Your Mother was Wrong, You're Just Not the Creative Type

You're Mother was Wrong, You're Just Not the Creative TypeThe Story

We had all of the right people in the room. The stakeholders were diverse. We were in an environment full of natural light and un-natural looking seating. The challenge had no obvious solutions. The workshop should have been a creative hot-bed. We should have drowned in innovation and been trampled by dark horse concepts. But time after time we labored and came up with solutions that were only incrementally better than the current solution. Why?

We’d taken the teams through exercises that prompted creativity and imagination. The stakeholders had imagined themselves as super heroes, had built mind-boggling structures from marshmallow and spaghetti and had come up with 101 uses for a paper clip (many of which are illegal in some US states). But as soon as our focus shifted to the real, business centered challenge creativity disappeared. They researched process 1.0, they worked hard, noodled for hours, then came up with process 1.01.

So, do some people lack the ability to think creatively? Can some people never innovate but only marginally improve something? Or have we just encountered the reality-creativity chasm?

The theory behind the chasm:

As technologists, we know about Moore’s tech adoption chasm with its Visionaries and Pragmatists. In the practice of Design Thinking do we also encounter a similar conceptual chasm? On one side we have the hypothetical, the warm up. Here it’s OK to imagine the absurd as we’ll never have to implement it. On the other side of the chasm we have the real, the true focus of the Wicked Challenge and an area where innovation has the potential to create real value. From the coach’s perspective maintaining the creativity from one side of the chasm to the other seems natural. But why do participants often falter on the edge?

In his previous IX posting Jérôme Provensal talked about Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman’s Construal Level Theory (CLT) of Psychological Distance. This argued that creativity is increased when a challenge becomes more abstract: less related to the here, the now (and the “me”). In Design Thinking we use this technique in the Remember the Future technique where we think of ourselves in the future, having successfully completed the task. This shifts the “now”, but retains the “here” and actually accentuates the “me” because I express how I have acted to promote the successful completion of an action. Importantly, the Remember the Future technique only works once the solution has been defined. Attempting to define the steps towards success before defining the objective is doomed to fail, no matter how wonderful your Design Thinking facilitator may be.

Increasing abstract element to create distance and promote creativity.

From conversations with other Design Thinking practitioners the creativity chasm is common and has to be actively managed. This can be done in a number of ways including:

  • Assuring that the wicked challenge’s scope does not focus too narrowly. It may just be too specifically worded?
  • Finding analogous exercises to narrow the chasm. One of our coaches talked about their architecture professor making them study the structure of leaves, ants’ nests and the structure of capsicums for weeks before moving on to building design. I ruin the elegance if this approach by referring to it as the Miyagi approach (wax on, wax off)
  • Assure that there’s no division between activities seen as “warm ups” and “the real work”, just incremental, small steps.
  • For each team understand what promotes and hampers creativity. Humour may spur one group on to suggest more creative things, but others may fear ridicule.
  • Assure that your facilitator understands what makes individual participants tick so that creativity can be encouraged on an individual basis if necessary.

Based on experience, I’ve found that we all have the potential to be creative to varying degrees. In order to enable this creativity to focus on generating business value from innovation you need to actively manage the factors that lead to the creativity chasm.  In this post we’ve talked about how methods can bridge the chasm, but factors such as culture and management attitude equally influence the size of the chasm that you have to bridge. I’ll tackle these next.

image credit: arzamas

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Stephen WoodStephen Wood: For over 20 years Stephen has focused on technology’s potential to address business issues and to unearth new opportunities. His current research interests include tech-enabled innovation and the facilitation of creativity in business.

Stephen Wood




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