Creativity: State of Mind or Skill Set?

Recently we came across this  post by Dave Pollard that was originally published on the blog How To Save the World  under the title How to Be Creative: an excellent overview about creativity as a result of a specific mental state or creativity as a set of skills that can be learned

When I was in high school, I was about as uncreative as you can be. My stories in composition class were derivative, copies of formulaic television programming. I didn’t ‘get’ art at all — I much preferred drafting class (though I wasn’t good at it either since I had no patience for detail.

I wanted to be creative — I was an admirer of Einstein, and respected his statement that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. But it just wasn’t ‘in me’. To me, creation was an imitative process. At the time, creativity was considered a talent. Either you had it or you hadn’t. My art teacher told me I didn’t have it. Even my daydreams were reruns.


The ‘state of mind’ approach

Even then there were a lot of books about creativity. One school of thought is that creativity is mostly about attitude and personal mental preparedness. Books like Ray & Meyers’ Creativity in Business suggest a variety of methods to get yourself in the right ‘space’ to be creative:

Relax. Surrender, don’t get attached to any particular outcome, focus on a single task, and question your assumptions and preconceptions.
Suspend judgement. Be aware of when you’re making prejudgements, use meditation or physical exercise to fight judgements, understand and focus on your goal, and give yourself permission to be curious.
Pay attention. Sense, listen, practice drawing or interviewing others to open up your perceptions, change your point of view, and see other perspectives.
Ask dumb questions. As Bucky Fuller said: “Ask what needs to be done. After all, that’s how the universe designs itself.” Questions lead to answers, which lead to insights and hence meaningful actions.
Do only what’s easy, effortless and enjoyable. Quite what isn’t. You can only be creative about things you have a passion for, and which aren’t a constant struggle.
Don’t think about it. Find places that allow you to be creative by freeing your mind from distractions.
Make yes/no decisions quickly and instinctively. Develop and trust your intuition, make decisions on what to do in accordance with them, and then act on them immediately. Creativity comes from experimenting and learning by doing.


Practised techniques’ approach

The second school of thought is that creativity is a learnable skill that can be greatly enhanced by practising certain techniques. This approach is exemplified by de Bono’s Serious Creativity. Here are some of the techniques he recommends:

Six Thinking Hats: This technique involves trying out and ‘making time and space for’ different styles of thinking in sequence to solve a problem. They are: White Hat (put aside proposals and arguments and focus directly on the information at hand, and its meaning); Red Hat (put forward hunches, intuitions, gut feelings, without apology or justification); Black Hat (put forward critical assessments, concerns and doubts); Yellow Hat (put forward ‘can do’ opportunities, what’s feasible and its logical benefits); Green Hat (put forward creative and novel ideas, alternatives, possibilities and bold thoughts); Blue Hat (provide summaries, conclusions and decisions drawn from what has already been said).
Creative Pauses: This is a deliberate halting of discussions and decision-making to think of alternatives, before getting too set on a single solution.
Creative Focusing: Focusing on a particular area (e.g. product, process, business), a particular improvement need (e.g. reduce the cost of X), a particular intractable problem (e.g. shoplifting), a particular challenging objective (e.g. making virtual training work), or a particular opportunity (e.g. the aging demographic), looking at the underlying causes for it, and then either (a) ‘parking’ it for further discussion, (b) doing a 3-5 minute preliminary search for alternative solutions before deciding what to do next, or (c) undertaking a serious effort to generate creative solutions or applications for it.
Creative Challenges: Refusing to accept that the current way of doing things is the best one, asking “Why do we do things this way?”, understanding why (by ‘asking why five times’ to get to the root reason), and then asking “What if we couldn’t?, How else could we do it? and/or What if we just stopped?” and exploring the answers.
Searches for Alternatives: Stopping to ask “Is there another way? or What else could be done? or What other resources could be used? or What similar alternatives or substitutes are available?”
Concept Fans: Starting with an analysis of Why and How currently used ideas are used, to appreciate the broad concepts, directions and objectives that underlie them, and then working backwards, ‘fanning out’ to identify other ideas that could meet the same ‘hows’ and ‘whys’, possibly more effectively. For example, the idea of carpooling could be analyzed as a ‘how’ to reduce traffic congestion, and then working backwards, telecommuting (or maybe something more creative like a universal guaranteed wage) could emerge as alternative ideas that address the same ‘how’.
Provocations: Asking ‘suppose’ questions that are, on the surface, counter-intuitive, like Suppose we sell our product to competitors? in order to jerk our thinking out of the usual channels. These provocations invoke ‘movement’ — willingness to suspend judgement on the impossibility or inappropriateness of something boldly different. The provocation is designed to extract and seek alternatives for a principle, concept or feature, focus on the opportunities or attributes that the different solution might entail, or surface stories or visions of how the alternative would work, and pose the question When would this different solution work better? Provocations start with spelling out something we take for granted (e.g. restaurants have menus), and then stating a negation, cancellation, denial, reversal, exaggeration, distortion, wishful thinking or other ‘escape’ from that presumption (e.g What if restaurants had no menus?; Wouldn’t it be nice if the customers decided the day’s menu instead of the restaurant?) and exploring that creative path.
Random Input: Use of random word lists in juxtaposition to issues and concerns, to shock the mind into looking for patterns between them and hence into non-linear ideas and possibilities.
Stratals: These are sets of five statements about a subject of attention, to provoke ‘So what?’ thoughts about the relationship between those statements and the opportunities they might raise. Five statements about recruitment in the consulting business, for example, might reveal the idea that it is cheaper to train people internally than to buy proven talent.
Filaments: This is the technique of identifying five attributes of a successful product or process, and then doing a word-association on each of those attributes, and thinking about how each associated word might be applied to making the product or process better.

