Breathing Life Into Good Ideas

Here’s a quiz: Without thinking too hard, how would you finish this sentence?

“Creativity is…”

Until recently my first response has been, “creativity is frivolous.” I’ve long struggled with the mental model that creativity is a pastime you pursue only after finishing your real work.

That view has changed dramatically and I’d like to tell you why.  I’ve come to understand that without creativity, no vision—big or small—will ever be realized.

Creativity comes into play when you’re working to bring about any kind of change: personal growth, forming new habits, starting an organization, or fostering a social movement.

Anything that calls for venturing into new or unknown territory requires creativity.

In his new book, Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg devotes a whole chapter to the creative process. He writes, “For many people…figuring out how to accelerate innovation is among their most important jobs.” That takes creativity.

Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and cofounder of Pixar, takes it further: “We think it (creativity) is something that can be managed poorly or well, and if we get the creative process right, we find innovations faster. But if we don’t manage it right, good ideas are suffocated.”

Let’s explore the idea that getting the creative process right is something to pay attention to.

Think of something you created in the last year. Maybe it’s tangible like a painting, a quilt, designing a garden or redoing a room. Maybe it’s less tangible. You wrote a paper for a course you’re taking. Or you designed and delivered a training event.  Developed a website.

Whatever it was, think about the steps you took from having a vague idea to realization.  Better yet, take out a piece of paper and write down the steps. Note the emotions associated with each step. What it excitement? Pride? Frustration? Discouragement?

Did you encounter obstacles or stuck places? How did you get through them?

What you’re doing right now is mapping your creative process.

“I’m not a creative person,” you protest. Hogwash. If you ever set your sights on bringing to life something that didn’t previously exist, you were engaged in a creative act.  And being aware of your own creative process is important.

In college, I began writing major papers well in advance of their due date.  While not consciously aware of my creative process, I had an instinctive sense that it couldn’t be rushed. That allowing enough time to go through a series of steps ensured the best possible result I could produce. 

Over this past year, I designed and completed my first quilt in a decade. Without realizing it, I followed the same process I’d used to create papers in college. You’ll probably recognize the elements:

Inspiration: The first step was to come up with a theme.  While envisioning the quilt, I was also working on another creative project: to lay out a leadership development framework reflecting major influences on my thinking over the past 30 + years. While doing that, “the ripple effect” came to mind as a theme, so I adopted that for the quilt as well.

Design: After making some initial drawings, I pulled out all my fabric and started the initial selection of fabric that fit the color scheme I had in mind.

Adjust: I had an initial idea of how to construct the quilt that turned out to be beyond my technical capabilities. My technique was just not up to my vision. After several attempts, I resigned myself to using a technique I was familiar with while still holding the vision. The fabric selection was also adjusted repeatedly as the piece came together.

Implement: Even after deciding on a big picture strategy, there were decisions to make as each strip of fabric was added. Strip by strip the quilt was created toward the vision.

Even after the body of the piece was completed, challenges remained. How will I sew the pieces together? What’s the best way to bind it?  New learning was required. I consulted with expert quilters, and examined the construction of quilts I admired. You Tube became a trusted advisor.

Along the way, I experience frustration, confusion, pride, disappointment, excitement and more. I ran into obstacles and needed to move past them. Sometimes I needed a break, then come back a day or week later.

The creative process is applicable to many endeavors. Once you know what your process is, it becomes much easier to plan the journey from inspiration to realization. You can anticipate that there will be detours and stuck places. False starts and adjustments.  And knowing that, you’re in a much better position—as Ed Catmull said—to find innovations faster and to make sure good ideas are not suffocated.

What’s your creative process? How does knowing that help you get past the frustrations and stuck places, to realize your vision no matter what it is?