Excerpt from the Book

Unleashing Engineering Creativity

By Joe Berk, Principal Member, Eogogics Engineering Faculty

This lavishly illustrated book, also sold separately, is the textbook component of the Eogogics “Unleashing Engineering Creativity” workshop that is available for presentation worldwide.

The course includes real world examples, interesting case studies, and stimulating exercises to ensure that the participants thoroughly understand the advanced creativity techniques and can apply them on the job.

Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introductory chapter.

Take a FREE Web class to learn the TRIZ creativity stimulation technique (real class, not a sales webinar). It’s FREE, so sign up now!

Chapter 1: Creativity

Creativity is a difficult word to define. We all sort of understand what it means and we can find dictionary definitions for creativity, but it is still difficult to put into words.

From one perspective, we understand that creativity is the ability or act of making something new. Creativity is the quality that allows us to go beyond existing designs, concepts, and perceptions and emerge with something completely new. It is the quality that allows artists to start with a blank canvas and create masterful images. It allows writers to start with a blank page or computer screen and create new stories. It allows sculptors to start with a block of stone and create meaningful shapes. And, it allows engineers to start with a need and define products or processes that meet the need.

We intuitively feel that originality (the thought of creating something completely new) somehow figures into all of the above, especially for engineers.

In our engineering world, though, is this really the case?

Think about this for a moment. Do our engineering designs reflect completely new concepts and completely new products?

I suggest to you that in nearly all cases, the answer is no. Most new designs are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They are improvements or modifications of existing designs, rather than being completely new concepts. They involve applications of existing mechanisms and concepts rather than completely new things.

Creativity in these situations is associated with how we improve existing designs and how we combine existing design solutions. Very few printers are completely new designs; they are adaptations, improvements, or modifications of existing printers. Very few cars are completely new designs; they rely on the frames, engines, and interiors of their earlier models as a basis for their current designs. Very few cameras, airplanes, or weapon systems are completely new. They, too, are usually evolutions of prior designs.

We’ll come back to this thought of evolutionary rather than revolutionary designs in our discussions of many of the creativity concepts in this book. I just wanted to plant a seed in your mind early in our conversation.

You’re probably an engineer. It’s why you picked up this book. I’m an engineer, too. I’ll bet you think the same way I did. You probably think that engineers are among the most creative people on the planet.

Are we?

Are you?

Here’s another thing I used to believe, and I’ll bet you probably do, too: With our years of engineering education and experience, our creativity has matured, developed, and increased significantly over the years. It might even be compared to a fine wine. Many of us think that’s the case.

Before I convince you the above is actually what occurs with our creativity as we age, let’s try a quick creativity test…the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Think of an empty tin can, and in one minute, list as many uses as you can think of for that empty tin can


Figure 1. The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. In one minute, list as many uses as you can for an empty tin can.

After you’ve made your list, count the total number of ideas you generated. Let’s now score your results.

Get ready; the results may be surprise you. We’ll use the Torrance test’s four measures of creativity:

  • Fluency. This is a simple count of how many ideas you generated. If you listed 16 total ideas, your fluency count is 16.
  • Flexibility. Flexibility assesses the ability to develop ideas in different categories. In the empty tin can test, we are interested in counting the number of categories the respondents create (for example, using a tin can as a container, using a tin can as a communications device, using as tin can as a toy, etc.).
  • Originality. Originality refers to any uses of the tin can that are completely original. I think this is the most revealing and important area in the Torrance test. A good example of an original idea of what an empty tin can might be used for is “a hat for a small person,” because that is a use completely unrelated to a tin can’s common job of holding things. If you are like most of us, many of your ideas centered on using the tin can as a container of some sort (for example, you might have listed using the tin can as a coffee cup, or a place to store coins). None of those ideas should be included in your originality score. They are just variations on what the tin can does in its normal use. There’s nothing new there, folks.
  • Elaboration. Elaboration refers to the ability to develop details associated with an idea. For example, if you suggested using the tin can as a wheel on a toy, you might have mentioned how to mount the axle, adding tape with a high coefficient of friction to boost traction, etc.

When we score the test, what we are most interested in is our originality score, and in particular, the percentage of our ideas in the originality category compared to the overall number of ideas we generated.

Do you see where we are going with this? A word of advice: When you finish scoring your results, don’t be disappointed and don’t despair.

The typical score for all of us grownups in the originality category is very, very low.

Often, we find that none of our ideas is completely original, or at best, we might have one or two original ideas. It’s shocking, actually. It sure got my attention. I’ve been an engineer for close to 40 years. I only had one original idea.

So what’s going on with this concept of having very few completely original ideas?

As I said above, don’t despair. It’s what we find for adults. It’s a common result.

If you try the test with very young children (preschoolers or kids in kindergarten), the results are usually much different. They have a much higher percentage of completely original ideas (way higher than we folks who are paid to be creative). That’s also shocking.

How is it that young kids can be more creative than trained engineers?

Surprising as the above may be, it is what the results show. For nearly all of us, our creativity is at its peak when we are about 5 years old, and then it decreases steadily until it levels off at around age 19 (or about the same time as we finish high school).

Why is this?

Our ideas as adults tend to be based on our experience and how we’ve been programmed to view the world. In the case of the Torrance test, it shows what we’ve been conditioned to think about what a tin can does. Our ideas are usually not original; we’ve heard of them elsewhere or we base them on variations of what a tin can’s function is supposed to be. Tin cans are supposed to hold things. It’s how we think of a tin can. We’re thinking the way we’ve been programmed to think.