De Bono describes how each of these techniques can be used in day-to-day business thinking, both individual and group, how they can be used on a Creative Hit List (a mix of organizational problems, improvement challenges, design projects, whimsical ‘How could we?’ thoughts or concepts, and surfaced opportunities) posted for all employees to practice their creative skills on, and how they can be used more formally in facilitated sessions. He also talks about how to ‘harvest’ ideas that emerge during day-to-day work but which have broader potential application if time is dedicated to exploring them.

I find both the ‘state of mind’ approach and ‘practised techniques’ approaches to creativity useful, but I sense that to some extent both schools are preaching to the converted. Thinking back to my high-school days, I think I would have found such advice bewildering. Mental preparedness (meditation etc.) and creativity techniques like de Bono’s are very hard to learn from a book. Like any skills worth learning, they need to be shown to you and honed by hours of practice.


What is creativity? It’s not the same as innovation. Creativity is the ability to generate appropriate, useful ideas that don’t follow logically and analytically from the information available, It’s the ability to know, in a complex world where most of the relevant decision-making information is unknown or unknowable, which ideas might work, might make sense. Innovation is the effective implementation of such ideas. Both creativity and innovation are often the only ways to accomplish some of the most important value-imperatives in business:

  1. Radically improving product or process quality, currency, design or throughput
  2. Improving problem-solving or decision-making
  3. Improving resource-use effectiveness
  4. Improving new product development
  5. Improving employee and customer satisfaction or motivation
  6. Predicting the future

How did I overcome my creative shortcomings? I think it was a fortuitous (because at the time I had no idea what I was doing) combination of four factors:

  • A sense of urgency and a problem to focus on
  • Lots of practice
  • A liberal education — ability to draw on a broad range of readings and learnings
  • Competent facilitators to explain and show how to do it better

I was motivated by my growing passion for writing and dissatisfaction with the creativity of my written work (my own and my English teacher’s). I wrote every day. I had always read voluminously and broadly, so I had a lot of ‘raw material’ to apply to the creative process. And it was my peers, not my overworked teacher, who prodded and applauded my struggling efforts to become a competent writer of poetry and short stories, and were blunt in their criticism when those efforts fell short.

My weblog now provides the same four critical factors. I believe all four factors are essential to creativity. If it’s not something you have a passion for if it has no specific focus if you don’t practice it regularly, if your knowledge is narrow, and if you don’t have someone to give you feedback, I don’t think you can ever hope to be creative. Like de Bono, I think you can learn it, even if it isn’t a natural talent.

Unlike de Bono, I don’t think, in most contexts, solo creativity is nearly as valuable as collaborative creativity. I’m a great believer in the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ power of collaboration, especially on creative projects, and I also believe in the Wisdom of Crowds as a critical evaluator of creative ideas.


My creative problem-solving process, illustrated above, is therefore far from solitary. Here’s a brief walk-through of how it works:

A. Teach the creative problem-solving team the skills described in this article:
B.. Listen to the ‘crowd’ — employees, customers, people with a stake in the problem — and collect their assessment of the problem and their ideas for possible solutions
C. Understand the problem, and its root causes — draw on the best research you can afford
D. Organize the project, and the resources available to solve the problem (people, information, time and money)
E. Think Ahead — to envision the future state and the possibilities, in small focused conversations with visionary stakeholders
F. Reach Out to all stakeholders, tell them what you’re thinking and ask them what they think
G. Brainstorm — use techniques like de Bono’s to surface creative alternative solutions to the problem
H. Survey the ‘crowd’ for their assessment of the alternatives you come up with
I. Design the solutions the stakeholders have approved, using collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams
J. Experiment with different ‘flavours’ of the solutions on a small-scale, to get the bugs out
K. Challenge the final prototypes — let the ‘Black Hats’ speak now and tell you what could go wrong before you launch
L. Deploy the innovations
The stages that require the most creativity are E, G and I. Creative state-of-mind methods like Ray and Meyers’, creativity techniques like de Bono’s, and my four essential preconditions for effective creativity can all be extremely valuable in making these stages, and hence the entire creative problem-solving process, productive and effective. I also recommend Idea Champions’ creative thinking tips. Stages A-D are focused on the problem, stages E-H are focused on ideas, possible solutions, and stages I-L are focused on the conversion of those ideas into innovations.

My final advice is not to try to do this alone. Involving experienced creativity and innovation facilitators, at least until your own people have acquired these competencies, and seeding your solution teams with highly creative people and people who have the broad knowledge to draw on and experience at applying that knowledge to future state visioning and to diverse and challenging business problems, what Imperato & Harari in their book Jumping the Curve call Pathfinders, can be essential to success in applying the process — the difference between an exercise that merely produces some good ideas and one that produces great, transformational innovation.

Thanks, Dave!


2 Replies to “Creativity: State of Mind or Skill Set?”

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