|| Take me back to the DirectedCreativity Cycle page ||

Working Paper: Models for the Creative Process
by Paul E. Plsek

© 1996 Paul E. Plsek. All rights reserved.
DirectedCreativity is a trademark of Paul E. Plsek & Associates, Inc.

"It sounded an excellent plan, no doubt, and very neatly and simply arranged.
The only difficulty was, she had not the smallest idea how to set about it."

Lewis Carrol, of Alice in Alice in Wonderland

Analogous to the various models used in business to guide strategic planning, quality improvement, problem solving and other activities, there are models to guide creativity and innovation. In this working paper, we will explore the various models for creative thinking that have been suggested in the literature over the past 80 years. We will extract common themes from these various models and present a composite model that integrates these themes.

A Review of Creative Thinking Models in the Literature Since 1908

In his book Creativity: The Magical Synthesis, Silvano Arieti (1976) catalogued eight models of the creative thinking process that were proposed during the period 1908 to 1964. Additional models have been proposed since. Because these models represent a piece of the theory of creativity -- how creative thinking proceeds and how creative ideas emerge over time -- it is instructive to review the lines of thinking implied by them.


Before we begin this review, however, it is important to note that some experts dismiss the notion that creativity can be described as a sequence of steps in a model. For example, Vinacke (1953) is adamant that creative thinking in the arts does not follow a model. In a similar vein, Gestalt philosophers like Wertheimer (1945) assert that the process of creative thinking is a integrated line of thought that does not lend itself to the segmentation implied by the steps of a model. But while such views are strongly held, they are in the minority.

Business people, who have used models for quality improvement, strategic planning, reengineering, and so on, are well-positioned to deal with this apparent controversy. We understand, by experience, that while models are helpful in guiding our efforts, they are not to be used too rigidly. We understand that models are not rote prescriptions. We may deviate substantially from a model in a given situation, but this does not render the model useless. We also understand the concept of flow and realize that one should not be too dogmatic about when one step of the model ends and the next begins. Models are useful, but only a fool follows them blindly.


One of the earliest models of the creative process is attributed to Graham Wallas. Wallas (1926) proposed that creative thinking proceeds through four phases.


The Wallas Model for the Process of Creativity

Preparation (definition of issue, observation, and study)

Incubation (laying the issue aside for a time)

Illumination (the moment when a new idea finally emerges)

Verification (checking it out)


Torrance (1988) asserts that Wallas' model is the basis for most of the creative thinking training programs available today. The inclusion of incubation followed by sudden illumination in this popular model may explain why so many people view creative thinking as a subconscious mental process that cannot be directed.

But note the first and last phases of Wallas' model. The notion that creative thinking begins with purposeful preparation and ends with critical verification suggests that creative and analytical thinking are complementary, rather than opposing. Creative thinkers study and analyze, but they have trained their perception mechanisms to notice things that others miss. Creative thinkers verify and judge, but they expect surprises and avoid judging prematurely.

The implied theory behind Wallas' model -- that creative thinking is a subconscious process that cannot be directed, and that creative and analytical thinking are complementary -- is reflected to varying degrees in other models of creativity.

One set of models relies heavily on the theory of subconscious mental processes and uncontrollable events. For example, Campbell (1960) and Simonton (1988) propose that creative ideas emerge from a largely uncontrollable Darwinian process of random variation and natural selection. The basic idea behind what they call the "chance configuration theory" dates back to the 1880s and the writings of psychologist William James. Specifically, the chance configuration model suggests that variations on ideas and concepts come about through random chance. For example, random factors accounted for the mold that killed Alexander Fleming's laboratory bacteria cultures, leading to the discovery of penicillin. Similarly, random factors are also behind the sticker burrs that attached themselves to your pants leg during a walk in the woods. But George de Mestral parlayed these random events into observations that led to the invention of Velcro.

