Creative ideas tend to be unpredictable. They come in a flash, while you’re in the shower, as you’re waiting for the lights to change, in the middle of a dull conversation at the office party. If those moments have anything in common, it’s that they’re usually times when you’re far away from your iPhone’s note-taking app, or even a pen and paper. In theory, that shouldn’t matter. Good ideas should stick around while bad concepts fade away, but the idea itself is only one part of a creative process that leads from inspiration to IPO. You also have to figure out whether your bolt from the blue really is as revolutionary as it looks, whether there’s demand for it, and whether there’s a real way to make it work. Psychologists and gurus have produced creative models to guide entrepreneurs through that process, entrepreneurs themselves have invented their own… and some of them might just be helpful.
Creative models have actually been around for a while. One of the oldest was created by Graham Wallas, a Fabian and social psychologist who wrote The Art of Thought in the 1920s. Wallas, who isn’t known to have actually brought any products to market himself, described creativity as a four-step process made up of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. Creative thinkers begin by defining the issue, he says, then they lay it aside for a while, a new idea pops out, then finally, they check to make sure it’s all going to work.
It’s a model that includes a mixture of rational analysis and spontaneous inspiration, an approach that’s turned up frequently ever since. The Creative Problem Solving Model, for example, which was developed in the 1950s and taught at the Creative Education Foundation, has a six-step model that’s been conveniently shortened into the acronym “OFPISA.” That stands for Objective Finding, Fact Finding, Problem Finding, Idea Finding, Solution Finding, and Acceptance Finding. It all sounds very rational but the problem and idea-finding stages actually involve the kind of blue-shy thinking more usually associated with creative types.
Successful Creativity Requires Imagination and Evaluation
In general, says Paul Plesk, author of Creativity, Innovation, and Quality and founder of DirectedCreativity.com, earlier creative models tend to suggest that creative ideas are gifts from the heavens, while newer models imply that it’s possible to squeeze out the inspiration in an act of directed free will. Just about all the models though agree that the creative process should combine analysis with imagination and evaluation — and that thinkers have to take action too.
And perhaps that’s where these models first run into trouble. While it’s easy to find lots of great concepts growing and doing well in the business world, it’s much harder to spot the ones that developed according to a set model. The sources of inspiration for the biggest successes are often accidental (such as penicillin mold growing on a tray of bacteria, and ruining it), or imitative (such as Facebook, which was either inspired by Harvard’s own face books that showed students’ photos, or a copy of an idea described by Mark Zuckerberg’s classmates.)
In practice, the concept will often be a result of need while the process of implementation will be inspired by chance. Inventor James Dyson, for example, felt the need for a different kind of vacuum cleaner when he realized what professional cleaners have known for years: that conventional types just don’t work. As they suck up dust, the dirt clogs the bag and they stop sucking. The idea of using cyclonic separation to pull out the dust though, came from the cyclones that Dyson already had installed in his Ballbarrow factory.
Having created one reasonably successful product, Dyson should have had a model to copy in order to create his next one. In his case though, that model didn’t work. Manufacturers refused to take the new machines and Dyson had to produce the vacuum cleaner himself – a model that worked fine for the vacuum cleaner, which is now the highest-selling model by value in the US, but which failed when used to develop a washing machine. While the implementation process was sound, the idea of using two drums instead of one wasn’t, and his concept had to be abandoned.
Twitter Has Millions of Creative Thinkers
That might suggest that there’s a limit to the degree to which you can model a creative process that leads to success. Getting it right once doesn’t mean that you can follow the same steps to achieve success the next time, and that’s particularly true of the latest model pioneered by smart entrepreneurs. Twitter’s growth has been revolutionary not only for its speed and the way it’s changing the way strangers meet and communicate, but because it provides perhaps the only example of a crowdsourced creative model. Addressing a NESTA innovation conference in London recently, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, described the company as followers rather than leaders, paving the paths already created by the site’s users. Other commentators have suggested that Twitter’s founders invented the bat and ball, left them in a park and returned a week later to find that the world had invented baseball. The new retweet feature, for example, was produced in reaction to the way that users were sharing information rather than as a planned feature of the site handed down to an eager market.
The system was created quickly — in less than two weeks — and was influenced partly by co-founder Jack Dorsey’s experience writing software for a dispatch firm and partly by boredom with the project they were supposed to be working on. Certainly, the site has come a long way from its less-than-visionary beginnings and, with a billion dollar valuation, it’s developed into the kind of success that gets everyone in Silicon Valley dreaming.
But it’s not a model for a creative process that’s going to be easy to copy. Put an idea out there to see what people do with it is usually going to deliver not millions of people to do the creative thinking for you, but stasis, confusion and failure.
Perhaps the best creative model then is the one that lies at the heart of every commercial success from the light bulb to microblogging: have a good idea and implement it.