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Clean Thinking, Problem Solving

You can actually cultivate creativity. Here’s how.

I remember having to fill out performance reviews where one of the questions on the forms assessed the “creativity” of the employee. Creativity? Hm.

At that time, to me, creativity either had to do with art (not relevant in my line of work), or the demonstration of some grand, brilliant solution to a problem that no one else would have ever thought of. Sure, an entry-level associate could come up with something like that, but it was unlikely. So why was the creativity question there on a performance review form? How do I assess someone’s creativity, and what could I use as an objective creativity metric?

My views on creativity in the office environment evolved over time. For a long time, I thought the question just wasn’t terribly relevant. I might have even put “N/A” on that question in the review form for some of my direct reports! Then, I thought employees could employ creativity, but only if very particular circumstances arose that warranted “out of the box” thinking. Over time, I realized that people could be extremely creative on any kind of project, but they had to have a knack for it.

Now I know better.

Creativity is something that can have huge upsides in both big and small ways, can be employed daily for any project or task, and can be cultivated by anyone, no matter their innate talent.


How? Let’s start with a novel definition of creativity.

Creativity is the ability to make connections between two seemingly disparate points.

You create alignment when there was none previously. These are ideas that you create between topics, people, concepts, and physical items that someone else might not. You create parallels in new and interesting ways.

But at the very heart of it, creativity is just making a connection that wasn’t made before.

When put that way, creativity doesn’t seem so linked to innate talent. Creativity seems totally within reach and something that can be practiced!

I love the idea of practicing creativity as a skill. In fact, I created a model for it (because that’s how I do!) Check out the Creativity Loop I created below. I then describe each step underneath the model.

creativity loop


1. Create a linkage between two seemingly disparate points.

This is very common in art – fashion and textiles and mixed media, sure. In tech, you see it as well: the smartphone was an amalgamation of very disparate things – a phone, a camera, a camcorder, and handheld games.

2. Describe parallels between those seemingly disparate points.

Can all those disparate things be worn? Can they all entertain? Draw parallels between your points. The parallels do not have to be aspects that are exactly the same, but perhaps you can otherwise create a bridge between the two points.

What about getting creative about people? I recently employed this creativity loop to generate linkages across very, very different people and local businesses. I found a bunch of solo entrepreneurs, and because the parallel I discovered was operating a business in isolation, I created an informal meet-up where we could build relationships and discuss challenges and benefits of following our passions in business solo. Imagine the discussions among business people, artists, fashionistas, teachers, and fitness people!

3. Consider how you can leverage those parallels.

This is the crux of the creativity loop.

To leverage in this case means to make note of how the linkage and the parallels could result in greater benefit or interest than each point would on its own.

Why would the parallel help? How can we use the connection? How might the parallel serve as a launching point for even more ideas?

4. Acknowledge the limitations and restrictions of how those parallels are drawn.

If the connections were so easy to make, everyone would make them. So naturally, there might be some limitations to how perfectly the connections between the disparate points might work. And that’s OK.

Depending on your needs, maybe it’s fine that not everything aligns perfectly. It may still have incredible utility for you. You should acknowledge the limitations in order to determine how to use the newfound connections. Just because there are limitations does not mean that the creative process is not valid, or that you should throw out your results and ideas. It just means you will be better prepared to put it in the right context for what you need.

It’s very important to do this limitation step AFTER you’ve gone through the exercise of determining how you might extract leverage from your new ideas.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! Too many people have ideas connecting two points – ideas that could have some real creative potential – and they immediately discount the ideas because of limitations. You must first explore what utility those ideas have and what their potential is for benefit and interest BEFRE you identify limitations. Having some experience with how those new ideas might be applied to a problem in interesting ways will put the limitations within the proper context.

After assessing the limitations, you might come to the conclusion that the ideas don’t really provide the benefit or interest you were seeking. No problem! Having an appreciation for the limitations will give you a more informed springboard when starting the Creativity Loop again.  Given the limitations, how might you modify the linkages or create new ones?

In my earlier example, one limitation was the aggressive and ambitious schedules of solo entrepreneurs. Sure, the idea of meeting up regularly was great, but everyone’s calendar was packed to capacity. Was there another linkage to draw upon? Sure! There were many to draw from:

Most people have to eat, so let’s schedule lunch.

Many work at their computers; we could do a webcast, and people can jump on and off.

Many solo business owners work wonky hours; we could create a private Facebook group where people can leave questions or experiences and others can comment when they get around to it.

And on and on and on.

Creativity!


By the way, you will LOVE the Facebook Live on this topic!! Join me Thursday May 17 at 12noon Pacific time for some fun and zany examples putting this into practice!

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