Tag Archives: creativity

William Gordon and George Prince: Synectics

Creativity is all about having brilliant new ideas.

Go on… Have one now.

Creative ideas don’t just come to us when we want them. The whole process is mysterious, and cannot be called up on demand. Or can it?

Yes, it can. Or so said William Gordon and George Prince. If you know how to, you can find creative solutions when you need them. And their research into the creative process led them to a methodology still used today: Synectics.

George Prince & William Gordon: Synectics

George Prince & William Gordon

William Gordon

William (Bill) Gordon was born in 1919.He attended the University of Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he graduated. Between 1950 and 1960, Gordon led the Invention Design Group at consulting firm Arthur D Little & Co. He was, himself, a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his name.

Synectics had its origins just after the Second World War. Gordon started studying how individuals and groups act creatively. This became more intensive and systematic, leading to him forming the Invention Design Group within Arthur D Little. There, he helped set up synectics groups within several client companies.

It was while leading this team, that Gordon met future Synectics co-founder, George Prince. With two further colleagues, they left Arthur D Little in 1960 to found Synectics Inc. There they pursued further research, developing and selling their model for how to run a creative process.

Also in that year, Gordon wrote ‘Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity‘.

However, Gordon did not remain at Synectics Inc for long. He left to found Synectics Education Systems, to promote problem‑solving and education based on the use of metaphor.

Gordon died in 2003.

George Prince

George Prince was born in 1918 and grew up in New York State. He attended college at Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, graduating in Geology. The second World War saw him serving as a junior officer in the US Navy, in the North Atlantic.

Upon his return, Prince joined an advertising company in Rochester, where he rose to VP. He then learned of the work of Arthur D Little’s Invention Design Group, led by William Gordon. He joined the Arthur D Little company in the 1950s to be a part of that group.

In 1960, he, Gordon and two other colleagues left Arthur D Little to found Synectics Inc (now Synecticsworld). This company researched, developed and promoted their creative problem-solving methodology, Synectics.

Prince remained with the company for most of his, life, as Chairman. In 1970, he wrote ‘The Practice of Creativity‘, which remains in print. He died in 2009.

Synectics

Synectics is a rich methodology for solving problems creatively. However, the principles are easy to grasp:

  • look for alien concepts and things that seem irrelevant, and join them together.
  • Embrace emotions over intellect, and the irrational over the rational.

In applying these principles, Gordon and Prince assumed that the creative process can be described and then taught to others. They also believed that their process, Synectics, will apply widely to different domains of endeavour and can be used by groups and individuals.

They start with a cycling between the ‘operational world’ of routines and procedures, and the ‘innovation world’ of speculation and experimentation. New solutions become more available as we move out of the reality of the operational world, and increasingly embrace fantasy, metaphor, and absurdity.

The process they articulate is at its simplest:

  1. Articulate the task.
  2. Explore options, generating radical ideas that they called ‘Springboards’.
  3. Select the best idea.  Synectics presumes a preference for newness over feasibility at this stage.
  4. Develop that idea, and how it might work in practice.
  5. Put forward your possible solution.

There is a fuller description of the Synectics Problem Solving Process in an earlier article.

Two ideas stick with me from my learning about Synectics many years ago

The first one is the use of ‘How to…’

I love the way Synectics reframes every problem as ‘how to…’ I like it because it presupposes a solution exists and therefor the problem becomes finding it.

And once a selected idea emerges, the emphasis becomes intensely practical. We work on ‘how to make it work’. We constantly articulate the challenges and problems of implementation as ‘how to…’ Each time we solve this, we can modify the trial solution until, with no further issues, we have a possible solution, worthy of putting to the test in the real world.

The second is ‘In and Out Thinking’

Often, when we are in a meeting  particularly a long one that is trying to solve a problem, our minds wander. We have ideas and thoughts that come from ‘inside’, as well as from the meeting: ‘outside’.

