When people think about creativity, they typically think of it in terms of three Ps: Person, Problem, and Product. A person solves a problem in a new way and creates a new product.
The problem with thinking about creativity in this way is that it ignores the fourth and most important P: the Process.
In ignoring the process and treating creativity as akin to something like divine insight—which is often the way it feels when a solution comes to mind—it causes three things to occur:
- It treats creativity as something only available to a select few.
- It places the value of creativity on the product.
- It causes organizations to reward the product instead of the process that creates the product.
This is problematic because:
- It limits the creativity in the organization to only certain people when it would be beneficial to have every person in every department trying to think creatively at least some of the time.
- It makes people focus on getting to a solution instead of fully exploring the problem first.
- It attempts to reward a one-time outcome instead of a repeatable behavior.
If you want to motivate people you have to reward the behavior you seek in every single person. If you only reward a select group of creative people, it produces no reason for new people to engage in creative problem-solving. And, rewarding an outcome—something that isn’t repeatable—doesn’t influence behavior; it doesn’t make creative results more likely to occur in the future. Reward only works when it’s applied to a repeatable behavior—the creative process—that produces the type of results you’re looking for.
The creative process has three main subprocesses: preparation, generation, and evaluation.
Preparation is a mix of knowledge and definition: knowledge of the specific domain and a clear definition of the problem.
Preparation is about constraints. It says these are the conditions under which a solution will work. Without these constraints, truly creative solutions are unlikely to arise as idea generation in the next phase will tend towards either of two opposing directions:
- The Tried and True: This tendency is the result of being overwhelmed: if you can do anything, where do you start? Under these circumstances, people focus on what’s worked in the past and don’t produce anything new.2
- The Useless: This tendency is that people try anything. In this case, people produce original thinking instead of creative thinking. Creative thinking has utility—it produces a result—whereas original thinking produces unique ideas that lack utility (e.g., 5+5=76).3
Creative thinking lies in-between these two types of thinking and it requires preparation and the resulting constraints to get there.
Generation produces a pool of ideas. This is where a lot of creativity training and writing is focused: how do you generate the best ideas?
This is also the most difficult of the three subprocesses. It’s difficult for two reasons. One, we’re wired to want to be right: from a biological standpoint, being right increases your chances of survival; exploring tons of solutions doesn’t. Second, when we see other people’s creative solutions, they appear logical.4 We don’t see the process that got them to that solution. So, we attempt to apply logic in an effort to create a single solution instead of fully exploring the problem and possible solutions.
When generating ideas, there should be no evaluation, but that’s what most people do: they switch back and forth between presenting an idea and evaluating. When you switch back and forth between generative and critical thinking, you lose the flow you would have by sticking to one type of thinking at a time and, as a result, impair the full ability of that type of thinking.
We often don’t think about evaluation as part of the creative process (even though people tend to do it when they’re trying to generate ideas). Instead, we think of the creative solution as something that manifests itself fully formed. But, that isn’t the case: ideas from the generation stage must be evaluated—logic must be applied—to find the best idea.
In addition to evaluating the best solution from the pool of ideas, you also have to determine its doability.5 For a solution to be creative it has to both solve the problem in a new way and it has to be doable for an organization. If it isn’t doable or you can’t execute it, the solution has no value and it isn’t creative—it’s just an original idea: something new that’s useless.
In evaluation you have to ask the questions: Will it work? Can we do it? And, do we want to do it?
Many people skip the last question because they ignore the social aspect of creative problem-solving. Even if a solution is doable and an organization is capable of doing it, it doesn’t mean that the people who can do it actually want to do it—it has no buy-in. And, if there’s no buy-in, it’s not going to get done: it lacks efficacy.
Anyone can be creative. Creativity isn’t a divine gift; it’s a process with three subprocesses:
- Preparation: Gaining knowledge and setting constraints.
- Generation: Generating ideas without evaluating them.
- Evaluation: Determining the best idea that can be done, that the organization is capable of doing it, and that people in the organization want to do it.
If you want to create a company where creativity is a driving force, you have to reward this creative process—the behavior—not the outcome.
- Translation from: Peter Parshall, “Graphic Knowledge: Albrecht Dürer and the imagination,” The Art Bulletin, 2013. ↩
- Patricia D. Stokes, Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough, 2005. ↩
- Sarnoff A. Mednick, “The Associative Basis of the Creative Process,” Psychological Review, 1962. ↩
- Edward de Bono, Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them, 1985. ↩
- Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, 1926.
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