Can Creativity Be Learned?

By Elizabeth Sicheri

In every organization that I’ve ever worked for, there has been a struggle between ‘Quants” and “Creatives”.

Quants are known as individuals who rely heavily on logical thought and numeric input in their decision-making process, and Creatives are known for relying on their artistic talent in order to get their job done. By definition, these two schools of thought are at odds, and many cross-functional teams experience unnecessary conflict and inefficiencies as a result. Creatives often feel that the Quants are inhibiting their creative process by placing boundaries around them, and Quants often feel that the Creatives are making decisions on a whim.

Being a data analyst with a background in marketing, I find myself at an interesting intersection between quantitative and artistic thought.

My Story

During my undergraduate experience at the University of Montana, I had an interesting interaction with a woman who ran her own local, creative agency. She lived and breathed art and artistic thought, and openly referred to herself as a Creative. I was studying Marketing and International Business at the time, so I was very much in touch with the need for creativity and artistic talent in the marketing industry. Throughout my life, however, I had felt that creativity was an area in which I was lacking. I never thought of myself as a trail blazer, and often found myself forming ideas based upon pre-existing thoughts and ideas. I had no problem expanding on these existing notions, but I never felt that I was really capable of coming up with something completely new.

After her talk about some of the work that she had done in town and the need for artistic creativity and branding, I asked her whether or not she thought that creativity was something that could be learned. Before responding to the question, she gave me a very

serious look and took a moment to think. After she had collected her thoughts, she responded by saying, “Creativity is something that people either have or they don’t.”

To be transparent, I fully expected that she would say the opposite. I desperately wanted her to provide me with some validation in my choice in major. Why would I self-select for a creative major if I did not consider myself to be creative? Had I made a detrimental decision that would impact my long-term future? Whatever the case, I was very disheartened to hear her say that she did not view creativity as something that could be learned.

Determined to make the best of the situation that I was in, I chose to focus on Marketing Communications and Social Media Management. I felt that these areas were a better fit for me, a self-declared non-creative, because they were more about the application of the English language and less about free-form art.

Fast forward about a year and a half. I had been working in a communications-oriented role, and I found that application of my efforts to be less than rewarding. I had always had an interest in statistics and applying a logical basis to my decisions. I reached a peak of frustration surrounding this point about a year after I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I wanted to be able to make a difference with my work in some way, but I didn’t know how I would go about doing it. I had noticed that Marketing Analytics was a growing field, and my alma mater had started a new program in Business Analytics.

The switch from marketer to data analyst did not come without its challenges. I had to come up with some new ways of thinking about problems and the questions that people ask. It was also the first time that I was in a field that was typically dominated by Quants.

Considering that I now possessed two wildly different points of view as well as two wildly different methods of solving a given problem, I was determined to address the gap that existed between Quants and Creatives. This directive to bridge the gap brought me back to the question that had brought me so much stress and anxiety surrounding my own capabilities in the past: Can creativity be learned?

It was at this point that I had an opportunity to take part in a creativity training workshop in my Data Analytics and Innovation class. This workshop specifically focused on a school of thought called Creative Problem Solving.

What is Creative Problem Solving?

The main premise of Creative Problem Solving is that every human being is born with creative capacities, and some individuals simply learned to effectively apply them sooner than others. Creative Problem Solving also supplies a framework that individuals can use to address a given problem, offering them a step-by-step process to follow.

The process has four unique stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. In Creative Problem Solving, it is essential to start with the end goal, and think of ways to get there by using both convergent and divergent thinking patterns.

Given this thinking framework, the Creative Problem Solving process is very easy to follow. The first step is to identify and imagine a goal, which provides an endpoint to work towards. The second step is conduct research, which is the step in which we “gather our raw material”. The third step is to take some time to think about ways to get to the end goal and create new connections in the mind. The fourth point, which is arguably the most crucial, is to walk away from the problem and let the ideas incubate. After this step, the idea will become obvious. The apparition of the big idea is step five, and the sixth step is building on the final idea.

Multiple methods are commonly used within this process, including Brainstorming, Forcing Associations, and the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. method.

In Brainstorming, there is one end goal, and the person trying to solve the problem is given more time than they actually need to think of an idea. It is natural for “low hanging fruit”, or ideas that are not necessarily very creative, to come to mind first. If this time is used wisely, however, interesting ideas will start to emerge due to the fact that the most obvious and non-creative ideas are usually the ones that are generated most quickly.

The Forced Association method is my personal favorite. This method involves taking two objects or ideas and seeing how one can be improved by using features of the other. To take it a step further, one can also view the problem from the lens of a specific application, occupation, or process. This method requires the generation of new uses for existing functions from a variety of viewpoints, which is something that I have always felt has been a strength for me.

The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. method is a sub-method of the forced association method, and it involves thinking of new applications of a product by considering ways that aspects of the product could be substituted, combined, adapted, magnified/minimized, put to other uses eliminated, and/or reversed.

The Creative Problem Solving framework is the main point of this method, while Brainstorming and Forced Association tactics simply aid in moving the Creative Problem Solving Process along. While some problems may not warrant much brainstorming or forced association, these tools can create some very impressive outcomes if used effectively in the right situation.

So, Can Creativity Be Learned?

After taking part in that training on Creative Problem Solving, I absolutely believe that creativity is a skill that can be learned. The Creative Problem Solving framework is so simple to apply, both to business questions as well as to issues that arise in everyday life. I have already starting putting Creative Problem Solving techniques to work in my day-to-day life, and I have been very pleased with the results.

Overall, the training that I took part in opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities to apply myself and my thoughts, in ways that I previously had not thought possible. I also feel that this specific framework for creative thinking would be a perfect way to bridge the gap between Quants and Creatives since it uses a logical thought process that generates real, creative outcomes.

This was just one creativity training, covering one method. There are countless creative processes available, as well as countless trainings that could potentially open one’s eyes to her own creative potential. With more trainings on more creative techniques, we continue to bridge the gap between Quants and Creatives. And more importantly, I will never feel inadequate about my personal sense of creativity again.

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