Creativity Takes Structure

When people think creativity, they think blue sky and endless possibilities. Believe it or not, this is where a lot of creativity falls flat. Creativity needs structure in order to be successful.

I could say to you: paint a picture. Okay….of what? What would you draw? What would you use to draw it? What would you draw it on? Now, what if I said to you: draw a mouse on a piece of paper. That’s a lot easier, right? The “mouse” and “paper” give you enough direction to get some great ideas going, and still allow you the freedom to draw whatever mouse you want. Without that, you’d probably sit starting at the paper for awhile. The structure provides direction towards solving the given task.

The same goes for a business task. Your boss could ask you to create a status report. Again, all these initial questions come into your mind: A status report of what? Client work? Accounts Receivable? What format? Who’s going to see it? How is it going to be used? Seeking out this clarity will only help the end result of your work, and it’s only natural to do so. Providing this structure cuts through a lot of ambiguity and provides a lot of clarity and direction to solve your task creatively.

Many times when we want to be creative, we try to remove as many constraints as possible. Like I said above, this is where creativity falls flat. You may come up with some creative ideas with no constraints, but they may be all over the place and not really help you in the end. And, more often then not, our minds wander away from the task we set out to solve, and we end up getting distracted and getting nothing done.

The more structure you give your task, the more focused your ideation will be to solve it. The solutions you create for the task will be more targeted and probably a lot creative than you thought they would be. Granted, there is such thing as too much structure, which basically solves the problem for you. There is a gentle balance that must be kept.

I’ve found the best way to get this type of structure for your task is to ask clarifying questions. I would break this down into 3 areas:

  1. Find out what the medium is: whether its a report, an exercise, an article – try to find out what you’ll be expected to deliver. Dig a little deeper into some of the details to add some additional clarification, such as the length of the report or how many people would be participating in the exercise.
  2. Find out who the audience is: who is this for? It makes a big difference if it’s for a 6th grade class or a team of executives.
  3. Find out what the goal is: knowing what you have to accomplish will help you find the way to get there.

After you’ve done this, I would restate your task as a “How to” statement. This helps make your task actionable. An example would be: “How to (task with the medium its to be delivered) for (audience) that (goal).”

Next time you find yourself trying to be creative and struggling, search for a little more structure and clarity in what you’re trying to do. Giving yourself this direction should help your ideas start flowing. In other words, instead of aiming for the entire blue sky of creativity, aim for just one section of it.