Tag Archives: creative teams

Novelty and Trimtabs

I’ve been exploring how creativity works within a creative organization. The project will be wrapping up shortly. In the next few blogs, I’ll be sharing some overall insights I’ve had in exploring creativity within a creative organization.

I’d like to relate some insights that have come up for me around the use of language in creativity and Creative Problem Solving.

“Novel” can be a Tricky Story:

A well-established definition for creativity is that offered by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who says that creativity is the production of ideas which are both novel and useful. I will admit that the first time I heard this definition, I wanted to leave the room. It was the first day of grad school, however, so I thought I better stick with it. I’m glad I did. Having spent more time with the ideas of novelty and usefulness, I can appreciate how they relate to creativity — and in fact it’s now become hard for me to think about how creativity operates apart from one or both of these boiled-down, serviceable-but-not-particularly poetic descriptors.

I had forgotten, however, how they can appear at first blush. Especially, as was true in the current case, the word “novelty.”

For a team of creatives, the idea that novelty was required had a few of them pushing back. “It sounds like a novelty — a do-dad — gimmickry.” “I see people doing things all the time that are new to them, and I think ‘so-and-so was doing that fifty years ago!'” “Does this mean that we should be all about the next flashy thing? What about the great products we already have to offer?”

It was a robust conversation. Where did we end up? With the understanding that the company needs to make sure what it offers to the client fulfills the client’s expectations of a creative solution — something that is new (to them, or they could have already done it), and which fulfills the client’s business need, which is the creative service organization’s sine qua non of “useful.”

And, at the same time, for this organization to keep its creative juices flowing, and to also continue to differentiate from its competitors, it can’t shy away from pushing into frontiers of new and implementable ideas.

What is might be in a Word?

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) is a deliberate approach to creativity, which uses words in key ways, as prompts to the creative process. This is seen the most obviously in the CPS tool called “statement starters,” short phrases which begin either statements or questions. An example: if I say to myself “I need a new car,” my internal response is likely to be: “Ok. Yep.” It’s a statement of fact, with which I happen to agree. No forward motion here.

If, however, I were to say: “In what ways might I acquire more comfortable transportation?” then my internal response is much more likely to involve the production of ideas. And if I stick with it, and try to come up with lots of ideas, I just might land on one novel and useful enough to give me some options I hadn’t considered before.

So, in the CPS training with this team, we have spent some time learning to work with these statement starters. They include: “In what ways might I/we…” “What might be all the….” “How to….” “How might I/we….” etc.

In a recent session, one of the team members phrased a question thus: “What is a way our company can accomplish x,y,z?” I stepped in to redirect. Why? What might have been less than ideal about that question?

It’s a small thing — so small that when I mentioned it, it didn’t make sense at first.

If we ask ourselves “what is the/a…”, even though it’s a question and thus more likely to spur a response, it’s a definitive one-on-one set up. What is the. The use of the word “is,” as small as it is, suggests a decision, an answer, a solution, a formulation. Compare this to the word “might,” which leaves us still in the land of possibility, openness, consideration. Secondly, to use a definitive article “the/a” is to imply that we are looking for one clear response. Ultimately, yes, we’ll want to narrow down the field of choices to a manageable one or few. But not yet. In posing these initial questions, we want to stay away from language which alludes to “the one answer.”

Is this tough to do? Sure can be. Especially when we have a desperate need for a good solution to a big problem. However when we try to get the answer within the question, we are attempting to diverge and converge at the same time. Doesn’t work so well. By separating divergent thinking from convergent thinking, especially early in the CPS process, we tease apart the complementary needs of seeking and finding, to let each flourish on its own for awhile.

As I reflected on the difference between something so small as using “is” or “might,” in the face of articulating substantial challenges or big wishes, I was reminded of something that Buckminster Fuller had to say about turning a big boat. The rudder is involved, but a small portion of the rudder, the trimtab, initiates the action. A very small element of a very big machine helps to determine its course.

So it is with little words like “is.” When faced with a clear need for creative thinking, how might we instead make better use of “might?”