Jude Tavanyar discusses different approaches to creative thinking.

“Creativity is the process of bringing something new into being … (which) requires passion and commitment … brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness … ecstasy.” (Rollo May)1

If you are one of those people who make comments like: “Creative, me? I haven’t got a creative bone in my body” — consider these situations.

You go to bed with a problem — one that is causing you serious aggravation and which you have turned over in your mind repeatedly and hopelessly. You wake the next day to find an answer “waiting” in your head that finally works.

You spend weeks making an exhaustive list of pros and cons for an important decision, only to end up staring at it, clueless. Finally, you throw away the list and go with your “gut feeling”, exactly what you felt like doing in the first place. It turns out to be a good idea, and everyone, by and large, is happy.

Or maybe you run out of time on a project and need to write a 30-page summary in one day. You decide to “just write”, letting the words flow and ignoring the internal voice that says “this will be rubbish”. After eight hours you show your unedited draft to your colleagues, who tell you it is astonishingly good, better than your routine efforts by far. Job done, when usually you would have spent days writing, editing, re-thinking, worrying … and so forth.

If you have experienced any of these scenarios, you are in excellent company. There are examples throughout history of discoveries, decisions, and flashes of insight that come quite unexpectedly in an instant, or even in our sleep, and lead to ideas and inventions that transform our world — Archimedes’ famous overflowing bathwater realisation and Louis Pasteur’s “mouldy bread moment” among them.

Of course, we might conclude that the inspirational moment was powerful only because the observer had a finely-tuned analytical mind, and was thus able to recognise the significance of what he or she saw.

That is exactly the point. The discovery of the new is possible because of the wonderful ability of the human brain both to make in-the-moment imaginative connections, and to carefully and rationally analyse their value and the means to develop them.

Advocates of “whole brain” approaches to creativity — and they are increasingly numerous — emphasise how we have come to allow the logical left-brain hemisphere to dominate in corporate decision-making and, while recognising the creative potential of the intuitive “right brain”, often discount or overlook its insights as random, illogical, or simply unproven, and too risky to explore further.

However, ground-breaking, innovative ideas are clearly the lifeblood of any organisation that needs to survive in a highly competitive market. For managers leading teams of all sizes, especially cross-functional teams with a diversity of personality and cultural preferences, this is likely to mean developing approaches to creative exploration that engage and bring together the best of our left- and right-brain hemispheres in highly collaborative ways.

Psychologists suggest that not only do we need to define creativity very broadly as a process that engages the whole brain, but also to recognise that everyone has creative potential, stemming from their own preferred ways of processing and interpreting information, whether left or right-brain oriented. Creativity is not therefore simply the fiercely-guarded talent of a few “creative geniuses”, but a mental process open to all and as much the result of different ways of looking at, describing and seeing our world anew, as it is the result of rigorous rational analysis.

Here are some principles and activities that may help to stimulate a creative spark in teams and project groups. “Brainstorming” exercises, where all ideas are shared and noted rapidly, without explanation and judgment, are often excellent and a much-used resource. However, if we consider creativity as partly about “the ability to find hidden patterns (and) to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena”2 — words may sometimes actually get in the way, confining us to received understandings and fixed interpretations of meaning.

In his excellent book Imagin-i-sation,3 Professor Gareth Morgan writes about how language — especially the language of “factual determination” rather than metaphorical association, say — can sometimes block creativity, and emphasises the use of idea generation based on drawings, symbols and icons to stimulate more subtle associations and connections between ideas that may trigger an entirely new line of exploration.

The principles of proceeding without fear of “getting it wrong”, “looking foolish”, or “stating the obvious” during a team’s creative process are also critical. Managers will be only too aware of the detrimental impact of criticism and discouragement, blocking ideas before they can even start to develop. Creative team activities need trust, respect for difference, and an open and collaborative atmosphere where all ideas and suggestions are welcomed and expressed in whatever terms suit the individual — words, images, and so on.

Of course, new ideas — whether evolved by a so-called spark of the imagination or a careful analytical process — do need to stand up to considerable scrutiny in order to translate into profitable products and services.

Christensen et al4 describe “creative behaviours” whereby teams can explore new possibilities by drawing upon left- and right-brain functions of analysis, logic, imagination and intuition. Among these, asking questions and provoking debate to challenge “received thinking”, observing stakeholders (including competitors) to see how they achieve solutions, and continuously exploring possible connections between apparently unrelated concepts, are seen as key.

What about the kind of conditions in which creativity flourishes? Morgan5 warns about the impact of “mechanistic thinking” that arises when reason and caution become entirely dominant in organisations and it is assumed that human beings can function like machines, processing information and delivering outputs, quite irrespective of their environment.

Of course, we know that the creative brain, with logical strength and imaginative passion, needs rest, sleep, nutrition, and the ability to interact with its external environment. Even in increasingly time-pressured settings, organisations that support creative processes must recognise the value of stress management, physical and mental wellbeing, and activities allowing people to relax and stand back from “what is”, in order to consider “what might be”.

The human mind is considered unique in its ability to empathise, and this too may be an important aspect of creativity. Following existential psychologist Rollo May’s earlier comment, it is worth considering that the word “ecstasy” in its original translation from Greek means literally “displacement”, to “stand outside oneself”. Perhaps then to be truly creative we need to continually “stand outside” our own frame of reference and look again from other viewpoints.

If so, we will need considerable courage and determination, and the willingness to collaborate, review and represent our world in multiple ways — through the eyes and frames of reference of other people.


  • 1May, R (1994) The Courage to Create, W W Norton

  • 2Creativity At Work, http://www.creativityatwork.com/2014/02/17/what-is-creativity/

  • 3Morgan, G (1997) Imagin-i-sation — New Mindsets for Seeing, Organising and Managing, Sage

  • 4Christensen, C, Dyer, J, Gregersen, H (2011) The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Harvard Business School

  • 5Morgan, G (1989) Creative Organisation Theory, Sage.

Last reviewed 15 September 2014