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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Creativity on Demand

      We don’t have to wait for that cartoonish light bulb to pop up. We have a switch. We can turn on our creativity. Maybe not instantly, but pretty reliably.
     How can we do that?
     First of all, we have to crack our devotion to the familiar and the routine. That’s the hard part. The unspecified assumptions that direct our regular behavior do not often trigger original ideas. If something unheard-of arises spontaneously, it usually is smothered or brushed aside. Maybe we’re on autopilot.
     The door to creative thinking opens when we accept the need to practice awareness more effectively. That means paying conscious attention to conversations, developments, suggestions and even our own occasional idle thoughts. We’re busy, though, and we can’t spend too much time chasing off-the-subject possibilities.

     Still, new challenges demand new thinking, and projects are projects because they are out of the ordinary.

     There are projects that don’t demand extensive use of creativity. Many require careful performance of complex but familiar processes. Perhaps most are best conducted through judicious application of the experienced project manager’s tried-and-true practices.
     The best project managers, though, are those who anticipate and/or quickly recognize the presence of a challenge or a possibility that calls for a truly fresh approach. There may be little time for trial-and-error, which can be expensive and unsettling to stakeholders.
     The successful project manager nails it anyway, coming up with something brand-new that does the job and is acceptable to all. Sometimes it is a radical departure; often, it is an innovative application of a standard procedure.

     The tools of project creativity combine research, consultation, organization and idea generation. Most creative solutions arise from deliberate, disciplined effort, not bolts of genius from the blue. The odds for the production of really good ideas rise dramatically when the effort starts with comprehensive, patient gathering and ordering of information.
     The initial phase is a thorough examination of the situation, including identification of the problems and possibilities that exist in it. Information resources are mined, opinions are gathered and discussions are held.
     The second phase is determination of what a solution would look like. This is not a solution, but instead is the specifications the solution should meet. What must the solution do, whom should it satisfy, what limitations must it overcome? There might be a dozen or more such criteria.

     The third phase is option development, and this is where creativity is most valuable. Potential solutions – or approaches to solutions – are proposed, often in brainstorm sessions. Participants throw in experience, knowledge and judgment as well as ideas.
     It is not unusual for harebrained options to be tossed into the mix, and they freshen thinking as well as occasionally turn out to have practical value.
     The best brainstorms can include timed competition among teams, followed by analysis of the results for variety and originality. There also can be series of brainstorms, with later rounds benefiting from the stimulation of earlier ones.
     James Webb Young, an early leader in the American advertising industry, came up with a creative process that I have used, and it works (“A Technique for Producing Ideas” 1911).
     It is in five steps, the first of which are similar to those described above:

     First, immersion. You gather a plentiful supply of both detailed and broad material, some directly related to the issue at hand, some in a wider circle.
     Second, digestion. Organize and fantasize about the information. Make firm commitments to achieving a solution, without favoring any one approach. Make sure to record developing ideas. Keep going until confusion sets in.
     The third step is incubation. You just stop thinking about the matter. Trust your subconscious to keep on working on it. I believe the studies that say your brain remembers every single thing you ever noticed or thought. It’s all in that vast storage cabinet, the brain, each item as fresh as it was the first day.
     Then it happens: illumination. This is the one I was most skeptical about, and it turned out to be the most surprising. It’s the light bulb. You’re half asleep, or you’re in the shower, or taking a walk and . . . Bingo! Idea! It may be partial, but write it down quickly, because it will disappear.
    Validation is the fifth and final step. Match the result against the criteria you developed earlier. It usually needs to be developed, filled in and combined with other ideas. You may want to repeat the Young process.

     Creativity takes work, not the least of which is in breaking down old habits of thought. Separately from convincing yourself, you have to talk everybody else into it, too.
     Another demand right up there is time management. The conscious creative process takes time, not only to do it but also to prepare the openness of mind to give creativity working space. You can’t cram it in with the tasks.
     The thrill of solution is worth it.

   Project Planning? Fiction


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    1. Thanks for the kind words. There's a lifetime of experience reflected in the posts -- and among the most valuable are those provided by readers. I hope those who see value here contribute their additional insights. I benefit from thm.