Creating Magic: Creative process and wicked problems

The creative process is how we humans make magic. It’s the way we make art, how we innovate, how we breed and how we learn, grow and create our lives. It’s how we become. The secret sauce to our inexorable evolutionary ascent. Every business and every product in our environment is the result of a creative process. It really is magic. Which makes us magicians, each of us making our own brand of magic in our own way. Which in turn makes for a fascinating tension: How can a process be so universal and yet so unique at the same time?

Artists rely on it being unique to make their mark. To find their own distinctive voice or vision and use it to disrupt how we see our world. They don’t really care how it works for others—they just want to crack how it works best for them. Businesses tend to do the opposite, banking on there being a universal algorithm, a ‘one best practice’ that they can follow to achieve the same disruption, at scale, with maximum control and minimum risk.

When I first published an article on this, years ago, I wrote of “The” creative process. I saw it as cyclical, iterative, somewhat ad hoc, and nevertheless universal. The “The” contained multitudes. Interestingly, this is pretty close to the way I teach design thinking models.

“Here’s this version of an abstracted ideal, understand the core principles and that it isn’t linear and goes back and forth according to its own momentum, then riff on that.” Which works really well in a business context that is used to defined processes and models. But it can also be dangerous. Why? Because when a model is as deceptively simple as most design thinking models are, and when they use words and phrases that are familiar in a business context, people assume they truly understand it when they don’t. Cognition is easy. Practice—particularly when the underlying mindset is so fundamentally different to Business As Usual—can be extraordinarily hard.

Which is why, when we explore the creative process in the context of wicked problems, I do the opposite.

Wicked problems require a creative approach (of which design thinking is one flavour). And since all wicked problems are one-offs, the way we have to work with each of them is going to be a one-off too. And since they tend to be personal to all of those involved, the approach will also need to be personal.

So when we come to play with the creative process, I give each group a kit of creative phases that are likely to need along with blanks to create more as required. Then I ask them each to reflect on an experience when they have successfully created something (birthday party, garden design, work conference etc) and to use the kit to build a model that reflects that process. Which sounds simple until you do it, and which makes for a very noisy exercise. One which puts paid to any notion that “The” creative process really exists, and which forces everyone to begin to get a conscious, visceral sense of how they intuitively approach the act of successful creating. And while even this will vary from context to context, they get a feel for the elements and the order that are most important to them. Or that they do best, or love most, and those that are their least favourite, and that they might need outside input on.

The more aware we are of our own process—of what makes us tick, what turns us on, how we work best and find flow easiest—the more we can deliberately build our creative muscles so we can apply them in non-linear, wicked contexts. The more we consciously work in this way, the more we can amplify it, and the greater our artistry. And the more successfully we create amazing (if mostly unpredictable) outcomes.

And the models we come up with? Each one is totally valid and makes complete sense. And I’ve never seen two the same. But then coming up with the “right” model of a creative process isn’t the point. What matters is the conversation around it and the awareness that generates. It’s not what the process is that matters, it’s what it means.

After all, it’s wicked.

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