Minter Dialogue with Dennis Sherwood
Dennis Sherwood, PhD, with a long and illustrious career in consulting, is the owner of The Silver Bullet Machine Manufacturing Co., an intelligent innovation consultancy, specialised in helping its clients gain competitive advantage by building organisational capacity to innovate. He’s also a speaker and author of 15 books, including two recently that we explore here. The first, “Creativity for Scientists and Engineers: A practical guide” (IOP ebooks), which won the Specialist Business Book Award of 2023, where we discuss some fundamental questions about creativity, the mindset that’s needed for innovation, what makes a “good” idea, the threat of AI and the role of purpose in crafting innovation. We also discuss his book, “Missing the Mark: Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong – and How to Get Results We Can Trust,” where we look at how grading is done in the UK and how 1.5 million of 6 million grades (or marks) given out annually are inaccurate.
Please send me your questions — as an audio file if you’d like — to firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, below, you’ll find the show notes and, of course, you are invited to comment. If you liked the podcast, please take a moment to rate it here.
To connect with Dennis Sherwood:
- Check out his main web site, The Silver Bullet Manufacturing Co here
- Find/buy Dennis’ book, “Creativity for Scientists and Engineers,” here
- And “Missing the Mark: Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong – and How to Get Results We Can Trust,” on Amazon here
- Find/follow Dennis Sherwood on Twitter
- Find/follow Dennis Sherwood on LinkedIn
Further resources for the Minter Dialogue podcast:
Meanwhile, you can find my other interviews on the Minter Dialogue Show in this podcast tab, on Megaphone or via Apple Podcasts. If you like the show, please go over to rate this podcast via RateThisPodcast!
Music credit: The jingle at the beginning of the show is courtesy of my friend, Pierre Journel, author of the Guitar Channel. And, the new sign-off music is “A Convinced Man,” a song I co-wrote and recorded with Stephanie Singer back in the late 1980s (please excuse the quality of the sound!).
Transcript of interview with Dennis Sherwood via Otter.ai
SUMMARY KEYWORDS: creativity, idea, people, grades, book, wrote, dennis, world, work, subjects, history, patterns, biophysics, talk, evaluation, called, happened, engineers, wrong, place
SPEAKERS: Minter Dial, Dennis Sherwood
Minter Dial 00:06
Very lively hello and welcome to the Minter Dialogue Show episode number 539. My name is Minter Dial and I’m your host for this podcast, most proud member of the Evergreen Podcast Network. For more information or to check out other shows on this wonderful network, please go visit their site, Evergreenpodcast.com. You’ll find all the shownotes on Minterdial.com. And if you have a moment, go over and drop in a rating and review and don’t forget to subscribe to catch all the future episodes. Now for the show. Dennis Sherwood, who would have thought? Here we are. We’re on a podcast together and I met you, I mean at least I heard about you, many moons ago. And I kept on hearing about you from my wife. So, always had this wonderful image of you. And then all of a sudden I went to an event at the beginning of this year, the Business Book Awards; I was just invited. And there all of sudden, there is the winner of the Specialist Business Book award and the winner is Dennis Sherwood, and I’m like, oh my gosh, I know that name! So, in your own words, who is Dennis Sherwood?
Dennis Sherwood 02:29
Yeah, well Minter, it’s great to be on this show. It’s great to have this conversation. I’m Dennis Sherwood. My main interest is in creativity, innovation, and indeed, systems thinking. And indeed, you know, the book that, Minter, you just mentioned is specifically about creativity. But my heritage has been in the consulting industry really, ever since I left university. And it was my pleasure to work with Yendi your wife, when we were both at Bossard consultants. And that would have been in the kind of latter part of the 1990s. So, that’s going on for 25 years ago. And it’s great that Yendi remembers me and indeed spoke nicely of me to you and for you to spot that. But you know, I’ve been consulting and working with clients of all sorts, all scales, all sectors of industry and commerce and public sector, too. And for the last 20 years has really been all around creativity, and innovation and the purpose of which is to make the world a better place. I hope I’ve contributed a bit to that.
Minter Dial 03:42
Well, we are going to talk about that specifically. But I also wanted to just nip in and say that we both spent some time in New Haven, Connecticut. So, you have many initials and diplomas. Tell us about what drove you to go to Yale University?
Dennis Sherwood 04:00
Yeah, yeah, well, um, when I left school, my ambition at that time was to be a chemist, or a biochemist, in fact, because I’d read a book when I was about 15. It’s called The Chemistry of Life by a guy called Stephen Rose. And, you know, that really was, you know, looking back it sounds a bit pompous, say, a transformational experience. My father actually was a dentist, and you know, how these things that you are as a kid, I was sort of programmed to become a dentist from the age of two.
