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Long and winding roads: Fostering non-linear creativity

by Sep 28, 2021Innovate0 comments

It’s tempting to see creativity as steady progress towards a shared goal. Someone in the team sets the agenda, and all members converge on a solution in an orderly manner.

But in reality, that’s not how creativity works.

From the outside, a team may look like a uniform collection of people with shared goals and similar mindsets.

Viewed from another angle, though, they could just as easily be defined as an uneven collection of individuals in eternal conflict, relentlessly jostling one another.

In the words of Isaiah Berlin: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’

He could have been talking about teamwork – and he also put his finger on the reason many people struggle with it.

Working in a team which often seems like a roiling mass of conflicting opinions and ideas may seem like an impossible task … and at times, it is. Often, it feels incredible that anything’s achieved at all!

That’s OK. It’s actually how it should be. The chaos is part of the point.

As long as these differences are deftly channelled, a team can transcend each member’s individual motions.

So, don’t be put off during those occasional times where everything seems chaotic. What you’re experiencing isn’t a barrier to creativity … it is creativity. Innovation is often messy and convoluted, not neat and arrowlike, on its path.

If you’re hoping to see your team’s creative process distilled in a neat little diagram, you may be overlooking the essence of everything they’ve achieved.

The creative process isn’t so neatly defined; it only gradually becomes visible through the total of your team’s interactions.

Sure, the final product may be neat, organised and uniform. But it’s almost certain that the path to get there was anything but.

Unfortunately, this messily random definition of creativity doesn’t sit well with linear thinkers.

Linear thinkers often have trouble grasping the point of circular models of creativity. They have a narrower, more rigid idea of what should take place in a team.

In a nutshell, linear thinkers ‘start at step one and usually do a good and efficient job of completing the task before moving on to step two.’[i]

At first, it’s hard to see the problem. What on earth could be wrong with wanting to proceed from Step 1 to Step 2 to Step 3? Isn’t that how things are supposed to work? Why on earth would you restlessly circle around a problem instead of answering it directly? Surely that’s just a waste of time.

That sounds logical at first … but there’s a problem.

No matter how arrow-straight your mind is, your team won’t function in a linear way – for the simple reason that it’s made up of non-linear humans.

With everyone starting from different worldviews, total agreement is only likely if one person takes over completely. And if that happens, your team has ceased to function as a collective.

Does accepting the non-linear nature of creativity necessarily mean giving up on the possibility of consensus, then?

Fortunately, no. Grappling with this responsibility is something we’ve devoted significant time to at Thinka, in our efforts to celebrate the ‘human touch’ supporting each collective endeavour.

Fully appreciating your team’s diversity involves regularly ‘zooming out’, to make sure no one voice has become dominant. When other voices are given enough breathing space, it’s far easier to begin unpicking the separate parts of the non-linear creative process.

  • Stage 1: Preparation (gathering your forces to solve a problem)
  • Stage 2: Incubation (considering the problem)
  • Stage 3: Illumination (solving the problem)
  • Stage 4: Verification (making sure your solution works).[ii]

Obviously, these stages are all important to the outcome. What may not be so obvious, though, is that they don’t have to unfold in any particular order.

For example, after reaching Stage 4, you might realise that your proposed solution isn’t viable – it’s too impractical or expensive, for example, or wouldn’t appeal to the right audience.

If you’re a purely linear thinker, you’d be inclined to throw in the towel at this point – or at least junk every single thing your team’s come up with so far and start again from scratch.

But this would mean throwing the team’s entire previous output on the scrapheap.

There’s another way. Instead of junking everything you’ve achieved together, try employing a circular creative process instead of a linear one.

By ‘circling back’ to an earlier stage of the process, you’ll have the opportunity to hear earlier ideas from team members that may have been buried in the hustle and bustle of team discussions – usually beneath the louder, more prolific comments of more dominant members.

In its rejection of hierarchy, that gentle circular motion brings a wider chorus of voices to the fore.

This makes non-linear creativity more democratic than the alternative. Keeping one eye on the process allows for more chances for other people to be heard. Even better, recalibrating how creativity works prevents your team from squandering perhaps its most valuable resource – diversity.

Non-linear creativity is powerful because it accepts what a team actually is, not a pale facsimile. It’s time to embrace the circle, not the line.

[i] https://chuckslamp.com/index.php/2009/04/11/non-linearthinking/

[ii] https://www.wework.com/ideas/worklife/understanding-the-four-stages-of-the-creative-process