by Stefan Mumaw
Two conditions must exist for creativity to be possible: purpose and restriction. A problem (purpose) needs solving, and an obstacle or obstacles need to be overcome to solve it (restrictions). Without both conditions, creativity is not possible. One cannot live without the other, and the severity of either provides the fertile ground needed for creativity to thrive.
There is an implicit third condition that must also exist for creativity to be present: action. From problem design to idea fulfillment, action ensures that you are keeping the core “create” in “creative."
Duncker’s Candle Problem
In 1945, Clark University Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker published a cognitive performance test known as Duncker’s Candle Problem. In an effort to measure the influence of functional fixedness (using an object in only the way it was designed to be used) on a participant’s problem-solving capabilities, Duncker gave test participants three objects: a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. He then gave them these instructions: Fix a lit candle to the wall in a way so that the candle won’t drip wax on the floor or table below.
It’s easy to see the creative possibilities in this exercise. Duncker had what he deemed as “the solution” in mind, and he wanted to see if his test participants could do the one thing they’d need to do to solve the problem: see the box of tacks as multiple objects, not just one. Specifically, he wanted to see how many participants would see and use the actual box. The solution that he designed was to empty the cardboard box of thumbtacks, tack the box to the wall, and place the lit candle in the box. The cognitive bias of functional fixedness infers that people are conditioned to see and use objects for their primary purpose only. Therefore, seeing the box as a separate and usable instrument rather than just a carrier of thumbtacks was the real challenge he was testing.
Some attempted to partially melt the candle in an effort to create an adhesive that could be used to fix the candle to the wall (unsuccessfully). Others developed alternative and considerably more direct methods of tacking the candle to the wall (again, unsuccessfully). Few were able to produce the solution Duncker was expecting.
In subsequent studies, alterations to the conditions were introduced to test their effects on reaching the intended solution. Most notably, removing the tacks from the box and presenting the box as a separate object rather than a container for the tacks produced nearly perfect results. Even small changes to the wording of the problem had drastic effects. Presenting the objects as a box and tacks rather than a box of tacks or underlining the words candle, box, tacks, book, and matches had a significantly positive effect on the solutions.
Although the exercise was obviously designed to test the effect of functional fixedness, an important lesson should be learned from the test: Creativity has requirements.
Problem Contraction and Expansion
To understand the idea of purpose, you must grasp a basic understanding of problem contraction and expansion. Every problem can be fine-tuned to provide optimal conditions for creativity to thrive. Some problems need to be contracted, and some problems need to be expanded. As an analogy, think of making balloon animals. To effectively fuse together balloons of different lengths and sizes, balloon animal artists must fill balloons with varying amounts of air. Some balloons are filled halfway to allow for more slack when they tie them to other balloons. Some are filled with more air to expand their shape and stability. Often, balloon animal artists fill balloons and then let out a little air or add a little more air to get the right conditions to fold them into a giraffe or peacock. When you encounter problems that you want to solve with a high degree of creativity, you may need to make small adjustments to the problem to produce the optimal creative conditions.
Narrowing a Problem
You can often broaden the creative opportunity of a solution by narrowing the problem. To some degree, this is an act of tightening restrictions. But a well-defined problem has an infinitely greater chance of being solved creatively than an indistinct one. An example of problem contraction told by The Seven Lessons (Paton Professional, 2012) author Craig Cochran is of a little girl who was kept serially awake by the sound of scratching in the attic above her bed. Obviously afraid, she asked her father about the sounds. Her father advised that they both go up to the attic to uncover the source of the sounds. She was understandably reluctant but eventually agreed, and with her father and a pair of flashlights, they ascended to the attic. A brief exploration uncovered a pair of furry tree squirrels that had found their way into the crawl space. Delighted, the little girl and her father returned to her room. “You’re not scared anymore?” asked the father. “No,” answered the girl, “it’s not scary anymore. We know what the problem is. It’s not scratching sounds; it’s squirrels.”
Some of the hardest problems to solve are those defined as “scratching sounds.” They elicit the greatest fear because they have no form or shape; they are unknown. You can solve what you know with a greater deftness because you can define the relevance of the solution. Then it is a matter of knowing or defining the restrictions that you must overcome to solve the problem.
