Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.
First of all, let us declare that we are all familiar with the opposite of creativity: boredom, or worse, feeling stuck. We may drive (or walk or use the bus) to work 5+ days per week exactly the same way. Maybe get dressed the same way. We can even justify our boredom, for example, I need to get to work the quickest way possible. I have to file this monthly report because my boss expects it. I always empty the dishwasher starting with the cutlery because…
Anti-creativity is a business problem. It is a personal problem. It is a human problem. On the other hand, creativity is a business miracle and a natural expression of humanity.
Is it helpful, when discussing creativity, to define it? For example, if you consult Wikipedia, you may find the following, “Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” You see how difficult it is to define. Let’s simplify: Creativity is the art of creating something new. Yes, I know, it’s a circular definition and the dictionary editors wouldn’t like it … but it’s true! Here’s another definition: “Creativity is the most exciting and most powerful force in the Universe, and it is yours to use!”
Creativity is as delightful as a rainbow, and as ungraspable as the number of stars in the Universe. But we innately know that creativity is in us, and that exercising our creativity is exciting. Unfortunately, many of us often allow habits and ego-justification thoughts to deny or postpone our creativity. For example, “My job just isn’t creative”. Or, “Creativity is for painters and musicians”. Even worse, “Creativity is really just for children”. Despite this, we are all creative every day, one way or another. You spill coffee on your work clothes, seconds before a meeting, and you instantly invent solutions: Should I – tell someone I’ll be a few minutes late? Cover up the stain with a sweater? Blame somebody for what happened? Go into the meeting tell a joke about it. This is creativity at work.
There are many creativity procedures or methodologies. You probably are familiar with brainstorming. In fact, you’ve probably been in a meeting where a problem has been announced, e.g., The shipment of doors we need ASAP is stuck due to flooding. What happens next depends mostly on the culture in that room (in that organization). If the culture is steeped in negativity (such as fear), nobody will even speak. But unaware of the peril in even a moderately negative culture, somebody may float an idea, such as “Lets get some doors from a nearby supplier”. A knee-jerk response might be “You know that’s too expensive!”.
Nothing kills creativity as quickly as misplaced analysis (criticism). In a positive (or informed) culture, the meeting participants might respond immediately to the problem by diverting the meeting to a creativity process. “Hey, lets brainstorm for 10 minutes — no critiquing — then 10 for evaluating.”
There are many other possible structures and techniques. One such technique, the Algorithm of Inventive Problem Solving includes 85 steps!
But lets return to the simple method described above. It has three steps:
Step 1. Brainstorm. Free Associate. Imagine. Doodle. Go wild.
Step 2. Evaluate. Critique. Weigh. Note pros and cons. Allow feelings too.
Step 3. Choose.
In the example of the missing doors, perhaps due to the prevailing pressure to achieve Step 3 too quickly (Choose), Steps 1 and 2 were blurred. That’s not going to work. Why not? Because the raison d’être of Steps 1 and 2 are diametrically opposed. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the prime objective in Step 1 is QUANTITY. Create as many ideas as possible. Silly ideas. Genius ideas. Dumb ideas. Not-bad ideas. Sad ideas. Beautiful ideas…. As many as possible. In Step 1, focussing on quantity will help to counter-act the built-in “critic” each participant has. The pressure is to “create” as many ideas as possible in a short time gives a very clear focus. Also, each “critic” knows that it can defer its clever responses until Step 2, so it can be patient. The objective of Step 2 is QUALITY.
A typical car has a gas pedal and a brake pedal. If you want the car to move forward, press the gas pedal. When you want to slow down, press the brake pedal. If you want to combine Steps 1 and two in this metaphor, you’d use two different feet to randomly press the gas and brake pedals. Sometimes the car will move forward … but mostly it’s just stuck. So a separation of idea generation and idea evaluation is essential.
The simple, three-step process described just above is practical. It works. But since creativity allows for infinite possible solutions, it will look a little different when you use it.
By Thomas Baker, MSc, PMP
Professor of the Management Skills course in the Master in Project Management Program at the University for International Cooperation.