What gives people a creative edge?
A curated list on cultivating creative capacity
Have you ever been so struck by the originality of a colleague’s idea that you wondered how in the world that person was able to conceive of such a thing? What was the source of inspiration? And how do I get me some of that?
Our work constantly demands creative solutions. We need to work within an array of parameters and limitations to create learning and development activities that help people to achieve their goals. Those we support have high expectations for creative approaches and deep engagement along with efficiency and effectiveness in their learning. That is partially why our work can be so energizing – there are always new challenges, new techniques, and new tools.
But many learning and development professionals doubt their creative capacity. They see what others do and feel dismayed to think that they would never have come up with that particular solution or anything that good. They may come to believe that everyone else has some deep well of creativity that has not been granted to them. Does this kind of thinking resonate with you?
I have had those feelings myself. I’ve been determined to study creativity, to unlock its mysteries a bit. I’ve listened closely to highly applauded creators talk about their process and their inspirations. I’ve read the research on creativity and put into practice a number of creativity-enhancing techniques. I still think there is an element of genius that spurs the people who create blockbusters, but I am confident that some of what they do to feed their creative energies are disciplines that I can practice as well. You can, too.
These disciplines are:
- Learning – Developing mastery in your field of practice
- Sensing – Gathering inspiration and seeking ideas, both ongoing and as needed
- Framing – Defining the goal and the parameters within which you need to work
- Conversing – Seeking input and testing reactions to ideas
- Playing – Applying creative techniques and processes
- Incubating – Giving the mind a break from a project to allow background rumination
- Daring – Demonstrating boldness, recovering from difficulties, adapting to meet challenges, and managing risks
Taken together, these disciplines can help you to expand your capacity for creativity. They enrich the fodder you have for generating and playing with ideas, and they help you to get those ideas out in the world so you can hone them. The following section walks through each of these disciplines in turn, and provides curated resources to explore them further if you would like.
If you would like a professional development program aimed at increasing creative capacity (individualy or for a team), contact me to discuss options.
More on the seven disciplines for nurturing creativity
Learning is about developing mastery in your field of practice.
In the context of creative capacity, learning is about developing mastery in your field of practice. It is difficult to be creative if you don’t know your stuff. Depending on your role, you may need deep knowledge in a practice area (e.g. leadership development, instructional design), or you may need extensive facility with a particular tool (e.g. PowerPoint, Storyline), or you may need strong interpersonal or communication skills (e.g. consulting, public speaking).
Those who have these strong, deep knowledge bases and skills are able to use them to advantage in their creative endeavors. They can grasp patterns; they know how to troubleshoot; and they can tweak things to better approximate what they imagine. Choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be” (The Creative Habit, p. 163). A commitment to continuous learning ensures that creators stay on the forefront and constantly expand their store of possible approaches.
The most successful creators are experts in their fields. They have built their expertise through both study and experience, and you can, too. A first step, of course, is to identify the knowledge bases and skills that need to be part of your toolkit as a creator. Then, devise strategies to continuously deepen your mastery in these areas. There is no such thing as being “done” developing mastery; it is always an ongoing effort.
// Curated Resources on Learning
Passion of the explorer: How companies can instill the motivation to learn, develop, and grow
// John Hagel, Maggie Wooll, John Seely Brown, and Alok Ranjan, Deloitte Insights (2020)
An analysis of the attributes of people who seek mastery: a questing disposition, a connecting disposition, and a commitment to their domain of practice. These attributes sustain them through lifelong learning and growing expertise in a field. For more on how to cultivate this passion, see Unlocking the passion of the explorer and Learning Communities: The journey ahead.
Building the modern workplace learning professional
// Mike Taylor
Advice on personal professional development from a fellow professional with a great reputation. Includes links to learn more about the strategies of working out loud and personal knowledge mastery.
Beyond competence: It’s the journey to mastery that counts
// Marc Rosenberg, Learning Solutions (2012)
An analysis of the most appropriate learning strategies aligned to your current level of competence.
See also: Are you the expert you need to be?
