Creative emotional re-interpretation and insightful change

Situations can invite more than one interpretation: An image of the face-vase reversible figure. Source: Nevit Dilman via Wikimedia Commons

Finding a different way of construing a situation or event – including taking another perspective on something emotionally difficult – is itself a form of creativity.  

Research points to many similarities between our ability to cognitively reappraise emotionally-charged events, and well-established creative processes such as insight and flexible reinterpretation.  

Introducing the idea of “reappraisal inventiveness”

Imagine yourself in the following brief scenario: 

You arrive at your apartment after having been on a long vacation. You had asked a friend of yours to water your plants while you were gone. Now you see that most of your plants have died. You call your friend. She tells you on the phone that the distance to your apartment was too long for her to water your plants as agreed. 

What are all of the ways that you can think of to diminish your frustration, anger, and disappointment with your friend, and the loss of your plants?   

The scenario is one of several such scenarios taken from the research materials of a team of researchers at two universities in Germany (Weber et al., 2014).

In the study, participants were given three minutes to write down all of the ideas they could bring to mind to alleviate their negative emotions to this and other scenarios.  

The researchers found that individuals who were more adept and successful at finding different construals of this and other emotion-inducing situations also demonstrated other indications of creativity.  They were, for example, more likely to generate many and varied ideas on a set of divergent thinking tasks.  Also, individuals who excelled at cognitively reappraising the emotionally-distressing stimuli were higher in the personality trait of “openness to experience.” This is a broad and multi-faceted personality predisposition typified by tendencies toward flexibly exploring novel ideas, values, and sensations. Openness to experience has repeatedly been found to be linked to creativity (for one meta-analyses see Puryear, Kettler, & Rinn, 2017). 

The researchers suggested that the ability to flexibly generate alternative interpretations of a critical situation – an ability that they aptly termed “reappraisal inventiveness” – may be an important contributor to how effectively we can regulate our emotions.  Indeed, other research shows that creatively adapting the meaning that we attach to a distressing situation – richly and specifically reframing it in a different way – may help us to beneficially alter how we are emotionally impacted by the event. 

Reappraisal, creative restructuring, and the brain

Can we assess the effects of creatively reappraising a distressing event on activity in the brain?  Does a highly creative reappraisal exert different neural effects than a merely humdrum (ordinary) reappraisal?  These were the questions that an international team of researchers from labs in Beijing and New York banded together to address using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).  

The stimuli the team chose were negative and emotionally-arousing pictures (such as threat or attack scenes and disgusting things) selected from a standardized set of emotional images (the International Affective Picture System or “IAPS”).  Each image was associated with three different interpretations: a creative interpretation, a typical or ordinary interpretation, and an objective description of the image.  

In the MRI scanner, participants were initially shown each negative image for 2 seconds. Then they were shown the negative image again but together with one of the three kinds of text. They were asked to silently read the description and given 12 seconds to try to vividly understand the context it set for the image.  After this period of “guided reappraisal,” the negative image was again shown all by itself. Across the scanning session, each participant saw the same set of images but the accompanying text for any given picture was randomly assigned for each participant.  

Participants in-scanner ratings of the images showed that participants’ emotional responses to the negative images were significantly less negative (and rated as more pleasant) after they read the creative reinterpretation.  Ordinary reappraisals also elicited more positive emotional ratings than did objective descriptions.  

These guided-reappraisal differences in participants’ emotional responses were accompanied by several brain activity differences.  Compared with the other conditions, creative reinterpretation was associated with significantly greater activity in core emotion- and memory-processing brain regions (the amygdala and hippocampus), and reward-related processing areas (the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum).  Creative reinterpretation trials also showed increased activity in brain regions related to cognitive effort and the monitoring of conflicting information (dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) and semantic and social cognition (the temporal pole and temporal-parietal junction).  

The changes in emotional response that were seen for the negative images that had been paired with a creative reinterpretation were not simply momentary or transient changes.  Three days later, when the images were again shown to participants, now without any accompanying text, participants’ emotional ratings of these images were still more positive.

Explaining the reappraisal effect and links to humor

What might be a cognitive explanation for these reappraisal/reinterpretation effects?  

The researchers call attention to how effectively engaging in creative reappraisal may be similar to successful insight problem solving.  Arriving at a new insight to a sticky problem on which we’ve reached an impasse often requires us to substantially change how we have been thinking about a problem.  We may need to jettison incorrect assumptions that we were unwittingly making, or notice important aspects of the problem that we had earlier failed to even see.  Casting off mistaken assumptions, or noticing key details that we’d earlier neglected to see, leads us to re-structure or re-represent the problem.  We abruptly see the problem in a different light, or understand it from a different perspective.  

This may also be true for what happens when we suddenly see (or others help us to suddenly see) the “funny side” of an emotionally stressful situation.  Indeed, a follow-up study by the Beijing/New York research team, now comparing particularly humor-filled reappraisals with ordinary reappraisals, uncovered many similar benefits. Humorous reappraisals led to both greater increases (upregulation) of positive emotion, and more pronounced decreases (downregulation) of negative emotion than was seen for ordinary reappraisal.  And these effects, too, were quite enduring as they were still observed 3 days later when the images were shown alone, without any accompanying text.  

One of the many benefits of playful humor – introduced in an emotionally stressful moment – may be the cognitive and emotional reappraisal it sparks.  Suddenly seeing the ironic twist, incongruity or paradox in the midst of a painful experience can bring not just a smile, but also renewed energy and optimism. Successful emotional reappraisals may, indeed, be creative instances of sudden insightful cognitive reconstruction, and sometimes surprisingly downright funny.


Puryear, J. S., Kettler, T., & Rinn, A. N. (2017).  Relationships of personality to differential conceptions of creativity: A systematic review.  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 59–68.

Southward, M. W., Holmes, A. C., Strunk, D. R., & Cheavens, J. S. (2021). More and better: Reappraisal quality partially explains the effect of reappraisal use on changes in positive and negative affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research (July, Early Access).

Weber, H., de Assuncao, V. L., Martin, C., Westmeyer, H., & Geisler, F. C. (2014). Reappraisal inventiveness: The ability to create different reappraisals of critical situations.  Cognition & Emotion, 28(2), 345–360.

Wu, X., Guo, T., Tan, T., Zhang, W., Hong, T-Y., Cheng, C-M., Wei, P., Hsieh, J-C., & Luo, J. (2021).  From “aha!” to “haha!” Using humor to cope with negative stimuli.  Cerebral Cortex, 31, 2238–2250.

Wu, X., Guo, T., Tan, T., Zhang, W., Qin, S., Fan, J. & Luo, J. (2019).  Superior emotional regulating effects of creative cognitive reappraisal.  NeuroImage, 200, 540–541.

Getting creative by striving for excellence vs. perfection

There may be two similar – but notably different – forces fueling our creative pursuits and goals. 

A key goal in our creative endeavors is excellence.  The pursuit of creative excellence calls on us to deliberately and explicitly pinpoint what’s not quite right, and to do everything we can to fully correct what’s amiss.  This is true whether we are creating a painting, a poem, or a new dance move, designing a scientific experiment, or developing computer code.

But we can take this pursuit of excellence too far, veering into a relentless quest of perfection, that risks the danger of undermining our creative motivation altogether, demoralizing us and leading to burnout.  

Striving for perfection vs. excellence 

A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, Canada, tested how this distinction between seeking perfection vs. aiming for excellence plays out in creative idea generation.  

As the researchers defined it, striving for excellence is a tendency to “aim … toward very high yet attainable standards in an effortful, engaged, and determined yet flexible manner” (Gaudreau, 2019, p. 200).  This contrasts with what a perfectionist seeks which, instead, is a tendency to “aim … toward idealized, flawless, and excessively high standards in a relentless manner” (Gaudreau, 2019, p. 200).  

Someone who is striving for excellence will allow and recognize that reaching for a high standard is the goal.  And they will be flexible in getting there.  If, though, someone is striving toward perfection then reaching excellence may not be enough; even after they reach excellence, they may remain unsatisfied, and rigidly and unflexibly continue their drive toward an ever more impeccable and faultless outcome.

To examine how these different forms of striving might be related to creativity, the researchers performed two studies. Both experiments asked participants to complete divergent thinking tasks (e.g., the alternative uses task asking for different ways to use a brick, and generating the names of all the things they could think of that make noise).  Intriguingly, Study 2 included two additional measures to assess how flexibly people could generate ideas.  

One task was an association task.  In this task participants were given a starting word (e.g., “summer”) and then asked to continuously generate additional words where each successive word was related only to the immediately previous response.  For example, when starting with the word “summer” a participant might reply:  beach, sand, castle, knight, horse, and so on.  

The second task was a dissociation task.  In this task, the participant is instead asked to generate words that are unrelated to all of their prior responses.  In the case of the starting word of “summer” a participant might respond with words such as banana, bicycle, unicorn, planet, camp…

Participants also completed questionnaire measures of striving for perfection vs. excellence, and assessments of their openness-to-experience such as their tendencies toward exploring novel ideas.  

The creative costs of perfectionism

The researchers found that as a participant’s self-reported strivings for excellence increased, so too did the originality of their responses to the alternative uses task, and their self-reported openness to experience.  This was not true for a participant’s striving for perfection, which was even somewhat negatively related to scores on creativity and openness to experience.  

In Study 2, compared with perfection strivers, strivers for excellence also showed significantly higher numbers of ideas (fluency) including on the tasks measuring both their chains of related words (association) and their generation of unrelated words (dissociation).  So not only did those reaching for excellence, generate ideas of higher originality, they also were more flexible searchers in their idea landscapes.

To think about

  • Even though they are related, striving for excellence and striving for perfection are not one thing – they are not a single “monolithic” construct.   
  • We should think about how striving for perfection (rather than striving for excellence) may undermine our creative thinking and making.   
  • If we have especially high levels of motivation and are trying really (really!) hard, we may be tempted to avoid adopting novel approaches or strategies which are uncertain, and that may bring failure in their wake.  We may be tempted to stick with familiar and already-tried strategies. But although these familiar strategies will be less uncertain and less scary, they are also less likely to lead to truly novel or innovative solutions.  So sometimes trying really (really) hard may make it harder to be creative:  We want to be trying “just hard enough” but still to be patient with our own – sometimes messy and vague – ways of thinking.
  • Because striving for perfection may heighten our tendencies to critically analyze and judge, our self-critical stance may stand in the way of our ability to deeply immerse ourselves in our creative thinking-making endeavor.  Our self-doubts and evaluations may break the spontaneous flow and interconnectivity of ideas, and prevent the fragile bubbles of newly-forming ideas from reaching our conscious awareness.  Especially when we’re trying to find a new direction, or new perspective, we may need to put our internal critics “on hold” – telling them, they’ll have their chance, soon enough; for now though, they’re in the waiting room.  
  • So let’s strive for excellence, not perfection.  Striving for excellence will keep us creatively trying, making, and trying again.  