Minter Dial 04:36
Dennis Sherwood 04:38
Yes, thanks. Absolutely. And, you know, it was, it was the world I knew. So, that’s what I would do. But in, in my teens, I was about 15. I read the book called The Science of life, which was a book about you know, biochemistry basically and how all living things are just you know, chemical reactions and so on. And that really, really caught my imagination. So, my intention was to become a biochemist. But when I went to university, I had the benefit of doing quite an interdisciplinary program. And so, I did maths, chemistry, physics, I did cell biology, and in the end decided that perhaps biophysics was a bit more fundamental than biochemistry. So, when I got my undergraduate degree, which was in physics, I wanted to do biophysics. And this is 1970. Now, biophysics was not known hardly at all in the UK at that time, and was specialized in two fields. One was all about X-ray crystallography of proteins and that sort of stuff, of which the MRC unit in Cambridge was and still is a wonderful place to be. And the other angle on biophysics was about nerve and muscle were University College London was the place to be, I wanted something a bit broader. So, I looked around a bit and found that in the United States, biophysics was a much broader spectrum. And so, I applied to university to join the Department of Molecular biochemistry and bike physics, which says it all. So, I found myself, you know, on the, on the boat to North America, and I arrived at Yale in the September of 1970. Now, that was very, very alarming, because just a few weeks before that been the Kent State murders, where the National Guard had shot students dead in a demonstration at Kent State University, in Ohio. And they’ve been real big riots in New Haven, where Yale is between, you know, the black community there, and the police. And when I arrived at Yale in September of 1970, there were photographs all over the campus of what had happened literally, a few weeks beforehand, so, I was expecting quite a bit of trouble. But actually, I was there 1970 through to 72, and everything quietened down there and I had a wonderful time at Yale, in fact, and that was really, really good.
Minter Dial 07:27
What an arrival. I can’t imagine your parents were thrilled with that idea. That moment, kind of how the media was playing it out. And, and obviously, you don’t have that same kind of access to information, no internet, just to click on YouTube and see the videos.
Dennis Sherwood 07:43
Yeah, or indeed sending emails or text messages, whatever. It was a hairy time. Various good things happened in New Haven, like I met the lady who’s now and still is my wife. We got married in 1972. But it turned out that the chap who was my PhD supervisor at Yale, got a tenured position at the University of California at San Diego in the fall of 1972. So, he invited me to go to San Diego, with him to finish my PhD. So, Annie and I decamped from the East Coast to the West Coast and spent two years in La Jolla, California, a lovely place to be indeed. I got my PhD there, then did some work in Mexico. But then we came back to Britain. And in the summer of 1974, we drove from the West Coast to the East Coast. And as we were driving along, we were listening to the Watergate event harvest. The gate event was happening in real time at that time. We arrived on the East Coast. We’re getting the boat home from New York, the evening that we are leaving, the boat was sailing at about midnight, we didn’t have to be until about 10 o’clock, we went to a Broadway show. And the Broadway show was Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s live show in New York. My wife doesn’t understand it. But there you go. We went there and really enjoyed it. But the halfway point in the show, where there would have normally been the interval, they brought a television on to the stage, which was Nixon’s resignation speech. So, the last thing that happened in our four years in America was we run up the gangplank to the boat holding newspapers with the headline “Nixon Quits.” So, we were in the states and Kent State to Nixon wonderful years to be in America.
Minter Dial 09:47
Wow. Funnily enough, Dennis, this recording will go out in a couple of weeks, but here at home with my wife we just watched again, “All the President’s Men,” I mean, really two nights ago. So, talk about a transformational time. You also were in United States, therefore, for the end of Vietnam, and presumably that was quite hairy and very active on campus at Yale as well.
Dennis Sherwood 10:18
Well, you know, at Yale, Yale, like Oxford and Cambridge has colleges. I was a member of Saybrook college. And I suppose…
Minter Dial 10:27
I was in Silliman.
Dennis Sherwood 10:29
You were in Silliman. Right? Yeah, I remember it well. And you remember, you know, the dining hall that as one has. Now, I remember when we went into the dining hall, we’d sit down in large groups, very lively atmosphere. But there would be a community of people who weren’t looking very worried. And they would have been about to graduate, and waiting for their draft number. And wandering, either they get into med school, and that gets parked, or they get the wrong number. So, they were really, really concerned, because on the other side of the dining hall, or the other side of the table, there were some people who were very, very quiet. They didn’t say much at all. And they were the vets that returned from Vietnam, and had come back to college. And I remember that vividly. I remember that vividly. As an outsider, it didn’t affect me directly. And but it was a heavy, excuse me, a heavy atmosphere out that, absolutely.
Minter Dial 11:35
Well, we certainly, I think are far away in our pleasurable life of convenience these days from that type of an issue. And thankfully so! This is kind of a nice entree to the beginning of this book, ‘Creativity for scientists and engineers,’ for those who are on video, a practical guide. And at the very beginning, you write that this book is for those who wish to make the world a better place. So, I’m wondering to what extent, why did why did you write that? And how do you determine what is the right, better place?
Dennis Sherwood 12:19
Yeah, that’s a lovely thing to talk about. I’ve been interested in creativity for a long time, and we’ll talk on sure about what creativity actually means. But fundamentally, the result of creativity is implementing something. And the intention of that that to me is it must make something better than it is now. There is no point in implementing something which takes you backwards. So, all creativity should end up with some kind of event happening, the purpose of which are the consequences, which are to make the world better. Now, as soon as we say, What does better look like we get into deep water. And that deep water is all around what I think is a very, very naughty bit of the English language, your French, I suspect it works in French as well, you can tell me, but if you say something like, Hey, that’s a really good idea. Yeah, we say that all the time we hear it. We think it and of course, the opposite. No, that’s really not very good, isn’t it? Now, let’s compare that is a good idea, you know, linguistically to that is a red car. Now, if you go to the car, and look at the color, you and I will agree it is red. If you are a scientist, you will do spectroscopic measurements of the reflected light, and that will correspond to a wavelength which we will say, define as red. So, redness is the property of the car. That is a red car attributes the adjective red, as a property of the car. And here’s the linguistic sleight of mind. That is a good idea sounds as if it’s doing the same thing, attributing goodness, to the idea. Now I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury that there is no such thing as a good idea, an idea which is intrinsically good, in the same sense as the car is intrinsically red. Because goodness or badness of an idea says more about me than it does about the idea. What I’m really saying when I say that’s a good idea is I like the idea or I like the person that is advocating the idea or it is politically expedient for me to be seen to be aggrieved person, virtue signaling All means all those things. And it’s not a statement of the idea itself. So, when ideas are put on the table, and one is saying, is this actually an idea which will make the world a better place or not? That is a process that I call evaluation, or wise evaluation, distinguishing it from creativity, having the idea in the first place. And why is evaluation is a very, very slippery and difficult thing to do with wisdom, I would say that the wisdom is about making the world a better place, but better is a subjective judgment, or a value judgment of the person doing the judging. And the world is full of examples, you know, is Brexit and good idea. Well, people have been arguing about that since 2016. And before and there is no answer to that, it depends on who you are. So, my intent and saying I want to make the world a better place is actually putting my values on what better looks like that whatever happens, you’ve got to have the idea first, you can’t even attempt to make the world a better place unless you have an idea. And of course, creativity is that process by which those ideas emerge and get developed.