Following a chance event, Simonton and Campbell suggest that creativity proceeds through a natural selection process that chooses and adapts those random variations that are most useful. In completing the third and final step of the model, the successful creator/innovator preserves and reproduces these ideas in concrete form (for example, penicillin or Velcro fasteners). While these last two steps of selection and preservation are analytical in nature, the key feature of the model is that the process is initiated by chance. Simonton cites classic cases of invention (like penicillin and Velcro), as well as anecdotal self-reporting from great creators like mathematician Henri Poincare and physicist Albert Einstein, to support this model.

Barron (1988) similarly places great emphasis on subconscious and chance processes in his four-phase, "psychic creation model."


Barron's Psychic Creation Model

Conception (in a prepared mind)

Gestation (time, intricately coordinated)

Parturation (suffering to be born, emergence to light)

Bringing up the baby (further period of development)


The tone of Barron's model supports the popular view of creativity as a mysterious process involving subconscious thoughts beyond the control of the creator.

In contrast to the prominent role that some models give to subconscious processes, Perkins (1981) argues that subconscious mental processes are behind all thinking and, therefore, play no extraordinary role in creative thinking. Just because we cannot fully describe our thought processes does not mean that we are not in control of them. For example, we cannot begin to describe all of the subconscious mental processes that are engaged in the simple act of picking up a coffee mug. But we are certainly in control of the overall act. Further, Perkins argues, just because random events play a part in some acts of creation, this should not be taken to imply that random events are the source of all acts of creation. Weisberg's (1993) review of the lives of great creators and so-called "moments of invention" supports Perkins' points by demonstrating the years of conscious work and preparation on the part of the creator.

While some models make it appear that creativity is a somewhat magical process, the predominant models lean more toward the theory that novel ideas emerge from the conscious effort to balance analysis and imagination. For example, Rossman (1931) examined the creative process via questionnaires completed by 710 inventors and expanded Wallas' original four steps to seven.


Rossman's Creativity Model

  1. Observation of a need or difficulty
  2. Analysis of the need
  3. A survey of all available information
  4. A formulation of all objective solutions
  5. A critical analysis of these solutions for their advantages and disadvantages
  6. The birth of the new idea -- the invention
  7. Experimentation to test out the most promising solution, and the selection and perfection of the final embodiment

Note that while Rossman still shrouds the "birth of the new idea" in mystery, his steps leading up to and following this moment of illumination are clearly analytical.

Alex Osborn (1953), the developer of brainstorming, embraced a similar theory of balance between analysis and imagination in his seven-step model for creative thinking.


Osborn's Seven-Step Model for Creative Thinking

  1. Orientation: pointing up the problem
  2. Preparation: gathering pertinent data
  3. Analysis: breaking down the relevant material
  4. Ideation: piling up alternatives by way of ideas
  5. Incubation: letting up, to invite illumination
  6. Synthesis: putting the pieces together
  7. Evaluation: judging the resulting ideas

Note that Osborn implied purposeful ideation both in his notion of "piling up alternatives" and through his development of the rules of brainstorming as a tool for doing so.

The systematic combination of techniques for directed creativity and techniques for analysis continues as a strong theme in several, more recently proposed models. Parnes (1992) and Isaksen and Trefflinger (1985) outline six steps in their popular creative problem solving (CPS) model. (Tens of thousands of people have learned the CPS model and its associated tools through the seminars conducted by the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, NY.)


The Creative Problem Solving (CPS) Model

  1. Objective finding
  2. Fact finding
  3. Problem finding
  4. Idea finding
  5. Solution finding
  6. Acceptance finding

Steps 3 and 4 (problem and idea finding) clearly require novel, creative thinking; while steps 1, 2, 5, and 6 require traditional skills and analytical thinking.

Koberg and Bagnall (1981) propose a similar balanced model in their popular book The Universal Traveler.