Chang, H-T., Chou, Y-J., Liou, J-W., & Tu, Y-T. (2016).  The effects of perfectionism on innovative behavior and job burnout: Team workplace friendship as a moderator.  Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 260–265.

Gaudreau, P. (2019).  On the distinction between personal standards perfectionism and excellencism: A theory elaboration and research agenda.  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14, 197–215.

Gaudreau, P. (2021). Separating the core definitional feature and the signature expressions of dispositional perfectionism: Implications for theory, research, and practice.  Personality and Individual Differences, 181, Early Access.

Goulet-Pelletier, J-C., Gaudreau, P., & Cousineau, D. (2021).  Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism.  British Journal of Psychology, Early Access.

Boosting Entrepreneurial Success through Decision Weaving

Source: aainayyahm via Wikimedia Commons

Bringing about positive change is not easy.  The path to meaningful and desired innovation is often an uphill one that calls on us, and our teams, to make decisions, decisions, decisions.  Small, medium, and large decisions.  Today we may need to decide between one opportunity and another, how to handle this persistent business snag, and what to do about that emergent difficulty.  

Each decision makes demands on our attention and thinking.  We need to gather (ferret out) information, put pieces together, make sense of the emerging patterns, all the while keeping track of what each newly learned fact, possibility, or interpretive slant means for our goals and aspirations.  

And it’s not just the large attentional load of identifying, finding, and integrating incoming factual information.  There’s how we feel about what we learn that also must be dealt with.  The weighing and balancing is shot through with feelings of excitement, or enthusiasm, or anxious tuggings and doubts.  Is it possible?  Am I (or the team) reading this situation quite as it is?  What if the other route – the one we’re choosing not to take – is really the best one?  What really should our strategy be?  

We’re here in the heart of the process of both forming – and finding – a strategy.  This is what any new entrepreneurial endeavor must creatively grapple with.

An in-depth research dive into venture strategy creation

Two researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford University joined forces to take an in-depth look at the creative process of forming and finding an entreprenurial strategy

To begin, the researchers began by identifying several new entrepreneurial ventures in different domains: culinary experiences, home services, and parking technology.  They started following the ventures (small, privately owned, professionally funded young firms) about one year after the firms were founded, and continued to follow them in four waves of data collection at 6–9 month intervals, as the ventures created, learned, experimented, and changed their strategies. 

The researchers collected and combed through many different sources of data: interviews with the top management team and other informants such as investors, archival data from company websites, social media, and the venture’s own records.  Obtaining data from multiple sources, and in real time, gave a bigger picture of the landscape of opportunities – and problems – at a given moment in time, and how those opportunities/problems were evaluated and perceived by different stakeholders. 

The magic of sequential focus – plus stepping stones

So what did all this in-depth delving into entrepreneurial strategy reveal?

Two key insights emerged. 

(1) Ventures that later proved to be successful did not try to do everything at once.  Rather, successful ventures largely concentrated their time and efforts in one of the main areas of the enterprise at a time, sometimes for many months at a time.  This is what the researchers called “sequential focus.” 

Once “good enough” performance was reached in one (foregrounded) domain, then the team’s focus moved to a different previously backgrounded domain, before again circling back to the initial domain at a later point.  

But sequential focus was not the only important finding.  

(2) There were smaller, low-cost, opportunistic background moves called, by the researchers, “stepping stones.”  Successful venture teams were passively observing and peripherally learning incidental things in the nonfocal domain and taking small steps there, if that step could be readily accomplished.

Sequential focus, interleaved with the practice of stepping stones, together creates a mode of strategy formation/creation that the researchers captured with the description of “decision weaving.” 

Schematic of decision weaving with its sequential focus and stepping stones. Source: W. Koutstaal.

What sequential focus gives us

The cognitive costs of switching between even only two simple tasks are well-known.  Yet the cognitive costs of switching may be even higher when, rather than simple tasks, the switching is between complex multidimensional projects or components of a project.  

Without sequential focus, a team may end up, “doing a lot of things poorly” (p. 2295).  Or in the words of another failed venture leader, without it, a team may find themselves locked into a reactive mode, reacting with little time for thought, planning, or understanding, in “a constant pendulum, it’s just shifting back and forth and we’re always slightly out of balance” (p. 2302).

Sequential focus provides the needed leeway for learning.  It gives the mental time and space for drawing connections between actions and consequences, for exercising systematic controlled thought, and for developing one’s mental model of those connections of the then-in-focus domain.  Without a too-early stretching for perfection, sequential focus creates an essential buffer of flexibility, enabling resilient adaptation to changing circumstances.  

At the same time, stepping stones – temporarily placing some parts of what we need to do into the background of our thinking – provides the benefits of psychological distance (seeing the forest, not only the trees). It also allows space for purposively taking relatively easy, low-resource opportunistic actions and engaging in low-cost learning.   


Bendoly, E., Swink, M., & Simpson, W. P. III (2014).  Prioritizing and monitoring concurrent project work: Effects on switching behavior.  Production and Operations Management, 23, 847–860. doi: 10.1111/poms.12083

Ott, T. E., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (2020).  Decision weaving: Forming novel, complex strategy in entrepreneurial settings.  Strategic Management Journal, 41, 2275–2314. doi: 10.1002/smj.3189

Vandierendonck, A., Liefooghe, B., & Verbruggen, F. (2010).  Task switching: Interplay of reconfiguration and interference control.  Psychological Bulletin, 136, 601–626.  doi: 10.1037/a0019791

The Creative Cliff Illusion: What It Is, What to Do About It

Why we wrongly think we are running out of good ideas  

Cliff approaching . . . Image source: Suicasmo via Wikimedia Commons

Our beliefs or intuitions about ourselves are powerful guides that can, though, sometimes lead us astray.  The “Creative Cliff Illusion” is a striking example of this…

Creative ideas are rarely born in a single isolated instant.  Most creative ideas emerge after a gradual (sometimes bumpy) developmental trajectory that is sustained over minutes, hours, days, or even years.  Novel, unique, and insightful responses often appear after we have devoted sustained thought, time, and effort to searching for creative ideas.

But it may not always feel that way.  Instead, it may feel as though, after a short time, we’ve fully exhausted all the possible good ideas we have.  With time, our new ideas start arriving more slowly.  There’s often lags, lulls, and then even longer lags between each idea.  Our creative search can start to feel increasingly frustrating and unfruitful:  Shouldn’t we just say, “sorry, that’s all that I’ve got” and move on?   

But this is just when we may be right in the heart of the illusory phenomenon, firmly under the sway of the creative cliff illusion.

What Is the Creative Cliff Illusion?

When we’re under this illusion, we take (or rather mis-take) how we feel about our creative thinking process for the actual potential outcomes of our search.  We think:  If it feels frustratingly unproductive, then it must actually be unproductive.  But that’s precisely the illusion, that we’ve reached a sheer creative drop off or cliff in our novel idea generation, yet if only we had persisted…

Let’s take a look at some of the evidence for the illusion. 

A key source of evidence contrasts the predictions or expectations that people have about the trajectory of their creative output on an idea generation task across time with their actual creativity on the same task. 

In one study, participants were asked to generate ideas for how a charity organization might go about increasing donations from its local community.  The participants (110 individuals from Amazon Mechanical Turk) predicted that their creative ideas would be highest during the inital two minutes of the allotted five minutes for this idea generation challenge, and that their creative ideas would decline sharply after about three minutes. 

In fact, independent ratings of the ideas the participants actually generated revealed the exact opposite pattern:  Their actual creative ideas gradually increased throughout the first four minutes, reaching and remaining at the highest levels during the last two minutes of the idea-generation task. 

Was this perhaps because the participants had little knowledge of the task domain?  This seemed not to be the case.  A further study in which the participants were explicitly selected because they had prior experience working for a charity organization yielded a very similar cross-over pattern of expected creative output vs. actual creative output.  The participants expected their creative ideas to start trailing off and to be at their lowest in the final two minutes of their idea generation phase.  Yet it was, in point of fact, during those final two minutes that they produced their most (independently rated) creative ideas.   

Might it have been something about the brief (5 minute) idea generation tasks that led to these outcomes?  Again, this seemed not to be the source of the illusion.  Similar outcomes were found when (a) college students were given 20 minutes to generate ideas for products that their college bookstore could sell that would help roommates to get along better with one another, (b) students, alumni, and community members were asked to identify a challenge that they themselves faced in their everyday lives and given several successive (10-minute and 5-minute) ideation sessions over 5 different days.

It seems that there is a deep and pervasive disconnection between our expectations of when we will be most creative, and when, in fact, we tend to be most creative.  This disconnection, or mistaken perception, is not even dispelled when the creative problems to which we are seeking solutions are highly individual and personal. 

Yet there were a few notable cases in which the illusion seemed to take a less strong hold:  (1) when the participants indicated that they had high levels of everyday creative experience (but not low or medium levels), and (2) when participants were directly instructed and forewarned about the disconnection.  In both of these cases, participants’ predicted pattern of creativity across the ideation task more closely paralleled the trajectory of their actual creativity.

Why “the cliff” matters

Abandoning creative search too soon means that some highly innovative, imaginative, and valuable ideas are never found and never emerge into our awareness.  By truncating our creative search too soon, we settle for outcomes/solutions/approaches to a problem that are less innovative, less creative, less fitting, and less valuable than we might have discovered if we’d only actively searched longer.  

And it’s not just one idea that is thereby forgone.  Because good creative ideas themselves so often spark, support, and segue to other creative ideas (both individually, and collectively, as others learn about a novel emergent idea), it may be an entire cluster or domain of ideas, or an extended lineage of creatively-ignited investigation, that is lost.

