According to dictionary.com, creativity is:
- The state or quality of being creative.
- The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.
- The process by which one utilizes creative ability.
Creativity is therefore not only an ability; it is also a process. It is not an ethereal quality that only few possess, it is something that we are all born with. The difference between creative and non-creative people is:
- How freely they express their ideas.
- How much practice they have had in expressing their ideas.
Some people could have endured much criticism of their creative ideas early on in life, and as a result, they have just as many creative thoughts as anyone else but they are reluctant to put those ideas into words.
Other people could have experienced much encouragement, and through practice or training have learned how to express their ideas tangibly, perhaps in writing music or the visual arts.
Therefore, we tend to think that people who can paint or write music are more creative than others, when in fact they are no more or less creative, they have just had more experience at manifesting their ideas.
Certainly, some people are more inclined to express their ideas in one way or another. One person might write a poem whilst another may find it more natural to draw. The kind of creativity that we need in problem solving needs no form of expression other than to put something into words. The members of the creative team don’t need to find solutions, they just need to generate ideas, and as the project manager, you need to manage the generation and development of those ideas.
Creativity is also defined as a process, and if you watch or read interviews with prolific artists, you will find that they don’t wait for a spark of inspiration, they are constantly creating. Painters have a garage full of paintings. Musicians have shelves full of notebooks. Writers have scraps of notepaper everywhere. The skill of an artist is therefore, not in creating something, but in recognising when that creation is good enough to invest more time in.
Van Gogh produced more than 2,000 paintings and drawings in less than ten years, and most of his best known works were produced in the two years before his death. Van Gogh was not well-known during his lifetime, and a vast collection of his art has only been discovered since his death.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed music purely for his own pleasure, known in his own lifetime mainly for his harpsichord and organ playing.
Artists such as these did not create for a purpose other than the need to create. They weren’t producing a painting for a corporate headquarters or an advertising jingle for washing powder. Their objective was creativity itself, and their creative process led them on a journey which was only recognised later.
When their talent was recognised in its own right and not in the context of their contemporaries, all of their work became respected or collectible. All of the sketches and melodies which they had consigned to the bottom drawer became valuable as an expression of the artist’s creative spark, even though they were not ‘finished’ in the traditional sense.
The process of creativity therefore has two very distinct phases which must be kept as far apart as possible.
The Creative Cycle
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Paul E. Plsek, author of ‘Creativity, Innovation, and Quality’ says that “Creative thinking begins with careful observation of the world coupled with thoughtful analysis of how things work and fail.”
Creativity is an organised process that you can plan for. For example, new ideas rarely come out of ‘thin air’; they are usually inspired by something else. Perhaps by observing people in one situation, you will be inspired with some ideas to solve a problem in another.
Many inventions have been inspired by observing nature, for example, one company has produced more efficient wind turbine blades by copying the evolved pattern of ridges along a whale’s tail fin.
Some companies have even equipped meeting rooms with inspirational themes in order to encourage the creative process.
Generating ideas means the active work of creativity through using brain storming, mind maps, or other techniques in order to come up with something new. We’ll explore the use of some of these tools later, but one thing that they all share in common is, at the generation stage, a preference for quantity over quality, because quality implies preconceptions which limit the creative process.
In developing an idea, it may become apparent that it is, unfortunately, not practical. But by developing ideas, you will be further forwards than if you dismissed them at the start. An idea may not be complete when it is first suggested, but it contains a seed which needs to be nurtured. Often, many half formed ideas come together to create one complete one.
Action means to do something with the idea, to make it real. Most importantly, it must be shared with other people. This is particularly important if you are working alone. People often have a tendency to self-censor, and half formed, incomplete ideas can be discarded for fear of ridicule, when in fact your half of an idea can perfectly complement someone else’s half.
Here are some creativity boosting strategies that I have found to be most valuable.
You have probably seen or tried the creative process known as ‘brainstorming’. The goal of brainstorming is to come up with as many ideas as possible around a central theme without any critical assessment of those ideas. Stopping to talk about an idea interferes with the spontaneity of the process and limits the flow of ideas.
