Spontaneous Versus Solution-Oriented Creativity

Creativity can come in two forms: spontaneous creativity and solution oriented creativity. Here are some tips on how your organization can benefit from both types, from Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Spontaneous creativity is the creativity we often associate with artists. It is about ideas seemingly coming out of nowhere: ideas for painting, ideas for sculptures, ideas for novels and the like. Spontaneous creativity can also happen in business. Indeed, revolutionary ideas are often the result of spontaneous creativity. A research team accidentally discovering a unique property of a new material and seeing a market opportunity, is an example of spontaneous creativity.

Solution-oriented creativity is when you have a specific problem to solve and actively look for creative solutions that solve the problem. Ideas campaigns, brainstorming and general problem solving are all examples of solution-oriented creativity.

Although the term spontaneous implies the idea appears suddenly, that need not be the case. Indeed, spontaneous ideas often slowly form in people’s minds and require time to develop.

Spontaneous + solution-oriented creativity = a powerful combination

Spontaneous creativity often starts with a spontaneous idea, but then requires solution oriented creativity to perfect. For example, Henry Ford had the idea to bring together the concept of the motorcar – which in his day was a luxury item hand built for each buyer – and the production line in order to make inexpensive cars that middle class and poorer people could afford. However, in order to turn that spontaneous idea into reality, he had to solve hundreds of practical problems along the way. That required solution oriented creativity.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and perhaps more importantly, he had a vision for nationwide electrical power generating plants, an electricity grid and all the other bits and pieces necessary to bring electrical power into the home. Like Ford, Edison started with a couple of spontaneous ideas, but had hundreds of problems to solve in order to turn his core ideas into reality.

In the corporate environment, it is easier to encourage and manage solution oriented creativity than spontaneous creativity.

In the corporate environment, it is easier to encourage and manage solution oriented creativity than spontaneous creativity. After all, it is easier to ask your employees to suggest ideas that respond to a specific problem than it is to demand that they have spontaneous ideas. Compare: “In what ways might we improve the functionality of our digital cameras” to “I want you all to bring me a creative idea next week.”

This is one reason why campaign-based idea management is more effective than open suggestion based idea management in large organizations. It is why brainstorming works when you have a specific challenge to respond to. Imagine going to a brainstorming session where 12 people were gathered in a room and just told to come up with ideas, any ideas.

Moreover, solution oriented creativity is easier to evaluate as the problem you are seeking to solve typically has inherent criteria that must be met in a specific solution. Most likely, you will also have several proposed solutions which can be compared for viability.

Organizations often shun spontaneous ideas

Nevertheless, companies that want to be innovative must be open to spontaneous ideas. Surprisingly, many are not. The best spontaneous ideas are so radical and unexpected that they often seem crazy and undoable. As my favorite Einstein quote goes: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

When confronted by such radical ideas, all but the most visionary managers are likely to be critical: “it will never work”, “we’ve been making widgets this way for 50 years, do you really think you can transform the business overnight?”. Worse, radical ideas – especially disruptive ones – can threaten businesses and sometimes entire sectors. Think digital cameras. Think Internet telephony. Imagine an employee in a national telecommunications company five years ago suggesting the idea of offering free Internet telephone calls to customers. Chances are, such an idea would have been laughed out of existence. Yet today, with small upstarts like Skype offering free and nearly free Internet telephony, all the telecommunications companies are desperately seeking ways to earn money from Internet telephony. If only they had considered the idea five years ago, they would be well ahead of the competition.

Thus companies that want to fully benefit from both forms of creativity need to make available tools and train managers to:

  • Listen and respond positively to spontaneous ideas,
  • Use standard creative problem solving methodology, and
  • Set up and manage ideas campaigns, brainstorming events and other problem solving idea-generation activities.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

Photo:Young creative business people at office from Shutterstock.com

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