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What Is Directed Creativity?
By: Paul Plsek

Definition: Directed creativity is the purposeful production of creative ideas in a topic area, followed up by deliberate effort to implement some of those ideas.

Many people incorrectly assume that creative thinking is a special gift, bestowed on only a few. While it is true that we rarely see the extraordinary creativity of an Edison or Einstein, modern research from the fields of the cognitive sciences indicates that the ability to generate innovative ideas for change in our work is a common “gift” that we all possess.

So Why Don't We See More Creative Ideas?

The problem is that while we have the ability to think in new patterns, our minds are optimized to think with existing patterns. Our minds take in inputs from the world through the sub-processes of perception, and then retrieve patterns from memory (i.e., our past experiences) to make sense of these inputs. We don't even need the whole pattern or a perfect match; our minds are flexible enough to provide an explanation for the world with all its variety.

This flexible, pattern-matching mechanism gives us many human abilities that we take for granted. For example, it enables a good automotive repair technician to quickly zero-in on a problem in a car based on an initial review of the situation. The technician has seen the pattern of failure before and, therefore, has a good idea of the underlying breakdown.

We call this natural mental ability “experience.” The mental mechanism is the same whether we are preparing a budget or just trying to get out of bed in the morning. We use the past experiences stored in our memory as a guide for how to proceed forward.

But, while this flexible, pattern-matching system is great for both doing the repetitive tasks of daily life and for coping with uniqueness in situations, it is not optimal when we want creative ideas.

By definition, a creative idea is an original, novel thought (at least, it is novel in the setting in which it is being applied). For example, the zip-lock storage bag was a novel idea when it was first introduced. Who had ever heard of putting a zipper on a plastic bag?! Food storage bags are supposed to be closed by tying or using a metal twist; aren't they? The zip-lock storage bag did not match any existing pattern in the minds of people at the time.

The point is that creative thinking requires that we think in a new direction; away from or beyond our current mental patterns (tying or twisting the bag closed) towards some new pattern (a zipper!).

Isn't It Enough to Just Tell People to “Think Outside the Box?”

When we need a creative idea, it does little good to tell ourselves and others to just “think harder,” simply “suspend judgment” (as in brainstorming), or merely “be playful.” While it is indeed helpful to think hard, suspend judgment, and be playful during creative thinking, these simple suggestions fall short by failing to provide a new direction for our thinking. We may find that we are only able to come up with small variations on the mental patterns we already have. And, by definition, if our ideas are simply variations on existing mental patterns, they will not be considered novel.

This understanding of the mechanics of mind is the key behind DirectedCreativity--creativity on demand. Directed creativity involves using specific techniques to perceive things freshly, break free of the current patterns stored in memory, make novel associations among concepts stored in memory, and use judgment to develop rather than reject new ideas.




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