Creativity Is A Process

Even as organizations increasingly see the value of creativity, many of us secretly believe that it's a mysterious force, impossible to harness. We treat creativity both as externally bestowed, a bolt from the heavens; and as available only to certain people, an inherent genetic gift. Some people are just supernaturally creative, and some people happen to be struck by brilliant "eureka" ideas  that's the frequent assumption.

But that simply isn't true. People who are creative for a living and as a habit are always producing work, much of which isn't original or interesting. They stumble on the good ideas by continuing to create, not by waiting for the perfect idea to pop into their brains. For organizations to encourage creative thinking, they must learn this lesson  that it's a process, not a sudden and fully formed spark of genius. 

Earlier this month, we shared that satisfaction and performance at work depend on the ability to make progress in meaningful work. That's the central theory in Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer's The Progress Principle. The authors' research found that even when people face challenges and difficult tasks at work, they are eager to press on when they feel like they are moving forward.

Sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike? That's the opposite of moving forward. Rejecting suggestions without sharing and testing them because they don't seem perfect? Also the opposite of forward motion. But engaging in a continuous cycle of planning for, generating, and refining ideas, even if not all of the ideas work, is meaningful progress.

Understanding that creativity is a process includes realizing that a great deal of it involves preparation and laying groundwork. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who led an extensive research study over several years of prominent creative thinkers, breaks down the creative process into the following steps in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention:

  • Preparation, immersing yourself in issues and ideas that pique your curiosity
  • Incubation, unstructured time that allows your ideas to churn around and form connections
  • Insight, the "aha!" moments when pieces of the puzzle fall together
  • Evaluation, the period of insecurity when you evaluate whether the idea is worth pursuing
  • Elaboration, the longest and most labor-intensive stage  turning your idea into a finished product

Though these pieces of the process are listed as steps, they're not a linear formula  there's rarely a direct path to a finished product. Each person will likely cycle through these steps many times and in different combinations, finding their own pattern.

The fact that the creative process includes these different types of thinking means that we can always be working toward something creative, even if the fully fleshed-out idea is hard to pick out of the messiness.

In her memoir Hold Still, photographer Sally Mann writes, "There is nothing better than holding the thrill of a great negative, wet with fixer, up to the light. And, here's the important thing: it doesn't even have to be a great negative. You get the same thrill with any negative; with art, as someone once said, most of what you have to do is show up. The hardest part is setting the camera on the tripod, or making the decision to bring the camera out of the car, or just raising the camera to your face ... Maybe you've made something mediocre  there's plenty of that in any artist's cabinets  but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner."

Though the creative process is not limited to artists and writers, the experience that they have with creation can offer valuable lessons beyond art. Later this month, we will share insights on the creative process from artists in dance, photography, drawing, and more!