Minter Dial 16:22
There’s a whole lot to unpack in that one, Dennis. First of all, I think that just with regard to evaluation, the state of Brexit, we could still be evaluating it in 30 years’ time, I think. So, that’s, that’s sort of my opinion. Yeah. Second of all, so, when you talk about, let’s say, making a good idea, it seems like you should be saying what is good about that idea in order to at least make it more explicit. So, otherwise, the idea which we don’t even know what the idea is, it’s a good idea. It’s a good idea. What do you mean by an idea festival? And what makes it good? Yeah.
Dennis Sherwood 17:03
An idea, to my mind is some kind of representation of something that doesn’t exist in front of us right now. It’s, it’s an act of imagination to start with, and it happens inside your head or my head, it doesn’t happen in the space between us. Everything starts in a single human brain to my view, where my imagination is envisaging or representing in some way, something that doesn’t exist now. Now that representation might be in all sorts of different ways. And when that representation is captured in some way, that might be in terms of a picture of might be a piece of music, it might be a conversation, but it starts in the head. Now, creativity is all about how you might actually achieve that, and the various processes to do that, I would then put that idea on the table. And then you can observe that idea, and you can have a dialogue with me. And as a result of that the idea will get in enriched until some point arises where we might be thinking about, can we do something with this idea? So, creativity is all of that stuff, getting an idea to a point at which it makes sense to start saying, Well, do we just leave that idea alone? Or do we do something with it, so you migrate from the creativity process, to evaluation, and there’s all sorts of things, a lot of it is in the book of the actual process of idea generation, and enriching the imagination when we come to the evaluation stage, and there’s a lot in the book about the process for wide evaluation. But the starting point is a description. It is absolutely fundamentally important that the idea is described as richly as possible, so, that you can understand it, other people can understand it, and I can understand it, we can say, Ah, we’re all looking at the same thing. And of course, that was one of the great Brexit failures in Flexi describe what it would look like. You have to have that description first, which can be quite challenging to do. And then you can then say, well, actually, how can I imagine what might happen if that idea was implemented? And what would the differences be in the world once that implementation has happened, as compared to today? So, you’re doing that comparison? And then you look at those consequences? And you say things like, in what sentences are those consequences better than today? And better to whom? And to whom it is really, really important. You then say, are any of Those consequences, in fact, disadvantageous as compared to today. And to whom, and you actually think about that really, really hard. So, there’s processes for wider evaluation, there’s processes for creativity, the imagination bit. That’s what the book is all about. And as a generality, to my mind, why is evaluation is harder to do? Well, then having the idea in the first place,
Minter Dial 20:33
I can imagine that I want to get back to one thing you’d said that it’s about the, the idea of creativity having to be for progress, or something better, as I understood what you said, because I’m thinking of art, and or punk music, for example, I think of data, or other movements that don’t seem at least at first blush, to be wanting to make it a better place. It’s more of a statement of the emptiness or the statement of nothingness, or, or nihilism, which sounds like it’s maybe if you even if you’re being creative in that, and it doesn’t sound like it’s for better.
Dennis Sherwood 21:18
Okay, that’s probably point, let me start back with what the manifestation of creativity is. Now, when creativity becomes real, there’s only one true statement that you can say, if here is the world, as it was before, the idea was there made real that is, and here is the state of the world after the a dope idea has been made real. So, you know, a piece of surrealist art is now on the wall, margaritas, Dennett or whoever, and it wasn’t there before. The only thing that you can say is something different has happened. So, to me, creativity is about difference. It’s not necessarily about novelty, it might be new, it’s just different. Now, you then say is that difference worth implementing? Is it worth the trouble from Magritte to do that painting or Picasso to do that painting or Duchamp, you know, to put his urine up in the museum? Now, that requires some degree of permission, it requires permission in my own head, actually, to allow myself to do it. And it requires, in an artistic sense permission of whoever is going to hang it, if it’s in a public place. Now, they will collectively agree that the world is better by virtue of that having happened, were better might not be so much in the sense of better welfare or whatever it might be, it might be particularly the case of say, surrealists a bit in the sense of I’d actually shocked people into a heightened sense of awareness about a particular concept or issue. And having actually achieved that jolt, although that jolt to the observer might be a bit startling or uncomfortable, that jolt hadn’t taken place in it Duchamp’s point of view or Stravinsky to the writer string, he was saying, I’ve made the world a better place, because I’ve shaken something that up. And it comes back to, you know, what does better look like? You know, Monet was ridiculed for his first impressionist painting, and everyone laughed at him. And, you know, he had to suffer that. From his personal point of view, he felt that he had made the world a better place because of the transformation he had done to art. And he was just, as many other artists are, ahead of their time. So, that comes back to the very subjective view of better. And, you know, its multi-dimensional nature. And the fact that it is very unlikely that any idea when implemented, will please every human being on the planet. There will always be some people who are disadvantaged by it.
