How does creativity happen? Is there a pattern — more or less standard — that we can repeat? Is there a process that can lead us from ordinary beginnings to extraordinary ends? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — while not guarateeing results — writes that creativity typically evolves through five stages.
The first stage is preparation. Basically, you need to know the rules before you break them. Thomas Kuhn writes that scientific paradigms reflect a basic consensus of how the world operates. Prior to Copernicus, the astronomical paradigm held that the earth was the center of the universe. Before Copernicus could change the paradigm, he had to immerse himself in it. Only then could he make the observations that changed the paradigm.
The second phase is incubation, “… during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.” This is when I like to go for a walk. I like to lay things aside, clear my head, and let my mind wander. It’s a haphazard process — sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes I simply forget what I was thinking about. Other times, however, something bubbles up that’s worth capturing. (One of the reasons I write this blog is to double back on my own thinking, recall what I wrote months ago, and perhaps make connections I would otherwise miss).
Third, is the insight — the Aha moment. As we saw in the article on sleepiness and creativity (click here), focusing intently on the problem at hand may actually inhibit the Aha experience. When you focus, you block out random thoughts and stray ideas. But it’s those very thoughts and ideas that may produce the insight. When you’re tired — or when you can induce your mind to wander — those stray thoughts are not blocked out and can help you see things more creatively.
Fourth is evaluation, “…when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.” This is a difficult step. You think you’ve had a brilliant flash of insight … you start dreaming of a trip to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a crackpot idea that your colleagues will laugh at. A thorough understanding of the current paradigm will help. If you’re a master of your discipline, you’ll have a much better idea of which ideas are worth pursuing and which are just goofy.
The fifth step is elaboration. You develop the idea, conduct the research, test your hypotheses, and present your conclusions to your colleagues — who may just rip it apart. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, “This is what Edison was referring to when he said that creativity consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Does the five-step process always produce creative innovations? No, not at all. But, if your purpose is to create new ideas, products, and services you should always be cognizant of where you are in the process. Following the process doesn’t guarantee success. But not following it virtually guarantees failure.
You can find Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book here. Thomas Kuhn’s book is here.