Guest AuthorPavan Soni

How systematic could creativity be?

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist 

I often have this debate with my fellow researchers and my audience that if creativity can be systematized? With my increasing indulgence in research and exposure to practice, I am gathering that firms and individuals that adopt a systematic approach to problem solving are more productive when it comes to generating greater and more useful ideas. Little surprise that some of the most innovative companies around think of innovation as more than serendipity and systematically approach the process, year after year. Research by Booz & Co. suggests that companies that treat innovation more as a science than as pure art are more successful than others.
Here a clear identification of creativity versus innovation is in order. Creativity is one’s ability to generate useful and novel ideas, whereas Innovation is a novel idea executed (and commercialized). Anything less than an innovation and more than a mere idea could be termed as an Invention. Let me identify the process of creativity. But before that, let’s look at the some tenets of creativity (the ability to generate novel and useful ideas).

Deferring the judgement: Taking quick decisions is considered as a hallmark of leaders, and more so current breed of managers. Mostly our decisions are based on reflections from the past, as to what worked and what didn’t, and there’s seldom time (often by design) to reflection on the situation and arrive at a novel solution. The perennial paucity of time forces us to adopt the tried and tested approach, which devoids us of any creative upside. Whereas creative thinking requires that the judgment of whether a solution is good or bad be postponed, and time be spent in generating ideas. Speed has little premium here. 

Staying with the problem for long enough: While an idea can come up in a flash, but this often comes after several hours of deliberating with a problem. Staying with a problem long enough is quintessential for coming up with novel insights and hence radical new ideas. For the attention deficit generation that we are becoming, we might have access to a lot more information than ever, but our own ability to generate new ideas might take a severe hit, as we can’t stay committed to a problem for long. 

Quantity yields quality: Another major lacunae with our current model of thinking and working is that we need best ideas fast. But the practitioners and researchers in the space appreciate it more than most that best ideas come from good ideas, and those come from many ideas. If creativity is about putting the existing into new form, we really need a lot of existing and a lot of permutations and combinations for a few of the things to work. So premium should always be on getting more ideas and the best flows from there. 

No critical thinking please: Men (more so women!) are very good at critical thinking, in the sense, identifying how things won’t work. This pragmatic approach has served us so well for so long, for our very survival is dependent upon avoiding the downside while foregoing the upside. In creativity, especially while doing a brainstorming exercise, the phrase to be avoided is ‘yes but’! In other words, if someone is critical about your idea, then he or she shouldn’t be a part of the idea generation session, as the person is bringing a critical reasoning to the play, a clear no no. Replace the guy, or his disposition. 

Having laid out the tenets of creative thinking, let me now identify the process. Yes, it’s a process. Creativity is essentially divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking. In divergent thinking one thinks of as many solutions to a problem as possible, and in convergent thinking these are shortlisted to a manageable size. Here’re the three stages, as I see it.

Landscape formation: The way a farmer always prepares the land before sowing seeds, one needs to understand the problem before even attempting solving it. Mostly when we look at a problem, we essentially are seeing symptoms, just like when we approach a doctor with symptoms and really don’t know what the problem is. A problem well understood is half solved. Hence a significant amount of early effort must go in understanding the problem and delving into its genesis or root cause. The ‘Five Why‘ method adopted at Toyota comes handy here, so does the Fish-Bone Diagram or the Nine Windows from TRIZ

Solution vegetation: Once a problem is been identified and its causes are understood, it’s time for us to generate ideas. Remember, no critical thinking and focusing on quantity over quality of ideas. I call it vegetation, for while plants grow, they grow pretty much in all directions and along with weeds. In an attempt of killing a weed, we might damage the plants, and hence no pruning yet. There are tools and techniques that come handy when generating ideas, provided the key tenets are adhered to. Some of these are Buyer-Utility Map and 3 Tiers of Non-Customers from Blue Ocean Strategy, and of course we have Lateral ThinkingMind Mapping, and TRIZ to our avail here. 

Best case solution: Once the plausible solutions are identified, now is the time to converge, and apply critical thinking. Here again it’s best to objectify the parameters adopted to shortlist the long list of contenders, such that there is no groupthink or biase. One needs to be especially careful of avoiding the type-1 and type-2 errors, of choosing the wrong ideas and dropping the promising ones. Here we have tools and methods to our avail, such as a check on desirability, viability, feasibility and usability as prescribed by Stanford Design School.

Let me also recommend a few neat approaches to creative problem solving that leverage these tenets, and adopts the process in principle.


Republished with permission and originally published at

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