What to do about it

  • The first line of defense may be increased awareness of the potential for the “creative cliff” misperception, and to proactively seek to counteract it. 
  • Be patient through the lulls, lags, and lengthy pauses between your own ideas. 
  • Equally important, be patient during the gaps in the idea generation process of others. 
  • Give your ideas (and the ideas of others) some leeway, some space and time around and in between each idea.  Surprising insights, never-before-noticed connections and valuable alternative ways of combining ideas may emerge – if we give (gift!) ourselves the time and space necessary for them to form. 
  • Recognize, too, that persistence in creative search comes in many forms. 
  • Persistence does not necessarily require one long, continuous, or entirely uninterrupted period of dedication to our creative idea pursuit.  A recent lab-based assessment of people’s tendency on creative task items to shift versus to persist (dwell) on a given item revealed that a combination of both dwelling and shifting predicted the number of original ideas that participants generated. Both dwelling and shifting are needed.
  • Interspersed breaks, followed by returning to and reviving your idea search, are likewise modes of persistence, that may ultimately yield rich rewards.


Basadur, M., & Thompson, R. (1986). Usefulness of the ideation principle of extended effort in real world professional and managerial creative problem solving.  Journal of Creative Behavior, 20, 23–34.

Chan, J., & Schunn, C. D. (2015).  The importance of iteration in creative conceptual combination.  Cognition, 145, 104–115. 

Lucas, B. J., & Nordgren, L. F. (2020).  The Creative Cliff Illusion.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117, 19830–19836.

Wu, Y., & Koutstaal, W. (2020).  Charting the contributions of cognitive flexibility to creativity: Self-guided transitions as a process-based index of creativity-related adaptivity.  PLOS ONE, 15, Article e0234473.

Time Pressure and the Trying Trajectory of Team Creativity: Why the midpoint of project timelines is a critical window for breakthroughs

The many changing senses of time. Source: John Cummings via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all probably been there, at least once, and perhaps more times than we care to remember.  The group or team project that, from the outset, just seems to be going nowhere.  There’s lots of animated discussion, many meetings or emails, plenty of back-and-forth (and back again) with ideas and possibilities.  New options and variations on options keep appearing.  It can all seem so meandering, so directionless, even counterproductive….

But then, as the timeline deadline for the project approaches, and the team draws nearer to the midpoint of the timeline, things start to happen.  There’s a flurry of decisions, some possibilities are dropped or unceremoniously jettisoned as infeasible or too vague, other possibilities are merged or recombined into promising, specific, and welcomed ones.  The team assigns portions of the project to smaller subgroups, and the subgroups or individuals within them start working in earnest, and in parallel.  There’s a newly emerging collective team feeling of purposeful forward endeavor, and growing optimism that the team will successfully make or deliver the desired outcome.

But why does the creative process of team projects, and often of individual projects too, follow this seemingly strange and decidedly bumpy trajectory across time?  

Time as a resource and a constraint: Neither too much nor too little

Time is undoubtedly a valuable and necessary resource for creative endeavors.  It is also very often a limited resource, that is felt to be in short supply.  In in-depth interviews with more than 25 Research and Development (R&D) teams, with R&D goals ranging from developing new electronics technology to software innovation to novel materials for the medical industry, constraints on time were by far the most frequently mentioned constraint on teams’ creative processes. 

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, having a very large or unlimited amount of time is not necessarily a boon to creative ideation or innovation.  Instead, several theories suggest that the amount of time that is dedicated to a project, like other resources, can be too generous; there can be too much time allotted.  If so, the overly expansive time allocation can paradoxically produce a sense of complacency, and insufficient attention to whether time is being spent wisely.  

Creative and innovative thinking clearly requires enough room for flexiblity, experimentation, and exploration – or what has been termed “slack” by organizational researchers.  Yet too much room, too much slack, can smother, rather than spark, imagination and imaginative ingenuity.  

Researchers have found that the midpoint in a project timeline often seems to be a dividing line – a psychological breaking point or inflection point – between two contrasting team perspectives on time.  Before the midpoint, teams may have a sense that there’s a sufficiently generous amount of time remaining, allowing them to engage in wider exploration, experimentation, and varied responding.  But once the midpoint of the timeline is reached, or is closely approaching, there’s often a turning point.  Now, teams start to feel anxious that it’s a time for decisions to be made, for actions to be taken.  They are on the lookout for increased efficiency in how effort – and time – are spent.  At this point there may be a valuable pruning of ideas and/or synergistic merging and ingenious recombining of ideas: the team zooms in and selects the smaller subset of ideas that the project will commit to carrying forward. 

The bumpy project timeline. Source: W. Koutstaal

The qualitative forms of time 

The creative and innovative knowledge outcomes of time given to creative projects and innovation is not just a matter of “how much” time (the quantity of time) that is devoted.  The quality of time also matters.  It is crucially important how the allotted time subjectively feels to the team or individual, and how the allotted time connects to the required deliverables, including the final deadline of the project.  

Indeed, innovation researchers are increasingly focusing on the many ways in which project time is not simply “time” but comes in many different forms.  And the different forms of time relate not only to a central creative aim but also for “off-shoot” (tangential, branching) creative ideas that happen to emerge.  For these tangential, branching ideas, too, there needs to be sufficient time after idea generation for exploration, experimentation, and variation.  Without the right amount of such “slack” potentially valuable ideas will never be given the space and opportunity to fully develop.  We and our teams need to be mindful of the different psychological qualities of time and their dynamically changing – sometimes bumpy – contributions to the creative process.


April, S., Oliver, A. L., & Kalish, Y. (2019).  Organizational creativity‐innovation process and breakthrough under time constraints: Mid‐point transformation.  Creativity and Innovation Management, 28, 318–328.

Nohria, N., & Gulati, R. (1996).  Is slack good or bad for innovation?  Academy of Management Journal, 39, 1245–1264.

Puech, L., & Durand, T. (2017).  Classification of time spent in the intrapreneurial process.  Creativity and Innovation Management, 26, 142–151.

Richtnér, A., & Åhlström, P. (2010).  Organizational slack and knowledge creation in product development projects: The role of project deliverables.  Creativity and Innovation Management, 19, 428–437.

Russo, B. D. (2014). Creativity and constraints: Exploring the role of constraints in the creative processes of research and development teams.  Organization Studies, 35, 551–585.

The breakthrough power of bridging from novelty to the known

The breakthrough power of bridging from novelty to the known

How do we move within and across the spaces of ideas, to discover new possibilities? Should we leap into unexplored territory, or loop within and around what we know well? 

This is the classic choice in idea search between exploration and exploitation. Exploratory search is characterized by searching in novel and unfamiliar idea spaces, on the outer frontiers of what is known.  In contrast, exploitative search involves seeking within and around relatively familiar ideas, delving deeper into what’s already apparently known or understood.  

Exploration is characterized as decidedly risky, but it can lead to radical breakthrough innovations and revolutionary discoveries.  Exploitation, instead, leads to what seem to be more incremental (step-by-step) discoveries that are less impactful, and do not so sharply upturn or up-heave the idea/making landscape of a field or industry.   

But is this depiction of how breakthrough innovations come about fully accurate?  Or does it simplify a process that is more nuanced, iterative, and unfolding?

Re-evaluating the exploration vs. exploitation dichotomy

To address this question, two researchers at Harvard Business School turned to a very large database of possible innovations – more than 1.5 million U.S. patent applications, spanning some 30 years and more than 2,500 companies.  From within this dataset  they focused especially on those patents that were applied for in the year 2005.  To differentiate the patents that involved “breakthrough” inventions, they used a measure of how often the 2005 patent was itself cited (referenced) in later patents within the same technological class. The 4,743 patents that had a high level of forward citations (the top 5% of forward citations) were classified as “breakthroughs” and were compared with 69,499 non-breakthrough patents.  

Then, to gain a fuller and richer picture of the process leading up to successful innovations, the researchers specifically looked at all patent applications, not only those that were successful or granted patents. This provided information about what the firm was attempting to do, the technological information/know-how that the firms were using at that time, and how the firms believed their approach built upon and was different from prior patents (known as “prior-art citations”) in the same technology class.  

The researchers combined these data with other indices of the firm’s patents and related patents to create a new measure of how close the sought-for patent was to already-known technology.  This new measure, which they called “technological focal proximity” would have a value near one when the invention was very close to the previous theoretical knowledge of the firm, but would approach zero as the content of the patent application diverged very far away from the firm’s existing knowledge.

So what did they discover?

The process leading up to all of the patent applications, whether breakthrough or non-breakthrough, initially started at a point where the firms had comparatively less knowledge or expertise (average value of the “technological focal proximity” slightly below .20).  This suggests that innovation starts with a period of exploration, in a knowledge or idea space that is quite far away from the firm’s prior knowledge. 

The breakthrough vs. nonbreakthrough inventions also showed different knowledge trajectories. Charting the firms’ “technological focal proximity” to the patent applications over the 30 years prior to the application showed breakthrough and non-breakthrough inventions followed different trajectories.  Their trajectories were also non-overlapping.  This meshes nicely with the well-accepted notion that the search processes behind breakthrough versus non-breakthrough inventions are significantly different. 

Crucially, however, especially in the 10 years immediately prior to the application for the patent, the breakthrough patents were closer to the firm’s technological competence than were the non-breakthrough patents.  Surprisingly, and contrary to the conventional exploration-exploitation dichotomy, breakthrough patents were not farther away from the firm’s knowledge or competencies at any point across the 30 years.  

Indeed, breakthrough inventions were especially likely to emerge in those firms that, in the 5 to 10 years leading up to the patent application, concentrated their research and search efforts in the technological and knowledge neighborhood nearby to that of the invention.  As ideas and know-how within and surrounding the “promising find” are more deeply delved into and connected, the ideas/processes/materials that were once novel and unfamiliar become increasingly understood and familiar.  

Stated simply:  The story behind breakthrough innovations, then, is not only one of exploration, or only exploitation, but of both.  Although the learning and searching process for both breakthrough and non-breakthrough discoveries started out as exploratory, firms that transitioned to an increasingly concentrated exploitation search in once-unfamiliar idea territory were significantly more likely to produce breakthrough inventions.   

To think about

We’re remarkably adept at the mental act of categorizing things.  It is both a unique strength – and an often-encountered downfall – of the human mind.  

The strength of such categorizations, in dealing with one another and with our world, comes from how they allow us to notice and name what otherwise we might have missed.  Categorization can change our ways of interacting, responding, and forming effective working models of the world in our heads.  

The downfall of such categorizations is that we start to take these lines that we have drawn in the mental sands of our minds, as lines that are really out there, as sharp demarcations and solid boundaries that exist in the world outside our head.  We take (mis-take) conceptually created and mentally postulated lines for lines that are real.

