Bryan Coffman

December 18, 1996

The Creative Process is one of the foundational MG Taylor models. If I had to choose only six models to arm myself as a facilitator of enterprises in transition, I'd choose the Seven Stages of the Creative Process, the Seven Domains of Collaborative Design, the Stages of an Enterprise, the Business of Enterprise, the Ten Step Knowledge Management Process, and the Vantage Points. With these six I can quickly analyze and prescribe for any organizational situation, design any collaborative process, focus on what needs to be managed to survive the transition, keep a finger on the pulse of creativity, manage information, and keep the entire enterprise in perspective from philosophy to task.

Each Knowledge Worker has their own preferred set of models to work from, of course. My collection is not superior to others. However, if you're somewhat new to MG Taylor, I can recommend these models as good starting points, both to raise questions concerning our philosophy and methodology, and to also develop your own models-based practice of transition management.

For an introduction to the Seven Stages of the Creative Process model, click here. For an explanation of the glyphs that describe each stage of the model, click here.


How Many Stages to the Process? Only One...

There is only one stage in the true model of the Creative Process. At the simplest level, creativity is the act of being and doing folded into a state of flow called life. I claim that we naturally spend all of our time in a state of flow, despite claims in the popular press to the contrary. Even when we're analyzing a problem (in the Identity stage), we're DOING something (in the Building stage), and employing tools of some sort (in the Using stage). We simultaneously embrace a rapidly evolving picture of what we want to do that unfolds just before we do it (in the Vision stage). See, it all folds together into one. What the popular press describes as a state of flow occurs when the execution of the creative process becomes jubilant, and consequently high performance.

We divide the Creative Process into pieces in an effort to understand and picture the complexity of the entire process. But let's not fall into the trap of believing that we actually execute the pieces in some sort of lock step fashion. It's convenient and instructive to perceive that creativity has certain stages, and that we can all emotionally, physically and mentally relate to these stages, but to hold any model of the creative process as a precise description of creativity, and to force others to adhere strictly to its application is foolish. Stuart Kauffman uses an expression to describe the difficulty of modeling any living system: "the algorithm is incompressible." In other words, there's no shorter method, routine or program to describe life or living systems than life or the living system itself. Models are representations of reality but they are not the reality itself. There is no algorithm or equation that we can force creativity into that is shorter than the creative act itself.

As we move forward in this investigation of creativity, let's do so with caution, and after we have understood the descriptions, extract what is useful and valuable for our own application. I will speak of the creative process as having many stages and a directionality of their unfolding expression, but this is only a primitive way of addressing a subject of manifold complexity. Creativity requires many, many concepts to explain it, and it may be convenient and perhaps illuminating to structure a handful of these concepts into a picture.


 The Bipartite Model

This simple division of the creative process into two pieces is perhaps the most instructive for the transition manager as a diagnostic tool. The idea that the first half of the creative process is "creating the problem" startles many people. There's a tendency for all of us to think that we darn well know what the problem is and that the real work needs to be exercised in the realm of fixing what we already know. When I encounter a chronic organizational problem as a transition manager, I test to see if the problem remains unresolved because of a refusal to admit, or an ignorance of the necessity to create the problem with as much rigor as will later be applied to solving it.

CEO's, project managers, workers of all kinds are used to being handed problems to solve. Many of these are somewhat straightforward. Think of these types of problems more as maintenance than as engaging the entire creative process. We can, after all, perceive recurring patterns inherent in the conditions of a situation and apply tools that have worked in the past to change the conditions from one state to another. This activity becomes so automatic that we may learn to equate the initial conditions with the problem. Most of us have also been conditioned by conventional education to accept problems from outside sources unchallenged and then apply a set of tools to arrive at a solution. This is one area in education where the liberal arts may be far in advance of science and mathematics [this is not a personal bias at all; I'm a geological engineer by background and an artist by avocation]. A student dancer, artist, or musician is evaluated on their interpretation of a piece, as well as their technique. Student scientists, on the other hand, are expected to all come up with the same answer, although occasionally there may be quite a bit of invention displayed in their approach. Interpretation only comes from taking the piece of music in the case of the dancer and musician, or a physical landscape in the case of the artist, as an initial condition and then formulating the problem from it, which the artist solves through the medium of her tools, mind, spirit and body.

We all observe conditions, not problems. We examine states of behavior of various systems using our own peculiar tools and filters. We look at the world and attempt to model it so that we may understand or resonate with how it works. So we hope to enhance what we enjoy and mute what we dislike. The combination of an understanding of the world along with our desire to bring certain components of it into fuller expression creates the problem. The interplay of scanning, identifying, envisioning, and developing a passion for bringing the vision to reality constitutes what we call creating the problem.