Minter Dial 24:15
So, as a businessman, I would tend to say, that’s to be desired. Because the idea of having an idea that pleases everybody everywhere all the time, feels like no idea is we’ll never ever fit that. And so, I’d rather have something that seems a little bit provocative. Which brings up in the way you describe things the space for destructive creativity.
Dennis Sherwood 24:45
Yeah, and, you know, as you were talking the minute of the word risk that goes through my mind, because making something different, takes individuals communities, of all scales to a different place. Ways, and that different place is associated with risk. And of course, the world is full of examples of ideas which have been implemented, where the world has become a manifesting worse place. As a result of that, in my view, the Let’s take something really quite, you know, historically very relevant. Here we are in 1805, we’re having a conversation about should we abolish the slave trade in the UK, in the colonies, it’s in Parliament, you’ve got a group of people who are saying it is a good idea to abolish the slave trade, because it is inhuman, and you’ve got the plantation owners and the slave traders who make good money from it. And that’s, I think that the safe trade is a very good idea and look how rich I am. And that debate happened over 20ish years in the UK Parliament until 1807, when they change the law. Now, I think that the world is a better place for that having happened. But the plantation owners and the slave traders who own the ships, you know, to an extent might have been in poorer, impoverished, some of them would have been, and they certainly thought it was a bad thing to do. One of my favorite things to do, actually, I’d love to write a book on it is actually to go back in history and look at the parliamentary debates about things like votes for women. And that was an idea that was around for decades, it took the first world war to make that happen. And of course, all those pompous men in Parliament said, that’s a very bad idea, indeed. And they would have made speeches as to why. And yet, I believe that the adventures in franchise movement of women in the UK and around the world was one of the most constructive and better things that could ever have happened. So, the issue of what is a good idea? And what is a bad idea? And who do you please and who do not please, is complex, and is all about, actually, at the end of the day, the authority of the person who has the opportunity to make that idea happen, or indeed to kill it. I think in a business context, most of the kinds of decisions that are about ideas are of a much more limited scope, you know, introducing new products or maybe going into a new market. Yeah, that’s all about evaluating ideas. But of course, the impact of those ideas is very, very different from the impact of abolishing slavery or right votes for women or Brexit. It’s a very interesting issue.
Minter Dial 27:44
It certainly is. And, I mean, obviously, most business decisions are rather prosaic, but I did want to see if we can skip into that idea a little later. But when you were talking about the wise evaluations, and the description of the idea, it does feel like they’re in certainly in business anyway, a place for storytelling at that point. Because the idea of being having a thorough, complete description would also mean well, I’m going to tell you about the risks and that why it might not work and maybe other elements that will kibosh creativity.
Dennis Sherwood 28:22
Yeah, I love the concept you have there of storytelling. If you think about, one thinks about evaluating an idea is it has to be done in the abstract because it doesn’t exist it you don’t actually know. So, what’s the Model T called a good idea or not? At the time it was proposed, no one knew. So, there’s risk there. So, how do we imagine what the world would look like, if the Model T were there, or if KitKat chunky were there or whatever it was. Now, in certain circumstances, you do prototyping and you build models. architects do that with their ideas for building so you can look at it. And nowadays with you know, the computer graphics, you can really see how the building will be used, for example. But if you’ve got a community of people who collectively take a decision, do we invest in this idea, yes or no? The power of story in helping people envisage what the world will look like if this product has been launched. Or if we go into that particular market, or if we expand our service range into these so that people can really imagine themselves in it. They are then in a much better position to judge, you know, is this in my own terms, good or bad and to have a conversation about it? So, storytelling of what the world would look like, is integral and of course, that dovetails very much into scenario planning scenario. Planning is all about stories of what the future might look like. And I think that scenario planning in bodies, much creativity in designing those stories, which senior management teams can then imagine, and say, Should we have a strategy that tracks in this direction, or that direction, the power of story is wonderful.
Minter Dial 30:27
There are so many things in the book, Dennis, so, we’re obviously not gonna get to touch it all. That’s why people have to run off and get the book creativity for scientists and engineers. But in the wise valuation process that you write about, you also write about transparency as being one of the criteria. And the thought that ran across my head at that point was when I worked with Samsung, and you as you know, und my wife worked for Apple. And many of the tech companies have a very strong, I would say, oath of secrecy and protection of IP. How does transparency, creativity and secrecy work together?
Dennis Sherwood 31:08
Yeah. I think within an organization. Colleagues, my belief is that transparency and openness is fundamental. So, if Apple are thinking about or thought about at the time, you know, what might an iPod looks like, or what the iPhone, and I think he’s absolutely essential that they had to be very open and transparent with each other. The reason being is that whoever it was that you know, first conceived what an iPad, or an iPod or an iPhone might look like, often it whoever it might have been. And once you’ve got it, all right, so, if I hold it to me until I suddenly release it on the world, it won’t be as rich and as good as if I’m talking about it with you. So, transparency, and openness amongst the team that are given that any one commercial organization is in competition with another, I can understand why there might be barriers around that. But those barriers are about barriers of what you leak out. I also think it’s very important that if I’m within Apple, or Samsung, or whatever, I am, as observant as I can be of what I’m allowed to notice beyond my own boundaries, and as imaginative there. So, that’s allowing information in. So, transparency within is absolutely essential. One of the biggest barriers to creativity and innovation is the individual who hooks stuff and won’t share. That’s, to my mind, you know, very, very counterproductive. So, there are organizational bounds intellectual property, and, you know, not wanting the competition to catch up with you that I can understand. But within an organization, I’ve come across so many times that people don’t share information with one another. That to my mind is pretty lethal.