Broadening a Problem
On the flip side, you can also broaden the creative opportunity of a solution by widening the problem. Some problems are so minutely defined that they encourage few possible solutions. Broadening these problems opens up more possibilities, and with more possibilities comes a greater chance at novelty.
At my agency, we asked employees what office improvements they wanted to see. Many of the responses contained versions of, “I’d like to see an awning or cover over the back deck.” A deck is attached to the back of the building but isn’t covered, so when it rains or snows, the deck is unusable. This problem has little opportunity for a high level of creativity within the solution because the solution has already been defined in the problem. To fine-tune the problem, we gathered the people who had made that request and talked about what they really wanted. We found that they didn’t really want a deck cover; instead, they wanted an outdoor space where they could go to escape for a moment. And they wanted to do this with other people to enjoy a beverage or a smoke and talk about topics other than work for a few minutes. With no awning, the back deck could not be used to perform that function year round. But an awning wouldn’t protect people from the winter cold either—a factor that few considered when making the request. By widening the problem, we were able to develop ideas in greater quantity and quality, focusing on improving the quality of work life at the agency, not just focusing on the minutiae of a deck covering.
Restriction Sets Up the Solution
Purpose is the first necessary condition for creativity, but purpose is useless without restriction. Most creatives bemoan restrictions, incorrectly targeting them as the inhibitor of their creative efforts. However, the opposite is actually true. It is not restriction that prohibits you from being creative; restriction enables you to be creative. Without restriction, creativity can’t exist. The degree of novelty that defines the level of creativity within a solution is directly related to the restrictions overcome within that problem. Restrictions set the stage for a creative solution.
You’ve all heard the phrase “think outside the box.” This is usually a plea to develop unusual ideas, ideas that aren’t of an ordinary nature. Ernie Schenck, author of The Houdini Solution (McGraw-Hill, 2006), contends that this “box” is impossible to remove if your goal is to develop creative ideas. He writes that what you need to do is learn to make the box smaller and think inside the box. “Limitations are like the banks of a river. Without them, the river becomes instead a formless mass without direction, just sort of spreading out everywhere but going nowhere.”
The psychologist Rollo May puts it this way: “Creativity requires limits; for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings and against that which limits them.”
Now, let’s add one more chestnut: The more restrictive the problem, the more creative the solution can become. Restrictions can actually take an ordinary solution and make it creative without changing anything else.
Let’s say you’ve been commissioned to design a new logo for your company. You have 12 months to design the logo and have an unlimited amount of money. You can use as many colors as you like and any shape or form that you desire. In other words, you have a blank canvas.
A year passes since you were awarded the project, and you return with your solution: a black box with the initials of the company knocked out of the box. Did you solve the problem? Yes. Does your solution demonstrate a high level of creativity? No. So let’s change the restrictions and try it again.
You are sitting at your desk working on a project that is due in 30 minutes. Your boss comes over to you and says, “I’m so sorry; I totally forgot to tell you that I volunteered you to redesign the company logo. I was supposed to tell you a few months ago, but it slipped my mind. The problem is, the owner of the company is walking toward us. See that spring in his step and smile on his face? The reason he’s so happy is because he’s coming over here to look at the new logo you’ve designed. Quick, design something!” In the ten seconds it takes the owner to walk over to you, you create a black box with the initials of the company knocked out of it.
Did that solution solve the problem? Yes. Does it demonstrate a high level of creativity? Actually, yes, considering you had ten seconds to do it, it was for the owner of the company, and you were already stressing about the deadline on your other project. Taking into account the insane restrictions placed on the project, the same solution is viewed in a different creative light.
Accept and Conquer
Learning to accept the restrictions of a problem and solve around them is fundamental to creative growth. It is one of the most apparent signs of a mature creative. Let’s call it accept and conquer. The obstacles overcome play a significant role in any creative solution. Walt Disney, one of the greatest creatives of all time, lived this philosophy. His original theme park, Disneyland, has a myriad of examples of restrictions overcome to produce creative results, often without the public even knowing. The Haunted Mansion attraction is a great example. If you’ve been to the original Disneyland in Southern California and have been on this ride, you know about the stretching room at the beginning of the ride where the paintings on the wall stretch to reveal creepy counterparts. It is a seminal part of the ride, and one that many visitors remember fondly. It may surprise you to learn that it wasn’t in the original plans for the attraction; it was the creative result of accept and conquer.
