Two Creativity Frameworks - Creativity Part 4

In our last installment in this series, we talked about divergent and convergent thinking. Keep that in mind, as it will be central to everything we discuss below. Today, we’re going to talk about frameworks you can use to structure your creative efforts - one for teams and one for individuals. You can use either framework in the other situation, but I find them better suited to different applications.

When we discussed creativity frameworks previously, I mentioned the Basadur Applied Creativity method. It is comprehensive and fantastic, but I’m not going to lay out the whole system (go sign up for a class!). Instead, I will focus on the 80/20 piece of the framework: Problem Formulation. This piece of the process is valuable precisely because people tend to blow it off if they aren’t trained otherwise. In practice, taking the time to formulate the right problem statement makes an enormous difference in the quality of your solutions. One last point before we jump in: I have not attended any of the instructor certification workshops for this method - so take all this as the advice of a fellow practitioner, not as gospel. 

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s jump in. The first step is to take a "fuzzy situation" that your team wants to make better and come up with potential problems related to this fuzzy situation. A fuzzy situation might be something like “we aren’t selling enough sprockets.” In this and each following step, you will diverge and converge as separate, clear activities. It helps to have a designated facilitator around to shepherd people through the process. So, everyone diverges on potential problems - things like "our sales people are lazy," or "nobody wants sprockets anymore” or “lizard people are secretly sabotaging our sprocket selling efforts” - remember, bad ideas are welcome and even helpful when diverging. Your goal here is to get every possible thing that might be a problem out on the table - that’s one reason this method works so well with groups, as it helps to get all the little bits of knowledge in different people’s heads out and in the open where everybody can use it.

With lots of potential problems to consider, the group looks at them and converges on which ones are most worth developing further. To figure out if you’re right, you’re going to need facts - so step two is Fact Finding. If you skip this step, down the road you will hit a snag. Again, diverge on what facts might be relevant, and then converge on the ones that really are most useful. I should point out that at this phase, "facts" can include things that you know you need to learn. You can use these awesome fact finding questions to make sure you cover all your bases:

  1. What do we know or think we know?
  2. What don’t we know that we would like to?
  3. What have we already thought or tried?
  4. Why is this a problem for us?
  5. What will we get if we solve this problem?
  6. What are we assuming?

The last step in Problem formulation is to arrive at a Problem Definition: a phrase or sentence that clearly states what it is that your team is actually trying to solve. A good problem definition will come in the form of "How might we _____?" As always, diverge on lots of possible problem statements based on the facts, and then converge on the one your team wants to focus on solving right now. If you have lots of potentially valuable problem statements, that’s fine - you can always come back to them later, but you want to focus on the most valuable one until you solve it. This probably all seems rather involved just to figure out what the problem is, but after going through this a few times you’ll see how valuable it is to take the time to aim at the right target instead of just blasting away at whatever presents itself. 

As I mentioned last time, while the AC approach is amazing for teams, especially in a business setting, I find it a bit involved for individual creative work. For this, I like to follow Young's Technique for Producing Ideas. The steps are pretty straightforward and his book spells them out well: gather materials, work them over to the point of exhaustion, put them out of your mind, wait for an idea to appear, and then modify the idea based on trusted feedback. I want to highlight two areas: working over the materials and putting them out of your mind.

Most folks these days have heard some variation of “the shower principle”: the idea that creative insight often appears while doing something totally unrelated to the topic. Many of these people try to help it along by purposely changing activities to something unrelated to their challenge, relying on their subconscious to do the heavy lifting. Putting the work out of your mind is a great strategy, and an essential component for “aha!” insights, but going right to it misses a critical step: getting the material into a form your subconscious can work with. Your subconscious deals in feelings and intents and symbols, and not so much in words and reason. Unless you already deeply care about the topic, it is in a language your subconscious doesn’t speak, so you have to translate the material. 

To do so, you have to work at the material until it seeps deep into your mind - repetition is essential, and if you can find a way to intensify your emotional connection to the material, so much the better. What this looks like in practice is that you do everything your conscious mind can think of with the material - try different approaches, tweak different parts, re-arrange the parts - and keep doing that until it starts to look like mumbo jumbo and you hit a mental brick wall. The tricky part is telling the difference between "I'm a little bored" and "I really have nothing more to do with this" - pushing through that initial boredom is critical. If you aren't sure which you’re experiencing, take a short break without any new inputs - go for a walk, get some water, that kind of thing. Come back and promise yourself another 15-20 minutes on the matter at hand, even if you're just staring at your work so far.  If you still don't get anywhere, then maybe you’re done working it over for now.

Only after you’ve internalized the material by doing everything you can think of with it do you want to put it out of your mind. Sometimes this can be easier said than done. If something is important enough to you for your subconscious to be able to do its thing, chances are that your conscious mind won’t want to drop it. Here’s a few things to help you out. First off, remind yourself that while it feels like you’re “not doing anything,” putting it out of your mind is an essential step in doing something about it. This can be hard, especially if you’re a take-charge type - hence the conscious reminder. Second, it helps to choose something you find intrinsically enjoyable and emotionally stimulating. Not only is it easier to ignore a problem when you’re enjoying something you love, the positive emotional engagement also stimulates the subconscious that you are relying on. Finally, much of your mind’s ability to alternate between going hard and relaxing is directly influenced by your body’s ability to do the same. Remember the bi-directional nature of stress and physiology? Same deal. Josh Waitzkin talks about this quite a bit in his book and his interviews with Tim Ferriss. Strangely, because of this physical element, one of the best creativity exercises is High Intensity Interval Training. The One Minute Workout lays out several options for planning your HIIT workouts. Even if you don't go in for HIIT workouts, other physical considerations are still critical: at least eat well, get enough rest, and stay active somehow. 

With the the two approaches above, you have some concrete guidance on what to do when you want to “be creative.” I’ve focused on the non-obvious pieces of these two frameworks, but both are worth checking out in full when you have the chance. Next time we’ll talk about some habits you can adopt to increase the quality and usefulness of the inputs to your creative process.

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