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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Insights : Creative Solutions : Imaginative Strategies for Tackling the City's Problems

July 17, 1994|Tom Logsdon | Tom Logsdon, a senior aerospace engineer at Rockwell International in Seal Beach, is the author of "Breaking Through--Creative Problem Solving Using Six successful Strategies" (Addison Wesley, 1993)

"If you can't write your idea on the back of your business card, you don't have an idea." American theatrical producer David Balasco, who made that observation, never had to suffer the daily gridlock that plagues Los Angeles commuters. But his simple, creative approach can help us turn Southern California into a more enjoyable and productive place.

Four years ago, I got the idea to write a book on simple, creative solutions. I analyzed more than 400 such solutions developed by innovative individuals over the last 2,500 years. Soon I learned something quite intriguing. The individuals who make major breakthroughs have different personalities. They have different lifestyles. The problems they solve are different. But the thought processes they use in developing their simple, creative solutions are hauntingly similar.

That is why all of us can learn how to become more creative. All we have to do is apply the specific thought processes creative individuals employ when they make major breakthroughs.

Here are my six strategies for achieving creative solutions.

1. Taking a fresh look at the interfaces

In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to join him in conquering the moon, Werner von Braun and his colleagues' favored approach for the mission called for a single 12-million-pound booster that would lift off the launch pad, then fly up to the moon, dropping off increasingly smaller stages along the way. But then one scientist figured out how to reach the lunar surface at half price. Instead of flying the astronauts directly to the moon aboard one gigantic booster, the new scheme called for a rendezvous in orbit around the moon.

When the astronauts reached lunar orbit, two of them would enter a smaller and lighter craft for their trip down to the lunar surface. Then half of it would fly back up to rejoin the larger craft circling overhead.

Lunar orbit rendezvous allowed the use of a single booster weighing only 6 million pounds. In other words, only half the liftoff weight would be required to complete the mission.

This inspiration came taking a fresh look at what happens when two dissimilar things come together. Most interfaces are so unobtrusive we seldom ever notice them. But, as you try to devise ways to solve problems, notice how easy--and inexpensive--it is to manipulate various interfaces to produce fruitful results.

Take, for instance, the interfaces in local prisons. In today's prisons, social interaction makes effective prisoner control difficult. But troublesome interfaces could be restructured to eliminate most human interactions during incarceration.

Meals, laundry, toiletries and medical supplies would all be delivered by conveyor belt so prisoners would have essentially no human contact during their short stay. No one would be harmed or brutalized or inducted by fellow inmates into the next levels of crime. But prisoners would have ample time to reflect on their wasted lives in that safe, but lonely, prison.

2. Reformulating the problem

In order to maximize the payload-carrying capabilities of the Saturn V moon rocket, my fellow aerospace engineers and I installed special devices to measure the amount of fuel and oxidizer remaining so we could make adjustments in the ratio at which the two propellants were being burned.

This allowed us to achieve simultaneous depletion of the two. Unfortunately, adjustments in the mixture caused small payload changes, which we tried to eliminate by various means. But one scientist, Bud Brux reminded us that the purpose of a rocket is to carry payloads into space. So, he reasoned that we actually should maximize payload variations instead of trying to make them go away. That brilliant insight allowed the Saturn V to carry nearly 3,000 extra pounds of payload to the moon, saving U.S. taxpayers $6 million on each lunar flight.

This scientist used a strategy that frequently leads to breakthroughs of major proportions. He reformulated the problem and in so doing turned it into an opportunity.

Take the problem of graffiti artists defacing Los Angeles. Instead of trying to stop graffiti before it happens, maybe the solution is to require convicted graffiti artists to clean up the mess? Each guilty party might be responsible for a three-block area. Sweaty hours of hand-scrubbing might make the crime downright unappealing. That's reformulating the problem.

3. Visualizing fruitful analogies

In 1905, two brothers wobbled aloft aboard an ungainly contraption over the sands at Kitty Hawk. Why did they succeed when so many others had failed? Because they had a special ability to visualize fruitful analogies in designing and building their flying machines.

Most of their predecessors had been distracted by the rapidly flapping wings of the sparrow. But the Wright brothers used the condor, a soaring bird, as the mode they were attempting to emulate.

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