ATD Blog

Creativity Can Be Taught

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

This article is the second in a series about the role of creativity in the workplace.

In our first article, we made a case for creativity as an essential workplace skill. We shared why creativity in the workplace should be developed, and focused on five benefits. We then assured you that creativity could indeed by taught, and now in this article we move from the question of “why creativity is important” to “how creativity can be developed.”

So what can be done to ensure that more members of your organization apply their creativity skills at work?

Your first thought might be that your organization should just go out and hire some creative geniuses. But as you can imagine, one creative genius can be hard to find, let alone an entire staff.

Then there is the obstacle of expense: creative individuals tend to know what they are worth, and there can be challenges to attracting as well as keeping those individuals.

While we would encourage organizations to use hiring practices that land creative talent, a more immediately impactful solution is to develop the creative climate of the organization and the creative talents of its members. The advantage is that organizations can work with the staff that is there now, as well as with those that come in the future.

In order to develop creativity, it must be approached as a skill that can be trained and developed. For proof that this can be done, we refer to a 2004 study, “The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review,” published in the Creativity Research Journal. This meta-analysis examined 70 prior empirical investigations of creativity training and yielded strong evidence that such training is effective, especially when based on cognitive strategies.

In this limited space, we cannot provide an in-depth review of these cognitive models; instead we highlight seven proven cognitive practices for improved creative thinking.

Keep convergent thinking separate from divergent thinking

When trying to solve a problem, alone or as part of a group, the process often looks like this: an idea is suggested, and then immediately evaluated (Think: that won’t work…we can’t afford that…we already tried that). This is mixing two different ways of thinking: divergent and convergent.

To promote fluency in generating ideas and focus in evaluating them, stick with one before moving to the other. Separate in time the generation of options from the evaluation of those options. For example, first come up with a list of one hundred ideas (divergent thinking). Then revisit them all to select and develop the most promising options (convergent thinking).

Improve divergent-thinking skills

One solid way to accumulate a large number of options is to adopt the practice of deferring judgment—both positive and negative.

For example, during a divergent activity like group brainstorming, participants should focus first on generating a large number of ideas. Set a goal, such as 25 ideas in five minutes or 100 ideas in 20 minutes. As ideas are offered, do not allow participants to praise, dismiss, comment on or discuss them until later.

Also, encourage participants to allow their imaginations to roam freely and suggest wild or unusual ideas. Nothing is too crazy, because it can always be tamed later during the convergent phase.


Improve convergent-thinking skills

Once there is an ample list of options, it is time to make the switch to convergent thinking. Instead of thinking of this as a time of unfettered criticism, think of applying “affirmative judgment.” In other words, think about the strengths as well as the shortcomings of any option.

But don’t stop there: after selecting a promising idea, transform it into a great solution by phrasing concerns in the form of “How to…” questions (Think: How to get the budget to support this idea? How to gain executive buy-in? How to create a less expensive design?).

These are called challenge statements, and the question format invites additional ideas. For each challenge statement, apply your divergent thinking to generate many possible ways of overcoming the issue, thereby improving the original concept under evaluation.

Hone your convergent-thinking skills further by reviewing objectives, reminding yourself or the group of what is needed and what is realistic. Then use these objectives as a set of benchmarks to choose and develop the best alternatives.

Teach people to borrow ideas

Where do great ideas come from? Most ideas, including the great ideas, tend to be derivative. This is not an insult!

The fact that today’s smart phone evolved from the chunky device with dials and chords does not make it less appealing or useful. It is an extremely productive practice to build on an existing idea, whether it first came from you or someone else, whether the idea is old or new, refined or outlandish, and whether it came from an expert in your field or another field altogether.

Past ideas serve as great springboards to future ideas. David Kord Murray, author of Borrowing Brilliance, provides many examples and approaches that will help you generate innovative ideas from existing (or past) concepts.

Use conceptual combination (force fit)

This is like borrowing, but more unconventional and, therefore, holds the potential for the production of original breakthrough ideas. The premise is that novelty can arise from putting unrelated ideas together—ones that you normally wouldn’t think are a good or sensible combination. It’s a deliberate act of forcing two disparate concepts together.

At one point in time, the combination of peanut butter and chocolate was a novel idea; now it’s a common combination found in candy, ice-cream products and cakes. Someone, or some group, veered away from a traditional path and did an experiment, essentially posing the question, “What if…?”

