The Jenga Theory of Creativity

I think I actually made yesterday’s post on simplicity too complex. Here’s another try.

Earlier this week I edited two different papers for journals. My main contribution was that I cut 2,000 words out of each. I also wrote about 400 words in each, but it was the cutting that helped the papers.

This reminds me of the drawings by Matisse I talked about yesterday – he was more interested in what he could take out than what he should put in. The key question that he asked was: what is the minimum number of lines that I need to capture the essence of what I’m drawing?

Creativity is often about subtraction as much as it’s about addition – it’s really like playing Jenga. You need to pull out as many pieces as possible while still retaining the shape of the idea that you’re working on.


Or, as Austin Kleon put it his great post How to Steal Like an Artist:

The key issue is how do you know what to take out? That is where experimentation, failure and learning come in. The only way that you identify the essential pieces to keep in is through testing (prototyping). Here is how Joe McCarthy (please go read his blog, it’s awesome) put it in a comment:

And just to bring it full circle, while I agree that getting it right requires learning and skill, I believe that learning and skill often arise primarily through making lots of mistakes (i.e., being wrong alot … but with an open mind).

And that’s what I’m trying here. I gave it a go yesterday, I’m not sure if it worked, so I’m trying a different way today.

If I keep working on it, eventually I’ll get it right.

The way to make something simple is to cut out all the extra bits. But you can only know what to cut when you have a deep understanding of the system in which you’re working. That’s the Jenga Theory of Creativity.

(Jenga picture from flickr/riNux under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “The Jenga Theory of Creativity

  1. I agree and have approached innovation from the standpoint of us needing to find out what to take away by asking questions. And, if asking questions is necessary for us to find the best solutions then we should finally get down to asking: “What is the best question.. to ask..?” (- and that question may actually be it…?)

  2. Thanks George. Your comment about asking the right questions is dead on. Asking better/different questions is a critical part of coming up with better ideas.

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