The findings from the Torrance test indicate that we lose as much as 98% of our creativity by the time we finish high school.

Again, we wonder: Why does this occur? Why do we start our lives with nearly boundless creativity, and lose much of it by the time we finish high school?

Think about the kinds of things we do as kids, and think back to your kindergarten days. We get a box of multi-colored crayons and we draw wonderful things on a blank piece of construction paper. We play with toys. We play in the sandbox. There aren’t too many rules. Ah, those were fun times.

But what happens after kindergarten?

Within a year, we’re taught we have to stay between the lines when we draw things. And, the lines are defined by others. Then we learn the alphabet. We have to stay between the lines there, too. By the time we finish high school, they’ve taken away our colored crayons, we get a pen that writes in only one color, and we’ve been conditioned to obey many, many other rules – the rules of language, punctuation, grammar, margins, mathematics, and a whole lot more. We are allowed to be creative, but only within sharply defined boundaries (again, boundaries defined by others). We are conditioned to stay between the lines for fear of ridicule or criticism by our teachers (or worse, by our peers). In short, our education system and our social environment do a pretty good job of beating the creativity out of us

I believe it’s even worse in our engineering world. Before we enter engineering school, many of us view engineering as a discipline that will pay us well while we think deep thoughts and creatively invent completely new and revolutionary products. Once we enter the engineering curriculum in college, though, it’s a different ball game. We learn the laws of physics, chemistry, statics, dynamics, materials, heat transfer, and other engineering-specific topics. We learn how to solve specific technical problems using the formulas and approaches our professors and textbooks provide. Then we enter the work force as young engineers, where we are further conditioned to stay between the lines. We respond to precise specifications and regulatory requirements dictated by customers, management, and the government. In short, as engineers we become experts at finding ways to do exactly what the specs call for at the lowest possible cost without breaking any rules. It’s how we apply what’s left of our creativity.

Where does this leave us? Should we surrender to our education and our life experiences and conclude that we can’t create exciting new things? Some folks have. Consider these rather humorous quotes:

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office 1899


Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?

Harry M. Warner, Warner Bros Pictures, 1927


Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.

Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society, 1895


The horse is here today, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.

President of the Michigan Savings Bank, when advising against investing in Ford


Video won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.

Daryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, commenting on television in 1946


What use could the company make of an electric toy?

Western Union, when it turned down rights to the telephone in 1878


And my personal favorite…one I’ll bet you’re heard many times in your life:

We’ve always done it this way…



Irving A. Taylor (a psychologist who studied creativity and creative processes) arranged creativity levels into a creativity hierarchy that recognizes five levels:

  • Expressive Creativity. These are unfettered ideas, generally primitive, that emerge without the benefit of any guidelines, physical laws, or other restrictions. You might think of expressive creativity as the child described earlier using a box of multi-colored crayons to draw something.
  • Technical Creativity. In this stage, we use rules and physical laws to constrain our thinking, with little expressive spontaneity. You can think of this stage as what we do as engineers. It’s a bit humbling, but the fact is most of us don’t ever need to go beyond this creativity level to do engineering work.
  • Inventive Creativity. In this stage, we develop the ability to creatively combine existing concepts using prior design solutions to create new designs. As engineers, we hope to advance to this stage.
  • Innovative Creativity. Innovative creativity involves departing from existing thinking patterns and making the leap to “out of the box” thinking. Brainstorming emphasizes doing this.
  • Emergent Creativity. Emergent creativity is the highest creative level. It involves rejecting current physical laws, principals, and constraints, and forming completely new theories about how the world works.


Figure 2. Taylors’s Hierarchy of Creativity. The hierarchy consists of five levels, starting with an unfettered approach to creating new concepts, moving into approaches governed by constraints, and culminating in emergent creativity (the creation of new concepts that transcend existing physical laws and other constraints). As engineers, we typically operate somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy.

Consultants, psychologists, and professors love to create graphical models, and I suppose the Taylor approach is as good an approach as any to express the general notion that creativity spans a spectrum. The spectrum runs from a child-like unfettered expression, to our more constrained engineering approach (developing concepts guided by past approaches, specification requirements, and physical laws), to radical departures represented by such out-of-the-box thinkers as Galileo, da Vinci, and Einstein.

Some people believe that as engineers we never need to rise above Taylor’s second or third levels. As engineers, we may never operate at the emergent creativity level. By the very nature of the definition of engineering (applying the laws of physics to convert science into products meeting needs) we don’t need to become an Einstein or a da Vinci. That’s okay, and it’s a concept supported by the findings of others.1 It’s what we do as engineers. We find ways to build on the work of others. The challenge, in most cases, is finding the appropriate approach and using it creatively. It’s a theme we’ll return to many times in this book.



So, to wrap up this first chapter, we present the following thoughts:

  • Although we start life as exceptionally creative people, we lose much of our ability to create completely new concepts by the time we finish high school.
  • Engineering is not a field requiring the creation of completely new ways of viewing the universe. Most of the time, our jobs involve finding ways to creatively use existing physical principles, previous design concepts, and prior problem-solving approaches to solve current design challenges.

How do we do our jobs in light of the above? We need a way to stimulate our creativity and to overcome the creativity obstacles we’ve been conditioned to accept. How do we do this? That’s what the rest of this book addresses. Let’s continue…