The Art and Theater of Getting Creative

Published on July 28th, 2011

Innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, unbounded thinking, lateral thought, design thinking—all terms that have gone into and out of fashion, but which hold the same goal—unconventional and novel approaches to problem solving. Everyone is trying to find the new twist and harness the insight and innovation contained within their organizations in order to better prosper amid today’s competition and uncertainty.

With every new label there seems to be a wave of interest, speculation and further inquiry into how one goes about making both individuals and groups more effective at creatively tackling challenges to arrive at novel solutions. However, today’s challenge isn’t coming up with what to call ‘it,’ but how to quickly and effectively set the foundation for discovery and insight—cognitively, emotionally and cooperatively within groups.

To me, and I’m sure many of my colleagues in academia and in the design profession, all the focus on labeling is counterproductive and confusing. It also seems ironic since there is so much we’ve already learned about personal and individual psychology that are universal drivers of behavior, and much that has been learned about innovation from the world around us—military forces in times of conflict, great sports teams confronting a nemesis or the thousands of survival-based adaptations nature has conjured through evolution.

Innovative and novel approaches to problems are everywhere and the riddle no more complex than in the past. Thirty years of practice has left me an ardent believer that both social and individual psychological principles must be understood and managed, and the emotional stage set, for the ‘spontaneous magic’ of professional groups to be realized effectively. It is not just about setting the cognitive stage. I’ve come to realize that innovation and creativity is about replicable, meaningful preparation, then bringing expertise to bear while directing creative energy effectively—with inspiration, purpose and diplomacy.

Creativity is sometimes an individual sport, but seldom, and so aspects of group dynamics must frequently also be managed. To use a simple metaphor, setting the stage for creativity within professional organizations and teams is a lot like a theatrical production in both its preparation and execution, and might best be understood in the context of four principle stages: casting, stage building, rehearsal and performance. I’ll attempt to illustrate key aspects to consider while using this broad analogy.

An effective director must assemble a cast appropriate for the script.


An effective director must assemble a cast appropriate for the script. When casting in business I’d highly recommended hiring based on five measures to ensure you have a truly meaningful performance—intellect, technical skills, creative aptitude, work ethic and EI or ‘emotional intelligence.’ This is because you need folks with the necessary skills and intelligence as well as introspection and empathic abilities. The ability to empathize—to see the world from viewpoints of others—is a critical first step in the ability to attack a given challenge from new perspectives. While IQ measures spatial and algebraic reasoning, verbal comprehension, information and memory, EI is a function of being able to perceive, use, understand and manage emotions—to detect and decipher, harness, comprehend, appreciate, describe and regulate them.

So, to get to creative and insightful, first establish empathy within your organizations and become more comfortable with qualitative findings rather than quantitative data. While data can provide meaning, direction and analysis many of my most insightful discoveries were borne of qualitative and emotional observations. To be truly empathetic I’ve also found you need to find fellow cast members who can check their egos at the door; in stage parlance: ‘No divas!’ Although Darwin identified the importance of emotional expression to survival and adaptation more than a century ago, and pioneering minds for decades have been describing concepts of social intelligence, intra-personal intelligence, etc., few people today spend considerable time selecting employees based on their emotional expertise.

This is odd for organizations concerned with radical discovery because self-awareness helps participants intelligently use feelings to guide cognitive decisions, self-management helps with adapting to change, social awareness is essential to understanding consumer’s needs and aspirations, and relationship management skills help participants better understand how to inspire and influence throughout the consumer engagement process. A final thought about ‘casting’ is the importance of diversity and international perspective.

Having team members who possess deep cultural knowledge, socio-economic differences and international perspectives can help ensure insights are actionable once obtained. A global perspective and diverse cultural knowledge also helps other team members exercise empathetic exploration, generally because of the authentic narrative they’re able to share, which becomes essential when encountering radically new challenges and opportunities. This is because insights about future implementation cannot be understood effectively in a globalized marketplace without possessing deep knowledge about cultural perceptions, attitudes and priorities.

As with any great performance, the main role of stage building is to create an immersive environment and setting the stage for creativity.

Stage Building

As with any great performance, the main role of stage building is to create an immersive environment and setting the stage for creativity. During the past 25 years of progressive experimentation, I’ve come to realize the benefits of building highly immersive visual environments during collaborations or brainstorms. During this time we’ve increasingly used visual research summaries to help teams better understand the competitive environment, consumer needs and desires, strategic opportunity zones and brand perceptions.