Minter Dial 33:12
Indeed, well. I mean, certainly, I am familiar for having worked within big business about how people will give primacy to their own careers rather than actually the company’s results. And yet, it seems like in those tech companies there is this need to have almost structural secrecy structural, an opaque opacity, because they the challenge, they don’t want anybody to know what the overall piece is going to be. So, an individual is made to work on a specific thing doesn’t know all the people working on it. And that’s how they try to keep it under wraps. Because as you say, people are looking in, and in a world where today everything is available and open, that transparency can be a double-edged sword.
Dennis Sherwood 34:02
Yeah, it can be. But I think actually that you know, need to know compartmentalization within organizations, actually, is fundamentally counterproductive. I’ve done some work in the defense industry, and needs to know is very understandable, but actually, it limits the capability of two minds being better than one at scale. Now, there’s a trade-off there if the boss thinks that actually the loss attributable to the absence of that connectivity is bearable compared to the benefit that one might get. That’s the boss’s decision. But my immediate stance is that, you know, holes are greater than the sum of the parts and you manage it properly. And that’s a good thing to do.
Minter Dial 35:04
You write a lot about how curiosity is an important part of creativity, it feels for me that maybe intellectually, we all have a lot of creativity or curiosity. And maybe at some level, the risk is getting curiosity on everything, especially if you’re a generalist. And you can end up going down gazillions of rabbit holes, and that need to know element that you just talked about, feels like a way to contain my curiosity, because otherwise, I could just spend my entire time absorbing, reading about new things. Oh, that’s really interesting. Oh, I love that. Click here. Next thing, you know, you’re going down another rabbit hole, and you want to move from biophysics to comics in Japan?
Dennis Sherwood 35:45
Yeah, I think that’s real, I think there are some people who their life is like that. And, you know, they will trip over and spot and do creative things in all sorts of different ways, from an organizational perspective, that maybe not very, very efficient. And to my mind, you know, some degree of self-awareness that, you know, there’s a time when actually not, incrementally fussing with it, is actually less valuable, both yourself and the organization actually getting on and doing it. Those are both personal judgments and organizational judgments. But I think the wise organization actually understand when there’s a real benefit and the need for being in really expensive and creative. And when there’s a time for getting on with it. And so, you know, as you know, in the book, I talked about the four stages creativity to start with, why is evaluation development, which is making the idea work, and then implementation. Now, I think that different personality styles feel more comfortable in, you know, maybe only just one of those four stages. And organizations can get into real trouble, when the creative person just says, hey, hey, hey, I’ve had this great idea, you know, the week before the project launched or something that’s disruptive. So, understanding the personality preferences of individuals, and where they fit along that four-stage process, I think, is one of the things organizations, you know, need to understand how to manage. And of course, if individuals don’t like that, then they will leave and set up their own business or their own Kay office as my,
Minter Dial 37:48
indeed, amongst those attitudes or differences, I imagine heavily the tolerance for risk. Dennis, I want to, there are so many others. So, I’m going to try to get into a couple more. One is what we’re all talking about creativity specifically for scientists and engineers. And I was just wondering, Is creativity different when you’re a scientist or engineer, than in other fields and professions?
Dennis Sherwood 38:14
My answer to that is no! Creativity is the same for absolutely everything. Because your creativity is having an idea and the way in which you have ideas, you’re searching for differences rather than novelty. And, you know, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is different from his third symphony. But it’s the same thing. The reason that I wrote the book for scientists, engineers was more about mindset and process rather than fundamental difference. There are any number of books on creativity that you will see in the bookshops on the airport. They’re either targeted at managers, or kind of self-help books. There are very, very, very few books which are written in a language that is amenable and familiar to people with a scientific and engineering background. Or that contains examples about that, or that describes a process, which is disciplined and quite rigorous in the way that scientists and engineers quite like. And there’s a lot of scientists and engineers who actually work in businesses or in public service, computer scientists, medics, they all have a rather more disciplined knowledge heritage, so they’d like discipline processes. So, I phrased the book in that language, but I’ve written other books which are more general because, you know, people in the arts and humanities or any field The fundamentals of creativity in my evaluation are identical. But the way you might express it, or depict it or illustrate it, I think can chime into the disciplines and the mindset that different individuals have.
Minter Dial 40:15
Well, it was certainly good for me. I’m no scientist, no engineer. And it was useful for me to sort of plug into that mindset. One of the things that really struck me Dennis was how often you refer to this chap called Arthur Kessler, because I saw the name first though that same of an author, a novelist I used to read. And and you’re talking about him and creativity and the sleepwalkers. And as I Oh, what is all this? How does he know? What does he know about creativity. And then, of course, I recognized that while I had to sort of plug back and see that he also had written all these other books. So, you’re welcome. My mind he, he wrote a book for me that was very powerful called darkness at noon, he also wrote dialogue with death, which was fascinating. So, that was kind of a fun thing. So, two other areas want to get into, which is the notion of spotting patterns. I my personal mission I’ve always written is to elegantly elevate the debate and connect dots, people and ideas and, and in the connecting dots. So, I’m materially thinking about connecting patterns. And it was an interesting chapter when you talk about spotting patterns and what makes a pattern better than others. And, and I thought of apophenia, which is something which is seeing meaningfulness where none exists. How do you determine a better pattern?