Koberg and Bagnall's Universal Traveler Model

Accept the situation (as a challenge)

Analyze (to discover the "world of the problem")

Define (the main issues and goals)

Ideate (to generate options)

Select (to choose among options)

Implement (to give physical form to the idea)

Evaluate (to review and plan again)


Again, notice that ideation, the traditional focus of creative thinking tools such as brainstorming, is proceeded and followed by deliberate analytical and practical thinking. Also note the importance that Koberg and Bagnell place on accepting the situation as a personal challenge. This is consistent with the research into the lives of great creators that illustrates the importance of focusing and caring deeply. (See, for example, Weisberg 1993, Wallace and Gruber 1992, Gardner 1994, and Ghiselin 1952.) Finally, note that the final step of this model support the notion of continuous innovation.

The theme of creative and analytical balance is carried over into models proposed for specific applications. For example, consider Bandrowski's (1985) process for creative strategic planning.


A Model for Creative Strategic Planning

      standard planning
      insight development
      creative leaps
      strategic connections
      concept building
      critical judgment
      action planning
      creative contingency planning
      flexible implementation
      monitoring results

Notice the positive role of judgment in this model and the need for applying specific creative skills in insight development, creative leaps, and creative contingency planning.

Finally, it is important to note that not all models place the generation of new concepts in the mind as the "meat" of the sandwich between slices of analytical thinking bread. Consider Fritz' (1991) model, for example.


Robert Fritz' Process for Creation



Current reality

Take action

Adjust, learn, evaluate, adjust

Building momentum


Living with your creation


Fritz identifies the beginning of the process as the creative acts of conception and vision. This is followed by analysis of current reality, action, evaluation, public scrutiny (building momentum), and completion. Fritz also firmly asserts that the creative process is cyclical in nature. "Living with your creation" means purposeful noticing and analysis that leads to the next creative conception and vision.

Clearly, these modern models of the process of creative thinking are complex scripts for higher-order thinking. Regardless of the specific model we chose, we are called to engage in an intricate mental dance over an extended period of time. The complexity implied by this balancing act is probably the reason why creative ideas are so rare. Even though we all possess the underlying mental building blocks for creative thinking, stacking the blocks just right is very difficult work!

Common Themes Behind the Models of the Creative Process

While there are many models for the process of creative thinking, it is not difficult to see the consistent themes that span them all.

  • The creative process involves purposeful analysis, imaginative idea generation, and critical evaluation -- the total creative process is a balance of imagination and analysis.
  • Older models tend to imply that creative ideas result from subconscious processes, largely outside the control of the thinker. Modern models tend to imply purposeful generation of new ideas, under the direct control of the thinker.
  • The total creative process requires a drive to action and the implementation of ideas. We must do more than simply imagine new things, we must work to make them concrete realities.

These insights from a review of the many models of creative thinking should be encouraging to us. Serious business people often have strong skills in practical, scientific, concrete, and analytical thinking. Contrary to popular belief, the modern theory of creativity does not require that we discard these skills. What we do need to do, however, is to supplement these with some new thinking skills to support the generation of novel insights and ideas.These insights from the historical models of creative thinking are meant to challenge and encourage. As serious business people, we have strong skills in practical, scientific, concrete, and analytical thinking that will serve us well as we engage the creative process. Contrary to popular belief, the modern theory of creativity does not require that we discard these skills. What we do need to do, however, is to acquire some new thinking skills to support the generation of novel insights and ideas. Importantly, we also need to acquire the mental scripts to balance and direct these new thinking skills in concert with our traditional ones. If we can meet this challenge, we stand well-equipped to help lead our organizations to competitive advantage through innovation.

The DirectedCreativity Cycle: A Synthesis Model of the Creative Process

The DirectedCreativity Cycle is a synthesis model of creative thinking that combines the concepts behind the various models proposed over the last 80+ years.


The DirectedCreativity Cycle

DirectedCreativity Cycle


Let's walk through it, beginning at the 9:00 position on the circle. 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. Using this store, we generate novel ideas to meet specific needs by actively searching for associations among concepts. There are many specific techniques that we can use to make these association; for example, analogies, branching out from a given concept, using a random word, classic brainstorming, and so on. The choice of technique is not so important; making the effort to actively search for associations is what is key.

