At least since the 1950s psychologists have been peddling creativity training, but ask the average person on the street if creativity can be taught and they’ll probably shrug and say, not really. Sure, various techniques can marginally boost creative thinking, but a great many people still believe that you’re basically stuck with whatever level of creativity your brain is naturally wired for.
That persistent belief that creativity is basically unteachable doesn’t say great things about the last 70 or so years of creativity training. Which is why a group of researchers recently set out to re-imagine the field entirely. In a new paper they claim they’ve developed a new approach that can train just about anyone to be more creative.
Stealing the creativity secret of kids
Project Narrative, the effort out of Ohio State University, began with a simple but profound observation. Almost all past creativity training has been based on the idea of divergent thinking, offering trainees logical rules and set mental recipes to help them generate more fresh ideas. That sounds sensible, but it’s actually not how some of the most creative humans around, kids, come up with wildly novel ideas. Kids are super creative because they’re always role playing and telling stories.
Could creativity training based less on logical rules and more on storytelling be massively more effective?
According to the new paper in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences setting out the results of the project, the answer is a resounding yes. The approach was used successfully to train soldiers at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Ohio State College of Engineering, and several Fortune 50 companies. The researchers say it can work for just about anyone.
What does it look like? The technique consists of a series of exercises based on the internal logic storytellers across the world have used for millennia to craft compelling narratives. You can read in detail about this training guide, but the researcher’s paper lays out three types of exercises that are central to the training.
In many stories the world is subtly (or not so subtly) different from the real world we all live in every day. Maybe a child’s toy soldiers come to life at night. Maybe a zombie apocalypse happened a few months back. How do authors and filmmakers communicate the rules of these unfamiliar worlds?
Only the most boring movies and books just come straight out and tell you. It is far more entertaining when the storyteller leads you to figure out the rules for yourself. You spot something unusual — flesh-eating zombies or waltzing toy soldiers — and infer from those strange scenes how the unfamiliar world works.
This new creativity training leverages that same process — imagine something weird going on and then figure out what kind of world would create such a weird event — to generate fresh ideas.
For instance, the researchers asked special forces soldiers to imagine novel hacking techniques an autocratic regime might use and then infer that regime’s goals and approach to power from the technique. This is far less fun than stories about the marauding undead but it illustrates that world building can help spur creativity in contexts way outside disaster movies and sci-fi paperbacks.
A large part of the fun in any suspenseful story is guessing what the characters might do next. How do successful storytellers drive you to do that? The good ones lay out the personality, desires, and fears of the characters and give you the space to imagine what kind of actions that kind of person might take. This is called “perspective shifting,” and the creativity researchers claim the approach is as useful in the C-suite as it is in a whodunnit.
“We have translated this technique into creativity training at Fortune 50 companies, where we pair executives with a partner, ask each executive to solve a problem and then explain their problem-solving motive (i.e., their causal thinking) to their partner, and ask each executive to solve a second problem using the motive of their partner,” the authors explain in their paper.
How do storytellers move their stories along? Generally audiences are annoyed when sheer luck or random chance force characters to act. It is far more satisfying to push together two characters with competing interests and mindsets and see how they affect each other’s behavior. That comprises most of what authors call plot.
The researchers leveraged this basic storytelling principle in their creativity training by asking participants to “speculate on unexpected events that could be prompted by the introduction of a new actor into a known environment–or by the introduction of a known actor into a new environment.” One example of such a prompt: What actions might (former Pepsi CEO) Indra Nooyi take if she was placed in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs?
These exercises strike me as actually kind of fun, but the researchers insist creativity training is much more than just play. Creativity training not only helps solve pressing problems, it also creates a culture that values maximizing the talents of every team member. So even if you’ve had limited success with creativity training before, it might be worth giving this new approach a look.