Dennis Sherwood 41:41
Yeah. Let’s unpack a little stuff there. It does actually come back to Arthur Koestler. Yeah, Arthur Koestler is or was a true polymath. He was born in 1905, in Budapest, under the Austro-Hungarian empire, amazingly enough. He was at university in Vienna, where he trained as an engineer. But I think he completed his program. And when he left, he became a journalist, and did a lot of writing. And in 1936, I guess it was he was a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War. He got arrested by the Republican side Franco’s side, and was sentenced to death. But there was some deal with the British Secret Service where there was a prisoner exchange, he escaped from that. That was the basis of darkness that new which isn’t set in the space of a war, but as you know, in Stalinist Russia on death row, a totally gripping psychological story. During the Second World War, he won the crowded gear in France, and wrote books on all sorts of subjects. But he was originally an engineer, he was fundamentally interested in creativity and wrote four books on it. And in one of the books, he says that creativity is not the act of an Old Testament, God, let there be light, the eureka moment, it is not that despite the myth that it is, but it’s a matter of selecting and reshuffling already existing components into new patterns. And the more familiar the new pattern, the more you say, aha. And when I first read that, it’s in his 1964 book, “The Act of Creation.” I was really amazed, I was very, very surprised, because up to that point, I had thought creativity was about discovering something new. And basically, it was the eureka moment, suddenly, I’m walking along flush of lightning boom. Because that’s the myth. That’s the story book. That’s, you know, Archimedes jumping out of the bath, and Newton’s apple and all of that. And kiss us in love. Isn’t that at all, it may appear like that at the end. And it’s obviously portrayed at that. But it’s about finding new patterns of already existing components. Now, that actually made my brain explode. And because it’s fundamentally in creativity, there’s nothing new because there are existing components. And of course, the best example of that is music. Beethoven didn’t invent the notes any more than the Beatles did. They just recombined into new patterns. Kessler calls this by sociation bringing one thing together with another. So, for example, if we take KitKat chunky, it’s not out of the blue. It’s a synthesis of the original four-finger KitKat, with what was called the up bar that the same company did, which was a kind of a, you know, a break, put those two together and you get a brick with a biscuit in the middle KitKat chunky. So, that’s a new pattern of existing components in the commercial world. So, creativity is about the search for those new patterns. And some patterns are better than others, depending on once again, subjective view of better. So, for example, I can go to a piano, I can sit in front of a piano and go Blinky, Blinky, Blinky Blinky, but I’m not going to actually get to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He gets there quicker than me. Although in principle, I’m doing the same thing. So, what you’re searching for when you’re combining and recombining these elements, which is the heart of the creative process, is to try to spot that pattern that has got an emergent property, something suddenly happens, which you think, wow, that’s really interesting. And once again, you’re using your subjective judgment to do that. And you’re using your own values, you then talk about it with other people, which takes us into evaluation. Now, this is really important right now with AI. Because AI mechanize is that pattern formation process. And if you take music, for example, an AI algorithm can run through every combination of notes, you might think of vastly quicker than any human being. Now, it will then use historic patterns, to filter out what they think is good, what they think is bad. So, for example, right now someone is using chat GPT, or equivalent to write a song which will win next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where they’re running through those combinations almost at random, but using the patterns from previous Eurovision winners as the filter mechanism, that’s their evaluation process. But that AI process must embody the biases of whoever wrote that algorithm of selection. And I think one of the great dangers of AI in, in essence, adopting the creative process of the human being, is it will falter at that next step, where it’s using someone else’s bias to distinguish a good pattern from a bad one. So, human beings need to cover that and be wise.
Minter Dial 47:33
Well, alright, So, creativity as you’re expressing it, or with casters, inputs, would necessarily be that we’re on standing on the shoulders of giants and such, it sounds like creativity for AI is just standing on the shoulders of normal human beings and the data that they have previously identified as appropriate parents and this idea of bias, though I, I tend to feel like it’s, it’s something of an ideal, and maybe even silly to wish to eliminate all forms of bias. I mean, the idea that I’m more biased towards my family of your families, well, I think that’s a totally fine bias. And oh, but that’s being exclusive. Well, yeah. We can’t be inclusive of everything everywhere, all the time. And when you are in a company, in particular, you have to have strategic choices. Which brings me to the last question about the book. Anyway, I want to have one more session with regard to your mark’s story, but which is the notion of purpose, or meaningfulness in the creative process? So, something you delve into? It seems much as far as when I read it, but to what extent do you think that purpose and or meaningfulness can mold, accelerate boost creativity in an organization?
