A Rendezvous with Creativity

Impressions from the Frontiers of Innovation

Initial results from our year-long research project are in and we’re beginning to publish results.

Here’s the BLUF:

  • Experiment findings reveal a deeper understanding of creativity.

  • Defined as novel and useful solutions, creativity encompasses various forms, from Big C to Mini C.

  • Experiment results suggest expertise and diverse perspectives drive creativity.

  • Further analysis by academic experts forthcoming.

  • Stay tuned for updates!

Let’s dive in.

What is creativity?

I used to think I understood creativity. Which is to say I never sought to define it because I’d know it when I saw it.

My liberal arts education taught me creativity came in the form of art - paintings, sculptures, poetry, etc... And if that art was truly creative it would end up in a museum.

The more subtle message I received: you, David, a business major, are not creative.

When I began to work in agencies I learned of the “creative team.” They wore black and/or wire rimmed glasses.

The subtle message: yes, creative happens at work, too. But over there. On that team. In other words: you, Dave, still don’t do creativity.

I never questioned these subtle messages and the formal boundaries they created, in my mind anyways. But I did experience a dissonance: I thought my spreadsheet formulas were ingenius - I couldn’t articulate how, but I’d be proud to show my colleagues how the whole model would update with the mere change of one variable. “Watch this!”

There were, of course, other times when I felt a similar inventiveness: developing just the right visual for a proposal, using a surprising but apt metaphor with a client, crafting the right story in a powerpoint.

But I always stopped the admiration of my work just at the point I would call it creative.

I was wrong.

Creativity defined

For the last 18-months, the New Rules for Work research project learned me different.

To be considered serious research for prestigious publication, we, as practitioners, needed academic advisors to guide us through the the process of rigorous and ethical research, and to provide analysis that not only broke new ground but connected to the related work preceding it.

All accomplished in their fields, I began to learn the basics of creativity from advisor and creativity expert, Dr. Roni Reiter Palmon.

First: creativity has a definition.

“Creativity is an idea, a solution to a problem, a product or a process, that is both novel - new, original - as well as useful.” - Dr. Roni Reiter Palmon

Second: Creativity is hard

Our research project set out to determine how place and technology impacted team creativity and collaboration. To do this we would need to run multiple experiments in which teams would develop creative responses to a challenge prompt:

Thinking about lonely offices, retail spaces and other commercial buildings, what are the coolest, most exciting uses for those empty spaces?

We would judge these creative responses on measures of Quality, Originality and Compellingness.

Here’s what what happened:

  1. We ran 26 experiments

  2. 191 participants in total

  3. Those 19 1 brainstormed 1,450 ideas

  1. We then broke those individuals into teams, 74 in total

  2. Those teams refined, combined and built on the individual ideas to generate a singular and complete team proposal in response to the prompt.

The problem was…

Most of the ideas were similar. In other words, only six of the 71 proposals stood out to me as unique. From Roni:

What novices do is they come up with solutions that are not novel. Partly because they don't know what's been done in a field. Partly because they focus on the quick, immediate, low hanging fruit. Which have been done to death. So we need some degree of expertise. Now, we don't necessarily need the most expertise.

What we're really seeing is that sometimes it's the combination of multiple expertise that results in these creative ideas. But if you're a complete novice, you just wouldn't know what to do and where to start.

-Dr. Roni Reiter Palmon

4 C’s of creativity

Yet this does not mean the response proposals, nor the people that came up with them, lack creativity.

Before we can say that we need to know not just creativity’s definition, but the type of creativity we seek. There are four types of creativity. Here’s Roni:

When we just throw out the word creativity, we tend to think about what we categorize as Big C, you know, the Einstein, the Picasso, the Mozart.

And that's important, obviously. But very few of us get there. And the specific model that I'm talking about also suggest that we really can't make a judgment about a [Big C] body of work until after somebody dies.

So that's not an award you want to necessarily worry about striving for.

Then we have what we call Pro C, which is your professional creativity. So we could all be more creative in our professional life. And sometimes those are small, incremental changes that lead to a better product, a better outcome, a better process.

So those small incremental steps are really important. And frankly, they can lead to that breakthrough. So, we shouldn't dismiss them.

The other two are much more personal.

Mini C is sort of internal. So it's creative to you and only to you.

Little C is a step up from that where it's, it's creative but you're putting your stamp on it.

We cannot dismiss the mini C where I found something new. Maybe other people have done it before me, but for me, this is new and novel and effective, and we shouldn't dismiss that.

-Dr. Roni Reiter Palmon
  • For more on the 4C model, click here.

  • Click here watch our interview with Dr. Roni Reiter Palmon


Our experiment participants were random; we did not seek out realtors, industrial designers nor architects. Participants learned of and registered for the experiment through our network and word of mouth. Further, we only revealed the challenge prompt in the meeting 10 minutes before we asked participants for their response. No time to study-up.While we were always unlikely to come up with the commercially viable solution to one of commercial real-estate’s most pressing problems, we did learn about creativity in a group setting.

What did we learn?

We needed a full education on the academics of creativity before we could make sense of our experiment results. They seemed overwhelmingly homogeneous, no Big C examples. Scattered in the responses, however, Pro C, Little C and Mini C creativity jumped out. Here’s what we believe lead to their appearance.

Changing Perspectives

Teams that adopted different stakeholder perspectives were able to come up with unique solutions. Each participant offered a different frame of reference. Some viewed the problem from the perspective of business owners or entrepreneurs. Others tackled it from personal experiences as community members or parents.

This variation in viewpoints sparked unconventional ideas. For instance, one team proposed an indoor picnic area, playing with the concept of their city's common weather conditions. Another pitched an idea for a start-up battle arena, drawing from their experiences with start-up accelerators and corporate settings.

Influence of Expertise

While we had no commercial real estate expertise present in the experiment, participants with training in creative processes seemed more likely to propose unique solutions. Using their creativity expertise, these participants developed distinct proposals that had underlying nuances and more detail.

Problem Framing

One crucial discovery from our experimental sessions revolved around framing. Teams that explored different ways of problem framing generated more creative proposals. Some participants repurposed the interpretation of solutions to include their scopes in problem-solving or their unique ideas. Others framed the question more personally to cater to their needs.

(Learn a simple approach to problem framing here)

What’s next?

These learnings & observations come from our practitioners’ lens: we attended all the experiments! We have dozens of hours of video that our academic experts will review to determine what went on creatively.

These findings are certain to be even more fascinating and insightful.

And we’ll publish them first right here.

Stay tuned -

Dave & Elise

p.s. when you’re ready to work with us, check out our workshop and speaking offerings

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