#412  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 7          July 1999

Systematic Creativity 
by Brian Clegg

Mr. Clegg is director of Creativity Unleashed Limited (Wiltshire, UK; phone 01793-791393, e-mail brian@cul.co.uk, web site www.cul.co.uk) offering training, software and facilitation for business creativity. He has written 10 books on creativity and business, including Imagination Engineering (Pitman Publishing, London, 1996) and Instant Creativity (Kogan Page, London, 1999). They can be purchased through his web site. 

Creativity is a strange topic. Schools spend years suppressing the natural creativity of students, emphasizing that there is only one right answer--the teacherís. Survival also teaches that creativity is dangerous. Any caveman who decided to take a creative approach and pull faces at a wild animal, rather than run away, did not have time to write up his experiment. Yet relying invariably on experience is just as risky. The result is tunnel vision, ignoring the fact that the world is changing at an immense pace. Business needs creativity or it dies. As Tom Peters puts it, ďCreativity and zest have become the prime creators of economic value.Ē

Itís a common assumption that creativity is something you either have or donít have, yet appropriate techniques can bring out anyoneís creative potential. Since the 1960s, creativity experts have been devising techniques for stimulating creativity to the extent that it is now a practical business discipline. Traditional management practices predate the current frenetic pace of change; creativity is one of a new set of skills necessary to manage in todayís business environment.


Creativity is like an underused muscle: it needs exercise to build it up. Try this: spend a minute devising a way to use a single spoon to feed one hundred people simultaneously. Have you done the exercise yet? Donít cheat--do it first, then read on. A single minute is all Iím asking for.

There are many ways to use a single spoon to feed a hundred people. It could be a solid gold spoon, which you sell, taking the hundred out for a meal with the proceeds. It could be a huge edible spoon made out of pizza. It could be a restaurant in the shape of a spoon. And so on. Think this is cheating? Yes, but itís practical cheating. These are legitimate solutions, making different assumptions about the spoon.

This example isnít a fully fledged creativity technique. Normally the techniques remove self-imposed barriers, then return to normality to provide a practical outcome. Nevertheless, the spoon is a handy reminder of how easy it is to try to solve a problem with incomplete information. I never said that the spoon was normal sized and stainless steel.

If techniques have been around for so long, a reasonable question is why they aren't in common usage. I would argue that it is down to the lack of a framework. There are hundreds of techniques available, but unless you have a basic framework in which to use them, they don't seem practical. Most experts on creativity agree on four broad stages that should be involved: understanding the problem, generating ideas, refining those ideas and implementation.

Understanding the Problem

Understanding the problem may seem trivial. However it's too easy to rush in and try to solve what you assume to be the problem without thinking about it. Some creativity techniques are specifically devised to get a better understanding of what you are trying to do. Take the simple technique we call the compass--it's just a matter of asking why, over and over again.

Say we had a problem of "how to reduce our packaging costs."  Using this technique might result in a chain of information like this:

We want to reduce our packaging costs.
Why?  Because they reduce our profits.
Why?  Because packaging contributes to our overall costs.
Why?  Because we pay for our packaging.
Why?  Because we aren't given it free.

This can then generate a whole new list of problems, each of which could be more fruitful to address. For example:

How to increase our profits.
How to remove packaging from our costs.
How to get someone else to pay for our packaging.
How to get free packaging.

Generating Ideas

When you are satisfied that you have a clear problem to attack, the next stage is idea generation. This is where the heavyweight techniques come into play. Best known are the random stimuli, like using a random word to generate a whole set of associations; then relating those associations, however unlikely, to the problem. At this stage the ideas will be crazy, but that's not a concern.

Let's take a look at another idea-generating technique, particularly suited to large companies.  We call it "lose the baggage." If you created a tiny startup company to deal with your problem, what solutions would be available to them that aren't available to you? What gets in the way that a startup doesn't face? Take a real example: how to reduce the time getting a new product to market. What happens in our company? A designer has an idea. It goes to the next meeting of the design committee, where it is sent back for revision. When the design is complete we hold a production meeting Ö and so on. What happens in the startup? The team has an ideas session. Someone knocks up a mock-up. It looks good, so they go straight to trial. The whole thing can happen very quickly.

There are several ways to go forward from here. You could buy a startup (but beware imposing your corporate culture on it). You could start a skunk-works, as companies like IBM and Apple have. Or you could borrow from the nature of the small company without actually purchasing one. And so it goes, with many different techniques.

Refining Ideas

Now the ideas are still in the green shoots stage. They need selecting and enhancing. This is where the only creativity technique in common usage comes in: brainstorming. Brainstorming isn't a way to generate ideas (individuals generate ideas; teams improve them), but is a good way of building on them in a positive way. It joins other techniques, as simple as taking account of your gut feel about an idea, in the refinement stage.


Finally comes implementation. This may seem obvious, but all too often great ideas never make it into reality. Without implementation, there is no such thing as creativity.

One of the problems with implementing creative ideas is that they can be squashed by traditional approaches. Creative ideas are often better put in place the use of a prototype and rapid evolutionary development, than by employing a full-scale planning exercise, setting out every last detail. After all, in the end, planning is a matter of guesswork. It may be educated guesswork; but it is still guesswork, so going to the 10th decimal place in planning the implementation of a creative idea simply doesn't make sense. Do have milestones, do monitor; but expect things to change along the way--that's what happens in the real world.

It may seem that this four-stage process is overkill when all you want is a quick technique. I would agree, provided you employ a technique bearing in mind the four stages. In fact, itís possible to go through a thought process, using all four steps, in just a few minutes.  For example, I might want to devise a new paint product for my company.  I spend a minute looking at the alternatives (stage 1), but decide this is really what I want to do.  I then bring in a technique that takes a concept to higher and lower levels of abstraction to devise new possibilities.  Each step in the chain involves a random choice of direction.

In this case, I start with paint, go up a level to liquid, down to beer, down again to ring-pull can of beer.  Now an idea strikes:  sell pint in ring-pull cans.  Finally, I spend a minute refining the idea, thinking about the plus points and how to overcome the negatives, and noting down a few key milestones for implementation.  All of this in just the space of a few minutes.

Note how the technique was just a springboard to the actual idea. A technique isn't creative--itís a catalyst to release creativity. And, like any catalyst, it can be used again and again with equal effectiveness. By practicing the use of the four stages, creativity can become so natural that youíll rarely think about the techniques. Companies, with people who employ good creative-thinking methods, have a huge advantage over their competition.

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