It’s Just Your Imagination

ImaginationWhen you hear the expression “it’s just your imagination,” what comes to mind? If it’s along the lines of considering imagination as something somewhat immature and merely fantastical, take care: you’re seriously undervaluing one of the most powerful functions of our minds.

Imagination is more than child’s “make believe.” It’s the ability to see or otherwise conceive of something that doesn’t currently exist in manifest form. And though it doesn’t exist in manifest form, we are able to relate to it as though it is “real” or a “real possibility.” In doing so, we have a chance of bringing it into being.

Another way of looking at it: human imagination accounts for all those aspects of our lived experience which do not organically arise from the natural world. The products of imagination include almost everything you can (likely) see around you right now as you read: the device you’re looking at, the chair you’re sitting upon, the bookshelf, television, dining room table, carpet, lighting, ceiling, roof, and electrical wires that connect you to the grid that illuminates the room in which you’re reading.

Imagination is our way of casting ourselves forward into a future state and envisioning possibilities. It includes our ability to manipulate concepts, perceptions, memories, and other mental images in the search of something new and valuable. It’s essential to creativity. As Albert Einstein famously stated: “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.”

We collectively imagine when we live into the agreement of our shared social constructs. For example: what is money? What is law, or justice, or brand identity? While we certainly do not agree on the answer to these questions, most of us agree that the constructs “exist,” and to a large part, we agree to the roll they play in our lives, for better or worse. In fact, we have made them so real that a person’s life can be as adversely effected by an unfavorable legal decision as it can be by experiencing a flood or fire or other natural disaster. Law is but one of the shared mental constructs which have developed and enthroned themselves over time through our imagining of how society ought to be structured.

Hopefully you can see that imagination is one of the most powerful mental activities in which we can engage. Especially in regard to applied creativity, it’s less important whether something is “imaginary” or “real,” and more important that our understanding of the context of the situation aligns with our imagination in order to produce something of value.

So the next time you wonder “is it just imagination,” remove the “just,” and let the imagination flow!

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What’s a Good Idea Worth?

What’s a good idea worth? While we certainly can look to the great variety of paradigm-shifting innovations of our technological age and point to the profitability of the companies that sprung up around various ideas, or that served as their laboratory and incubator, this is not a sufficient answer, nor is it a truly fulfilling manner of trying to answer the question “what’s a good idea worth.” Why? Because under that rubric we need to define and measure profit in order to establish value. But many of the things that keep us showing up for work everyday slip under this profit/value equation, into the land of our subjective experience of how we feel when we give the best of ourselves, including our good ideas, to our efforts. This is value on the scale of the human heart and psyche, and it’s powered at least as much — if not more — by curiosity, playfulness, openness, and courage as it is by the desire to realize profitability.

If we’re to truly ask the question “what’s a good idea worth?” then we stretch beyond the idea of ROI, and into the intrinsic motivators that keep us engaging in our work lives with energy and passion.

Here are some thoughts on ways to measure the worth of a good idea:

  • Team bonding: did the good idea arise in collaboration? Then likely it leads to shared enthusiasm and also greater trust within teams.
  • Self-confidence and self-efficacy: did the good idea solve a vexing problem ? Chances are you now feel greater confidence in your abilities, and are likely to take on even greater challenges.
  • Optimism: a good idea brings with it a burst of possibility that carries strong positive feelings. As proponents of Positive Psychology tell us, this imparts numerous benefits, from feeling more connected to our families and coworkers to better physical health.
  • Leadership capacity: we want to be champions of our good ideas. When this happens, we naturally step into leadership behaviors, such as communicating our vision, leveraging our influence, and working to inspire others.

So, what’s it worth to businesses to have bonded, trusting teams, optimistic employees who demonstrate self-confidence and self-efficacy, and emerging leadership coming from the ranks of creative thinkers? A lot! These behaviors contribute enormously to a culture where good ideas proliferate and multiply — increasing the likelihood of profit generation and cost savings that businesses depend upon. What’s a good idea worth? If understood properly, probably more than we know!

Image Credit: Flickr via BusinessInsider

Big Questions

…or The 10 Things You Need to Know About Creativity

I’m exposed to a fair amount of social writings on creativity. From LinkedIn group digests to Fast Company articles, this results in a pretty constant stream of attention-grabbing (and comfortably quantified) leads, such as “The 5 Things Creative People Do Before Breakfast,” “Eight Rules for Fool-Proof Innovation,” and “How This One Dumb Trick Can Melt Your Creative Inhibitions.”