Sensing is about gathering inspiration and seeking ideas.
Where do creative ideas come from?
Some creatives will tell you that inspiration comes out of everyday life. Other creatives believe in a muse that is more mysterious and ethereal, somehow planting ideas in the mind from out of nowhere. Whether hoping for an idea to come to you out of the blue or recognizing that ideas are everywhere if you but know how to look, actively keeping your senses heightened and constantly seeking ideas improves your capacity for creative output.
Sensing is about gathering inspiration and seeking ideas, both as an ongoing practice and as a tactic when you need fresh perspectives.
Studies show that creativity is often born out of connecting seemingly unrelated knowledge, seeing new uses for common things, applying ideas from one arena to problems in a different arena, and using metaphorical comparisons to leap to new insights. All of these sources of creative ideas draw from what is in your head. Using your sensing muscles fills your head with the raw materials needed for creativity.
Stretching your sensing muscles is one of the more interesting and fun assignments to give yourself. The kind of mindful attitude that quietly gathers ideas through everyday experiences and ambient impressions can bring real richness into your life.
// Curated Resources on Sensing
The business case for curiosity
// Francesca Gino, Harvard Business Review (2018)
Along with a discussion of the benefits, Francesca Gino shares tactics managers can take to encourage curiosity.
A complete guide to developing your creativity and creative thinking
// , The Art of Wellbeing (2016)
Strategies and encouraging advice on being open to inspirations around you.
The Art of Noticing
// Rob Walker, Knopf (2019)
THE handbook for honing your sensing powers. Sign up for The Art of Noticing Newsletter for regular infusions of inspiration.
Framing is about deeply knowing what you are trying to accomplish and understanding the parameters within which you need to work.
Framing refers to the task of clearly (and accurately) defining the problem or opportunity and having a full understanding of the the project’s parameters and constraints. Those are two separate points – defining the creative problem or core goal and identifying the project’s real limitations – and they are equally important in terms of influencing the nature of your ideas.
In the process of writing, film-making, and preparing Broadway shows, laser focus on the story being told provides direction for creative energies and serves as final arbiter of creative decision-making. This is no less true in considering myriad options for learning and development strategies – you must identify and remain true to your core goals. Indeed, most creative processes begin by defining the problem or the creative goal.
At the same time, creatives need to understand their constraints in making creative choices. Creativity researchers will tell you that creativity is in fact driven by the need to work around or within specific constraints. Creators sometimes complain that they are limited by specific restrictions – resources, whims of decision-makers, or time considerations, but it is the need to satisfy multiple criteria that often serves as the catalyst for creative ideas.
To feed your creativity, then, you must develop skill in these two framing tasks: defining the problem and using limitations to your advantage.
// Curated Resources on Framing
Tools for defining the problem
// Creating Minds
A list of problem definition techniques with a brief explanation of each.
How constraints force your brain to be more creative
// Scott Sonenshein, Fast Company (2017)
Why framing is not just about defining the problem, but also about defining the parameters within which you need to work.
How you define the problem determines whether you solve it
// Art Markman, Harvard Business Review (2017)
The case for taking the time to carefully define the problem.
Conversing is the engine for seeking input and testing reactions to ideas.
There is no way around it; in order to be creative, you must engage with other people. Creativity researcher Keith Sawyer is one of many who has shown that the lone wolf creative genius is a myth – that creativity is generative from what has come before, enhanced by input and feedback, and in the end, judged as creative or not by others. That is one of the reasons why people accepting awards for their work go to great lengths to thank others who were part of the project or part of their formation as creative professionals.
There are myriad ways to engage with other people in the creative process, and many roles those people play in a creative endeavor. Conversing is the engine for seeking input and testing reactions to ideas.
Conversing takes the form of gentle suggestion, casual conversation, and serious critique; it may enagage discussion, debate, and denunciation; or it may play out as energizing brainstorming, formal feedback, and deep collaboration. It can be face-to-face, electronically mediated or in writing – and it can even be imagined conversation with others or with different minds within yourself. The people with whom you converse may be thought leaders in your field, colleagues in your office, friends in your network, or casual acquaintances. You may talk with people who are your collaborators, coaches, team mates, or clients. Inspiring conversations may be deliberately on topic or serendipitously tangential. They may be scheduled or entirely by chance.