Creating the problem is not taking ten minutes to brainstorm issues. Instead it's building a model of how system components relate to one another in such a way that reproduces the conditions or behavior of the whole system. Then it's a matter of envisioning what changes to the SYSTEM COMPONENTS or their interconnectivity will lead to a change in conditions. We can't adjust conditions directly by force; we must be more clever than that.


The Tripartite Model (Scan Focus Act)

Perhaps you've seen the T-shirt with the three quotes from Plato, Aristotle and Frank Sinatra. Plato's quote is "To be is to do," Aristotle's, "To do is to be," and Frank's, "do be do be do." I've thought this very clever, and in a funny way, it's applicable to the three stages of the Creative Process as diagrammed to the left. The Scan stage is a realm of being, of philosophy. What you do is the result of what you are. The Act stage is a realm of doing where what you do determines what you are. In the middle is this really uncertain space whose emotional content can't be better described than with the words "do be do be do." In focus you don't quite have all the pieces to actually do something in the new model, nor are you able to be in the new model (or the old for that matter). It's a zone of paradox and uncertainty. In paradigm shifts, it occurs when the enlightenment of insight has seriously questioned the old way of doing and being, but has not resolved all of the issues yet. This is a zone of struggle that many of us prefer to avoid. After all, we went through that once during adolescence and we're not willing to experience the unpleasant aspects of questioning and not knowing again. Unfortunately, it is a zone that we should all frequent more often, not merely to challenge any outworn beliefs and practices to which we cling, but to even sometimes strengthen our current positions by stretching the range within which these positions hold validity.


The First Recursion: The Septpartite Model

On top of the two part and three part models we layer a seven part model. While we're creating the problem, we begin with a period of reevaluation and analysis of what's going on and where we want to go. We build models of what is and what we would like to be. Then we synthesize these models to build our intentionality and our belief (at this point we're working on faith, not understanding). This takes us into the focus stage where we use our synthesis to gain hoped for insight and then analyze this insight to see if it will add value. As this is being done successfully, the nature of the true problem to be solved stands out clearly and we can begin work on its resolution. This takes us into the realm of solving the problem and leads to the act stage. The first element of the act stage is a synthesis of the steps that we will take in implementing the solution, followed by the implementation (the use of the steps), and ending with an evaluation of the efficacy of our work. This leads naturally to another reevaluation of what has now become the new starting condition.

Analysis, synthesis, use, re-evaluate is another way of looking at the Scan, Focus, Act, Feedback model. What we've done in this recursion is to repeat the model twice within a single pass of the creative process. Then we can speak of two types of analysis: the subjective type found in the Scan phase, and the objective type found at the end of the Focus phase. We can also begin to understand that both the act of creating the problem and the act of solving it include analysis, synthesis and use components. We can also begin to discern one of the roots of conflict between members of collaborative design teams. Two different individuals can both argue that they are analyzing a problem but disagree with each other's approach. It's very likely that one of them is analyzing from the Scan stage and the other from the Focus stage. The challenge to the transition facilitator is crafting a design that allows these two vantage points to mingle in such a way that a problem is created an solved in a superior way, instead of deciding which vantage point should hold sway and then suppressing the other.


The Second Recursion: The Standard Model

The standard model as usually drawn during DesignShop® events is comprised of the seven stages, Identity, Vision, Intent, Insight, Engineering, Building and Using. The Insight stage is divided in half by the bipartite model. This is the realm where the problem is being created in final form and the solution begins to reveal itself. Note also that the Intent phase marks the transition from Scan to Focus and that the Engineering phase marks another transition from Focus to Act. These three transitions mark the most unsettling portions of the creative process and contain the most turmoil. We frequently talk in DesignShops about the pendulum effect of swinging back and forth between intent and engineering in the search for the right problem and the right solution to bring to it. Sometimes the swings are more violent--between vision and building--but usually the most diligent efforts to sort out the situation occur during the Focus phase. This is the inventor's phenomenon, or "Edison's light bulb syndrome." Legend (and it may be true) has it that Edison worked on nearly 1400 different approaches before he got his light bulb to work up to the specs designated in his vision. His Intent kept driving him to a solution, through each insight and each disciplined and documented round of engineering.