We can make best use of these by dividing our notebook page in two – I like to draw a vertical line. On one side, make notes about what you hear or see in the meeting – the Outside thinking. On the other, note down ideas that come from your own thoughts – the Inside thinking. Often these will be connections or distinctions, but sometimes they are seemingly random thoughts. Seemingly, because they are almost certainly triggered by something, but to you, they seem irrelevant, because you are not aware of the link.

Often, these are your Eureka moments.

Linda Hill: Collective Genius

Linda Hill’s 2011 book, Being the Boss, was rated as one of Wall Street Journal’s 5 books to read in 2011, to build your career. But that work has since been eclipsed by the work Hill has done in collaboration with three colleagues. In this, she looks at how leaders spur innovation. The secret, she finds, is in ‘collective genius’.

Linda Hill

Linda Hill

Very Short Biography

Linda Hill was born in 1957, and attended Bryn Mawr College, where she earned a BA in Psychology. She then went to University of Chicago, to read for her MA in Educational Psychology, which she followed with a PhD in Behavioural Science.

In 1984, Hill joined the staff of the Harvard Business School, as an assistant professor. She became an associate professor in 1991, and full professor in 1995. Since 1997, she has been Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, where she has studied a broad spectrum of management and leadership topics. Her current interests remain centred on leadership, with particular focus on innovation, leading in the 21st century, and the new black business elite of South Africa.

Linda Hill’s Ideas

Becoming a Manager

Hill’s first book was Becoming a Manager (2003). This is a robust guide to taking on a management role, with a strong focus on its challenges within a career context. There is little innovative in it, but it does form a good guide to an important (and under-studied) career point. Hill concludes that a new manager must learn to:

  • Set the strategy and direction for their team
  • Align their people around that direction
  • Motivate and inspire them to achieve their goals

Being the Boss

Being the Boss (2011) is an altogether more substantial contribution, co-written with Kent Lineback. In this, Hill suggest three priorities for leaders:

  1. Managing yourself
  2. Managing your network
  3. Managing your team

So far, so standard. What makes this book stand out is its depth,and the way it gives genuinely valuable pointers to help managers and leaders progress on their journey. It is both thoughtful and practical. This is a book that is filled with pragmatic advice, and has inspired a mandatory module in Harvard’s MBA programme.

Collective Genius

It is Hill’s 2014 book, co-written with three other researchers, that has brought her to prominence as one of the foremost contemporary management thinkers. Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation sets out to explore how leaders can create an innovative culture.

The research, conducted through a series of interviewers with leaders at highly creative organisations, concludes that the traditional image of a visionary leader driving creativity is a false one. Visionaries rarely lead great innovation. Instead, they tend to be the ones who get in its way.

A constant stream of good innovation needs leaders who are ‘social architects’ that can create a culture of collaboration. This means creating a sense of community, that rests on shared values, a clear purpose, and mutually agreed ways of working together. The diagram below illustrates this and is adapted from the book.

Collective Genius - Sense of Community

Collective Genius – Sense of Community

Once the leader has created this shared culture of collaboration, they need to give the groups a chance to discuss, argue, test, experiment and learn from their successes and failures. Crucially, the leader also needs to give ideas long enough to develop, so that evaluation is based on real results, rather than anticipation. In low creativity cultures, leaders select from competing ideas too soon. They reject and lose good ideas that do not seem as likely to thrive, while in their early stages.

Where different ideas are allowed to develop and be tested fully in parallel, decision-making is more robust. The authors identify three leadership abilities, which the leader must also develop within the group:

1. Creative Abrasion

Creating a culture of robust debate and challenge, that will generate the new ideas.

2. Creative Agility

A rapid cycle of test, learn, adjust that values experimentation as the way to optimise.

3. Creative Resolution

A decision-making approach that shuns ‘either-or’ thinking in favour of integrating different and sometimes opposing ideas.

In a fast-moving and complex world, easy solutions will be few and far between. We need a constant supply of new insights into how we can better synthesise subtle and complex solutions, and make wise choices about which to invest in. Many reviewers suggest that every CEO should be reading this book. I just wish it could find its way onto the reading pile of some more senior politicians.