Dennis Sherwood 48:57
Okay, um, I think that it is quite possible to be creative, just for explorations sake without a particular purpose, and just to see what might be out there. Now, I get into a lot of trouble with this. Because conventionally, design thinking, for example, starts off with a problem statement. Now, as soon as you’ve got a problem statement, you have got a purpose statement as well, because your purpose is to solve the problem. So, I will go into a creativity workshop, we have got this problem to solve. We need to find a creative solution to it. And once we’ve done that, we have achieved that purpose. Now, I believe that creativity does not require a problem to solve. And the best workshops I’ve ever done, where I’ve started saying, let us take this feature of the world and let’s be creative about it. And then someone has said put What’s the problem statement? And I say, we haven’t got one. And they say, Well, why are we wasting our time? If it really works? Answer, because he might discover something better if we were to look. So, I am of the camp that says we can take any feature of the world, even one that seems to work well be creative, and see if we can discover something better, without an explicit purpose thing to start with. Because you might then discover something better. And your purpose is then to implement something I’d never ever thought of. If you wait until there is a problem to solve for sure, you need to fix it, you may or might not need to be creative, there may be familiar solutions. And that actually implies purpose. But actually, I think that a lot of people make a big mistake. We’ve all heard about disruptive innovation where something comes from left field and knocks me out of business. When I say that’s not about disruptive innovation from over there, it’s about complacency here. I was complacent, I did not think or believe I had a problem. I was complacent; therefore, I didn’t look for something better. And guess what, when I’ve got the problem, it’s too late. If in fact, those organizations had been creative from a strong position, they might have discovered the disruption. So, if you do have a purpose, I need a bit of legal system or I’ve got this problem to fix. Sure, be creative. But I think creativity is enormously valuable. Just to explore, just in case, there might be something out there.
Minter Dial 51:42
Yeah, it’s like your model about observation and curiosity. And then permission is a key process well, right. So, really, Dennis ran stuff about creativity for Scientists and Engineers just want to finish last bit because you publish this book at the end of 2022. And since then, you’ve you wrote another book. And it’s another obviously Hot Topic out there, and very passionately held by you, which is all around the world of how we grade or mark papers. So, you wrote a book that was called missing the mark, why so many school exam grades are wrong, and how to get results we can trust. So, this book, gets you a seems into lots of stormy topics, and you know, lots of challenging ideas, because the government likes to say, Well, we do it right. Tell us. What made you write this book, and where do we stand on getting the mark? Right?
Dennis Sherwood 52:41
Yeah, well, thanks. This actually emerged in some work that I was doing, I was commissioned to do a consulting study by the exam regulator OFQUAL. In England, they regulate GCSE, AS, A level examinations, vocational qualifications within England. So, that got me interested about 10 years ago in the exam system. So, I’ve been keeping an eye on that ever since. And, in 2018, of course, actually published some research. And what they did was they double marked huge numbers of scripts, 250,000, GCSE geography scripts, and they marked them by an ordinary examiner who’s fully qualified, and they also mark them by a subject senior examiner. So, every script had two marks. And those marks are then mapped onto the great scale. And they discovered something really very important to my mind. If we take geography for example, 250,000 strips, you might expect that 249,000 of those, the grade would be the same from both of those marks by the regular examiner and by the senior examiner. That was not what they discovered. Before geography, they discovered that 65% of the grades were the same, and that 35% of the grades were different. So, when the scripts are marked, 65 are given what OFQUAL call the definitive senior examiner’s grade, and 35 have a different grade, which is not the definitive grade; it must be wrong. And they measured this for 14 subjects from maths through to history. And if you look at the overall average for exams, you have the startling result that only 75% of the grades issued are definitive, therefore right. And 25% of the grades are non-definitive or wrong. So, just last month in August, in England, 6 million GCSE AS and A level grades were awarded.
Minter Dial 54:56
This is just for high school just for people who aren’t familiar with the British system.
Dennis Sherwood 55:00
GCSE aged 16, AS a few kids do it at 17, A level, the big exam you need for university and college at age 18. 1.2 million candidates set those exams. At those three ages, a total of 6 million grades are awarded, most kids do more than one subject. 1.5 million were wrong. Now, you might even say, well, that’s fine. There’s an appeal system. But actually in 2016, OFQUAL the regulator changed the appeal system, so that you cannot get those wrong grades corrected. They are wrong forever.
Minter Dial 55:37
Just , Dennis, just for clarity’s sake, how do we know 1.5 million of those grades were wrong?
Dennis Sherwood 55:43
Yeah, it comes from the original research published in 2018. The weighted average across subjects is 75% are definitive 25% are not. That’s one in four.
Minter Dial 55:54
I see. So, you’re using the statistics of that study and applying it to the results of 2023.
Dennis Sherwood 56:02
Yeah, yeah, this is the only study of that nature. And it covers 14 of the exam subjects maths, physics, biology, chemistry, history, geography, sociology. So, it’s a good mix of subjects, not all the subjects. There’s no modern foreign languages in it, no French, art and music aren’t in there, but the mainstream subjects are there. Now, I feel that that is doing a grave social injustice. So, I exercise a bit of creativity to discover ways in which you could deliver grades that were fully reliable. And in order to try to get some people to see what was going on, I wrote the book called “Missing the Mark,” which is giving all the evidence that I’ve just encapsulated, it gives solutions. But it also talks about in some detail, what actually happens during the COVID crisis in 2020 and 2021, when schools were for the most part, closed, kids were working at home, formal exams were scrapped. And especially in 2020, there was huge chaos in England, when the government tried to use a machine learning-type algorithm to assign grades and that all blew up. And that was a total chaos. So, thanks for asking about that, Minter. It’s all about why, you know, 1.5 million grades were wrong last August. Just one other thing, if I may, 1.5 million grades wrong, is actually bigger than 1.2 million candidates. That means on average, every young person in the country had at least one wrong grade without the right of appeal. Every kid.
Minter Dial 57:53
And just as I’m assuming then that, for example, a subject like maths would have less errors, because the you know, two plus two, generally speaking, it was four and you want to be a philosophical major, and then others where the interpretations are much more subjective and require much more sort of writing and maybe even creativity, as in English, would have more is that correct?
