Are you creative?

Chances are you have a pretty definitive answer to that question, one way or another.

It’s common to believe that creativity is something you’re either born with or without. And there are plenty more stereotypes where that came from. How many times have you heard the creative process described as ‘right brain’ activity that’s linked to feelings, intuition and imagination? Similarly, we tend to think of creativity in the context of people sitting around on beanbags, brainstorming whacky, ‘out of the box’ ideas.

While all of these beliefs have some foundation in reality, there’s actually a lot more to being creative than meets the eye. True creativity is far more rational and ordered than it may initially seem, and is something that can be stimulated and nurtured using various techniques.

What is creativity?

Before we look at those techniques, let’s clarify what we mean by the term ‘creativity’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something” or “inventiveness”. That’s pretty broad and covers everything from art and music to technology and far more. From a business perspective, creativity has been described as “the generation of new and useful/valuable ideas for products, services, processes and procedures by individuals or groups in a specific organisational context”.

True creativity is far more rational and ordered than it may initially seem

The key words here are ‘useful’ and ‘valuable’. In contrast to pieces of art or music, which can exist for their own sake, creativity in business usually has a purpose. Often it’s about doing something different to stand out from the crowd and find a competitive edge. When we think about it in this way, it starts to become clear that creativity can’t just be about whacky ideas. It has to have some foundation in logic and reason in order to make sense and be of strategic value.

This is very much the view of Edward de Bono, one of the leading experts in the field of creativity and inventor of the term ‘lateral thinking’. He believes that too many people approach creativity as a search for the crazy and exotic, and that they often miss the most simple, practical and effective ideas as a result. While novelty can have value in some areas, such as advertising, he suggests that creativity should generally be rooted in sense and robust thought. Far from being about flashes of blinding inspiration and gut feelings, de Bono suggests that creativity is more likely to arise from a structured process that carefully considers all of the available information from different perspectives.

Put your thinking hat on

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘thinking cap’, which is believed to have originated in the 17th century. De Bono took this idea a step further with his ‘Six Thinking Hats’ theory. The idea is that there are different ways of approaching a creative task. Sometimes it’s about intuition and emotions, while at other times caution and judgement play a key role.

There’s a general consensus that there’s no bad idea in a brainstorm situation, but de Bono suggests a different way of looking at things. He believes that the creative process is more productive when different types of thinking are deliberately encouraged within the discussion, denoted by coloured metaphorical hats:

  • White hat = data gathering mode
  • Red hat = intuition and emotions
  • Black hat = logical negative, judgement and caution
  • Yellow hat = logical positive benefits
  • Green hat = provocations, alternatives and creativity
  • Blue hat = overview process and control

So rather than banning judgement and caution as inappropriate dampeners of creativity they should be given their rightful place alongside intuition and provocation. This can be achieved by asking everyone to think in a certain way for a certain period of time, or by allowing people to raise concerns or rational considerations as part of the overall process.

Sometimes it’s about intuition and emotions, while at other times caution and judgement play a key role

The five I’s of creativity

Whether you like the six hat approach or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that rational thinking is the lifeblood of creativity within business. The godfather of advertising, David Ogilvy, is on record as saying that “you don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious but there is no substitute for it”. His point being that you need to understand a situation in fine detail in order to produce something that pushes at the boundaries of current thinking.

Gathering this information is the first step in a five-step creative process developed by Green, which also includes incubation, illumination, integration and illustration. Green believes that most ideas presented at pitches are “irrelevant, unworkable, or outside the client’s value system”. In his view, this can only be overcome through diligent information gathering and by asking the right questions, which requires a number of different ‘thinking hats’. Once this information has been gathered, it needs to be incubated in order to allow a great idea to germinate as part of the illumination phase.

The incubation phase can be brief, or it could take some time depending on the scope of the task at hand. It’s about giving your mind the time and space it needs to mull things over and make connections. That may happen while you’re sat at your desk, but for most people it tends to occur when they’re thinking about something else, or not actively thinking at all. While the conscious mind is distracted, the subconscious will be working away in the background, sifting information and linking things together in unexpected ways, until an idea pops into your head when you least expect it.

Often these unexpected ideas appear while falling asleep or waking up, or doing something mundane like showering or cleaning the kitchen. During exercise is another common time for a great idea to burst into life. I distinctly remember having a ‘eureka’ moment a few years ago while cycling across the Sussex Downs that provided the basis for a big upcoming pitch (which I’m pleased to say we won). The moral of the story here is that great ideas can take time, so that’s something that should be built into the creative process.

Finding the big idea

Having said that creativity needs time and space to develop, it’s worth noting certain techniques that can help with stimulating ideas. We return at this point to de Bono, who suggests the use of provocation to initiate lateral thinking. This is where people are asked to think about a task in a different and unusual light, such as using wishful thinking, or approaching the problem in reverse.

Great ideas can take time, so that’s something that should be built into the creative process

He also recommends the ‘random word’ technique where a word plucked from the dictionary acts as a creative springboard. He uses the example of the word ‘traffic light’ as a prompt for an anti-smoking campaign in which red bands were placed around cigarettes to create a ‘decision zone’ that would help smokers to gain control over the habit.

De Bono believes that these techniques can help anyone to become more creative, by presenting information in a different way and providing the stimulus for ‘out of the box’ thinking, rather than just expecting it to happen naturally. Next time you’re faced with a creative challenge, try introducing a few of these ideas to see what happens. You might find that you’re far more creative than you think.