Perhaps there are parallels here to another distinction often made with regard to the process of generating creative ideas:  that between flexibility (when we move across and between different domains or perspectives) and persistence (dwelling, staying with one domain or perspective to deeply mine and intermesh ideas).  Both flexibility and persistence are necessary.  Neither alone is sufficient.  For breakthrough inventions – or for everyday creatively adaptive problem solving – we need both flexibility and persistence, both exploration and exploitation.  And transitions between each. 

To deeply and meaningfully innovate, we need both leaps, and loops, in our idea spaces.


March, J. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2, 71–87.

Nijstad, B. A., De Dreu, C. K. W., Rietzschel, E. F., & Baas, M. (2010).  The dual pathway to creativity model: Creative ideation as a function of flexibility and persistence. European Review of Social Psychology, 21, 34–77.

Sarnecka, D. K., & Pisano, G. P. (2020). The evolutionary nature of breakthrough innovation: Reevaluating the exploration vs. exploitation dichotomy.  Harvard Business School, Working Paper 21-071.

Wu, Y., & Koutstaal, W. (2020).  Charting the contributions of cognitive flexibility to creativity: Self-guided transitions as a process-based index of creativity-related adaptivity.  PLOS ONE, 15(6): e0234473.

Image Source: Karsten Knöfler via Wikimedia Commons

Creative Imagination: Inside and Outside the Head

Creative Imagination: Inside and Outside the Head

When we are asked what we mean by “imagination,” what springs immediately to mind may be thoughts such as that of a small child creating vivid imaginary worlds peopled by one or more imaginary playmates, or of someone (young or older) who loves to engage in pretend or role play.  Or we may think of someone we know who can (almost magically) take seemingly unrelated ideas (characters, objects) and creatively interweave them together into a compelling story or picture.

Each of these are, indeed, clear examples of imagination.  But they’re all examples of only one sort.  They’re all bundled together under a more specific heading that a recent process-based exploration of imagination would call “expressive imagination.”  This form of expressive imagination – typified by such creative activities as storytelling, role-playing, and day-dreaming – emerges in a largely bottom-up way from an individual’s personal prior experiences and existing mental representations.  It’s imagination that springs from “inside the head.”

But there is another form of imagination, equally valued and valuable.  

Rather than emerging primarily from within an individual’s internal world of memory and mental concepts, creative imagination can also be focused outward, on the external world.  With an intense outward gaze, it is quietly on the lookout for patterns, relations, or connections in the external world.  Peering outward, this form of imagination – sometimes called “instrumental imagination” – often is purposefully directed toward specific problems.  

Let’s look at a recent research study that exemplifies how we might use both these forms of imagination.

The setting

The story begins in an interactive exhibit at a museum, variously visited by individuals, families, or groups. Set off in its own room is a large multi-touch tabletop, with glowing lights and wooden blocks of various sorts.  As we enter, we’re told to imagine that we are electrical engineers trying to help “fictional scientists in an uncharted aquatic cave teeming with never-before-documented species of bioluminescent fish.”  We can design and build glowing fishing lures using different colored LEDs.  If assembled correctly, a virtual circuit (a circuit with the correct ratio of resistors, batteries, and LEDs) will glow, attracting the fish out of the cave, allowing the scientists to identify and catalog them.  Each museum visitor can choose which of the many fish to try to lure into the light, and, although each visitor can see and talk with the others, each visitor’s block-assembling actions do not affect the actions of other co-visitors at the table. 

Some museum-goers start interacting with the blocks and, through experimentation and trial-and-error or experimentation in combination with prior learning, they find a way to configure the blocks successfully.  There’s a sudden bright glow and a fish emerges from the darkness of the cave toward the light for everyone to see.  But other museum-goers have trouble finding a configuration of the blocks that will work. They try this and that, and that and that, without success.  What happens then?  What happens when it seems that failure is facing us?

This was exactly the question the researchers of the exhibit wanted to answer.  When failure seemed to be looming large and the way forward was not clear, what patterns of interaction –with the blocks or of the museum visitors with each other – could help get over the hurdle that obstructed them?  What actions would impel them forward, enabling them to transition from unproductive, frustrating, and unfruitful attempts, to a productive and successful approach?

To answer this question, the researchers videotaped visitors’ interactions at the tabletop using three unobtrusive cameras and an audio recording.  (A sign outside the room indicated when videotaping was taking place, so participants could choose to enter during recording or enter at a different time.)  The actions of 3,546 participants were recorded, leading to more than 47,000 separate actions.  But that presented its own challenge:  What to do with that massive amount of data?  How could it tell us anything about which actions led from frustratingly unproductive to rewardingly productive search and experimentation?

Finding patterns

And here is where the research team put together some powerful pattern-detecting methods.  First, they developed a systematic way to keep track of all of the circuits that each visitor made.  For example, if a visitor arrived at the table and made a complex circuit with many components that did not work, but it was their first attempt at that type of circuit, and no one else at the table had tried anything like it, it would be coded as “CNUO” (complex, not-working, unique for them, and original to the table). If another visitor arrived, and made a simple 3-component circuit that worked, and it was the first time they had made it, but it followed the same configuration as that of another visitor who was at the table during the same time, this would be coded as “SWUE” (simple, working, unique for them, and an echo of someone else’s circuit).  

This coding scheme allowed the researchers to develop what is called a “Hidden Markov Model” (HMM) to predict when a visitor was likely to move from an unproductive circuit-making state (when they were making a circuit that did not work) to a productive one.  Using this model, they could tell that once a visitor reached a productive state (with one working circuit), they most often continued to generate other circuits that were also working.  But if a visitor instead transitioned from a productive state to an unproductive state, they very rarely returned to a productive state.  That is, if a visitor fell into an unproductive state, they tended to remain there, until leaving the exhibit.  

But still, a few visitors did go back to making productive circuits.  What was different about the visitors who did get over the hurdle, from the many others who never managed to get unstuck?

Getting past the hurdle of failure

To answer this, the researchers first used the Markov Model to create a list of all the participants who moved from a sequence of three or more unproductive circuits – suggesting a sustained and persistent exploration of the problem – to a productive one.  Out of all 3,546 participants, only 204 participants (less than 6% of all participants) showed this pattern of getting across the hurdle from a series of unsuccessful attempts to a successful one.  

Next the researchers zoomed in on 22 such instances, all from one day of the visitors’ interactions.  They now applied another more detailed and contextually-enriched coding scheme to capture exactly what participants were doing at each point.

What they found is that in the great majority of cases, leaps forward came after a “stuck-in-a-rut” visitor stopped to watch how other visitors at the table were configuring their blocks (75% of the instances) or in which the “stuck-in-a-rut” visitor actually interacted with others at the table (53% of the instances).  

That is, the move toward success came when the visitors who were stuck switched, at least temporarily, from simply working in parallel or alongside other visitors on the task to a more mutual or collaborative approach.  These two types of actions (“boundary spanning perception” and “boundary spanning action”) were also often coupled with other forms of interaction, such as asking for clarification or making suggestions. 

So, a key and substantial contributor to the transition from unproductive exploration and tinkering to productive exploration was the spontaneous collaborative interaction that occurred between visitors, who were often strangers to one another.

Creatively finding patterns

Seeing and documenting this across-visitor pattern required the imaginative combination of two externally focused forms of pattern detection.  First, creation and development of the “Hidden Markov Model” enabled the researchers to selectively identify, and flag for further study, those few promising instances – from the millions of events across thousands of visitors – in which museum-goers at the tabletop transitioned from a sustained unproductive state to a productive state.  Second, the researchers needed to create, and apply, a systematic coding system of the types of interactions that visitors could engage in.  And then, the visitors themselves tell us something important about different types of imagination as well.

To creatively understand our world, we clearly need everything that internally generated expressive imagination can give us.  But, equally, we need instrumental or pattern-focused imagination, coupled with collaborative interaction and feedback, to empower us to better chart and comprehend both our world, and each other.  We need creative imagination – inside and outside our heads.  


Feng, Z., Logan, S., Cupchik, G., Ritterfeld, U., & Gaffin, D. (2017). A cross-cultural exploration of imagination as a process-based concept. Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousnesss in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice, 37, 69–94.

Tissenbaum, M. (2020).  I see what you did there! Divergent collaboration and learner transitions from unproductive to productive states in open-ended inquiry.  Computers & Education, 145, 103739.

Tissenbaum, M., Berland, M., & Lyons, L. (2017). DCLM framework: Understanding collaboration in open-ended tabletop learning environments. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 12, 35–64.

Image source: Archivo Agencia Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

Putting Forgetting to Creative Work!

Successfully realizing positive change, whether in individuals or in teams, is tough work.  It’s tough work because of the many different challenges that must be met when people strive to generate, iteratively revise, and implement good innovative ideas.  

But that’s not all.  

Keeping a new idea or novel perspective in mind, carrying it forward from day to day, may also demand that we forget. We may need to set aside – or thoroughly unlearn – our previous ways of doing and thinking.  For good innovations to both survive and thrive, sometimes forgetting or unlearning may be crucial.  

Yet such unlearning can itself be demanding.  In a 2020 report documenting a series of semi-structured interviews with 30 members of 10 new product development teams, researchers at the University of Liechtenstein identified a common thread of informational overload.  New product development team members in industries ranging from clinical informatics to electrical engineering to lighting solutions, spoke of the flood of new information that they regularly encounter – and how this makes it hard to know what to leave behind.  “The problem is, that more and more communication channels are opened and none are closed,” and “because developers are overloaded with new things [they] do not always notice that old things are obsolete.” (p. 590)

How to take advantage of intentional forgetting and unlearning

Novel ideas often need to compete with many already existing ideas, including ways of thinking and acting that have become deeply entrenched habits.  If our previous ways of doing things have become obsolete, or there are new organizational processes, objectives, or challenges that we are facing, it may be helpful to purposefully try to “unlearn” earlier methods. 

In the daily course of things, with ongoing time pressure and deadlines, “unlearning” can prove challenging.  It can take time, attention, and effort to step back and evaluate well-established routines and conceptual frameworks to ask if they are still necessary, or if they are optimized to current needs and goals.  Providing specific and regularly occurring times for reflection and evaluation, for stepping back and re-assessing how and why particular routines are “the way we do things” can be valuable in identifying outdated ways of doing and thinking, before they become larger and looming problems.  

