Adding Disruption to Spark Creativity

Adding Disruption to Spark Creativity

We learn with ShuHaRi that as we move to new levels of mastery, we must continue to experiment – to step out of our comfort zones and do things differently than they’ve been done before.

In his TED Talk about disruption, journalist and economist, Tim Harford, gives us examples of how being forced to deal with unexpected challenges can spark creativity and open up new and better ways of doing things.

He starts with a story about a pianist who needed to play a concert on a defective piano in a new way, which ended up being the best-selling piano recording in history.

Harford goes on to give other examples and says that research has shown that people experience discomfort, yet “unexpected advantages of having to cope with a little mess.”

Around the 8-minute mark, Harford describes how we solve complex problems, including software development, step by step, just as we encourage with agile development:

“You have some kind of prototype and you tweak it, you test it, you improve it.”

He agrees that this is a good way to solve a complicated problem, but tells the audience what would make it an even better way:

“A dash of mess. You add randomness, early on in the process. You make crazy moves, you try stupid things that shouldn’t work, and that will tend to make the problem-solving work better. And the reason for that is, the problem with the step-by-step process, the reason for the marginal gains, is they can walk you gradually down a dead end. And if you start with the randomness, that becomes less likely, and your problem-solving becomes more robust.”

Harford’s next example was from social psychology describing an experiment in which two groups were asked to solve murder mystery problems.

One group was a team of four friends and the second group was a team of three friends and a stranger.

The groups with the three friends and a stranger were 25 percent more effective at solving the problem; however, what Harford found even more interesting was how the teams felt.

The teams who performed better, felt doubt and were not as confident or comfortable, because working with a stranger added disruption:

“Disruptions help us solve problems, they help us become more creative. But we don’t feel like they’re helping us. We feel like they’re getting in the way. And so we resist.”

Harford’s final example was the story of Brian Eno, a brilliant ambient composer and catalyst behind some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums of the last 40 years, having worked with David Bowie, U2, Devo and Coldplay.

Eno purposely creates disruption for bands through the use of a deck of cards called the Oblique Strategies.

When they're stuck in the creative process, they grab a card and they need to follow the instructions.

Examples include: “Swap instrument roles,” “Look closely at the most embarrassing details. Amplify them.” “Make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action. Incorporate.”

Harford says that though the musicians hate the cards, they’ve proved their worth album after album. Though these experiments are uncomfortable, the musicians ended up realizing something: Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t helping you.

In the software development world, disruption is often introduced, not purposely, but by the unexpected request or obstacle. We could look at these obstacles as opportunities to creatively solve problems.

What if we were to create an Oblique Strategy deck for agile teams? What kinds of things would they include?

How about switching roles for an iteration? How about swapping team members? How about making all meetings optional?

Besides helping promote creativity, if we purposely introduce “mess,” might it also help us better cope with the unintentional messes that are thrown our way?

Experimentation is disruptive, but encouraged in agile communities. Though Scrum and other agile methodologies give us a framework, as teams mature, take time to experiment with new ideas and creatively grow as a team.

Harford ends his talk reminding us that even though it’s uncomfortable, disruptive behavior helps us grow and learn:

“All of us, from time to time, need to sit down and try to play the unplayable piano.”


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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