Here are some basic ‘rules’ for the brainstorming process.
- Select a comfortable environment for the session.
- Limit your group size to no more than twelve participants.
- Invite participants from diverse backgrounds in order to increase the chances of unique ideas.
- Select a facilitator from the group who will note down the ideas generated.
- The facilitator will also be responsible for preventing the group from wandering off topic.
- Consider an ice breaker brainstorming session to get the group warmed up for the real one.
- Clearly define the problem at hand as well as the criteria that need to be achieved.
- Give everyone some quiet time in order to think up their own suggestions.
- Ask everyone to contribute their ideas in turn.
- Ensure everyone gets a fair amount of time to voice their ideas.
- Encourage all participants to build upon each others’ ideas and also to combine ideas.
- Encourage enthusiasm amongst the group and make the session light hearted.
- Encourage the group to share any idea, regardless of whether it seems practical or not.
- If you see any signs of someone holding back or censoring their own ideas, encourage them.
- Do not debate or criticise any ideas that are suggested.
- Make sure that no one train of thought is followed for too long.
- Generate as many ideas as possible.
- Take regular breaks to keep the group refreshed.
- At the end of the session, sort through the ideas and remove any obvious duplicates.
- Evaluate the ideas based on your original criteria.
A recent Dutch study (Bernard Nijstad and Wolfgang Stroebe) revealed that despite all the benefits of group brainstorming, it does have some downsides.
- Individuals often produce fewer ideas, and ideas of lower quality in group settings compared with when they work alone.
- When people have to wait for others to complete their turn before presenting their idea, ideas are often lost due to distraction or self censorship.
In order to overcome this, the researchers recommended:
- Using electronic brainstorming where people don’t have to wait to post their ideas.
- Minimise the number of participants in order to prevent bottlenecks.
De Bono’s Six Hats
The Six Thinking Hats system, also known as de Bono Hats or Six Hats was created by Dr. Edward de Bono in 1985. The concept was first published in his book titled ‘Six Thinking Hats’ and provides a structured method for guiding people involved in problem solving to examine issues from all important angles.
The Six Thinking Hats concept is best implemented by people in a team who thoroughly understand the issue in question and are completely open to examining it from various angles. The Six Thinking Hats method allows a complex situation to be examined from various perspectives to develop a strategy which is as comprehensive as possible.
The model works by assigning a coloured ‘hat’ to each participant which gives them the role of examining the issue from a specified angle. This way each participant is forced to focus on the angle that he has been provided with. The hats are mnemonically descriptive of the perspective they represent and indicate both the emotional and logical state of mind. The model has been developed in such a way that it can be used in a group or by a single individual.
The six hats and the perspectives that they represent are:
- White: The “information hat” completely focuses on the facts which are available.
- Red: The “emotions hat” focuses on emotions, feelings and gut feelings about the problem; no justifications are considered.
- Black: The “bad points hat” identifies flaws and is critical to the issues especially pointing out problems.
- Yellow: The “good points hat” identifies logical benefits and seeks harmony between different factors.
- Green: The “creativity hat” focuses on investigation and completely new ideas for the issue.
- Blue: The “thinking hat” considers process control and may direct activity to another hat.
If the Six Thinking Hats are going to be implemented in a group scenario, participants must clearly understand the purpose of the activity is to dispose with a limited way of thinking. It is up to the organizers whether one person will wear one colour though often hats are rotated after each participant has had a turn with it.
In larger groups, one hat can be worn by all participants at one time. The Six Hats method can also be used by individuals.
A good way to go about implementing the practice is to place a coloured piece of paper on the wall so that focus is placed only on that angle of thinking.
Though there is no specific order in which the hats must be presented, below is a general guideline which can help get the activity started.
- Lay out the facts of the issue using the white hat.
- Come up with various ideas on how to deal with the issue using the green hat.
- Evaluate both the positives and negatives of the ideas using the yellow and black hats.
- Extract gut feelings about the various options using the red hat.
- Conclude the meeting with a summary using the blue hat.
The only challenge of implementing the Six Hat Model arises from the participants using the hats. Those who are willing to open up their minds and inspect a problem, issue or solution from all angles regardless of how logical or acceptable it is will be most successful.