Dennis Sherwood 58:20
You’re absolutely right. I mentioned the 14 subjects, maths was at the top of the list. And only four in every 100 are wrong in the sense I’ve described. Geography is 65-35. History is about half and half. So, if you’re doing GCSE or a level history, you’ve pretty well put a 50% chance of getting the wrong grade. And of course that correlates with exactly your intuition about you know, the uncertainty, let’s say associated with marking an essay.
Minter Dial 58:54
Well, you’ve just opened up a whole hornet’s nest for me, Dennis. We’re gonna have to spend a couple of minutes on this one history. 50-50? What is it? I mean, the thing that drives me bonkers — I’ve written a biography a second model, and recognize that it’s very hard to be entirely accurate at historical fact-checking and all this because some things are out there for interpretation — however, it seems to me that as a country, United States included by the way though, the way we evaluate or we discuss history is completely bonkers. We’ve gone from studying history in its context to criticizing whatever has happened in the past according to today’s context, which is not history.
Dennis Sherwood 59:37
Yeah. I’m with you 100%. Although the issue of the wrong history grades is actually much more prosaic. It means that if I’ve written an essay for you know, the origins of the First World War that I might be doing for GCSE or something about the French Revolution at A level, different examiners marking exactly that essay will give rather different marks. But it turns out that, you know, at the end of the day, those different marks mean that there’s a 50-50 chance that another examiner will give me a different grade, which might have been higher might have been lower. So, any young person who might be failed to get a university or college place because they got to be rather than an A in history, it’s 50-50. In fact, as a result of the pressure that I’ve been kicking up about, this has actually been a subject which both the commons education Select Committee and the Lord select committee had asked questions about. And as a result of the questioning, one of OFQUAL’s chief regulators, a lady called Dame Glenys Stacey, who was chief regulator 2012 to 2016. She commissioned my original work in 2013, in fact, and also was chief regulator for a short period in 2020. After the algorithm, she was asked about this, and she is on record as saying, grades are reliable to one grade either way. That’s a bit different from one in four grades is wrong, but is actually the same statement. But of course, officially have acknowledged that grades are reliable to one grade either way, which means if you get a certificate, we would say is history Grade B, what that’s really saying is maybe a B, maybe a C may be an A, no one knows.
Minter Dial 1:01:32
Well, the funny thing is, I got a B in history, myself, back in 1982.
Dennis Sherwood 1:01:37
You really need an A there, Minter.
Minter Dial 1:01:40
That’s what I’m thinking! But I also think that the way history was taught compared to the way history is taught, for those who even care to — because we’re down to 2% of people at higher levels of education, studying history as opposed to 6% back in my day — where we don’t really care about studying history in its context back then, we just want to do a sociological critique. And I have to imagine that that has also contaminated our ability to have a more objective version of the historical facts.
Dennis Sherwood 1:02:12
Could well be. To be honest, I haven’t studied any history since I was 15, or 16, and did GCSE. So, how that was 100 years ago, how history is actually taught these days, you’ll be much better informed than I, but I can well understand from the bits and pieces I hear and from some of the kind of pressures that you read about that, you know, the teaching of history has a lot more potential baggage, let’s say around it, then teaching physics or biology, you know, because it’s about society, it’s about politics. It’s about the way we live. And it’s about values that you can explore or indeed exclude. I think it’s a very, very important subject.
Minter Dial 1:03:00
Amen to that, Dennis. Beautiful, what a wonderful, sparkling and stirring conversation we’ve had Dennis, So, how can people follow your work? Get your books. So, where should they be going for this immediately?
Dennis Sherwood 1:03:17
Yeah, well, I’m anyone interested in in books? Actually, I’ve written 15 books, we’ve talked about two of them. But you know, pretty well, all of them are on Amazon, that’s probably the most accessible place to go. But creativity for scientists and engineers, is, if you are of that heritage, or you’d like a disciplined approach to things, it’s one to go for and if you’re a teacher, or if you’re a parent or indeed if you’re a student, and you want to know more about what’s happening with those GCSE as a level grades, you know, missing the mark is going to blow your pension off to be honest.
Minter Dial 1:03:58
On those kicker words, Dennis many, many thanks.
Dennis Sherwood 1:04:02
Thank you to Minter. My pleasure, my pleasure and indeed honor.
Minter Dial 1:04:06
Thanks for having listen to this episode of The Minter Dialogue podcast. If you’d like to show would like to support me, please consider a donation on patreon.com/Minterdial. You can also subscribe on your favorite podcast service. And as ever, rating reviews are the real currency for podcasts. You’ll find the show notes with over 2000 or more blog posts on MinterDial.com Check out my documentary film and four books, including my last one, “You Lead, How being yourself makes you a better leader.” And to finish here’s a song I wrote it Stephanie singer, A Convinced Man.
Minter Dial is an international professional speaker, author & consultant on Leadership, Branding and Transformation. After a successful international career at L’Oréal, Minter Dial returned to his entrepreneurial roots and has spent the last twelve years helping senior management teams and Boards to adapt to the new exigencies of the digitally enhanced marketplace. He has worked with world-class organisations to help activate their brand strategies, and figure out how best to integrate new technologies, digital tools, devices and platforms. Above all, Minter works to catalyse a change in mindset and dial up transformation. Minter received his BA in Trilingual Literature from Yale University (1987) and gained his MBA at INSEAD, Fontainebleau (1993). He’s author of four award-winning books, including Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence (2nd edition) (2023); You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page 2021); co-author of Futureproof, How To Get Your Business Ready For The Next Disruption (Pearson 2017); and author of The Last Ring Home (Myndset Press 2016), a book and documentary film, both of which have won awards and critical acclaim.
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