03/19/2012 11:11 am ET Updated May 19, 2012

MacGyvering Our Way Out of the Creativity Crisis

My teenage son reported in a snit the other day that my answer to everything is "You figure it out." Maybe the printer wasn't working right or, horror of all horrors, there was no signal, or maybe he was just in an Angry Bird mood. He blames this elevated sense of you-can-do-it-yourself on my Dickensian upbringing. I assure him that like most boomers, I grew up in what was at the time standard issue -- small FHA house with a few more kids than there were rooms. Use what you've got was mantra back in the day. Ingenuity and resourcefulness was what was wanted, while whining and excuses were the very things that old Darwin would sort out in the end.

There were no helicopter parents constantly nattering, "Don't do that." That flying machine was built on our watch. The adults in my neighborhood mostly espoused a "hurt, didn't it" philosophy -- "Don't rub it until you get home." The unavoidable failure cycle was accelerated as the lesson was swift and memorable. Anyone who has ever learned to play an instrument or paint beautifully or speak an exotic language fluently will tell you that all learning is developmental. It doesn't matter if you are four or 40, the process of trial and error is the same.

OK, we've all seen the cover stories -- "The Creativity Crisis," "Why Johnny Can't Create," "Why We Suck." Let's assume for a moment that these concerns are warranted and our little "boomlets" are in peril of being -- dare I it say it -- ordinary and even boring. How do you help someone become more ingenious -- original -- deviant? Oh sure there is always music and theatre class -- no wait, we cut all those things out of last year's budget. Perhaps body art or gang graffiti will show us the way, but I'm not sure there is a real career in that unless you can cash a cameo on A&E's Inked into a meal ticket. I think we are going to need a little extra help here.

For the better part of decade, nerdy secret agent Angus MacGyver would escape the most precarious of situations with boundless creativity, acts of derring-do and the occasional rubber band. The TV drama would culminate at the moment when he recognized that everything he needed to escape with the goods was in right front of him the entire time: A misplaced paper clip, tweezers on the vanity or an old discarded umbrella. MacGyver had a gift for seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary -- the ability to visualize the potential in the unassuming present to transport us to the alluring future -- a decidedly boomeresque competency or vanity.

Innovation is mostly about seeing what others miss, connecting the dots and taking purposeful action. To do so, we must intentionally look in our blind spots. You know, those annoying places that we avoid because they are too dark, deep or depressing -- the evening news, the owner's manual or the conversation about money with a ne'er-do-well relative. Instead, we pursue the opportunities that emerge in the well-lit places that are so obvious that they are of little value or consequence.

While my occupation gives me line of sight to the wondrous and unimaginable goings-on in the rarified air of the academy and the hyperion of multinationals these days, I see small bits of clever innovation in the ordinary by those who grind the day. The abandoned Linens 'n Things converted into a gymnasium by a cash-strapped middle school. The makeshift website of smartphone photos of the license plates of dangerous and dimwitted drivers posted to alert the authorities and fellow commuters. The heavy metal containers carried across the oceans by cargo ships now turned into swanky minimalist prefabs. The kitchen alchemy of everything from tutti-frutti winesicles to enslaving synthetic substances. From the sublime to the subversive, we see MacGyver everywhere. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention then surely he must be its wayward father.

So why all the boohooing about the creativity crisis? In a recent article entitled "The Games Kids No Longer Play" in the Christian Science Monitor, Susan Linn, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests that "The best toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy." Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about the massive amount of time our little ones are spending in front of screens engaged in passive or mediated gaming activities. While the consequences for childhood obesity are now widely recognized, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be an equally stifling effect on their cognitive development and acquisition of key skills.

Conversely, everyone from the Pentagon to our most prestigious universities are now integrating quantitative content into the gaming environment to get our young adults interested in the inspirational world of tensor calculus and matrix geometry -- you must use differential equations, Link, to rescue Princess Zelda. While the games are more complex, so are the solutions. Recently, two high school seniors from Tennessee hacked an Xbox 360 to use the sensor as a tricked out motion detector that analyzes how people walk with prosthetics. Similarly, a California teen developed a PacMan meets Krazy Glue search-and-destroy strategy for malignant cells that, by all accounts, is quite promising.

The point is that while modernity makes it hard for our kids to hear their ingenious thoughts over the rat-a-tat-tat of tech toys and see their personal artistic vision when the ubiquitous screen stares at them like the Eye of Sauron, they can still assemble their inner resources and launch their own MacGyver experiments -- their personal X-Prize. To do so we need to encourage their freedom and responsibility to make their own world better and new. How exactly to we do that? Well, you figure it out.

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Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at or follow his blog on innovation at