There is no one way to be creative.

Published on May 1, 2021

There are lengthy cultural debates about what it is to be creative and what is not. So let's get this straight out: Creativity is creating something. Being creative is creating something.

While this is factually right, it feels wrong. Doesn't it? Sometimes, this definition is amended by the notion of "creating something useful and new". But it doesn't change our gut feeling about it. I wondered, and luckily many bright minds before, why we have such a hard time accepting this broad definition of creativity?

It might be due to a cultural clash. One of the long traditions of arts and creativity in Europe vs. a self-proclaimed young culture in North America (and in this case being utterly ignorant to Native culture, I'm sorry) promotes that "everyone is creative".

In Europe, over centuries, we developed a cultural habit of creativity that includes an aesthetic-artistic component. Prof. Dr. Andreas Reckwitz, professor of cultural sociology at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder, wrote in his book "The Invention of Creativity":

Creativity in late modern times involves a contradictory doubling of the desire for creativity and the creativity imperative, of subjective desire and social expectation: one wants to be creative and is supposed to be.

What does creativity mean here? Creativity contains a double meaning: On the one hand, it refers to the ability and the reality of dynamically bringing forth the new. Creativity prefers the new to the old, the deviant to the standard, the different to the same. This bringing forth of the new is not thought of as a one-time act but as something that happens again and again and in perpetuity.

On the other hand, creativity refers to a model of the "creative person" that ties it back to the modern figure of the artist, to the artistic and aesthetic as a whole. It is about more than a purely technical production of innovations, but about the sensual and affective excitement through the produced new. The aesthetic novel is associated with vitality and experimentation, and its producer appears as a creatively analog to the artist.

I found this social description of creativity very valuable and on point. When thinking of creativity, we think of a romanticized version of the creative genius whose whole lifestyle is about producing something new, unique and unimaginable. While at the same time, we're asked to be creative while sitting in a brainstorming meeting on innovative solutions for a call-to-action. It might feel a little ordinary.

In this setting, we're confronted with creativity that simply wants us to do things differently; that's Reckwitz's imperative. And the desire – maybe even admiration – for creative artistic work devalues our own moment of creative work.

This contradiction reminds me of a Design Thinking workshop we led with participants from a banking environment. Asking about expectations from the workshop, their idea of creativity was infused with rebellion (not wearing a suit and tie! starting late at 10 am!) and a child-like approach to self-expression (making bad scribbles! in many colors! with our hands!). While the first part of our workshop came quite close to fulfilling these expectations, they were disappointed by the latter part that was all about pushing out ideas and variations.

For this series, I want to introduce you to a model of creativity that comes closest to my perception: The Williams Taxonomy. It was created by Frank E. Williams, an educational psychologist, and introduced in 1969 as a model for measuring giftedness. It includes eight skill levels to describe a hierarchical order of creative thinking.

Cognitive (Thinking)

1. Fluency, the generation of many ideas, answers, responses, possibilities to a given situation/problem;
2. Flexibility, the generation of alternatives, variations, adaptations, different ideas/solutions/options;
3. Originality, the generation of new, unique and novel responses/solutions;
4. Elaboration, the expansion, enlargement, enrichment or embellishment of ideas to make it easier for others to understand or make it more interesting;

Affective (Feeling)

5. Risk-taking, experimenting, trying new challenges;
6. Complexity, the ability to create structure out of chaos, to bring logical order to a given situation and/or to see the missing parts (👀);
7. Curiosity, the ability to wonder, ponder, contemplate or puzzle;
8. Imagination, the ability to fantasize, build mental pictures, visualize possibilities and new things or reach beyond practical limits.

Compared to other models, I appreciate the division into cognitive and affective skills. It gives orientation to where we are and which creative possibilities lie ahead of us. Because, to be honest, what we achieve in creative workshop sessions* is cognitive creativity on the first two levels of fluency ("write anything that comes to mind! no judgment!") and flexibility (e.g., by applying a method like Crazy 8s). If the workshop was successful, you might even leave with an original idea.

by that, I mean design thinking or sprint workshop where participants mostly have day jobs that don't require constant creative output ( in contrast to copywriters, creative concept developers, art directors, creative coders)

We promise that everyone is and can be creative in this workshop setting, which is true and in itself great! But in the end, we're satisfied with a bunch of random ideas after slightly dipping our toes into creativity. We don't acknowledge the individual levels of creative thinking within the group and celebrate reaching the bare minimum.

At the same time, participants have different expectations of being creative. Thinking about the works they appreciate, from arts and culture but maybe also a best practice they'd like to come close to at least.

Coming back to Reckwitz, there lies the contradiction and also disappointment with innovation culture. People want to be creative and have to be creative, but we need to be more transparent of what we can achieve in a certain setting and set the expectations straight.