By Dennis Sherwood
Koestler's Law isn't part of a statute or a law of physics. Rather, it's a law of behavior-and it's about creativity. Like all good laws, it provides insight into a fundamental principle while providing a framework that guides behavior, decision making and action.
Koestler's law is a law of creativity. If you happen to believe, as most people do, that creativity is all about accident, luck and serendipity, you will probably find the concept of a “law” of creativity startling. And even if there is a “law of creativity,” why is this the subject of an article in a publication about the practice of law?
Let's kill off that problem right now. Creativity is not solely the preserve of those within the so-called creative industries such as theatre, arts, design, journalism and the media. This is far, far too narrow a view. Creativity means the ability to solve problems, tackle issues, grasp opportunities and, indeed, create opportunities to come up with novel, exciting value-adding solutions. Yes, this definition maps onto the conventional applications such as a new work of art or new advertising slogan. But it also applies to the processes of identifying new forms of legal service, different ways of delivering legal advice to your clients, novel ways of pricing, different ways of pitching, new ways to distinguish your firm in the legal recruitment market, and new ways by which teams can reach an even higher level of performance, as well as the formulation of a new and distinctive strategy.
In this light, creativity is clearly a requirement for truly successful firms. Because underpinning all of these challenges—and opportunities—is a single, unifying concept. Introducing a new service, delivering services in new ways, doing pricing differently, distinguishing your firm in the recruitment market, getting people out of their silos, determining a unique strategy that really differentiates—these can only be done if you have an idea first. And not just any old idea, but a good one. And if that isn't creativity, then I don't know what is.
Easy words to say; less easy to do. For, surely, having ideas is accidental, magical even? And don't you have to be a “creative person” to have them? My answers to these rhetorical questions are no and no. Creativity can be accidental, and appear to be magical. Indeed, we have all had that wonderful experience of a great idea just coming “out of the blue.” Fantastic. Let's rejoice. But from a business standpoint, it's extremely fragile to rely on happy accident as the only process whereby ideas are generated. Far better to employ a process that is deliberate and systematic. As for being a “creative person,” being just a person is fine because you already possess all you need—a brain. For it's in the brain that you have ideas.
The big question, of course, is: How? How can we use our brains, in a deliberate and systematic way, to generate ideas on demand? To answer that question, I'll invoke Koestler's Law. (Lawyers like laws, after all.)
Uncovering the Pattern of Creativity
Arthur Koestler earned renowned as a philosopher, although no shrivelled, wizened introvert was he. Born in Budapest in 1905, he studied at the University of Vienna and then became a journalist. Among the many dramatic episodes in his life, he was imprisoned by Franco's troops during the Spanish Civil War and sentenced to death. But he was rescued by British Intelligence agents and survived to serve with the French Foreign Legion in World War II. Over the next 25 years, he wrote widely on a variety of subjects and was nominated on three occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His private life was as colorful as his public one. He died in London (by his own hand) in 1983.
One of his philosophical inquiries was into the nature of creativity. Among his writings on the subject is The Act of Creation, a book that deals with creativity in the realms of art, intellectual endeavor and humor. In The Act of Creation, Koestler writes:
The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesises already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole.
That's what I call Koestler's Law. It's a stunning definition of creativity. First, it states that creativity is not the “strike of lightning,” the “Act of God.” Second, it states that creativity is a far more prosaic process, rather like playing with a jigsaw puzzle or toy bricks. And third, it states that the pieces of the jigsaw already exist.
That last one was certainly a surprise to me when I originally encountered it, for I thought that creativity was all about inventing something “brand-new.” But what Koestler drew to my attention was that this belief is entirely wrong. Creativity is not about the brand-new, for the brand-new—in quite a profound sense—does not exist. Or rather, novelty is a property of a pattern, rather than the component parts from which the pattern is composed.
Let me make that real by giving two examples.
First, consider music. Neither Beethoven nor the Beatles “invented” musical notes. When they composed their music, the notes were already there. What they did, and what every composer who has ever lived has done, was to craft patterns of these already-existing notes. Not just any old patterns, but rather beautiful patterns, according to a subjective view of beauty.
A second example. The Sony Walkman, the blockbuster consumer product of the late 20th century, first launched in 1979. In Koestler's Law terms, a Sony Walkman is a “pattern” formed from electronic components that play back (but don't record), a
cassette tape and headphones. Miniaturized electronic components evolved with the first transistor radios, which date back to the mid-1950s; Philips introduced the compact cassette in 1963; and headphones had been around for a century. Sony was simply the first organization to form the pattern of the Walkman, from components that already existed, and none of which were invented by Sony. Koestler's Law is profoundly true.
Searching for New Patterns Systematically
The Beatles, the Sony Walkman and the like? That's all fine with hindsight. So how can we use Koestler's Law to discover ideas, rather than to rationalize the ideas we see around us?
Through six steps that make the process of searching for relevant new patterns deliberate and systematic, that's how. This is a simple propriety process called InnovAction! It comprises the following steps:
- Step 1: Select the appropriate focus of attention.
- Step 2: Define what you know.
- Step 3: Share.
- Step 4: Ask “How might this be different?”
- Step 5: Let it be …
- Step 6: Then repeat steps 4 and 5 for another feature.
Step 1 is about defining where you wish to have an idea: in your firm's pricing policy, recruitment, whatever. Sometimes this choice is driven by having a problem to solve; sometimes, by a desire to make something good even better; sometimes, by a desire simply to see what might be out there.
Step 2 is highly analytical. It's all about describing—in detail—exactly what happens currently in the focus of attention. So, for example, in describing your pricing policy, you might prepare a series of bullet points such as this:
- We bill according to our time records …
- which are evaluated at standard rates …
- predetermined in order to reach our budgets …
- assuming a given level of utilization …
- for each grade of staff.
For recruitment, you might write this:
- We recruit from [these] campuses and …
- candidates complete our application form …
- from which we select those we wish to interview, then …
- we interview candidates …
- three times and …
- we offer starting salaries according to [whatever] policy.
You get the idea. For real business situations, these lists will be longer, with more details. These lists are best compiled in a group, with each person initially working alone, drawing on his or her own personal experience. We all see the world differently, and we all notice different things—even in domains as familiar as pricing and recruitment—so each individual's description will be different.
Which leads to Step 3, Share, in which each individual shares his or her own list with the other individuals to compile one shared, aggregate list.
At this point, we have defined what we do currently, our existing pattern—and we have defined it in a way that naturally deconstructs that existing pattern into its “component parts.”
And then the fun starts. Step 4 invites you to ask “How might this be different?” So, for example, suppose candidates do not complete an application form. What other ways are there to get information about a candidate? Perhaps we get involved in teaching students on campus, so we can choose the ones we want to recruit. Or maybe candidates can submit a video diary. Let's explore, let it be … which is Step 5.
This is where we generate ideas, because it is in this process that we discover different patterns by bringing our experience of other components to bear on the problem of interest. Video diaries have been around for a long time, but maybe we haven't used them in a recruitment context. Or maybe we already do some teaching, but perhaps without explicitly seeking to do this to spot talent.
And when we feel we've explored one feature sufficiently, we move on to Step 6 and we choose another, and then another, and then another. And the ideas just keep flowing.
It's a totally systematic and deliberate way of generating great ideas, so you can get—and stay—ahead of the pack. Try it and you might be amazed at the stunning new patterns you form.