Yes, creativity can be learned

First, let’s get on the same page: creativity, for the purpose of this story, means more than simply having ideas. It’s having ideas that deliver business outcomes. The sort of outcomes companies need to compete.

I was approached by a friend who runs a tech company to teach his employees creativity. With more creative thinking, his company would design more creative products. Those products would stand out from the competition, and sell more. Oh, and the employees would be happier, knowing their ideas are valuable and appreciated. You can see why creativity was a priority for him.

Can you teach creativity? Many believe it’s something you’re born with, like agility or quick reflexes. You either have it or you don’t.

While there’s an element of truth to that, I know that not-so-agile folks (myself included) can buff up their reflexes and balance by playing sports. And creative thinkers have a methodology for having, developing and honing ideas. While no creative person hits a homer every time at plate, the good ones get consistent doubles by following a process. In a world where most businesses bunt with their ideas, consistent doubles win the game.

So what’s the process? From 30 years of working as a creative in advertising, I’d say it looks like this.

Insights before creativity

No creative I’ve ever met launches into creativity without first immersing themselves in the product. This can take several forms.

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  1. Study the product – Understand more about the product than the person who designed it. Pore over spec sheets, and compare those specs with the competition. Have the inventor tell you why and how they did what they did. As an outsider, certain facts, features and processes will strike you as odd or interesting. Write those down.
  2. Watch (and engage with) consumers – Every brand is equal parts promises the business makes, and expectations consumers have. The only way to understand what real people want from, and think about the product, is to ask them. When I worked on McDonald’s, I spent many a Saturday just hanging out in the restaurants, chatting with the folks who ate there. Many of their observations on life and hamburgers became headlines in my campaigns.
  3. Tap the biggest fans – Influencers are most often just celebrity fans of products. How did they get to be celebrities? By describing why they love a product with creativity. Watch influencers in action, and you’ll gain invaluable insights into how you can build, market and sell more creatively.


Want to dig deep into powerful insights for your brand? Click here.  

Lateral thinking

In 1967, Edward de Bono published Lateral Thinking, a book that described an essential step in creativity. Today, lateral thinking has as much (or more) currency than ever. Forbes declared it the most valuable skill to have in challenging times.

But what is it? Simply, put, it’s not thinking in a linear path. If that sounds evasive, allow me to illustrate.

Present a linear thinker with a problem – how can we cross this river – and he’ll map out the steps needed to build a bridge. Present a lateral thinker with the same problem, and she’ll come up with 20 different ways of crossing a river, from pontoon boat and swimming to catapult and helicopter.

Why is lateral thinking critical to creativity? Well, once we’ve gathered our insights, what do we do with them? Spread them out on the floor, and start to get lateral.

For example:

  1. Hybridize – Two insights on their own may be unremarkable, but put them together and they deliver something that is fresh and new. Remember, the iPod was simply the hybridization of disk drives and digital music.
  2. Magnify – Start with an insight. Pull it apart into elements. Ideate on one of the elements. If you liken an insight to a tree, the original thought is the trunk. When you pull apart that idea and magnify the elements separately, you get a tree with myriad branches, each branch leading to a new thought.
  3. Reassemble – Many insights have multiple thoughts in them. Arrange those thoughts in a new order. Musical chords are comprised of multiple notes. When you take those notes and play them in different orders, the tones they create sound the same, yet different.


No successful creative thinker holes themselves up in an attic, burning midnight oil and hoping the muse will arrive. When there’s a deadline, ‘waiting for the muse’ gets you fired.

Creativity is amplified by collaboration. Groups are arguably the best resource for insights, lateral thinking, and honing an idea.

But how do you harness a group, and keep them from making  an unfocused mess of your project?

It comes down to when and why you bring them together. In my experience, the best way to maximize multiple minds is:

  1. Short, targeted brainstorms – Present a very real, achievable target in a very focused window of time. Give me 10 ideas for a better garbage can lid in 30 minutes. The group will stay on task and deliver. Give me some ideas on garbage can lids. Disaster.
  2. 20% ideas – Groups rarely do well when you ask them come come up with ideas from a blank slate. Far better to develop your idea 80% to completion, then let the group build and hone it into a thing of beauty.
  3. Peer review – My favourite way of finding and crafting great ideas using the power of multiple brains. Check out this story to see how it’s done.

Don’t wait for perfect

We live in a wonderful world, where consumer feedback on a real idea can be had cheaply, and virtually instantly.

If you insist on honing and crafting idea until it’s perfect, you’ll never get there. Because no idea is perfect unless the audience it’s aimed at says it is.

Better to put your well-informed, well-crafted hunches into the world and see what works. It won’t take long, and the result will be far less stress-inducing than torturing yourself trying to get to perfection on your own.

Creativity means asking. So I’m asking…

If you found this story helpful, please pass it along to someone who can use it.

If you have ideas on creativity you think I could use, let me know.

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And hey, if you have a group that could learn how to unleash their creativity, drop me a line.

Marc Stoiber is a brand consultant and creative director who is currently engaged in building out a product for effective pitching, building another product for auditing brands, and helping multiple clients launch and grow multiple products. 

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