While I don’t begrudge the authors for angling for my attention this way — after all I’ve probably done it myself  — I am struck by the certitude of the statements. Ironic, because creativity is fueled by questions. It’s in asking the right question in the right way at the right time that gives us creative traction.

Big Questions in Creativity 2013This is one reason I’m proud to have a chapter in the recently published Big Questions in Creativity 2013: A Volume of First Works, Vol. 1. The book, a collection of ten graduate research papers, is published by the ICSC Press, the imprint of the International Center for Studies in Creativity, my alma mater. I’m also proud to be among peers exploring such diverse questions as “What is Creative Economy?,” “How Might Creative Problem Solving Combat Bullying?” and “What is the Role of Creativity in Talent Development?” To be sure, we do more than ask questions — we synthesize information, arrive at conclusions and make recommendations. But it all begins with a Big Question.

So if your appetite for writings on creativity extends beyond pithy headline reporting and into what editors Cynthia Burnett and Paul Reali call a “vibrant and often messy ‘multilogue'” designed to spur “new, provocative questions about the field of creativity,” then here’s The 1 Thing You Need To Do: buy this book.

(My chapter for those who are interested is “What are the Natural Relationships Between Creativity and Leadership,” a topic I’ve blogged on before.)


Beyond the Light Bulb

I’m getting burned out on the light bulb.

I see it a lot. Try doing a search for images related to creativity and innovation and you will, too. The light bulb has become an icon of creativity and innovation, even as the light bulb going on has become the most lauded step of the creative process.

Originally posted at Innovation Bound.

There’s good reason. We all love the moment when the solution becomes clear—the rush of excitement, the relief of freedom from uncertainty, the burst of energy which powers us forward. In his seminal model of the creative process, Graham Wallace called it, fittingly, “illumination.” No doubt it’s a pivotal moment, we couldn’t do creativity without it.

But it’s not enough.

And what stands on either side of it, is a lot of hard work.

(It’s ironic that the light bulb – an invention made possible by Edison’s famously painstaking process – should have come to represent the quintessence of instantaneous insight…)

The moment of insight arises from within the context of attention, commitment, learning and mental labor. In his classic work The Courage to Create, psychologist Rollo May described the moment of insight as the targeted outcome of deliberate mental effort, aimed at our problem or concern. It was those things toward which we had bent our energies and attention which produced the a-ha moment. We don’t get big insight moments, he implied, for things we don’t really care about, or pay attention to. The more effort we put in to defining our problem, learning about it and working it over in our minds, the more we are setting the stage for insight. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” Louis Pasteur said. This all takes a lot of work, including the years of study and practice we’ve invested in our own knowledge and expertise.

The phase after the a-ha moment can be just as demanding—and, as anyone whose brief moment of insight has resulted in years of labor knows, take just as long to play out. Here, we’re tested by the materiality of the world, and by time. An idea is quicksilver, ephemeral—if it’s ever going to go beyond that, it must become translated into the world beyond our minds. Whether the next step is to sketch the design, schedule the meeting, write the business plan, or fire up the sauté pan, you will need to move your idea into physical space, rearranging time and material resources to make it possible. And you may need to do this over, and over, and over, and over again – sometimes for years. “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

This is commonsense to anyone who has spent time considering the creative process. I’ve been aware recently, however, of feeling burned out when I see the light-bulb icon; I think it’s being not only overused, but misused.

I suspect the words creativity and innovation often come to refer to, at least suggestively, outcomes more than processes; the light-bulb then begins to symbolize not ideas and insights, but answers, solutions, successes. This belies the hard work on either side of the quick moment of illumination by hinting that the flash of insight is all it takes. It also sets us up for disappointment, when light bulbs don’t start popping as quickly as we, or our higher-ups, hope they will, as well as missed opportunities, when promising ideas are not given the time or resources needed to fulfill their potential. This all can lead to a creeping cynicism towards the creative process, or toward our own ability to successfully deliver.

We’ve come to glorify the light bulb, without realizing that a lot of our creative work happens in the dark.

How might we overcome this tendency?

  • Educate ourselves in our own creative process so that we can identify not only with our moments of insight, but also the preparation beforehand, and the real-world work which follows.
  • Have patience for the preparatory phase, because it may take longer than we care for; have confidence that this preparation is creative work.
  • Build stamina for the development and implementation phase, because these will likely test our ideas in ways we hadn’t imagined; trust that just because it feels like grunt work doesn’t mean we’re not being creative.
  • Find symbols for the whole of the creative process. I’d love to see an image search on the word “creativity” turn up as many results for preparatory labor and execution grunt work, as it does the fantastic, beloved light bulb.

Feeling the Power

Originally posted at Innovation Bound.

