Debugging Creativity

Creativity, they say, is solving problems with no apparent solutions.

I confess, I hate creativity work.

I hate problems that fall outside my everyday work routine. Obstacles un-movable that I did not see coming.

I hate having to be creative. We all do.

If you are like me, here is a list of tricks I use for practical creativity. Ways of debugging creativity, when you are stuck.

Mixing Different Skills

Creativity is about mixing different types of skills.

The best equation [1] for creativity is

Creativity = fa(K, E, I)


    • K – Knowledge specific to the problem domain
    • I – Imagination to generate novel approaches
    • E – critical Evaluation for selecting and developing the best solution to the problem
    • a – attitude; how well you combine the 3 skills above
  • [1] Dr. Ruth Noller – “Guide to Creative Action”, 1997

The Godfather of creativity, Edward de Bono, says its 6 skills [2] or thinking hats:

    • White Hat – Data collecting reliable and objective facts
    • Red Hat – Emotional emotive perception: do you love or hate the idea
    • Black Hat – Rational critical analysis of the solution
    • Yellow Hat – Optimistic positive extrapolation, supporting and evolving the idea
    • Green Hat – Imaginative fertile and irrational pursuit of ideas round a problem
    • Blue Hat – Control orchestrating the above skills well
  • [2] Edward de Bono – “Six Thinking Hats”, 1999

Creative work is about perceiving [3], about seeing the solution. A good creative solution seems obvious afterwards.

Why did I not see it earlier?

The different skills provide different ways of perceiving.

If you are stuck, you need to switch skills.

Domain Specific Knowledge (DSK)

Understanding lets you see more.

The extreme is the 10,000 hour rule [4]. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft. To improvise like a jazz master.

If you are stuck, learn more about the problem domain.

Frame the Problem

Acknowledging and describing the problem is sometimes half the battle.

Something is wrong. You don’t know what, how or why.

State the nature of the problem, then leave a huge blank space where the answers will eventually be pinned or drawn.

Framing also provides constraints.

Without constraints and a focus, creativity work will not solve anything.

The Elusive Problem Domain

Its about the problem, not the tools. Classic mistake when learning.

Tools always have books and qualification courses.

For the problem domain, you have to experiment and observe. Try things. Test.

For the problem domain, you learn most from failure. Not from getting “A+” in class.

We all have academic skillsets which focus on generic, reputable abilities. Very distant from the product and problem domain.

Matrix organizations are the worst at this. Functional managers, in their silos, recruit and train for these generic skillsets. Theory is so much more elegant than practice, than real client problems.

Product Managers are central to creating a problem domain focus [5].

For creativity, demand problem domain loyalty. You have to disown your tools and generic skillsets, and swear loyalty to the problem domain.


Your Context has a Wide Horizon

Nowadays, you never see serious problems coming.

Your job layoff, product end-of-life, company closure problem often comes from outside of your assumptions.

Nobody can predict the next 10 years.

The threat horizon is wide. Your market, clients, users and technology span beyond what you can see.

Similarly, the solution often originates from outside your competencies and context.

Never assume closed, isolated, scenarios for your thinking.

Observe your context accordingly. Assume the world is flat, with no barriers.

Watch for these externalities.

The Braintrust – Domain Mentors

The truth is adding more people to a team does not speed up know-how intensive tasks – The Mythical Man Month.

In Pixar and Disney, story telling knowhow is concentrated in a small group, the braintrust. The group acts as a catalyst for quality films. The rules for the Pixar braintrust are:

    • Members of the braintrust have deep domain experience. They include the Pixar founding team
    • Braintrust has no authority, it cannot tell other director’s what to do
    • Deep kandor required. The brainstorm does not work in the presence of personal, political agendas. Divisiveness and politicizing is actively managed out.
    • The dynamics of the room, the attitude, is all important

In the absense of a braintrust, seek domain mentors. Helpful people that have previous experience in the problem at hand.

