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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Secrets of Creativity

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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Thirty years ago, I took a class with a group of doctoral students who reviewed and reported on the latest findings in organizational behavior. During each class period one of us would explain the current research surrounding topics such as motivation, cognitive dissonance, and so forth. Our entire grade was based on the ninety-minute report we shared with our classmates and the professor, who couldn’t wait to rip the presentation apart. As you might imagine, each session was a tense and lively experience.

For the last day of class, David Anderson was scheduled to report on the topic of creativity. I was looking forward to his presentation because I figured: creativity—it has to be fun, right? David stood up, smiled wryly and said something like the following.

“Creativity is an elusive topic. Researchers can’t agree that creativity even exists. No two people define it in the same way. And since people are at odds as to what creativity is, there is no shared dependent measure that a group of scholars has routinely studied and then written about in refereed journals. Ergo: creativity doesn’t even qualify as an academic topic.

“That also means that we don’t have independent measures. You can’t study what causes creativity, stimulates creativity, or even what kills creativity if you don’t know what creativity is. And once again, we don’t know what creativity is. Oh yes, one final comment, a lot of people talk about creativity, but it’s mostly a bunch of bunk.”

Then, to everyone’s surprise, David sat down.

David was right. Creativity is an elusive, often discussed but rarely studied topic. And yes, there is a lot of stuff out there aimed at making us more creative; but most of it, as David suggested decades ago, is far more cute and clever than it is insightful or helpful. For instance, we’re routinely told that in order to be creative we need to “ask the right question.” Which leads me to wonder, who is currently committed to asking the wrong question?

This particular advice is from the “think-outside-the box” genre. Apparently we’re all currently thinking inside the box and well, it’s stifling us. This concept actually grew out of the “our paradigm is screwed up” movement which argues that we don’t merely need to think outside the box, we need to embrace a whole new paradigm—no small task in light of the fact that (1) most of us don’t actually know what a paradigm is and (2) we’re even less aware of how to extract ourselves from one.

To be fair, as you watch most people at work—trying their best to be more creative—the idea of being stuck in a mental rut strikes a chord with most people and stems from a rather interesting line of inquiry. It started in the early 70s when Dr. James Adams of Stanford University first noticed that university freshmen appeared to be more creative than seniors. In his view, college was making students less creative, not more so. He measured this phenomenon by holding up a brick and asking students to brainstorm the potential uses of said rectangular object.

Freshmen came up with everything from crushing grapes to fending off an attacker. Seniors came up with less diverse uses. Engineering students were the worst. They were so up to their necks in their view of the world that by their fourth year they could only come up with ideas such as build a wall, build a taller wall, build a different colored wall, and oh! Here’s one: build a wall—but over there. With this in mind, Adams wrote Conceptual Blockbusting, where he further articulated the problem that the normal education process squelches rather than stimulates creativity.

Edward De Bono paralleled Adams’s work by coming up with the notions of lateral versus vertical thinking. De Bono focused on getting out of cognitive ruts by moving from vertical thinking, where ideas are similar and sequential, to lateral thinking, where ideas are quite different and non-sequential. From there, of course, it was only a short trip to thinking outside the box. Or better still, leaping into a whole new—what’s that thing again? Oh yes, a new paradigm.

If I sound a bit discouraged, it’s because precious little has been done with creativity since the topic first fell under academic scrutiny some forty years ago. And yet, despite the lack of thoughtful material on the topic, the world desperately needs all of us to be more creative. I, for one, sit down at a computer screen almost every single day and hope to “create” something worthwhile. Actually, I don’t seek to produce some thing, I hope to generate novel ideas, clever training methods, and dare I say it, creative material. In short, my job is to create creative stuff. So, after decades of trying to do just that, I’ve come up with a few ideas on what it takes to be creative. Today I’ll share five ideas.

Generate More Because Less Is Less.The best predictor of who is viewed by others as creative is the sheer volume of their output. Individuals who are dubbed creative, imaginative, original or inspired almost always come up with more material than their colleagues. They work on generating volumes of creative material which they then sift into a small amount of useable results—and it’s true in virtually every endeavor. Consider comedy. Woody Allen explains that early in his career he made up dozens of jokes, and then tested them in small comedy clubs. Then, less than one in ten of his gags made it on to the Carson show. If you watched Woody on the big stage, you’d think: “How does he come up with these gems?” By his own admission, he came up with lots of material, mostly mediocre, and then let the audience cull it. Don’t think of creativity as a gift possessed by a lucky few, think of it as the result of hard work—where sheer volume routinely trumps genius.

If It Ain’t Broke, Do Fix It. Each time I sit down with my partners to create a new training exercise or video clip I ask: “Is there a new and better way to do what is currently working for us?” I purposely look for different methods—even when what we are currently employing works well for us. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out, but we do try to make at least a couple of changes in what we’ve previously done—on principle alone. Force yourself to make changes, even during good times. It keeps you on the creative edge.

Seek the Common. Imagine that you’re brainstorming solutions to a problem (an important act of creativity) and you feel as if you’re in a rut. You want to think outside the box, but aren’t sure how to do so. First, identify the box by asking: “What do all of our current suggestions have in common?” That common feature comprises your primary mental constraint. Remember the engineering students? All of their ideas used a brick to build a structure. To break the invisible wall you’d ask them: “Can you think of a use other than building a structure? Okay, that’s good. Now all of the ideas use the mass of the brick. Is there something that doesn’t use the mass?” Whenever you’re trapped in a mental box, one question can get you out. “What do all these suggestions have in common?”

Try, Try, Again.  Yesterday, I went to a movie that turned out to be a real clunker. The sad truth is that far too many movies aren’t all that good because they have to be completely finished before they’re shown to the viewing public. Just think of the magnitude of this challenge. The work of dozens of people at the cost of millions of dollars is combined into a finished product, released with a flurry of ads, and if it’s accepted, it’s accepted; but if not—it’s quickly yanked from the big screen.

Contrast this process with a speech you’ve been asked to give to several audiences. You design and deliver your first speech. Some parts go well, others don’t, so you make changes. The second speech goes better. By the time you give the speech the tenth time, it’s a polished gem. Here’s the point. Treat your creative efforts as speeches, not movies. Quit producing completed and polished work and then testing it with your audience in one grand ta-da! Instead, create and then test sample material with sample audiences. Conduct a half dozen mini-experiments before you even think of working on the finished product.

Swallow Your Pride. This final idea springs out of the previous one. As much as most of us would love to produce a wonderfully novel and successful product all on our own, we’d do well to swallow our pride and quit trying to go it alone. Sure, Isaac Newton, with the release of Principia, stunned an entire world through his solo efforts. He alone came up with answers as to why the planets and other heavenly objects act the way they do.

Now, with this example in mind (and this is what people often think of when they talk about creativity with a capital C), consider the following simple fact. The rest of us are not now nor will we ever be an Isaac Newton. We need to drop our standard—our work isn’t likely to be world-changing and we’re very unlikely to do it alone. So, when coming up with new ideas and methods, seek not solitude, but a crowd. Brainstorm with colleagues. Continually ask people for feedback along the way. Give up on the idea of surprising others with a blazing and unexpected flash of insight. Instead, clunk along, hammer away, talk with others, and continually reshape your work—with a little bit of help from your friends.


Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

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