How do you feel when you’re being creative?

Oh, it can be all over the map! Engaged, stumped, frustrated, blissed out, in a state of flow, driven, ferocious, unsparing, enchanted, oblivious to the world, unstoppable, like a vessel to the universe, a scribe to the muse, a slave to the drawing board.

Yep. All over the map.

But I bet, at least some of the time, being creative comes with a pronounced sense of “rightness” to it. Something just feels right. And if you pause and take the time to look inside, perhaps you feel, like I do, that you’re connecting with a part of yourself which feels solid, energized, authentic, and – no matter what your creative process might be yielding in that moment – in an important way, empowered.

What’s that about?

What is it about engaging in a process which by its very nature is a movement toward the unknown that can – though, albeit, not always – leave us feeling empowered?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a few months now.

Empowerment, I think, alludes to a movement from a position of less power, to one of greater power. Some would say it’s a restitution of the natural power we all have. And typically this greater power bears the hallmark of personal authenticity or relevancy: it’s rooted in you, in your very nature. It’s a return of something missing, or it’s the removal of an unnatural obstruction. To be empowered is, in my mind, a return to a natural state of personal power.

Creativity is a natural state as well. It, too, is rooted in our very nature. Often, accessing and strengthening our creativity is a process of restoring ourselves to a state of being creative, or of removing those obstacles which are blocking this natural capacity.

So creativity and empowerment have some things in common, at least in how they represent integral parts of who we are. But what’s the nature of the connection between them? How do they work together? Do they work together?

As I said, I’ve recently become curious about this. I’ve been asking around. One of my creativity colleagues offered that using affirmative judgment (a creative thinking skill) feeds the feeling of being empowered.

Another added that learning deliberate creativity practices like Creative Problem Solving gives you confidence-building tools for creativity, and this is empowering. I thought these were great answers.

A client offered: “To be creative but completely un-empowered would be useless. To be empowered and completely uncreative would be dogmatic.” I thought that was awesome.

Another said: “Being creative with a purpose equals empowerment.”

Lots of interesting responses, but I feel like there’s more in here to discover. What would you say? How do you think creativity and empowerment are related?

Photo courtesy of David Desilva –

Burn-out & Renewal

(originally posted at Innovation Bound)

It’s summer. The season of vacation. Time for time off.

I know it’s summer because the days are longer, if not really hotter in Seattle where I live. But would I know it’s summer because I actually took some time off? Took some vacation? Stopped working for awhile?

What a novel idea.

So this summer, I did. Two whole weeks. Wow! Unusual for me. Ok – Ten days. Well, really it was nine. You get the point. It’s so easy, and often feels so necessary, to just keep working. In the fight for personal time, I often lose the battle, struggling with feelings of trying to do too much, and yet not doing nearly enough. The recipe for burn-out.

For my vacation, I went to my home state of Colorado. It was on fire.

Talk about burning out.

My family lives in Ft. Collins – the urban center closest to the High Park Fire, which briefly held status as the most destructive fire in the history of the state.

Image of Burn Zone - High Park Fire

Hot, dry weather, winds, and stands of beetle-kill ponderosa pine had fed the firefor weeks by the time I arrived. Ft. Collins itself was ok – and when I was there, the winds had died and the smokiness abated. By the time I left, the fire was 100% contained.

Except in my imagination. I had seen the effects of the burning, but not the fire itself. What must it have been like to see the hillsides ablaze? All that heat and energy.

It got me thinking: like a forest fire, creativity runs hot. Creativity is energy-intensive. Creativity can be all consuming.

And it also demands renewal. We renew ourselves when we let go. When we accept the fact that we don’t have the answer, even though we needed it yesterday. We renew ourselves when we stop trying so hard to be creative, when we trust that, in letting go, we permit our creative thinking to descend down past our conscious awareness and control, where, in an underground world, new insights are seeded. If we can’t let go, we can’t renew. If we can’t stop working – even working “creatively” – we burn out.

Mulling this over as I was, two books came to mind. In the Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron recommends two regular practices for staying connected to your creativity: writing three pages of stream of consciousness journaling every morning; and taking yourself out on an “Artist’s Date” once a week to do something which inspires you. Regular creative practices such as these, done for their own sake, and not for any specific outcome, keep our creativity moist and replenished.

The second book is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (may he rest in peace). The 7th Habit: Sharpening the Saw – Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal includes giving attention to ourselves physically, socially/emotionally and spiritually, as well as mentally. Covey is clear: if we don’t renew in these ways, nothing else – no great problem-solving, breakthrough thinking, innovative insight, or deft leadership – is possible, at least not over time, not in a sustained or sustainable fashion.

