Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Creativity: Luck or Preparation

Creative thinking has long been viewed as something special, belonging to a unique group of people who have a 'creative' eye and are lucky enough to see and solve problems differently from what would normally be expected. These especially creative people are seen as quick to get to the heart of a problem and as experts at producing unusual but successful results. Somehow they just have a knack for outside-the-box thinking that others both miss and envy. But what if that creative spark could be learned?

The topic of creative thinking and its partner, idea generation, has been studied and researched over the past 50 years, beginning with the original approach of advertising executive, Alex Osborn, in his 1948 book, "Your Creative Power". He followed that in 1953 with his best known work "Applied Imagination", leading to the subsequent broad interest in creative thinking, from "Brainstorming" by Charles Clark in 1958, to "A Sourcebook for Creative Thinking" by Parnes and Harding in 1962, to "Lateral Thinking" By Edward DeBono in 1970 and "Conceptual Blockbusting; A Guide to Better Ideas" by James Adams in 1979. These are some of the classics that established brainstorming as the definitive basic method to generate ideas. All that was required was an open mind to allow for the spontaneous generation of this multitude of ideas.

More recently, creative thinking in the area of practice application has become known as design thinking, a process of building up ideas as opposed to the breaking down of ideas common to critical thinking. A champion of this approach, David Burney, defines design thinking as "a way of thinking that produces transformative innovation". Just as with brainstorming, its goal is to generate lots of ideas using a seven step process to frame the problem, develop a plethora of possible solutions and then help choose the solution which will give the best result. Far from being a strict process however, design thinking uses this structured method to capture the 'popcorn' thinking of a multitude of ideas. Just imagine the mess everywhere if your Jiffy Popper didn't have its aluminum foil top to capture all those kernels of ideas.

The tools of both brainstorming and transformative design thinking, along with collaborative approaches and the right kind of culture, are currently being used to generate multiple options, where wild ideas are welcome, since they often lead to the most creative solutions. And those wild ideas may in fact be the result of a 'prepared mind'. The concept of creativity as an organized and learnable activity is the subject of research by John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University in 2006.

"The research suggests that people can mentally prepare to have an 'Aha!' solution even before the problem is presented. Specifically, as people prepare for problems that they solve with insight, their pattern of brain activity suggests that they are focusing attention inwardly, are ready to switch to new trains of thought, and perhaps are actively silencing irrelevant thoughts. These findings are important because they show that people can mentally prepare to solve problems with different thinking styles and that these different forms of preparation can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity. This study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal 'frame of mind' to deal with particular types of problems."

Which goes to show, a particularly creative outcome isn't just someone's good luck, but can be facilitated, and perhaps learned, based on Louis Pasteur's well-known quote that "chance favors only the prepared mind".

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