Keith Sawyer on the eight stages of creativity

In Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, Keith Sawyer suggests that there are eight stages to the creative process. He is convinced by extensive research (including his) that when most organizations conduct brainstorming sessions, it isn’t very effective. Why? Because most of the ideas generated during such sessions are not rigorously evaluated, refined and improved, introduced in prototypical form, refined and improved even more, and only then “taken to market.”

Here are the stages that he explains in detail in his books and articles:

1. Ask: Creativity starts with a penetrating research question, startling vision for a new vision for a new work of art, an urgent business challenge, a predicament in your personal life. Trigger words and phrases are If only, Why, Why not, What if, How to, Why do, Why don’t, etc.

2. Learn: In a creative life, you’re constantly learning, practicing, mastering, becoming an expert. Seek knowledge everywhere you can. You may find it in unlikely sources. Assume nothing.

3. Look: Be constantly, quietly, intently aware. Look but also see, not only what you expect but, better yet, what surprises you. Isaac Asimov is right: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….'”

4. Play: One of the most important, least appreciated stages of the process. The creative life is filled with play — the kind of unstructured activities that children engage in for the sheer joy of it.

5. Think: The creative life is filled with new ideas. Your mind tirelessly generates possibilities. You don’t clamp down although you realize that most will not pan out — at least not for the given objective. Successful creativity is a numbers game: the more the better. The welcome mat must always be out for new ideas.

6. Fuse: Creating minds are always bouncing ideas together, looking for unexpected combinations. Connecting lots of dots, eliminating some and adding others. Successful creativity never comes from only one idea; rather, from a combination of several.

7. Choose: A creative life is lived in balance, held steady by the constant tension between uncritical, wide-open idea generation (brainstorming, done right and critical examination and editing.

8. Make: In the creative life, it’s not enough to just “have” ideas. You need to make the best ideas into a reality. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, “Ideation without execution is hallucination.”

Keith Sawyer agrees with David and Tom Kelley. Creativity is not a mystery. There are proven techniques for enhancing creativity, and they are within anyone‘s reach.

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Keith Sawyer is one of the world’s leading scientific experts on creativity and innovation. In his first job after graduating from MIT, he designed videogames for Atari. He then worked for six years as a management consultant in Boston and New York, advising large corporations on the strategic use of information technology. He’s been a jazz pianist for over 30 years, and performed with several improv theater groups in Chicago, as part of his research into jazz and improvisational theater. Previous to his latest book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, his books include Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and aforementioned Explaining Creativity and he has also published more than 80 scientific articles. Sawyer is a professor of education, psychology, and business at Washington University in St. Louis.

To read my interview of Keith, please click here.

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