If you’ve followed Walt’s life, you know he was a big fan of trains. When Disneyland was originally built, it was constructed with the Disneyland train route as the perimeter of the park. When it came time to build the Haunted Mansion, it was supposed to be built right next to the train tracks, which meant there was a restriction on where the ride could expand. To solve this problem, the decision was made to build a major portion of the ride underground. This presented a new problem: getting visitors underground without disconnecting them from the fantasy. For many people, this would have been the point when they threw up their hands and complained to management that it was impossible to solve the problem with these restrictions.
The imagineers at Disneyland chose to accept and conquer. They decided to build an elevator that would take people underground, an elevator disguised as a room that stretches to reveal creepy painting counterparts and a skeleton hanging from the ceiling. The result was so beloved that when Disney built The Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, they included the stretching room, even though there is no need to take visitors underground. The room at The Magic Kingdom stretches up.
If novelty and relevance thrive within restriction, it tends to reason that the absence of restriction inhibits creative solutions. In these situations, it is imperative that you, as a problem solver, create restriction. If not enough restriction exists, you must create more. It goes against every fiber of your safety-ensuring being, but the only way you can produce creative solutions is if the restrictions are defined.
If a project has no deadline (like that’s ever happened), create one. If there’s no budget concern (ditto), invent one. If you can’t clearly see how success will be measured, develop it. If the restrictions are too broad, tighten them. You spend a great deal of your creative energy trying to control the outcome variables in an attempt to manipulate what you haven’t anticipated that you soften your chances of actually solving the problem with any measure of creativity. You try to buy as much time as you can in case you get busy, get the largest budget you can in case your ideas are expensive, and assign soft measurement analysis and taper expectations to ensure that the idea never is viewed as a “failure.” There’s an age-old business adage that says, “Underpromise and overdeliver.” Creatively speaking, this is a cop-out. If you want to grow creatively, learn to overpromise and overdeliver. Don’t be afraid to set meaningful restrictions of deadlines, budgets, measurements, and expectations. You can creatively succeed only with these limitations in place.
The Unspoken Third Condition: Action
Although purpose and restriction are the fuel that powers creativity, there is an unspoken third condition that creativity needs: action. Thomas Edison once said, “To invent you need a goal, imagination, and a pile of junk.” Edison is saying that to be creative, you need purpose, restriction, and action. Ideation without action is imagination. There’s nothing wrong with imagination; it is certainly an integral part of the creative formula. But the title of this book isn’t Imagination Boot Camp. You are training to be more creative, to generate ideas in greater quantity and quality, not just to do so, but to apply them to your clients and your own use.
The root word in “creativity” is “create.” Creation is a positive, active process. God didn’t just think about creating the universe. He created it. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t just imagine the telephone, satisfied with the idea. He created it. William Kellogg wasn’t content with his breakfast oatmeal replacement idea. He went out and created Corn Flakes (had to throw that in). Creativity is an act, not a thought. Don’t settle for imagination alone; be truly creative and create.
Action as the unspoken third condition of creativity isn’t just a plea to make what you imagine. It’s also a reminder that your own creative growth is in your hands. If creativity is no longer the uncontrollable mystical entity you originally believed, if it is a habit you can improve, that means it is now on you to do something about it. You are no longer bound to circumstance. You can alter your creative mind-set and improve your chances of generating ideas in greater quantity and quality. But this means you must get out of your comfy office chairs and do it.
Now that you know the necessary conditions creativity requires, you can say with all certainty that you will fail to meet these conditions on a regular basis. Failure is a natural, essential component of generating ideas in greater quantity and quality. You’ll find out that you cannot be creative if failure is not an option.
Excerpted from Creative Boot Camp: Generate Ideas in Greater Quantity and Quality in 30 Days by Stefan Mumaw. Copyright © 2013. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.