The only time a group needs to step back to the Vision or Identity stage is if it perceives that it's trying to create the wrong problem. Of course, in actual practice, as one moves back and forth between Intent and Engineering, the group will be updating their models developed in the Identity and Vision stages. Remember that there's no lockstep approach to creativity. In practice a group will bounce all over the model and determining where it is in the creative process is more like taking a sampling of recent positions and finding a statistical average than it is looking for the whole group to click from one step to another.


The Septpartite Model and the Standard Model

Just a note to observe that each stage of the standard model of the creative process is bisected by one of the stages in the septpartite model. Thus, Identity contains elements of evaluation and analysis. Vision involves analysis and synthesis. Intent completes the synthesis and commences a use phase. Insight is a deep, introspective use and analysis stage. Engineering is a testing and experimentation stage involving cycles of analysis and synthesis. Building synthesizes the work of engineering and uses it to create the final, tangible product. The Using stage naturally uses this product and evaluates its efficacy.

Already some of the full complexity of the model is revealed. When attempting to unravel a knotty condition in process facilitation, it can help to consider the Scan-Analysis-Vision aspect of the condition. The facilitator may conceive of a Scan level exercise that involves a subjective analysis of the individual and collective visions of the participant. This would be much different than a Scan-Synthesis-Vision exercise. Even though both exercises are in the Scan and Vision stages, the shift from analysis to synthesis is critical, and important for the facilitator to realize.

It's also possible, then to craft exercises that put some teams in Analysis-Scan-Vision and other teams in Analysis-Focus-Engineering. The conjunction of analysis will allow the teams to understand one another even though they're approaching the problem from nearly opposite sides of the creative process.


The Third Recursion

Each phase of the standard model is now considered an entire process in and of itself. The Identity stage, for example, is now composed of the six stages, Vision, Intent, Insight, Engineering, Building, and Using (represented in the accompanying diagram by the small circles). The Engineering stage is composed of the other six stages besides itself. Finally we can speak of Engineering the Vision stage, or the level of Intent underlying the Building stage. This third level of recursion is most useful as a prompt to change vantage points when a group is stuck at some point in the process in general. It gives, for example, six different paths for finding a way to forge ahead out of a stagnant Vision stage. Maybe it's time to build a vision, or time to look for insight concerning the vision, or maybe the group lacks intent. Perhaps the vision should be used in some aspect to discover more about it.

The third recursion is also useful in very large projects with long durations. In these cases, it's possible to actually discern the six stages of Insight as a project passes through them. It also offers eighteen different patterns to recognize as a group fights its way through the Focus phase of the project from Intent through Engineering.

This level is sometimes useful in design, but it's easy to get bogged down. Think of a team in the Engineering element of the Identity stage in Scan and Re-evaluation. It's tough to wrap your thinking around these four axes at once. But it is possible. One trick to doing so is to write a short paragraph that describes a group in such a condition.

Imagine a team that is building a model of how an existing service delivery process runs. They're trying to understand why customers have been giving them such low satisfaction comments. Since they're building a model of the existing process, they're in Scan. Because the model is focused on a lapse between performance and expectations, they're in Re-evaluation. They're trying to get the model to replicate the current conditions so they can look at the sub-components with an eye to adjusting them; that's the Identity stage. They should be looking at a variety of models, because the Engineering stage tells us to test different variations before settling on one to build as the final model. With this understanding, as a facilitator on the team, I can now write a series of assignments that helps the team to assemble different models of the current process that produce the same set of conditions, so we can piece them together into a more robust representation of what's really going on. The team, for its part, can understand that at this point in the process it's natural for members to have different understandings of how the process is working, and how the components of the process' system are linked together. In fact, we want to encourage such divergence at this time.

With experience and exploration it's possible to internalize this kind of analysis (synthesize it...) and use it unconsciously with groups. And, of course, that is the completion of one cycle of the creative process from the vantage point of the facilitator.


The Fourth Recursion and Beyond

The full model of the Creative Process, as developed in 1982 contains yet a further recursion to the process to reinforce the idea that the Creative Process is extremely fractal. Many of our misunderstandings come from using the same terms to describe vastly different portions of the process. There was an example of this earlier in this paper. We now see that Vision is a necessary component of each stage of the process. Some individuals will prefer to approach a condition or a solution from the visionary's point of view, and others will approach it from the engineer's. Yet others will take the administrator's viewpoint and approach it as a builder. All of these vantage points are necessary and useful. It is the job of the transition manager to help teams understand the overlap of terms of art, the basic nature of the creative process, and the challenges that recursion brings to collaborative design.


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