It’s hard to be creative on demand. Yet people are expected to do it all the time. Deadlines force it. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to kick-start creativity on demand.
“Deadlines move creativity from ideas to action.”
Yes, there are templates (of sorts) for creativity. Writers use them all the time. Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, for example, describes a template with four contextual parts of a novel. Part 1 is the setup, Part 2 covers the hero being confronted with a problem, Part 3 is the hero’s attack on the problem, and Part 4 is the resolution. Starting with a framework gives creativity a boost.
Mystery writers apply similar templates for setting up the crime, the investigations, the clues and red herrings, and the final resolution.
Series writers of books, television shows and movies build from a template of characters and plot lines. NCIS, CSI, Bull and similar network shows follow a similar plot in each episode. New versions of old shows (Hawaii 5-0, Magnum PI, MacGyver) use the old shows as templates for the new ones.
In each of these situations, the template provides a skeleton upon which to build. It reduces the barrenness of a blank screen. It compresses the creative process to be able to meet stringent deadlines.
Templates refer to anything that can be used as a model to copy. Nature. Old products. Historical events. Biology. They don’t provide the fully-finished idea. Yet, they help kick-start creativity.
“The world is but a canvas to our imagination.”
Henry David Thoreau
Component reconfiguration refers to an examination of products and services at their elemental level. Since the components have already been designed and tested, their modified usage can shorten time from idea to launch.
Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, in Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, describe this approach. After deconstructing a product or service into its component parts, they recommend applying one or several of the following processes (or templates).
- Subtraction—re-imagine the product (or service or process) after removing some essential component. MP3 players were created by eliminating speakers (and replacing them with headphones)
- Division—rearrange and/or reduce the physical or functional components into a new product. Food processors have reduced package sizes to create single servings.
- Multiplication—copy an existing element and change it in some way before adding it back to the product. Cameras have gone from a single flash to a dual flash to prevent red eye.
- Task unification—discover an additional benefit for a part or ingredient. New uses have been found for sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which has been around since the 1800s. It became recognized as an eco-friendly alternative to chemical cleaners when Arm & Hammer sponsored the first Earth Day in 1970. It’s now an ingredient in toothpaste, laundry detergent, cat litter, fire extinguishers, and other products.
- Attribute dependency—identify components that can change in response to differences in the environment. Smart-phone advertising can change depending on the user’s tagged location.
After envisioning new products from each of these techniques, the next critical step is to evaluate them. What benefit(s) will the redesigned item offer? Who will want them? Are they viable?
“Creativity is just connecting things.”\
Platforms offer a form of template. They define a common architecture, collection of assets, component designs, subsystems, or other elements shared by several products. The structures of the platforms are intended to be flexible enough for variations using a common foundation.
The initial design is expensive and time-consuming. However, once developed, a platform can kick-start creativity for future products. The risk is that it can result in gratuitous feature creep. The question to ask—whether the platform is a chassis, a sub-assembly, or a TV series—is whether there is a market for the expanded product. After all, the platform was built in the past, but creativity is about the future. Ask questions.
“Because we are bound by what we know, it is difficult to imagine what we don’t know.”
Walter Wriston, former Citicorp CEO
Creativity doesn’t occur spontaneously on demand. But templates, component reconfiguration, and platforms can help kick-start the process.