By frequently and periodically adopting a sceptical, questioning, and flexible mindset – such as asking, why, exactly, certain assumptions are being made – individuals and teams can better stay alert to the wider, often rapidly changing and unpredictable context in which they are situated.  In the words of one New Product Development team member interviewed by the  researchers, “A lot about creativity and a lot about learning and evolving and growing is about being skeptical with what you really know” (p. 594).

Another way to step outside old frameworks is to literally “step outside” in a separate and discrete “island” of time and space for a team to work as they seek to develop new ideas.  One NPD team member described how a team charged with developing an entirely new product spent one day a week, for about a year, in a separate space, without phones, and isolated from daily business, “completely without templates.”  (p. 595)

Clearing a space of the many sorts of “material memory” that teams and individuals acquire, such as notes, manuals, prototypes, models, and blueprints, may paradoxically pave the way for the emergence of new ideas and new ways of doing.  Once in a while selectively and purposefully removing notes, documents, or other bits and pieces from earlier (successful or not-so-successful) creative projects – stashing them in a drawer, piling them in a box, moving them to a different digital or paper folder, out of sight – can remove physical reminders of earlier modes of thinking, clearing the way for fresh forays in creative thought.

But unintentional forgetting is important too

Accidental and unintended loss of knowledge is perhaps what comes most quickly and vividly to mind when we think about how knowledge loss occurs, and is shown in the lower left quadrant of the following schematic mapping of types of knowledge loss processes.

Source: Adapted from de Holan & Phillips (2011) and Klammer & Gueldenberg (2020).

Unintended knowledge loss from a team may occur through the departure or turnover of team members, or organizational restructuring, or inadequate record-keeping.  It may also occur through the passage of time or the introduction of new procedures, tools, or devices.  Research with surgeons who perform hip replacement operations shows that, even on the timescale of days, switching to a new task or a slightly different replacement device, brings with it some loss of “procedural know-how.”  Even for experienced surgeons, the first time using a new device leads to a marked increase in the duration of the surgery procedure, and gaps between when the same device is used (device-specific forgetting) can modestly, but still significantly, increase the surgery duration.  Given this, the gains from introducing any new device or procedure need to be “large enough to compensate for the short-term disadvantage of starting up on a new learning curve and, also, of increasing the chances of knowledge depreciation over time” (p. 2605).  

Still, it’s complicated:  With too much repetition, our (or our surgeon’s!) motivation, attention, and engagement may wane, or drastically drop off, as we become bored and fatigued with the same-old execution of steps.  Variety can bolster motivational commitment – and foster the mastery of important skills and know-how that can be adaptively applied in other situations that we may encounter. 

Handled adroitly, and with a steady eye on our ideals, both unintentional and intentional (purposeful) forgetting can help us creatively move forward whether as individuals or as teams.

Both intentional forgetting and unintentional forgetting can play sometimes privotal roles in adapting to needed change.  Each can either help propel positive change forward, giving it momentum, or stand in the way, slowing and blocking new ways of thinking and doing. 

To think about

  • What ways are you or your team tightly holding on to past ways of doing things that would be better discarded, or silently slipped into a drawer and left behind?
  • Conversely, are you too cavelier or overly casual about the process of physically capturing and communicating valuable knowledge?  Do you have strong communication and good documentation nets to capture you and your team’s established ways of doing and lines of reasoning? And what becomes of newly emerging ideas that might inspire and impel you on a fresh course?
  • In the shorter-term, working on a single or a few tasks for a brief time (hours, perhaps days) may often be best.  Longer-term, though, are you interspersing repeated tasks with different or varied ones – adding the spice of variety – building your and your team’s longer-term competencies, engagement, and knowledge?
  • Do you welcome a skeptical and flexibly questioning mindset – recognizing that a little well-placed doubt may leave everyone better prepared to tackle unforeseen difficulties, large or small, and better ready them to make the most of newly arising opportunities?


De Holan, P. M., & Phillips, N. (2011).  Organizational forgetting.  In Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management (M. Easterby-Smith  and M. A. Lyles, Eds., pp. 433–451). John Wiley & Sons.

Klammer, A., & Gueldenberg, S. (2020).  Honor the old, welcome the new: An account of unlearning and forgetting in NPD [new product development] teams.  European Journal of Innovation Management, 23, 581–603.

López, L., & Sune, A. (2013).  Turnover-induced forgetting and its impact on productivity.  British Journal of Management, 24, 38–53.

Ramdas, K., Saleh, K., Stern, S., & Liu, H. (2018).  Variety and experience: Learning and forgetting in the use of surgical devices.  Management Science, 64, 2590–2608.

Staats, B. R., & Gino, F. (2012).  Specialization and variety in repetitive tasks: Evidence from a Japanese bank.  Management Science, 58, 1141–1159.

What’s Your Problem? Innovating by Self-Imposing Constraints: Using deliberately chosen constraints to reshape your creative problems

Giving challenges new shape! Source: Andrew Butko via Wikimedia Commons.


Asking someone, “What’s your problem?” can seem like a confrontational challenge.  It’s like saying, “So, tell me:  What’s irking you?  What is it that’s nagging you or getting under your skin, unsettling you?”

Yet problems are rarely so tightly and completely spelled out that there is no room for creativity in how we define the problem.  Because solutions and problems mutually inform one another, when posed in the right spirit, asking “What’s your problem” could be a well-timed, well-meaning, and well-informed impetus to exploring opportunities for new and creative solutions.  “What’s your problem?” can be a welcome invitation to creative thinking and creative problem finding.

In the many worlds in which we are called on to make things – design, engineering, art, education, everyday living – there is often an important difference between how a problem is presented to us, and what the problem really is (or could be).  Problems as presented are not problems fully and clearly defined.

But how do we get from the oftentimes muddy, vague, or indeterminate way a problem is presented – a presentation that may even subtly miss or misconstrue the vital nub of the issue – to a more clearly and precisely defined problem that more fully squares with the real issues at hand?

Getting particular about problem particulars

Although much research in design and engineering has focused on strategies for solving problems, fewer studies have focused on the earlier stages of problem exploration or problem discovery.  Still, there are some notable hints, including some new cues based on a recent study that took a fresh tack to addressing this question.

Let’s take a closer look at the findings from that recent study, led by a team of four researchers in industrial design, mechanical engineering, and psychology at Iowa State University and the University of Michigan.

The researchers started by pulling together two independent sources of publicly available data.  On the one side, they drew upon an existing database of presented problems relating to product design.  On the other side, delving into the records of a number of crowd-sourced design competitions and documents on award-winning designs, they compiled a set of discovered problems and solutions.  Then they systematically compared what was first given, in the presented problem, with how the problem was further unearthed (“dis-covered”) by different design teams.

Take their example of a challenge to design a “next generation” outdoor playground.  The “presented problem” might state a number of requirements, say, that the playground system must be modular, allowing the user to adjust the playground equipment to different sites and to modify the configuration to permit a wider and more varied set of experiences.  Other presented requirements might be that the playground equipment must be independently accessible by children in wheelchairs, and must be visually appealing in both urban and natural settings.

Given this design brief, one team identified and imposed some of their own particular constraints.  They decided that the playground should be especially intended for children between the ages of 6 to 12 years, and should take inspiration from the ways in which children of those ages are interested in relating to, and competing with, their friends during play.  Rather than modular structures, they thought of their system as involving “constellations” that could be readily re-configured into new challenging and inviting groupings and shapes.

Across a wide array of design challenges and specific proposed responses to those challenges, the researchers extracted 32 different “problem exploration patterns” or sorts of self-generated constraints.  Each type of constraint was a method that designers and innovative teams used to move from a comparatively vague or underspecified design problem to something more specific and definite that the designing team could better creatively imaginatively and concretely grapple with.  Sometimes it involved broadening the setting of the problem, at other times narrowing it.  Sometimes it involved redefining the desired outcome, at other times adding secondary functions, or describing conditions in the natural environment.

The researchers then compared how many voluntarily added constraints a given design included.  They also looked at whether each design – incorporating from only one to six different problem explorations patterns – was selected as a finalist, was chosen as a semifinalist, or was not selected at all.

So, did adding constraints boost creativity?

Let’s look at the picture of their findings below.

Self-imposed constraints and innovation prize-winning. Source: Adapted from Figure 9 of Studer et al. (2018) by W Koutstaal, with raw counts changed to percentages within each group.


The green and yellow bars represent projects that were chosen as finalists and semifinalists respectively; gray bars represent projects that were not selected as prizeworthy.

We can see that all of the projects that earned a finalist prize had more than one deliberately added constraint.  Indeed, more than half of all the finalist-winning projects incorporated 3 or 4 self-generated constraints (32% and 26% respectively). Additionally, about 22% of the finalist-winning projects had 5 or 6 voluntarily applied constraints.

The simple take-away:  Design teams that found several different ways to deliberately spell out their own constraints for the problem they had been given were more likely to develop prize-winning solutions.  The constraints they chose to impose on the initially provided problem could be related to any of several aspects – the setting, the goals, limitations, and/or stakeholders.  But rather than rigidly confining the designers into a narrow idea space, by adding their own constraints to the problem, and changing the shape of the problem they were solving, the designers were freed to generate innovative solutions that might otherwise have been beyond their reach.


Studer, J. A., Daly, S. R., McKilligan, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2018). Evidence of problem exploration in creative designs.  Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, 32, 415–430.

Combatting the creative barrier of precrastination: Bringing time onto your side in the creative process

When to decide? Source: WomEOS via Wikimedia Commons

Postponing a decision or an action – putting it off until a later time or a different day – is sometimes both wise and necessary.  Despite this, we all know that sometimes we postpone too long; we put off making a needed decision, or taking a required action, repeatedly, over and over.  Tomorrow, we say, tomorrow, I’ll do that tomorrow.  Or later, I’ll decide.  And this postponing postponing can land us in the troubled ensnaring deeps of procrastination, where we rob ourselves of the needed time to fully and thoughtfully realize our creative aims or other goals.

Yet – painful and ensnaring as procrastination can be, had you ever thought that we might be prone to an opposite form of time-based error:  when we make decisions or take actions too soon, over-hastily and immediately, before we should?

Precrastination:  It’s a thing

Although we’re all familiar with procrastination, research has uncovered that in many situations we may engage in a form of “precrastination”– getting something done quickly just to get it done – that can be surprisingly contrary to “good sense.”

First discovered in research looking at the decisions that people made in a simple weight-carrying task, the researchers couldn’t quite believe what they observed.