Management Pocketbooks on related topics:

How to Manage for Collective Creativity

Linda Hill speaking at TEDx in 2014.

Frederick Herzberg: KITA versus Enrichment

Frederick Herzberg was a clinical psychologist who saw a gap in the research on workplace psychology and filled it with his convictions about what gives people a sense of wellbeing. This places him amongst other great humanistic psychologists, from Maslow to McGregor. His work was widely influential and his keystone Harvard Business Review article, ‘One More Time: How do you motivate employees?’ remains one of the most widely read of that publication’s reprints.

Frederick Herzberg

Short Biography

Frederick Herzberg was born in Massachusetts in 1923 and grew up in New York, where he attended the City College of New York, initially studying history. Incidentally, Maslow also attended City College. Although he loved history, he found the way it was taught too impersonal and overly-focused on events, so he transferred to psychology. But before he completed his course, he enlisted in the US Army, where he served with distinction as an infantry sergeant. He was among the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp which must have affected him profoundly, not least because he was a Jew whose family had come to the US as emigrants from Lithuania.

After the war, he returned to New York to complete his degree and went on to earn a masters degree and a PhD at the University of Pittsburg. In the mid-1950s, Herzberg worked at the US Public Health Service where he started to become interested in workplace psychology. After surveying all of the existing literature and finding it wanting, he conducted his own research, interviewing over 200 engineers. This work led, in 1959, to his first book, with Bernard Mausner and Barbara B. Snyderman, Motivation to Work. He followed this with his 1966 book, Work and the Nature of Man, in which he extends the same ideas in a more philosophical direction, adopting the metaphor of the characters Adam and Abraham from the Bible.

Herzberg’s earlier academic work was done at Case Western Reserve University, from where he moved to the University of Utah in 1972. He remained there up to his retirement. He died in January 2000.

Herzberg’s Contribution

Our earlier post, What Motivates your Team Members?, summarises Herzberg’s Hygeine and Motivation theory. He discovered that the things that leave us dissatisfied at work are different from those which satisfy us. Fixing the dissatisfiers (or ‘hygiene factors’) will only stop us being grumpy. Other things motivate us positively and Herzberg argued that employers should stop trying to use the granting and withholding of hygiene factors (which he colourfully described in his HBR article as giving employees a Kick in the Ass – KITA) and start working on the positive, aspirational motivators that enrich our lives. He was an early advocate of engaging employees and bringing the best out of them.

Indeed, Herzberg catalogued what he saw as essential in bringing out creativity and innovation from your team:

  1. intelligence
  2. expertise
  3. an unconventional viewpoint
  4. effectiveness in ambiguity
  5. self awareness
  6. separating motivation from hygiene factors
  7. controlling anxiety
  8. suppressing over-concern for advancement
  9. accessing intuition
  10. passion

Ultimately, Herzberg had an individualistic view of workplace success, ascribing more significance to personal talents and attitudes than to team efforts. He drew a balance between the attitudes and talents that eschewed simplistic egalitarianism, in favour of offering primacy to individuals with more relevant knowledge and expertise. But he also wanted to create a balance between a focus on data and fact on the one hand, with passion and experience on the other.

He taught us, as much or more than anyone else, that the simple approach of carrot and stick brings little more than ‘okay’ performance out of people. It is virtuous behaviours that enrich a workplace, which create great results.

Edward de Bono: Thinking

I have already declared my interest as a fan of Edward de Bono in the 2012 blog: The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono, which I followed up with Six times Four: More de Bono. Now it is time for a slightly wider survey of the work of the man who introduced the term ‘lateral thinking’ and who has been trying to teach business people, governments, student and their teachers to think for nearly half a century.

Edward de Bono

Short Biography

Edward de Bono was born in Malta in 1933, the second of four sons of a doctor father and journalist mother, and was an exceptionally bright pupil at his Malta boarding school. He was three years younger than his class-mates when he got his degree in medicine from Malta University and went off to study psychology and physiology at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he also earned a DPhil in medicine. This was followed by slew of further degrees and academic appointments, that leave him, technically, Dr Dr Dr Dr (Dr) de Bono. I may have mis-counted and I have bracketed his first qualification as a medical doctor, as that was not an academic doctorate. I think we can conclude that Edward de Bono is both intelligent and academically motivated.

