Six key creative-thinking skills – encompassed in the acronym CREATE – worth mastering: Clarify, Replicate, Elaborate, Associate, Translate and Evaluate. By nurturing the right mind-set and skills, anyone can learn to boost their creativity and their personal or their company’s innovation.
- Small creative breakthroughs can yield outsized outcomes.
- Creativity starts with adopting the right mind-set.
- Clarify: Determine what should change.
- Replicate: Apply a successful idea to a new context.
- Elaborate: Connect ideas to create something new.
- Associate: Create analogies to help identify problems and synthesize ideas.
- Translate: Make your vision compelling through memorable storytelling.
- Evaluate: Pick winning ideas.
- Bring all six elements together to facilitate aha! moments.
Small creative breakthroughs can yield outsized outcomes.
Many people believe that only a select portion of the population can be creative. In truth, most acts of creativity come from everyday people, who, in the course of their daily lives, make small changes to the things they encounter that produce outsized outcomes. Consider Starbucks: After then-marketing director Howard Schultz visited Italy – encountering Italian-style coffee and cafes – the company leapt from a coffee bean distributor to a wildly successful coffee roasting, espresso-making cafe chain.
When people apply creativity to the things around them, innovation occurs. Learning to spot opportunities to change things – to “creativize” – defines the “Creative Mindset.” The mind-set results from mastering six concrete skills:
- Clarify – The ability to identify a problem or challenge worth tackling.
- Replicate – The ability to place existing things in a new context.
- Elaborate – The ability to link seemingly disparate things to create something novel.
- Associate – The ability to use analogous thinking to problem-solve.
- Translate – The ability to convey your vision to others.
- Evaluate – The ability to choose the best idea.
Creativity starts with adopting the right mind-set.
Before you begin working on the six skills of creativity, understand the Creative Mindset. That mind-set means being able to see the creative possibilities inherent in daily life. Author Jeff DeGraff’s father, for example, was a master of the Creative Mindset. When DeGraff wanted to be a knight for Halloween, his father used household items to construct a fantastic costume. When the family vehicle broke down during a camping trip, his father hitchhiked to the dump to find parts.
“The Creative Mindset is a state of mind – a way of thinking, a way of seeing opportunities to sprinkle creativity into ordinary practices.”
According to researcher Paul Torrance, creative people are flexible, enjoy complexity and incongruity, and question the status quo – among other attributes. You don’t need to be born with these traits; you can learn them. Start with self-examination. Ask when and how you feel most creative. Make a habit of noting down your ideas. Pay attention to which people and situations energize you. Ask how creative people you know would tackle challenges you encounter. Don’t ignore things that don’t add up or that go against expectations. Rather than accept rules and procedures as law, ask why things are done a certain way. Embrace flexibility and new ways of doing things. Imagine your ideal future and work toward that goal.
Clarify: Determine what should change.
Before you bring creativity to bear, identify exactly what you would like to change and why. When Meredith, for example, decided she needed to find a new job, she struggled to articulate what sort of change she wished to make. The answer didn’t become clear until she realized she didn’t want a different job, she wanted to switch careers. Understand which problem you are trying to solve before you devise a creative solution.
“Coming up with a solution without understanding the challenge is akin to having an answer without knowing the question.”
To correctly identify what needs to change, pay attention to the situations and things around you. Consider why people created products you encounter. What problem did their innovation solve? Can you think of a better way to resolve that issue? Ask suppliers, distributors and service providers what they think of your proposed product or service. Don’t be afraid to think small.
Rather than trying to craft something from scratch, look for tweaks you could make to existing products or services that would help fill an unserved niche. For example, superglue’s creators intended their product for household use, but medical professionals now apply it to help close wounds. Keep your eyes open for inefficient systems or services you might revamp or simplify.
Make sure, before beginning work, that you have a genuine passion for your proposed project and a clear vision for the outcome you hope to achieve. Confirm that your chosen goal is possible and offers a good return on your time. Consider what you need to learn to make the project a reality. Create a clear mission statement that defines the project; articulates who will be involved and how; states where and how the project will occur; and explains why it matters. Note any and all data you collect along the way – from facts and test outcomes to impressions and beliefs.
Replicate: Apply a successful idea to a new context.
Some of the best creative breakthroughs come from the simple act of placing a preexisting thing, idea or practice in a new context. For example, the Mayo Clinic applied the Ritz-Carlton’s customer service practices to improve their patients’ experiences. Successful replication hinges on observing and identifying patterns worth duplicating. Find replication-related inspiration by:
- Going someplace new, or examining a familiar place with new eyes – Become an explorer. Go somewhere new to eat or attend a new event. Pay attention, for example, to how employees handle customer orders at your local coffee shop. Note patterns and, later, ponder how what you saw might have value in another context.