Generic managers need not apply

Imagination – Ideation

The most imaginative ideas are invariably unpleasant at first, but wonderful in hindsight.

The most fertile, original, promising ideas are never in your comfort zone.

“You want to do what?! Whatever next!”

Do not discard the idea. Place it on the project wall.

Defer judgement. Easy in theory, hard in practice.


All ideation techniques use a two phase diverge-converge rythm: create ideas – choose ideas. And repeat.

Design Thinking goes to Users to source new ideas. Deep ethnographic observation, User’s lives, problems and tasks as a base for ideas.

Lean Startup builds a minimal prototype and experiments with users, technology and the market.

The wider your observations horizon, the better your idea generation will be: Users, Technology, Competitive market.

You Need to Play

This is hard for adults, specially for those of us with a management background.

Invoking emotions and feelings, Red and Yellow Thinking hats in brainstorms are not for everyone. Being unflichingly emotive and optimistic about someone elses idea is tough.

Green Hat, lateral thinking provocation techniques, which use outlandish non-sensical ideas to shunt fast-think, cognitive filters, habitual prejudice, and allow a fresh perception, are hard.

Being playful and emotive at work is hard.

Use de Bono Thinking hats discipline.

Take it seriously.

Orientation and Mapping

Next comes the sorting and visualising phase. Group and order the post-it notes, or observations and observe the patterns and themes that emerge.

Visualize as much as you can. Mapping in different dimensions, and along spectrums.

Visual thinking with pictures, cartoons, diagrams and graphs is the most intuitive.

Resist writing reports.

Maps are best.

Critical Evaluation – The Dreaded Black Hat

When Critiquing an Idea: Be Rational not Prejudiced

A professional design critique starts with “This will not work because…”.

An amateur design critique starts with “I don’t like this…”

Best critiques come from professional development managers like certified Scrum Masters.

Accurate development and execution planning is an essential part of creativity process.

A good critique is essential to eliminate evidently bad ideas, and then rank and prioritize.

A good critique always gives good reasons.

Risk and Value Are Linked

The best lessons involve risky projects. Projects that offer no guarantees.

Each trial, prototype and experiment has a cost, nevertheless. Not just time and money. Failure has a cost. It is tiring to fail.

So, triage your best ideas wisely. What will teach you the most about the problem domain?

But, try to retain some synergy with what you know, so adaptation is possible.

Just outside your comfort zone, where you will learn the most.

Playing it safe has the least creative value.

Debugging Creativity – Attitude is Everything

Organizations are not creative, individuals are [12].

Here are some frequent failure modes that are vexing.

Avoid Zero-Sum People

A zero-sum game is a scenario where gamers compete over a fixed amount of prize. The winnings balance out the losses. The net sum of the participant winnings and losses is zero; it is a zero-sum game.

Creativity, obviously, is a non-zero-sum game. You are creating value out of nothing, not stealing a prize from somebody else.

Zero-sum people compete as a way of life. Cooperating and enabling others is a weakness. All relationships are transactional, tit-for-tat.

Give a bag of corn to a group of zero-sum people, a time later they will each have competed and won part of the original bag of corn. The net growth of a zero-sum economy is always zero. Stagnation.

Give a bag of corn to a group of non-zero-sum people, a time later they will have harvested 100 bags of corn from the planting of the original bag. The net growth of a non-zero-sum economy is non-zero.

When a person’s way of life is about competing over fixed assets, creativity will be difficult for them. They need to compete, not create. Zero-sum people simply do not believe in creation of value. Avoid them in creative process; out-competing everybody does not fit with ideation.

For creativity, don’t compete, cooperate

Beginner’s Mind: Defer Judgement

Some people think they know everything. Academics, for instance, are notorious for always having an answer; “That’s because ….” . They are teachers, they are supposed to know everything.

But, with a creative problem, you don’t know the answer. Nobody does.

So, defer judgement. Don’t judge even the wildest ideas without testing.

Original ideas always have risk and doubt.