In 1967, he published the first of his popular books on thinking, the now out of print The Use of Lateral Thinking. This book introduced the world to his idea of ‘lateral thinking’ – a term that de Bono coined. His books now number around 60, of which the current most popular are:

De Bono has also created online thinking skills programmes and the CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) programme for teaching thinking to school-age children.

De Bono’s Contribution to Managers and Business Professionals

I think this is where de Bono has clearly been at his best and least controversial. Many of his techniques and training programmes have provided business people, public service managers and other professionals with practical and helpful tools to enhance their critical thinking and creative thinking skills. Like any creative powerhouse, de Bono has produced easily as many ideas that have not gained widespread use as he has lasting ideas. But we should judge him on the latter.

Lateral Thinking

This term is now so widely used that de Bono’s original meaning has been largely subsumed into the wider context of ‘creative thinking’. By ‘Lateral Thinking’, I believe de Bono originally meant perceiving the world in different ways, so that your thinking about a problem can pursue lateral branches, rather than following the main route that is obvious to it. It therefore means looking for new starting points for addressing a problem – an implicit assumption that existing patterns of thought rarely solve new problems effectively.

Provocation

A central theme of a lot of de Bono’s books on creative thinking is the idea that provocative assertions stimulate lateral jumps in our thinking. De Bono crystallised this idea in his (now out of print) book Po: Beyond Yes and No. By analysing the provocation (or ‘Po’), we can reach new and possibly fruitful insights.

PMI Analysis

Another key theme of de Bono’s work, including Po, is that the dichotomies of yes versus no, or right versus wrong, or good versus bad, lead us into linear thinking that is poor at identifying new ideas or thinking in a rich and subtle way. Arguably de Bono’s single most powerful tool is PMI analysis, which can get you over that problem.

It takes its inspiration from Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis approach (which, incidentally, leads directly to SWOT Analysis). But instead of looking at the driving and restraining forces, or the strengths and weakness alone, PMI analysis asks us to look at the Pluses, the Minuses and the things that are Interesting about a situation, option or challenge. This third dimension opens your mind to the subtleties and to new ideas.

Six Thinking Hats

We covered this idea more fully in an earlier blog, but the essence of the concept is simple: that there are different ways to think and that we will solve problems more effectively and make more robust decisions, when we apply multiple modes of thinking, rather than a single, favourite style. The six thinking hats represent six modes: analytical, risk-averse, constructive, imaginative, emotional, and procedural thinking (white, black, yellow, green, red and blue hats respectively).

Controversies

De Bono’s work is not without its critics – even his ‘mainstream’ contributions. Many cognitive scientists have critiqued the lack of evidence base for the efficacy of his methods and programmes – which matters deeply where the teaching of children is concerned, as for his CoRt programme. However, I am not qualified to assess these arguments. It does seem to me that there is a dichotomy here between the theoretical/academic assessment and the practical/utilitarian usage. His ideas as an addition to other training and teaching make a useful contribution to thinking skills for many people. There is plenty of testimony to support that assertion, even if the rigorous evidence base is lacking.

So, as with so much else in the world of management ideas, the proof is in the practical application: take de Bono’s ideas out for a test drive, and decide whether they are for you. If they help you: use them. If they do not: consign them to the bookshelf, and take them to the charity shop, next time you are passing. Maybe, if you donate one of de Bono’s books that I don’t own, I may well buy it!

 

 

Walt Disney: Vision and Dreams

It’s Christmas in two days (from publication of this blog). So who could be a more appropriate management thinker than…

Walt Disney was perhaps the most visionary business leader of the twentieth century. He grew a simple cartoon character into a vast empire, which sells one thing: dreams

Walt DisneyBrief Biography

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901, in Chicago, but he grew up on a farm in Missouri. From the earliest age, he was constantly sketching.When the family returned to Chicago while Disney was in his teens, he focused his education on drawing, and studied art in the evenings.

