Five Stages of Creativity

In my previous post, I debunked some commonly held beliefs on creativity. Mainly, I discussed that creativity is more of an action than a trait and that it is the result of conscious and hard work, not an ‘aha’ moment that you’ll have as you sit and wait for inspiration. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, just click here.

In this post, I want to talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage to help you come up with original ideas and develop creative solutions to problems that you may be having with your work or in your organization.

Stages of Creativity:

The most popular creativity framework identifies five stages of creativity. In his book on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi states that breaking down creativity into five stages can be a bit too simplified and even misleading, but it does offer a valid and simple way to organize the complexity associated with creativity. So while reading the five stages, it is important to not fixate on each individual stage and instead focus on the general process of how creativity works.

1) The first stage is preparation. 

The preparation stage is when you become curious and immersed in a problem that you find interesting. A problem could be as simple as you locking yourself out of your car or as complicated as high turnover in your workplace due to low employee morale. You might say that most forms of creativity do not have a problem (e.g., art, music, writing), however, I would actually disagree. For example, when I write blog posts, my problem is – how do I create engaging and valuable content? When you’re composing a musical score, your problem might be something like – how do I convey a specific emotion throughout the entire composition with a specific instrument? When trying to ‘be creative’, you need to have a problem, or a question, in mind that you want to solve or answer. Just think of it this way – if you didn’t have a problem or a question in mind, then you would have no need to be creative!

Therefore, the first part of the preparation stage is to find a problem. The second part of the preparation stage is to acquire information. Once you have identified a problem, you need to learn everything about the problem. What has been done by others in the past to solve a similar problem? Where have they succeeded or possibly failed? What skills are required to solve this problem? You need to now obtain that knowledge and acquire those skills to solve the problem (if you do not have it already). For example, if you wanted to evoke joy in your musical composition, you would need to have knowledge of music theory and of the major scales. Perhaps you would listen to what other composers have done in the past. If you have low employee morale, perhaps you acquire information through an employee engagement survey or you assess what other organizations are doing to mitigate this problem.

The stage of preparation might seem quite complicated and tedious, but the good news is that you probably already have a good degree of knowledge about the problem. However, if you want to be creative, you have to be open to always acquiring more knowledge.

2) The second stage is incubation. 

So you’ve identified the problem and acquired a lot of information, so what now? This is when you take a step back to allow your mind to process this information and let the unconscious mind get to work. This is when you take a break and go do something unrelated. Go to the gym, make a new recipe for dinner, or work on a different problem that’s unrelated.

The reason you do this is because the conscious mind tries to solve problems in a linear and logical manner. However, when we hit a wall and are struggling to produce anything meaningful, it’s best to let the unconscious mind take over for a bit as it can develop unexpected combinations and patterns that can help us come up with a creative solution.

This might seem contradictory to what I said in my previous post about how creativity is not just about waiting for an ‘aha’ moment, however, it’s not. This stage is only effective if you do conscious and hard work during the preparation phase. Your unconscious mind will only come up with creative solutions if you create the right mental conditions and feed it enough information to put unexpected combinations together.

So, why or how does incubation work? How does it eventually lead to a possible ‘aha’ or ‘Eureka’ moment? One theory is that even though you’re not focusing on the problem consciously, your unconscious mind is still working hard to solve it. Another theory is that your mind is exhausted, and during the incubation period, you’re giving your mind the rest it needs so that it can relax and recover. A third theory states that when you’re stuck on a problem, your mind is fixating on the wrong solution. By incubating and doing something else, your mind becomes less attached to the wrong solution and may even forget about the wrong solution. I could spend an entire blog post talking about the different theories that are out there for why incubation works, but the important thing to know is that it works. Incubation is most effective when you focus on a task that is completely unrelated to the problem you’re trying to solve.

3) The third stage is the ‘Aha!’ moment. 

Did you ever have that moment when you can’t find something, such as your keys, and you give up? Then you do something completely unrelated and, randomly, you remember where they were? That is a classic ‘aha’ moment. It is when you have that seemingly random insight that everyone glorifies. Of course, as I said, what we rarely see is the continued effort that occurs before (and after) this moment. Also, when you retrospectively look back, you’ll often find that the insight you had is not random but actually quite connected and rational. It just may have occurred at a random time. Nevertheless, this is an important moment.

What happens though if you do not have that ‘aha’ moment? Do you just keep waiting in that incubation period until something comes up? Well, no. If you do not have an ‘aha’ moment, you can always revisit the problem and see if a fresher mind allows you to solve it, or at least get closer to solving it. You can always go back to stage one and acquire more information. Sometimes the lack of a Eureka moment is insufficient knowledge. Regardless of whether you have that moment or not, however, make sure that you do not just keep on waiting. It is okay to occasionally take extended breaks from your problems, particularly if they are complex, but do revisit them and keep acquiring more information as needed.

4) The fourth stage is evaluation.

This is a very important step as it is deciding whether or not the insight you obtained from the ‘aha’ moment is worth pursuing. Not all insights or ideas you generate are good or useful. For example, you might decide that the solution to your low employee morale problem is to give everyone a raise, however, it turns out to be a poor solution because it is costly and the real problem is that management doesn’t appreciate their employees.

In this stage, you must evaluate the usefulness of your idea and decide whether or not it is worth pursuing. You might even find that you have a great idea, but it is not useful for this specific problem you are trying to solve. The evaluation stage, unlike stages 2 and 3, is fully conscious. To make the right decision, you must draw on the knowledge you acquired in stage one and possibly even acquire more knowledge to help you make your decision.

5) The fifth stage is Elaboration.

This is the hardest and the longest stage. This is where you must execute on your idea and transform your idea into reality. This is when you actually write the majority of your music composition or blog. This is when you implement your corrective action for low employee morale.

The important thing to note is that this is not just one large stage or process that occurs only after the first four stages are completed. In this process, you will often revert back to periods of preparation, incubation, and evaluation. Throughout this process, you will also continue to have small epiphanies that guide your work. Based on the vastness of the problem you are trying to solve, you will go through many iterations and need many insights to solve the problem you are trying to solve. Some problems may be solved in a few hours whereas others can take years.

Final words…

If there’s one takeaway that you take from this blog post and my previous post, I hope it is that creativity is about conscious and hard work. I cannot stress this enough. It is about taking action and putting in a ton of effort. There are no shortcuts. There are moments of idleness and distractions involved, but those should be strategically implemented as a way to maximize your efforts. When you try to tackle your next problem or when you pursue your next creative endeavor, I’d encourage you to see how these stages play into your creative process.

In future posts, I will discuss more on how we can enhance our personal creativity and how we can increase creativity in organizations.

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