The Process of Creativity and Innovation

Process of Creativity and Innovation

Better than ever before, businesses are learning the value of creativity.

In communications, leadership, sales, and elsewhere, business analysts celebrate creative and innovative thinking. But how do you know when you’re being creative and when you’re not? What’s the difference between a novel approach and actual innovation? Is there a process to gaining, or using, these characteristics?

Simply put, yes: there’s a process to creativity and innovation. 

Let’s start with creativity.

How can you be creative at work?

A quick definition check—creativity is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”  That’s broad, and not perfect for our purposes; your employer isn’t going to reward you if you ‘transcend’ the rules of your workplace too fully.  

Nevertheless, this definition is still a place to start. The generation of meaningful new ideas is certainly the kind of outcome that employers desire from a creative employee. 

Five Steps to Creative Thinking

James Clear has identified five steps that can increase one’s tendency to think creatively.  He lists them as such:

  1. Gather new material.
  2. Thoroughly work over the materials in your mind.
  3. Step away from the problem.
  4. Let your idea return to you.
  5. Shape and develop your idea based on feedback.

Clear’s process of creativity allows you to encounter ‘new material’ (likely a problem, like how to communicate or how to begin a project) and give it an initial assessment.  

Then, the step of walking away allows your brain to both retain and let go of the material. Clear encourages engagement with other exciting, energizing ideas during this away time. The goal is to continue to work the problem on a subconscious level while you recharge your higher brain with other concepts.

Walking away to return with more energy and clearer ideas doesn’t just make sense on paper—it’s been proven that time away from a problem helps you solve it.

When you return to the material in step four, hopefully the idea/solution you began to form in the second step will come back quickly and clearly.  And the fifth step requires that your idea gets feedback and input from your colleagues—just to be sure you don’t implement something that sounds good in a vacuum.

Clear’s five steps make sense, though many online writers would shorten it to a list of four—Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.  Essentially, the four-step model condenses Clear’s first two points into one.  

The creative process is somewhat analogous to fishing.

You spend a good amount of time preparing to cast your line (step one), you cast and set the line (step two), and then you let your mind focus on other things as the fish come to you (step three). When one bites, you come back to the line with renewed energy (step four), and you finally confirm with your fellow anglers that you’ve caught a good fish (step five).

An equally helpful analogy for non-creative thinking would be a math test.  Depending on your skill level, the test may take longer or shorter to complete; either way, though, it’s going to be faster than a fishing trip. It also won’t include any stepping away—non-creative work demands focus until task completion.

The methods won’t vary if you’re not being creative—alternative thinking in math rarely yields correct answers.  And there’s no sharing answers on a math test, just as conventional problem solving tends to push individuals to complete their workload alone and turn it in for approval.  

Now, we’ve got a short guide to creativity in mind, and an idea of how it looks different from the non-creative. 

Let’s consider innovation. 

What is the difference between the two, and how does one begin to innovate?

Paul Sloane explains the difference this way: “Creativity is the capability or act of conceiving something original or unusual,” while “Innovation is the implementation of something new.”  Every invention, Sloane argues, is an innovation, because it is an implementation of a novel idea.    

Innovation is creativity mobilized for action.

When a person has an idea, they’re being creative; when they use that idea on their next sales call, they’re being innovative.

Innovation requires creativity to be possible, and creativity requires innovation to be useful.

Let’s identify some ways to increase our innovation, with creativity in mind.

Daniel Burrus has developed a number of strategies for increasing both.  Some of the best insights for growing innovation and creativity in your business include: “Innovation is based on knowledge—read things you don’t normally read.”  This suggestion reminds us that changing things requires knowing how and why they work (or don’t), and urges us to keep broadening our understanding of the world we live and work in.

“Your perceptions may limit your reasoning.”

We can become trapped in our own perspectives, and gaining input from others can help us see clearly.  It’s a sort of implementation-focused replication of Clear’s fifth step, which stressed asking for feedback.

“Treat patterns as part of the problem.”

Don’t repair dogmatic or rigid methods or hardware with inflexible solutions.  Use the creative process to avoid old ways of thought and come up with truly novel solutions.

“Come up with ideas at the beginning of the innovation process… and then stop.”

Remember that to innovate, you have to implement. Don’t waste time and potentially freeze yourself with a multitude of ideas—focus on the ones that are truly in the running for execution.

Innovation and creativity are both dependent on a process of allowing non-standard thinking and ideas to swirl in the mind. Of course, the creative moment is more experimental than the innovative, but the principle’s the same: you have to be open-minded.

Reaching an open-minded place can sometimes be difficult in business. The rules and systems in place were not added haphazardly, and changing them can feel like a major undertaking.  

Importance of the Incubation Stage

The incubation/walk away stage of the creative process is immensely helpful here. Since the problem is only operating on a low, subconscious level, your higher brain’s everyday objections to alternative thinking won’t be nearly as pronounced. When you return from incubating the idea, you will revisit to the issue with more energy and less anxiety.

Collaboration as a Best Practice

The other best practice in the process of creativity and innovation is frequent collaboration.  In the creative process, working with others to critique and refine your ideas can ensure that your ideas are, in fact, reasonable and interesting new ways to do things.

When it comes to innovation, the collaborative approach is indispensable.  Creative planning is one thing, but realizing change absolutely requires more input than your own.  With the oversight of your colleagues and supervisors, you’ll innovate successfully.

It probably feels a little strange to engage in the creative and innovative processes if you’re not used to doing so.  That’s okay.  Creativity and innovation aren’t hereditary.  They’re skills and practices that can be learned and improved. These processes and suggestions are a great place to start, and they get easier with time. Trust the process and yourself, and you’ll be generating exciting ideas in no time. 

Moving into the innovation stage requires finding the idea that will work and implementing it. Remember that with the collaboration of your coworkers and superiors, you’ll be implementing ideas that are safe and worthwhile.

And think about the lesson of the incubation stage, even if you’re not planning a major creative effort. 

No matter what the problem, taking some time away from it can help your mind to calm itself and come back more prepared.

How can you incorporate creative and innovative processes into your business?

What kinds of creativity does your company already utilize?

How might you encourage your employees to engage in more creative and innovative thinking?