The creative instinct: use the creative process to find meaning and spur breakthroughs ideas

The creative instinct: use the creative process to find meaning and spur breakthroughs ideas

There is a big disconnect in our busy world regarding what it takes to get to a breakthrough idea. The creative process is just that—a process. A few one-hour meetings will not get you there, and it’s likely that you don’t have the right tools and knowledge. But if innovation, meaningful ideas, and audience connection is what you’re after, then the creative process will help you get there.

What is a creative process?

You have a challenge but no solution. How do you come up with new and valuable ideas?

Jonah Leher’s video captures how feeling frustrated is key to this process and how the “happy ending” results hide the work it took to get there.

The creative process isn’t only for trained designers and artists. Everyone can experience solving a problem with the same tools we use. How? The creative process simply involves a surprising combination of previously unconnected ideas joining together in new and effective ways. Using it to solve problems redefines concepts like failure, open-endedness, letting go, coming up with many ideas, and looking at something from a different point of view.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not creative—not even yourself.

“It’s always been in between the things I thought I was doing that the real work has happened.” —William Kentridge

I know even the words “creative process” can be inhibiting for many people, so let’s start with demystifying those words. Creativity is the force that helps you find connection and meaning. It tends not to come to you in pieces so much as arrive as a complete idea, a new solution to an old problem. The creative process is mostly about creating conditions that allow the insight to happen.

Setting the framework

Clarify: five steps to prep the process

The first step to any endeavor is to understand the problem at hand. Use these five steps to gain the insights you need to guide and frame your creative work.

1) Define the challenge

  • What is your challenge?
  • Who is affected by your challenge?
  • What is the impact of your challenge on your overall work?
  • How important is it to solve this challenge?

2) Define what success looks like

If you can define your problem, you can define what success looks like. Are you trying to get internal employees to adapt to new technology? Do you want to get a particular audience to sign up for your newsletter? Are you attempting to come up with a new service or product? Paint the picture of the end result you want:

  • Employees will understand that the new choice in health insurance benefits them and their families, and will connect the decision to the company’s goal of putting employees first.
  • Everyone in our group will add a new idea to the service offering and we will present three strong ideas to the executive team.
  • Create a unified voice for why adopting the new system is important.
  • Our donors will give 25% more in this campaign and understand one new innovative fact about the organization.

3) Know who you want to reach

Figure out your audience, internal or external. (Maybe figuring out the audience is the problem you are trying to solve in the first place—in that case, skip to step four.) If you know who your audience is, make sure you are as specific as possible in your definition(s):

  • 1,200 employees that live in the U.S.
  • women who have children under age five in California
  • the management group in the sales division
  • donors who have given $250-$500 in the last four years

4) Define how this project or challenge connects to your mission, vision, and values

It is important that each effort add to the core meaning of your brand, and you need to have a clear definition as to how this one in particular does. This will keep you focused and grounded throughout the process.

5) Identify the stakeholders

  • Who will play key roles in this effort?
  • Who will need to approve it?
  • Who will it affect?
  • Who can affect it (positively or negatively)?
  • Where is the budget coming from?

Identifying your audience and describing why they are important is a key part of the process—something called “audience-centered communication.”

audience centered communication

What is audience-centered communication?

Audience-centered communication means taking the audience’s point of view when solving the problem. This is notable because understanding the audience helps you connect effectively with them; it also helps you create a meaningful message. Failure to connect meaningfully often is a result of arriving at a communications framework from an internal point of view. It’s easy to understand why this happens—if the message is crafted internally, that’s the perspective that’s most familiar—but to reach your audience you must truly understand their perspective.

These questions are a great start to audience-centered communications. Consider each one carefully and answer the set separately for each audience.

  1. What is in it for them?
  2. How will this benefit them?
  3. What is their point of view?
  4. What problem do they have that you are solving?
  5. How does this connect to their values and beliefs?

Now that you have set your framework and understand your audience’s point of view, you can start to use some creative tools.

Ideate: forming ideas

Ideate: forming ideas


Now that you have a base to work from, you’re ready to brainstorm. The trick to brainstorming is to push past the first few easy ideas. Sometimes just coming up with an idea that everyone likes can feel like the end but in brainstorming, it’s actually just the start!

You will need:

  • HUGE pieces of paper. Get large easel pads that are sticky at the top. I think paper is best because you can add as you go; you can also go back and add more. Stick pages up all around the room to create a flurry of inspiration. Large white boards work well, too. Make sure you take pictures so you have records.
  • Lots of color markers.
  • A quiet place without distractions.
  • A printout of the rules. I like: no judging; produce lots of ideas; and go away and come back before making a decision.