Critical thinking is an approach to analysis where the focus is on neutrally considering all of the different arguments or positions that could be put forward, and evaluating those arguments based only on facts and evidence.
Critical thinking is most often employed when questioning assumptions, and someone who has good critical thinking skills will look at both sides of an argument, finding evidence and looking for contradictions. The argument that has the fewest contradictions will be favoured.
One of the most widely known critical thinking tools is known as Occam’s Razor, which suggests that the simplest explanation or solution is usually favourable.
A good critical thinker:
- Raises important questions and problems, stating them clearly and precisely.
- Gathers and assesses relevant information.
- Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions.
- Tests their conclusions against relevant criteria and standards.
- Thinks open-mindedly.
- Recognises their own assumptions and biases.
- Communicates effectively with others.
- Resists being influenced by others.
SCAMPER is an acronym for a problem solving checklist created by Bob Eberle in the early 1970s. It was originally devised for children to simplify the 83 problem solving questions of Alex Osborn, the creator of ‘brainstorming’.
You could therefore regard SCAMPER as a short-cut to the different ways of looking at a problem that can arise from brainstorming.
Each letter in the acronym represents a different way you can play with the characteristics of a problem to trigger new ideas:
- Modify, Magnify or Minify
- Put to Other Uses
- Rearrange or Reverse
You will find below a comprehensive help guide to using SCAMPER. There are more than 60 questions that can be asked, along with almost 200 words and expressions you can create associations with.
The questions will help to direct your thinking to the particular characteristic of the model, and the words will act as a catalyst for the creative process.
Substitute part of the system or situation for something else. For example, change a single expensive server in an IT network for a low cost, distributed storage system.
- Can I replace or change any parts?
- Can I replace someone involved?
- Can the rules be changed?
- Can I use other ingredients or materials?
- Can I use other processes or procedures?
- Can I change its shape?
- What if I change its name?
- Can I substitute one part for another?
- Can I use this idea in a different place?
Words: Alternate, exchange, fill in for, locum, proxy, relieve, rename, repackage, replace, reposition, reserve, shape, stand in for, surrogate, swap, switch, take the place of.
Combine two or more parts of the system to create a new part or a new function. For example, combine sales people with installation engineers to create sales engineers.
- What ideas or parts can be combined?
- Can I combine or recombine its parts’ purposes?
- Can I combine or merge it with other objects?
- What can be combined to increase the number of uses?
- What materials could be combined?
- Can I combine different talents to improve it?
Words: Amalgamate, become one, blend, bring together, coalesce, come together, commingle, conjoin, fuse, intermix, join, link, merge, mingle, mix, package, relate, unite.
Adapt an existing solution for a different problem. For example, nature uses yellow and black to signal danger, so use the same colours for warning signs.
- What else is like it?
- Is there something similar to it, but in a different context?
- Does the past offer any lessons with similar ideas?
- What other ideas does it suggest?
- What could I copy, borrow or steal?
- Whom could I emulate?
- What ideas could I incorporate?
- What processes can be adapted?
- What different contexts can I put my concept in?
- What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
Words: Acclimatize, adapt oneself, adapt, adjust, alter, amend, become accustomed, bend, change, conform, contextualize, copy, emulate, familiarize, find your feet, fit, get a feel for, get used to, incorporate, make suitable, match, modify, readjust, refashion, revise, rework, settle in, transform, vary.
Make something bigger or smaller or modify it in some other way. For example, make software more accessible by making the icons bigger.
- What can be made larger or smaller?
- What can be made higher, bigger or stronger?
- Can the colour or texture be modified?
Words: Amplify, augment, boost, enlarge, expand, extend, grow, heighten, increase, intensify, lengthen, make seem more important, multiply, overemphasize, overstress, raise, strengthen, stretch out.
5) Put to Other Uses
Use something to solve a problem that it was not originally used for. For example, use scrap tyres to build a safety wall or to weigh down plastic sheeting.
- What else can it be used for?
- Can it be used by people other than those it was originally intended for?