Another aspect of developing the scenery and environment for creative participation is that it helps retain focus on strategic objectives. Beyond setting the visual environments, stage building is also critically involved with setting the cognitive and emotional stage for participants. We’ve found exploring psychological principles helps generate understanding of new tools and purpose, generate receptivity to new approaches and ambiguity, and develops presence and purpose among participants.

By reframing dimensions of analysis, you can even help implement frameworks that support cognitive and political ‘risk taking.’ I find the greatest creative tragedy is when a creative and novel approach is conceived but not conveyed, and this can really help alleviate participant apprehension. When developing a creative solution that will ultimately need to be embraced by consumers (most business offerings), remembering their perspective is typically more valuable and often more insightful than a client’s or managers.

It becomes critical to understand the key attractors and steps by which their engagement will be established and compelled—What will attract, engage and reward them, and will the solution fulfill the promises it makes and implies? I’ve found in the field of product development, that simply going through this quick exercise can often help determine whether a novel idea is appropriately timed for consumer adoption, while guiding other aspects of implementation.

Rehearsal is the appropriate stage to
teach new analysis methodologies and
tools for discovering insight.


During rehearsal, casts are instructed and challenged. At the same time, performers learn their lines and prepare emotionally to get into character. Once again, creativity isn’t so different. People also have the ability to tackle problems more creatively when given the opportunity to practice without fear and when imbued with a good understanding of their intended audience. It is often necessary during rehearsal for a good director to teach, then scaffold the performance sought. Likewise, rehearsal is the appropriate stage to teach new analysis methodologies and tools for discovering insight.

Every good theatrical director first tries to build the team, then examines his/her production to ensure that emotional engagement is present on many levels, and there is a reason for that. Psychology and emotion are universal—transcending cultures, language, customs, religions and politics—and a valuable lens through which to reach consumers and/or audiences. The success of every great production is also dependent on word of mouth, which won’t be realized without making a powerful and positive emotional connection with initial audiences. It isn’t so different when launching a new product or service these days.

Word of mouth is the essential component that will drive adoption and advocacy through social media outlets like Facebook. Another main aspect of preparing for the performance is getting into character and finding one’s voice. For creativity this means helping folks step outside their own experiences, and I’ve learned to implement a number of frameworks that help participants translate key insights into objective 3rd person positions. This further helps alleviate the political realities of business brainstorming by empowering expression without ownership.

Also, by forcing new perspectives and analysis techniques that introduce change and ambiguity, you’ll encourage rigorous dialogue, which helps break down barriers and assumptions.

  • At the end of the day, rehearsal should contribute the following to the process of creativity: Understanding by participants of objectives, tools, context and purpose— for empowerment.
  • Embracing changes to analysis/methodologies which help reframe problem solving.
  • Acceptance of uncertainty/ambiguity and receptivity to new processes.
It is important during this ‘creative emergence’ stage to let the magic happen by
directing a bit but providing
the latitude to let the performers perform.

Performance (Creative Emergence)

Now that both social and individual psychological principals have been well engaged and managed and the emotional stage set, the ‘spontaneous magic’ of professional groups can now be realized much more effectively. As with a well prepared cast, brainstorms executed at this stage are remarkably creative, innovative, empathetic, inclusive and purpose-driven.

While most performances will carry some level of apprehension, being immersed into character, having visually stimulating sets and knowing your fellow performers’ strengths all help to lessen these nerves. It is the same with harnessing purpose-driven creative sessions. It is important during this ‘creative emergence’ stage to let the magic happen by directing a bit but providing the latitude to let the performers perform.

I’ve found the following to be effective ways to direct or conduct the ‘performance':

  • Focus on getting the best energy, honesty and projection from your ‘cast;’ so spend time making necessary preparations and stimuli based on knowledge of the personal strengths and dynamics.
  • Adapt to the ‘audience’ (intended consumer/recipient) by framing the business and competitive dynamics of the particular challenge, by understanding critical aspects of development and marketing and by exploring implementation issues.
  • Analyze any solution through the lens of the intended consumer first, then examine the offering in context of competitors, the business environment and brand. The process and lens analysis forces questions of desirability, feasibility and engagement, while forcing examination beyond the purchase to motivate repeat business and viral marketing. Remember steering group dynamics and participation involves facilitating, probing and enabling the creative energy to vacillate between stretching the possibilities and retention of feasibility.

[Fast Company]

Innovative and novel approaches to
problems are everywhere and the riddle
no more complex than in the past.

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