The Creativity Myth

A popular misconception is that creativity is fun and easy

Written by Mikkel Krenchel & Zung Nguyen

There has long been a myth that creativity comes from a magical ‘aha moment’ in which a lone genius sees an apple fall from the proverbial tree. The myth of the lone genius and his aha moment has recently spawned a younger cousin that has become immensely popular in the worlds of business and consulting – the idea that we can all unleash our inner creative genius under the right circumstances.

This belief has translated into the popularity of ‘ideation’ workshops characterized by walls of colorful post-it notes. During these energetic and theatrical sessions, participants are encouraged to take part in role-playing, release their inner child, or given strict rules to withhold any hint of critique. Increasingly, there is a belief that there is no problem so great that 10 smart people wearing thinking caps can’t solve it in one day. As enjoyable and uplifting as participation in these sessions may feel, they miss the point and rarely deliver groundbreaking innovation.

Creativity is hard work

This “brainstorm” approach focuses lots of time and energy on planning a session: creating the right atmosphere and selecting the most creative people. In contrast, true creativity is hard work, the bulk of which happens before and after any ‘ideation’ workshop. Examining innovations that have brought sustained impact, we find that all were born out of long periods of critical analysis, meticulous work and preparation.

There are probably few institutions that we can credit with as many innovations and scientific breakthroughs as the academic world. Yet the process scientists and researchers go through in developing these breakthroughs are one of extensive study, constant revision, and meticulous peer review. It is a world of ongoing discussion and serious, constructive critique – not fun ‘creative exercises’ and role-playing games.

It is the same in the Arts World. Picasso spent 2 years creating hundreds of studies of guitars before arriving at the Synthetic Cubism for which he is renowned. In these sketches and collages, Picasso broke down and examined the components of a guitar until he knew them well enough to reassemble them in a meaningful order that no one had attempted before. Indeed, most great artists work on their projects for hours on end, going through sketch after sketch before arriving at a satisfactory result. Clearly, creativity is slow, not fast.

Good ideas require immersion

Any successful innovation has to come from a place of deep knowledge and understanding of the issue and its context. While ‘ideating’ is not necessarily a bad method, brainstorming without contextual knowledge leads to biased or generic results that rarely hold up in the real market. Furthermore, deep understanding provides criteria to help hone in on the ideas that are most likely to succeed.

Just as Picasso immersed himself in the structure of a guitar to create his masterpiece, creating a great idea requires studying the rules, contexts and structure of the relevant phenomenon until they become second nature. This is strictly necessary in order to truly re-imagine the impact that changes in these rules, situations and behaviors will have. It takes countless hours of ruminating on the true meaning, until clarity and patterns in the data slowly emerge. Only then are you in a position to effectively think creatively and produce new ideas.

Great ideas require a period of maturing

Turning a thought on a post-it note into a tangible and implementable plan is no easy task. It involves a long process of fleshing out ideas: prioritizing, building, editing, prototyping, piloting, and then eliminating or tweaking as new issues become apparent. The secret sauce here is a healthy dose of constructive criticism, as relentless stress-testing is needed to make a good idea great. Rather than emphasizing the brainstorm of a slew of ideas, it makes more sense to focus on the meticulous evolution of a few fledgling ideas into tangible products and strategies. Often the final product has evolved so far that it bears no resemblance to the original ideation sketch. As this process of maturing ideas is continuous, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when the final idea took form. In short, there is ‘no aha’ moment!