- How would a child use it? An older person?
- How would people with different disabilities use it?
- Are there new ways to use it in its current form?
- Are there other possible uses if it’s modified?
- If I knew nothing about it, would I figure out the purpose of this thing?
- Can I use this idea in other markets or industries?
Words: Apply, behave, benefit, bring into play, contextualize, deplete, draw on consume, employ, enjoy, exercise, exhaust, expend, exploit, get through, handle, luxuriate, make use of, manage, manipulate, mistreat, operate, reposition, source, spend, take advantage of, take pleasure in, tap, treat, use up, utilize, waste, wear out, work.
Eliminate something from the system altogether. For example, save cost by removing the lock barrel from the passenger side door handle on a car.
- How can I simplify it?
- What parts can be removed without altering its function?
- What’s non-essential or unnecessary?
- Can the rules be eliminated?
- What if I made it smaller?
- What feature can I understate or omit?
- Should I split it into different parts?
- Can I compact or make it smaller?
Words: Abolish, control, curb, destroy, disregard, do away with, eradicate, exclude, excrete, expel, exterminate, get rid of, jettison, kill, lessen, limit, liquidate, lower, moderate, modulate, pass, play down, purge, reduce, reject, remove, restraint, restrict, shorten, simplify, temper, throw out, tone down, waste, wipe out.
7) Rearrange (or Reverse)
Reverse part of the system or change its order. For example, prevent a typewriter from jamming by rearranging the letters on the keyboard to a QWERTY layout, so that frequently occurring pairs of letters are kept apart.
- What other arrangement might be possible?
- Can I interchange components?
- Can I transpose cause and effect?
- Can I change pace or change the schedule of delivery?
- Can I transpose positives and negatives?
- Should I turn it around? Up instead of down? Down instead of up?
- What if I consider it backwards?
- What if I try doing the exact opposite of what I originally intended?
Words: Back up, change the date, change, delay, drive backward, go backward, invalidate, invert, move backward, move, overturn, postpone, put off, quash, readjust, rearrange, relocate, render null and void, reorder, reorganize, repeal, reposition, reschedule, reshuffle, retreat, swap, switch, transpose, turn around, undo, withdraw.
Build A Model
A useful way to approach complex problems is to build a model.
A model is any abstracted, generalised, simplified representation of the problem.
For example, if decreased cashflow is a problem then a set of company accounts is a model. The accounts are not the activities of the company, but they provide one way of representing those activities so that other people can more easily understand them.
The more abstract a model becomes, the more detail is lost. A snapshot of a company’s profit and loss account is still a representation of that company’s trading activities, but it is much less useful than a set of accounts or even a full balance sheet.
When problems become complex, they become too large to think about, like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle. You would probably break the puzzle down into smaller areas, or step back from it to get a more generalised view. With a business problem, these are just two of the ways to make it easier to think about a problem.
Models allow us to structure and organise information, which in turn can highlight gaps or overlaps in the design of a system.
To create a model of your problem, you might consider representing it as a business process. This enables you to map out what is happening and deduce the cause within a complex system. Begin by assuming that the problem is actually a perfectly functioning system that produces an output that is simply different from the one you want. By building a model of the problem as a functioning system, you can begin to understand how to change that system to get a different result. This systemic approach is different to looking for what is ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’, and is particularly well suited to the analysis of open problems.
Applying management theories to your situation is an excellent way to view the problem from multiple perspectives, which in turn gives you new insights that will help you to create the most effective solution.
Management theories are also models, and rather than judging theories as ‘true’ or ‘false’, instead consider how they represent your problem or system differently.
The benefit of using an existing management theory to describe and analyse your problem is that you obtain all the advantages of a pre-defined template, where the framework has been thought out, discussed, argued and refined. In addition, there is much literature describing the use or application of the theory to various circumstances. Thus by using an existing management theory, you get a ‘leg-up’ in your problem solving approach.
Numerous frameworks have been devised over the years in an attempt to more clearly articulate corporate situations.
We often take words for granted, acting as if language ‘is’ the thing that it describes. However, language is a model, and you should therefore choose your words carefully when you describe a problem and its characteristics.