- Seeking out people whose perspectives differ from yours – When you spend time only with like-minded people, you become less likely to discover points of view that spark creative thinking. Seek out people of different religions or political views. Consider whether your worldview might blind you to good ideas because they clash with your preexisting beliefs.
- Drawing inspiration from the natural world – From Leonardo da Vinci to modern-day AI engineers, humans have long found innovative potential in their observations of the natural world. When you need inspiration for a project, spend time outside and note how things work in nature: how animals and plants function, the shape and flow of geological elements, or how elements change over the course of the seasons.
Elaborate: Connect ideas to create something new.
In his book, The Act of Creation, novelist Arthur Koestler raises the concept “bisociative.” It is the idea that when in a relaxed state, humans instinctually connect seemingly disparate ideas – the rational and the intuitive – and gain creative breakthroughs. Hence, the person who thinks “spoon” and “fork” and comes up with the idea for the spork. Brainstorming exemplifies this process: a controlling idea guides a group in an idea-swapping session. Within that structure, participants share whatever comes to mind and build on one another’s thoughts.
“Elaboration is something your brain does almost automatically. The key is not to push connections, but rather to simply allow them to happen.”
Work on your elaboration skills in three simple ways:
- Try word association– Pick a collection of random words from a dictionary and connect your project to each word. Often the words that seem to have the least connection to your challenge will spark the most useful ideas.
- SCAMPER – Ask six questions about the challenge you face and use your responses to generate new ideas: Can you substitute? Combine? Adapt? Magnify? Eliminate? Reverse? Put to other uses?
- Employ lateral thinking – Leverage Edward de Bono’s approach and consider your problem in six distinct ways: Objectives (processes); Information (facts); Emotions (intuition); Judgment (critical thinking); Optimism (encouragement); and Creativity (new possibilities). If possible, gather six people, have each represent one of these points of view, and then discuss the issue from their assigned perspectives.
Associate: Create analogies to help identify problems and synthesize ideas.
How is a business project like a NASCAR race? The car is like the project; the manager is the driver; the various teams act as the pit crew; and the clients parallel spectators in the stands. This metaphor helped a group of trainee managers consider how various aspects of the organization needed to coordinate to succeed. Ask what aspects of the race the organization lacks and pinpoint problems the company must address to move forward. Association is about linking ideas and discovering connections that allow for the birth of something wholly new or more complex than the individual items themselves.
Analogies make the novel feel more familiar or, alternately, encourage people to think of familiar things in new ways. To bolster your association skills, try creating analogies between a project or challenge and something you know well from some other aspect of or object in your life.
Translate: Make your vision compelling through memorable storytelling.
When working on an innovative product, service or other project, you must get buy-in from others. That requires you to build a narrative that gets people interested and invested in your idea. For example, Indian leader Gandhi painted a vivid picture of the possibilities inherent in self-rule to rally the Indian people against British colonialism. There are many ways to tell a story. How you tell your story affects how your audience receives it.
To construct more effective stories:
- Make a storyboard – Create a visual representation of the narrative arc you wish to follow. Gather your team. Define the problem or challenge and pick a topic related to that project. Brainstorm facts and stories related to that topic, then repeat this process with other topics. Create a cohesive narrative from these parts. Experiment and rearrange elements of your story until the group feels they have found the most effective arc for the target audience, and draft a visual representation.
- Utilize morphologies – Morphology refers to the study of the construction of things and how they change. Just as you break a narrative down into its component parts, break a product or problem down in ways that allow you to find a wide range of options or solutions. Purses, for example, can consist of any number of materials, in a range of colors, sizes and styles. You can, thus, craft purses for all different tastes and lifestyles.
- Run scenarios – Consider how various social, economic, political and technological trends and developments might affect the problem you wish to solve. Imagine best and worst-case scenarios for each trend or event. Identify the scenarios that seem most probable.
Evaluate: Pick winning ideas.
Picking the best ideas calls for divergent and convergent thinking. The divergent phase involves coming up with a lot of ideas, regardless of how outlandish they might seem. Challenge yourself to think of things that might shake up the market, spark interest among customers or create new capabilities. Then, ideas in hand, leverage convergent thinking to judge the quality, risk and applicability of each. Ask, does this idea fit within your budget and time constraints? Will it require new infrastructure? Does it fulfill a real need? Can you easily get buy-in from consumers and industry leaders? Choose the ideas that you believe will have the greatest effect, but which you are capable of executing with a fair degree of ease.
Bring all six elements together to facilitate aha! moments.
There is no right or wrong way to bring the six creative skills to bear on a project or challenge. At different times, you may employ the skills in a different order, or rely on one skill more than another. You may not have complete control of when creativity strikes, but you can up your chances of having an aha! moment by taking time to reflect or meditate each day, getting outside and exercising, and seeking out environments similar to those which sparked your creativity in the past.
About the Authors
Jeff DeGraff is a professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Staney DeGraff is CEO of the Innovatrium.