However and with whomever you engage, the point is to get your creative challenges and your ideas out of your head and into the world in conversation with others in some fashion.
// Curated Resources on Conversing
Why you’ll never do your best work alone
Jeff Goins, Fast Company (2017)
A convincing argument for conversing your way to more creative ideas.
Are people more creative alone or together? Trick question
// Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane, Fast Company (2017)
Why creativity requires a balance between alone time and engagement with others.
Want to build a culture of innovation? Master the design critique
// Jon Kolko, Fast Company (2018)
A solid description of the design critique process, which can be a framework for conversing about your creative ideas.
Playing is about applying creative processes and techniques.
Playing is about applying creative processes and techniques. When people think of creativity-enhancing exercises, they typically call to mind specific processes for generating creative solutions and specific techniques for multiplying creative ideas. Being creative can certainly involve finding ways to brainstorm ideas, diversify options, connect seemingly unrelated concepts, and analyze possibilities. That’s why creativity workshops often walk you through a specific process for generating and selecting ideas, and creativity exercise books offer techniques in abundance.
Playing around with ideas is for many people the very foundation of being creative. Letting one’s imagination run wild, dreaming up improbable connections, pretending that limitations don’t exist – these creative leaps can be very energizing. And they can lead to concrete ideas that actually do work in the real world. For many creatives, play informs work and work is play.
It should be noted that creativity research shows that it is more impactful to engage creative practices specific to your domain than it is to try to enhance creativity with random techniques.
// Curated Resources on Playing
10 Key steps to running an awesome ideation session
// Ken Hudson, Marketing (2014)
As advertised, good advice for generating ideas in a group
Lists of ideation techniques:
Tools for creating ideas, Creating Minds
Essential ideation techniques, Interaction Design Foundation
Idea generation and innovation activities, Session Lab
Incubating is about giving the conscious mind a break from a project.
It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do to generate a creative breakthrough is to put your project aside for a bit. Haven’t you noticed that great ideas pop into your head while you are in the shower or out taking a walk? Have you ever woken up to find that your mind has come up with a solution to a nagging problem? These kinds of ah-ha moments are brought to you by incubation.
Incubation is about giving the mind a break from a project to allow background rumination.
Adam Grant has written eloquently about productive procrastination – the idea that starting on a project, and then putting it aside for a while, often produces better results than slogging away without respite. Lin-Manuel Miranda once told a fan that he believes “the brain keeps at it while you sleep” And you may have heard that the whole idea for Hamilton came to him while he was on vacation. Creative minds need rest.
// Curated Resources on Incubating
Why we have our best ideas in the shower: The science of creativity
// Leo Widrich, Buffer (2014)
What science and the experience of creatives tell us about the importance of incubation.
Why your brain needs idle time
// Markham Heid, Elemental (2019)
In case you need more convincing.
You are doing something when you’re not doing anything
// Bonnie Tsui, The New York Times (2019)
A more poetic exposition on the importance of incubation.
See also: Incentive to take a walk
Daring is about demonstrating boldness, recovering from difficulties, adapting to meet challenges, and managing risks.
Creativity often requires a bit of courage. By definition, you are doing something different, unexpected and outside the norm. The creative road isn’t always smooth, either; instead of acclaim, you may be met with skepticism or even derision. You may need to overcome roadblocks and figure out work-arounds.
Daring is about demonstrating boldness, recovering from difficulties, adapting to meet challenges, and managing risks. It’s about having courage and persistence, and sometimes about stepping back in order to step up on another day.