This is one reason why it is important not to paraphrase what someone says during a brainstorming activity, because to change the word, even though it might make sense to you, changes the meaning and stifles the creative process.
Drawings & Diagrams
Drawing is another simply yet powerful way of representing a problem or system. Whether you’re creating a formal flowchart or diagram, or sketching out ideas, the importance of drawing is that it enables you to express ideas that are difficult to put into words.
The most familiar form of mind map, sometimes known as a ‘spidergram’, places the central theme of the subject at the centre of a page and then has arms branching off that central theme, each one representing a major sub-theme. These sub-themes then terminate in individual points within that sub-theme.
Mind Maps were originally conceived as a memory aid, so that a complex subject could be broken down into a number of themes. A Mind Map could be used to record information about a project, collect notes in a meeting or even act as a guide for a presentation or training course, the principle being that, when information is arranged in a logical sequence, you only need a brief prompt in order to recall large amounts of information. Our brains are capable of storing almost everything that we experience, but what we can lack in some situations is the ability to index that information for easy retrieval. You can therefore think of a Mind Map as a visual indexing system that enables you to retrieve large amounts of information from your memory.
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Force Field Diagrams
Force field analysis was originally created by Kurt Lewin in 1943 as a way of understanding the different forces that act upon peoples’ behaviour in a situation. Since any business process inevitably involves people, as employees, stakeholders and managers, it will be affected by the external influences on those peoples’ behaviour, some of which will move towards the desired goal and some away from it.
Creating a force field diagram involves identifying and representing these opposing sets of forces. The driving forces are those which would push the in the direction needed to achieve the desired goal, and the opposing or restraining forces are those which act against the desired goal and prevent its achievement.
Force field analysis seeks way to strengthen the driving forces and overcome the restraining forces, and can be divided into these stages:
- Describe the current situation.
- Describe the objective or desired outcome.
- Describe the worst outcome.
- Draw the basic diagram linking present state to desired outcome.
- Identify the driving forces.
- Identify the opposing or restrainjng forces.
- Add these to the diagram.
- Identify any neutral influences which could have a bearing in the future.
- Describe individual forces in detail and rate their relative importance and strength.
- Rate the ease with which the forces can be strengthened or weakened.
- Select the forces to be changed.
- Identify specific ways to change those forces.
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Reductionism is a philosophy that can be applied to the corporate problem solving process, in that complex objects can be simplified in a way that makes them easier to understand.
A common reductionist approach is “Occam’s Razor”, a principle that states that, when you have multiple explanations for something, the simplest is usually the correct one.
By breaking a situation or problem down into smaller constituent parts, each part will have more predictable characteristics and behaviour and therefore the entire system can be approach in a more controlled way.
Role playing involves enacting either the problem or the solution in order to explore it in a model of reality. You might role play the people involved in the problem, or you might ‘walk through’ a solution or new business process in order to test it.
Role playing can also involve creating mental models of a situation. The scientist Nikola Tesla was said to have created mental models of his experiments that were so detailed that he could return to an experiment after many weeks to find it in exactly the same state as his mental model of it.
Concept Fan – Widening The Search For Solutions
Edward de Bono devised the idea of the Concept Fan in his book ‘Serious Creativity’. It is useful when you have exhausted all possible solutions for a problem, and it works by exploring potential solutions to higher level problems than the one you have been working on.
Begin by drawing a circle on a sheet of paper, within which you write a brief description of the problem. To the left, you add another circle with a brief description of the higher level problem that your problem is an example of. You can add more than one circle if you can think of other higher level problems.
For example, if the problem is the instability of the finance department’s expenses tracking software then you might think of two higher level problems or categories; the problem that any software can be unreliable and the problem that the finance department relies on computer software for tracking expenses.
The resulting diagram looks like a fan, in that the higher level problems ‘fan out’ from the original problem, and as you add in other categories of problem and other possible solutions, the fan develops with the original problem as its hub.
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Trial & Error
As humans, we learn by trial and error. We learn to walk and talk by experimenting and by gathering feedback from the outside world. If we get what we want then we know we have communicated effectively.
