Challenge Assumptions to enable creativity

Challenge Assumptions to enable creativity

Enabling Creativity – Challenge Assumptions

I have read a lot lately about the myths of creativity and I would agree with most of these. Teresa Amabile is one researcher whose perspective I highly value and her myths of creativity can be read here.

What I am interested in is how to enable creativity and have put together my non- exhaustive list  which is based upon many years’ experience facilitating creativity.

The first on my list is:

Challenge 4 MTEtMjExLmpwZw==assumptions

Some people might call this ‘out of the box thinking’, however I find this increasingly controversial as a topic. To challenge assumptions, you may even stay in the box, whatever this may mean for you! The problem is that it is often hard to recognise assumptions when we meet them as we may know them as facts!


A useful framework to challenge assumptions is what Chris Argyris called a ladder of inference,  

ladder of inference

Ref: The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Peter Senge et al 1996

As you can see from this, we observe something, select from this observation, add meaning to this and then make assumptions which lead to beliefs and turn into actions. I believe we have all seen this process at work and there are lots of examples which could be shared here, many of them quite controversial.

An exercise I have found very useful in working to challenge assumptions in any situation is one that was included in the Peter Senge book referenced above, is based upon the ladder of inference, and called The Left Hand Column.

You take a piece of paper and draw two columns. On the right hand side you state the facts, or what was said in a situation. Against each of these points on the left hand side you write what you were thinking. As this shows the progression in any situation, it can throw light on the way in which are assumptions affect  our perception of a situation. This can be very helpful in surfacing assumptions in any situation.

So to come back to challenging assumptions, it is based upon our perceptions as shown in the ladder of inference, in that we observe a situation, add meaning to it and develop our assumptions. Assumptions over time become beliefs and as a result turn into facts. In organisations this is how group think and mind sets develop. Sometimes it needs a new person to come in and challenge these assumptions in order to break out of set ways of thinking. However there are techniques such as the exercise above that can help challenge assumptions and in Creative problem solving, the challenging of assumptions is key.


Persistence and Creativity

Persistence and Creativity


Persistence is the 4th condition for individual creativity



The focus here is on individual conditions for creativity.  Jane Henry, one of the authors of the Open University Business School module, Creativity, Innovation and Change, claims that the 4 Ps are important as conditions for creativity.

These are

  • Positivity
  • Playfulness
  • Passion
  • Persistence

The last of these, Persistence, is required in order to build up the experience needed for understanding and addressing problem issues as well as enabling someone to continue beyond what would be considered ‘normal. It can be defined as steadfastness, or not wavering and turning away from opportunities or focus.

It seems that we live in a society which wants quick fixes and there is little time or often patience to build up expertise and yet some of the most successful inventions have arisen from this ability to take a long term perspective and be persistent.

I particularly like the quote from Thomas Edison, American Inventor of many things including the light bulb  “I haven’t failed. I have found 10,000 ways that don’t work,” 

Edison is also often quoted as saying  “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.  He went on to say “Accordingly a genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework. The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments. I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.”  The light bulb was not a new idea,  but an old idea that he made work by his persistence,

I particularly like this quote which is often attributed to Edison but probably came from another source “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Another example of persistence in innovation which is frequently quoted is the post-it note which originally was deemed a failure by its inventor Dr Spencer Silver. However it was picked up by Art Fry and eventually after 6 years it started to become a success.

So what does it take to remain persistent?

  • A strong belief that there is a way forward,  holding a vision of success and working in a steadfast manner towards this
  • Resilience , that is being able to bounce back from setbacks
  • Intrinsic motivation, being powered from within rather than dancing to some else’s tune.

As leaders we also need to recognise the support that people require to enable them to be persistent in terms of creativity and I list some of these here:

  • Encouragement
  • Acceptance of mistakes
  • Recognition
  • Opportunities to continuously develop enabling experience to build.
  • Time and space to be creative


 Barbara is a creative and leadership coach, facilitator and teacher who is passionate about enabling others to be creative in their lives

To Innovate or to Improve? That is the question!

One of the issues that I came across this week concerning innovation was around the question of radical versus incremental innovation. Most innovation is incremental, building upon previous ways of doing things, or improving on existing products. Very little innovation is radical, where something new is created.

So what is the value of radical innovation? In another discussion I had, it became clear to me that if there had been some blue sky thinking and radical innovation  around a product/service then it may have created a buzz in the marketplace that is currently missing. This would have allowed for key differentiation between that service and its competitors and thus improved their competitive advantage.

Two of the most influential writers/academics who have proposed radical innovation are Gary Hamel and C.K.Prahald in their book ‘Competing for the Future’.

They stipulate that to create the future a company must

‘Change in some fundamental way the rules of engagement in a long standing industry, redraw the boundaries between industries, create entirely new industries’


This requires radical transformation and not just incremental change. (more…)

Recruiting for a creative climate

Last week I came across a short article in the International Herald Tribune which contained an interview with Michael Lebowitz, founder and chief executive of Big Spaceship, a digital marketing and communications agency.
What I found fascinating about this company, which clearly regards creativity is its key strategic asset, were the following:

 Creativity is regarded as belonging to and the responsibility of all, not just a design or development group. Everyone in invited to brainstorm for ideas and there is an attitude that everyone has something to contribute. (more…)

Importance of love at work – no, not an affair between colleagues but the positive valuing and respect of one colleague to another or a leader and his or her team.

‘Love,’ in a work context could be described as  genuinely valuing the people around you, and the context you work in, so as to provide the emotional space and security for confident exploration and learning. Quoted from the MBA module Creativity and Change (Open University Business school) and referencing Charles Handy (1991).

My last blog post referred to the importance of allowing for mistakes and forgiveness. This is closely related because in order to allow mistakes to happen and to learn from them, there needs to be a climate that is secure and enables growth of the individual. (more…)