The invisible barrier to creativity and the 90 degree twist

What does my bath, the motor car, R2D2 and a dinosaur on Doctor Who have in common? Read on to find out…

If you’ve seen me speak live you’ll have seen a certain audience participation part where I humiliate a member of the audience on stage to prove that they are limiting their creativity. It’s a simple trick that I won’t reveal here, you’ll have to see me on stage to find out what it is. I’ve been using it since 1993 when it was invented by a friend of mine in a play about what stops us from achieving the success we’re capable of.

Don’t worry, the person helping me on stage isn’t really humiliated. They even get a free book. It’s the audience who realise what the experiment means and that they DO have invisible barriers that stop them from achieving. When they’re pointed out in someone else,  it dawns on them that they’re actually free to do so much more.

We face invisible barriers all the time, every day. They’re usually hidden in the ‘that’s the way we do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Sometimes we try to innovate  but the end result is only half hearted because the invisible barrier is still there.

I was almost caught out with a mundane, everyday example this month. We’re re-designing our bathroom. It’s a rectangular room with the bath on one longer side and the shower, basin and toilet on the other longer side. We were dictated in our choices of new bathroom furniture by not considering that they could all be moved from their original positions. As soon as we realised we could rotate the bath 90 degrees and have it along the shorter wall, the room ceased to be a ‘corridor’ and became a usable space.

So the barrier there was an unthinking thought that the bath couldn’t be moved. Maybe I didn’t think of moving it because I knew that I don’t personally have the skills to move the plumbing. That was the restriction that held back the best idea.

Innovation is often described as ‘doing something better or in a better way’. But more often than not, true innovation isn’t just doing something ‘a little bit better’ it’s also about doing it different by turning it 90 degrees. By that I mean that the ‘change’ that is made is not always an obvious and progressive one that you’ll get to if you spend enough time thinking about it. If you do that method, the train track of thought will always get to the same destination. What we need to do is think at 90 degrees; to change HOW we think about the problem, to circumnavigate the invisible barrier that keeps us on the train track or in our comfort zone of what’s obviously possible.

Henry Ford was reported as saying that if he’d asked the public what innovation they would have wanted in their transportation in 1884 they would probably have replied, “please get us faster horses”. What they got the following year was a different solution, one at 90 degrees to the problem: the motor car.

Sticking with the motor car as an example, did you know that the first cars didn’t have steering wheels? It seems like an obvious solution to ‘how do you change direction on a wheeled vehicle’ that we scarcely think that it too was an innovation that had to be thought of. The first cars had reigns, the same as the horse drawn carriages that preceded them. You pulled the left reign or lever and it rotated the front wheels to the left. Pull the right lever and you go to the right. The 90 degree innovation was to join the two levers up and make them into a circle. Add a rack and pinion so that the rotary motion of the steering wheel is turned into linear motion of the lever which then pushes or pulls the wheels left or right.

In the early 1970s, the BBC special effects department on Doctor Who pioneered a new technique that would revolutionise the film and tv special effects industry. They called it Colour Separation Overlay, or CSO for short. It was a fairly straight forward technique of replacing one colour in the television signal with the signal from another camera. So one camera would film an actor standing in front of a yellow background and another camera would film another scene. When the signals were added, everything yellow in the signal was replaced by the image from the second camera. It looked like the actor was somewhere else entirely. Brilliant. (These days the technique is often referred to as chromakey or blue-screen, since the colour chosen is often blue.)

Those early effects, although crude by todays standards, were amazing. It was a brilliant innovation, but there was still an invisible barrier in place that took the experts a while to spot. In those 1970s episodes you’ll see the character of Doctor Who in a cave. They’d filmed Jon Pertwee in front of a CSO screen and then film a cave and put them together. The Doctor is now in a cave! A year earlier they’d simply have taken Pertwee to the cave and filmed him there. They weren’t really taking advantage of the technique.

Then, when a script required dinosaurs to march through London, they knew they could really put it to the test. They made a model of the dinosaur and filmed it against the CSO screen using stop motion animation and then keyed the footage onto the footage of the streets. It was only after they’d gone to all the effort and expense of doing it that someone pointed out that the dinosaur model didn’t have to be life-size. It could as easily been six inches tall. They effect might even have been better if it had been. They had missed the 90 degree twist.

When George Lucas began filming the first Star Wars film in 1976 he had to make innovations every day to make that film that delivered so many new effects and methods. A curious one is the story of R2D2. As you remember, he’s a small dustbin-sized robot with three legs and a domed head. The fact that he’s small and a robot made the Lucas’ effects people immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the prop should be remote radio controlled. They worked with test models, overcame the problem of radio interference, gave R2D2 the third leg for balance. It was working.

Then they went to film the first scene in the deserts of Tunisia. Sand. As you can imagine, a heavy prop on tiny wheels didn’t really work on sand. They would either have to lay rails (as the BBC had done with the Daleks in quarries on Doctor Who two years earlier) or rethink the sand. The 90 degree innovation was to lose the third leg and place a small actor inside the prop so it could ‘waddle’ across the sand. It worked, and the rest is history, making a star of former circus act, Kenny Baker.

Even the best of us can miss the obvious. But at least George Lucas didn’t build life-size starships…

What’s the 90 degree twist in your life and business that will smash through the invisible barrier of sameness and obviousness to create that innovation that takes you to a new level?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see:


3 comments on “The invisible barrier to creativity and the 90 degree twist

  1. I agree with your premise: it’s so easy to get stuck in old tracks and follow old, comfortable ways of thinking. And it’s even more rewarding to break out of them and find new solutions. The hardest thing though is realising that your are stuck in old ways of thinking, and that there are other possibilities. I find one way around this is to leap out of your comfort zone and talk to other people about what you’re working on. Often they’ll come up with great ideas because they’re not held back by prior knowledge or experience.

    I run a weekly blog in which a variety of creative people can talk about something or someone that has inspired them, and also to talk about their own work. It’s fascinating to read what they say, the sheer diversity is pretty amazing. The reason I started this part of my blog is that I hope it encourages other people to get inspired and follow their own creative path.

    Personally I think this is one of the most valuable things we can do for others, and your blog is an excellent example of this. Too many people live a life without creativity, which is not good for their souls. We should encourage everyone to be creative, not matter how old or young, or what their background is.

    I’d really like to see you live, and I’d be willing to undergo the humiliation for a free book. 🙂 Let me know the next time you’re in the Netherlands. Cheers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s