Monday, May 31, 2010

Ideas with Flair

As I’ve written before, for years I was one of those folks who would answer ‘no’ to the question ‘are you creative?’ That is until my husband pointed out that I was a good problem-solver and that problem-solving requires creativity. Ok, sounds pretty obvious, but I had a narrow definition of creativity and not until this discussion did I understand that.

We value problem-solving in the organizational world meaning we value creativity, though like me, many people don’t frame it in that way. Conversely, we often say we value creativity in brainstorming and yet traditional group brainstorming exercises often aren’t very creative. In fact several articles I found on the internet say that individual brainstorming often results in more ideas and more creative ideas than the group process. There are several reasons for this result, group think, worrying about others’ opinions, losing track of your own ideas, spending time evaluating other’s ideas, etc. In my experience the biggest impediment to true creativity is the need to have some level of realism in the process. No matter how much we tell the group and ourselves that any possibility should be thrown out, we can’t quite do it.

In one of her books, choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about a creativity exercise she uses that illustrates an important element I think is often left out of brainstorming exercises. She says, “If you find yourself caught in a bigger rut, what you really need is a new idea, and the way to get it is by giving yourself an aggressive quota for ideas.” She finds something backstage like a stool and gives her audience or class the challenge – two minutes to come up with sixty uses for the stool. Here’s what she writes about this exercise:

“A lot of interesting things happened when you set an aggressive quota even with ideas. People’s competitive juices are stirred. Instead of panicking, they focus, and with that comes increased fluency and agility of mind.

“People are also forced to suspend critical thinking. To meet the quota, they put their internal critic on hold and let everything out. They’re no longer choking off good impulses.”
Tharp goes on to say she has found a consistent order to the quality of ideas produced this way –
“the first third of ideas are the obvious; the second third are more interesting; and the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity as later thinking builds on earlier thinking….(I’m not knocking first ideas. They’re often the best. But they’re rarely the most radical stretch and that’s the purpose of this exercise.)”

I’ve written before about the idea that boundaries actually help us be more creative (Coloring Between the Lines and Rules and Creative Leadership) and it applies in brainstorming as well. It all depends on the boundaries we set. Sometimes boundaries can cut off creativity, but well designed they can have the opposite effect. So the next time you need some creative thinking, from yourself or your group, try this exercise and see where it leads you. The fun part of it is that you never know where you’ll end up. I used this activity during a workshop and someone suggested that we could ‘eat’ the stool, but also on the list were some ideas that were both radical and possible, even useful as well as some ideas that showed “flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity” and that’s what we need in all of our organizations, isn’t it?

Take care,


The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp with Mark Reiter (2003) New York: Simon and Schuster


  1. What a great way to start back after a long weekend. Time off tends to suspend the limitations we place on ourselves and also serves to stimulate creativity. I'm still amazed that when blessed with such time, I find myself with solutions I did not even realize I was seeking answers about!

  2. I never understood this until I made myself color inside the lines. There's a form of discipline that fosters creative thought. I think that sometimes panic to come up with an idea(s) can motivate or light a spark-- when there's a system or management of the panic.
    I like the juxtaposition of these ideas.