In their first experiments, participants in a long lab room were asked to carry one of two plastic beach buckets to a platform farther down the room from them.  The two buckets were placed by the researchers in positions such as those shown in the diagram below.

The bucket carrying task. Source: Koutstaal, adapted from Rosenbaum et al. (2014).

Participants were instructed to pick up one of the two orange buckets (pictured with orange dots) and to carry it to the platform at the end (grey dots).  They were asked to walk down the room without stopping and to “do whatever seemed easier” – either to pick up and carry the left orange bucket to the left platform with their left hand, or to pick up and carry the right orange bucket to the right platform with their right hand.  Each of the orange buckets was situated such that its handle was upright and readily grasped.

The researchers had anticipated that participants would choose to pick up the bucket that was closest to the platform, so that they’d need to carry the bucket forward the shortest distance.

But this was not what they found.

Instead, participants most often picked up the first bucket that they passed (regardless of whether it was on their left hand or their right hand) – and so they ended up having to carry the bucket farther.

It wasn’t that participants didn’t know how heavy the buckets were.  All participants were given the opportunity to lift the buckets at the start of the experiment, so they knew how heavy they were (empty, or filled with 3.5 pounds or even 7 pounds of pennies in different experiments). They also took part in 16 different trials with the buckets in 16 different arrangements.  Still, this pattern, of most often choosing to pick up the first bucket they passed and therefore having to lug the bucket a longer distance, was repeatedly found.

Why did participants most often choose to pick up the bucket that they first approached, rather than the one farther down the room, so that they ended up carrying the bucket farther than was necessary?

Asked by the experimenters after they had completed all of the trials, the participants nearly always gave the same answer, saying something to the effect of, “I wanted to get the task done as soon as I could.”  They gave this reason when, in fact, the task would require the same amount of time regardless of whether they picked up the first and closest bucket after they started (then having to carry it farther) or picked up the second bucket (then having to carry it a shorter distance).

But then:  Why would participants feel that they were getting the task done sooner?  Hastening to complete one part or subgoal of their task – that of grabbing and lifting the bucket – seemed to make completion of the full task closer.  Grasping and lifting the first or nearer bucket also allowed the participants to clear their working memory of that subpart of their overall task.

Remembering to do an upcoming task (what is called “prospective memory”) is mentally demanding.  It seemed that the relief of clearing from working memory even the small subtask of picking up one of two objects was sufficiently attractive (throwing off a small mental load) that it offset the additional physical effort required to carry the picked-up object a farther distance.  Participants precrastinated even though it cost them greater physical effort.

But if there were noticeably greater cognitive demands linked to the carrying task then a different outcome was observed. When, in a new experiment, participants were instead asked to carry cups filled with water that could be easily spilled, and were asked to prevent any spilling (placing high demands on their attention), then participants rarely chose to pick up the nearest object.  Now participants most often chose to pick up the farther cup, minimizing the amount of cognitive effort they needed to expend to carry the brim-full cup with minimal spillage to the final platform.

Deferring decisions in creative endeavors

In more complex creative endeavors it can be challenging to wait, and to defer taking a decision on how a subtask should be completed, because deferring a decision feels like we’re not making progress.  Yet – as data from both self-reports of creative individuals and an in-depth case study of a musical composer suggest – deferring a creative decision (that is, avoiding precrastination) can sometimes allow us to take in new knowledge, expanding our creative problem-solving mindset, and, in turn open the opportunity for a new influx of creative ideas.

Let’s take a closer look at the in-depth case study of a professional Finnish composer (let’s call him Composer Z) creating a novel musical composition.

Early on, Composer Z had a broad sense of what his new extended musical piece should be, but his central creative idea was still vague and fuzzy.  It did not offer him straightforward guidance in the many immediate compositional decisions he needed to make.  Yet despite his uncertainty and despite deferring more global or overarching decisions, Composer Z did not stop working entirely.

Rather, “leaving an increasing number of empty bars in the score along with unanswered problems,” Composer Z moved ahead to different parts of the musical score, as he “persistently invented and experimented with his musical materials; he tested, associated, theorised, juxtaposed, applied and developed his ideas into new situations” (p. 224).  All the while he was continuously trying to relate what he was now learning to what he already had learned about the evolving musical piece, and trying to use it to further clarify (learn, see, feel) where he wanted it to go in the future. “The composer learned as he composed and composed more as he learned more.” (p. 224)

After this extended process of deferred decisions, Composer Z suddenly reached a critical point where his working and writing changed.  Rather than hesitation and confused and fragmented moves, his creative working now became highly fluent.  He made quick and effortless decisions, that seemed to him “surprisingly intuitive.”  These were not arbitrary choices, but appeared to be – from a music analysis point of view – “logical deductions based on nearly all the composer’s actions from the very beginning of the process” (p. 224).

Putting it all together

In your creative process and innovative endeavors, do you allow yourself (and your team) to engage in “purposeful decision deferral” – as Composer Z permitted himself to do during the creation of a new and challengingly innovative work – so as to avoid early stage commitments that are poorly grounded in your understanding of what a project could be?  Are you (sometimes) too eager simply to “do” subtasks, rather than to “fulfill them” (that is, “fully fill” them, with all the new understanding and knowledge that you will have gained by deferral)?

Purposeful decision deferral is not an excuse to “do nothing.”  Deferring the moment of decision is, rather, a way to gain a welcome window of time during which we can further explore and experiment with adjacent or alternative aspects of a problem space.  Purposeful decision deferral – that is the opposite of precrastination – is a way to give ourselves (and our mind/brain) time to reconfigure how we’re thinking, and time to inadvertently and often indirectly learn more about what our creative problem (really) needs.  Yet it’s tricky:  if we’re not fully attuned to where we are in our thinking/experimenting/exploring, purposeful decision deferral could be protracted beyond what is needed, to become the troubled ensnaring deeps of procrastination.

To think about

  • If you’re feeling a sense of urgency to get something done, where is that urgency coming from –is it real? Is it something that you’re generating – out of habit? Out of a wish to keep your mind and thinking space uncluttered? Or out of a desire for that “small burst of positive reward” you feel when you (mentally, or physically) check another item off of your to-do list?
  • If one of the reasons that you precrastinate is that you find it rewarding that something is “just done” (now scratched off your to-do list), could you change your take on what is rewarding and instead find rewarding experience in a different way, for example, finding reward in being thorough, thoughtful, and creative?
  • Are you assuming that you have to work on a project in a set order, from beginning to end?Could you switch it up a little and work on a different part of your project so as to let new information in, and give yourself some more room for further experimentation and exploration?
  • In your past creative endeavors have you more often regretted postponing doing something (procrastination) or doing something too hastily, without sufficient forethought or integrated understanding (precrastination)?
  • On the to-and-fro swing of a creative endeavor, when should you give yourself an extra push, and when should you let yourself glide, absorbing more of where and how you are, in your experience or creative endeavor?


Cohen, J. R., & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Take some time to think this over: The relation between rumination, indecision, and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 22, 68–73.

Fournier, L. R. et al. (2019). Which task will we choose first? Precrastination and cognitive load in task ordering. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 81, 489–503.

Pohjannoro, U. (2016). Capitalising on intuition and reflection: Making sense of a composer’s creative process. Musicae Scientiae, 20, 207–234.

Rosenbaum, D. A. et al. (2019). Sooner rather than later: Precrastination rather than procrastination. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28, 229–233.

Rosenbaum, D. A., Gong, L., & Potts, C. A. (2014). Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25, 1487–1496.



Where do flexibly new creative options come from? Dopamine helps us walk the flexibility-fluency tightrope

Navigating the flexibility-stability tightrope . . . Source: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons


Imagine that you’re trying to think of alternative ways to creatively address a thorny problem. What’s your best approach?

Should you place your bets on idea quantity: simply spouting and pouring forth with as many ideas as you can, hoping that in the fast flood of your ideas, among the many rather mundane ideas and a few silly ones, there may be one or two insightful gems that will illuminate your way forward?  Or should you, from the outset, more closely channel and focus your idea generation efforts, placing your bets on idea quality: telling yourself that it’s not just any ideas that you’re looking for, but that you’re looking to find creative ideas, ideas that are novel, inventive, ingenious, innovative…?

The proposed answers to this question – should you place greater emphasis on the quantity versus quality of ideas generated – have varied across time, and labs, in part because idea quantity and quality are clearly associated with one another.  For example, there is often a positive correlation between the number of ideas that people generate and both the originality of their ideas and the variety (or flexibility) of their ideas.  And it is often the case that later generated ideas are more creative than earlier ones.

A different approach

A team of eight researchers in the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford recently tackled the issue of the fluency (quantity) versus uniqueness (quality) of responses from a very different approach. They set their sights on the question of what might be the biological basis of varied responses, choosing to focus particularly on the neurochemical dopamine.  Dopamine (especially the dopaminergic nigrostriatal network) has long been implicated in creativity and cognitive flexibility, but direct evidence for how dopamine influences fluency and flexibility has so far been lacking.

Aiming to ask the question in a way that was minimally influenced by differences in individual’s background knowledge or learning, the Oxford research team adopted a markedly simple visual-spatial task.  Participants were shown a 23″ touchscreen computer screen.  On the screen were two small red circles, one directly above the other, with the two circles vertically separated by about 8 inches. Participants were told to “Draw as many different paths as you can from the bottom red circle to the top red circle in 4 minutes.’’

These direct and simple task instructions allowed for fine-grained quantitative assessments of how many paths the participants drew (a measure of quantity or fluency) and how varied they chose to make each of their paths (a measure of quality, originality, or uniqueness).

Equally important, the simple task also allowed testing with participants who have known deficits in dopaminergic function – that is, individuals with Parkinson’s Disease.  The researchers could test patients both when they were on medications to supplement their dopaminergic function (referred to as being in an “on” state) and when temporarily off those medications following an overnight abstention from their medication (referred to as being in an “off” state).  The researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

To further probe the effects of dopamine on the fluency of responses versus variation (uniqueness) of responses the researchers also tested a group of older adults, both when the participants were only given a placebo pill (control condition), and when they were administered a drug that is known to enhance D2 dopaminergic function (cabergoline, experimental condition).  Like for the individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, the researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

Examples of participants’ responses to the drawing task

Example 1:  Non-fluent & Non-unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In the image above, there are relatively few paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the paths mostly look the same.  All of the drawn paths are slightly curved outward, either to the right or to the left, but otherwise essentially follow the same trajectory.