As a creativity professional, I’ve known these things for years. Yet how often do I follow my own best advice? Not that often. And how much am I willing to risk by not letting go? Acres and acres of my own personal ponderosa pine. Compulsive determination becomes it’s own version of beetle-kill, draining the juice out of ideas and possibilities, leaving them dried out and exposed, endangering the creative ecosystem.

On my last day in Colorado, I took a short drive through the outskirts of the burn zone. Thinking back on the images of both burned and living trees, and the mountain homes saved through heroism and chance, I offer the following creative conservation measures:

  1. Recognize the signs of impending burn-out. Does your creative thinking feel all dried out? Or pliant, flexible and alive?
  2. At the first sign of fire, sound the alarm. Don’t wait.
  3. Draw a line: be willing to sacrifice this much, but no more. Protect what you can.
  4. Be ready to evacuate: if the fire is that close, leave. Get some down time.
  5. Ask for help. Who’s on your Volunteer Fire Department? Your creativity is a natural community resource, and we’re all the worse off if it goes up in smoke.
  6. Acknowledge the loss. House burn down in this one? For god’s sake, don’t pretend that’s no big deal! Talking about your experience honors the loss and motivates the rest of us to take preventative measures.

And here are some tips for a healthy creative forest, with some inspiration from Julia Cameron and Steven Covey:

  1. Diversify yourself – take Artist’s Dates (Cameron); be engaged socially, read, write and study (Covey). A diverse forest is less susceptible to disease.
  2. Manage your resources – get exercise, manage stress, meditate (Covey).
  3. Know your own inner ecosystem – journal, free-associate (Cameron); visualize, clarify your personal values, and connect synergistically with others (Covey). The better you understand yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for your unique biodiversity.
  4. Practice good forest husbandry – keep your saws sharpened (Covey); hone your daily practices, such as Morning Pages (Cameron); be willing to clear out the deadwood inessentials (Covey).

And finally, remember that renewal is not only necessary for our sanity, but a natural process that follows even the worst of burn-outs. As destructive as the High Park Fire was, even before I left Colorado I heard report that, deep in the stands of charred ponderosa, oak seedlings are already peeking forth.



Thinking about Your Creative Thinking

A recent article by Holly Green highlighted the role of strategic thinking in effective leadership. Referencing the mad pace of business, she asserted that leaders need to move beyond depending upon what she called “critical” and “implementation” thinking types, to embrace three additional thinking types: “conceptual,” “innovative” and “intuitive.” Green placed these five types together under the larger umbrella of strategic thinking. (The reference in the title of the article to “Five Critical Thinking Types” is misleading; “Five Strategic Thinking Types” is a more accurate description of her theme.)

While there’s some murkiness around her usage of “type” and “skill,” in her article Green does two significant things: she asks leaders to think about their thinking, and, building upon this, she draws awareness to the fact that different types of thinking are called for in different situations. Both of these are valuable propositions.

We can take her recommendations further, however, by offering leaders a deliberate process for applying these two concepts of “thinking about your thinking,” and using different thinking skills while you do.

The most recent adaptation of the classic model for applied creativity, Creative Problem Solving (CPS) does just this. The aptly-named “Thinking Skills Model” uses an approach similar to what Green proposed, but has the advantage of being more explicitly incorporated into the creative thinking process from beginning to end – in Green’s terms from “visualizing” to “implementation.” Drawing upon its CPS lineage, it is also supported by decades of research into the benefits of applied creative thinking.

The Thinking Skills Model (TSM) identifies key cognitive skills which come into play throughout the creative thinking process. They are: diagnostic, visionary, strategic, ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking.

Green’s list of thinking types, again, is: critical, implementation, conceptual, innovative, and intuitive.

Of course there are some similarities and differences, and in a longer analysis we would line these up in a straight-on comparison to explore the overlaps and gaps between the two. For the time being, suffice it to say that Green’s on to something when she says “knowing when and how much to utilize each (type) is the hallmark of great leaders.” By aligning different thinking skills to different phases of the creative process, the Thinking Skills Model gives leaders a framework for being able to do this. The result is more effective thinking in complex, open-ended situations such as Green describes.

Effective creative thinking is at the heart of what Green advocates. Yet it’s interesting to note that the words “creative” and “creativity” are nowhere to be seen in her article. This may have been a deliberate choice, in order to avoid the fuzziness often associated with the “c” word, especially in business settings. Using deliberate processes like Creative Problem Solving doesn’t make things fuzzier, however. In fact, it does quite the opposite: it clarifies and strengthens our thinking, especially in these complex and open-ended situations, when we need our creative thinking the most.