You, too, can increase the probability of generating a breakthrough by forcing unrelated concepts into your existing challenges. Look around and ask yourself, “What new ideas do I get for solving my challenge by forcing a connection with this object, picture, or concept?”


When you do this, you will be adopting a thinking strategy employed by many great creators—Pablo Picasso, Earnest Hemmingway, Burt Rutan, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few.

Frame the problem first

Answering the right questions makes an immense difference in how an individual or group perceives a problem and, therefore, searches for a solution. But how can you know if good questions are being asked—ones that will lead to a productive problem-solving session?

Try this: re-phrase the problem or challenge in the form of a question. For example, if you perceive that virtual training sessions are not being utilized effectively, ask: How might more employees complete the sessions on time? How to motivate employees to meet deadlines? In what ways might the sessions be more accessible? What are all the ways employees can access the required information?

Statement starters like “How to…,” “How might…,” “In what ways might…,” and “What are all the ways…” lead to question formations that yield productive responses, while also providing new ways of viewing a challenge.

Build consensus and gain buy-in before launching your ideas

Let’s assume the right questions have been asked, that multiple ideas have been generated, and the best options have been developed and even tested. You have designed a solid solution. What’s next?

You need the determination to build wide support and sell the idea. To do this, first examine the current climate and assess what forces exist, such as people, things, reasons, and so forth, that could propel the idea forward or knock it down. Then apply divergent and convergent thinking to create strategies for bot leveraging support and lessening resistance.  

Finally, generate a list of action steps that address these strategies. This will enable you to construct a formidable plan of action. One that gives the solution the greatest chance of survival as it is unveiled to the scrutiny of a wider audience.

Moving forward

When conscientiously and carefully applied, especially in the context of creative problem solving, these strategies have been shown to help organizations, groups and individuals define problems more quickly, generate more options, evaluate ideas more effectively, and build greater consensus.

By nature all people are creative; however, sometimes educational experiences and organizational impediments undermine creative thinking. When organizations promote these deliberate creativity strategies among their members, the result is higher levels of innovation along with greater engagement in work.

Those in the talent development field can help employees rediscover and enhance their creativity skills. And when the creative mind is more fully engaged, individuals are more satisfied and organizations are much more successful in times of change.

For an introduction to creative thinking, check out the books Creativity Rising: Creative Thinking and Creative Problem Solving in the 21st Century and Creative Leadership: Skills That Drive Change

About the Author

Gerard J. Puccio is Department Chair and Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State; a unique academic department that has offered a Master of Science degree in creativity since 1975. Gerard has written more than 50 articles, chapters and books. His most recent book titled The Innovative Team, co-authored with Chris Grivas, is a fable about a team that was able to apply proven creative-thinking tools to turn around a dysfunctional and unproductive situation. In 2011 he and his colleagues published the second edition of their book Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change. In recognition of his outstanding work as a scholar, Dr. Puccio received the State University of New York Chancellor's Recognition Award for Research Excellence, as well as the President's Medal for Scholarship and Creativity. Dr. Puccio is an accomplished speaker and consultant; he has worked with major corporations, universities, and numerous school districts. Some of his recent clients include the BBC, Fisher-Price Brands, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Kraft Foods, Rich Products, BNP Paribas, Rubbermaid, Coca-Cola, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. He has delivered creativity workshops and presentations across the United States and in more than 20 different countries. In 2013 Dr. Puccio was selected by the Teaching Company as one of America’s Great Lecturers and as such was invited to design and deliver a course comprised of twenty-four 30-minute video sessions. This “Great Course,” titled The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit, was released in January 2014. Dr. Puccio was also a featured speaker at a TEDx event held in New York City in December of 2012. Among many other responsibilities, Dr. Puccio also serves on the selection committee for the Toy Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Gerard holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Manchester, England.

About the Author

Pamela Szalay, M.S. in Creativity and Change Leadership, Advanced Certificate in Education, and B.A. in Music and English, is an educator, creativity coach, entrepreneur and professional musician. She is the founder and President of Imagine &, co-founder of Beyonder, LLC. With her unique combination of skills and experience, Pamela likes to think of herself as someone who understands creativity from two sides: as a practitioner and as a scholar. Pamela is also an active member of ASTD Niagara, a local chapter of the American Society for Training and Development, and serves as the Vice President of Chapter Services. She can be reached at [email protected]

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