Levels of creativity

Playing on all five levels of creativity

How do you produce ideas when you need them? How many different levels of creativity do you use when doing this? There are five levels of creativity —with different types of creativity tools— that you should pass through when working on a project: idea preparation, idea generation, idea development, idea enhancement, and idea activation.

Level 1: idea preparation

At this basic, but crucial, creative level, you try to gain a deeper understanding of your problem and attempt to discover the heart of it, which is your real challenge. For the creative process to succeed, you must do this before you start producing ideas.

What other creativity tools can you use here to prepare yourself for the subsequent level? You might ask “Why” and “Why not?” to challenge perceived constraints — money, time, people, technology — and rules — laws, regulations, guidelines, policies, conventional methods. You might ask why you’re doing this project, and when you have your answer, then ask why of that answer in turn. Keep doing this — usually, you’ll need to ask “Why” about five times — until you fully understand your motivation and have elevated your challenge to a higher level. You might also reframe your challenge by placing it in different situations and looking at it from varying viewpoints.

These thinking strategies help you to gain insight into your case and understand your real challenge. Only then can you move on to the second level.

Level 2: idea generation

Idea generation is the most familiar level. Unfortunately, most people think that the only way to generate ideas is by brainstorming — in fact, there are many dozens of creativity tools for ideation available — and even then they make these mistakes:

  • They don’t follow the four ground rules of idea generation: (1) No killing of ideas. (2) Go for quantity. (3) The wilder the better. (4) Combine and improve on ideas.
  • They often use only one facilitation and communication style, where one person moderates the conversation, one person writes and everyone else occasionally contributes ideas.

Your goal is to generate many, many ideas. These ideas don’t need to be feasible, possible, or sensible. They are the raw materials from which your idea concepts will be forged. Poor idea generation methods lead to poor results. Often, ideation efforts produce only a few safe, conventional ideas.

To make bad things worse, time pressures tempt creators to skip the idea preparation level and start with idea generation. By doing so, they run the risk of generating ideas for the wrong challenge.

Level 3: idea development

Idea development takes raw ideas and converts and combines them into realistic, meaningful idea concepts. An idea concept includes a careful description of the idea, states why and how the idea makes meaning, and identifies those who are targeted by the idea. An idea concept also often includes sketches of the idea, true to the notion that “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Most creators, if they are aware of it at all, will say they do idea development as part of idea generation. This mistake leads to prematurely discarding wild but productive ideas. Where idea generation was focused on idea quantity, idea development employs specific creativity tools that focus on idea quality and making meaning. The fast pace of idea generation becomes more measured, and you think creatively and experimentally to produce realistic, meaningful idea concepts.

Level 4: idea enhancement

On the fourth level, you further enhance promising idea concepts. For example, you might identify and fix bugs such as potential obstacles, constraints, and possible risks. This is when you might engage in rapid prototyping of a promising idea concept to verify its feasibility. You may need to iterate the prototyping process to fix problems.

Rapid prototyping is a creative technique that aims to fail earlier to succeed sooner by going through several rounds of iteration. Thereby, it goes beyond a simple idea sketch true to the notion: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a million words.”

Level 5: idea activation

The final level of creativity is less sophisticated than the other levels, but just as necessary. On this level, you turn your enhanced idea concept into something real. You pitch your top idea concept to gain the necessary approval and financial support. Enormous creativity is still required to resolve the many challenges involved in transforming an idea concept into a real-life innovation.

Conclusion: My experiences in creating my innovation company and its products, and in innovation projects I have done with clients, have proven to me that bypassing any of these levels of creativity will lead to poor results. Even if you use all five levels of creativity and the appropriate creativity tools, always remember that your creativity and intuition need to be complemented and enhanced by analytical and critical thinking. But when you have all of that, expect a masterpiece.

At Thinkergy, we have put the alternating flow of creative, divergent thinking and analytical, convergent thinking into X-IDEA, our systematic innovation process method. We have also linked each stage to effective creativity tools that cater to the specifics of each creative level.

Would you like to start playing on the different levels of creativity and analysis to produce better ideas, better outputs, and better innovation? Please let us know, and we suggest you training courses and systematic innovation project workshops to meet your needs.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2014.

This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on April 10 2014.