Can Creativity Be Learned?
The following is a Graduate paper I wrote on creativity and how the definition of that word has changed for me. It also discusses several creative techniques including Empathic Design, The Young Technique and the SCAMPER method as well as how our team applied those techniques to coming up with possible entrepreneurial ventures. I think it will be helpful for those who are trying to discover how to become more creative.
The word “creativity” seemed to be one of those words that had such a simple meaning it didn’t merit further reflection. The word had little more interest to me than words such as “smart” or “strong” or “courageous” did. Creativity was obviously an important concept, but it’s definition seemed self-evident. Dictionary.com defines “creativity” as follows,
“The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”
And that is pretty much what I saw it as. Indeed, “ability” is probably the key word there. Creativity was an ability; something you either had or you didn’t. So for example, musicians are creative people. And I had more or less bought into the stereotype of the creative musician who just comes up with material or “feels” what kind of music to write. Creativity was thus, in my mind, something of a free-floating, ethereal thing that inspired creative works. The definition I had in my mind was something close to circular reasoning; creative people get inspired by creative ideas in order to be creative.
Perhaps deep down I knew this was false. For example, I was well aware of how important brainstorming was. And I also knew that brainstorming was done best when ideas weren’t judged immediately. This process gave people the space to throw out off-the-wall ideas that might sound stupid (and otherwise be shot down right away if ever said at all). And while those off-the-wall ideas might indeed be stupid, they may also have a nugget of genius in them that can be built off in all sorts of creative directions.
In other words, somewhere deep down I knew that creativity could be a process, but I hadn’t put enough thought into it to really embrace that idea. This class has helped me realize that creativity is not just some form of divine inspiration that is bestowed upon those lucky enough to be born “creative.” Some people may naturally be more creative than others, but regardless of any inborn predispositions, when people funnel the goal of coming up with new ideas, products, services or the like through an effective process, anyone can become more creative.
This really rung true to me when watching a short video of Jerry Seinfeld talking about how he comes up with a joke. Most people probably think that standup comics are just funny people who think of funny things because they are so funny and creative. Perhaps that’s because, as Seinfeld notes, “Comedy writing is something you don’t see people doing. It’s a secretive thing.” In some ways, those who are successfully able to be creative appear to enjoy the perpetuating behind their creativity that myself and many others have bought into.
Seinfeld’s process, however, proves that conception to be utterly false. For example, he notes all sorts of specific things he tries to do when going through his process of writing a joke, including:
This simple idea; that creativity could and should be funneled through a process was by far the most important take away I had. In this class we went over 16 different processes by which to be creative, such as SCAMPER, The Young Technique and User-Centered Design. To be honest, I had no idea that any of these existed before.
However, when reflecting on this, I realized that I should have known such processes existed. For example, I was aware that 3M had come up with the extremely useful and profitable Post-It Note by simply allocating a percentage of each employee’s day to work on ideas they came up with independently. (3) This isn’t much of a process, but at least at the corporate level, it’s something more than the myth that creativity is just “ideas randomly coming to you” or something to that effect.
The process that I was assigned was Empathic Design, which was first articulated by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport in The Harvard Business Review and which the design firm IDEO has made famous (albeit with some modifications). The process follows a simple five steps:
The key behind this method is that by observing how customers actually use a product, you can spot what they actually need instead of what they think they need. Indeed, when it comes to innovation, customers often don’t know what would help them because such a thing doesn’t exist yet (or hasn’t been marketed for that function).
One example Leonard and Sax give is of Cheerios. Brand executives learned that parents liked their product so much not because it was a good breakfast cereal, but because it was an easy snack to carry around for their kids. This provided them with a great marketing opportunity they would have otherwise missed. And even if that idea had just floated into someone’s head, how would have they tested it to make sure it was correct without some sort of process to funnel creativity through?
Many of the other techniques also appeared to be effective. For example, one idea I had for the final project that we eventually rejected was a built-in mattress alarm. Basically, the alarm would go off until you got out of bed. We applied The Young Technique, which involves putting the idea to the side for a while until it naturally comes back to you. When this idea came back, it became clear that the alarm would be better as a sort of pad that went under the mattress instead of being built into the mattress. For one, that would mean the product was transportable and also, it would make it so the product could be sold on its own without either 1) going into the mattress business or 2) getting some sort of contract with a mattress firm.
Sometimes, I had usedparts of these processes without even realizing it. For example, with regards to the concept we eventually decided upon for this class’ final project, I effectively used the SCAMPER method without realizing it.
The SCAMPER method is all about substituting, combining and modifying an already existing product in ways that could either improve the product or make something new altogether. In this case, it was with regards to combing the concept of crowdfunding–particularly microcredit–with payday loans.
Payday loans are infamous for their high rates of interest. Including fees, the APR on a loan is around 400 percent! But if payday loans could be combined with crowdsourcing in a way similar to KIVA.org (which crowdsources small loans for entrepreneurs in the developing world), such debts could be incurred with no interest at all. All that would be required would be for charities, philanthropists or government grants to pick up the operating costs.
That being said, while I used parts of the SCAMPER method by accident in that case, it has become clear that when taking on a project that requires creativity, it is far superior to consciously use a creative process to funnel that energy through than to simply wing it. That key concept along with the elaborations of many such creative processes is the key difference between how I saw and how I now see creativity.
"Every day is a new life to the wise man."
The Righteous Mind
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