Example 2: Fluent & Unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In example 2, there are a large number of paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the drawn paths take many different trajectories, sometimes looping and swirling this way or that way, with some taking quite varied curved paths and others more direct or smooth-cornered paths.

So, what did they find?

Across each of three studies, with different age and participant groups, the findings were the same: Increased availability of dopamine increased the fluency (quantity) of responding (that is, the number of lines drawn) compared to the control conditions. This was observed both for individuals with Parkinson’s disease tested when “on” their dopamine-promoting medication (compared to when they were off their medication), and in older adults tested after being administered cabergoline (compared to being given placebo).

But this was not the only finding.  Although dopamine, overall, decreased the uniqueness of the responses, for any given number of responses, the uniqueness of responding was also higher at that same level of fluency.  So: dopamine strongly bolstered the quantity of responding, and also the uniqueness of responding.  Stated differently, dopamine shifted the trade-off line between fluency and uniqueness, so that participants were more unique for a given level of fluency.

The researchers also carefully considered possible confounding factors and designed additional experiments to examine them.  For example, could it be that dopamine influenced not the ability to simply think of (generate) different options, but rather the ability to plan them, or the ability to actually make the movements needed?

The researchers were able to show that the effects of dopamine really were on the process of generating different options rather than following through on a planned action or making the movement.  For example, when the iPad display showed many different end points, rather than only one, and the participant only had to choose one of the end points, then there was little influence of dopamine status on performance. Other findings showed that the differences were not due to the contribution of motor tremor, and also not due to differences in drawing speed (which can influence the movements of individuals with Parkinson’s disease).

The results of this study nicely converge with those of another recent study­, from a research team in Israel, that compared the creative performance of 27 individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, when “on” their dopaminergic therapy with the creative performance of 27 control participants, matched on age and years of education.  In agreement with the Oxford team’s drawing-task findings, the Parkinson’s Disease group outperformed the control group in both the fluency (number) and the quality of their creative responses on a visual task that required interpreting the meanings of lines.  This bolstering of creative visual responses was significantly greater in a subset of the participants with Parkinson’s Disease who were receiving a higher daily dose of dopaminergic-supplement (higher L-dopa equivalent daily dose) compared with a lower dose.

What does this all mean?

The line-drawing study shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine is an important modulator of how we flexibly self-generate or autonomously produce varied options for our behavior. The research provides direct evidence – based on convergent and analytically-careful experimental methods with both patient groups and healthy controls – for the important role of dopamine in how we imaginatively and flexibly generate new opportunities for action.

The exact mechanisms by which higher levels of dopamine might lead to increased creativity remain to be tested.  One possible mechanism relates to how availability of the neurotransmitter dopamine (especially in the striatal brain system affected in Parkinson’s disease) boosts our tendencies to seek out novelty.  Novelty-seeking is an important contributor to creativity and creative flexibility. Novelty-seeking is also an important aspect of enduring personality traits related to creativity, such as openness to experience.  Increased dopamine is also known to be associated with good feelings or positive affect, such as how we may feel when we are unexpectedly or unpredictably given a small gift.

To be more creative, should we all, then, be looking to find ways of increasing dopamine, perhaps through engaging in these or other “happiness-boosting” activities?

The answer to this is likely neither a simple “yes,” nor a simple “no,” but rather – as for many questions about behavior and the brain – “it depends.”

A certain level of flexibility is good and often desirable.  But too much flexibility can lead us to be distractible, taking away our ability to concentrate or persist in our goals.  Whether bolstering our flexibility will also boost our creativity depends on our starting or baseline level of flexibility.  It’s all a delicate balancing act, a tightrope between being aptly flexible and being appropriately persistent or stable.


Ang, Y.-S., Manohar, S., Plant, O., Kienast, A., Le Heron, C., Muhammed, K., Hu, M., & Husain, M. (2018). Dopamine modulates option generation for behavior. Current Biology, 28, 1561–1569.

Boot, N., Baas, M., van Gaal, S., Cools, R., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2017). Creative cognition and dopaminergic modulation of fronto-striatal networks: Integrative review and research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 78, 13–23.

Faust-Socher, A., Kenett, Y. N., Cohen, O. S., Hassin-Baer, S., & Inzelberg, R. (2014). Enhanced creative thinking under dopaminergic therapy in Parkinson Disease. Annals of Neurology, 75, 935–942.


Play, Playfulness, and Permission: When and why do we give ourselves a go-ahead to play?


Into the play . . . Source: cjuneau via Wikimedia Commons

Is playfulness available on demand?

Suppose that you have just been asked to engage in a small task of some sort – say making some toy animals out of Lego blocks for a new children’s window display in a hospital.  Imagine that you’ve been given several mixed assortments of six Lego bricks, and the coordinator of the display has also made an example of the sort of thing she has in mind:  perhaps a small duck.  She sets the sample toy in front of you, and then gives you some further instructions.

Imagine that she says to you,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do it in a non-playful manner. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels not playful at all.”

How would you feel? What thoughts, images, or feelings would come to mind as you set about making the requested Lego ducks?  Would you start to feel pressured and tense, a bit keyed up, narrowing your focus, giving yourself some “straight talk” about getting down to business (come on… let’s focus now!) or would you begin to wonder: What did she mean about being non-playful?  Am I supposed to be efficient here?  Does she want me to make lots of those same ducks?  Exactly the same?  Just copy them and get on with it?

Now imagine instead that there’s a second coordinator of the new window display.  She comes into the room, just as the first coordinator is leaving, and thinks that maybe you’ve not yet been given any guidance on what the task is.  So, not knowing what you’ve just been told, she walks across to you, smiling, and says,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do this as playfully as you can. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels playful and nothing but playful.”

Imagine that these were the only instructions you had received.  How would you feel?  What thoughts, memories, feelings would spring to mind?  How do you do something playfully? Can we simply be asked to take on a playful approach?

Is playfulness an “experiential stance” that can be called up on demand? 

Setting out to explore these questions, two researchers from Denmark asked 22 young adults to take part in precisely these playful versus nonplayful Lego duck-building exercises. Then, right after they finished making their Lego ducks, the researchers asked each participant to take part in an in-depth video recorded interview in which each duck-builder was asked to freely and fully describe what they had experienced as the exercise unfolded.

Looking through detailed transcriptions of the interviews, the researchers coded if – and also when – each participant spoke of different experiential aspects, such as their perceptions, or their actions, memories, feelings, or changes in the focus of their attention.

Most of the participants spoke about how they consciously asked themselves about the meaningof the task.  In the playful condition, many mentioned that the requirement to be playful meant that they were set free to do whatever they wanted to do.  They had time and space to creatively make something inspired by their own ideas and intuitions, rather than something that was already spelled out for them.

When they actually starting making the ducks, the participants in the playful condition often took a “let’s just mess about with this” sort of attitude, reminding themselves that “it’s not a competition,” fiddling with the pieces to see what might come about, and even sometimes making animals other than ducks. They spoke of how they liked the look and the soft satisfying sound the bricks as they firmly nestled into place, and of feelings of pleasure and surprise when they looked at what they’d made.

The stark opposite was true for the non-playful condition.  Now most participants reported feeling pressed and pressured.  They felt they were pressured by time – they had to be efficient, to work as quickly as possible, often just by repeatedly copying the prototype duck – and also by concerns about evaluation, worrying if they were they making what was expected, in “the right way,” and if they were being sufficiently systematic and focused. They were more likely to notice a feeling of tedium or boredom, of not being asked to use their imagination, and just needing to produce the toys in the same way, so there shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) be any surprises along the way.  They’d even admonish themselves, “Come on… make ducks!”

Overall, 19 of the 22 participants said they were successfully able to take on a playful stance when they were asked to do so.

It seemed that being prompted to play set in motion a positive cycle.  The cycle was kicked off with a feeling of freedom from specific constraints and goals. This brought into a play an exploratory, curious, and open-ended “look-and-see” interactive approach to the materials at hand.  This cycle was both accompanied by, and further activated by, positive feelings of sensory, aesthetic, and reflective pleasure.  In turn, there were feelings of autonomous and intrinsic motivation, that opened the way to unexpected and surprising outcomes.  The unexpected creative outcomes fostered expanding feelings of competence, which “looped back,” sparking further exploration and interactions.

So where does that leave us? It seems, in principle, possible to simply and directly ask ourselves to become more playful, spontaneous, and exploratory.  By prompting ourselves – and giving ourselves permission – we can creatively surprise ourselves.  We can draw upon an untapped resource of playfulness to prompt a self-reinforcing perception-action cycle of making-and-finding.

Intrinsic motivation can emerge from action.
Source: Figure 4.4 from Koutstaal & Binks (2015, p. 152), Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

To think about:

“Come on… make ducks!”

  • What voice in your own head is ordering you to just make ducks? Is it a voice that you’ve chosen for yourself?
  • Or is it an inner voice that just autocratically takes over, and automatically plays and re-plays itself at different times?
  • If the voice isn’t yours, or isn’t fully yours, or plays through your mind unbidden at times you wish it wouldn’t, how could you counter that voice?
  • What other voices could you imagine to give yourself the space – and the time and the permission – to be more playful?



Heimann, K. S., & Roepstorff, A. (2018).  How playfulness motivates: Putative looping effects of autonomy and surprise revealed by micro-phenomenological investigations.  Frontiers in Psychology, 9,Article 1704, 1–15.

Koutstaal, W. & Binks J (2015). Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

—> Also posted at “Our Innovating Minds” Psychology Today.


Insights into the creative process: A Q&A with illustrator/writer Mike Lowery


The lines between author and reader are maybe not as sharply drawn as they used to be. Book 1 of Mike Lowery’s Doodle Adventures is a great example. “You draw the story!” the book’s cover tells us. And so we do…

But what’s the story behind the story?

Just as Lowery asks his young readers to pledge to “finish this book to get our heroes home safe at the end,” I asked him to pledge to freely improvise answering questions about his own creative journeys.


Each of the 8 questions I posed to him draw upon the science-based way of thinking about innovative thought and action that we develop in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. You can find the Q & A here.

New ways to think about how to turn limitations into helpful guides and goads

All of us have deadlines and limitations on how much money, time, and other resources we have for our creative projects.

We can see these constraints as irksome or anxiety provoking, and this they sometimes are! But is this our only option?

