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Adapted from Creativity, Innovation, and Quality by Paul E. Plsek (1997: Quality Press).
© 1997 Paul E. Plsek. All rights reserved. Click here for information on this book.
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Tools for the Preparation Phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle

"Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way."
William James

"The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer."
Edward R. Murrow

"You can observe a lot just by watching."
Yogi Berra

The tools of Preparation address the key question: How can we enhance our powers of observation in order to see more creative possibilities? I believe that lack of preparation is one of the main reasons why creative ideas are so rare. I am amazed that people expect to be able to walk into a room with a brainstorming group and emerge an hour later with breakthrough ideas for meeting long-standing challenges. I am amazed, but not surprised. It was not long ago that I had the same naive view of creativity. But the study of creative lives shows that this is simply not how it works. While there are occasional instances of ah-ha! moments, most true innovations are the product of much thought over an extended period of time. The quality of creative ideas depends on the quality of the preparation that went into them.

Information on this page...

|| Activities in the Preparation Phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle ||
|| Preparation and the Three Principles ||
|| Key Heuristics for Preparation ||
|| Map of the Tools for Preparation ||
|| Outline Descriptions of the Tools for Preparation ||
|| Summary of the Preparation Phase ||

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Activities in the Preparation Phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle

What's the DirectedCreativity Cycle?

We live everyday in the same world as everyone else, but creative thinking begins with careful observation of that world coupled with thoughtful analysis of how things work and fail. These mental processes create a store of concepts in our memories.

Later, in the Imagination phase of the cycle, we will use this store to generate novel ideas for specific situations by actively searching for novel associations among concepts.top

Preparation and the Three Principles

What are the three principles?

Creative preparation is primarily about the principle of attention. During this phase of the creative cycle, we seek to pay attention to something in an uncommon way, for the purpose of extracting useful concepts.

In order to see familiar things in uncommon ways, we also need a little escape. We need to escape the tyranny of time pressure and the tendency to oversimplify the world into neat, conventional explanations.

Think of creative preparation as providing the raw materials for innovation-concepts stored up in memory, with novel linkages to other concepts, that our imaginations can rearrange later. The keys to directed creative preparation are captured in the five mental actions of: paying attention, pausing, noticing, extracting meaning and, storing up for later use.top

Key Heuristics to Keep in Mind During Preparation

What are the DirectedCreativity Heuristics?


The pause and notice heuristic suggests that we stop from time to time and purposefully observe. Recall that the aim of this seemingly passive activity is to store up concepts in the mind for later use. This is precisely the purpose of the activities in the Preparation phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle. Creative preparation, then, is primarily an on-going activity that we engage in as we go about our daily lives in the world. We live in the world and go about our daily activities, but stop every so often and ask ourselves questions like, "what is going on right now?" or "what is that over there?" We then dwell on it long enough to find a new mental concept to store away. It only has to take a minute. There is no need to act on our observations right away.

The focus and broad topics heuristics of DirectedCreativity also contribute to the Preparation phase. They subtly direct our attention to things in the world around us that we are more likely to use later as raw materials for creative imagination. During the Preparation phase, we will want to explore further questions like: What exactly is the topic of interest here? and What is it that I am really trying to do? A creative restatement of the topic might be all we need to generate a breakthrough idea.


Map of the Tools for Preparation

Think of creative preparation as providing the raw materials for innovation-concepts stored up in memory, with novel linkages to other concepts, that our imaginations can rearrange later.

The mental actions of preparation involve: paying attention, pausing, noticing, extracting meaning and, storing up for later use. Therefore, the tools we need are tools that support these activities. Anything that helps us accomplish one or more of these five mental activities will help us build a mind that is better prepared for creative thought.

We have compiled a list of over 60 tools that support creative preparation from our review of the literature. It is fair to say that nearly all authors in the field of creativity and innovation consider preparation important enough to offer some concrete suggestions on how to go about it.

The loose classification scheme below brings some order to this seemingly chaotic array of methods. The headings at the end of each spine on the diagram describe major categories of tools. The items coming off the spines represent subsets of tools under each category.

Click around on the map for explanations of the tools. Or, if you prefer, you can simply continue scrolling down and read all the explanations of all the tools.top



This mind map is a "loose" classification scheme. Our judgment and perception systems have a strong tendency to lock onto classification schemes. This leads to a strong and automatic desire to make all future input conform to the scheme. We emphatically do not want that to happen here. The mind map above is merely a device to enable us to present the tools in an orderly manner.top


Outline Descriptions of the Tools for Preparationback2map

Pausing and Noticing

Seeing Other Points of View

Refocusing a Topic

Looking Closer and Analyzing

Searching for Analogies

Creating New Worlds





Refocusing a Topic Through Word Pairs and Synonyms

  Method: Alone or in a group, write a statement that describes the topic as you see it now. Now go through the statement circling words that seem to you more essential than the others. Finally, either put these words together in random pairs, or consult a thesaurus for substitutes. Sources: VanGundy 1992, Koberg and Bagnall 1981.  

