pressure churning in a pipe is “frustrated.” It longs for a weak spot in the pipe in order to “dissipate” its energy and remove the pressure.

This holds true for mental energy as well. People also engage in dissipation, distraction, and rationalization to relieve the discomfort of pressure. However, to achieve an innovative breakthrough we must have an attention span strong enough to withstand the temptation to “blow off steam” through dissipation and distraction. In the example of the Pittsburgh Six, the difference between the ring leader and the other prisoners was not intelligence or genius. It was the fact that while most of the prisoners were divergently dissipating the pressure of prison life through distractions like sleeping or TV, he was convergently using this same energy to focus his attention on getting free. The word “attention” comes from two words “at” and “tension.” Being at tension is uncomfortable but the ability to remain attentive or “at tension” for long periods of time is critical to innovative success.

The final step is just metaphorically lying on our bunks divergently turning everything over and over in our minds until something pops.

The double helix nature of DNA may have come to Watson divergently in a dream, but it was preceded by years of convergent thinking. As an entrepreneur most of my best ideas “came to me” in the “release” phase of a morning shower, but they were the result of many hours spent “clenching” on the problem.

Innovation and creativity ultimately depend on aspiration and character. Going back to our water analogy, aspiration or how bad we want something provides the pressure that produces attention. Character is analogous to the pipes that must be strong enough to withstand the temptation to dissipate pressure by “blowing off steam.” Aspiration in turn represents divergence as mental energy longs for release, and character is the convergent principle that keeps us from “letting go” of the problem prematurely

Building an attention span is like building muscles, and for as long as I can remember I’ve engaged in exercises designed to do just that. For example, I never reach for Google when I can’t remember something. Instead I just stick at it until the answer I’m looking for pops into my head. It is always frustrating and sometimes it takes a week, but I always eventually remember- usually in the shower. People often comment on my prodigious memory, but that is not the point. The point is to train my mind to convergently stick at problems until something divergently “pops.”