Your chosen ideas must have reasonable doubt, otherwise they are worthless

Beginner’s Mind is the buddhist practice of approaching life as a student. Empty of judgement, full of question.

Cultivate Disregard – Create a Safe Space for Ideas

Practicing Beginner’s Mind, acting as a student often attracts scorn, derision, hostility. Students, beginners, are always the bottom of the totem pole.

Thinking different, not being part of a larger group, will be uncomfortable.

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, says it is the key: “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.”

Resist the temptation to conform or to seek approval.

Disregard people outside your creative project.

Test and Validate Assumptions

Being dogmatic is opposit to being creative.

Unquestioned belief in what you have been taught is a creativity fail.

New MBA students are the worst. They are rarely warned to test their conceptual frameworks in the real world [7]. Validate what is taught in class before using it in anger.

Unconscious prejudice and dogma is the biggest reason experts fail in creativity

Practice “Strong beliefs, lightly held”, says President Obama

An informed challenge is an opportunity

Whenever possible concede, don’t debate

If you can’t beat them, you join them; change your mind quickly.

Try and progress through

what should be,
what is,
what could be

If none of your ideas need testing, something is wrong.

Creativity is a Dance, Don’t Be Bossy

Creativity is a flow through different ways of thinking, in pursuit of a good perception.

Don’t be rigid or bossy.

It is more art than science.

Blue Hat Thinking is about the choreography of achieving a nice flow of thinking.

If you are stuck, time to take a step back and change your approach. Try something different.

Sometimes, you just have to take a walk.

Embrace Risk

Risk is Now Part of Our Lifes.

In our jobs, our products, our services, our media, our companies.

Career, earning a living, and education require effort and taking risks.

Risk free investments don’t exist anymore. A risk free asset is no longer an investment, like cash, it is just storage.

Good investments no longer come with guarantees.

In investment language, you only get a return on investment in exchange of uncertainty and volatility.

If you want more return, you must accept more risk.

The same applies to ideas.

Optimising Return with Portfolio of Projects

Risk-return is best optimised through portfolios. A basket of ideas.

Venture Capitalist create portfolio of investment projects, like a basket of lottery tickets. Only one or two will be winners. Every funding cycle, they retain the winners, throw away the loosing tickets.

Curate your basket of ideas. Test, and weed out. Decide on cut-off rules for ideas.

Risk Budget

You cannot achieve success on a zero risk budget.

Decide how much time and money you can risk, and embrace risky ideas accordingly.

Risk is real. Expect to fail randomly and repeatedly.

When the Value-at-Risk is too much, go for tactical, limited risk developments.

Maintaining employment is always a smart move.

When gauging risk, common sense is required. Don’t invest more than you can afford to loose.

Creative Success Is Random, Be Humble

Randomness is widely overlooked in the creative and investment industry.

Winners are, often, simply in the right place at the right time.

You are not born a winner. You are not chosen by Destiny. You will not automatically win the lottery ticket.

But, we are always fooled by randomness. We look for causes, schemes, and tricks. We become superstitious.

Nevertheless, ignore the guaranteed success advice.

Ignore the lucky few who now proclaim their God-like winning qualities and schemes.

Be yourself, score high on the creativity equation, and try your luck.

[3] “Thinking Course”, Edward de Bono, 1996
[4] “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell, 2008
[5] “Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love”, Marty Cagan, 2017
[6] “Ed Catmull:Inside the Braintrust”, Ed Catmull, 2014
[7] “Don’t Go Back to School”, Kio Stark, 2013
[8] “Surely You Are Joking Mr Feynman”, Richard Feynman, 1985
[9] “Fooled by Randomness”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2001
[10] “Creative Mischief”, Dave Trott, 2009
[11] “Zag”, Marty Neumeier, 2007
[12] “Organization Creativity”, Puccio, Gerard J., 2017
[13] Zero Sum Thinking
[14] “Who Moved My Cheese”, Dr Spencer Johnson, 1998
[15] “Creativity Inc”, Ed Catmull, 2014