Examples From SJ&D

What's SJ&D?

Recall that Steven Ross' challenge is to "...develop innovative pilot services that would please the customers of an accounting firm." Key words in this topic statement are:









Some interesting, randomly selected word pairs would be:





Steven could simply type up a list of such word-pairs as preparation for a future idea generation session.


"Pilot-firm" leads to the creative idea of setting up a separate subsidiary to experiment with innovative ways to practice accounting in much the same way that GM set up Saturn as a "new kind of car company."

"Please-innovate" makes me think of asking every employee of the firm to submit a small innovation in their work area every month. Another idea that comes from this is to establish a monthly newsletter for our clients in which we ask them to rate three proposed new service ideas on the criteria of how pleased they might be if we implemented them. Even if we never implemented anything, we would at least be communicating something other than our traditional, stodgy image.


By using synonyms, we can change "pilot-accounting" into "novice-bookkeeping" (or any number of other things) and add these new pairs also to the list.

  "Novice-bookkeeping" stimulates the imagination to suggest an innovative service where we partner up with accounting schools at universities around the country via the Internet. The firm's customers could designate a school that they would like to help; usually their alma mater. We would then contact that school to form teams of students who would work under our supervision to provide the bookkeeping, accounting, and tax preparation services that the customer requests. The accounting firm gets some free labor, the universities and students get real-world situations to aid learning, and the firm's customers get the satisfaction of helping their old schools.  

Synonyms could also be used to generate multiple statements of the topic that could be explored later in the Imagination phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle. For example, playing with the original topic statement and synonyms for various key words, Steven could restate the challenge as "We want to..."


The main point is that such tools help us refocus the topic during creative preparation through the use of word play.



Refocusing a Topic With a Purpose Hierarchy

  Method: Write a concise statement of the topic on a card or post-it note. Now ask: what are other, more broadly stated purposes for wanting creative thinking on this topic? why do I care about this? what am I really trying to accomplish? Write each re-statement on a card or post-it. Now arrange these various statements as a progression from small to large, or short-term to long-range, or major to minor, or noble to crass... the specific criteria used for the ordering is not so important; just pick something that seems relevant to your situation. This ranked list is called a "purpose hierarchy." Source: Nadler and Hibino 1994  

Examples From SJ&D

What's SJ&D?

At SJ&D, "We want to..."

enhance the reputation of the firm

enhance the reputation of the firm as an innovator

show our customers that we are like what they perceive themselves to be

show our customers that we are like them

develop innovative services to please customers

get good press

generate more revenues

stop the loss of business

The value of this tool lies in the exploration of the many ways to view the topic. Later, in the Imagination phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle, we can generate ideas at several levels of the hierarchy. For example, we might say: give me creative ideas to get good press for the firm... now give me creative ideas that would show our customers that we are like them... now give me ideas for services that are simply innovative in their own right... and so on. Each restatement of the issue starts the mind at a slightly different mental valley and, therefore, enhances the chances for novel connections.



Six Thinking Hats

  Method: Use the metaphor of "putting on one's thinking cap" to encourage comprehensive, multimodal thinking. Source: de Bono 1985, 1992. Six Thinking Hats is a trademark of APPT.  


Edward de Bono suggests that we direct our thinking in specific directions by means of the metaphor of putting on and taking off colored thinking caps. de Bono's six hats are:

White: Think about data, facts, and information.

Yellow: Think about positives, benefits, good things.

Black (or Purple): Think about negatives, warnings, pitfalls.

Green: Think about creative possibilities and new ideas.

Red: Think about feelings and intuitions.

Blue: Exert control or direction over thinking.

Footnote on the "purple" hat: Edward de Bono gives the negative thinking hat the color Black. But have you ever noticed how socialized we are in the U.S. to associate the color black with negative or bad things? I guess this would be OK in isolation, but we also strongly associate the word "black" with an ethnic group in our society. Taken together, I worry about the mental linkages that subtly cause us to think of black people in negative ways. To avoid encouraging this mental linkage, and with apologies to Edward de Bono, I prefer to assign the color Purple to the negative thinking hat. I will use this convention through this site.

To use the six hats in creative preparation, someone in the group figuratively "puts on" the Blue hat as the leader of the thinking session. This person might then say, "OK, let's start with Yellow hat thinking. What are all the positive things we can say about the current situation, or about what we envision from our topic statement about our future situation?" For a few minutes, everyone in the group must be positive as we list thoughts. The Blue hat leader then says, "Now, let's put on the Purple hat and list negatives and cautions." This is repeated with all the hats to yield a fairly comprehensive list of thoughts at this early stage of the creative cycle.

  The hat metaphor gives each mode of thinking its time and place. It helps us avoid premature negative thinking. It also makes everyone equal; negative people must think positively when the Yellow hat is in use, both analytical and intuitive people must practice the opposite mode of thinking when the White and Red hats are on, and so on. This is useful, because it stimulates mental pathways that might be otherwise underutilized.  