Testing possible solutions until the right one is found. Learning from your mistakes is one example of using failure.
As strange as it seems the human brain is failure machine: it generates models of reality, acts on them, and adjusts or creates new, successful models based on failures.
In his book ‘The Talent Code’, Daniel Coyle says, “every single CEO shares the same nugget of wisdom: the crucial importance of mistakes, failures, and setbacks… mistakes create unique conditions of high-velocity learning that cannot be matched by more stable, “successful” situations.”
Trial and error is an important means of bridging the gap between what you know and what you don’t know. When combined with role play, a trial and error approach enables you to enact as much of a solution as you have available and then improvise in order to find something that fills in the gaps.
Whilst it can seem like a very vague, organic process which conflicts with the idea that we need hard facts and predictable evidence, trial and error is the process by which we have each learned our most important human skills and its importance must never be overlooked.
Taking such an organic approach to problem solving is much more of a creative process than some of the systematic approaches that we have discussed earlier in this book. It’s also important to let go of your definitions of success and failure, and even the term ‘trial and error’ is a little misleading. When a trial or experiment does not lead to the desired outcome, it is not a failure, it is simply a solution to a different problem. Any outcome at all moves you closer to your goal, even if it isn’t quite what you had in mind.
Some situations do not lend themselves to a trial and error, most notably those where you have limited opportunities to test out proposed solutions. For example, you probably wouldn’t want a surgeon to adopt a trial and error approach to a life saving operation. However, over the course of many decades, medical knowledge has progressed in precisely this way.
Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California found that the most respected scientists produced not only great works, but also many “bad” ones. They weren’t afraid to fail in order to arrive at excellence.
Make It A Game (or How To Motivate Others To Solve Your Problem)
In Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, there is a story about a steel mill owned by Charles Schwab where performance was falling and the mill managers couldn’t find a way to increase productivity, having tried all of the management methods at their disposal.
The story goes that Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk and asked how many pieces the day shift had produced. The answer was six, so Schwab chalked a big ‘6’ on the floor, and walked away.
When the night shift arrived, they asked what the number meant and were told that the big boss was in asking about productivity. The next morning, the ‘6’ had been scrubbed out and replaced by a ‘7’. The next day shift replaced this with a ‘10’.
When you think about motivating people, remember that money in itself is not a motivator. People are motivated by challenge, by the desire to excel and by healthy competition.
Free association begins with a trigger or seed, perhaps a word, a place, something you can see around you, a sound or something in a book opened at random.
You then freely move from one idea or thought to the next, just allowing the process to take you wherever it leads. Remember that the purpose is not to arrive at a particular idea or point but simply to free your mind of the constraints of the original problem.
Talking the problem over with people who are unconnected to it forces you to explain it differently, and their interpretations and ideas don’t necessarily give you the solution but they can inspire you to approach the problem differently.
Visualisation is an important technique used for mentally rehearsing in a variety of fields, from sport to art and even in business strategy creation, where executives are encouraged to visualise a future business operation in great detail.
This same technique can be used as a creative resource, because your thoughts about a problem are different when you know that the problem can be solved versus when you are not sure if a solution can be found or not.
One way that visualisation is often used in a problem solving process is to visualise a future scenario where the problem has long since been solved. You don’t know how it was solved, you just know that it was. As you notice what is different in this future scenario, you can look back at the imaginary steps that were taken to achieve this outcome.
The purpose of this visualisation technique is not to find a solution but to create an atmosphere where a solution is more likely to be found.
As you may recall from our earlier discussion of learning styles, reflection is an important part of the learning cycle. It may not be the point at which you naturally begin, but it is important for your mind to absorb and sort through new information. Therefore, you shouldn’t feel under any pressure, or even put your team under any pressure, to keep going at a problem until a solution is found, as beyond a certain point, this is extremely counter-productive.
At certain phases of your project, you and your team will be taking on board vast quantities of new information, for example when you are gathering data in order to define the problem. At these times, it is even more important to allow time to reflect on what has been learned, perhaps even encouraging the team to ‘sleep on it’ before making any recommendations or drawing any major conclusions.