Photo Credit: Jacob Boetter
Green, H. (2012, March 27). How to develop five critical thinking types. Retrieved from
Puccio, G. J., Murdock, M.C, & Mance, M (2007). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

What’s the Problem?

Problem clarification plays a large role in Creative Problem Solving (CPS). This is the space where we explore the terrain of our goals, wishes, and challenges, before we move forward into generating ideas.

The CPS model shown below depicts three major phases, with six process steps distributed across them. You can see how fully half of the process steps take place during the first phase.

Creative Problem Solving

If it feels like heavy lifting at times, it’s because there’s a natural tendency to want to rush ahead and begin generating ideas. The research is very convincing, however, on the important role that problem identification or problem construction plays in the quality of the final outcome. The more time we spend upfront figuring out what the real (or the most important, or the most interesting) problem is, the better the ideas and solutions that follow. As philosopher John Dewey famously said: a problem well-stated is half-solved.

So the next time you’re in a session where lots of energy is being spent trying to come up with answers, check to see if adequate attention has been paid to the first and most important question: what is the problem?

 Creative Problem Solving graphic adapted from Roger L. Firestien, Ph.D. – Innovation Resources, Inc.

Strategy and Uncertainty

Strategic planning engages our expectations of a future state. We set out our desires, hopes, goals, plans, benchmarks and time-lines, and formulate a strategy for implementing them.

Several significant challenges come along for the ride: the future – while forecast-able to some degree – is uncertain in important ways; the past shapes our expectations, sometimes without our knowing it; and the present circumstances are often presumed – that is, we think we know what our current opportunities and problems are, but often haven’t thought deeply enough about them to really understand.

When organizations engage in strategic processes, whether through annual planning, or individual initiatives and projects, these challenges can often be swept aside. We want a good solid plan, and spend less time thinking about our thinking (which we can have some certainty about), and more time planning the future (which will always contain a hefty does of the uncertain).

One way to respond to this dilemma is by engaging in a deliberate process such as Creative Problem Solving. I’ve used CPS for strategic planning in one-on-one sessions, and in multi-client, multi-year planning retreats. The results are always the same: CPS clarifies thinking. The stages of the CPS process conform perfectly to the different stages of a strategic process, from deeply understanding the current situation, to generating ideas for moving toward identified goals, to planning and execution.

A not-incidental benefit, of course, is that CPS also improves creative thinking in open-ended, ambiguous situations. And the future, being what it is, fits that description to a tee.

(If you’re in the Seattle area, and interested in digging deeper, I’ll be holding a seminar on CPS and Strategic Planning later this month.)

photo credit by Shiny Things

Creating a Business

Last fall I gave a short workshop on small business development for my local SCORE chapter — a wonderful community resource for entrepreneurs and small business owners. The content was focused on using the creative process deliberately as a tool for business development. It came to me as a result of my recent Master’s work in applied creativity and innovation, and as a sort of “stumbled-upon” process which I discovered I had intuitively fallen into in the course of my own entrepreneurial marching-forth.

When I set out to form a consulting business based on theatre practices, I had a wish to bring to organizations some of the things I’d learned from years being an actor. It took me awhile — talking to people, taking classes, partnering with others, etc. — before I realized I wanted to target leadership and organizational development, and creativity. Once I knew this, I was in the course of playing around with ideas on programs to offer, how to describe my work, how to improve my skills, etc. — when I went back to school and got my Master’s. Strengthened by the teachings, and able to incorporate the content directly into my programs, I then set forth planning how I would continue to move my work out into the world.

What I just described took about 4 years. It also followed, more or less and through no deliberate intention of my own, the classic model of Creative Problem Solving: from Exploring a Goal, Wish or Challenge, through Generating Ideas and Planning for Action, plus it’s six internal process steps — with some looping back and forth for good measure. Had I known the process model at the beginning of my journey, would it have gone by any more quickly or efficiently? Quite possibly.

But that’s not so much the point I want to make here, as much as to draw attention to the natural sequence of entrepreneurial efforts, and how well they match to CPS. This was the topic of my presentation. My audience was a room full of SCORE counselors, who donate their time to helping small businesses come into the world and flourish. They appreciated the connection between a deliberate process of creative thinking, and the sequence of steps a small business goes through in its various stages from conception to execution. At a time when job creation and healthy business development is so sought after, it makes sense to channel the natural entrepreneurial instincts through a tried-and-true model of deliberate creativity. From actresses-turning-consultants, to the next best gizmo, to the new coffee shop down the street, small business development benefits from Creative Problem Solving.

image by Gilles Chiroleu