Creativity is more of numbers than you think

Creativity, which is the act of generating ideas that are novel and useful, is of growing importance, and yet it is mostly considered as the preserve of experts and specialists and that most common people must settle for mere improvisation or common sense.

If you were to choose between the following options during an ideation, what would you go for? A) a few good ideas, or B) a lot of average ideas? Most would intuitively go for A, for who doesn’t like good stuff? But when it comes to creativity, the exact opposite is true. The quantity of ideas lead to quality of ideas.

And if you are still in doubt, answer this – suppose during a certain brainstorming session, you came up with 500 ideas (very much a possibility in well organised sessions) and then you prune it to about 50 ideas, which of the two set of ideas would be of greater quality? A) you go from 500 to 50 ideas, or B) you go from 0 to 50 ideas? Which final bunch of 50 ideas would score high on novelty and utility (a measure of idea quality)?

This time, most would settle for A, that is 50 ideas that come from a pool of 500. Even though in both cases the quantity of ideas is the same, the quality is better in the first case than the second, except that most won’t persevere to get to 500 ideas.

The plain truth of creativity is that good come from more, and yet more isn’t always easy to get to. It’s often the seemingly average ideas that cobble up to give us something truly remarkable, for creativity is a game of numbers, a permutation and combination of existing knowledge.

Creativity, which could be defined as the act of generating ideas which are novel and useful, is of growing importance and yet it is mostly considered as the preserve of experts and specialists and that most common people must settle for mere improvisation or common sense.

On the contrast, creativity is everywhere, yet its expressions vary drastically. Creativity is as much about generating ideas as it’s about expressing those ideas, and often, expressing ideas is where most people struggle. The reason is that they are seeking that one groundbreaking idea to spring from their mind and the pursuit remains endless.

As Linus Pauling reminded us, “If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”

Getting to a higher volume of ideas necessitate consciously lowering your inhibitions, for some of your ideas, by design, would fail.

If you look at the relationship between quantity and quality of ideas in a typical brainstorming session, it would be akin to a bell curve. Initially, the quality would be low as the more commonsensical and low novelty ideas would surface, and with time more sophisticated ones would emerge, as the participants build on each other’s ideas.

But this can’t sustain indefinitely and soon the team would reach to a plateau of ideas. That’s why a battery of ideation techniques such as Lateral Thinking, TRIZ, SCAMPER, and Blue Ocean Strategy methods, among others, are recommended. This would help the ideating team look at the problem from various lenses and generate fresh, complementary ideas.

To put it numerically, of the 100 ideas generated in a typical brainstorming session, the ones between number 30 and 70 would be of higher quality than the first few or even the ones towards the fag end.

The peak is once the team has reached a state of Flow, where they are one with the task, they have overcome their inhibitions and yet don’t feel cerebrally taxed. As a moderator, it’s important to allow for such idea bursts, of roughly 20 to 30 minutes before introducing them to another ideation technique.

So, as a manager, if you expect creativity from your team, don’t demand them to come up with ‘two good ideas’, instead insist that they generate over a hundred ideas, and it’s your job to sift through those to pick or fuse meaningful ideas.

By giving a number target, you push the team to consider ideas which are seemingly outrageous or else they would mostly settle for routine resorts. However, most managers, owing to time pressure or even reputational pressure, seek just a handful of radical ideas and forget that wellspring of ideas is a bunch of minds working together with little holding them back and aimed towards a seemingly unachievable target.

A leaders’ role is to get good people in the room, give them a stretch goal and get out of the way. They aren’t expected to offer ideas as much to enable liberal and lateral thinking. That’s how nature works, going for variation in large numbers and then pruning selectively, and for creativity to be a natural process we must allow for a radical divergence before convergence sets in.

So, the next time, don’t shy away from taking a large number target for your ideation exercise and you would be surprised how creative you really are.

Edited by Megha Reddy

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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