The six hats are equally useful even when you are working alone. They serve as a reminder to exercise all of your thinking modes. As with a group, simply use the hats one at a time and compile your thoughts.

While we have introduced them here in this section on Preparation, the six hats have a variety of uses throughout the creative cycle.




  Method: Begin with a clear sense of purpose; what we have been calling a focused, but broad topic. Under the topic, list what you feel are the driving forces in the situation. Divide these forces into two groups: predictable and uncertain. Now create several (2-4) detailed scenario descriptions by combining the predictable forces with several possibilities for the unpredictable forces. These scenarios can then become food for thought in the Imagination phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle. Source: Wack 1985, de Geus 1990, Senge et. al. 1994  

Examples From SJ&D

What's SJ&D?

For Steven Ross and the accounting firm of SJ&D, a partial list of predictable and uncertain factors driving the accounting business in the community might include:

Topic: Innovative accounting services for our clients

 Predictable factors

 Uncertain factors

population tax laws
community demographics uses for personal computers
trends towards an economy based on service, high-tech, and small manufacturing businesses desire to insource or outsource accounting functions

Using these factors, Ross and a team of colleagues could construct 2-4 one-page scenarios as a creative preparation exercise. Assuming that the predictable factors go as anticipated, at least for the medium-term future, what would SJ&D do under the following scenarios...


Scenario #1: The government enacts a very simple, flat-tax that obviates the need for the tax planning and preparation work that SJ&D currently does for its clients. (Tax related work is currently 70% of our business.) Naturally, the clients start doing their own tax planning and tax filing using their own internal personnel. Clients continue to evolve their computer systems along current trend lines; no major breakthroughs in this area.

Scenario #2: The tax system gets even more complex than it is today. Clients also begin hiring their own accounting personnel and keep more of the work traditionally done by SJ&D. Through the use of the Internet and evolving electronic data interface (EDI) standards, all businesses and households in the community are linked together on an advanced computer network with capabilities to transmit voice, data, and images.


Each such scenario creates a new world. In the Imagination phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle, we will want to walk around in these new worlds and think about what we would do. What services would we offer? How would we create value for our customers? What new trends will be spawned under these conditions? And so on. The exploration of these virtual worlds will give us innovative ideas that we might be able to adapt to the real world of today. Or, we might decide that a future scenario is so promising that we will proactively work to bring it about sooner.

  The key ideas behind scenarios are creative escape and the balance of analysis and imagination. We escape time and effort by simply leaping over to a new future or new situation without having to bother with how things got that way. The only question is: what are we going to do now? After some imaginative exploring, we are likely to have several innovative ideas that might help us back in the real world, the here and now.  

While our scenarios must provide escape, they must also be plausible or they will simply become a silly game. Constructing plausible scenarios that nevertheless escape the current world, requires the balance of creative and analytical thought that is the hallmark of the Preparation phase.




Summary of the Preparation Phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle

  • Preparation is an essential part of the DirectedCreativity Cycle. It is naive to think that you can just walk into a brainstorming session and emerge with several breakthrough ideas effortlessly.
  • Creative preparation is something that should go on all the time as we live our lives in the world. It is immediate; here and now. You never know when something interesting might happen.
  • Creative preparation is also deliberate. You can sit down and do it.
  • Creative preparation is about expansive thinking. The goal is to have more identified and available mental valleys than when you began.
  • Preparation is a blend of both generative and analytical thinking.
  • The Preparation phase leads naturally into the Imagination phase of the DirectedCreativity Cycle. But you do not have to immediately imagine creative ideas as you prepare. It is enough simply to prepare. If you do both the Preparation and Imagination by yourself, you take away the fun that others can have contributing their own imaginative ideas.

Do not shortchange the Preparation phase of the creative cycle. Lack of purposeful preparation is a major reason why innovation is so rare.

Purposeful preparation for DirectedCreativity has another, subtle psychological benefit. Walking into a brainstorming group with several, well thought out, creative stimulus handouts makes it look like you know what you are doing. This is important. Many people believe that creativity is only about being silly or off-the-wall. As a result, they do not put much effort into creative thinking. Showing that you have prepared, and acting like you seem to know what you are doing, gives others the confidence to give creative thinking another try. You never need to let on that you really have no idea whether any of the things that you have prepared will stimulate an innovation. It is enough simply to be confident and see where you end up.

The Continuing Saga of DirectedCreativity at SJ&D

What's SJ&D?

Over a week's time, Steven Ross and his colleague at SJ&D could prepare a nice collection of items to stimulate imagination.

Surely, we will do a better job of idea generation based on these pre-developed items than if we had simply put people in rooms and said, "OK, let's brainstorm for innovative services."



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© 1997 Paul E. Plsek & Associates, Inc.
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