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Creativity is a challenging concept: not only it’s difficult to define and surrounded by an aura of mysticism, it’s also something commonly considered an innate gift that can not be acquired. While the answer on the exact mix between nature (innate trait) and nurture (acquired skill) that leads to creativity is still pending, we know today is that it’s not exclusively innate: creativity can be developed, learned, and practiced.
A study on 90 academic publications spanning from 1950 to 2009 was able to identify fourteen elements of the creative process. These elements are incredibly valuable to demystify what creativity is and how it works.
What is creativity?
Creativity has many definitions, but one in particular from the study seem to be especially fitting in my perspective, because it covers a few key points:
Creativity is that process which results in a novel work that is accepted as tenable or useful or satisfying by a group at some point in time.
— Stein M.I. (1963) A Transactional Approach to Creativity
Novelty is surely the first, most immediate and understood part of creativity. For a process to be considered creative and not just a generic outcome of some kind, it has to reach a result that is something more than what was was possible to think or forecast at the beginning: if it was obvious at the onset, something won’t be labelled as creative.
The second part of the definition is about value: while novelty provides something unexpected, if that outcome isn’t seen as valuable, then it won’t be perceived as creative either.
Finally there’s the acknowledgement of context. An individual might come up with a novel idea without realizing that someone else had it first: it would be creative from the perspective of one, but not from the other. Similarly an idea that isn’t either novel nor valuable in a field, might be groundbreaking when applied to a different field — it’s the concept of cross-pollination.
Context also has implications of acceptance: a creative idea could lead to recognition of the value within a specific group, but could be completely irrelevant for another. These groups can be as small as two people or as large as society as a whole.
What are the 14 elements?
The study goes beyond the definition, extracting and naming fourteen different elements from a subset of 694 creativity-related words.
- Active involvement and persistence
- Dealing with uncertainty
- Domain competence
- General intellect
- Generating results
- Independence and freedom
- Innovation and emotional involvement
- Progression and development
- Social interaction and communication
- Spontaneity and subconscious process
- Variety, divergence, and experimentation
- Thinking and evaluation
While this list was created with the goal to define and describe the elements of the creative process, it however provides an exhaustive guideline we can use as a reference.
Notably these fourteen elements aren’t a process per se, but as they are found in any kind of creative process. They can be used to create, analyze, and improve creative processes for different individuals, cultures, groups, and businesses.
For example let’s take “active involvement and persistence” and writing: different processes that try to elicit creativity might follow different ways to fulfill the same “persistence” criteria. One process might suggest to write every day, while another to write continuously for an entire day non-stop, and yet another one could suggest to scrap and restart from scratch a few times. Which one works depends on the people involved, either individuals or teams, yet all aim to satisfy the “persistence” criteria.
Reviewing the list as a whole, two things are worth noting:
- Some elements are more actionable than others: general intellect is harder than social interaction and communication in terms of practical advice and proactive indications on how to improve.
- Some elements, when looked more closely, seem contradictory: evaluation and results for example are a challenge to freedom and uncertainty. Yet, they co-exist together in a complex interplay within the creative process.
This is the first post of a series: I’m going to review these points one by one providing insight and advice for one own’s creative process. Follow this site in your favorite reader, Twitter or sign up for email updates.
NEXT ON THE FOURTEEN ELEMENTS OF CREATIVITY
Read the first element of creativity
Thanks to Daniel Szuc for the paper, and to Nicola Armellini, Nicola Losito, Raffaella Isidori, Stephanie Sansoucie, Boon Yew Chew, Maurizio Piacenza for the review.