To ensure an effective brainstorm session:

  • Work in a small group. Working as a small group will bring the most value to this process. Try to keep your group to 4-6 people. If more people need to be involved, split them into smaller groups. (TIP: Include organization decision-makers in the group; their point of view is important and can ensure you produce ideas that are on track.)
  • Choose a leader. This person will enforce the rules.
  • Focus on quantity. The greater the number of ideas, the better the chance you hit a breakthrough.
  • Start with key words. Keep associating words and finding new connections.
  • Every idea is property of the group. Individuals don’t own the ideas in this process; everyone works collaboratively as a team. Don’t hesitate to lend your voice.
  • Brainstorming is not judging. Withhold criticism; it just hampers the process. Focus on extending the ideas and writing everything down.
  • Welcome unusual ideas. A bad idea can inspire a good idea. Since your audience likely has a different perspective than you, it’s best to push past what’s familiar.
  • Create visuals. You don’t need to be an artist to draw out your ideas; use the color markers and just have fun. Making ideas visual brings new meaning and understanding to tired or familiar concepts.
  • Go away and come back. The key to this process is letting some time pass between the brainstorming session and review. Sometimes time is all it takes to see a new connection or angle, or the thread between combinations of ideas. I know we’re all pressed for time, but a little space can lead to a breakthrough.
  • Failure is important. I realize that may sound strange, but it’s true. Let go, let go, let go at every step in this process. If you let go enough, you will find the idea. The idea will come in between what you “think” you are doing. Remember that what works is often defined by what does not work—the ideas that do not work often help you find the idea that does.
  • It’s not a straight line. The end result of a creative process, when based in a solid foundation, can seem very obvious; that’s deceptive and leads to the wrongheaded notion that coming up with one good idea is all it takes.
  • Take photos of your process! You can use them later, when you present your top ideas.

Brainstorming methods

There’s not a single right way to brainstorm. Here are a few great methods that yield powerful results:

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brainstorming, mind maps

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Mind Maps
A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. A map of associated ideas, words, and concepts is created around a single word or text.

I strongly recommend paper and white boards for this exercise. There are software tools you can use to synthesize the ideas you have on paper if you need to share that information across a larger group. These programs are also a good choice for anyone working alone.

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Mood Boards
Mood boards are a type of collage that consist of images, text, and samples of objects. You can find lots of them on Pinterest—though Pinterest itself is actually one large mood board.

Designers use mood boards to convey design ideas, but the underlying idea translates to a brainstorming process as a way to collect visual information. Remember: telling visual stories can be very powerful. One way to use mood boards is to have everyone in the group make one individually and then come together to share them.

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brainstorming, mood boards

Shaping ideas

You’ve had a successful brainstorm session and the room is papered with the fruits of your labor. Now what?

The idea behind clustering is to group the ideas by observing their characteristics. You’ll end up with a small number of tangible idea-groups and one “other” group (comprising ideas that fit nowhere).

Seeing the abstract concepts behind a group of ideas side-by-side is more clarifying than comparing each idea individually. Once you’ve settled on a few abstract concepts you’d like to explore further, look at the different ideas within that group and make the concept more concrete.

Get Feedback
You have worked hard and arrived at some breakthrough ideas. Congrats! The size of the problem and the number of good solutions you’ve brainstormed will determine how many ideas you want to get feedback on. Generally 10 to 20 are great, though less that is fine as well.

Feedback is an opportunity to see how well the ideas connect to an audience. It can be as formal as a focus group or as informal as asking the opinions of friends and colleagues. What’s important is that you match the effort with the level of problem you are trying to solve. On a scale of one to 10, how important is this challenge? If it is a 10, consider investing in a focus group. If it is a three, informal outside perspectives will likely be enough.

You may want to reach out to your internal stakeholders. They may be able to contribute interesting, informed points of view at this stage.

Key concepts to keep in mind when gathering feedback:

  • Talk to the target audience. What is their general reaction? Are they connecting in the ways you expect?
  • What connected successfully and what can you learn from those connections?
  • What are the disconnections and what can you learn from them?

the process of refinement

You’ve got the ideas and the feedback—putting them together is the process of refinement. Use the feedback you received to make any changes you need to the original concepts.

After you’ve refined the ideas, each person chooses their favorite ones. Use a democratic process: write the good ideas on sticky notes and stick them to a wall. Everyone receives between three and five small stickers and has the opportunity to vote by putting stickers on their favorite ideas. The beautiful thing about this method is that an individual can choose to support one idea with all her stickers or spread them over multiple options.

What’s important to understand is that this method gives a general idea of what the audience wants. It’s preferable to have a discussion regarding the two or three ideas with the most votes to understand what the group feels are the positive and negative aspects of each one. The first choice may not always be the best—and the discussion will reveal that.

Once you’ve settled on two to three ideas, you’re ready to present them to key decision makers.

Framing is key, whether you’re speaking to the CEO or the project’s target audience. This is a great opportunity to use the photos you took of the brainstorming session.

Your presentation should answer the questions:

  • What’s the problem you’re solving?
  • What does success look like?
  • Who are the audiences?
  • How will this connect to your overall mission, vision, and values?
  • Who are the stakeholders for this project?

Next, use the brainstorming process as a foundation to discuss your idea:

  • Briefly talk about how you arrived at your ideas
  • Provide any important research points
  • Convey what you learned from the feedback you received

Proper framing will ensure the discussion stays focused, allows for critical feedback, and moves the process forward.

For people not trained in a creative process, this may seem like a challenging way to arrive at a great idea. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember the potential here. Pablo Picasso once said, “Others have seen what is and asked ‘Why?’ I have seen what could be and asked ‘Why not?’”

Or rely on the words of Henri Matisse, who put it all the more succulently: “Creativity takes courage.”