Seeking the balance between satisficing and premature judgment, we harvest and further enhance our ideas before we subject them to a final, practical evaluation. But, it is not enough just to have creative thoughts; ideas have no value until we put in the work to implement them. Every new idea that is put into practice changes the world we live in, which re-starts the cycle of observation and analysis.

Directed creativity simply means that we make purposeful mental movements to avoid the pitfalls associated with our cognitive mechanisms at each step of this process of searching for novel and useful ideas.

For purposes of explanation, we can further divide this model into four phases. We will use these four phases of Preparation, Imagination, Development, and Action to organize the tools of directed creativity in other working papers.

Note that this model continues in the tradition of others in asserting that creativity is a balance of imagination and analysis. The model also purposefully avoids taking a stand on the controversy of whether imagination is a conscious or subconscious mental ability. While I personally believe that imagination is a conscious, non-magical mental action, the activity of "generation" in the model welcomes creative ideas regardless of their source. Finally, notice that this model clearly supports the notion that innovation is a step beyond the simple generation of creative ideas. The Action phase of the model makes it clear that creative ideas have value only when they are implemented in the real world.

|| Take me back to the DirectedCreativity Cycle page ||


Arieti, S (1976) Creativity: The Magical Synthesis. New York: Basic Books. (Back)

Barron, F (1988) "Putting creativity to work." in Sternberg, RJ (ed.) The Nature of Creativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press. (Back)

Bandrowski, JF (1985) Creative Planning Throughout the Organization. New York: American Management Association. (Back)

Campbell, DT (1960) "Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes." Psychological Review, Vol. 67, pgs. 380-400. (Back)

Fritz, R (1991) Creating. New York: Fawcett. (Back)

Gardner, H (1994) Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books. (Back)

Ghiselin, B, ed. (1952) The Creative Process. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Back)

Isaksen, SG and Trefflinger, DJ (1985) Creative Problem Solving: The Basic Course. Buffalo, NY: Bearly Publishing. (Back)

Koberg, D and Bagnall, J (1981) The All New Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide To Creativity, Problem-Solving, And The Process Of Reaching Goals. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, Inc. (Back)

Osborn, A (1953) Applied Imagination. New York: Charles Scribner. (Back)

Parnes, SJ (1992) Sourcebook for Creative Problem Solving. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press. (Back)

Perkins, DN (1981) The Mind's Best Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Back)

Rossman, J (1931) The Psychology of the Inventor. Washington DC: Inventor's Publishing. (Back)

Simonton, DK (1988) "Creativity, leadership, and chance," in Sternberg, RJ (ed) The Nature of Creativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press. (Back)

Torrance, EP (1988) "The Nature Of Creativity As Manifest In Its Testing," in Sternberg, RJ (ed) The Nature of Creativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press. (Back)

Vinacke, WE (1953) The Psychology of Thinking. New York: McGraw Hill. (Back)

Wallace, DB and Gruber, HE (1989) Creative People at Work. New York: Oxford University Press. (Back)

Wallas, G (1926) The Art of Thought. New York: Harcourt Brace. (Back)

Weisberg, RW (1993) Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius. New York: W.H. Freeman. (Back)

Wertheimer, M (1945) Productive Thinking. New York: Harper. (Back)


DC-arrow logo

© 1997 Paul E. Plsek & Associates, Inc.
All rights reserved.


Back to Top of Page
Take me back to the DirectedCreativity Cycle page

|| Home Page || What's Directed Creativity? || Who's Paul Plsek? || Services ||
|| Links to Other Sites || The Creativity Bookstore ||
|| Creativity, Innovation, and Quality by Paul Plsek ||

DirectedCreativity Theory, Methods, and Tools...
|| DirectedCreativity Cycle ||
|| DirectedCreativity Heuristics ||
|| DirectedCreativity Toolkit ||