Creativity is increasingly bandied about as a critical skill for success in the 21st century. Along with innovation and critical thinking it has become part of the holy grail of educational outcomes and learning objectives.
When one considers the growth in automation, global competition, rapid pace of change, and the increasing demand from employers for hires who can not only solve problems but ask the right questions, it is not surprising that creativity has found increasing prominence as a desirable skill to possess.
With this backdrop I recently read Keith Sawyer’s book, Zig Zag, The surprising Path to Greater Creativity. It is an accessible read that provides a neatly packaged 8-step guide to get your creative juices flowing. The book can be followed in linear fashion, selectively to address a particular challenge, i.e., generating ideas, or selecting the best idea from a bunch, or as the author would probably encourage, in a zig zag manner as necessity and interest demand.
The book is full of practical exercises that are both engaging and generative. Sawyer correctly points out that the biggest challenge to solving tough problems is formulating the right questions. To ensure you are on the right track he recommends a practice called 10 questions where you write down 10 different formulations of your problem as quickly as possible. The outcomes tends to cluster around themes that you can further explore, refining the problem and solution sets that are most promising.
Another interesting exercise is called Break It Down, where problems are decomposed into a handful of key properties. The example given is a mouse trap with the properties of material, location, attracting, and catching. Possibilities for each property are listed in a table format with the end result being an exponential growth in possible outcome combinations for further exploration. In the example of the mouse trap, 5 attributes per property leads to 625 combinations!
In short he provides a rich set of activities to foster divergent thinking, yet, I think the greatest contribution of the text was the clear message that creativity is a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened, not a special genetic gift endowed to the chosen few. It can be taught and developed by those with the insight to recognize its value and the perseverance to develop what may not come naturally.
In a world where 47% of today’s jobs will be gone in 10 years and the only thing certain is that tomorrow’s challenges and problems will be more complex than todays, I would encourage everyone to read Zig Zag and become intentional about developing their capacity for creativity. Heavens knows you will need it!