In the words of musician Joe Henry: “You don’t have endless resources and endless time. I don’t see that as an obstruction. Instead, I see it as something else that’s guiding us.”

Sometimes what we see as blocking our way can be just what we need to creatively guide us forward. . .

For how constraints can be both guides and goads, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: Corner Flags, Constraints, and Creativity.

Our constraints can be seen as "corner flags." Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

Our constraints can be seen as “corner flags.” Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons



“Let’s find our own thing”


A recent interview with the award-winning chef and restaurateur Alex Roberts was rich in wisdom on the creative process. The long-time owner of Twin Cities-based Restaurant Alma and Brasa and the forthcoming Café Alma spoke with the Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson.

Here we interweave some of Alex Roberts’s thoughts (in bold italics) with a few of our own (in regular text).

“I’m trying to create a new definition of what a cafe is.”

A café is a category of possible things, and like all categories somewhat pliable. Categories aren’t completely rigid, so that’s our invitation to play with them and give them new slants of meaning. And the categories we use to think about objects, places, and events can go through cycles of re-envisioning and revisiting, based on meldings of other — real and imagined — times and places.

“. . . that’s one of my disciplines, to choose the thought that’s more about the possibility.”

Even though there’s nearly always a more conventional or negative interpretation available to us, we’re not compelled to choose that interpretation. We can choose to give optimism a place to grow and thrive.

“The relevancy and resiliency combination are maybe the biggest challenge for restaurants.”

How do restaurants stay relevant — across the entire day and throughout the year? And how do they, at the same time, maintain their resilience across setbacks, recessions, shifting demographics, or fluctuating trends? Staying both relevant and resilient is a large part of an organization’s so-called absorptive capacity.

Whether large or small, organizations need to be receptive to changes and emerging new knowledge and capabilities around them in order to stay relevant. By constantly learning, an organization stays resilient, bouncing back better from setbacks, and turning what would otherwise be liabilities into assets.

“To be honest, the constraints around the [small kitchen] space have forced us to be creative and collaborative to make it work.”

Constraints and creativity go hand in hand. Indeed, one group of neuroscientists recently defined creativity as “novel generation fitted to the constraints of a particular task.”

“The good stuff in life comes from between the lines. It’s about enjoying the process and not just the end result. That’s what we try to foster here, otherwise you’re always living in the future, and not in the moment.”

So wise! We can always ask “so what?” but very often much of the true meaning of our projects and endeavors is in the concrete doing and making itself.

“I was looking for inspiration, but I realized that I was losing this thread that was running through me. That is, my own vision. For better, or worse. So I started sitting down with a blank piece of paper — or an old menu, since they reflect our past — and try to create from there.”

What’s being described here is, in part, what the pioneering dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.” Others call it searching or scouting. Whichever term you prefer, it’s important to experiment to uncover those methods of search that best work for you — more often leading you to high caliber ideas.

Turning to an old printed menu or two from the restaurant, is also, in part, what we in Innovating Minds call “wise repeating.” The best ideas are not always completely new but can be variations on, or contain traces of, your own earlier tried and true ideas.

“I’m trying not to be so inward that I’m stuck in my own world, but you want to have this authentic process. Let’s find our own thing.”

Yes, yes, “let’s find our own thing” and our own “authentic process(es)” for getting there. . . .


“for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works . . . ”

cultivating creative thinking

A strong review of Innovating Minds — just out in the American Psychological Association’s journal PsycCRITIQUES (February 2016). Written by Professor Liane Gabora, an expert in creativity research, here are a few of her review comments that really popped out for us:

  • “. . . an exciting new framework for thinking about creativity and fueling innovative change in the world.”
  • “Although the basic concept of adaptively moving in abstraction space is not new, the authors do an unprecedented job of exploring its implications for fostering creative thinking and bringing about innovative change.”
  • “. . . the authors do an excellent job of coming up with interesting and potentially effective exercises for altering and playing with the way in which you think about creative problems and tasks.”
  • “. . . because of its readability, I would also recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works or for someone who wants to kickstart his or her own creative juices.”

“A mosaic of creative approaches” — our book recommended in CHOICE.

We just heard from our publisher that our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change was reviewed — and recommended — in the February 2016 issue of Choice, published by the American Library Association.

Professor Bernard Beins of Ithaca College began his review: “In judging whether creative problem solving is inborn or learned, Koutstaal (Univ. of Minnesota) and Binks (a specialist in organizational innovation) come down firmly on the side of learned.” And he concludes: “Ultimately, this book is useful for identifying a mosaic of creative approaches rather than suggesting that there is a single simplistic, but unrealistic, formula.”

We’re pleased that he captured both the key insights and nuances of our book such as the “complex dynamics” involved in creativity, especially with its “simultaneously moving parts.”

A Book Review of Innovating Minds

We thought we’d let you know that Susan K. Perry recently reviewed Innovating Minds on her Psychology Today blog. We think she really “gets it.” She talks about the need for adapting our cognitive control on a moment-to-moment basis to best meet our current creative challenges. And she underscores that our goals need “elbow room.”

Here’s some of what she wrote in her post “5 Fresh Ways to Meet the Challenge of Creativity”:

“Another book about how to be more creative? There’s always room for a good one. . . . This isn’t by any means a simple self-help-ish sort of book, but rather a scientifically sound system for enhancing creativity.”

She then deftly summarizes five key take-away points. Here’s her point number one:

“1. ‘Detail stepping’ is the process by which we move up and down in our levels of abstraction as we develop and expand our unfolding ideas. Avoid the risk of overvaluing abstraction. That is, particulars and concreteness are at least as important as getting the big picture and seeing larger patterns.”

For more, see her blog post here.

Innovating Minds is now available!—A few book updates

Our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change is now available from, Barnes & Noble, Oxford University Press, and other booksellers.


Here’s some advance praise for the book:

“I love this book. It is intellectually satisfying, eminently practical, and beautifully presented. I cannot think of another book that appreciates how much of creativity is due to individual and institutional choice. That choice is to engage in specific, well-founded strategies that increase the chances of success. Instead of succumbing to the belief that creativity is the province of exceptional individuals, the authors deliver scientifically tested strategies we can all use. Even better, they explain why the strategies work. Readers will be able to generate their own creative ways to increase their creativity. It is hard to do better than that.”
DANIEL SCHWARTZ, Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology, Stanford University

“Innovation is central to implementing corporate responsibility, sustainability, and change leadership. Societies and organizations direly need new theories and action to make real progress on persistent wicked problems. The new integrative framework in this stimulating book, incorporating the latest insights and research from fields ranging from neuroscience to empathic design, will be as useful to start-up and multinational businesses as it will be to non-profits and governments searching for creative solutions to ongoing challenges. I could have used it in my own prior leadership activities, and certainly will use it in my current activities and teaching.”
CHIP PITTS, Former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia, Inc. and Former Chair of Amnesty International, USA

A “TALENT” for creativity

Here’s our interpretation of what it means to have a “TALENT” for creativity:


Tenacity (revealed through iterative prototyping, experimenting, resilience)

Absorption (staying in the present, avoiding distraction)

Long-term goals (stretching ourselves, endorsing creativity as an explicit goal—in line with our enduring values)

Emotions (recognizing emotions as providing valuable guiding information, maintaining a balance between eager optimism and cautious skepticism)

Noticing (paying attention to small details and general patterns, heedfully “taking care” in our creative contexts)

Telling (giving and receiving feedback, communicating verbally, visually, gesturally)

Innovating Minds – coming mid-September 2015!

Innovating Minds Cover

We expect our new book, based on the latest information from our publisher, to be published and available by mid-September 2015!

You can preorder the book at, for example, Amazon here.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change will be published by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 9780199316021) and is designed to be valuable for readers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, including practitioners as well as students from such fields as the arts, design, education, engineering, management, and the social sciences.

As we explain in the opening sentences of Innovating Minds:

“This book invites us to discover how we can all become more creative thinkers and doers. A central question at the heart of this book is: How can we more flexibly and responsively bring about positive change in our world and in ourselves?

We will ask you to actively work through ideas as, together, we explore a new way of understanding our own and others’ thinking. The science-based ‘thinking framework’ that we will learn can help each of us—as individuals and as groups, teams, or organizations—to be more creative, innovative, and mentally agile.

A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways in which our thinking really works.”

We’ll post updates as we get closer to the publication date.

Here’s more about the book from our publisher:

A groundbreaking, scientific approach to creative thinking

From entrepreneurs to teachers, engineers to artists, almost everyone stands to benefit from becoming more creative. New ways of thinking, making, and imagining have the potential to bring about revolutionary changes to both our personal lives and society as a whole. And yet, the science behind creativity has largely remained a mystery, with few people aware of the ways we can optimize our own creative and innovative ideas.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity To Inspire Change offers a perspective, grounded in science, that allows us to achieve both individual and collective creative goals. Wilma Koutstaal and Jonathan Binks draw upon extensive research from brain, behavioral, and organizational sciences to present a unique five-part “thinking framework” in which ideas are continually refined and developed. Beyond scientific research, Innovating Minds also describes the everyday creative challenges of people from all walks of life, offering insights from dancers, scientists, designers, and architects.

The book shows that creativity is far from a static process; it is steeped with emotion and motivation, involving the dynamic interactions of our minds, brains, and environments. Accordingly, the book challenges readers to put the material into use through thinking prompts, creativity cross-checks, and other activities.

Vibrant and engaging, Innovating Minds reveals a unique approach to harnessing creative ideas and putting them into action. It offers a fascinating exploration of the science of creativity along with new and valuable resources for becoming more innovative thinkers and doers

Our new book, currently in press

Our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (Oxford University Press) is coming soon. We’ll keep you posted with progress as it moves forward. For now a brief overview from the introduction to the book:

“A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways our thinking really works. Thinking emerges not just from our brain, or from our mind, or from our environments in isolation, but from an ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, mind, and environment. By gaining a better understanding of our thinking (our own and others, across time) we can optimize our “innovating minds”—minds that continually creatively adapt themselves, flexibly building on what they have learned, helping others to do so, and shaping environments that sustain and spur further innovation.

We will learn about the processes of generating and testing ideas, and how ideas lead to yet other ideas. We will see there is not as sharp a divide as might be supposed between thinking and action, or between creating and innovating, but that these cycle together, each informing the other. Creativity and innovation—changing the ways we and other people think about, listen to, look at, or do things, and helping to solve problems (large or small)—rarely happens in a single step or a single moment.”