During the First World War, Disney was keen to serve, but failed to demonstrate that he was old enough. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and, at the close of the war, drove ambulances in France. After the war, he had several attempts to create a career from cartooning, and taught himself to make animated films  quickly discovering that painted transparent cels gave better effects than cut-outs. After one failed business (that failed by paying its animators more than he could sell the films for) he moved to Hollywood and, with his brother Roy, set up Disney Brothers Studio.

He continued to innovate technically, basing his technique on his earlier discovery and artistically, inventing his stand-out character creation Mickey (originally Mortimer) Mouse who featured in the world’s first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, in 1928. The next innovation was to use Technicolour for cartoons, with the Silly Symphonies series, but the big hit was when Disney placed $2 million at hazard – a huge amount in the middle of The Great Depression – by making the first ever full length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This won an oscar for the Best Picture (actually, one oscar and seven mini oscars – another first) and labelled Disney as a creative genius. More animated movies followed, all now seen as classics: Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Then came the war and a series of animated propaganda movies that it is hard – if not impossible – to find copies of.

After the war, the stream of feature movies resumed, but Disney also turned his attention to a new vision: theme parks. First came the Disneyland Theme Park in Anaheim, California, followed by Disney World in Florida, opened in 1971, five years after Disney’s death in 1966.

Lessons for Managers

By all accounts, Disney was a flawed manager at best, frequently leaving contributions unacknowledged and imposing arbitrary rules without exception. Not all his rules were arbitrary, however – the injunction against swearing upheld the wholesome brand image, and not all were without exception – Disney did not impose his rule against facial hair for men upon himself.

What we can learn are 5 valuable lessons.

1. Vision means Vision

We all too often read or hear a company’s vision statement. All to rarely do they have any sense of vision: of visual impact. Disney constantly used imagery to illustrate what he could see, to help others to see it too. Famously, Roy Disney commented that, on the completion of Disney World, Walt Disney had already seen it when he died, even though it was far from completion.

2. Vision is nothing without Drive

Visionary he may have been, but Disney also had the determination, tenacity, and at times ruthlessness to make his vision a reality. It is also worth mentioning how uncompromising he was in ruthlessly demanding the very best work from his artistic staff.

3. Less is More

It seems an odd comment to make of the man who invented feature length cartoons, but the sheer amount of ideas that Disney abandoned in every one of the films he personally oversaw was staggering. In modern times, they would have filled a box set of DVD extras. And much of it was extremely good – just not good enough for Disney.

4. Protect the Brand Values

Everything Disney did – and much of what it still does – is to protect his vision of what the Disney brand means: dreams. Where modern managers and artistic directors have strayed, huge rows have ensued. As the father of a young girl, the power of Disney to evoke wonder seems to me to be as great today as it ever was.

5. Creativity is Hard Work

Disney and his teams worked hard at being creative. It was a constant struggle of ideas, discussions and culling of anything less than the very best. And then more ideas, more discussion and more culling. Disney the dreamer was half of a split personality. The other half was Disney the critic.

If you are interested in Creativity, you might like:

Susan Cain: Introvert

Susan Cain took the world by [quiet] storm at the start of 2012, with the publication of her her book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. It won many plaudits and quickly became (and remains in autumn 2014) an international best-seller. In it are some gems that can transform the world of managerial and professional work radically.

Susan Cain

Brief Biography

Susan Cain (formerly Devenyi) was born in New York, in 1968 and grew up loving reading.  So it seems little surprise that she took a degree in English at Princeton. She followed this with Harvard Law School, where she graduated with a doctoral degree in 1993. This led her to practise corporate law on Wall Street in the firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, representing blue chip corporations.

She put her commercial experience to use in co-founding the Downing Street Group, a strategic research and consulting firm, and founding The Negotiation Company. In the latter, she was making good use not only of her experience as a practising attorney, but also of having studied negotiation intensively while at Harvard Law School, with Roger Fisher, author of the seminal book on the subject, Getting to Yes.