Muppet master Jim Henson built the Muppet organization by constantly pushing the envelope. He never rested on his laurels but continued to experiment with puppet craft, story, and technology to break new ground. The trick for him was to balance successful projects and more daring ones. “I used to always think in terms of having two careers going,” he said. “One was accepted by the audience and successful, and that was the Muppets. The other [experimental films] was something I was very interested in and enjoyed. It didn’t have that commercial success, but that didn’t particularly frustrate me because I enjoyed it” (Jim Henson, by Brian Jay Jones, p. 135).
Having a successful record to carry you through the more risky projects is a great advantage. And there are other ways to position yourself to pitch and get support for your more creative projects.
// Curated Resources on Daring
Reclaim your creative confidence
// Tom Kelley David Kelley, Harvard Business Review (2012)
Discusses the fears that keep us from exploring our creative ideas, and how to mitigate these.
Brené Brown on creativity, courageous vulnerability and wholehearted living
// Brene Brown with Scott Barry Kauffman, The Psychology Podcast (2016)
THE expert on courage talks about the power of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
How to pitch an idea
// Scott Berkun (2014)
Good advice on how to take your best shot at moving an idea forward.
Learn some of the practices that can boost your creativity
The seven disciplines are easy to describe, but if you really want to boost your creativity, you may want to engage in practices that strengthen these disciplines. To that end, I’ve crafted a workbook of 48 practices that can boost your creative capacity. These practices are useful step-by-step activities that can help you to replenish your creative energies. They often riff off activities that are employed by highly applauded creators like Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer), Ed Catmull (filmmaker), Twyla Tharp (choreographer), Brandon Sanderson (author), Liz Gilbert (author) Jim Henson (muppeteer), and more. And these exercises are grounded in the research on creativity – what we know about what works.
Get the Creativity Boost ebook now ($10.00 US).
Recommended reading on creativity
// Books by and about applauded creators
The Creative Act: A way of being
Rick Rubin (Penguin Press, 2023)
Beautiful and thought-provoking essays on being creative and practices everyone can employ to nurture their creative energies.
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true innovation
Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace (Random House, 2014)
Important lessons for managing creative processes and teams, filled with great Pixar stories that reveal many secrets of their success. (For more, see my blog post.)
The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life
Twyla Tharp with Mark Reiter (Simon & Shuster, 2003)
Choreographer Twyla Tharp lays out her own practices for a creative life, including some suggested activities.
Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
Provides intriguing background stories from the creative team responsible for the making of Hamilton. (For more, see my post on what I learned from listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear
Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, 2015)
Describes creatives’ experience with the mystery of creativity and makes a case for embracing your creative energy and moving past fear and uncertainty.
Jim Henson: The biography
Brian Ray Jones (Ballentine Books, 2013)
Tale of the remarkable life and career of the creator of the muppets, with many background stories and insights into Jim Henson’s creativity.
// Research and lessons of experience on creativity
The Curious Advantage: The greatest driver of value in the digital age
Paul Ashcrot, Simon Brown, and Garrick Jones (Laiki Publishing, 2020)
An exploration of how to create a culture of curiosity in an organization.
Explaining Creativity: The science of human innovation
R. Keith Sawyer (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2012)
Terrific and extensive summation of academic research on creativity all in one place. Addresses process, characteristics, and applications.
Zig Zag: The surprising path to greater creativity
Keith Sawyer (Jossey-Bass, 2013)
Argues that creativity is not a linear process and explains a range of “steps” for greater creativity; also suggests a variety of exercises and prompts.
The Accidental Creative: How to be brilliant on a moment’s notice
Todd Henry (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011)
Thought-provoking and practical read on how to be your best self as a creative professional.
Wired to Create: Unraveling the mysteries of the creative mind
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee, 2015)
Shares ten things highly creative people do differently, based on research.
Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it
Ian Leslie (Basic Books, 2014)
A wonderful ode to the power and necessity of curiosity and advice on how to nurture it.
Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the power to create, connect, and inspire
Bruce Nussbaum (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013)
In-depth discussion of competencies of creative intelligence: knowledge mining, framing, playing, making, and pivoting.
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Last updated: September 17, 2021 by Catherine Lombardozzi
This page is part of a collection of resources curated by Learning 4 Learning Professionals
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