But she wanted (needed?) a quieter life, so took seven years to write and research her best-selling book. Now, ironically, she has become a major public figure, much in demand as a speaker (her TED talk, which you can watch below, is one of their most watched ever with approaching 10 million views).

More recently, she has also established ‘The Quiet Revolution’. In her 2014 TED talk (not yet available online) she announced three objectives:

  1. Transforming office architecture to make offices once again a place where extroverts can flourish and where everyone can gain some solitude and quiet thinking time (‘hurrah!’ he says from his quiet office).
  2. Helping companies train the next generation of quiet leaders. A lot of her book is about the strengths of introverts and the power of quiet reflection to deliver better leadership.
  3. Empowering quiet children. Creating the tools that will allow schools to give introverted children the same opportunities to thrive as extroverts.

What is Introversion?

Introverts are not necessarily shy. Cain describes shyness as: ‘the fear of social disapproval or humiliation’. Introversion, on the other hand, is a preference for quiet, low stimulation environments. Introverts like to have time to themselves, to be with their thoughts.

Compare introverts with the opposite end of the scale: extroverts. Extroverts crave stimulation; especially from social situations. Note, however, that neither you nor I are either an introvert or an extrovert. We all lie somewhere on the scale from a arbitrary archetype of introversion to an equivalent extreme of extroversion. And, in the middle, lie ambiverts. These are people who are equally comfortable in stimulating social environments and in quiet private spaces.

Here is Cain’s description of the two types:

‘Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.’

Cain describes introverts living in a world that puts a premium on extroversion as being like ‘second class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent’.

Introverts are compelled to spend a lot of their time in ways that they would prefer to avoid, and therefore find it hard to be at their most creative and productive.

Creativity and Solitude

Cain’s research has led her to conclude that most creative people are introverts. The short video, below Cain’s TED talk at the foot of this blog, shows just how true this is of author, John Irving. His description of himself in the first half is clearly one of an introvert and has great similarities with Cain’s description of herself at a young age.

She goes further. Solitude, she asserts, is vital for the creative process. At the end of her TED talk, whilst acknowledging the value of collaboration, she says: ‘Let’s stop the madness of constant group work.’

In the book, she cites studies that show that performance diminishes as group size increases: bigger groups generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to smaller groups. She quotes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham as saying that  ‘evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups.’  Her conclusion is stark:

‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

Transforming Office Architecture

This extends to the way we organise offices. I recall hating open plan offices, and it seems I am far from alone. Research in many industries all points in the same direction. Open-plan offices reduce productivity,  impair memory, and increase staff turnover. Ironically, they diminish the quality of communication, decreasing motivation, increasing hostility and stress, and leading to more sickness and absence.

What is the solution if you are stuck in an open plan office? Mine has always been to seek refuge when I need to think: in meeting rooms, in foyers (ironically – in fact they tend to be fairly isolating) and in coffee shops.


Susan Cain setting out a summary of quiet in an astonishing TED talk in 2012.

And here is author John Irving speaking of himself in very similar terms.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: In the Flow

 

Pronounciation: Me-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee

 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a US psychologist at forefront of the field of positive psychology; the study of human strengths and how we can have a happy, flourishing life.

His research into flow states has made a famous figure among specialists and interested general readers alike, with several books including his two best-sellers: Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

Brief Biography

Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.

Flow, in a Nutshell

Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:

  1. The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
  2. The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
  3. The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels

For more details on Flow, see our earlier blog: Flow and Performance Management.

Contribution to Management Thinking

It would be easy to write a long blog about Csikszentmihalyi’s contributions to positive psychology, but from a management perspective, I want to focus on his work on creativity, in documented in his book: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:

  1. Preparation
    Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
  2. Incubation
    Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
  3. Insight
    The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
  4. Evaluation
    Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
  5. Elaboration
    Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.

This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.

What does this mean for managers?

If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:

  1. You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
  2. You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
  3. You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
  4. You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED

Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…